Michael Corcoran Has Died and Austin’s Lost a Voice That Always Kept Things Interesting

Columnist, author, historian found dead at 68

Now that Michael Corcoran’s dead, I can admit something I’d never have said while he was alive: Corky was the G.O.A.T. of all of us who spent our lives writing about Austin music.

I’ve long believed this, but I wouldn’t have wanted to fertilize his mischievous ego by giving “flowers to the living,” as the cliche goes. The journalist, author, and humorist – who became famous as an early music columnist for the Chronicle, then went on to write for Spin, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon, Dallas Morning News, and the Austin American-Statesman – loved ranking things related to Austin’s music scene: the best-ever bands, the greatest venues, the most important shows. Corcoran himself ranks – in my book – atop the scrapheap of underslept, overserved Austin music writers with his decades of features and profiles that were indulgently witty, centered around highly original insights, and often braced with actual primary research. The interview was rarely the part of a Michael Corcoran story that stood out – and that didn’t matter because he knew how to make the subject interesting. As such, his daring techniques as a writer helped make Austin music interesting.

Corcoran, 68, was found dead this week in his home in Buda. It isn’t yet known how he died.

Michael Corcoran (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

By his own account, Corcoran wrote to get a reaction – evident from his seminal clippings: articles from school newspapers in Idaho where his sole endeavor was to make his classmates laugh, Hawaii’s Sunbums rag where he’d shoehorn personal escapades into his teenage concert reviews, and his libelous punk zine Honolulu Babylon that seemed to exist only to fuck with its readers.

After stints in L.A. and New York, Michael Corcoran landed in Austin in April 1984 at age 28, with his zine collaborator from Hawaii, tattoo artist Rollo Banks. Soon he was contributing to the Chronicle, where he’d serve as music columnist from 1985-88 with his “Don’t You Start Me Talking” page. On a post from his website in 2013, Corcoran contextualized his column’s impact in contemporary terms:

“With the proliferation of blogs, the food trucks of journalism, people are getting their information from all sorts of different sources on handheld devices, so I don’t think it’s possible for a writer to have Austin by the balls like I did. From 1984-88, I was social media in Austin, a snarky know-it-all before they were fucking everywhere. But rereading that stuff, I’ve gotta admit some of the writing makes me cringe. I’ve finally come to realize that I’m not as good as I thought I was. But no one can deny that I came to town guns blazing.”

His early column writing was vibrant and hilarious, spiked with a flair for creating drama – like the flak he threw toward a teenage Charlie Sexton, who’d moved to L.A. and had a hit record. In 1986, Corcoran penned an infamous column titled “Austin Music Sucks” where he ruthlessly picked apart an entire city’s music culture, calling out 27 bands and artists by name, including Daniel Johnston (“It's just a cruel joke we've played on you. We really don't think you're brilliant, we think you're a squirrel.”) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (“I think you need to change haircutters. The place you go to now is not so great. You should've been tipped off when you saw that all the barbers wear black hoods with holes cut for eyes.”)

That column ran with an editor’s note: “Due to the unusual nature of Corcoran's column in this issue, there was considerable doubt around the office as to whether it should be run at all. One staffer even suggested that publishing it might place Corky in imminent danger of serious bodily harm. It was at that point that we decided to run it.”

After decades of more sensible music writing for large-circulation daily papers and national rock magazines, Corcoran reprised his bad-guy role in 2012, skewering the city with a clever diatribe where he rechristened Austin: Mediocre, Texas. As usual, he flame-broiled sacred cows: “Austin is touted as a movie town, but unless we want to count UT grad Wes Anderson, we haven’t exactly been churning out the great flicks. ‘Tree of Life,’ what was that? Director Terrence Malick doesn’t like to have his picture taken, but he’ll let us watch him masturbate for three hours.”

Corcoran, a self-described “anti-critic,” often played up his reputation for reviewing concerts he didn’t actually watch – like a 1990 show with Neil Young and Sonic Youth that caused Rolling Stone to lose his number. But as a feature writer, he penned book-quality profiles of musicians that bestowed deep context on their art – see these late-career gems he wrote for the Chronicle about Gary Clark Jr., Ramsay Midwood, and the Jones Family Singers – who should be a shoo-in to play at Corky’s funeral.

In the final chapter of his career, Corcoran became a musical historian who used extensive primary research to illuminate the lives and impacts of Texas musicians with histories that hadn’t been properly puzzled together. That began with major discoveries about the zither-playing gospel blues artist Washington Phillips and continued into a book about blind pianist Arizona Dranes, whose Holiness movement playing informed the ensuing gospel genre which influenced rock & roll. Ultimately Corcoran would author two other books, All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music and [Ghost Notes]: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music. His last book, Austin Music Is a Scene Not a Sound, arrives posthumously Sept. 10.

Corcoran also maintained a popular Substack for his writings and sometimes tormented working journalists by breaking news on his personal Facebook page. But he was encouraging to younger journalists too, loudly celebrating their “scoops” and commending quality writing.

As the news of his death sunk in last night, I clicked back through pages of emails to find our first correspondence – over a dozen years ago. I was a few months into my extended tenure as the music columnist and was still viewed by the city’s musical cognoscenti as being some bong-shop employee the paper had foolishly hired to write an influential column. He emailed to tell me: “Love your column and its mindset of a fan with newsman's responsibility. A must-read!”

My dickish response was: “I can't tell you how many graying-faces have vexed me with lectures on the importance of the column and how I have to live up to Michael Corcoran – so, naturally, I shudder when I hear your name.”

And with that we became friends.

Over the last 13 years, Michael Corcoran frequently called me and gave me the most heartfelt compliments on my work and encouragement to keep going. This writer, whose reputation was being ruthless and willing to bury you for a good line, constantly went out of his way to put the wind in my sails. Four years ago, when I started making babies, our conversations changed as he’d dispense wisdom about fatherhood and share proud stories about his son Jack, now a songwriter and musician.

But as much as Michael Corcoran’s passing means I lost the most unlikely of mentors, I’m more sad for the feeling that Austin has lost a voice that always kept things interesting.

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More Michael Corcoran
Don't You Start Me Talking
Don't You Start Me Talking
Michael Corcoran sounds off on his recent retirement

Austin Powell, June 30, 2011

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