Monday, June 28, 2021

Ed Ward 1948-2021


Greetings. Yes, it's been years. It's become apparent, though I am busier than ever as a professional writer these days, there is a need to revive this blog. It's a necessity to tackle subjects to which I may not be able in the outlets I have at hand, or to post material that has to be excised from my pieces. Today, I post the eulogy I delivered at the memorial service for one of the pioneers of rock journalism, Ed Ward, found dead of unknown causes this past May 3rd. The service was held this past Saturday, June 26th, at Sam's Town Point, a funky dive on the edge of town that reminds many of the much-missed "old Austin."  I was joined on the dais by Wild Seeds leader and Texas Monthly staff writer Mike Hall. He regaled us with personal tales of the impact Ed had on the local music scenes, most specifically the criticism Ed had for one Wild Seeds track in particular. Mike then performed an acoustic rendition of the song in question. I went long, covering as much of Ed's life and career as possible, then performed "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" for him, as I have at many a memorial service the last few years. I did incorporate or rewrite portions of the Ed obituary I wrote for The Austin Chronicle, which you can read by clicking this blue shit right here. Meanwhile, here's what I read Saturday to the gathered. I began by displaying the ancient iron-on t-shirt transfer displayed in Jim Ellinger's pic above, part of a "Dump Ward" campaign you will read about below.

I never heard about this until I started reading the obituaries. I didn’t live in Austin then. But my understanding is that these started appearing around town one month after he began working for the American-Statesman. I got confirmation yesterday Doug Sahm was responsible. Seems Ed gave him a bad review.

One month. That’s impressive. Truth of the matter is, Austin’s music community was not used to a music critic who actually critiqued. Ed Ward was not going to be your cheerleader, just telling you how great it was you got a new album out. If you couldn’t deliver the goods, or he felt you couldn’t, he was gonna tell you. He was the nicest, most encouraging of friends. But when he wore his critic hat? You were gonna get criticized. Fairly, and honestly. But you would get criticized.

Ed went to college with Ray Benson from Asleep At The Wheel. He could have warned you!

For that matter, Doug could have warned you. He knew already. Ed reviewed the Sir Douglas Quintet’s comeback album, Mendocino, in the May 17, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, a little less than a year before he became its record reviews editor. He wrote of the title track’s lyrics, printed on the back cover: “Please don’t look at them. They’re not very good.”  Then he added, “But if you hear the song twice, you’ll be humming it and it’ll make you feel good.” In the next paragraph, he noted, “That’s the thing about this album. Despite its many faults, it makes you listen to it. It’s poorly recorded, sloppily produced (dig the fade on ‘If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go’), and could hardly be called innovative, but it’s the kind of album you keep coming back to. It has something very few albums I’ve heard recently have got - atmosphere.” *pause* So, is it a good record or bad, Ed? He apparently elevated the backhanded compliment into high art. Perhaps this was why, when Jaan Wenner sent his new record reviews editor to interview Doug several months later, Sir Douglas got Ed so stoned that the interview was useless. I suspect this was actually Doug’s revenge on Ed for that review, not the “Dump Ward” stickers. 

Ed was simply gonna tell it like it was, whether you were his friend or not. His opinion of the first Stooges album was, “Their music is loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish. I kind of like it.” As I said - master of the backhanded compliment. Later in the ‘70s, long after he’d quit the record review editor’s desk and went on to Creem, he still contributed record reviews to Rolling Stone. He wrote of Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus that it was “sadly undistinguished at best and embarrassing at worst.” He felt that Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity was “loaded with dead spots.” 

