Perfect Sound Forever

Ed Ward tribute

Greil Marcus
interviewed by Jason Gross
(June 2021)

PSF: How did you first meet Ed?

GM: I read him in Crawdaddy even before Rolling Stone started. He was writing for Rolling Stone pretty early on, well before I started writing for them, in early or mid '68. He would write long pieces on electronic music in particular, using the name 'Edmund O. Ward.' When I became the [RS] reviews editor in June '69 (they didn't have a record editor before that), Ed was one of the people that I relied on most. He was clear, He was writing about stuff that no one else seemed to be interested in. He had a great sense of humor. He was responsible for making deadlines. I did that job for only six months- I was in graduate school and doing a full-time time job for Rolling Stone and I just couldn't handle it all. So I went to Jann [Wenner] and said, "I can't do this anymore but I think Ed would be the ideal person to take over." I can't remember if Ed was still a student at Antioch then or if he had graduated... So I talked to him about it and he wanted to do it. Rolling Stone flew him out, he had an interview and he was hired. And I had not met Ed until he came out to interview for the job. And then, he did a tremendous job, I think. Very, very adventurous as an editor- trying things and developing writers. But he didn't get along with Jann. He didn't how to avoid bringing up things with Jann. [laughs] How to avoid issues. And so, it didn't work and that was the end of his job there, after about a year.

But by then, he moved to Sausalito [California] and he had a little place there across the bay where my wife and I and our little girl would go often. Ed would cook and he was a fantastic cook. He was just fascinated with cooking from all over the world. Just loved really, really spicy food, whether it was Indian or New Orleans or African or South East Asian. And we would buy the ingredients and drive over and he would cook for two hours. We would sit around and have these absolutely wonderful dinners with him. That was a big part of his life- his love of cooking. I remember him saying to me, that when he was first living on his own, he asked his mother, "I don't know how to cook anything- what do you do?" She said "do you know how to read?" He said "yeah, I know how to read." So she said "well, you get a cookbook, you read it and then you cook." That turned out to work real well for Ed.

PSF: How would you describe Ed personally?

GM: Ed was a very paranoid person. He didn't trust people. Whether there was a slight or whether there was a broken promise, whether it was more serious or whether it was nothing at all, he could develop grudges and become very angry. And he could feel that nobody trusted him.

Ed was interesting guy in that wherever he went, he made friends. He met people. He was also very gregarious and very inquisitive and searching. But wherever he went, he also made enemies. And a lot of times, the enemies he made were people who he made into enemies himself. I don't mean that people met him and decided necessarily that he was a bad guy and they wanted to hurt him, but he would alienate people, and cut people out. He would say "you betrayed me, you cheated me, you lied to me and you're no friend of mine."

I remember visiting him in Berlin where he had gone because there was the promise of a new magazine that was being started. People wanted him to be if not the editor, then one of the main editors. There was also going to be a radio show involved with it. It was just going to be a whole cultural centerpiece. And on that basis, he went to Berlin. And the magazine never happened. It really turned out be a European version of the Credence Clearwater Revival song "Lodi." He gets to Berlin and he's stuck there for 10 years. He just couldn't get out of Berlin. And we went to visit him once, my wife and I. And God... he just took us around the city. And we were not unfamiliar with it, we'd been to Berlin before but he just opened the place up. Took us on walks to interesting buildings, interesting parks and he knew the stories behind everything, and what these place were used for now, publicly, secretly and whatever it might be. And the same in Austin. And the same in France, in Montpellier, when he lived there for a while.

But you reach a point when every time there's a project, and somebody is cheating you, somebody is lying to you every single time, then you realize that it isn't that the world is only full of cheaters and liars, but that this is the world that you have constructed. And you have constructed these people as cheaters and liars. And that's the way it always was [for him]. The odyssey of The History of Rock and Roll books that he wrote, two volumes of, in terms of the promises that were made and the promises that were broken, checks that didn't arrive and the support that was supposed to be there and was never was and refusal to commit to a second or third volume. I heard those stories endlessly, but the fact is, I can listen to people complain and be mistreated and talk about their mistreatment. You let people talk it out and you try and give them some support.

