John Morthland gave me my first full-time writing job. It was at a semi-notorious rock magazine called Creem, and in the four decades of writing jobs I’ve had since we mostly stayed in touch. Two weeks ago came word he’d died of a heart attack, at 68, in Austin, where for the last 30 years he’d tried, with increasing difficulty in a changing world, to make a living as a writer — one of the most thoughtful and venturesome ever to report on that beautiful bastard, American vernacular culture.
He did his work in magazines — Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Texas Monthly — and websites — Wandering Sound. He did it in dozens of liner notes — for albums by Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Flaco Jimenez, not to mention theTime-Life Treasury of the Blues. He did it in one big, fat book he authored, The Best of Country Music, and another he edited, Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, a posthumous collection of the work of Lester Bangs, for whom he was also literary executor. And in June of 1964, as a 17-year-old freelancer, he did his earliest work in the local daily, becoming the first US journalist to interview a new British group, the Rolling Stones, who kicked off their first US tour in his hometown of San Bernardino. Five years later, he’d help lead the coverage in Rolling Stone magazine of the band’s epoch-ending free concert at Altamont.
The byline “John Morthland” must have appeared beside ten-thousand stories that made people say wow.
No matter my affection, I’ve always considered it an objective injustice that John was never much known beyond a savvy circle of freaks and friends — singers, writers, editors, music biz operators, photographers, Mexican league baseball fans, barbecue aficionados, niche magazine readers, and lovers of real music and unfancy meat — many of whom turned out this past Monday in his honor to groove to Austin favorite son Kevin Russell, guzzle Shiner Bock and scarf brisket and sausage served up, personally, by another Morthland crony, the King of Austin Q, Aaron Franklin.
They also listened to a bunch of stories. And this — minus the halting delivery — was mine.
Yesterday was Roni’s and my 39th wedding anniversary. Though we had traveled in the same circles — she was taking pictures for rock magazines and hanging out with rock critics in New York, I was working at a rock rag in Detroit — we finally met, by accident, on Positively 4th Street, in the Village.
That’s an improbable story for later.
But the story for now is the morning-after, when we were awakened at Roni’s on Perry Street by a call from a mutual friend.
Hey, Roni, he said, there’s a guy just moved back to town who I think you might like. His name is Duncan.
And Roni said, He’s right here.
The thoughtful friend, of course, was John Morthland. And the three of us would hang for many nights and years, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking Rolling Rocks, running up tabs at the Bells of Hell, sharing Thanksgivings on our TV-tray-tables and July 4ths wandering a deserted Greenwich Village — until Roni and I had a kid (John was the first friend to lay eyes on her) and had to take real jobs in San Francisco and not long thereafter Morthie moved to Texas, and, as the man said, time slips away.
But Morthie was there, with us and for us, at all sorts of turning points. Deep in our lives. And that phone call the morning-after was deeply Morthie.
Let me take a second to tell you why we call him Morthie. Which not many do.
We were at the Bells — always the Bells, in those days — and John started telling how when he was a kid his family sent off money to a charity in Africa, where you’d “adopt” a child for X dollars a day and get a letter from time to time from the family. And one day John’s family received a letter from the African mother announcing she had named her newborn Morthie, in honor of the Morthlands of San Bernardino, California.
And that’s how that started.
But let me tell you a few other things about Morthie.
One of those turning points for me was the job working at that rock magazine in Detroit. I had met John at Ed Ward’s apartment in Sausalito on my first go-round in California. Once or twice a week, John and I would kick in whatever beer or beer-money or non-culinary assistance we could, and Ed, who loved to, would cook. Afterwards, he and John would consult over what record to put on and then we’d drink black-and-tans and discuss the music. Which was almost always stuff I’d never heard or even heard of — though I fancied myself a connoisseur. It was humbling. And amazing.
Eventually John was offered the editor’s job at Creem in Detroit on an interim basis — because this was a man implacably opposed to ever having a full-time job ever again — and I moved back to New York (again), and was living on a couch and not getting anywhere in the realms of writing or, to the couch-owner’s irritation, rent-money, and John Morthland called and offered me a job as copy boy, at Creem, and picked me up, with a maniac named Lester, at the Detroit-Windsor airport.
And that was that turning point.
Ed Ward had given me my first freelance assignment. Now his full-time-job-hating friend John had given me my first full-time job. And after that — sometimes with Morthie’s offhand, but indelible, encouragement — I was a writer.
John was quieter than some of us. One of those quiet types who, through no fault of his own, through natural fearlessness, curiosity, vision and a strong moral compass could make you feel guilty for raising your own loud, ignorant voice. Could make you, in the end, better. But John wasn’t a judge or a scold. He was a lover of the world in all its wild variety. When asked if I had any ideas about music for this memorial, I could only answer that John couldn’t be defined by any one song or genre. He was a stark raving eclectic.
He loved the blues. He loved country, of course — but resolutely not Gram Parsons. He loved clean, simple pop — Sir Doug and Joe “King” Carrasco, along with Big Star. He was the first person to explain hip-hop to me — after he rode his whiter-than-white ass on the subway up to basements and parties in the Bronx. And he was the first to tell me about Sacred Steel — Sacred what??? — the swooping melodies of the Campbell Brothers in the House of God tradition. In recent years, his Facebook posts were a graduate school in American music — Betty Hall Jones, Rudy and the Reno Bops, Hubert Robinson, even some people I’d heard of: Ornette Coleman, Lene Lovich and Johnny Paycheck — the latter of whom we were lucky enough to see in a small club, in John’s company, on another long-gone Village night.
But his love of music went way beyond music. John Morthland was also the world’s leading authority on barbecued goat. Or maybe co-leading authority with his pal Joe Nick Patoski. He told me all about his goat-grading chops, in his modest Morthie way, as we ate it together, with Ed and Roni, just a year ago, just a few blocks down Sixth Street from here.
As a critic, Morthie was one of the great appreciators (and one of the most woefully underappreciated). Certainly he had standards, high ones, but he was never a show-off or assassin. His calling was to go deep, find people, places and things that met his standards — all sorts of non-standard cultural specimens — and bring them back alive. Help us understand, with unadorned American prose and a few perfectly spiced allusions, why he was so all-fired excited — in his Morthie way.
I’ll miss the worlds only John could bring us. And will always be thankful for the worlds he brought me — even if I somehow managed to beat him to the punch on Roni. Love you, Morthie. We both do.
Pretty sure we all do.