I was a geek who loved role-playing games and knitted Dr. Who scarves in high school. I was the quintessential rule-follower and would cry and beg if I scored an A– on a quiz. But now, I’d discovered punk rock.

By Rose Marshack 


Part One: 1980s College

“Where’s my five bucks?” an audience member yelled from the back of the church. “Up my ass, with your wristwatch, where you left it last week,” drawled Mr. Steve Albini, from the stage. He was taking too long to tune his guitar, a red Strat-shaped object with the words “that’s the thing” on it, attached to him by a thick leather strap wrapped around his waist. He’d worn his guitar in this fashion since high school, no conventional guitar strap across his chest. His thin waist supported his entire instrument, leaving both his arms free.

It was 1986, October 19, and I was in what I’d later come to call the PRU, the People’s Republic of Urbana, Illinois, in college, standing with about a hundred other students in a dimly lit, box-shaped, high-ceilinged structure where religious groups sometimes met, about a thousand steps away from my dorm room in Allen Hall. If you were here, at Channing-Murray Foundation, on Monday nights, you could eat Hare Krishna food, yellow and peanuty, at the Red Herring vegetarian restaurant in the basement. But tonight, the main, dusty cathedral floor hosted a different type of group, here to witness an all-ages punk rock show put on by Josh Gottheil,1 a teenaged townie, loved and renowned for bringing bands from all over the world to the Champaign–Urbana scene. This was one of the first all-ages punk rock shows I’d see at my university: two local bands: Club Crack, then Didjits, followed by Chicago’s Big Black. Afterward I’d go back to the dorm to finish my computer programming homework, coding 8086 assembler to create a two-digit multiplication machine. The punk-rock equivalent of computer programming languages—low-level, straightforward, and minimal. Base.

There were no more outbursts from the audience, and it continued to wait patiently as Steve used his free hands to finish attending to Roland, the drummer in the band. Steve was on the short side with black, cropped hair and spectacles, dressed as a working engineer. Roland was acting up, delaying the show, probably because Roland was a drum machine, and may have needed to be restarted due to the humidity in the room. Finally, Roland emitted some gunshots and Big Black started into a song, which sounded like an avalanche of noise with a nonchalant monotone speaking over it, teaching us of the inadequacies and inequalities in the world. This spectacle, and contemplating how a wristwatch would end up inside someone’s ass, along with the growl of songs about lighting people on fire, child molestation, and a song titled “Passing Complexion” (which is how I learned about passing complexions) was how I first remember becoming aware of Mr. Steve Albini. He was nearly arrested that evening for setting off firecrackers onstage before the show. And I was thinking about all this now, because I’d just pressed the doorbell to his house. I was going to record a record with him.

                                 CHAPTER 1                                   

Origin Story

How did I get here? I was a white, privileged Jewish American Princess from the Chicago suburbs, had classical music lessons, ballet lessons, and a nose job growing up. I was a geek who loved role-playing games and knitted Dr. Who scarves in high school. I was the quintessential rule-follower and would cry and beg if I scored an A– on a quiz. But now, I’d discovered punk rock, and I was helping write it, and I’d convinced myself, with my heart and soul, that the two bass notes (E and F-sharp) that comprised our song “If You See Kay” formed just as complete and essential a composition as the entire Beethoven Pathetique that I’d learned in high school. Minimalism. It felt like holy writ now, that a song only requires one or two chords, three if you need a crutch. The Chopin Etude in C-sharp minor I was now toying with on the piano was as bloated as a Primus song.

Rick likes to joke that I only know music from before 1890 and after 1980, and he seems proud of that fact, which makes me love him more. A friend, and devoted fan Mike from New Jersey/Hawaii, recently tested me through Rick. “Would Rose know Wings?” he asked. Rick answered, “The 1977 date is shorthand for punk, so Wings, even though they were active at that time, are not included.” Rick continued, “For example, Rose would only know Journey from the TRON soundtrack.” That is correct.

