I Killed Sears, And I’m Sorry

Today’s news that Sears has finally filed for bankruptcy protection has me thinking about my own role in the legendary retailer’s demise at the hands of the internet.

In 1995, along with a business partner in Chicago, I founded an “online presence” consultancy called Automatic Media Group. We consulted for businesses, connected clients to internet service and built websites with software tools that were incredibly primitive by today’s standards. A pair of technology-friendly creative types, we understood that the internet and the web were going to change how most businesses communicated.  We knew that the web would completely transform internal and external messaging and workflow for practically every business. We set out to show companies how to manage that change.

That decade, Chicago’s giant business sectors were retail, insurance, finance and logistics. We had friends working in some of these companies, and we could get meetings with decision-makers.  Sears — specifically its catalog production team based in Hoffman Estates — was a major target for us.  My partner and I had equal strengths in the print and creative worlds, and we were ready to talk to the makers of the world’s most famous mail-order catalog in their own language.

We could see the digital future: the Sears catalog’s pages would not be mailed in three-pound bricks of glossy dead tree to millions of postal customers. Those pages were headed instead toward the World-Wide Web.  And knowing this was half the battle, we were very sure.

But once we were in the room, the catalog’s future wasn’t the topic. Instead, the team asked us about something more modest: how to put internet email onto everybody’s desk. Two thirds of their hundreds of Mac computers weren’t on a local area network (LAN) and a third were on a hodegepodge of different, not-working-well-together network technologies. They asked: is email compatible with Aldus Pagemaker and Photoshop 4.0?

Yes it is, but first things first, I said. A bunch of things need to change, because the network itself is the point.

I then let them know that they were asking the wrong questions, not seeing the big picture.  Instead of talking about their email, I told them that the catalog team needs to create a LAN where everybody is on the same network, because the network is the point. That they should use 10Base2 NICs and AppleTalk and accounts from our ISP and…

Something was going wrong. I saw their eyes glazing over.

“We just need email,” they said.

I wasn’t getting through to them, so I doubled down on communicating the vision. “I think you need way more than that. Ultimately, your catalog pages need to be delivered to the world using the network, using the web, not paper mail. This is just step one.”

Long story short, we were shown the door.

It took time for me to see what had gone wrong. I was so sure of the future — so right — that had I more or less overlooked what the client was asking for. They were asking for X, which meant they were thinking about X. But I was looking beyond X, to its context. That was the big mistake. Being right about that context didn’t matter much at that moment.

In hindsight, we weren’t in the room because we were right. We were in the room to listen to the client.

Had I listened to them talk about their smaller problem, instead of fixating on their big problem, we could have solved the email on the team’s own terms, and, having stuck around, we might have let what would have naturally followed — e-commerce and all the disruption it brings — present itself for our likely involvement and guidance.

Today, I’m indulging in a bit of tongue-in-cheek — I obviously didn’t “kill Sears”.  But it is true that the once-powerful brands of Sears never connected in time to the serious technological and company-cultural guidance they needed to avoid today’s fate two decades later.  If I had known what I was (and wasn’t) doing that day, maybe we could have changed that at least a little.

In my defense, I was a very green twentysomething, and this was my first company. I was the first entrepreneur in my family. I was so inexperienced that  I didn’t even realize I was in a sales role, let alone that I was screwing it up.

Sorry, Sears.

You’re welcome, Amazon.


So Long, Dave


Back when I used to more regularly add stuff to RW370, one of my favorite things to add was YouTube clips of Letterman in the ’80s, under a category named “NBC Letterman”. Tonight is Dave’s last show, so I feel practically obligated: here’s a pointer to the category.


Letterman’s show was the first of a kind of self-aware TV presentation that highlighted the absurdity of the TV medium, producing great laughs – and great tension. Unlike his talk show hero Johnny Carson, little more than a square showbiz MC with a few dumb affectations, Dave could and would drive the show to places that invited equal parts delight and terror. Like Ernie Kovacs, he used everything at his disposal: cameras, remotes, stage play, stunts, animals, as well as a booking and musical sensibility that nobody in network TV could touch. Watching in its earliest days, as a Chicago high school student and punk rocker, a nightly show that managed to confound and bewilder my own sensibilities was something very rare, and treasured more greatly as the years go on.

John Hoolihan, a guy who talks into a microphone, speaking of Dave nicely summed up the show’s genius as “putting a guy who hated talking to people in the role of talk show host”.  Ding.