But when he loved something, he’d write beautifully, eloquently. Among the chapters he penned for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll was a gem about what Ed dubbed “Italo-American Rock” - basically, the East Coast Italian version of doo wop, evolving into the late Sixties and the Young Rascals. Having grown up in Eastchester, NY, Ed knew a thing or two about the area and the era. He got downright autobiographical in the course of that essay. Dig what he wrote of Dion and the Belmonts: “Dion DiMucci was a fine tenor, and the support from Angelo D’Aleo, Freddie Milano, and Carlo Mastrangelo couldn’t have been finer. The group had a real flair for arrangements - what attracted me to them instantly was their first biggie, 1958’s ‘I Wonder Why,’ with the voices chiming in one at a time. I almost ruined my vocal cords trying to sing all three parts at once, and trying to imitate Dion’s teenage nasality (but not his New York accent). With ‘A Teenager In Love’ in 1959 and ‘Where or When’ in 1960, the group just got better, and I think every kid in my school idolized Dion and the Belmonts when the group was hot. It was around this time that I did a little singing with some of the kids at school. I was the only one who knew Carlo’s bass part from ‘I Wonder Why,’ so when we sang that, it was the only time I said ‘wop’ in front of that many Italians without having to run like hell afterward.”

Okay, maybe he couldn’t help but deliver zingers, even when he adored something. 

Edmund Osborne Ward was born on Nov. 2, 1948, in Port Chester, N.Y., in Westchester County, and grew up in Irvington and Eastchester. He attended Antioch College in Ohio, and began writing about music in 1965, in the pages of Broadside, the mimeographed folk magazine. He told me when I interviewed him last that he was 16. At that moment, rock ‘n’ roll was treated with all the importance of the newsprint lining a birdcage. You could pick up 16 or Tiger Beat and get “fab pix and fax” of the Beatles or that dreamy Peter Noone. But that was it. When he left Broadside because co-founder Gordon Friesen fumed that “Dylan wasn’t writing about Vietnam,” he lit upon another mimeographed mag, Crawdaddy

Published by 18-year-old Paul Williams, Crawdaddy was likely the first periodical lending this pimply electric jive any gravitas. Crawdaddy treated its subject matter 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.

Basically, Ed built the desk I and many of us gathered here still sit at to this day. Rock journalism simply did not exist until Ed and Paul Williams invented it. So, when over the years Rolling Stone/Creem/The Austin-American Statesman/The Austin Chronicle/NPR hired Ed Ward, they hired one of the true pioneers of our craft. One who would nurture some of the greatest pioneering talents of the form. He told me that when he assumed the record reviews editorship of Rolling Stone in 1970, he was warned by Jaan Wenner about this shoe salesman in El Cajon, California who would send up to 15 record reviews daily! This was Lester Bangs. 

Ed told me Wenner told him, “‘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.” *give flabbergasted look* He also gave Dave Marsh work at a time Creem was on hiatus as it redesigned. Wenner yelled at Ed for giving assignments to the editor of a competitor. It’s no wonder Ed didn’t last long at Rolling Stone. Nor that he moved on to Creem afterwards. 

Late in the ‘70s, Austin came calling. Joe Nick Patoski alerted Ed, still residing in San Francisco, of a job opening: The American-Statesman needed a music editor. Ed told me the night he arrived here, he saw The Skunks opening for The Police at the Armadillo. He was immediately tapping into our musical zeitgeist. He covered everything: As Fresh Air host Terry Gross noted, “blues, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, pop, folk, protest and psychedelic music, soul, funk, Tex-Mex, punk….” I’d add progressive country. That was, after all, the town’s musical currency at that point, despite the incursion of the local blues and punk scenes. Chet Flippo and Joe Nick aside, I can think of no one who wrote better about Waylon, Willie and the boys. Even if he made them mad once in a while.

Mostly, Ed seemed to make employers mad. He had a special talent for that. When a group of youngsters he’d met at Raul’s or Club Foot decided they wanted to start a Village Voice-style alternative paper for locals, Ed jumped aboard, pseudonymously. The Statesman wasn’t happy when they figured out who Petaluma Pete was. No matter - he’d gotten book deals to write a biography of rock’s first guitar hero, Mike Bloomfield; and to write all the Fifties stuff for a new Rolling Stone rock history, Rock Of Ages. He could drop pseudonyms with the Chronicle now, should he choose. 