The second volume of that History of Rock and Roll series is just great. It's full of life. I didn't understand how Ed could possibly take that on. There's this territory that's been ploughed and ploughed. You can't imagine that there's a seed left of something new and something surprising in the so-called, God I hate this phrase, 'classic rock' period. And Ed told the story both assuming that everybody knew it and at the same time, that they didn't. They thought they did, but they didn't. And he didn't write it in the tone of 'now, I'm gonna tell you what it's really about..." He just did it. And so that period and the specific groups and the specific performers and managers and whatever they might be, they all came to life in a different way. And you had a strong critical perspective being brought to bear on that. This was an outgrowth of those wonderful little history lessons that he would do on "Fresh Air' [on NPR] for so many years where he would focus on a record label or a producer or a particular band or particular scene and present you with a capsule. You'd say, "God I didn't know that. That's wonderful. I have to learn more about that. I have to listen to this record, I have to buy this book." And there was never a hint of condescension, there was not a moment of pretentiousness. It was all, "this is interesting! Wouldn't you like to know about it?" And he made it interesting. And he was able to take that voice and transfer it into books.

Ed was a tremendously imaginative writer. He wrote some marvelous fiction, both in the piece on the "5" Royales that he did for my book Stranded and a short story about blues record collectors in the late '50's and the early '60's that was just stunning. I remember that when I read Ed's fiction, I always thought it was real. It was just so convincing. I never had any idea that he made anything up, let alone all of it.

He's got this story about the blues collectors and it's just about all the kind of things that Bill Barth and John Fahey and Joe Bussard and R. Crumb all did [in the '60's]. They would travel through the South, starting with North Carolina, going down to Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia. And they would go to black neighborhoods and knock on doors and say "do you have any old records? I'm looking for old records and I'll pay you 10 cents, and if it's something I really want, even 25 cents." And they would find people who had lots of old 78's that they hadn't played for years and years. And most of it would be stuff that they had no interest in. But [musicologist] Dick Spottswood, doing this in neighborhoods in Washington DC found two Skip James records that have never been found and haven't been found since. He stumbled upon these two records which are now a large part of our knowledge of Skip James, just by knocking on doors. So these things would happen.

So Ed was writing a story about a person who does this with his life. So this person comes to a house and there's an old woman there and she answers the door and he tells her what he's interested in and she lights up. She says "Oh, I used to love Charlie Patton and Skip James and Robert Johnson. I'd love to listen to them. I'd sit next to my Victrola for hours and just play those records." And the guy's trying to be cool- he doesn't want to give away what these things are actually worth. He might have to pay a dollar instead of quarter and two dollars is his limit- he never goes above that. So he says "do you still have these records?" She says "oh, of course I have them. Come on- I'll show you." And he goes into the house and she takes him into her backyard and he's wondering, 'why are we in the backyard...?' And she's got this beautiful vegetable garden and behind each planting, there is a 78 [record] shoved into the ground to protect the plants from excess sun. And so there they are- there's Charlie Patton and there's Skip James and there's Willie Brown and there's Son House, and these 78's are all in dirt and some of them are all curled from the sun. They're all ruined. And she says, "after I found the Lord, of course, I wouldn't listen to these records any more. But I didn't want to throw them away so I still kept them." And the guy is practically having a heart attack. And Ed just made that up! And he really didn't find the field to publish things like that, to be encouraged, with someone saying, "you got to write a novel. You got books in you that you're not writing." And I don't know if that story was ever published I just can't remember. Ed showed it to me but I don't know if it was put out or not.

And he could be incredibly funny. He was a wonderful satirist. He had a great bullshit detector. You couldn't fool him. You couldn't get him to say something that he didn't believe. People can talk themselves into liking stuff that they don't like because they're supposed to. That's something that critics have to learn to fight against. I certainly did. But Ed didn't- you could not get Ed to say that something was good when he knew that it wasn't. And of course, he would know why it wasn't. Obviously, part of it was his fault but part of it was just the stupidity of the world and its inability to recognize talent when it's coming from a place that you don't expect. Here's Ed- he's just supposed to be a music writer, he's just supposed to be a reporter, he's just supposed to cover the scene in Austin. And nobody wants to read his fiction.

