More than anything else, the Chronicle started as a music publication. Some of the Nineties staff talk about the last decade.
Okay, that's not entirely true. I knew about metal -- enough for the Chronicle to run my reviews of bands like Entombed, MSG, and Faster Pussycat. More importantly, it was enough for the Back Room to become the first local music venue where I could walk 'n' wave past doormen. I also knew folks were less likely to take my opinions seriously if they knew I was a college sophomore weighing the relative value of going to a fraternity party or seeing Nirvana at Liberty Lunch.
And yet, while I barely knew the difference between the Armadillo and Antone's, Lucinda and Lou Ann, naiveté let me carve my own niche, compiling extensively researched music business pieces that writers out of school didn't have the time or patience to report on, given what the Chronicle paid. Eventually, I learned that with the paper's tight pay scale comes an amazing amount of freedom. The freedom to take up unpopular causes (a decade of Bob Schneider), the freedom to spin New Yorker-length pieces, the freedom to write a 1996 Politics piece on Anchovies, which proved that the only better read than "Dancing About Architecture" is a cover story about a sex club.
While the less liberal have long considered Chronicle bylines grist for guilt by association, it's been the opposite experience for me; without the Chronicle, I wouldn't be working in either radio or television. Hell, it's probably gotten me laid a couple times. What I know for sure is that the freedom to write about whatever interests me is why I've won six straight Austin Music Awards for "Best Music Journalist." Each time I've accepted by thanking the readers, but I suppose what I'm really grateful for is the Chronicle itself -- a paper brave enough to give an 18-year-old a shot and faithful enough to let me call it "home" 10 years later.
It's 1978. I'm 12 years old. Growing up in a decaying oil-and-gas town called Alice, Texas, near Corpus Christi. Punk rock has just entered the American mainstream consciousness thanks to the Sex Pistols, and there's no way in hell my folks are letting their baby boy anywhere near these puking, spitting, swearing demons they see night after night on the news. Somehow or other, I manage to prey on their ignorance and get permission to see Patti Smith when she imports a piece of Bleecker and Bowery to the Ritz Theater in Corpus Christi.
Heady stuff for such an innocent mind: sex, blasphemy, poetry, iconography, and loud guitars. I never recovered -- those things remain my obsessions. The guy operating one of those loud guitars for Patti was Lenny Kaye. The fact he was proficient on three instruments -- electric guitar, electric and acoustic typewriter -- would prove highly significant in my own story.
Fast forward to 1991. I'm 25 years old, and have just been booted from the journalism program at Texas A&I University in Kingsville for being "a contaminant in the program." So I move to Austin to become a rock & roll star. I've already made a small name for myself by writing about punk rock for every fanzine that would print a bratty know-it-all; I'd foolishly believed Afro-laden Stooges idolator Jeff Dahl when he declared me my generation's Lester Bangs. Hence, as I starved on several of Austin's finer couches and plotted the rise of my band the Hormones, I thought there might be food money in writing some record reviews for the Chronicle.
Taking a chance, I dashed off five reviews of records that had just caught my ear and mailed them to Chronicle Music Editor Brent Grulke. He liked them; without notice, my review of Ed Hall's hilarious deconstruction of Kiss' "Beth" was the first thing the Chronicle published with my byline, roughly 10 years ago on this date.
I honestly don't know what to make of the journey that followed. It produced a huge body of work, most of which I can hardly stand. The kid who wrote that stuff had talent and knowledge, but he could've turned the volume knob down a few notches. The good stuff, however, springs to my mind immediately: a piece or two on Alejandro Escovedo, a historical trip through the clubs along Red River, dream-come-true interviews with Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks and the Byrds' Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. And whose crazy idea was it to have me talk to Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, anyway?
Well, now it's 2001, the Chronicle is 20 years old, and I'm a few years older than that. I don't do much rock journalism these days, and you can once again blame Lenny Kaye for that. See, people don't take you seriously as a rock musician when you're doubling on those acoustic and electric typewriters. You eventually have to make a choice between rock and rock journalism. Which is why Lenny and I both trimmed back on the punditry, and I'm now living in New York, trying to become a rock & roll star.