“See, I thought my job was to be a critic, so I criticized — helpful, constructive criticism, I thought,” Ed wrote as he exited the Statesman in 1984. “I saw my function as being a pipeline to the national and international music business, giving insight to locals as I learned about goings-on and making sure the national and international folks knew that there was something going on here in Austin. Of course, there are people who are fanatics, whose relationship to criticism isn’t rational.”

Roughly at this time, he also got the NPR gig as Fresh Air’s resident rock historian. He held that gig for 30 years. His stories for the show were filled with wonderful warmth and affection for his subjects, and a real eye for detail, both humanizing and humorous. When he reported on Paramount Records for the show in 2015, he described Charlie Patton as "... a towering figure who was looked up to by most of the other Mississippi bluesmen ... Once his records began to sell, Patton would load up a car with his friends, his girlfriends, his ex-girlfriends and some whiskey and head to Grafton, Wis., to record. One of those friends was Son House." He never lost that knack. In the second volume of brilliant History Of Rock & Roll from 2019, he noted the Liverpool Echo embedded a local journalist in the Beatles camp as they came to conquer America in February 1964. His name: George Harrison. No, not the Beatles’ lead guitarist. 

The same year, Ed was involved in SXSW’s launch. He was a key staffer for many years, barrelling around the conference in a colonel’s uniform. That could be intimidating if you were a young punk rock critic from Alice, TX. attending SX for the first time, and only knew Ed via his writing! I showed up in the Austin Chronicle offices shortly after moving here a few months later, a bit full of myself after writing for various national and international publications for five years. He made certain to deflate my ego as often as possible, the upperclassman razzing the cocky incoming freshman. I knew I was alright with him six months later, when I told him at that year’s Chronicle Xmas party that I’d recently picked up a Ricky Nelson anthology from 1973 he’d annotated. “Oh, yeah! That series was the brainchild of so-and-so at United Artists. He was this notorious chicken hawk whose office overlooked the entrance of Hollywood High. He’d be scoping out all the 15-year-old boys from his desk when classes let out at 3:30.” Ed had every scandalous tale in the musical universe filed away in his brain.

But even after he moved to Europe in the early ‘90s, he was still full of encouragement when I’d see him at SXSW thereafter. It wasn’t until I wrote his obituary for the Chronicle last month that I realized Ed very subtly mentored me all that time. He gently, quietly guided me. He’d pledged over the last two years to help me get a book deal for the Austin punk history I am still working on, and probably will be for awhile. He invited me into his home twice to interview him for the Chronicle when he was promoting the reissue of his Mike Bloomfield biography, and his History Of Rock & Roll. That was an amazing work - he didn’t write about individual artists. He wrote the events of every year in chronological order, going back to the birth of popular music. He hated what he called the “Great Man Theory” of rock history. He wanted to make it more democratic. This mindset, and the sheer scope of his coverage, was mind-blowing. He unfortunately did not finish that work. Two poor-selling volumes later, he lost his deal for that book. There would be no third volume, telling the tales of glam, punk, heavy metal, disco, and beyond.

It breaks my heart. Just as it breaks my heart to have to be talking about Ed in the past tense. He was important. He built the desk at which I sit, at which many of you gathered here today sit. And he essentially welcomed me to it. Quite literally, in one instance. I had been away from the game for many years, and from Austin almost as long. I was burned out, thinking I needed to reinvent myself. It wasn’t possible. I returned to Austin in 2012, and was asked back to the Chronicle two months later. I covered my first SXSW back on the beat a few months later. I rounded the corner at the Convention Center that first day, and saw a literal roundtable occupied with many of my elders: Jim Fourratt, Bill Bentley, Joe Nick...and Ed Ward. They all grinned at me, happily surprised at seeing me, curious about my return. I told them I was back in town, back at the Chronicle, a writer once again. Ed Ward pulled out the chair next to him, the biggest smile on his face. “Welcome back,” he said.

I finally got to sit at the big kids’ table. Ed Ward was the one who invited me. Thank you, Ed. I will always owe you.



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