A high school dropout with no discernible skill when she came to Austin as a 19-year-old in 1973, Margaret Moser used guile, guts and no small amounts of talent and instinct to become the most celebrated and influential female music journalist in Texas. Her 40-year career started with a music/gossip column in the Austin Sun in 1976 and was capped with a 4,000-word memoir of her unconventional life in the esteemed Oxford American magazine.
She came in through the back door, she said, so when she was welcomed at the front entrance, as Queen Bee of the Austin music scene, she’d always go to the back to see who else she could let in. One of those was Kevin Curtin, who continues the music news/gossip column in the Austin Chronicle Margaret started in 1981. “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” said Curtin, working at a head shop when Margaret saw something special.
That sentiment was echoed hundreds of times this week, after Margaret passed away from cancer, at 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 25. Everybody had a story of how Margaret went out of her way to be kind, how she helped them when she didn’t have to. Or they talked about an article she wrote that moved them to tears. It’s rare to see a music critic’s name on a grand marquee, but the Paramount Theater’s lit up “Margaret Moser 1954- 2017: The Patron Saint of Austin Music” on Saturday, when the news hit. She was 63.
“She made nurturing her true religion,” said John Cale of the Velvet Underground, who had a two-year fling with Margaret in the late ‘70s.
The “Margaret Loves John Cale” graffiti she wrote all over town has been faded or painted over, but the pair remained friends through the years. “If there’s anything to learn about true loyalty and a diehard love of life, she’s the master,” Cale said in a 20-page special section the Austin Chronicle published in tribute to Margaret in June, after she announced she was entering home hospice care in San Antonio.
But even as her condition worsened Margaret wasn’t done, presenting an exhibit at Antone’s on bluesman Robert Johnson, just two days after the Chronicle tribute section hit the streets. The show, presented earlier at the South Texas Museum of Popular Culture (or “TexPop”) in San Antonio, which Margaret founded in 2012, drew more than 150 of Margaret’s closest friends at the July 1 opening. Overwhelmed and sickly, Margaret lasted only a few minutes, but everyone got to see her one last time and that was the point. She never stepped inside an Austin nightclub again.
“Death has been my companion for awhile, so I’d rather make the most of it,” Margaret said in July about her four-plus years with terminal cancer. “I’m into the mystery of it, not the fear.”
Margaret Romaine Moser was born in Chicago, where her father was attending seminary school, on May 16, 1954. As a Presbyterian minister based in New Orleans in the ‘60s, Dr. Willard Cummings Moser participated in several Civil Rights protests, including the march in Selma, where nonviolent protestors were beaten by police and state troopers as the world watched in horror. Those years instilled a rage against injustice in Margaret, the oldest of four.
Margaret was always smarter than the other kids. Instead of typical bedtime stories, her father read her Greek mythology. She skipped second grade and was always reading. But mother Phyllis noticed a change in her attitude about school in fifth grade. “She came home one day and said her teacher was the devil incarnate,” Phyllis recalled. Her time as an ideal student was over. There was also trouble at home when the parents started living separate lives. Willard realized he was gay, but the couple stayed together several years for the kids.
Margaret’s rebellion had a soundtrack. She was crazy for rock n’ roll and saw Jimi Hendrix in San Antonio at age 14. But her first rock star crush was Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, whose face plastered her walls. Once after a bad report card, her parents tore down the pictures. They had doctorates and education was important. Margaret steamed, perhaps for years.
Margaret read all the teen beat magazines and wrote concert and album reviews in her journal. It didn’t occur to her that a female could be a music journalist or that anyone would ever care what she thought. She wrote because it gave her a greater connection to the music.
That first rush of being moved by music. Margaret never forgot that feeling. It ruled her life for a time and not content to be just fan, she found greater access to the mesmerizing power of music as a self-proclaimed groupie. Along the way, she found she could write and journalism became her connection to the muse. If Margaret profiled you in the Chronicle, it was like winning an award. She didn’t just write about the music that moved her, she championed it at all times. She’d grab your arm, sit you down and say “listen to THIS!” She had a way about her that was completely unique. Anybody who said they knew someone like Margaret was lying.
