Veteran Kansas City Music Critic Tim Finn: What You Don't Know From His Reviews

Jun 21, 2018

In the early 2000s, Tim Finn was raising two young daughters while working as The Kansas City Star's full-time pop music critic. His wife, Lauren Chapin, was the paper's food critic. They were eating in restaurants, bringing home tons of free music and going to shows all the time. He still wonders whether his daughters thought that was just how people lived.

"They must have thought, 'Wow, this is ... you know, what a glorious life.' And it was."

Then one day, in 2008, the kids left for school and Lauren headed to the gym, telling Finn she'd see him at work. He got a call 20 minutes later. Chapin had a condition called AVM, Arteriouvenous Malformation, a tangle of blood vessels in or near the brain. No one knew it was there until that morning, when it ruptured.

"She apparently had hers all her life. It was just in a really bad place," Finn says.

Two days after that phone call, Chapin was gone, and Finn was a single father.

For all the late-night phone calls he answered in the subsequent years, and all the vulnerable moments when he's stayed by his daughters' side, he still knows he's just one parent. 

"I never tried to fulfill what Lauren was to them, because she was a Supermom," he says. "I was more of a friend."

He'd weathered losses before.

His father, a CIA agent, died within a year of his retirement, before Finn could ask any real questions about a career shrouded in secrecy. When Finn was studying journalism at the University of Missouri, for example, there were times when his dad would stop by campus on assignment and he'd call in advance to say, "If you see me, you can't recognize me."

Finn once accompanied him on a business trip, never knowing who he met with or why. He carried credentials he could flash, but his office was empty except for a typewriter. 

His sister died of cancer, in 2003, leaving behind a young family of her own.

The recurring theme of loss has been so profound that one relative suggested the family might be cursed, although Finn thinks it's more like a series of dark coincidences.

He says all that loss really just affects what he doesn’t worry about.

“The trivial stuff hardly even reaches me, whether it's being cut off in traffic or, you know what I'm talking about, the little stuff that annoys you if you let it. But then I think, no.”

And though his fans have been adjusting to the news that Finn's reviews will no longer be part of the Star, he's taking his recent layoff from the paper in stride. 

"It was a surprise," he says, "but not a shock because we all know what's been going on at the Star and other newspapers for a decade now."

His presence and his reviews have become mainstays of the live music experience in Kansas City since he got his start in 1996. His thick shock of silvery hair sticking up above the rest of the crowd at any show has made him easy to spot, and his poker face prompts whispers back and forth between fans, wondering what he might say about the show the next day.

But his reviews aren't about his opinions regarding the musicianship on display. Instead, they're meant to tell the stories of the shows. He says it's like giving a recap of a baseball game, with set lists for box scores.

"I know some people who have cut out my reviews and framed them because the shows meant so much to them, and now they have a physical reminder other than a ticket stub."

A Metallica concert early in his career is what inspired that approach. It was a show he wouldn't have gone to on his own, without an assignment.

"But then when I was in the middle of 20,000 people who loved the band," he recalls. "And the band loved them back. People were not leaving.... [They] were locked into the show, singing along. And I just remember thinking, you know, some of my favorite bands don't get the reaction this band is getting."

After more than two decades in the music scene, it's become like a second family, as has the staff at the Star. That's part of what moved him about the recent crowd that gathered, not at a show, but at his wedding, when he remarried earlier this month.

As usual, he observed the crowd, this time of musicians and journalists.

"They all showed up and it was great to see them mingle with each other," he says. "It was really touching."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard and the podcast Midwesternish. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.
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