Ed Ward tribute
Ed and Joe; Photo by David C. Fox
Joe Nick Patoski (author, writer)
interviewed by Jason Gross
PSF: How did you first meet Ed?
JNP: I'm pretty sure it was 1975 when we first actually met. I'm guessing there was some correspondence going on, asking him "how do you do this [music writing]?"- I was sending letters to Lester Bangs and John Morthland when he had moved over to Creem. Ed was working for Creem but I don't remember trying to pitch him. A mutual friend, Michael Goodwin, came and we stayed with him. He was tagging along with a film about the borderlands. When we came out to stay with Michael, he had previously had Ed and John rooming with him, and they had moved to Sausalito. So we went out there and met Ed. And we went to Village Music, which he touted before we even departed for there. We stayed in touch. There was a lot of communication. He helped me and I think it was on the same trip that I went to L.A. and I hit up about 10 different record publicists and showed them my work. And that way I got on promo lists so I got all the used product sent to me to my house for free. That provided a side income for a music critic. Ed hipped to me a lot of the tricks of the business and that was mainly through correspondence.
Later that same year in July, he came out to Texas and we hung out at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnic- it was the third picnic, in Liberty Hill, and it was really kind of Wilile's breakthrough moment when he became a national act. I remember Patrick Carr, the editor of Country Music magazine was there, Chet Flippo might have been there. I was doing stringing for Rolling Stone by then but I was also writing for Texas Monthly and a lot of local publications.
Ed was generous with his time and information, and basically talking about what this was about. There wasn't much human contact for someone like me who was based in Austin, which was out of the mainstream of the media then, and trying to do this. And certainly the media centers are on the coast and Ed's in one of them (San Francisco). He was very helpful at first and generous with explaining how you did the music writing gig.
PSF: How would you describe him on a personal level?
JNP: He was also bombastic, loud, opinionated and quick to point out any inaccuracies or errors, and generally critical of things that would always surprise the lay person or the lay hipster. But he had a very sophisticated sense of music and certainly a bead on rock and roll's place in all that. He was more difficult than most people and certainly as far as having friends- really difficult to maintain any friendship.
He constantly bites the hand that feeds him and his sister kind of explained that. She said two things that were very telling with him. A minute of meeting his sister on the phone, she's saying something about him being broke- "oh that's been something all his life. He's been saying that since he was a kid." She was complaining about loaning him money and not getting it back, back then as kids. And another thing she said was "he's been burning bridges all his life."
I think to defend him, he was very bright- maybe he was a genius but he was just a sponge for information. As far as music went, he had a handle or a take on a breadth of music that no one came close to understanding- so many different kinds of music, and how they all fit in. So he gets a lot of credit as a critic and an explainer of what music means and how it all fits in. But most people can put their professional face down when they go home and kick back.
Ed was socialable- he loved to eat food, especially hot food and exotic food, and at holes in the wall, especially if he discovered them. So those were his pleasures but otherwise, he just came off as this hard-ass. You're a music fan and you're hanging out with this music critic who's this great tastemaker and turns you on to all kinds of stuff. I mean, that's how I met him- he had done this review of "Strawberry Flats" by Little Feat. That caught my eye and I never heard of this band but as Ed laid it out with the story- how cool. When I found out about this band and started buying this music. That's how it worked back then. He was a gatekeeper in that he was a tastemaker. He was kind of one of those hipsters you trusted to tell what was good and what wasn't at a kind when all of a sudden, music wasn't a confection- it was something really important to the culture and personally important to a whole new generation that took it personally.
So, right place, right time, but this was at the price of not being the nicest human being. And yet, I knew him long enough and close up, he's a real puppy dog deep inside. That always made me wonder about how he would take the brickbats. He knew when they were coming with the shit that he said- he's very provocative. But how do you put up with it? But that was kind of his entry to Austin- calling them like he saw them, upsetting the small town locals by declaring some of their stuff shit and then getting the brickbats and the blow back and the bumper stickers and T-shirts back in return.
PSF: I had heard that there was actually a campaign to get rid of him and throw him out of Austin.
