Rock Critic Confessions
I GET BUSTED AT A SHOW I WAS REVIEWING
Was this really happening? Being marched, handcuffed behind my back, through the crowd of about 5,000 at Waterloo Park, sobered me up and gave me time to think practically. Busted for hitting on a joint a friend passed me, I would certainly be fired from my job as music critic for the Austin American Statesman and so as the faces, some familiar, stared at me with looks of shame, horror and amusement, I considered my options. Maybe this newfound notoriety would help me get an edgier new job. Maybe this was a sign that I should switch fields and start writing screenplays. Maybe Willie Nelson, the great hemp activist, would play a benefit concert to keep me out of the shelters. Maybe this would end up being a good thing.
But the dominating thought was this: who the fuck gets arrested for smoking a joint at an outdoor music festival in Austin?!
On March 30, 2000, while I was reviewing the Cajun/Zydeco-themed Swamp Romp, I accepted an offer to make the music sound better and was about to go from “My Toot-Toot” to my cellmate. When the park police (“there are a lot of kids and families here”) emptied my pockets onto a table, I recognized a song being played from the stage a quarter mile away. “Excuse me, officer,” I said. “Could you please write ‘Hot Tamale Baby’ in my notebook?” If I was going down, by God, it would be as a professional.
As the cops ran my name for priors and warrants, I pictured that crackling police scanner on the desk in the Metro section of the newspaper. “C-O-R-C-O-R-A-N, Michael. Age 44.” He had to spell the last name two or three times because they always do, thinking the second “C-O-R” is repeating the first one for clarity. Then, after about a 30-minute wait, they cut me loose. Just like that. “On your way and don’t come back tomorrow.”
I understood, in that moment, how it feels to win a Super Bowl. Instead of “I’m going to Disneyland!” I was “Not going to jail!” But instead of thanking my lucky stars and going home, I went to a club and celebrated not hitting rock bottom.
Then reality hit the next morning. My bosses were going to find out. Someone in the audience who didn’t like an old Alanis Morrissette review or something, was going to dime me. What are the chances in a crowd of 5,000 that no one wants to see the rock critic fired? That’s 5,000 movie critics giving the new Adam Sandler movie a pass. If not the crowd, the Statesman cops reporter was going to blab. I was done at the Statesman. And maybe in journalism.
This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me. Just a week earlier, my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column had been suspended and I was publicly flogged for material deemed not up to the paper’s standards of accuracy and tone. It had been building for awhile since Michael Dell’s people called the publisher about a little Jewish holiday joke, but last straw status goes to two items: 1) my account of a Texas Monthly photo shoot in which the art director, speaking of clothing, said “there are too many whites over here and too many colors over there.” Everybody laughed because she pointed to a section of mostly white people over here and then black people over there, and singer Malford Milligan joked “I haven’t been called colored in awhile.” It was all in fun, but there were charges of racial intent, the guy who wanted me fired would stop at nothing and my peeps caved in. That was bullshit. 2) But the second reason was all my fault. I fucked up by reporting that Matt’s El Rancho was towing cars during SXSW, when, actually, they had someone stationed at the entrance to turn festgoers away. My contention that Matt’s was towing out of jealousy of Maria’s Taco Xpress next door, which was attracting thousands a day to the music and tacos, made it potentially libelous, so I fell on the sword. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The Monday after all this went down, Austin talk radio all over the dial blasted the Statesman and talked about things that only myself and my superiors were privy to- mainly the Texas Monthly incident- and I was called on the carpet. Holy crap, was that editor fuming! I explained that my then-girlfriend, one of the most well-connected public relations persons in town, had simply told her curious friends what had happened and how can I control what my girlfriend says? “Well, you’d better get her under control or you might get fired!” the editor told me.
Six days later I was in handcuffs with a cop leading me through the crowd. As a pre-emptive strike, I went to my first-ever, long-overdue AA meeting the next day. I figured that on Monday, when I was called in again, I could say I’m currently a member of a 12-step program blah, blah, blah and maybe they might think treatment instead of termination. It was worth a shot.
That first meeting was uncomfortable, of course, because it meant trading what I loved- getting high- for what I hated- public speaking.
