By early 1987 legendary Chicago indie titans Big Black had put out one full-length album, Atomizer, and had another about to come out, Songs About Fucking (ask for it by name!), but then they called it quits. Their final show was in Seattle in August—August 11 to be exact—and Albini made sure it would be an event. According to Larry Reid, who would later become the curator of the Fantagraphics Bookstore,
Steve Albini contacted me in 1987 and asked me to produce Big Black’s final show. The abandoned Georgetown Steamplant with its antiquated industrial aesthetic provided the perfect venue—ironically, this steam powered electrical generating plant was then totally without electrical service, so we had to employ portable generators for power.
The show opened with ex-Blackout Roland Barker and friends creating an industrial soundtrack up in the catwalks of the enormous facility. Georgetown’s resident-poet Jesse Bernstein performed a provocative and wildly entertaining reading, then Big Black let loose with a ferocious set of their greatest hits, ending with a cacophonous finale of smashed instruments and explosives.
Soundgarden‘s Kim Thayil, Mudhoney/Green River‘s Mark Arm, and Nirvana‘s Kurt Cobain were all in attendance, while Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt was on the stage itself. As Reid astutely points out, “In hindsight, this show marked a metaphorical passing-of-the-torch to Seattle as the center of the country’s counterculture.” (You can see Cobain at the 31:14 mark in the video, as the band sets up to do “Dead Billy.”)
As the audience filed in, they were treated to the synthy stylings of Roland Barker and James Husted. There was no opener unless you count the angry poetic stylings of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, a William Burroughs collaborator who sadly committed suicide four years later.
Pavitt has always called this his favorite show. The subject came up recently in an interview he did with the Guardian (to promote his latest book, Sub Pop USA: The Subterraneanan Pop Music Anthology, 1980–1988, which I highly recommend) when they asked him to isolate his favorite Big Black show:
It would have to be their quote-unquote final show—I think they might have played another one afterwards, but it was billed as Big Black’s final show. It was set in a steam plant in Seattle. They completely destroyed their instruments on stage. Completely over the top. One of the most insane shows I’ve ever seen. Just going for it. And of course lighting off a box of firecrackers at the end.
Here’s what Pavitt wrote at the time, in the September 1987 issue of Sub Pop. I love this bit of writing so much, it’s got the very recognizable (to me) GenX tone of fandom, to take a left turn and filter one’s adoration in a deadpan cloud of non-sequitur.
my favorite show ever
I cut my hand. I cut my hand trying to grab a piece of broken guitar. The strings of my hand cut into my hand and my hand bled on the stage. BIG BLACK was on the stage. BIG BLACK is God. BIG BLACK destroyed everything. I wanted a piece of BIG BLACK. Now my hand hurts. Because somebody tugged and sliced a guitar string into my hand. Now they have a big piece of BIG BLACK and I don’t. I now have a band-aid on my palm. It’s hard to write with a hole in your hand. Goodbye BIG BLACK.
According to Janice Headley, this video was mixed by Albini himself, which may explain why it sounds so good. It’s made the rounds for years under the title “The Last Blast.” Pedants will note that this ended up not being Big Black’s final show, but not by much—in 2006 they played four songs at Touch & Go’s 25th anniversary (but not “Kerosene”!) Anyway, here it is, firecrackers and all.