We say goodbye to visionary writer and Chronicle co-founder Jeff Whittington, who passed away last week at the age of 46.
Jeff Whittington died last week in New York City after a long illness. He was 46.
My head harshly jerks at the strange realization that for many readers the question is "Who is Jeff Whittington?" Writer, editor, philosopher, visionary -- pick one, but they are not enough. Writer who influenced a generation of Austin music writers, one of the catalysts of the Raul's scene, visionary who was one of the founders of The Austin Chronicle. Closer.
The first time I remember trying to see Jeff Whittington was standing on my toes at the Sex Pistols show in San Antonio, trying to make him out and failing. Someone had said, "There's Jeff Whittington." I stood and peered over the crowded floor with a tiny stage at the front. Trying to see Whittington, I couldn't find him. He was just-famous then, his writing on music in The Daily Texan the beacon of Austin's nascent new music scene. It wasn't until after the January 1978 Sex Pistols concert that things began happening, but Whittington was heralding the revolution as early as 1976. I'm not being cute here. Remember, punk was a revolution; it insisted that the music belonged to the people and not the culture-making machinery. Whittington was the perfect chronicler of this conflagration. Punk was not, at first, about deifying punk archetypes (certain sounds, hair, clothing, and styles) but insisting true rock was music that could as much be made by the fans as at them. Whittington loved music and he loved ideas and I'm pretty sure there wasn't much of a difference between those to him.
By the end of 1978, the Violators and the Skunks had opened up Raul's, the Huns riot had happened, and I had worked with Whittington as my editor and fellow writer. There were heady years writing at the Texan, with a lot of freedom and precious little responsibility. Whittington was the writer we emulated. Whittington was the writer with influence in the community. A few years later, Whittington, Nick Barbaro, and I were among the folks who started the Chronicle.
The Chronicle experience was enlightening, exhausting, and excruciating. Whittington was a writer and a visionary. He was not a vision marketer. Over the years he wrote, often brilliantly, for the Chronicle, was an editor, ad salesperson, accounts manager, typesetter, and, always, visionary. The Austin Chronicle Music Poll was his baby, and he zealously guarded it, combing the numbers for impurities. But early on, the fit between the iconoclast and a growing, structured institution was uncomfortable, and though most folks stayed friends, it was a long journey.
Okay, so I often read obits like this and think, was that person really that important or are they just dead? Whittington was a teacher (as was the late Ed Lowry and current Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro). They were people you learned from. It wasn't just that Jeff loved music, though that would have been enough. That he was fearless, ready to champion not only Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers when no one else had heard of them, but the Carpenters as well, would have been enough. But there was something more. He loved music, writing about music and thinking about music. To Jeff, there really wasn't a great difference in these activities. They flowed in his life, they flowed in his writing. It was all one incredible sound that roared through his head as he sat there smoking cigarettes, drinking Dr Pepper, and thinking great thoughts. It came out in the wonderful affection of his writing.
Joe Dishner (another Chronicle founder) beautifully referenced Pi as a Whittington-esque film. He loved numbers and he loved quantifying. He was a classic High Fidelity music-list maker. The Music Poll was his way of including all of Austin in the list-making process, a list of everybody's inner list. But he also loved the abstract, the willing dive into the complete unknown. He wasn't just what he taught us about music; he taught us how to think and thus write about culture with intensity, knowledge, ambition, and as much affection as you can bring to the task. His writing and thinking informed our writing and thinking and a couple of generations of talent we've worked with who've probably never heard of Jeff Whittington. The list of talented people who will tip their hat to Jeff is impressive, but I will leave it to them to check in.
As the Chronicle went weekly in 1988, Whittington hit the road. He drove cabs and trucks. Lived homeless in Washington, D.C., and wrote a cover story about it for the Washington City Paper. More than a decade later, whenever I've run into former WCP editor Jack Schaefer, his first question is always about Jeff. I'll send him this piece.
Jeff ended up in New York City doing different kinds of computer-related work. We saw him only two or three times after that, when he came to visit Austin. It was always awkward. This is the communal we, not the royal we. We all loved him but weren't sure how to communicate with him.
There are so many stories. There is his writing. We'll get to some of that in our anniversary issue. But for now, there is that image of him sitting in front of his screen, fingers racing, working and dreaming, dreaming and working. We are the children of his dreams.