And nobody wants to know the long and tangled stories that involved different musicians or managers or whatever that he could tell. He was a great raconteur. We would go over to his place in Sausalito and he could start cooking and it would take two hours or more and we would just sit around and talk about everything under the sun. Ed was never boring. And I don't think Ed was ever bored- he was full of hate, he was full of fear, he lived his life in jeopardy.

Right after he died, I got an email from a friend who said that he was feeling absolutely horrible because not even a month before, he had been in touch with Ed who said that he was thinking about selling his books to buy food. And my friend did not send him any money. And I said, "you don't need to feel horrible. This is a theme in Ed's life. This is a repeating note." I can't tell you how many times I heard that over many, many, many years. And I learned not to take it seriously after any number of times loaning him money because that was the way he had to live his life, with a sense of jeopardy.

And you know, maybe it says something about the loneliness of being a music writer, whether it's an identity that's forced on you or maybe he felt that it was forced on him or it's something you choose. Once you're identified as a 'rock critic' (that's the way that Ed would put it), then nobody will let you do anything else. Nobody believes you can do anything else and they think that what you do is worthless and degraded and moronic and juvenile. And so what you do is not worth anything anyway. So how could you do anything worth something? That sense of being isolated and being shoved to the side of the road.

Ed is now the second rock critic of real distinction, of real importance to die in the way that so many people fantasize in their worst moments that they might die alone and nobody knows and nobody cares. And simply to be found dead, days later because you're not answering your door, the papers are piling up, there's a smell coming from down the hall, whatever it might be. That's how Paul Nelson and it's how Ed died.

PSF: You mentioned that he would talk about headaches with editors and publishers. You've obviously experienced that plenty of times too so when he would say that to you, how would you react? Would you try to advise him and tell him to be realistic?

GM: Yeah, sure. We would have conversations where I would say, "look Ed, what do you want out of this situation?" He'd say, "I want this..." So I would say "well then, here's the way to go about achieving that." And he's say, "you're saying that I should apologize to this person?" And I'd say "yeah, you called this person a liar and a cheat but you still need to work with him. And if you want to work with him, that's what you need to do." And he'd say, "well, that would be a betrayal of everything I am!" And I'd say, "OK, fine. You asked me 'how do I get what I need out of this situation,' and I'm telling you, 'this is how you do it.' I'm not saying 'this is how you should do it' or 'you have to do it.' I'm just saying, 'if you want to get from point A to point B, this is the way you get there.'" And that would be very insulting. But we had that conversation many times.

I mean, sure, there are people who got fed up with Ed. There were people who just said, "fuck you. The hell with you. I'm not doing this anymore. You're just a paranoid freak and it's never going to change." No, it was never going to change, and there were some people who stuck with Ed and some people who didn't. The fact that Ed alienated even John Morthland, his most devoted, dedicated friend? That's scary.

PSF: Do you have a favorite piece of writing that he did?

GM: Yeah. My favorite piece of writing of Ed is the piece on the "5" Royales that he did for Stranded. I remember reading that so well- I don't think I'll ever forget it. He wanted to write about the "5" Royales and I never even heard of them. I said "sure, go ahead." So I went into San Francisco, and I had a meeting I had to go to and then I was going to go somewhere for lunch and read his piece and then I was going to go over to Sausalito and talk to him about it. So I sat there reading it, about the "5" Royales and about their struggles and about how their group came together and about how it was pulled apart, and the achievements that they had and the satisfactions that they gained, and then coming to the realization that they had to quit, they had to stop. They couldn't do it anymore. And it was just the most absorbing, moving piece of writing. And these people were all real. They were all developed characters. And the story was told with lightness, with humor. It was not presented as a tragedy but it was a tragedy and you just felt shaken when you got to the end of it. And so I came to the end of this and I'm just going, "Wow..." And then there's a little white space on the page and he says "I made all of that up," and I just felt, "Hold on..." because these were real people he was writing about and yet he had the arrogance that a writer needs to really do anything. To take these real people as if he made them up, as if he invented them, as if they didn't exist. As if he had the freedom to write their lives, as if they never actually lived them, using their real names. Nothing was fictionalized except everything. So, I was just stunned and then he goes on this diatribe for about two pages about the state of American culture and why the real stories aren't being told and why everything is being pigeonholed and ghettoized and walled off from everything else. And people don't know about this incredible work that's being done. They don't even want to know about it. And he talks about not being able to afford health insurance and not having enough food because of who he is and what he's chosen to do with his life.