The guy leading the meeting introduced a theme: “the worst thing I ever went through never happened.” The worst thing. I ever went through. Never happened. I kinda thought about it a little, boiled it down to “stop worrying so much” and went back to watching the clock like the big hand was my kid playing soccer.
The next day I went back to work expecting it to be my last day. A friend called and said he’d heard I got arrested at the Swamp Romp. Great. It was just a matter of time until the word hit the glass offices. But that first day nothing happened.
Tuesday was also a day of dread, as I realized, the sleepless night before, that the editors needed time to figure out how and when to sack my sorry ass. Again, nothing. I went by the Metro desk to see who would avert their eyes, but it was business as usual. By Wednesday and Thursday I started wondering about those sadistic fucks in management. It seemed cruel to draw out the obvious. I kept going to meetings.
A week went by without mention of my RWI, reviewing while intoxicated, arrest. Then another. I was out of the woods. I stopped going to meetings. But I never forgot what I heard that first one.
The worst thing I ever went through never happened.
I ended up working at the Statesman another 11 years after the Swamp Romp incident. I drank and smoked heavily during that time, aside from a couple months here and there. So many times I gave it all up one day at a time. But then one day I’d be at the beer barn drive-through telling myself just this one time to blow off steam. Nobody needs to know. Then three years later, I’d be back at the meeting with the worst hangover of all time.
I quit drinking after going to rehab in November 2012. It’s holding this time like never before and some days I don’t miss it at all. Most days, actually. (Note: this was written in 2015).
My Swamp Romp review ran as planned, though the evening’s headliner was inexplicably not mentioned. And nobody cared. The highlight of the night to me was “Hot Tamale Baby,” written in my notebook in a different hand.
Bob Dylan and the Beer Hose
My two only drawbacks as a music critic were 1) I didn’t like to review new records and 2) I didn’t like to interview musicians. I did them as the job required and time allowed, but what my heart was really into was live reviews (non-arena). There was so much more to write about than the music. Get a few beers in ya and lose your inhibition. Your mind gets bolder and takes you places. But when you’re on deadline you have to be careful.
We all have one major weakness that gets in the way, Rollo was telling hungover me one morning after. “And for you it’s the beer hose.” We had been roommates for a couple of years and I don’t think he ever saw me put a sixpack in the fridge. I was not a habitual drinker, but I couldn’t pass up free beer. We had been to a keg party the day before and I was one of those assholes who drinks his beer while waiting in line for another. I just can’t help it: my favorite brand of beer when I was young and broke was Free Beer.
This was also a struggle during SXSW, the Beer Hose Mardi Gras. I’d have one or two frosties during the day, because I’d have to write a column and a news story. Most critics run away from the front page news report, but I loved it because it was an early deadline. The party started at about 7 p.m. The column was mostly written in the morning, with namedrops and updates during the day. The dots and dashes seemed to almost encourage sloppiness.
One time, not during SXSW, the free beer really messed me up. Well, it was more than one time, but the one I’m gonna tell you about was in 1996, before most newspapers had websites. The Statesman feature department wanted to start doing audio reviews right after the concert. Fans would call a number found in the morning paper and hear the critic read their review a day before it would run in print. I was going to kick off this project with a review of Bob Dylan.
I can’t remember how I arrived at the Austin Music Hall that night with a glorious buzz- which party, who’s house?- but when Dylan and his band hit the stage I was ready and roaring to rock. And they just basically blew my face off. It was the best concert I’d been to in years. Something had rejuvenated Dylan since the last few disappointing times I’d seen him. At the end he brought up Doug Sahm to jam. I made many trips to my “free” bartender on this magical night.
Cab took me home, I think. Anyway, I went right to bed, then I realized I had to read my review, which meant I had to write it. OK, I thought, I have until 5 a.m. when the paper, with the number to call, starts being distributed. To make sure I didn’t oversleep I left a very slurry message asking the first person who sees this to call this number and wake me up. Then, at about 1 a.m. I went to sleep.
The phone rang at about 2:30 a.m. It was someone who got the paper early, maybe from the printing press. I was still pretty drunk, but I went to my notes and strung together a dummy review that I would replace after I’ve slept most of it off.
