Sugar Pie and gumbo: the ballad of Ed Ward

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UPDATE: I was reminded how impossible it can be to earn a living as a writer — even if you’re as talented, knowledgeable and experienced as Ed Ward — when I found out that, after a series of broken contracts and reneged promises over the last year, Ed finds himself on the verge of eviction from his modest apartment in Montpellier, France. A Facebook fundraising page has been posted, and it directs you to a “donate” button on his tres enjoyable blog about his current hometown. I’d invite anyone who liked this story or has liked Ed’s NPR work or other journalism or just thinks it ain’t right, to give what you can. And you can re-post this story or send friends to the Facebook page. Ed has less than two weeks, until October 15, to get right with the landlord. Thanks.

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I was reminded of how good Ed Ward is on the way home from work yesterday listening to his story about Sugar Pie DeSanto on Fresh Air. When Ed’s on his game, which seems like most of the time these days, at least on the radio, you find yourself not just in violent agreement, but riffing along, bopping your head, gleefully exclaiming, Tourette’s-like, as his tale of this or that underappreciated cult figure, complete with mouth-watering music samples, unspools from the dashboard. It’s music criticism that comes damn close to being music. You pull in the carport, rush inside and download everything you can find by Sugar Pie DeSanto.

If you have any inkling of who Ed is, you probably know him from his longtime gig as Terry Gross’s “rock historian.” But maybe you were in Austin in the ’70s or ’80s and remember the implacable rock critic for the Austin-American Statesman, the guy who inspired bruised musicians to sport “Dump Ed Ward” bumper stickers, tongue-in-cheek or maybe not. Or if you’re really old you might remember him as a reviewer and editor for Rolling Stone when the magazine was still in San Francisco and still meant the world to people like me.

I remember him in Sausalito, post-Rolling Stone, when he was, among other things, west coast editor for Creem. I had abandoned higher education and the rock bands of New York to try the California dream I’d heard about in all those rock songs. My plan: well, I know a lot about rock music…

But, of course, I didn’t. Not compared to Ed.

It was an impossibly long-ago 1974, and I had been trolling the hills of Sausalito for days in search of an apartment near the spectacular vistas I’d glimpsed on a visit as a kid. A cheap apartment, too — if you can imagine such a place in Sausalito today. But suddenly there it was. For rent: a ground floor apartment, not overpriced, three blocks up from Bridgeway. I stopped the car. Just as I neared the front door, a burly, black-goateed, black-cowboy-hatted biker rounded the corner with a moving box. “Got it already,” he said, but, by the sound of it, he meant, “Fuck off.”

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Lester Bangs & the Detroit Wheel

It is dark and it is cold in January in Detroit. Darker and colder than you’re imagining now. And you are broke. You’ve been amicably tossed, but tossed nonetheless, from your railroad flat in NYC because your childhood buddy, Mark the Shark (he of later Studio 54 celebrity), who more or less owns the place, wants his girlfriend to move in. Actually, she’s in already — they just want a little privacy. Besides, you are a few months behind on the rent, as dirt cheap as it might be, because you are really broke.

And here you are. Detroit in the dead of January.

You know John Morthland from Sausalito, where you lived for ten months, on a lark, after abandoning New York the first time and whom you had met through Ed Ward, the ex-Rolling Stone writer (now “rock historian” on Fresh Air), who gave you your start with an assignment to review Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade. John Morthland’s a really good writer and editor and an amazingly prescient musicologist who was first to discover a lot of things pop-cultural that eluded most rock critics, or at least white ones. Things like rap music (before it was hip hop), Sacred Steel and Moe Bandy. He’s in Detroit to be interim editor — interim, because John is strictly freelance or die. And you know him, it should be clarified, only pretty well, though that may be as well as most anyone knows silent, staring, inscrutably smirking John.

You don’t know Lester.

You know of him, but barely, and as much on the strength of that seemingly concocted name — Lester Bangs — as his writing.

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