He Loved the 90s | Music Review | Chicago Reader

He Loved the 90s 

While James Van Osdol fills Mancow's slot at Q101, he's finishing an oral history of the local rock scene at the end of the last century.

James Van Osdol has been a fixture on local airwaves for more than a decade, but his job just got more high-profile. Since July 17 he has been the morning-drive DJ at one of his old haunts, Q101, replacing the recently departed Erich "Mancow" Muller. The gig's only temporary--the station is working on a new morning show that will debut in the fall--but Van Osdol's not complaining. "I've held down a lot of temp jobs over the years," he says. "I was a filing clerk in a real estate office, I delivered pizzas. Doing this is a lot more fun."

A Rogers Park native, Van Osdol first arrived at Q101 shortly before he graduated from Columbia College in 1993, at the height of Chicago's alt-rock boom. Both on air and as assistant music director he promoted local acts on the station, developing and hosting the program The Local Music Showcase (now Local 101), which was many listeners' introduction to groups like the Jesus Lizard, Local H, Tortoise, and Triple Fast Action. In 2001 he left the station, and after a brief stint as music director and DJ at WXRT he took a similar post at WZZN. Last summer Van Osdol was in his fourth year at the "active rock" station when he decided to start working on a new project on the side: an oral history of the Chicago rock scene during the 90s.

"I was in one of those 'work is miserable, radio is in dire straits' moods," he says. "And I started thinking, 'When was the last time I had fun?' And I realized it was when I was really involved in local music. . . . I was inspired by the Saturday Night Live book Live From New York--that's one of those books you can just pick up any page and start reading, and it's great. That's kinda what I wanted to do."

He put together a proposal for the book, titled Chicago Rocked: An Oral History of Chicago Music in the 90s, and pitched it to Chicago-based Lake Claremont Press, which specializes in works on local history. In September the publisher offered Van Osdol a contract. "James's book is our first one solely on a contemporary subject that doesn't have a guidebook component," says Lake Claremont Press owner Sharon Woodhouse. "But it meshed so well with our general approach to local books."

Not long after he signed the deal, though, Van Osdol was out of a job: WZZN switched to oldies, with syndicated programming produced out of town, to fill the hole left by WJMK, which moved from oldies to the Jack FM format in June 2005. "The book became a saving grace for me," says Van Osdol. "I was unemployed for several months and it prevented me from getting too depressed about not having a job. I spent 12, 13 hours a day working on it, lining up the interviews, doing them, transcribing them. It was really all I did the entire time I wasn't working."

Van Osdol conducted about 200 interviews for the book, which is scheduled to come out next spring, and he made sure it covered the decade start to finish--it opens with Steve Albini discussing what he was doing in January of 1990 (breaking up Rapeman) and closes with Disturbed finishing their first album, The Sickness, in late 1999. He talked with many of the key musicians of the era, including Liz Phair, Jeff Tweedy, and Al Jourgensen, as well as members of the Jesus Lizard, Veruca Salt, and Urge Overkill (though the Smashing Pumpkins have been elusive). And he's fleshed out the story by talking to producers like Albini and Brad Wood, label heads like Touch and Go's Corey Rusk and Thrill Jockey's Bettina Richards, and staffers at Lounge Ax and the Double Door.

"If I had tried to write this book in 2000 or 2001 I couldn't have done it," he says. "I think just enough time had passed for people to want to participate and talk about their memories. For a lot of these people, whether it was Veruca Salt or Urge Overkill, all this stuff was a lifetime ago--it was almost like talking about someone else. They have a sense of perspective now."

The book has more than its share of dish (Loud Lucy members' knotty romances with alt-rock stars), cautionary tales about major labels (the Smoking Popes' ill-fated relationship with Capitol Records), and stories of tragically wasted talent (the 1996 suicide of Material Issue front man Jim Ellison). But Van Osdol argues that the era is best remembered as a time when popular and underground music flourished in the same scene. "The thing about the 90s is that while you've got this explosion of commercial bands, whether it was Fig Dish or Triple Fast Action or Veruca Salt, and across town there was Tortoise happening, or Liquid Soul, or the Flying Luttenbachers and stuff that didn't seem remotely mainstream. And they all managed to become successful on their own terms."

In January Van Osdol was hired back at Q101 to DJ during the overnight shift. When Q101 announced that it was firing Mancow earlier this month, it billed Van Osdol as the "Chicago music expert" who'd be stepping in. "He's such an expert on alternative music, especially on the alternative music scene in Chicago, that for us to reconnect over the summer with our music fans, he was the logical choice," says Mike Stern, vice president of Chicago programming for Q101's parent company, Emmis Communications. "And he's associated with Q101 from the days before Mancow was here. So James really symbolizes a return to us being the alternative station for Chicago."

Though he sticks to the station's current playlist, he has a little latitude and has included interview segments and live studio performances of acts like Mike Patton, the Beastie Boys, and the Smoking Popes' Josh Caterer. Once the new morning show debuts in September, Van Osdol will likely move back to the late shift. He says it's a tough schedule for a family man--he lives in Skokie with his wife and two young children. But Van Osdol considers his career--four stints at three stations over 13 years--as relatively stable in comparison to those of many DJs who bounce from city to city.

"I've been really fortunate--that's really not typical of most radio careers," he says. "When you're in radio, you're kinda married to it. CareerBuilder.com or Monster.com--they're of no use if you have nothing but radio on your resume. This is the career I've established for myself."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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