A feature editor heard the inebriated version and, thankfully, deleted it. But not before Ken Lieck of the Austin Chronicle heard it and dubbed the Statesman’s audio review experiment “Dial-a-Drunk.”
It was the last time I was asked to do one, thank God. The Internet saved my job!
I WAS THERE…SORTA
I had this reputation for reviewing shows I didn’t actually see. Normally, a music critic would fight that sort of character assault, but I played it up. Rock n’ roll bad boy. Like preachers, music critics are in the myth biz.
In truth, it only happened twice, both times in Chicago. One was a popcorn offense- a local band promoting their new release with a pre-show Jagermeister party. This was 1990 and I’d never had the chilled liqueur before that tastes like licorice. After about six shots, I said “Are you sure there’s booze in this?” At least that’s what they told me. I was assisted to the couch they had in the dressing room at Lounge Ax to nap it off until show time.
I woke up to see the members of New Duncan Imperials toweling themselves off, with clumps of powder blue tuxedos on the floor. OK, no problem. They gave me the set list and told me a few of their antics and no one was the wiser when my 10-inch review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The second time was much worse. It was the next year and my drinking had gotten way worse as I was on the outs with The Love of My Life #3. Got a call one day with a question that my mind answered “Fuck, yeah!” while my mouth said let me check my schedule. “Do you want to review the Neil Young concert in Chicago for Rolling Stone magazine?” Why, yes, I am available that day.
This was back when Rolling Stone really meant something. And Neil was hot again with the perfectly-named Ragged Glory, the album with Crazy Horse that topped many year-end lists. This was the tour with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion opening. You dream about reviewing Neil Young for Rolling Stone. And it was big money for me.
It didn’t matter that I was only moderately familiar with Mr. Young’s oeuvre. I brought my friend Dave Suarez, who knew every burp. We were a couple of lunks in the crowd, drinking beers during the opening sets. When it was my turn to get more, right after Sonic Youth, I was in this massive line (thinking “Five dollars for a fucking beer!”) when my old friend from the Continental Club Terry Pearson walked by and did a double take. He had left Austin to be Sonic Youth’s sound man. “Hey, man,” he said after we hugged, “we’ve got beers backstage and the band is not big drinkers.” I had the full-on “Rolling Stone reviewing Neil” pass, so I just followed him back there.
OK, you’re way ahead of the story, but you’re not wrong. One Heineken became six or seven. I got along pretty well with Lee Renaldo, who took photos of my John-John tattoo, and I knew Steve Shelley from Debbie Pastor, while The Couple kinda checked me out like I was a sociology project. They want to see demented? We could hear Neil and Crazy Horse onstage, but I had to have just one more.
As I was leaving to go back into the arena, a single man was walking my way. Neil Young. Shit! The set was over, so I caught just the encore, which led off with the disposable “Welfare Mothers.” That song had never received as much ink as on the subsequent RS review. I scrambled back to Suarez. “You missed a great show, man.” What did he play, what did he say, details, details, details? But I guess Dave was pissed I never came back with his beer. He couldn’t remember shit.
The biggest Neil Young fan I knew was Rick from 11th Dream Day, so I called him up the next day. I could’ve been coy, like “What were your favorite songs last night?” But I just came out and told him what happened and he saved my ass. Not only knew the entire set list, but which guitar tunings were used. So I wrote the review and everything was cool.
Made one big mistake, though. I trashed Sonic Youth, who bored the hell out of me. (As always.)
About a week after the full-page review was published, I got a call from Barbara O’Dair, the assigning editor. Someone narked on me, most likely The Couple. “We heard you were getting drunk backstage for most of the show,” she said.
I blew it. No more assignments from Rolling Stone. But the weird thing is, I got a contract a few weeks later from Rolling Stone asking to reprint my review in a book they were doing on Neil Young.
I think, this many years later, that I wiped my ass on my career that time because… Well, lotsa things, but mainly that I’ve always thought of the music critic job as a farce. What the hell do I know?
A later Neil Young assignment from a music magazine that was not Rolling Stone really spells out the kind of anti-critic I was. The editor called and said they were starting a new feature called “Overrated/ Underrated,” where two critics would state the pro-and-con cases for a certain artist. The first one would be Neil Young. Are you interested? Sure, I said, and we discussed money, length, deadline and all. But just before we hung up I said wait a second. “Which side do you want me to argue?”
