Perfect Sound Forever

Ed Ward tribute

Roland Swenson looking daper

Roland Swenson
interviewed by Jason Gross
(June 2021)

I met Ed Ward when he first moved to Austin in 1979. I was friendly with Joe Nick Patoski, who was Ed's predecessor at the daily paper, the American Statesman. I was just getting started in show biz, managing a band called Standing Waves. Joe Nick had written about them, but soon after he left to work at Texas Monthly. The Statesman followed his advice and hired Ed as his replacement.

In the days before mobile phones and answering machines, rather than try to reach people about the band on the phone, I would just show up where they worked. This worked most of the time for me, though I suppose now it would be considered rude. I went down to the Statesman offices, and found Ed in the newsroom. He was a little surprised, but was friendly enough. He showed me his little cubby, told me if I needed to drop something off for him where to leave it. He added "unless it's cash- then give it to me directly." I couldn't tell if he was serious or not, so later I asked Joe Nick, and he just laughed and assured me that Ed was joking. Then he said "just take him out to lunch." So I took him to the restaurant where I was waiting tables at the time, a New Mexican place called Los Tres Bobos. He liked the food and we had a pleasant chat, and we became friends and colleagues. He taught me a lot about music, books, food and wine.

Ed started showing up at Raul's, the first Austin punk club, where Standing Waves started, and he became a fan. Getting regular mentions in his twice-weekly column helped introduce the band to a wider audience. Ed fell in with the crowd there, which along with musicians included film school students, writers for the UT student paper, the Daily Texan. and lots of smart, funny women. He became part of "the scene."

He helped a lot of the bands through his coverage, but also offered an outsiders' view of the entertainment world to this group of pretty insular musicians. Austin was still a small town, with attitudes to match. He stirred up some antagonism because of his willingness to criticize the sacred cows of the Austin music scene, still largely identified as "progressive country" or "redneck rock."

Ed was at the Statesman during my slow ascension over the next four or five years on the local music scene. I managed the various incarnations of Standing Waves, booked bands at a nightclub called Duke's Royal Coach Inn, and started a couple of labels.

Then, it all came tumbling down for me when the main act on my label, the Big Boys, broke up in the studio while recording their new album. I had all my money tied up in the record, which was going to be the project to put me over the top. I ended up quitting the label biz, and landed on the staff of the Austin Chronicle, about the same time as Ed. He'd quit the Statesman, ostensibly to finish his book on Michael Bloomfield, which was supposed to put him over the top.

Despite my new job at an alt-media newspaper, and Ed's turn to food writing, music was still our first love. When a group of local scene-makers started meeting at the Chamber of Commerce to discuss the future of the Austin music scene, Ed and I joined up. The local economy had crashed in '81 and there were empty hi-rises all over downtown. Being at the bottom of the food chain, the music community was fine, already knowing how to live while broke.

The Chamber group eventually came up with a list of goals, one of which was a club-based music festival. Two of the founders of the prestigious New Music Seminar (NMS) were flown to Austin from NYC to talk about starting an event. After a few nights of getting caught up partying in the heady club scene, they agreed it was something they wanted to do. The Chamber underwrote buying an exhibit stand in the NMS trade show in 1986 to promote Austin's music scene.They paid to fly a group of us to New York, including me and Ed. In addition, we organized three Austin-based showcases. Ed had a ball leading the group of Texans to his favorite Asian, Indian, and Italian restaurants; cuisines not widely available at home at that time. Ed could take command of a group on a mission like this. He would engage the waiter from the start, telling them the dishes he wanted the group to order.

The NMS trip was a hit. We met hundreds of people who were curious about the Austin scene. Ed was a big draw at the stand. His readers from his Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy days. were in awe of meeting the guy who wrote about the music they loved in their youth. NMS announced the creation of New Music Seminar Southwest in Austin.

Back home, we got the call. NMS had decided to take a pass on starting an Austin event.

I went to my bosses, Nick Barbaro and Louis Black, publisher and editor of the Chronicle and said "Screw those New York guys. We can do this ourselves." Ed, Louis Meyers and others began meeting with us behind locked doors and we argued about the viability of the idea for weeks, until we came to accord to announce and proceed.

Ed speaks at a SXSW panel; photo by David C. Fox

Ed began working with me to put together a schedule of panel discussion topics and speakers. We were both calling in any favors accumulated over my ten years and his twenty years in show biz. Louis Meyers worked the phones and put together a music festival in a dozen local clubs. More and more people just showed up at the Chronicle office and started working. Billboard did a story and the phones exploded. The first SXSW in March of 1987 was a hit.

Little did we know that the work we did in year one would seem like a walk in the park compared to the next thirty years. It took a lot of stubbornness to keep the thing alive and growing.

Right away, we began meeting people from around the world who'd heard about what we'd done. Ed met a group from Berlin at SXSW '88, who were planning BID (Berlin Independence Days), their own version of SXSW. They had a lot of government arts subsidies, and after first securing his own trip to Berlin, Ed turned them over to me and Louis Meyers. SXSW started exhibiting in their trade show in year one. The first two years were held before the Wall came down.

Ed liked Berlin a lot. Temperamentally, Ed had a lot in common with the Berliners. They could be gruff, loud, and didn't know when they were being obnoxious. In a way, Ed was more famous in Germany than back in the States. German teenagers in the '70's were obsessive about rock and roll. Ed's writing in Rolling Stone and other magazines was voraciously consumed.

Eventually, Ed felt burned out in Austin. He moved his vast book and record collection into storage and left to live in Berlin. He began working with BID, but kept his ties to SXSW. BID only made it for five years before losing their funding. Frequently, Ed would join us at other European events where we were exhibiting to promote SXSW, and work on our stand, a task he enjoyed. We would fly him home to Austin every year for SXSW.

Berlin started growing rapidly after the Wall came down. The neighborhoods in East Berlin started attracting hipsters from all over Europe for the cheap rent and general grooviness. Ed had an apartment in Mitte, which in Berlin news stories was always listed as one of the hottest areas. Ed tended to move from cities when they became fashionable, like San Francisco and Austin. Next, he moved to Montpelier, France.

Once settled in, he started a blog called City on a Hill which is still alive. Most entries were about Ed going to the farmer's market every morning, and buying the food for his day. His recipes and descriptions always made me hungry.

It was truly ironic when after a while there, he developed an illness that robbed him of his sense of smell and taste. He eventually recovered those senses, though they were recurrent. He also suffered a pulmonary embolism which hospitalized him for a time. He ran up a pretty big bill and the French authorities discovered that he didn't have the proper papers. He wasn't exactly kicked out, but it wasn't long before he moved back to Austin. Having turned 65, he was now eligible for Medicare and Social Security, which while he remained perpetually overextended, provided some safety net for him in the States.

He landed the contract to write the first two volumes of The History of Rock and Roll. The exhaustive work on that project kept him from being involved in the Chronicle or SXSW, and he became reclusive. One of the last times I saw him in person was for a reading from volume one at Bookpeople, the great Austin bookstore.

Ed was in good spirits.

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