First of two stories on Austin Music critic Margaret Moser.
When you're lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, it's often easy to take it for granted. You think, Why should anything be any different? This is how the world is supposed to work. It often felt like that, starting in late 1974 at the Austin Sun office upstairs on 15th Street. And it all began so unofficially.
James BigBoy Medlin had an apartment above the garages behind a two-story structure on 15th Street near Guadalupe. Some of us would sit on his small balcony and take advantage of the 3-quarts-for-a-dollar bottles of Old Milwaukee beer. We figured it had to be good if it was from Milwaukee. One long and lazy afternoon Jeff Nightbyrd pulled into the parking lot in his '56 Mercury, followed shortly by Michael Eakin in a pick-up truck. Nightbyrd was infamous for working at The Rag in the '60s before moving to New York to help start The Rat. Eakin was semi-famous for being the trouble-making former editor of the Daily Texan. Both were deeply involved in local politics, and had come up with the idea for a new weekly alternative newspaper for Austin. But first they had to move the desks in the back of Eakin's pick-up upstairs into what
would be the Austin Sun's new office. They quickly asked for our help, and if I recall correctly we didn't exactly run to the rescue. In fact, I think we might have made a few uncool comments. But help we did, and before you could say "Hook 'em 'Horns," Medlin was the Sun's weekly columnist specializing in cosmic sports and I was a hybrid typesetter-music editor who had never written a coherent paragraph. Life is funny that way.
Flash forward a year, and the Sun is ferociously stumbling along on passion and fumes. The office upstairs on 15th looks like a crash pad, and most of the writers, layout people and a few true stragglers looked even worse. But the paper rocked hard. It really did. We might not have known what we were doing, but we sure were doing it. Austin, for the most part, was still stuck in Squaresville, but the Sun had an edge. Nightbyrd was mostly steering the ship and he had an eye for talent and what mattered to write about. Business-wise, of course, the paper was a disaster. It was being sold for a quarter at mostly-broken news racks, which would be raided by those of us who had keys before the few quarters in them could be collected. As Medlin's column then was called, "Why Not?"
One sweltering Monday, a sweet-faced and decidedly dedicated Austin groover named Margaret Moser came up the stairs into the Sun office. It's been said she crossed 15th from her job over at Michelle's Massage, located just inches from a bar called the Cedar Door. I don't remember seeing her make that walk, but boy do I remember when she said hello. Some of us seemed to live at the Sun during the day, even if we weren't working, because it was electrified. Things were happening there, and it wasn't as hot as being on the street. Margaret was looking to be a writer, and what she wanted to write about was music. Since that was my beat, we started comparing notes and it was clear in a single second she had the goods. Margaret not only loved music, but she loved people, she loved hanging out, she loved laughing, she loved sharing stories, she loved what was new and what was old and what made all our molecules in this little city go zing and zang. Margaret was full of life and the Force was with her. I knew right then and there a new side of Austin was getting ready to be cracked open, and this young woman would be the one doing the cracking.
Margaret quickly worked out some sort of job with Jeff Nightbyrd, and was soon helping gather items for our "Near Truths" gossip column. Talk about a natural. But it was when she offered to start doing the Q&A's for the "Backstage" column I knew she'd found her calling. This was a born writer, someone unafraid to walk into any nightclub in town and let them not only know she was there, but she was heading for the backstage door. She didn't need any stinkin' passes. Margaret's smile and her eyes got her anywhere she wanted to go. I just laughed and watched, realizing I'd never get that kind of treatment. This wonderful woman was a walking and talking lesson in how to live, and I was ready to learn some new tricks. In 1976 when B.B. King played Antone's on the Bicentennial, Margaret suggested we collaborate on a story. She'd interview King and I'd write the introduction and edit the interview. A bit jealous I wouldn't get to be backstage with the King of the Blues, I also knew I was no competition in the man's eyes for who he'd rather spend an hour with. Life might not always be fair, but if you let it be, it's always right. Lesson learned.
Margaret and I started our topsy-turvy run in the Austin music scene. Her columns were unique explorations of what made rockers roll, and her unorthodox style of doing interviews was a new lesson in libertarianism, even if they happened in a bathtub. When we came up with the idea of starting an annual Music Awards extravaganza, which at the time meant two bands playing free at Soap Creek Saloon, Margaret and I used to just laugh at how smart we were. What could be more fun than running a contest letting readers decide which local musicians they liked the best? All we had to do was count the mail-in ballots and hope our friends won. The second year of the Awards got a little crispy when the Austin American-Statesman's crusty columnist Townsend Miller called into question our balloting integrity. He had the bully pulpit of being at the daily paper and he wasn't shy about beating his amateur competition at the Sun over the head with it. It hurt, too. We chalked it up to Miller's jealousy over our cutting into his turf, running hard in the city's clubs. That, and maybe the fact that clearly we were absolute amateurs who had not punched our cards or paid our dues.
Forty years later I have to plead brain-cell impairment about what really happened with the ballots, but Nightbyrd backed our play when it got ugly and the Awards went on as scheduled. Unfortunately, Jeff sold his interest in the Sun and our new fearless leaders (whoever they were) didn't quite get how loose life at the paper really was. I think they'd been journalism majors or something, and might have even hired a fact-checker, whatever that was. When the Austin Sun became the Texas Sun, the fun-factor flame had been turned down a notch and I'd gotten a job doing PR for KLRN-TV and their fairly new music series "Austin City Limits." Margaret, bless her heart, kept writing and grooving, which she had turned into a true art form and her life's calling. But I'd made a lifelong friendship, the kind you never have to worry for a single second if it will last forever.
One sparkling afternoon comes back to me all the time. The sun was out, the paper was being printed and the living was easy. Margaret and Sterling Morrison--our English-teaching pal at the University of Texas who had spent five mind-blowing years as guitarist in the Velvet Underground--joined me and Marvin Williams, also a UT PhD candidate who moonlighted as a bartender at the Cedar Door, for a short jaunt down to Benny's Tavern on Sixth Street. The slim and nondescript bar was just two doors down from Antone's then, and had been in the same spot for decades. When the four of us walked into Benny's the room went silent. We hadn't seen the sign on the wall behind the cash register that said "No Women Served." Not that it mattered, because there was no way Margaret was leaving. In fact, she walked up to the bar and made it clear she was going to be there for the duration. She ordered a bottle of Pearl and, just to get her message across, two hard-boiled eggs from the jar in front of her. Me, Marvin and Sterling were right there with her, with Sterling and Marvin flanking Margaret. Both men were over six feet tall and had the look of committed existentialists crossed with a slight biker patina. I just shook my head and laughed. I knew all three well enough to understand that history was being made and Benny's would no longer be just for those of the male persuasion. It wasn't Margaret's first brush with fame, nor would it be her last. When the Austin Chronicle was born a few years later, the whole world would discover what we already knew: this woman was a writer for the ages.
Margaret Moser will forever be a hero for those who know that being alive carries responsibilities, with none greater than the need to share a passionate heart with the world. It was her calling, and she answered the call every day. My great good fortune was to be there at the right time that afternoon when she walked up the stairs to the Austin Sun and said hello.
Hello Margaret, and never goodbye, to my dearest friend on 15th street.
All black & white photos: JR Compton © 1976, http://www.jrcompton.com/photos/The_Birds/J/
Bill Bentley © 2017
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: THE PEOPLE'S PICTURES will be published by Smithsonian Books, available October 2017.