A Margaret Moser primer: Essential articles from Austin’s greatest music champion

After over 30 years serving as scribe, presenter, superfan and supporter to the Austin music scene, Margaret Moser stepped down from her post as a writer for the Austin Chronicle and show runner for the Austin Music Awards in 2014. She was facing colon cancer, what she brushed off as a “stage 4 death sentence.” She moved to San Antonio with her husband, Steve Chaney, set up shop in the city where she came of age and, for the next few years, seemed to be thriving despite the bleak diagnosis.

RELATED: Sex, music writing and the Margaret Moser interview that never happened

Then, in early June, she publicly announced that she was entering home hospice. The news was greeted with an outpouring of warm and wonderful tributes. Countless friends and fans she’s accumulated through a lifetime immersed in the mystical magic of music — in sweaty bars, seedy backrooms and the occasional rock star’s bed — spoke of how her vivid stories and magnanimous personality impacted both their own lives and the Austin music scene in general. The pieces written by current Austin Chronicle music writer Kevin Curtin and Willie Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski are particularly poignant and moving.

An epic thank you video, organized by TV/radio personality and writer Andy Langer, and this week’s issue of the Austin Chronicle, a gathering of tributes from more than 40 artists and industry folks, are a testament to her influence and reach.

But what about the younger music fans and newer Austinites, who arrived too late to fully grasp Moser’s essential role in shaping the Austin music scene? First, the party’s not over. On Saturday, a new Moser-curated exhibit celebrating blues legend Robert Johnson’s Texas years opens upstairs at Antone’s. Second, here are six articles by Moser to get you up to speed on why Margaret Moser matters:

Margaret Moser, left, presented the inaugural Margaret Moser Award to Susan Antone at the Austin Music Awards during South by Southwest 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

1. She’s about a mover: Portraits from a life shaped by music, Oxford American, December 2014

If you have time to read only one piece by Moser, this long-form story written after her retirement from the Chronicle is a glorious swan song that weaves rich Texas music history into an engrossing personal narrative about her evolution as a music lover, from her early infatuations with rhythm and melody as a child in New Orleans to mature reflections as her life nears its end.

Choice passages:  

By the summer of 1969, enterprising local hippies ran hugely popular Sunday rock concerts at the Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park, where a youthful Christopher Cross honed his estimable guitar chops, and a group called Homer turned a country songwriter named Willie Nelson into a rock composer by electrifying “I Never Cared For You” on 45. Meanwhile, San Antonio was the first stop for touring bands like Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, who played there three times in his short career and whetted the Alamo City’s celebrated appetite for hard rock. This was all heady stuff for a teenager for whom rock & roll was the chief salvation from adolescent agonies of bad skin, worse grades, and a deep, echoing sense of alienation from the rest of my high school milieu. Redemption came through stacks of spinning vinyl and three minutes of freefalling into the promise and lure of lyrics and rhythm.

and

It’s a cruel luxury to know death will come soon, but it’s a bizarre comfort to know how it will likely come. For me, chemo is really just one big Whack-A-Mole game I’ll play until I get tired of keeping the cancer at bay or the illness simply takes me over. Once I stop, the clock begins ticking louder and faster. Yet being ill afforded me the chance to step out of the pressure of growing old in a field where few women ever get this far, and away from the threatened print medium I have loved.

A life writing about music wasn’t part of the plan, but then I’d had no plan. I had dropped out of high school, didn’t attend college, had no special training or talent for much, other than a knack for making a place for myself where places didn’t exist. I’ve long joked that I got in through the back door, so whenever I am let in through the front door, I run to the back to see who I can let in.

2. San Antone on a hot dusty night. Austin Chronicle, August 18, 1995

One of Moser’s gifts as a writer is her ability to transport a reader into the scene, in this case, the Sunken Gardens in San Antonio. Another is her fearless honesty. Her autobiographical works are stunning. This story begins with Moser losing her virginity at age 15, and this passage about the transformative power of music is pure magic:

There was a specific spot at the top of the hillside seating area – on the far right as you faced the stage – that I would seek out when I knew the acid was peaking. At that spot, the sound from the stage bounced off the rock wall at the back of the theatre and clashed in a sort of aural wind shear. Often, I would gravitate toward The Spot, not just when the acid was kicking in, but if the mushrooms were just too trippy, or when the music would simply command it. The effect was deafening and struck the deepest part of my soul. Close my eyes for the ultimate rush. Up would rise the moon, like magic, smiling its crooked grin at all of us dancing in its cosmic light. Like heaven.

And heaven I believed it was. My friends and I reveled in the teenage innocence that allowed us to believe that peace and love – whatever those vague concepts entailed – could change the world. We really believed it, and rock & roll was such a powerful medium for this message that rock concerts seemed to become as much a vehicle for the exchange of these well-meaning but half-baked notions as it was for the performance of music.

