Could the Statesman's Michael Corcoran ever be Austin's Herb Caen?
Our first official volleyball league debuted on Tuesday, delayed from Monday because of the wet condition of the court. In the first outing, art director Taylor Holland's team beat publisher Nick Barbaro's, with Lindsey Simon's team yet to debut. This is only the beginning of an ugly campaign. Don't worry; I'll keep updates to a minimum.
The restaurant poll ballot runs for the last time in this issue. Please fill it out and send it in. Your voice and vote count. I think our readers care more passionately about food than many of the other topics we cover. Here is your chance to make your preferences known. Vote here.
Last Wednesday, my son and I took a cab home from the airport after returning from my father-in-law's funeral in St. Louis. My wife stayed behind to deal with family issues for several more days. We checked in at the house, then drove to the office. I wrote my column, and my son thought of new and innovative ways to annoy the staff and me.
The previous Friday, I got word that the Statesman had suspended Michael Corcoran's column. Saturday was my first day off since the beginning of March. I was relaxing, enjoying my family, and thinking about what I might write about this incident. What a great opportunity to recount Corcoran's Chronicle history. A chance to tell the story of the "Austin Music Sucks" column published in the issue distributed at an early SXSW or about porn star Johnny "Wadd" Holmes' obituary -- "I'm Glad He's Dead" -- that caused so much trouble. Then the phone call came, and we were off to St. Louis.
At the office, wrung out and more than a little faded, I thought about what to write. I had a longish Corcoran piece in my head, but there was no way to get it out. Should I ignore the topic for a week and do my standard "We're slowly recovering from SXSW" column? (See above.) Instead, I decided I should address the Corcoran issue and dashed off a quick column. I was so uncertain about it that I asked my usual editor, Sarah Hepola, to vet it with Film editor and longtime Chronicle stalwart Marge Baumgarten. I was pretty sure I hadn't gotten at my complicated reaction -- on the one hand, I often despised Corcoran's column, and on the other hand, I despaired over the kind of editorial cowardice that would think the solution was suspension. I even promised a longer piece about it in this issue. I was so certain the piece incoherently sucked that on the way home, I figured out a quick couple of paragraphs I could dictate to Sarah over the phone to fill the column hole.
The column got more positive response -- verbal and e-mail comments -- than anything I have written in a long time. One caller commented that this was a voice Austin needed, then he hesitated, thinking of what he had said, and then made a remark about Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. The implication was that Austin needs an irreverent, outspoken voice talking about the social/cultural/sideshow life of the city, but maybe Corcoran lacked the expanse of Caen's vision.
Years ago, in the mid-Eighties, Corcoran was driven by passion. Part of the passion was to become as famous as the musicians he was writing about. He did this. Soon after his "Don't You Start Me Talking" column debuted in the Chronicle, he could hang backstage with the best of them. The other part of this passion had to do with the music itself. No music scholar, Corcoran still loved the scene and the music. He could be cuttingly wicked, but he was just as often goofily enthusiastic. Back then, Corcoran and I were engaged in an ongoing debate as to whether film or music was the superior aesthetic experience. One time, he said to me something along the lines of, "How can I waste time at a movie when I could be out at the clubs? There, every night is like a movie, except it'll never be shown again. I want to catch those movies."
Over the years, the writer formerly known as Corky has become jaded. The trick of his style -- its brilliance, if you will -- is the ironic twist, the audacious diss wittily delivered (often using the Rollo Banks unexpected/exaggerated metaphor technique). Not backed by the passion that was at its core, a certain mean-spiritedness has infected his writing, which is still very pointed and often very funny.
My friend on the phone was right. Austin deserves a Herb Caen. A writer not afraid to make fun of this city and its inhabitants because it is obvious he loves it so much. A writer who cannot only dismiss and denigrate, but one who can also praise, who has a huge appetite for the life of the city. Corcoran could easily fill this role, and it would be great to see him grow into it. It would be great to see a time when he doesn't just trash local talent but also champions it, doesn't just mock the pompous and pretentious but supports the interesting. When he is not only glibly acerbic but also a storyteller capturing the breathing rhythm of Austin. Given his gossip column mandate, which is mostly to be provocative and entertaining, the Statesman editorial staff abdicated their responsibility to the community by suspending rather than guiding his column. I've said too much, but it's quicksand I've gotten into, and I hope I'm now out the other side.
As for the Daily Chronicle thing. We tried it last Saturday, April 1, 2000. We didn't like it. We're back to weekly. At least for a year (not counting SXSW).