BOYSTOWN AND VOUCHERS
We all fit into one cab. The driver charged us $20 for the six-mile drive from Nuevo Laredo to the legal brothel hood, Boystown, which was a bit of a letdown, but at least I got this photo for $5.
They used to have horse racing in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border into Mexico and a four-hour drive from Austin. Then the track was converted to dog racing, with its less overhead. I used to love to go to NL to bet. Some people went for the $25 scripts for roofies or speed or the $4 bottles of tequila. But back in the ’80s there was no place closer to Austin where you could bet on horses or dogs, so that’s why I’d do down there three or four times a year. Matamoros had better ropa usada places, where forklifts used to drop bundles of used clothes in the middle of the room and you’d spend hours hoping to touch gabardine.
The picture above, which was taken by a Mexican photo boy, who sold it to me for $5, was during a trip in early ’87. I know this because the guy on the right, Andy, lived in the big building on Baylor near 9th, where I lived with Suzee for a few months. Eeyore’s 1987- when was that?- was when I went to live somewhere else. I think I talked Andy into driving down, then Nick heard about it and rounded up a posse that packed into his old shitmobile. They were wimps and stayed on the American side, those three SXSW founders and the local queens of music and film. Andy and I got a room in NL for $5. There were huge bugs everywhere and when the gang came by to get us, Margaret started screaming and all these scary looking Mexican guys came out of their rooms.
Margaret was in top form that weekend, even demanding that the Cadillac Bar comp our dinner tab after incredibly lousy service. “This guy,” she said, pointing to me, “is writing an article for Texas Monthly.” Actually I was just scouting, on my own dime, for an idea I was going to pitch. But the Cadillac tore up the tab.
Hell, there were a bunch of those uncomfortable kinda times at the Chronicle, where nobody made any money so we’d glom onto any freebie with food. Remember the time Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter was our waitress at the Texas Chili Parlor and she was so rude after we pulled out the voucher? (She was nicer after we tipped in cash.)
By far the worst time was when we all showed up for the free buffet at a media anniversary party at the Sugar’s strip joint. I mean, we all walked in on about 10 table dances going on simultaneously, us in our scruffy t-shirts and jeans, and it was perhaps even more embarassing and uncomfortable as when my dad took me to “Straw Dogs” at age 13 or so because “Midnight Cowboy” was also rated X and it wasn’t so bad. I guess we were thinking it was still the days of Tempest Storm and we were not ready with how strip clubs had, um, progressed?
So, we’re all looking at each other, like ‘do we just turn around and leave?’ and, of course, Nick goes right to the food and fixes himself a plate like we just showed up at Steve Chaney’s place. I recall we stayed about 10 minutes and slipped out. I think we were all scarred for life on going to strip clubs after that. I know I was. We didn’t say a word in the car as we waited about 20 minutes for Nick. He came out with cookies wrapped in a napkin, so it wasn’t a total bust for us.
GRAMMY STORIES? YEAH, I GOT ONE
I’m not a great talker. I couldn’t sell earmuffs to an Eskimo. But I talked my way into the Grammys once. It was the night after I crashed Clive Davis’ A-list black tie party at the Beverly Hilton. Something was going on that year- 1995.
The Dallas Morning News sent me to L.A. for five days to cover the Grammys because this was back when big newspapers had a lot of money for shit like that. But I had to write different stories every day. I reviewed club shows by Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, did a party scene report and hung out in the lobby during Clive’s big bash, just taking note of all the celebs for my daily column. I knew the publicist for Arista, Clive’s label, who was at the entrance checking credentials, then she came over to me and said, “Carlos Santana is coming on next and his new album (Supernatural) is going to be HUGE (it was). Clive would want a critic to see this, so I’m gonna turn my head and you’re gonna walk right past me, OK?”
So I did just that. I scooted by her in my black t-shirt and ripped jeans and found myself in a huge ballroom, full of big stars. Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Tyson, Puff Daddy, Bobby DeNiro, Will Smith – they were all sitting 10 feet away from me. Whitney Houston was onstage singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and then she was off and Santana came on with Wyclef from the Fugees. As soon as their song was over, I was being led out of the room by security, but I was grinning. I’d be able to write about attending the most exclusive Grammy party of them all, as if I was invited. Also, I talked to Dallas native Erykah Badu for 10 seconds when she was walking through the lobby, so I had a quote from a big local. Shit, man, I was gold.