Two months back, between gigs with my new band Napalm Stars, I found myself finally sharing a stage with Lenny Kaye, playing bass as he did "Gloria" at a Johnny Thunders memorial at CBGB. The midsection featured a lengthy rap from Kaye, where he expounded about Thunders' importance. At one point, he turned to me, grinned, and told the audience, "And there's all these crazy kids who come to New York from all over the world, just to play these three chords. And it's all because of Johnny!" Very true, Lenny. But in my case, we can also blame it on Lenny Kaye.
Like so many before me, music, at least as much as the fact that UT was the only school I applied to, drew me to Austin. I remember reading about South by Southwest in the Houston Post in high school; flipping through our 24-page underground weekly Public News, I saw as many Austin bands as Houston ones.
Mostly I was a suburban geek itching to move somewhere exciting. I'd never seen Slacker, heard of Antone's or the Armadillo, and knew nothing of Doug Sahm past "She's About a Mover." I knew Willie lived here, but didn't even watch Austin City Limits all that much.
One thing I did do was write, and not long after arriving at UT, I discovered working at The Daily Texan was much more exciting than being holed up in a practice room or the library all the time. Not until I stumbled into a part-time freelance gig at the Chronicle did I truly get Austin.
Suddenly, the nights I wasn't working late at the Texan I was haunting the clubs, my senses feasting on the smoke, costumes, refreshments, decorations, conversations, and above all, the bands. I love the way a packed house can go from being a church service to a porno movie, and back again, in the course of an evening. Or the first time you hear a great band at an empty bar and think, "Damn, how lucky am I to be seeing this?"
Now, after in the neighborhood of 2,000 shows, I still think that at most of them. And as many bitchin' nights on the town as that has meant, the most amazing thing has been getting to know the musicians who make it happen, seeing how their belief in their own singular art can be as unyielding as any modern work ethic or creed. The club owners, managers, bartenders, waitresses, sound guys (and gals), door people, promoters, poster artists, radio folks, and security who make it all run smoothly most of the time, and whose stoicism in the face of utter chaos when it doesn't, do an admirable job too.
So you see, keeping tabs on all this is quite a job, but also one more fun than anyone should be allowed to have. Naturally, I owe the Chronicle the greatest debt for keeping me on the straight and narrow, and demonstrating how you can do what you love and pay the bills by doing so. I guess you could say it beats working for a living after all.
For most of that time, I was just a mild-mannered social worker by day whose intense passion for music was given an outlet in the Chronicle. Over the years, and with the incentive of an infamously low pay rate, the "serious" writers eventually moved on. Today I have the notoriety as the only music writer to be with the Chronicle continuously since the earliest days. Perhaps my perspective carries with it a certain rose-colored validity.
Speaking of notoriety, I wrote the very first "Live Shots" review -- a Joe Ely, Blasters, and Rank & File concert at City Coliseum the spring of 1982. In that golden, infant era, it wasn't so much a matter of what you wrote as opposed to how you wrote it. Dealing with the Chronicle's first Music editor, Jeff Whittington, the unspoken guiding principle was that as long as you knew about the music, and more importantly, could infuse that knowledge with unbridled passion, he was game.
There was also the strong sense that we were writing for a readership of our musical peers, respecting their hipness in a music-conscious town without writing down to them or pandering unnecessarily to outside dictates. Of course, there was also the freedom to write what you wanted, the way you wanted to write it. Virtually all of my colleagues were divvying up the rock & roll pie and hanging at haunts like Club Foot and the Beach. With the Chronicle's implicit blessing, I carved out a comfortable little niche for myself covering the fertile blues and reggae/world beat scenes that centered on Antone's and Liberty Lunch, respectively.
What little jazz was around back then also fell under my purview. The early/mid-Eighties was an amazing time in Austin's musical history, especially for a fledgling music rag hellbent on being in the midst of it all. The T-Birds and Stevie Ray were ascending stars, often showing up to jam with the legion of blues legends who frequented Antone's. Across town, Jamaican roots rockers, skanking into the Lunch in the wake of Bob Marley's death, brought the same rebel spirit that had so enamored the punk movement a few years before. The Chronicle's coverage fueled these scenes and helped establish Austin's reputation as a wide-open musical mecca. And here we are at 20 years, still in the thick of it. Who'da thunk??
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