Friday, June 21, 2024

After Austin: 1988

Berkeley1From December 1984, when I filled in for Margaret Moser while she was on her honeymoon with my former roommate Rollo Banks, until June 1988 I wrote a music gossip column for the Austin Chronicle called “Don’t You Start Me Talking.” I got some crystal meth to help pen the first one and it worked so well I got some to write every one but about three. I would write the names of all the people I wanted to cover, who had some news or just to slam, and then I would snort two lines and write all night. Most of the columns took 15 hours to write and I’d get so into it I’d just piss out the window so I could keep typing. Then at about ten in the morning, I’d take my seven or eight pages and walk the two blocks to the Chronicle and hand them to Louis Black, who would read the first page and hand it to Nick who would read it and hand it to Kathleen Maher, the typesetter. Then Louis would read the second page and so on. Sometimes there were three or four others in the chain. I’d leave for a six-pack and when I came back I’d hear them all laughing upstairs. Reading different pages. Just get me some speed and I’ll write my ass off: fuck, those were good times.

But then one day I read that Billy Lee Brammer, who wrote “The Gay Place,” had died from taking meth and after that I would think I was dying every time I snorted some. I would have the symptoms of a heart attack, the numbness in the fingers, the pressure on the chest, the cold sweat, and I would have my brother drive me to the emergency room. I’d almost never go inside, because Suzee said they’d pump my stomach, but I’d sit on the grass at Waterloo Park and just being that close to help would calm me down.

By June ’88, I was just done with crank, which meant I was done with Austin. Everybody in my circle was doing it- all the bands, all the writers. It was a performance enhancing drug and we were all trying to outdo each other. Some silly shit, it turns out.

Besides the Chronicle column I had also started writing for Spin and one of the best things I wrote was an album review of “If I Shall Fall From Grace With God” by the Pogues. My girlfriend at the time was a British stage actress/ Austin waitress and we would always joke around about me being a drunken Irish bastard- Joe Doerr and Rich Brotherton had a band of the same name- so I made that the theme of my Pogues review and when it was published, I was suddenly hot fucking tuna. Mike Lacey of New Times in Phoenix called Spin and tracked me down and offered me a job just like that. And I was getting bigger assignments. Nobody knew I had spent 15 hours on that one crummy record review- three hours writing and 12 hours retyping. They just thought I was supremely gifted. Rollo called speed “talent” and that became our code. “Hey, man, do you know where I can get some talent?”

Spin wanted me to follow-up on my Pogues record review with a big feature on the band. I was supposed to go on tour with them through the south- from Austin, where they played Liberty Lunch, to New Orleans to Birmingham, Ala. to Memphis. But after a night of doing mushrooms and coke and drinking with the band in the French Quarter they didn’t want to have anything more to do with me- or me them- so I ended up with 3-4 days to kill before my flight back to Austin. The only folks I knew in N.O. was the band Dash Rip Rock, so I went with them on some crazy, fun shows in Baton Rouge and Lafayette and by the end of it we were talking very seriously about me moving there and managing the group, which at the time had the classic lineup of Fred LeBlanc (now Cowboy Mouth) on drums and Hoaky on the bass, with the mainstay Bill Davis on guitar. They were really fucking good.

So when I got back to Austin, I started packing. But then I got a call from Brent Grulke, or maybe I just ran into him somewhere and told him my plans. “Me and Scott (all-round good guy Anderson) are moving to San Francisco. Why don’t you come with us? We’ll rent a big house together.” I told Brent I was going to manage Dash Rip Rock and he gave me a big ladle of reality on what my days would be like and how they’d never be grateful, and Brent knew because he’d worked with a lot of bands. Two days later I was in a van heading to SF. When I called Bill Davis and told him I wasn’t going to be able to manage the band, he seemed kinda dumbfounded, like he’d already forgotten about that conversation we’d had on the drive back from Lafayette.

So here’s the problem I had in San Francisco: I had written all these great articles on speed and I was the hot young music writer. But I quit the stuff and didn’t know how to write without it. Spin called and offered my first cover story, Bon Jovi, which actually turned out okay because it was a total rush job- something else had fallen through- so I made it a Q&A piece with an intro of about 500 words. Everybody loved it, especially Jon Bon Jovi, who ended up bonding with Spin honcho Bob Guccione Jr., which made me the Gooch’s favorite writer. I wrote three more cover stories in the next six months- the Bangles, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, Tom Petty- but only the Petty story was any good.

Brent and Scott and I rented the third floor of a big, old house in the Mission, which had access to a large attic (once a hideout for the Symbionese Liberation Army we were told). That’s where I would go to write, or try to write. I’d sit up there for six hours and maybe get a page done. I smoked weed and drank lots of coffee and eventually I had enough to send in. But my time as the next Lester Bangs- or at least the Texas Legs McNeil- was over. I mean, I’d still get work, but there was a definite drop-off in the amount of time I would spend on an article or review. It took about four years for me to get the drive back.

One day I got a call from Bart Bull, who was one of my editors at Spin before he met Michelle Shocked and fell in love and eventually married her. He said he put my name in at  the East Bay Express in Berkeley to replace music columnist Bill Wyman, who was moving to Chicago. Sure enough they called and I got the gig, a weekly column that paid fairly well. One problem was that I lived in SF, not Berkeley or Oakland, so I’d have a hard time keeping up with the local music scene, which was dominated by Pebbles, MC Hammer and Tony Toni Tone. But there was a 16-year-old kid named Doyle Bramhall II making some noise in a band called Texas, and the Gilman Street punk scene was always worth 10 inches of space whenever I went there, so I was able to at least give the appearance of being in touch.

But the bulk of the column, called “Don’t You Start Me Talkin’,” as I was finally able to correct the “Talking” mistake. was retyped bits from my Austin version. Before the Internet you could get away with shit like that. Nobody in Berkeley had even heard of the Austin Chronicle, so there was little chance of someone reading that stuff for a second time. It was all fresh to them.

I did that column for about five months, then was rescued by a beautiful law school student in Chicago who was so moved by my final AC column, the one where I admitted to having a problem with meth, that she also tracked me down. We wrote letters back and forth and fell in love. Then, like Wyman, I was on my way to Chicago in Nov. 1988. I pitched a story on Ministry to Spin and Warner Brothers paid for the whole trip.berkeley4berkeley3


One thing about the East Bay Express that I should say was that it was so unlike the Chron, as far as office atmosphere. Every day for lunch, the whole staff would go upstairs and prepare a feast for all. They had a kitchen/ dining room and you’d sit at this table and everybody would be passing around bowls of, like, garbanzo beans and scalloped potatoes and cobb salad. It was all healthy stuff and it made me a little uneasy, this communal setup, so I usually slinked away when it was suppertime. All I ever ate in SF was pizza and those big burritos that they used to only have up there, but now they’re everywhere, with Chipotle and Freebirds.


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