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Feature Thu Aug 27 2009

Chicago Rocked: Chicago Music in the 1990s

Editor's Note: Please enjoy this guest post from Chicago area-based writer, and former radio personality, James VanOsdol. He is currently seeking backers to help fund the publishing of his book about the Chicago music scene in the 1990's, Chicago Rocked.

"New York and L.A. are like the girls you want to fuck; Chicago's like the one you want to marry"
– Mat Devine, Kill Hannah

So much for spoilers. That quote is the final thought of my book, Chicago Rocked. I suppose I'm not really spoiling too much; the book technically doesn't exist yet, and there's a chance it might stay that way. More on that in a bit.

Whenever I followed a trail of empty PBR cans to Wicker Park for a local band's set in the '90s, I thought, "Someone really should write a book about this era of Chicago music. Someone should commit the stories of these amazing bands to print. Hey, wait, that someone should be me."

Why the '90s? For one, the decade fostered a sense around town that anything...anything...could happen. How else to explain the Casio-wielding, schizophrenic, headbutting. man-hulk Wesley Willis getting a record deal? Material Issue frontman Jim Ellison getting urinated on in public? Ministry's Al Jourgensen recreating Sodom and Gomorrah in a recording studio?


After playing the part of "second city" stepchild for so long, Chicago suddenly mattered to the rest of the world. Dozens of bands were courted by ponytailed major label weasels. Dozens more bands gave major labels the finger, continuing to create challenging sounds for their own art's sake (thanks, Tortoise; thanks, Steve Albini).

During the '90s, I hosted a Chicago music radio show ("The Local Music Showcase," later "Local 101") on Q101 (WKQX). Running the show was like being given an "All Access" pass to the scene — and I didn't have to blow anyone to get it. I did have to suck up to my Program Director at the time, but it's not like I felt dirty afterward.

Through the show, I got to know all the noisemakers around town; if not personally, then through their recorded music or live performances. The show gave me a foundation for the book, but the idea of actually writing it seemed fairly overwhelming. Before I totally committed myself, I solicited some band friends for feedback. "You're insane," one said. "Can you make me more famous in your version of the story?" asked another. Chicagoans are nothing, if not self-deprecating.

I started working on the book (then given the working title of Chicago Rocked) in 2005, around the same time that I was let go from radio station "The Zone" (WZZN). Perfect timing--I was suddenly free to fill my days with interviews for the book. I sat down with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio. I hung out with Ed Roeser (Urge Overkill) at the Andersonville Starbucks. I met Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes) for pizza in Des Plaines. I recorded dozens of phone interviews, transcribing everything as I went.


Envisioned as an "oral history," Chicago Rocked was originally scheduled for publication by a regional press. My relationship with the publisher ended in 2007, and I then made the decision to put the book on a shelf.

And there it stayed.

I'd spent too much time...too much energy...and in the end, I had nothing to show for it. I was disgusted with myself, and needed a break. "It's not you," I told my book, "it's me."

When I finally opened the manuscript back up, I had a minor revelation. My "oral history" method was fucked. I needed to rewrite everything, starting from the very beginning. So, one night, in the middle of the winter, I did just that. Two rewrites later, I was confident. Excited. Rocking.

If I learned one lesson from the musicians I interviewed and wrote about, it's that "D.I.Y." is the way to go. I couldn't let my enthusiasm for this book go through the soul-sucking process of searching out a literary agent. I couldn't spend years schlepping the manuscript to publishers who are losing money faster than they can pay it out. I had to take matters into my own hands.


I'd heard stories of musicians like Josh Freese and Jill Sobule turning to their fans to help fund their projects. Fans pledged contributions for projects based on specific financial tiers, each of which brought different rewards from the artist (a liner note mention or a song written about a generous benefactor, for example). Web 2.0 glossaries call the concept "crowdfunding." The word "fun" is right there in the middle of it. Count me in.

I decided to use, a website designed to help artists bankroll projects through tiered crowdfunding support. Once I got approval from the site to use it for Chicago Rocked fundraising, I panicked. "Oh shit," I thought, "I'm really going through with this. What kind of money do I actually need to make this happen?"

I considered everything, including offset printing, copy editing, indexing, mailings, legal support, ISBN, and design work. My estimate came in at a jaw-dropping $17K. The thought of asking for that kind of coin made me uncomfortable. And then I told my inner self to suck it the fuck up and start chasing down the money. Shilling for cash is a necessary evil; this book needs to be read. I worked the pledge tiers so that most everyone who kicked in would be included in the finished work. And then I took the Kickstarter page live.

All Kickstarter projects have a 90-day limit for pledges. Chicago Rocked fundraising officially began on June 17, and concludes on September 16. As I write this (8/24/09), I'm 30% to goal, with 70 backers committed to $5,086 of the full $17,000. If the goal isn't hit, nothing gets collected, and the book doesn't get published.

If Wesley Willis (bless his batshit-crazy soul) were alive today, he'd wrap this up by saying "Rock over London, Rock on Chicago...United, Fly the Friendly Skies." Then he'd give me a headbutt and make me shout "RAH!" I'm simply saying Chicago Rocked, pledge money."

Now c'mere and give me a headbutt.

Click here to help fund Chicago Rocked.

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BetterThanAliens / August 27, 2009 1:28 PM

Fantastic! I'll pledge what I can. This book NEEDS to be written. SUCH an amazing period!

TheClashBlog / August 28, 2009 12:00 AM

Material Issue never got their just reward. I was in Chicago in the middle of that decade, a good scene for sure.


curtis locke / August 28, 2009 8:51 AM

A trail of empty PBR cans in the 1990s? I don't think so. PBR didn't really return as the cheap "hip" beer of choice until this past decade.

JVO / August 28, 2009 9:20 AM

To add to the the Devotion to Accuracy Department, I never actually followed a trail to Wicker Park in the 90s. I have a pretty good innate sense of direction.

Thanks for reading!


dave / September 2, 2009 2:53 PM

I love the kickstarter project and hope you meet your funding goal. I wish I could buy in but being in Canada I cannot. If for some reason you do not meet your goal with kickstarter please feel free to contact me by email to discuss your project plan B

thanks and i look forward to reading this book someday.


Melhowe / February 13, 2013 6:02 PM

Curtis, wrong. I bartended and managed Estelle's in Wicker Park in the late 90's and through April of 2001. PBR was always prevalent in the "industry" (read: bar workers that were mostly also musicians and artists) scene.

Kim Grant / April 17, 2013 1:08 PM

Wow, just happened upon this article after someone asked me to reminisce about record stores of my youth. I spent the 90's in Chicago. I am so nostalgic right now!

Jim Hoffmann / October 5, 2014 2:13 PM

A book, far from perfect, about the Prince (Jim Ellison) and his Golden Triangle of Power Pop (Ted Ansani and Mike Zelenko)...Material Issue.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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