I had no relationship to rock in my childhood—my dad, a huge influence on my life, hated anything pedestrian or manipulative. To him, rock music was lazy and he called it “hillbilly music.” Dad played jazz trumpet, and my whole life, at least one night a week, he’d be gone playing a “gig” in Chicago after he finished up at the office. Dad’s license plate says “Day Gig” because that is what musicians must have if they are not good enough to make a living playing music, he explained to me, laughingly. His “day gig” was dentistry, so the cars that bore that license plate were usually Mercedes or BMWs. He was beloved in both worlds, medicine and music, and when I’d be with him in public, he’d always be greeted cordially as “Doc” by his musician friends, and at restaurants his former dental students would run up to him and hug him.

Dad is inspirational in his ethics, his drive, and his generosity. He embodies all the major traits of the “Silent Generation,” especially discipline. He simply does what he needs to do, without question, angst, or worry. In his nineties, he still adheres to a strict workout and practice schedule, regard- less of whether he has gigs scheduled. He also keeps a list of all his activities and times spent on them, handwritten on paper, which, to me, looks like artwork. He practices trumpet fifty-five minutes every other day—“because I don’t want to practice the last five minutes,” he says, both seriously and with a slight smile. Charles Marshack, his father, born in 1899, had intended to become a doctor (probably at his parents’ request) but dropped out of college after a year and became a music teacher. He was a saxophonist, but he taught practically every instrument. My grandma Bea was a year or two younger, and I always remember her playing the piano. Music was a given in my family.

Dad joined the Musicians Union at fifteen, under the age limit, so he had to bring an instrument and perform as part of the application. “I took my trumpet and played half of ‘Blue Skies,’” he remembers, “and they let me in.” His first job, at fifteen, was with a piano player, at Six Corners in Chicago, Cicero Avenue, Irving Park Boulevard and Milwaukee Avenue, at the American Legion. “It was terrible! We were supposed to go until one a.m., and at midnight they stopped us, gave us twelve dollars each, and said we could go home early.” Dad then went over to Green Mill where his father was playing saxophone with Elmer Kaiser’s band, old standards; people were dancing. “When they took a break, my father asked, ‘What are you doing here, Poo Poo? You were supposed to play ’til one a.m.!’ and I said, ‘They let us go early’ and the whole band was screaming with laughter.”

                                                                  Part One. 1980s

Growing up, Mom chose to play violin, but could only practice in her house when people weren’t watching TV, so she wouldn’t disturb anyone. She says there was no question that her children would be given music les- sons. “Even if Dad wasn’t a musician, I’d still have made you play. Music is just so important,” she says. So, my two younger sisters and I had piano les- sons first, and then were able to choose a second instrument. I chose violin, Mom’s instrument, since Dad was so harsh on me at the piano. The middle sister, Carla, chose trumpet, apparently not knowing how intense Dad could get. In high school she attempted to get out of practicing because her braces hurt her gums, but Dad forced the orthodontist to hasten her treatment and remove the braces earlier so she could continue playing. To encourage him, Dad says, he threatened to stop sending him referrals. I imagine that at the time, Carla didn’t have a problem with getting her braces off early. Sara, our youngest sister, chose cello, an instrument whose sound she loved, but also an instrument that neither of our parents played, and it was at that time that both Carla and I realized her brilliance.

So my knowledge of music pre-1890 is a result of my parents. Being forced to play violin enabled me to pick up a bass without lessons, and I’m convinced that I have my job as a professor in a school of music because, in my preliminary interview, speaking so reverently of my dad’s jazz career lent some legitimacy to my punk rock background. As I raise my children, friends ask what types of guitars and basses to buy their children, to give them a seemingly more relevant practice in music. My children are being trained in the Suzuki method by the strictest violin teacher on the planet, and being forced to practice, just as I was. I don’t even bother saying, “Someday you’ll thank me.” I didn’t understand what it meant when my dad said it to me, but I eventually did just that, thanking him many times from the stage, pointing and waving at him while he stood proudly, six-foot, three-inches tall, and fifty years older than most of the audience.

