Tracking Chicago’s psychedelic history

By Samuel Charles

Hoarding, acquiring or gathering—any of those terms could be applied to historian and journalist Steve Krakow and his endless mission to expand his collections.

Krakow, also known by his stage name “Plastic Crimewave,” visited Columbia on March 9 at the Quincy Wong Center for Artistic Expression in the Wabash Campus Building to give insight into the not-solely-monetary value his collections have. The visit was part of the “Re: Collections” series on display at the Wabash Campus Building.

“There’s a side of collecting you don’t necessarily enjoy,” Krakow said. “It’s like a mania, maybe even a sickness. It’s not just trying to fill in [a space], it’s something you just naturally do.”

His vinyl record collection, which was the primary focus of his talk, is one of his most extensive. He estimates that he has more than 7,000 vinyl LPs. Krakow said he saves all the receipts from his record purchases so he can claim them as deductible research materials on his income taxes.

“I’m not running out of [ideas],” Krakow said. “I’ll definitely be hunting for weird Chicago bands’ [records] if I’m at a thrift store.”

Krakow is an authority on 60s and 70s music and Chicago culture. He is a bi-monthly columnist for the Chicago Reader and updates his ongoing “Secret History of Chicago Music” project. His column is printed in conjunction with the airing of a radio show of the same name, in which he is also a featured guest.

The project was featured at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May 2010.

Jessica Valerio, senior arts, entertainment and media management major and former Student Government Association president, introduced Krakow to the attendees. She described his work and collections as a blend between journalistic research and visual art.

“Attracted from a young age to comic books, The Byrds and MAD Magazine, he continues to delve deeper and deeper into 1960s psychedelia, cartooning and all things vibrationally bizarre,” Valerio said.

Throughout the discussion, Krakow showed photos of different collections in his home, including his comic book collection, which he estimates to include more than 30,000 issues.

Other objects of Krakow’s desire include plush animals, action figures, music posters and Mr. T memorabilia.

Mr. T’s persona and career sparked Krakow’s interest in him. He referred to Mr. T as “a living cartoon.”

“Assembling collections is a creative process that has engaged artists … as a hobby [and] as a medium in its own right for many years now,” said Marc

Fischer, adjunct faculty member in the Art and Design Department, who helped organize the discussion. “Artists commonly explore forms and concepts through the construction of collections and archives.”

Aside from his journalism career, Krakow is the frontman for the acid-punk band The Plastic Crimewave Sound. He acquires much of his collection at thrift stores he visits while on tour with the band. He said while he may not have a lot of money when touring, he will sometimes use other memorabilia to barter.

Krakow has avoided the digital advances made since the ’60s and ’70s. He believes the analog music recorded on vinyl LPs, cassettes and 8-tracks is the way artists intended their music to be heard.

After his discussion and presentation, Krakow opened up the floor to take questions. When asked what drove him to reach out to artists more than other collectors normally do, he said it was a reflex.

“It always seemed natural,” he said. “I guess I’m a historian in my head, so I think ‘What is this person doing now?’”