Page Two: The Stories We Tell
"If you'll gather 'round me, children, a story I will tell"
"If you'll gather 'round me, children, a story I will tell ..."
– Woody Guthrie, "Pretty Boy Floyd"
Stories are never exactly what they seem. Not the truth ... maybe, at best, a truth. History has a way of considering the past that our community, whatever that may be, has come to accept, as a way that helps them make sense of their lives. The stories as echoed between this paper and its readers have long been central to the ongoing political and cultural dialogue.
But the foundation of the enterprise were the stories we told and retold one another about ourselves, our work, and our history.
There is the famous Austin Chronicle 20th anniversary issue (Sept. 7, 2001), with the cover story about the great golf cart swimming pool massacre, which happened during a Chronicle debauched retreat at a local resort (the deal done on trade). Jordan Smith reported in detail an investigative examination of the incident. She interviewed everyone involved, telling it as a complex oral history in many voices from many different (often conflicting, sometimes not) points of view. That's the same way we always told the story. For years this was our story, the Chronicle's shared story. We'd sit around at parties or after work. Some new person would be in the room. Why, they'd never heard the great story.
We would launch into the telling, with many of those gathered about contributing their own recollections to the discussion – not a monologue but a group participatory oral tradition. In a way this story told us who we were. Well, it was one of so many stories that we used to make sense of the day-to-day creation of these projects. Nick at the convenience store. Roland chasing down the fraternity thieves. Margaret leaving the office with a new beau to get cigarettes and returning four days later. Ondine living with us for a week, so one day we came home to Sterling Morrison sitting around telling Velvet Underground stories.
The Chronicle being thrown out of the H-E-B. The stories of Corky living in the back of Rollo Banks' tattoo parlor in the T-shirt storage area. The sweet outraged power generated by our "If you don't read this issue we'll poison Barton Springs" cover. Long runs of good writers, and good writers still. But the stories were once not just life preservers but gave our mission form.
In a very tribal way, not entirely healthy, nor entirely unhealthy, those stories dominated our interactions in so many ways. Margaret Moser and I can still launch into a half-hour shared rant at the mention of "The Pledge," about New Orleans, Jazz Fest, Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams and Clyde, just Clyde. And a very long walk we took downtown, where I fatefully proclaimed that each block was the last I'd walk before turning around the whole way down to the French Quarter from our mile-away hotel (of course not just Moser's plan but one clearly outlined). I said no. Which proved meaningless.
Nick Barbaro driving up on Guadalupe to offer some friends from the bar a ride home, culminating with us pointing out to one of the women's partners that we weren't just any drunken assholes, instead stabbing the Chronicle opened to the staff box: "We are these drunken assholes ...."
The endless wisdom of Rollo Banks, who once explained to all of us how Barbaro is the Captain, and it didn't matter a rat's ass how I whined. The Captain's will. It will be done. And done again.
We – meaning a more immediate (less imperial) us – don't tell stories anymore. We certainly don't tell stories as much among ourselves. It has been a long time since we sat relating the great and legendary stories of our past. I don't know how certain I feel about our footing telling your story and telling our stories to you. Once to think about that footing was ill-focused and dim-witted – an invitation to fail. But now our role has changed and probably changed again. Behind us instead of bread crumbs leading to the gingerbread house the trail back and back is a glimmer with the sweetness leavened on the past by memory.
Once stories were all we had, all that kept The Austin Chronicle together, that kept it going. In so many ways those stories all came true. And then they didn't. Once we were so wrapped up in the business of creating this weekly that at first, though it made it impossibly difficult, our lack of money was destructive but not devastating. Later, when there were reasonable amounts of money, the pleasures of getting to do a weekly right were extraordinary.
But now I feel we've come out the other side of the waterslide. We are leading, as we long have; we are not supposed to follow. We are the village storyteller, keeper of the oral tradition. We tell the stories, but they are "our" stories.
The stories we tell have and do resonate within the community and are largely the shared stories of who we are and what we do. But times have changed. I'm a windbag, legendarily so. I go on and on telling stories sometimes past all reason. But it is not the shared stories of this "us" that jostled together over decades into the creative family that birthed the Chronicle. By telling you our stories. And listening to yours.
There are stories piling up here. Corky's "Austin Music Sucks" column. Margaret going out for cigarettes and calling in days later from Los Angeles. "With friends." Barbaro at the helm, my so-called career, a brilliant managing editor leading a longtime team of writers who trust one another. Rocky seas. And rocky seas.
It's finding the beats outside the song that is so hard. And when the song changes, it doesn't get any easier.