And of course, I went over to see Ed and I said, "this is the most astonishing thing I've ever read. I just can't believe. This is wonderful." And there wasn't a word to change anywhere about anything. There's only two pieces in that book that I didn't touch- one was Nick Tosches' and one was Ed's. They were just so perfect. One of other contributors said, "why did you publish at the junk at the end with Ed's piece? Why didn't you just cut that out?" And that ends the book. When I read that piece, I knew "that's the end of the book. Nothing could follow all of this." And I said, "the premise of this book is that various writers are given the chance to write at length about something that they really cared about." And that was the charge- just go do that. And this is what Ed cared about- this was Ed's space. He could write whatever he damn well wants. And my only job as an editor is to make it work, make it convincing, not just to say "don't do this." And that's Ed. That's Ed's manifesto- that's where he gets to say what he thinks, what he cares about.

And he did the same thing with The Rose and the Briar, the ballad book that I edited with Sean Wilentz. And again, he's in that. The song he writes about [Bobby Patterson's "Trial of Mary Maguire'] is about a woman who shoplifts for food. And he's in that story and pleading his case and maybe he's pathetic and maybe he's whining but, you know, it's gotta come out. And Ed was able to get it out. Ed was able to wear the shame of poverty in public and that's hard to do. And it makes people uncomfortable. It makes people squirm. It makes people squeamish. And he people he insulted, the people he refused to work with, the people he said were evil and malevolent but continued to work with him in many cases, it was because they recognized that he had something people other didn't. There was a distinctive person here. There was a sensibility that was his. It wasn't mine, it wasn't yours. And he was going to understand things that we wouldn't and say things in ways that we wouldn't. And that's valuable.

PSF: How did you react when you heard that he died?

GM: "Oh shit." That's what went through my mind. (pauses)

I got a call or email from [senior writer] David Browne of Rolling Stone, saying "could you talk about Ed Ward?" Well, I knew there was only one reason why someone would ask me to do that but I didn't know for sure, so I had to ask.

I wasn't shocked, I wasn't surprised any more than when... I mean, I was shocked when Lester [Bangs] died but I wasn't surprised.

And I don't feel good about... outliving good people.

PSF: What do you think Ed's legacy might be?

GM: Ed's legacy I hope will be in his "Fresh Air" capsules. I hope they're archived. I hope they're made available, put online where people can find them, all of them, and sit there for days on end and listen to them and take pleasure and delight from someone who could not be defeated, could never lose interest, was full of enthusiasm, and could communicate that to other people. Ed, like so many other people, when he was moved by something, thrilled by something, he wanted to tell people about it. You know, that's the critic's impulse- it's not to say what's right and what's wrong or to say what's good and what's bad. It's to say "have you heard this? You got to hear this!" Whatever it is. Whether it's a story or a record or a novel or something to eat. It doesn't matter and that's what he was doing with those little histories. He was saying "have you heard about this? Maybe you haven't. Here's what it is!" So I think if he has a legacy, if those could all be collected and put online...

I was looking for a particular song by the New Lost City Ramblers a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn't find it, but I stumbled around online and found a New Lost City Ramblers page. Four and a half hours of New Lost City Ramblers songs, just one after another. And you could just sit there and listen to the whole thing. "Wow, thank you, whoever put that together." And I hope something happens like that [with Ed's work]- that would be as good a legacy as anyone could have.

Also see Greil Marcus' website

See the rest of our tribute to Ed Ward

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER