Ed Ward, who died Monday at the age of 72, welcomed me to the table – a table he helped build.
In 1964, when the New Yorker (born Nov. 2, 1948) began scribbling prose for mimeographed folk fanzine Broadside at the age of 16, rock & roll ranked right up there with newsprint at the bottom of the birdcage or litter pan: utterly disposable. Teen Beat and 16 ruled the day with “fab pix and fax,” but Ward lit out for an entirely unexplored musical universe the moment Bob Dylan strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and hired young white Chicagoan Mike Bloomfield to issue slashing, bluesy voltage across his new records.
Ward turned toward another mimeographed rag published out of “an apartment above a Greek deli on Sixth Avenue,” he told me in a 2019 interview. Helmed by 18-year-old music obsessive Paul Williams, Crawdaddy boasted a brand new Village Voice profile when Ward bumped into the “jangly, mop-headed kid with a buncha magazines under his arm” at a Judy Collins/Tom Rush gig at Town Hall. Needing a job, Ward waved his girlfriend’s possession of galleys for Bob Dylan’s book Tarantula under Williams’ nose.
Likely the first periodical lending this pimply electric jive any gravitas, Crawdaddy treated its subject and those like him with previously unknown earnestness. No one took rock ‘n’ roll seriously. Now appeared writers applying critical theory to the genre the same way Pauline Kael applied scholarship to film.
As such, musicians like John Lennon and Mick Jagger paid attention to what writers like Ed Ward wrote. Even industry pillars like Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler developed friendships with this new breed of writer, picking their brains about this culture. That platform still exists, thrives even, albeit less in print and more in bytes, but cultural shifters continue to bear weight.
After a healthy two-year run at Crawdaddy that included overseeing an iteration of then-college student Richard Meltzer’s term paper “Aesthetics of Rock” for the magazine, Ward found himself at loose ends again after a 1967 West Coast sortie. Setting a pattern in his early life and career, he instantly resurfaced as record review editor for Jann Wenner’s new rock & counterculture weekly, Rolling Stone. Hired at the suggestion of the position’s originator, Greil Marcus, who journeyed back to college to get his Master’s Degree, Ward ignored the owner’s warning about a weird shoe salesman in El Cajon, California.
“Lester [Bangs] had already been there,” Ward recalled. “Jann warned about a couple of the people he’d been using. He said, ‘This guy sends stuff every day! You can’t keep up with it. You can only accept what seems to be the best, and don’t encourage him.’ I did encourage him by accepting a few of his things. So I was inundated!
“When I was fired, one of the things I left behind was two or three reel-to-reel tapes of Lester interviewing Charles Mingus. I had no idea who Mingus was. I just thought, ‘Oh, this is more shit from Lester!’ So I just left it there. Now I’m curious what that interview was like.”
Ward continued, an oral history of rock & roll journalism pouring out of him.
“I got some early issues of Creem when it was a tabloid, and I liked Dave Marsh’s writing. So when Creem briefly folded, I told Dave, ‘If you’d like to write something for Rolling Stone, let me know.’ Wenner flipped out. He said, ‘What are you doing subsidizing the editor of a competition magazine?!’ I said, ‘Was it competition? They folded. I don’t think they’ll be back. Don’t worry about it. He’s just a bright kid who needs an outlet. He’s good, and he knows stuff that other people don’t.’”
Ward quit RS in Oct. ‘71. His largesse towards Marsh led to getting hired as the newly-relaunched Creem’s West Coast correspondent.
“Back in those days, writers would get ahold of one another when there was something new,’ reflected Ward. “There was no territorialism or any of that happening.”
Texas Monthly rock scribe Joe Nick Patoski got ahold of Ward when The Austin American-Statesman needed a music critic. This drew him here from San Francisco in 1979. He remained at the local daily through the early Eighties. His reign there ended via two events: A book contract to write “all the Fifties stuff” for a new Rolling Stone rock history book (Wenner’s vendetta now apparently soothed); and pseudonymously contributing to a new underground local rag run by a ragtag crew Ward met around Austin punk palace Raul’s.
Henceforth, Ward wrote for this publication, while simultaneously beginning his decades-long run with NPR as Fresh Air’s resident rock historian.
I first encountered Ward a few months before relocating to Austin in the summer of 1991, covering my first SXSW for Alternative Press. Ward proved a key staffer, barrelling around the conference in a colonel’s uniform. It was comical to those who knew him, but rather intimidating to a young rock journalist from a small Texas town who only knew him via his substantial back catalog, especially his work on the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’s second edition.
When I arrived at the Chronicle offices at age 24 after unsolicited record reviews sent to then-Music Editor Brent Grulke ran one issue – full of myself after having written for national magazines for five years – Ward razzed me constantly. The upperclassman deflated the brash upstart between classes. Then, at that year’s office Christmas party, I sat on a couch he commandeered.
“Hey, Ed,” I chirped, “I just got this Ricky Nelson double-album compilation from ’73 with your liner notes.”
