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.

"I'm riffling through the pages of an underground sheet called Dallas Notes--'Narc Thugs Trash Local White Panthers'--but the lonesome countryside below keeps drawing my mind and eye away from the real-enough agonies of Big D's would-be dope brotherhood," Lewis wrote. "Somewhere down there slightly to the south, a pioneer Texan named William Medford Lewis--my paternal grandfather--lies buried in the Brushy Cemetery, hard by the fragrant dogwood trails of Montague County where he and I once trampled together in less fitful times."

Hunter Thompson was so impressed by the story, Draper writes in his book, that he sent Lewis a note that bore the gonzo journalist's highest compliment--Thompson wrote he had gotten "a first-class morning high off it." Sadly, though the magazine has published several compilations of its works in various books, "Splendor in the Short Grass" has never reappeared--likely because Lewis and Stone editor Jann Wenner had such a brutal falling-out, one that left Lewis bitter for the rest of his life.

As Draper explains it, Lewis and Wenner "had never exactly been pals": Grover thought Wenner was a "brat and a groupie," Draper wrote, who cared little about writing (and writers, for that matter) and was sickeningly fawning when it came to the rock stars. Their relationship soured for good in early 1973 when Wenner killed a piece Texas Observer editor Ronnie Dugger had written on Lyndon Johnson, which Lewis had assigned. Grover shot out a widely circulated note that expressed his anger at his editor and his embarrassment for being connected to the magazine.

But Wenner had the last laugh, offering Lewis a contract for a book about former Texas governor John Connally and then yanking it out from him just as Lewis was buying a house in San Antonio with his fiancee Rae Ence, a Rolling Stone secretary to whom Grover remained married till he died. Grover took his old boss to court and got $13,000 plus custody of a typewriter Wenner had given him and then demanded back. Grover "kept the typewriter," Draper wrote, "using it only for occasions when nasty letters were called for."

When I met Grover at the Assassination Symposium for John F. Kennedy in November 1993, on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's death, he already appeared withered and worn. Despite thick glasses, he could barely see; his teeth were yellowed and rotten, thick with the deposits left from all those years of hard drinking and smoking several packs a day. He was living in Santa Monica with his wife, writing for the L.A. Weekly and a few other publications, regaining the enthusiasm he had lost for his craft. The publication of Draper's book had helped Lewis reclaim the part of his past that Wenner had stolen from him, and he was eager to get back into the journalism game.

We spoke for several hours about writing, drank beer and smoked pot, and talked a while longer. He insisted you could never teach writing, that "you could either do it or you could not," and he imparted kind words about a story I had written in that week's paper. He asked to see more stories and I told him I'd comply, only if he'd sign a copy of Academy All the Way, a long-out-of-print collection of his journalism that Wenner's publishing company had released. Lewis absolutely abhorred it because was filled with misspellings and shortened versions of his articles.

I included the book in a package of clips sent off to Lewis several months ago, spoke with him briefly some time afterward, and did not hear his name again till Texas Monthly senior editor Joe Nick Patoski called with news of Grover's death. Most likely, Draper suggested to me the other day, Grover threw my copy of Academy All the Way in the trash.

Tribute to Selena
When Texas Monthly and People hit newsstands last week with cover stories on slain Tejano superstar Selena, hundreds of fans lined up in front of San Antonio and Corpus Christi grocery stores, their ranks increasing and their restlessness unbound; they craved the unseen photos, the words that paid homage to their icon, their myth, their martyr. So when Selena's backup singer Pete Astudillo takes the stage with The Barrio Boyzz, with whom Selena recorded a few years ago, on May 7 at Reverchon Park as part of a Cinco de Mayo celebration concert, expect the crowds to swell by the thousands (last year's show, with a modest roster without any superstars, peaked at nearly 12,000 people).

Billed as a tribute to Selena, the lineup of performers will also feature Tejano mainstays Little Joe y La Familia and newcomers Los Desperados, Stephanie Lynn, La Tropa F, and Fama. The concert at Reverchon, on Turtle Creek at Maple, begins at noon and is scheduled to end at 11 p.m. Tickets are available for $8 around town, $10 at the event.

On May 6, Shelly Lares and Elsa Garcia--two of the few female Tejano stars who even approached Selena's fame, though by comparison they were almost anonymous--will perform at Texas Stadium on a bill that also includes Jay Perez, Mazz, and La Mafia.

On the road again
Michael Corcoran, the pop music critic for the Dallas Morning News, has decided to return to the city that made him famous (or, wait, was it the other way around?). Corcoran's last day at the Morning News is May 10, and at the end of the month, he will become the pop music critic for the Austin American Statesman, replacing Don McLeese. McLeese, a former Chicago Sun-Times critic, will become in September a full-time city columnist for the paper. As one Texas writer says of Corcoran's departure for the Hill Country, "You can't go home again, but maybe Corky can."

When he lived in Austin in the mid- to late '80s and wrote for the Austin Chronicle, Corcoran became something of a legend--not merely for his rock criticism (by his own admission, Corcoran wasn't a music fanatic at the time), but for the way he became one of a vibrant scene's central characters. At a time when Austin was teeming with great bands (True Believers, Zeitgeist, Glass Eye, Wild Seeds, Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers), Corky was almost as big a star on the very small, very intimate scene.

"Ever since I left Austin in 1988, when I moved to San Francisco, I've been looking for a way to get back," Corcoran says of his reasons for leaving. "It's a great cast of characters to write about in the music scene there, a lot of my closest friends live there, and it's just a great music town."

And now he returns there after a three-year stint at the News, where he managed to interject hilarious, biting, even poignant (as in the case of his Bob Marley piece almost two years ago) writing into an arts section that has rarely depended upon the personality of its writers. In Austin, Corcoran was a star and likely will be again; here, he was just one of Dallas' best writers.

"The problem with the Dallas Morning News is that as well as you write, it's just flat and lays on the page and the next day there's something else," Corcoran says. "There's no lasting implications or any real say in defining the music scene. Writing about music in Dallas is kind of like shooting in the dark."

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.......

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