JNP: Yeah! (laughs) I'm the reason he got hired- I recommended him at The Statesman when I left to manage Joe 'King' Carrasco. And The Statesman realized the value of music finally and gave it to someone with respect and reached out and thought it was a national hire, getting this guy who had written for Rolling Stone and Creem. I mean, this was prestigious. And he comes in and he's a fucking character. I don't know if he was still wearing a cowboy hat or he switched to a Greek sailor's cap. But he looks, he carries himself as a character! He's big, he's loud, kind of oafish and definitely opinionated. He's gonna tell you what he thinks. You're not gonna ask him- he's gonna tell you anyhow.
In his defense, it was basically three prong. It was Doug Sahm, who Ed had actually visited or been assigned to interview in San Francisco when he was at Rolling Stone and he just said it was a weird thing where it didn't really happen. Doug didn't like being criticized, nor did his new bandmate Alvin Crow, who's a popular country guy. Nor did the band the Lotions, a reggae band. And in Ed's defense, it's like... Ed fucking interviewed Bob Marley! He smoked weed with Bob Marley. And here he is in Austin and these earnest kids are doing their version of reggae and he kind of just made a face and gave it a thumbs down. But he was being terrible honest [laughs] to the degree that... It sometimes made him on the outside. And a lot of people didn't like him and don't like him now and aren't sorry he died.
PSF: Do you have a favorite piece of writing that he did?
JNP: Well, my favorite was what I first read, which was the review of "Strawberry Flats" just because I didn't know who Ed Ward was but I read him and it was my hunger for music and words both that he got me going. And I read him pretty consistently in the reviews section of Rolling Stone. There was his version of the Mothership dropping, Parliament-Funkadelic in New Orleans, mainly because I was along for the ride and I did my own story for Phonograph Record magazine and I'm pretty sure he was writing about it for Creem. That was just a fun trip for a junket- someone just paying your way to have a good time. Not hard to do.
PSF: Ed had a lot of great stories about musicians he knew, interviewed and met- can you share any of those?
JNP: Well, the one I know the best is his TA [teacher's assistant] at Antioch College when he was teaching a rock and roll course in 1969 or 1970 was Ray Seifert, who became Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Ed was kind of at the birth of that kind of neo-Western Swing revival of Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody in particular. He was right in the thick of it. That was sort of the pre-progressive country roar. It was really before Willie reared his head in a big way.
Mainly it was Cody and the Wheel doing the Swing revival and it was also West Coast bands. It was what Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks had been doing. But Western Swing in particular is a Texas style of Swing music that goes back to the 1930's. By the time that Wille start getting big, Swing was back and it had a big audience. e a roots music. And everybody starts paying attention to where the music came from.
PSF: What were you thinking when you heard that he passed away?
JNP: It was weird. I saw it on Facebook and I mentioned it to my wife and in a way, neither of us was surprised. It's sad the way it turned out. It's not a happy ending, I don't think. Just because he died and was in that house for several days before the cops actually came into there to get him. His friend Kelly called them when she hadn't heard from him in a few days.
He'd been complaining more frequently than usual about having money issues. And I really think he did. I don't know how deep in debt he wound up but what I'm seeing now is, his History of Rock and Roll books are selling pretty good on Amazon now. It's so ironic because he couldn't get any interest in volume 3 of the book and get that sold to the publisher. And I felt that he didn't get enough respect for either book. And in my mind, he foolishly left his platform, which was [NPR's] "Fresh Air." He didn't have to leave "Fresh Air." He claims he was run off but he left. He wasn't fired. It's right after his first [History] book came out. It's because they didn't put him on the air for his book. And he had justified anger but in this case, you're trying to sell a book and the way to sell the book is this medium. So, somehow, somewhere, you put up with shit so you can get a mention or something 'cause you got that connection.
When the second [History] one came out, I went to BookPeople to hear him talk and I knew what to expect but he spent a lot of his talk saying about different things, "that's going to be in Volume 3." And I thought, "Man, you're supposed to be selling Volume 2!" And I don't think that he was that cognizant of what he doing.
He had diabetes. I did not know until recently that when he was in France, he had a pulmonary embolism. He could have died from that. And I don't think he completely recovered from that. He'd come back to SXSW all the time but he just seemed kind of changed. And it was like the complaining was more frequent, the hoarding was more obvious. And he didn't want to work. He wanted to do the book and that's it.