The goal of any true rock critic is to create music with his or her words, to not be just an accessory, but an artist themselves. Margaret achieved that with a unique writing voice as personal and candid and soulful as a deep track on a favorite LP. “Her words jumped off the page,” said Alejandro Escovedo, who met Margaret soon after he moved to town with Rank and File. “You have to understand,” Escovedo’s former True Believers mate Jon Dee Graham said in June. “(Margaret) was in the middle of any and everything interesting that went down.” Her business card could’ve read “Magic Chaser.”
Later in her life, she brought exposure and performing opportunities to teenagers with her Under 18 series with the Chronicle. “If you want to have a good audience,” she’d tell the kids, “BE a good audience” and she’d watch the young bands turn out for each other. Margaret was a community builder. Unable to have children after a hysterectomy in her ‘20s, Margaret became a mother-like figure, not only to musicians, but younger journalists like Andy Langer, Raoul Hernandez and Chris Gray. Folks gravitated towards Margaret for a simple reason: she was fun! Outrageous singer Dino Lee saw that in the mid-‘80s when he tapped Margaret to be one of his naughty backup singers, the Jam and Jelly Girls.
“She was always the life of the party,” said singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, a close friend since the ‘70s. “She was just this wild woman in the most brilliant way.” The Margaret laugh could be heard over the rumble of a five-piece band. That’s how you knew you were in the right place.
Her flashy entrances during her ‘70s and ‘80s nightlife heyday leading “the Texas Blondes” groupie troop have been compared to a hurricane force, so it was fitting that she passed just as category 4 Harvey started beating down on San Antonio, her childhood home, returned to. She knew her stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis in February 2013 was grim, but Margaret used her precious remaining years to prove she could also make a grand exit.
Margaret’s final all-access pass was to her own wake. The outpouring of emotion from the many whose lives she had touched was never more than what Margaret could handle. She knew she’d earned it.
In 2014, when Margaret retired from both the Austin Chronicle and the Austin Music Awards (which she founded in 1983), the City of Austin dedicated Margaret Moser Plaza on West Third Street. It’s right next to where Margaret once ruled the Austin Music Awards, when the site was the Austin Music Hall. The music awards ran on Margaret’s personality, giving it a campy prom feel. But her favorite part was booking special combinations of musicians: Roky Erickson backed by Okkervil River led to a lauded collaborative LP.
“The Good Ship Margaret is a fleet unto itself,” wrote Louis Black in June. As editor of the Chronicle and Margaret’s booking consultant for the AMAs, Black knew her as well as anyone. She was not just one way, she was many. To experience all sides of this complicated soul, was to know tenderness and tenacity, kindness and cunning, and empathy you didn’t want to cross. You don’t survive in the music business as a female journalist for 40 years by being a pushover.
Even in a city known for individuality, Margaret was fiercely independent. As a 15-year-old, the year her parents divorced, she ran away from home and joined a cult. In 1974, the year after she arrived in Austin, her beloved father Willard, whose piano-playing was the first music Margaret ever heard, took his own life.
Margaret went about building a new family for herself, the Austin folks as crazy about music and partying as she was. The key word is “family.” The Austin music scene lost its big sister this week.
“She left an indelible mark,” said Cale. “Never to be removed.”
Margaret is survived by her husband Steve Chaney, mother Phyllis Jackson Stegall and brothers Stephen MacMillan Moser, Scott Cummings Moser and Willard “Bill” Jackson Moser. She also leaves behind musicians, writers, historians, artists who might not otherwise be doing what they do to enrich Central Texas. She was preceded in death by her father Willard, infant brother Peter Carson Moser and second husband Michael “Rollo Banks” Malone. Private family services will be held in Port Arthur and New Hope, PA, where her ashes will be interred in family plots.
Margaret did not forget about Austin friends and family. She wrote out details for her memorial celebration of life to be held at Antone’s on a Sunday afternoon to be named later. Music directors will be Charlie Sexton and Monte Warden, who she championed when they were kids more than 35 years ago. Let what Margaret Moser cultivated long live on.
by Michael Corcoran
Unattributed quotes are from the Austin Chronicle’s “The Importance of Being Margaret Moser” special section 6/30/17.