“Oh, yes!” he yelped. “The Legendary Masters series. That was the brainchild of [name redacted]. He was this horrible chickenhawk whose office at United Artists Records overlooked Hollywood High. So he’d be sizing up all these young boys as they got out of school at 3pm.”
At that moment, Ed Ward gave me a seat at the table.
He began assigning me book reviews, until Margaret Moser assumed that editorship. And she made sure to keep assigning me from that desk. I would only see him at SXSW after that, since he moved to Berlin. Even then, however, Col. Ward kept up with my work, charting my progress.
“You’ve gotten good,” he told me in 1996. “Really good.”
He would have known, too. Witness this gem from his essay “Italo-American Rock” in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: “You see, these guys never forgot their own golden era. In 1964, in the white urban ghettos of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, while the rest of the world was getting onto the Beatles, a bunch of collectors and nostalgics staunchly clung to the old sounds. In northern New Jersey, a full-fledged acapella revival took place. A lot of young Italian kids got into it, and a lot of Puerto Rican kids, too, and Eddie Gries, one of the big promoters of the revival, inveighed against, ‘...the mass brainwashing of the public [by] imported English garbage.’
“I’m sure he still believes it. He may even be right.”
Or how about this brief encapsulation at James Brown’s arrival at a new sound?
“He stepped up to the mike and shouted, ‘It’s a HIT!’ and the band started a minimalist groove, with the bass out front. The lyrics were nothing much, mostly a recitation of dances leading up to a quick stum on the guitar and Brown announcing, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.’ They worked on it for seven minutes, with a long saxophone solo by Maceo Parker, whose drummer brother, Melvin, anchored the tight strings of the brass.
“In July, with a brand-new contract with King [Records], Brown edited this epic down to two minutes and six seconds, sticking the rest on the B-side, and he was back on top of the charts, even making Top 10 on the pop charts. When that died down, he pulled out another session he’d done in Florida in May with more or less the same template, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good).’ Neither record sounded like anything anyone else was doing.
“Miles Davis was running around playing them for his friends. It was a new bag indeed.”
Ed Ward never stopped writing with this flair nor this scholarship. When I returned from a 15-year sabbatical from music writing, he literally welcomed me back to the table. I returned to SXSW in 2013, basically exhumed from self-imposed limbo by the Chronicle to profile the reformed True Believers and cover that year’s conference.
I rounded the corner at the Convention Center and found seated around a table several of my elders in this discipline: Patoski, Bill Bentley, Jim Fouratt, and... Ed Ward. All grinned, happy to see me after all these years. Ward pulled out a chair and invited me to join them.
At last, I had a seat at the grown folks’ table.
Ward mostly enjoyed a remarkable last few years in Austin again. I sat with him at the kitchen table in his South Austin rental twice. The first occasion coincided with the 2016 revision and expansion of Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, a book hampered when its original publisher folded a week after its original issue in 1983.
The second, in November 2019, involved the aforementioned second part of The History of Rock & Roll. On both occasions, he treated me with a jovialness and generosity, full of hilarious anecdotes. He shared a story about his first attempt at interviewing Doug Sahm while at Rolling Stone:
“I went to somewhere in Marin County where he was living and hung out with him and talked. But I never really got around to a formal interview. I came back to the office and sat there thinking, ‘I am fucked, I am fucked… .’
“So Jann shows up at the front of my cubicle and he says, ‘So, did you get the interview?’ So I was like [mumbles]. And he was trying so hard not to laugh!
“He said, ‘He made you smoke pot, didn’t he?’ I said, ‘Well, um, um….’ He said, ‘He does that to everybody. I’ve never been able to get a decent interview with him.’”
I asked whether the first volume of his remarkable rock history – which reported events sequentially, annually, starting with the advent of the phonograph and popular music, rather than a series of profiles of the major artists – had sold.
“No, it was sabotaged,” he reported from across the table. “Fresh Air refused to have me on after 30 years of talking about this particular subject on the air for very little money for them. It killed the book and killed my career. This year, I have made just over $1,000 from writing.
“All I can hope is that I get to do this third volume. I did the first volume, then Chuck Berry and all these other people died. Various things came up, like the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, but my phone just lay there. Nobody wanted to talk to me about any of it.
“So, that’s it.”
I got him to pick up that phone some six months later, COVID-19 pandemic raging. I’d been attempting to transition into books myself, working on an Austin punk history serialized in the Chronicle. The man who welcomed me to rock & roll’s Algonquin Round Table told me he would walk me through the process of netting a book deal, even introducing me to his literary agent.
Disgracefully, COVID slowed everyone’s business. Despite my serialization derailing thanks to low page counts, I called Ward to see if his offer still stood. It did, but he had lost his book deal on the rock history series. Volume Two sold even less than the first, and the publisher reportedly told Ward’s agent he had wasted enough money and was done with the project.
Monday night, after some friends became concerned they hadn’t heard from him, Ed Ward’s body was discovered in his hallway, a few yards from the kitchen table where we’d sat. He was 72, and apparently dead for several days.
He never got to write that third volume of his brilliant History of Rock & Roll, but worse, a key leg of that table he helped build is now gone.
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