Photos by Todd V. Wolfson
by Jeff McCord
Ed Ward, one of the pioneers of rock journalism, was found dead in his Austin home May 3rd. Ward grew up in New York, where he met editor Paul Williams and began writing for the trail-blazing Crawdaddy magazine in the mid-sixties. He soon joined the staff of Rolling Stone, moving to San Francisco to become their reviews editor in 1970. He wouldn’t last long in that position, but he continued to write for the magazine and for Creem throughout the seventies, where his passion and blunt, hard-edged criticism quickly made him a known quantity.
So when Ed moved to Austin in 1979 and became the music critic for the Austin American-Statesman, it added a swift kick of legitimacy to the city’s established and blooming punk and indie rock scenes. Pre-internet and social media, getting a mention from Ward in his columns was a big deal to developing Austin acts. He applied the same exacting standards to Austin he had with his national coverage. Ed was never ambivalent; he would champion the acts he admired and offer little mercy to those he didn’t. It wasn’t long before ‘Dump Ed Ward’ bumper stickers began appearing around town. It did nothing to deter him.
Ed would stay at the Statesman until 1984. He began moving into books around that time, starting with his bio, Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, and a few years later he co-authored Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. He became the music editor at the Austin Chronicle, and it was there that I first met Ed, who gave me and many others some of their first Austin writing assignments.
He continued to call attention to the burgeoning Austin scene, and played a hand in bringing the MTV Cutting Edge show here in 1985. Suddenly our local heroes – Biscuit, Daniel Johnston, and all the bands of the exploding ‘New Sincerity’ scene – were on national TV. Ed was also among those instrumental in getting South by Southwest launched in 1987.
Sharing his voracious appetites for, well, most everything, you always walked away from Ed with some new discovery. Greil Marcus, who Ed succeeded at Rolling Stone, told the magazine, “If you sat down with him, flowers of knowledge would open up. Whether it was Sausalito or Berlin, he knew stories about this building or the scandal behind this restaurant. He was a wonderful storyteller. The world was richer when you were around Ed.”
But he was also a study in contradictions. His copy was clean and fastidious, yet his personal habits were anything but. Ed was as passionate about food as he was about music. He was also a very good cook. The one time he had me and a friend over to his Clarksville home for a meal, the food was excellent. But there was really no place to eat. We balanced plates in our laps in dusty armchairs, watching Ed’s dog Pete run back and forth, deftly navigating the skyscrapers of books and CDs that populated his living room.
Ed loved holding court and was loyal and generous to his friends. Yet he was cantankerous. He held tight to his grievances – often editors he felt had wronged him – and would fall on his sword over the most trivial points of contention. He could be exhausting.
Leaving a lot of bridges burned, Ed would move to Berlin in 1994, and later to southern France. He would stay in Europe until 2013, his only steady gig was as a music reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air. He wrote about art, food, scraped by. And stayed in touch with Austin.
While attending the Berlin Independence Days festival, Ed organized a trip to a newly-liberated Prague for a large group of us, and his morning tour of the city was better than that of any professional guide. I always consulted Ed when traveling overseas. He would unerringly steer me in the right direction. Just a few years ago, he sent me and my family to this out-of-the-way Paris cafe that was half as expensive and twice as good a meal as any we had in the city.
On returning to Austin, Ed picked up where he left off, writing The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1, which was published in 2016. Volume 2 came out in 2019.
I wasn’t among Ed’s close circle of friends. Years would go by without us seeing each other, particularly when he was in Europe. It had been some time since we had spoken when rumors began circulating that Ed was back in town. I was in the Apple store when I suddenly heard his voice, in an animated discussion with an employee. I walked over to him. “Welcome back, Ed,”, I said. “How are you?”
“Well, Apple is really fucking me around,” he angrily replied.
This was Ed, tirelessly fighting the world’s battles, exposing the wrongs, and celebrating all that was exceptional in the world, especially in his adopted home. We’re all better off because of him.