Steve Albini And The House Of The Rising Son

Steve Albini passed away May 7 at the age of 61.

This story originally appeared in The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables And Sonic Storytelling (HarperCollins, 2007) by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers.

“Hello Doris? This is Mrs. Albini from down the street. Did I catch you at a bad time? Good, I appreciate that. Oh, I’m fine, thanks. Listen, I hate to be a bother but I understand you’ve done a fair share of counseling down at the church. I was hoping to ask your opinion on a family matter. Now I know this is going to sound sort of silly, but my son Steven won’t eat his cereal. No, he’s not a finicky eater; he usually finishes everything I put in front of him. Never gains a bit of weight either—sometimes I worry because he’s so thin, but that’s not why I’m calling.

“It’s the things he’s been saying lately that have me concerned. Like this cereal thing, Stevie absolutely refuses to eat any of the Cheerios I bought at the grocery store. He keeps referring to General Mills as some kind of ‘major label’ and insists that he’ll only eat ‘indie-brand’ cereal. He says that the smaller companies have more credibility and that they care more about their product. Is this any way for a child to behave?

“Sometimes I can slip a Post brand cereal past him when he’s really hungry or when he’s tired from staying up too late, but that’s it. Besides, there are times when he gets totally angry and bites my head off for no apparent reason. Stevie is so rigid and uncompromising compared to the other children, I just don’t know how to deal with him anymore.

 “I imagine I shouldn’t complain so much—we’re actually quite proud of our little man. I’m always impressed by the measure of discipline he exerts when he’s working, but he can be so very cold towards his schoolmates. You see, Steven is actually quite gifted. I know you probably think I’m biased because I’m his mother, but Steve is extremely intelligent and … well, he tends to talk down to people. It’s doubly awkward because he can make an awful lot of sense and is very convincing sometimes, especially when he wants to accomplish something. Other times, he’ll just be totally oppositional and reject our wishes completely on principle. He’s constantly accusing his friends of ‘selling out’ and then refuses to have anything to do with them. He insists on total honesty, extreme independence, self-determination and common sense. Hardly any of the kids in the neighborhood can keep up with him. My friend Sally says all he needs a good shellacking, but we don’t want to discourage Steven’s creative flair.

“I mean, how can you argue with a youngster who already adheres to a fully formed moral code with absolutely no room for compromise? I often feel like Steven sees me as the enemy. I don’t know where he got it into his head that he has to pursue such a rigorous work ethic—he hardly ever takes a day for himself anymore. And he has this totally pure artistic aesthetic that he’s always going on about. It’s intimidating to talk to him.

“He does seem to enjoy himself when he plays music with his friends, though. They look so darn cute with their instruments, but I don’t really understand the music. Steven plays his guitar so loud that I have to get out of the house when his band rehearses in our basement. I have never known anyone in my life that likes noise as much as Steven does. It’s a release for him. All this aggression just comes pouring out when he performs. It’s like he has a split personality. He’s starting to remind me of a deranged method actor, and that just scares me to death.

“Lately he and his two friends, Bobby and Todd, have been spending a lot of time in the basement, and the caterwauling coming from downstairs is getting incredibly intense. Sometimes they will play very slowly, while other times their pace is accelerated beyond words. I have to say that for just the three of them, they make quite an imposing and synchronized racket. I don’t know where Steven got this idea to scrape and strangle his guitar strings so viciously—certainly not from anyone here in Missoula, Mont.!

“I’ve tried listening to the song lyrics, but I can’t follow his train of thought at all. Especially while young Todd is pounding his drum kit like a demon and Bobby is flogging that poor bass like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve looked at the cover of his school notebook, and now he’s scrawling strange phrases like ‘Big Black’ and ‘Rapeman.’ Should I be concerned about any of this?

“I’m telling you, Doris, you’ve never heard anything like these kids and their music. There’s something quite damaged and ominous about the whole thing. No, I don’t think they’re Satanists. The other two boys are actually quite polite when they come over to our house. They all just seem to change when they plug in their instruments. I swear, my oldest one used to listen to Led Zeppelin every day, and even that squall is tame compared to this. And Steven’s attention to detail! It borders on obsessive. They work out the smallest aspects of all their songs. I can’t describe it, it’s nearly claustrophobic.

“So, do you think that my Steven is just going through a phase? Do you think he’ll calm down and start paying more attention to his homework any time soon? Even if he just brought home a nice girl once in a while. Anything! I hate to sound like a worrywart, I’m sure it’s just a maturity thing. They say it takes longer with boys. 

“Well listen, Doris, thanks. I feel so much better just getting all that off my chest. Steven is coming home from school with his friends so I’ve got to go hurry and put out some milk and cookies.” 

The Problem With Music