PSF: When we stayed with him in 2020, he was complaining about problems with smell and/or taste and this was happening to him pre-COVID.
JNP: That's when he came back from France, complaining about this. Here's a guy who loves food. He's got diabetes and he has to monitor everything. He's not very fun to eat with anymore. And I'm sure he realized it. In fact, two Thanksgivings ago, my wife tried to send him home with turkey and dressing and he wouldn't take anything. But he also said "I don't have any food at home." And he was just a real crab that day and when we tried to engage him in a conversation, he said "I don't have anything interesting to say."
And then two weeks later, he goes to Europe to look around Spain and I think he did go back to Montpellier to a doctor he was seeing and found something to get his smell back. I thought "Hey, you're in the United States. Find out where the smell specialist is and check into a clinic and get work done." But he had to go back to this doctor in France but his sister kind of confirmed that he really did need to go back to that doctor. She was a nurse- she taught at the Drexel School of Nursing. So she said that Ed would always call her up when he had a medical issues. And she said that she'd tell him what's going on but she said "he was going to go on and do what he was going to do." So he didn't pay much attention to what her advice was.
And I met her and we're going through his place and there's a woman named Jennifer Milbauer that's basically cleaned up everything, gotten everything he had and trying to prepare it for an estate sale. And I don't know how much they're going to try to sell off but he had some debts. I heard from someone on Facebook about "do you know anything about Ed Ward's estate? He owes me!" [laughs] And I don't know how many people there are out there like that. I know there are several. It's the fate of being a freelance journalist. This is what happens and it all goes away. And I'm not sure Ed adjusted to that.
In a way, it's a damn shame. He should have been smoking a pipe and wearing elbow patches and teaching or lecturing at some small college somewhere. That's really what he deserved 'cause he was extremely smart. He was almost too smart for his own good in a way. But I think he came back from Europe not the same person- and I don't know if it was medically or just that experience or what. But he seemed when he was here in the 80's, just as much as when people were criticizing him, he had his acolytes and his followers and his bands. There were a lot of bands that liked him that got favorable reviews and were championed by Ed, including the band I managed, Joe 'King' Carrasco, so I never had any problem with him. But I knew him and we hung out. It was a small town back then.
PSF: Someone else told me that he would keep trying to help Ed financially but after a while, he just gave up and said "I have my limits..."
JNP: Roland Swenson, the director of SXSW, is a friend of mine and we have a Zoom visit with him and several other people every week. And I said, "Roland, are you going to take the lead on taking care of Ed?" And with a real straight face, he said "I've done my time with Ed." And there's this trail and it was always done with some confidence- "I am somebody. I do important work." And it's a shame that he couldn't do that and finagle that and live like he wanted to live.
I got him his one gig. Rolling Stone, Creem- these are minimum wage situations at best. And I got him a gig at the daily paper for several years before he moved over to the weekly. And that was a paying gig- he got a check all the time. He had a nice ride. He had a great house. But I've been to places where he's been where I've seen records on shelves only outdone by Lester Bangs. Ed's shelves were always all over the place and sagging. One or two of them were always in danger of falling over. But he knew where everything was.
PSF: What do you think his legacy is?
JNP: Well, it's got to be in his writing and I look at him as a critic. I mean, he could write narrative but I think his thing was being a critic. And he was a pure critic to the point that he was a pain in the ass off the stage. He never turned it off. He bit the hand that fed him a lot. And given the opportunity to be crabby or gracious, he would always go the crabby route.
Again, on a personal basis, one on one, he was really a sweet guy. And I just feel like it's hell when you've peaked at 19 and in many ways, he did. He and Morthland are two peas in a pod as far as I'm concerned. And they're the two guys that I know that I actually talked into moving into Austin. And they lived with each other. They both worked together at Creem and at Rolling Stone. But the last time that Ed came back to Austin, certainly this time, they lived within a mile of one another and they didn't talk to each other at all. And I never could figure that out at all and it was very surprising knowing that there hadn't been much communication when John died in 2016. There was a little casual memorial. And Ed did deliver a really good story about how he and John reporting and editing the Altamont story at Rolling Stone and how they got it done and got it in. And this was a grey moment in rock journalism- there had been all these events but this one was really one of the first dark times. And they were right on top of it, they were the voice. And how those two worked together to do that and I think that's greatness. And they both went on and they both had written really good and great pieces. And that's triggered my whole knowledge of who they were.