Which was a relief because I had kinda fucked up a couple weeks earlier. I sent in my request for press credentials to the Grammys a little late and there was no room for me. But I’d covered the Grammys before and spent most of the time in the press room watching the show on TV. They’d parade the winners by every minute or so, but the quotes were hardly ever any good, so I figured that I could just cover the show from my hotel room and no one would be the wiser. The Associated Press had a file of backstage quotes I could pull from. Just had to give them credit at the bottom.
So I was getting all set up in my room. Beer on ice, joints rolled, just had to find what channel the show was on. This was about an hour before the Grammys were to start. I went to the channel menu for 5 p.m., which was 7 p.m. Dallas time, and no Grammys. I scrolled to the right and it said that the show aired at 8 Pacific. FUCK! They delayed the broadcast on the West Coast. I wouldn’t be able to watch it on TV and make my deadline. WTF! I didn’t know what to do but throw on some clothes and run down to the lobby and get a cab to the Shrine Auditorium.
Here’s a detail I don’t really need, but I’m gonna throw it out there to show just how fucked my day was going. About three blocks down Hollywood Boulevard I saw Elvis Mitchell on the sidewalk. My friend who was a bigwig in L.A. “Pull over!” I told the cab driver and I went over to Elvis to see if he had any suction with Rogers and Cowan, the Grammys publicists. Only, it wasn’t Elvis Mitchell. It was a black guy with long dreads in expensive clothing and black horn-rimmed glasses, but it wasn’t fucking Elvis! I turned around to see my cab leaving, so I had to run back to the hotel lobby and get another cab. I’m dripping with sweat, heart palping, all the way to the Shrine.
Every road was blocked off for about a quarter mile except for limos, so I had to run the rest of the way to the Grammys. So, I finally got there. Now what? I couldn’t get credentials a couple weeks ago; how were they going to let me in, sweating like a dopesick junkie, 10 minutes before the show started? But I didn’t have any other choice.
Luck shined on me, however, when I saw my old friend Chris Morris of Billboard. “Chris, please, could you send someone from Rogers and Cowan out here?” I said from outside a chain-link fence. About five minutes later there was some guy in a suit, looking at me with the right amount of skepticism. I told him my story and how I would probably get fired if he didn’t let me in. “There’s no place for you,” he said. Just let me watch the show from a monitor somewhere, I said. I don’t care if it’s in the men’s room. Brother Theresa led me to the press room, picked up a big bowl of lettuce on the catering table and said “sit here.” And I did, for the whole show. Press folks would come by with their plates and fill up with cold cuts and carrot sticks and the like and then they’d get to me and turn around.
But I was in heaven. The adrenaline of just getting there had my fingers flying on the keyboard. I was sending all these great dispatches from backstage at the Grammys. Got a few short one-on-one interviews even (Chris from Soundgarden, Don Was, Booker T, Tony Bennett in the men’s room). Bruce Springsteen was winning everything for his “Streets of Philadelphia” song and so during the commercial break before Record of the Year, I finished my A1 recap. Just needed to hear the name “Bruce…” and I’d be sending before they got to “…steen.” I had really kicked ass.
“And the Record of the Year goes to…” My finger was ready. “Sheryl Crow for ‘All I Wanna Do’!” Are you fucking kidding me?!! Goddammit, man. Now I had to rewrite the whole first part of the article. And my final deadline was in 10 minutes. But I did it. And I was done. Shit, man, I even talked my way into the A&M Records party, just two blocks from the Roosevelt Hotel, where I was staying. What a motherfucking day!
That’s kinda like how every day is. I mean, not insanely hectic or heart-racing. But we just take things as they come- bring it on- and do the best we can. But sometimes you look back and go “how did I pull that one off?”
Can a personal website be an alternative to A.A.? We’ll find out. Got another story for ya.
