Page Two: Row My Boat Ashore

Louis Black bids farewell in his final "Page Two" column

Page Two: Row My Boat Ashore

"What you hold in your hands is a paper as honest as we can get it, created for you and by you as represented by the staff. It's the only thing the Chronicle has ever tried to be, a community newspaper for this community. When that stops working or stops being fun, well then Barbaro and I will probably move on. But the truth is that it's now as much fun as it's ever been. We don't just create this paper, we're fans. We can't wait to see what's going to be in the next issue and the next and the next.

"If Austin wasn't the community it is, then we couldn't do this, and if we had to do something different than this, we wouldn't have. So after 25 years we are, as always, humbled by our staff – their talent and commitment – and forever grateful to you, our readers."  – "Page Two," Sept. 8, 2006

This July started crazy and then turned crazier. We had rented a house on Cape Cod but only had a couple of days to open it before we were off to Ohio for Sandy to shoot some footage for her documentary on the Church of the SubGenius. Then on to Marfa for Jo Harvey and Terry Allen's 55th wedding anniversary: "It's amazing how long two people can misunderstand one another."

What an incredible experience, these 40 years in Austin – not just the paper and the conference but everything I’ve gotten to do and see and hear along the way. Traveling over the decades as a member of the last and holiest children’s crusade, a tumbling mass of slackers, musicians, freaks, artists, filmmakers, writers, flower sales folks, dancers, bartenders, bike riders, politicians, merchants, singers, cooks, actors – all different, all together, an army and a party.

Later in July was going to be a visit from the whole Boone family, then from a friend followed by a Suzanne Vega visit and concert.

The end of July and beginning of August were also loaded. First we were flying to L.A. for the PBS press junket for Richard Linklater: dream is destiny, which premiered on American Masters on Sept. 1. Then to Brooklyn for a Jonathan Demme retrospective at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Paul Thomas Anderson and I introduced the first programs. Fab 5 Freddy joined me to host a screening of Manchurian Candidate (we met and became friends on the set). Finally to Vancouver for a business meeting before coming home to Austin.

The first night back on the Cape after Marfa, toward sundown, Sandy and I were on the back deck overlooking the bay, feeling the cool breezes, listening to the waves. Sitting quietly together, I realized we almost never did this, just enjoying each other.

We had been talking before about how when we retired we might spend more time on the Cape. Retirement a mythic distance.

"What if we do that now?" I asked. Sandy would grill me again and again over the next days to weeks as to whether I was serious.

But when I said it I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a deep joy. The most remarkable and satisfying of journeys was gracefully entering a new chapter.

It had been so long since I had even entertained leaving Austin. When I landed here to go to graduate school in English in 1976, I didn't expect to stay that long. Outside of my early years at my parents' home in Teaneck, N.J., I kept moving, living in different places, including Boston, Brookline, Jamaica Plain, and Cambridge, Mass.; Putney and Bartonsville, Vt.; northern New Hampshire; McColl, S.C.; Charlotte Harbor, Fla. Going to any place I knew folks.

But then in 1981 we started the Chronicle and in 1987 SXSW. There really wasn't any way to move and take those along.

What an incredible experience, these 40 years in Austin – not just the paper and the Conference but everything I've gotten to do and see and hear along the way. Traveling over the decades as a member of the last and holiest children's crusade, a tumbling mass of slackers, musicians, freaks, artists, filmmakers, writers, flower sales folks, dancers, bartenders, bike riders, politicians, merchants, singers, cooks, actors – all different, all together, an army and a party.

Remarkably, at its core, it's all turned out to be about community, people coming together creatively and with passion in pursuit of not just art and/or commerce but a way to live. Sounds like Reader's Digest "Kumbaya" bull but living it for so long, it's proven real, collaborative, and supportive.

"What you hold in your hands is this week's issue, the work of a wonderful, dedicated staff and the greater work of every one who ever spent any time in any way on this paper. When all is said and done, it is your paper, the readers', and we thank you for it. I only hope you guys are as entertained reading this as (I think – I don't want to speak too quickly for the whole group) we are putting it out."  – "Page Two," Sept. 3, 2004

The first issue of The Austin Chronicle was dated Sept. 4, 1981. Almost 1,670 issues later (expect an exact calculation from Barbaro), at the beginning of July on Cape Cod, I stopped to take the deepest breath.

Launched as a biweekly, the first years were extremely difficult financially. The initial investment money ran out in nine months, leaving the paper always trying to not get sucked down into the ever-swirling whirlpool of erratic cash flow for years. Constantly wondering if there would be enough to keep it going. Revenues gradually increased, but expenses always kept up with them. In September 1988 the paper finally went weekly but whereas over the next 12 months we put out twice as many issues, revenue was only up 25%.

On Oct. 4, 1989, as a result of a complaint by pro-family, anti-gay, anti-porn activist Mark Weaver, the Chronicle was thrown out of the 17 H-E-B stores where it was distributed. Weaver went around to Austin media bragging about what he had accomplished. There was an outside distribution company we used for a number of convenience store drops. They called up that chain's headquarters to see if they wanted to keep the controversial paper. They didn't. So it was also kicked out of other distribution locations.

Just as this was happening I left on a long-planned trip to France. This was in the days before cell phones and the internet. Traveling in Europe meant no communication with home. Leaving, I thought the Chronicle was not going to survive. Although upset I was also relieved. It had been so rough, scary, and nonstop.

As soon as we got home, we put our bags down, heading out to shop at the old Whole Foods on Lamar (where Goodwill is now). Walking the aisles shopping, people kept coming up and congratulating me. I wasn't sure why.