And it's hard when you peak that early. And with the return to Austin, it was always put off that he really wasn't give that much respect. These books were going to put him over. And I will say, when he did come back, we visited him a lot at first. I'd go over to the house and I would always complain about his hoarding but I asked him, "did you keep scripts of all your "Fresh Air"' things?" Writing for radio is like two paragraphs long or something. There's no depth to writing radio. You could cover a couple of pages in five minutes, maybe. So I said "you got to save those scripts and you can expand on each one and there you've a whole book on that." So what he did was translate some of that to what became History of Rock and Roll. But it was more like just putting it all together and he did that. There's a lot of anecdotal stories and the whole key to what the chronology is where he goes through trade magazines and things like that. But the real skill is where he stops and tells the stories. And that's his strength. He knew the good stories.
He created his own legacy and a lot of people won't give him his respect locally here because he was not a pleasant person to be around. Even people who complain about him speak of how he mentored them or showed them this or demonstrated that.
After Ed died, Roland was quick to point out that he was one of the co-founders of SXSW. He was involved with the architecture and helping out early on and being an emissary overseas and traveling around and doing things on behalf of SXSW. Again though, somewhere it all went south. 2019 I guess was the last time SXSW softball championships happened- the last event of the festival, on that Sunday where everyone's together. And there's Ed and someone asked how did it go. So he said "HORRIBLE! I hardly saw anything and what I saw was TERRIBLE! Why bother? I should have stayed home!" And you know, don't bite the hand that feeds you. These guys hear this shit! After a while, the sting gets tiresome if you're on the receiving end. But I guess that's the life of a pure critic.
I think when he was 15 and got published, his sister said that he didn't meet the expectations of his parents. "Ed, you wanna join the Cub Scouts?" "NO!" "You wanna play baseball?" "NO!" [laughs] His parents just had to shrug and accept it. He was just his own person. When he discovered the power of the pen, writing for those magazines early on, that was his path. He could express himself and there's something about wielding the power that he really enjoyed. So if it was pissing people off, that went with the territory.
But I already miss him. It's like, fuck! That's the way I feel. "Ed, did you have to go now? You didn't have to go yet. Maybe you should have taken care of yourself or maybe your ship should have come in."
He was headed to the Catskills or the Hudson Valley [New York]. So I actually emailed Spike's Record Shop and asked "is it true that Ed Ward was going to work at your record shop?" 'Cause this is what he was talking about recently- he was going to go there and look it over and scout it out. Andy Schwartz confirmed this as well [NOTE: AS confirms that Ed was planning to be there in mid-May for some reconnaissance]. These aren't very realistic outs or plans especially when you're that deep in the hole.
PSF: I should tell you that Ed recommended your book From Austin to ATX and I loved it.
JNP: Ed was very supportive and when I was working that book, it was like us giving him notes for promoting his own book- do this and talk to these people. But he was old school and thought that the publicity department at the publisher would take care of everything. But they don't anything for you anymore- you got to do it all yourself. I didn't see that kind of promotion with either of his recent books. When he had it with him, he would sell copies and do OK. But I think he thought it would take care of everything and it didn't. It doesn't end great but he was a good person to know.
PSF: I know I'll go back to Austin and SXSW but it won't be the same there without him.
JNP: That was a different period and that was very impressive for him. He would kind of roar up and organize and do a lot of networking and really work it. He into being kind of being a mentor, when asked. But you had to come to him. And that's where I think it's just too bad that an institution didn't take him and let him be a teacher. He was pretty good at that. But it just turned out otherwise.
Regardless, there's quite a legacy left behind. He is the American music writer. You could say, "what about Greil Marcus or Robert Christgau or someone like that?" But I look at the sweep of Ed doing all these things and I don't know. He's got a pretty good legacy left behind.
I was kind of pissed off at him at the end but I owe him to make sure that he gets as much respect that he deserves or he believes should come his way. I'm going to work on preserving his papers. That's kind of my interest. I don't know if it will be for University of Texas or Texas State but we'll see.
See Joe Nick Patoski's website
See the rest of our tribute to Ed Ward
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