I’m not talking about American Airlines, whose random flight cancellations and delays have caused many a sober traveler to fall off the wagon (or, the skateboard in my case). I’m talking about the place that’ll give you a hand up when you’ve hit the bottom. Tried it three or four times, but didn’t last more than a couple months because I peeked ahead in the Big Book and saw that somewhere down the road I’d have to make amends to Lyle Lovett.
Not counting SXSW, I’ve reviewed about five shows in my life on deadline when I’ve had to type with one hand covering an eye. That’s in over 40 years. And two of those were Lyle Lovett shows. My friend Robert Wilonsky up in Dallas used to keep the first drunken Lovett review in his desk drawer and when I was feeling too good about myself I’d ask him to read any part of it and I would come crashing down to earth. Sample line: “That Lyle Lovett is so full of himself.” It wasn’t even writing. It was pathetic. I was partially incensed because in the intimate Majestic Theater in Dallas, Lovett positioned himself onstage as far away from the audience as possible, where most performers would stand near the lip.
Let’s also back up a bit. I was an early, early supporter of Lyle. Even before the first record came out. He was opening for John Prine at the Paramount in 1984 and I had a young girlfriend who I was going to turn onto Prine. During Lovett’s set she kept whispering how great he was and I’d say, “yeah, but wait until John Prine comes on.” But Lovett’s set was the highlight of the night, though Prine wasn’t bad. Lyle just connected and he had this great self-deprecating wit.
I wrote his first national magazine feature in Spin a few months later. Then, he added the Large Band and that was kinda cool the first couple times, but after the sixth or seventh time of Francine singing “You ugly, too!” I had enough of that. I wanted to see him with his trio again and felt he was almost hiding behind the band. He was “my discovery” and I felt he had strayed.
In February 1993 I married a woman far too attractive for me and around the same time Lyle Lovett got hitched to Julia Roberts outta nowhere. The National Enquirer had a front page that said “‘Pretty Woman’ Marries Country Music’s Ugly Duckling” and my “friends” at the Dallas Morning News made up a mock Enquirer front page with me and my bride’s faces over Lyle’s and Julia’s with the headline “Pretty Woman Marries Country Music Criticism’s Ugly Duckling.”
Two years later I came home from SXSW to find that she’d moved out. Not a surprise, but still jarring.I had to review Lovett a few days later and, to cheer me up a bit, Wilonsky took me out for a few drinks across the street from the Majestic. I’ve never been a hard liquor drinker, but I was downing shots of Maker’s Mark like Martin Scorsese kept doing retakes.
So then Lyle and his Fucking Large Band Crutch came out and I headed to the bar for more. Two or three times. Didn’t matter that I was missing parts of the show; I’d seen that same set a dozen times. The third time I was in line, it was finally my turn to order and the bartender said, “That’s it. Bar’s closed.” The show was not even half over, so I went back to my seat, seething.
My deadline was 11 p.m. and so I went upstairs at the theater’s office to write my review and I could hear the venue managers in the next room. “Could you believe that Lyle Lovett stopped the show to tell us to close the bar?” one said to the other. “He was distracted by people leaving their seats to get a drink.”
I have no clear memory of the rest of the night, but the newspaper sat in the driveway a long time the next day. I knew I had made a huge mistake. I knew that somehow I had projected the blame of my miserable existence onto a man in a suit singing songs, who was still happily married to his pretty woman.
I started reading the review, then tossed the paper against the wall after a few lines. Never felt so low and that day I went to my first A.A. meeting. “A.A.’s not for everyone,” someone said and after about a week I decided he was right.
There was one other incident with Lyle a few years earlier that may also have been a trigger. He played the Vic Theater in Chicago, around 1990. After midnight, the Vic changed into a dance club and all the Puerto Rican go-go dancers were in the hall backstage smoking a joint while Lyle was still back there. My God, did he throw a fit! “You know what that stuff does to me!” He yelled at his manager. I said, “well, what do you do if you’re onstage and someone in the audience smokes a joint?” And he said he’ll stop the show cold. Then he stormed out.
I started looking at him differently after that. Still, no excuse.
If someone could pass this on to Lyle Lovett, I’d like to apologize. I was unprofessional and remain deeply embarrassed about that review. Somehow, Lovett recovered and he’s never been anything but a gentleman to me on the occasions I failed in avoiding him.