Farewell from Cracker Eden

Texas journalism loses a great writer and friend in Grover Lewis

The name Grover Lewis means almost nothing to those outside journalism, and even then, only a handful of writers could claim to know him well or even know of him. I actually considered him something of a mentor, and yet I barely knew Grover; and now, I will never know him any better because he is dead.

The extent of my friendship with the man covered one night of drinking with Grover and two other Texas journalists, and several late-night phone conversations spent talking about writing and editing. I did not learn until last week that he was the father of former Dallas Observer music editor Clay McNear. Hell, the two men barely knew each other.

But for several young writers throughout his estimable career--which included a stint at Rolling Stone in the early '70s, as one of the magazine's most prolific and talented writers--Lewis was always there with an instructive comment or a hundred, always there to offer his unsolicited compliment or constructive criticism. He was generous with his praise, even more kind when doling out advice.

Lewis was born in San Antonio in 1935; eight years later, his parents, "Big Grover" and Opal Bailey Lewis--friends of Bonnie and Clyde's--gunned each other down with the same pawnshop-bought pistol. Lewis then became the ward of a "brutish Fort Worth in-law who amused himself trying to break my body and spirit," he wrote in Texas Monthly in September 1992, in a harrowing piece about a young life spent in Oak Cliff. "Many of my mother's kin considered me unsalvageable because I was 'a pure Lewis.'"

In the Monthly story, titled "Farewell to Cracker Eden," Lewis revisited the Oak Cliff of his turbulent youth and found it to be a bombed-out shell of its former self--"beat, maybe even whipped." It was a place populated by the ghosts of Bonnie and Clyde, Lee Harvey Oswald, and abusive relatives bound to God or the bottle. Lewis was but a few pages into a book about the subject when he died of lung cancer on Easter Sunday.

Grover was a college classmate of Larry McMurtry's at North Texas State University, where both men began their writing careers as founders of The Coexistence Review, a campus magazine; he later went on to work for The Village Voice. According to Robert Draper's 1990 book Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History, Lewis was brought to the magazine by then-associate editor John Lombardi--the man also responsible for luring Hunter S. Thompson into its pages, though Thompson had once derided the magazine as "a bunch of faggots and hippies."

It was Lombardi's goal, Draper wrote, to bring writers to the magazine who would elevate it from a half-assed rock and roll magazine into something more substantial and literate, something more respectable. In Thompson and Lewis, he found his men--old-school journalists who wrote like crazed poets, Southern gentlemen whose pens were dipped not in ink but in the bourbon that would fuel their expression.

Grover once told me he disliked writing about rock and roll; on his desk at Rolling Stone once sat a small sign that read "I Do Not Write No Rock and Roll," taken from the Muddy Waters line. He did write a few stories about the likes of the Allman Brothers, Boz Scaggs, and Jethro Tull, but mostly, Grover explained, he considered rock and roll types too dim-witted or boorish, their stories told and retold too many times to keep him interested for long.

His contempt for rock stars--and those who covered their every move--was never more evident than in a 1971 profile of Three Dog Night, set at the Cotton Bowl and at a party the following day at Gordon McLendon's ranch Cielo ("a French-fried version of Xanadu") just north of town. Lewis painted a hilarious, though slightly pathetic, portrait of depravity set to a boogie-rock beat: drooling rock critics chased down waitresses in search of free booze, as band members chased down broads.

"Singer Danny Hutton paces about restlessly, raking a hand through his dark, kinky hair," Lewis wrote. "'Where's that chick, man?' he demands of a roadie. 'I need to get laid, man, and she promised me she'd be here an hour ago. Find her for me, OK? And listen, get me a drink, willya?'"

Lewis specialized in the sort of hypercelebrity pieces that defined much of the New Journalism of the early '70s--getting inside the head of superstars like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, directors John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. He relied heavily on the quotes, capturing on tape the sort of casual, off-hand ramblings that reveal more about a person than a dozen prescient observations; he was the reader's ear, less a friend to the stars than a sort of twisted confidant.

"People have a lot of misperceptions about me, you see, some of which I resent," Streisand told Lewis in '71. "Like the--'star' business. I don't think I'm a star; my friends don't think I'm a star. The fact is, a large part of me is nebbish--plain, dull, uninteresting."

His greatest piece of journalism came when he covered the filming of The Last Picture Show for Rolling Stone in 1971. The story, "Splendor in the Short Grass," began with the image of Lewis flying over his home state, bounding between Dallas and Wichita Falls in a private jet, the landscape below jarring loose memories of a home state he had never truly left.

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