Jon Solomon’s Holiday Marathon Broadcast 25th Anniversary #wprbxmas


At around the 23rd hour, fatigue can make you wander into a field.

At 4PM CST, WPRB’s musicologist extraordinaire Jon Solomon will take the mike again…and not let go until a full 25 hours of holiday tunes and stories hit the air right along with a certain Mr. Kringle. It takes industrial-strength merriment and a music library of astonishing depth to pull this marathon off each season — but this year it takes even more. It’s the 25th anniversary of the usually 24-hour Marathon, and that means Jon is devoting an extra 25th hour to the twin foundations of the holiday season: sleep deprivation and nervous exhaustion. Do not miss.



Twist Again (And Again And Again And Again)

Just in case anybody was laboring under the mistaken belief that rap music invented or was first to lionize the blatant, direct repackaging of musical material, enjoy the following screenshot from my digital music collection in its Duane Eddy section.

The million-selling twang guitarist’s 1962 record “Twistin’ With Duane Eddy”, itself an echo of the 1960 Chubby Checker hit, inspired Duane and his handlers to produce many more market-squeezing twist-themed also-ran tracks, not even all of which are in this collection.  Nonetheless, the long string of lame twists-on-the-twist titles is impressive.

Also funny: whoever assembled the running order must have had a sense of humor, as the theme is brought, at track 11, to an abrupt end, Wil E. Coyote style.



The Jesus Lizard Book: Now Shipping


Shipping now from Akashic Books: The Jesus Lizard “Book”, a biography of Chicago’s greatest postpunk band, suitable for coffee tables everywhere.  Included is a section I wrote on the band’s early days at a show at the original Behind The Lookingglass space on South Michigan Avenue.  Also included are contributions from Greg Dunlap, Doug McCombs, Steve Albini, Andy Gill, Mike Watt, Bob Nastanovich, Alexander Hacke, Steve Gullick, Rebecca Gates, Hank Williams III, Sasha Frere-Jones, and the incomparable Bernie Bahrmasel.


San Andreas Fault Onstage At Redmoon’s Winter Pageant


Sold Out Opening Night at Redmoon’s 2013 Winter Pageant. Photo: Al Zayed

Last night was opening night for Redmoon Theater’s 2013 Winter Pageant. I wrote the original music for this indescribable show and my surf-noir band San Andreas Fault performs on stage as the proceedings unfold.   Dozens of dancers, improbable and massive machinery, mind-roasting visual spectacle, mythmaking and birds.  Oh man. The birds.

Opening night sold out; only nine shows left over two weekends.

Hats off to my brothers in the Fault, without whose power and commitment none of this music happens. Thymme Jones, John Cwiok and original gangsta Pete Muschong: thank you.


Radkey: Romance Dawn

What is it about siblings in rock bands?  There’s something musically cool and unified that I’ve never been able to put my finger on about the work of people who undertake rock music having come from the same parents.  Is it an upbringing steeped in a common record collection and listening habits?  Is it physiological?  Do the tendons and muscles and structures of the limbs or bodies of siblings allow for highly similar attacks/approaches on instruments or for highly similar / complementary mechanical understandings of rhythm?

I don’t know.  But ever since DEVO, I’ve noticed this.  Scott and Ron Asheton in the Stooges, too, plus the Youngs in AC/DC. Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson.  The Butler brothers in the Psychedelic Furs. The effect even shows up in not-that-great bands such as those Italian dudes whose names I forget from Stone Temple Pilots.

There’s an unmistakeable unity to the sound, almost as if one consciousness was driving two bodies. All the more remarkable in an era when we’re lucky if any single body gets an entire consciousness to itself.

So now, from the metro St. Louis area comes the pretty great Radkey, three brothers clustered around a flavor of rock that recalls in this reporter the eternal shout-alongs of The Misfits and Naked Raygun. Brought to my attention when guitarist and bandmate in San Andreas Fault Pete Machine passed it along after his bandmate, Scott Lucas (Local H, Married Men) encountered Radkey on the road during a recent Local H tour.   They’ve got that one-voice-many-limbed thing going on.



rob [at] warmowski [dot] com

@warmowski on Twitter

Rob at Huffington Post

Rob on Chicago White Sox Baseball

Rob on Chicago foibles at True/Slant

Rob’s Bands

Rob Warmowski entry at Chicago Punk Database
1984-89: Defoliants
1991-94: Buzzmuscle
2001-05: San Andreas Fault
2008- : Sirs
2008- : Allende
February 2019
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