The Chronicle had taken the editorial position, "H-E-B had every right to throw us out, but it's time that Mark Weaver stopped dictating the standards of the community." Austin citizens reacted, and reacted strongly. By the time we returned the Chronicle was back in H-E-B. Some months later, after not quite a decade struggling, the Chronicle began to experience unprecedented growth in display and classified advertising. There were many reasons for this: the longevity of the paper; ongoing, excellent editorial content; and a recovering economy. But I've always felt that what really changed things was that for a few weeks everyone in Austin was talking about the Chronicle. Many business folks, politicians, and professionals who had thought the paper was a personal secret, not generally known, realized that everyone was reading the paper. 

Thus began the most splendid two-decade run. There were so many amazing writers, who, because they were covering Austin, had so much about which to write.

The decision was made before we started publishing to focus on Austin. We might review a nationally released album, we might not, but especially in the early years when it was still possible we tried to cover every local release.

Features were usually on local acts, only sometimes roadshows. When we started SXSW Roland suggested we reach out to weeklies like ours to co-sponsor. Fourteen agreed. I'm not sure we even really thought it through but each got to send a band and thus most sent music writers as well. Here picking up the Chronicle they saw the emphasis on local music. Excited, returning home they began to do the same, covering their local scenes thus nourishing them as well.

But deep into the journey, when not really expected, massive media and communication changes began. Already, I was in semi-hibernation working on a couple of books. This ended when I landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure in 2011. The world was changing rapidly. Over a not very long period weeklies found that the waters around them had grown, what they had known was gone and what they had done no longer worked. National ad campaigns disappeared, classifieds went away, and display advertising shrunk. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Boston Phoenix, Philadelphia City Paper folded; The Village Voice has retreated to the web. The seers and pundits announced print dead and weeklies irrelevant.

But there is a powerful flame at the center of the Chronicle's mission, giving off both heat and light. It provides a community square, a place for a disparate, diverse, contentious, argumentative, and terribly focused community to gather.

Been reading all the wild wonderful tributes to Margaret Moser, as I've also enjoyed a wave of unexpected praise upon my leaving (used to a far harsher reception, this really was a surprise). Still, too often, the Chronicle was left out of the equation. Always there, the rhythm section allowing for our leads. It shouldn't have been. I know Margaret would agree, it was never just "I," not even "we" but "us."

One should never praise one's own work but I'm out the door, floating on the water. This paper has long been one of the forces not just holding this community together but pushing it to be both expansive and inclusive. Austin has been declared dead and gone more times than Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle. In my experience most folks think the doors of the city should have been permanently shut right after they got here, then noting that the city peaked ____ (5, 10, 15, 25 – pick a number) years ago. But it isn't dead and has peaked only to peak again, changing and evolving it is different and the same, more difficult and better. So much of what has always defined it is still there – community, collaboration, cooperation, engagement, and passion.

Decrying and bemoaning the city now is easy. But to despair is to surrender, to lament is to self-inflict wounds not just on self but the whole community.

We are not in this alone, or just for pleasure, without consequence and unmoored. In these dark times when hatred and division is being encouraged across the nation to varying degrees on all sides there is a heat and glow here that we've made. And rather than dying embers, the Chronicle fans those flames.

Never one to either appreciate or count my blessings, even during the good times, I'd long felt too many folks take the Chronicle for granted. It's just been there, is there, and will be there.

There are writers who cut their teeth with the paper who downplay that or even deny it. Going through the mini-bios of maybe a dozen folks who got their first or early bylines in the Chronicle, I found only one that mentioned it.

Businesses that have benefited from coverage and the paper's ongoing cultivation of community have never advertised. Some that were mentioned again and again in our pages were pleased that they had to give nothing in return. Even some ventures started by friends and family never reached out, except for editorial.

Didn't really care for so many years, during the good times this was their business. But with times turned hard it's difficult not to notice. Years ago when revenue slowed and slowed again, the paper could have been cut down and the staff trimmed. It could have been shrunk to a shadow of its former self, as so many weeklies were. But that's not why it was started, nor why we kept and keep it going. Driven by purpose, one of the paper's core principles is the effort to promote community, that since we are all in this together for better or worse, the more we communicate the better for everyone. It is not about forcing agreement but communicating and understanding.

More than three and a half decades in, the Chronicle now really needs your help. Finally I can ask for it because I'm off to make movies and write books. Together we all need to reach out and love the paper before it is gone. The love you showed for Margaret by definition has to also be love for the Chronicle. It gave her a voice which she used and a tool she cherished. A way to reach out, to tell stories and to encourage. The so kind words about me would never have been offered if there had not been the Chronicle. Margaret and I and the staff as well as all our readers are as one, though all individuals still always community.

Thank those that advertise in these pages. Advertise! Suggest to those who don't that perhaps they should.

Sure I'm chanting, hallucinating, banging the drum and blowing a trumpet. I rend my clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes. This rite of sadness is also an act of joy and a prayer for renewal. The Chronicle is yours and ours and Austin's. Anchored by belief, focused on our work, art, spirit, friends, and families, it is immediate and of the present, coming out of a shared past while aimed directly at the future. The paper provides a gathering place, to congregate and mingle, tease and laugh, read and share, think and pray, argue and agree. Singing the body electric, the Austin of "us" believes that we all deserve the richest freedom lightly spiced by a most lovely sense of our deep and shared responsibility.


Find past “Page Two” columns in our archives. Go here for some of our favorites.

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