Radio was my primary access to music from the current century, but to me, that music was conflated with the interspersed commercials. I couldn’t tell the difference and I figured it was all there to sell me stuff. But malls and sports were the main culture in the north suburbs of Chicago, so consumption was comforting to me. I’d awaken many times in the middle of the night, terrified of nukes and tornadoes, and turn on the radio to assure myself that there were still people alive and buying in the world. Voices from a broadcast, cars on the road, these were signs that everyone probably wasn’t dead yet.

On the other side of the radio was the Steve Dahl and Garry Meier talk show on WLUP in Chicago, a show I loved, mainstream media spewing “non- conventional ideas.” Dahl was a radio DJ shock jock who was earlier and more midwestern than Howard Stern, more substance and much less trash, and he partnered with Garry Meier and created as countercultural a movement as possible for a Chicago suburban teenager to experience. I was a regular listener, and sometimes even audiotaped it on cassette while I listened, so I could later play it for my dad. I saved a cassette of Steve and Garry making a prank call to an “Islamic Fried Chicken,” ordering a variety of fast food for the hostages. I thought their stamina was amazing. They created material to keep me entertained for four hours a day, five days a week!

During this time, Dahl led a movement against disco, scratching (as in, trying to destroy) and blowing up disco records on the air. (He’d been fired from an earlier Chicago radio station that had changed genres overnight to disco, goes the story.) On July 12, 1979, he ran an event at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a White Sox double-header, inviting tens of thousands of fans to riot in between games, blowing up disco records and destroying the field. “Disco Demolition Night” turned into a public mob scene, a gathering of people to protest a type of music and lifestyle. Other protests I’d seen or been involved with were political; I had attended a simultaneous rally against a Nazi Party march in Skokie. This event, at a White Sox game, was tens of thousands of people protesting a genre of music. The narrative is problematic now as viewed through the lens of racism, but at the time, I was fourteen years old, and amazed that people could get so angry and violent about music, and thrilled that, in doing so, they’d disrupted a major league ball game.2

In high school, I begrudgingly attended a KISS concert with a friend, and all I remember from it was that I was informed that the people behind us were smoking pot (probably the 5,000 people behind us were smoking pot). This had compelled me to borrow five dollars to purchase a giant, glossy KISS concert program. I needed the giant program because I wanted proof, for social capital, not that I’d been to a KISS concert, but that I’d been to a place where people had been smoking pot. Another time, I was given an Eagles record and a STYX record as a birthday present from a school friend. I played them once to air out the vinyl smell. The only record I ever remember liking was a live album, Cheap Trick at Budokan. I liked the power in the music, and I liked how the chords resolved. I liked how “Surrender” mentioned “Mom and Dad”—I remember being quite happy that the singer was singing about his parents enjoying the same music as he was. He seemed like a nice boy, and also from the Midwest.

Once in a while, though, kids from the suburbs would have stumbled upon little glimpses, windows into the larger scene. Near the end of high school, I could drive the forty-five minutes down to the city, go museum- hopping near the lake to get some culture in, and then end up at Punkin’ Donuts (as we called it), making fun of kids with spikey mohawks who we also figured were from the suburbs. Then up to Wax Trax record store, to ogle the tiny one-inch buttons with band names and scratchy logos in the glass cases, flags for new, unexplored auditory empires. It was thrilling to hang out in Chicago and come back alive—of course, never having been in any real danger. There were also momentary lapses of the status quo on regular TV, as teenage Rick discovered. There, safe at home in your pajamas, you’d see the Clash performing on Tom Snyder’s show in 1981, Fear on Saturday Night Live, or Devo or the Jam, just a couple of weeks after Jefferson Starship and Jimmy Buffet, who occupied the very same screen, and you’d think, as Rick did, “What the hell did I just see?”

Rose Marshack is a professor of creative technologies in the School of Music at Illinois State University. Her band Poster Children has performed over 800 shows in the United States and Europe.  

Excerpted from Play Like a Man: My Life in Poster Children by Rose Marshack. Copyright 2023 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.