3. Lust for Life, Austin Chronicle, August 11, 2000

Long before anyone coined the term “slut shaming” as a description of something one ought not do, Moser wrote fearlessly about sex. She wrote about zany escapades with her glittery, giggling girl gang, high on life and assorted other illicit substances. She seemed to laugh in the face of anyone who dismissed her as just a groupie. Her posse of rock-loving gals, the Texas Blondes, were the life of the party and she was the queen of the groupies. Recollections of seedy backrooms and bleary sunrises seen at the tail end of rocky nights are scattered throughout her stories, but in this one she goes all in.  It’s loaded with juicy tidbits, but the emotional core is the tale of her relationship with John Cale, the musical thorn that stuck hardest in her side. She beautifully tempers the vulnerability with a dishy story about a rebound hookup with Iggy Pop:

When Cale returned for two Club Foot shows in May 1981, he brought Risé, the woman he would marry. I was devastated, and Sturgis knew it. Plus, deerfrance was now gone from the band, and I missed her.

I was at the hotel with Sturgis and rode in the band’s van to the club, sitting in the seat behind Risé and John. Cale all but ignored me (as he should have), so Sturgis tried to console me by making faces behind John’s back. It was a long, slow, and tortuous three days. Sturgis invited me to the two Houston shows and I went — miserable. I wouldn’t see John again for almost four years.

I had committed the ultimate groupie sin, the Bad Thing, the I-told-you-so part: I’d fallen hard for John and my heart was no longer into sex, even with musicians for fun, after that May 1981 show. Still, when Iggy Pop came through, promoter Jim Ramsey called me up.

4. Family Circle, Charlie and Will Sexton, Austin Chronicle, December 20, 1996

Once again Moser draws us into the scene with a breathtaking lead about the first time she saw the Sexton brothers:

The two young women sitting in front of a pile of cocaine in the South Austin duplex probably should have been enemies. One was the live-in girlfriend of the Cajun drug dealer/ne’er-do-well who had supplied the coke, the other was his non-live-in, sometime-girlfriend. The women had only recently developed an uneasy alliance: If he wasn’t with either of them, where was he? But it was the mid-Seventies, and cocaine had a way of numbing the senses to such things as common sense and standards.

The three of them talked mindless cocaine babble on that cold winter night and continued to chip at the glittering white rock on the mirror before them, the radio playing in the background to mute the conversation and laughter, and numerous joints smoked to take off the edge. The young women warmed to each other, noses frozen and eyes glassy, as the night seemed to go on forever. In a burst of generous spirit, the live-in girlfriend turned to the other woman with a smile. “Would you like to see my sons?”

5. General Lee and Me, Austin Chronicle, October  26, 2007

A cardinal rule of music writing is that you’re not really supposed to be in the band, but since when did Margaret Moser care about rules? This is the story of her stint in the ’80s as the longest-running Jam and Jelly Girl with shock-rock-punk-funk band Dino Lee’s White Trash Revue. Again, she brings us into the story with a staggering lead that sets the scene with her lying on her back onstage at one of Austin sleaziest topless bars:

Three of the club’s dancers, all topless, join me and the other three Jam & Jelly Girls, who aren’t topless. The packed house is cheering us on as I simulate oral sex with Dino Lee to the brassy punch of showstopper “Everybody Get Some.” This has been a rough night because I’ve had a huge fight with my husband, Rollo Banks, over this show and its location. Right now, though, I’m afraid of getting splinters in my back.

6. The girl who met Robert Johnson, Austin Chronicle, August 3, 2012

It wasn’t all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll for Margaret Moser. She is also one of Texas’ great musicologists. This story reverberates with glee as she revels in the discovery of a Shirley Ratisseau, a white blues singer who shared with Moser a missing link, a story of meeting and fishing with Johnson in Rockport, Texas when she was a young girl:

The life of Robert Johnson is among the most mythologized in all of music. From his largely undocumented 27 years springs rock & roll’s infamous supposition of selling one’s soul to the devil for musical stardom. What is known is that during that same year Ratisseau cites, 1936 – in Novem­ber – Johnson made his best-known recordings in San Antonio at the Gunter Hotel. The following June in Dallas, he completed a second batch. Also cataloged from this period is that Johnson was arrested in San Antonio for vagrancy and beaten. Don Law, who produced the Gunter Hotel sessions, sprang him from jail and rented a room in a boarding house for him while the songs were recorded.

What did Robert Johnson do between November 1936 and June 1937?

Shirley’s account of meeting a young musician her family described as “ill,” “sickly” – one in a state of physical disrepair as though he’d been roughed up – is beyond tantalizing. Given the Ratisseaus’ reputation for tolerance and welcome at the Jolly Roger camp, it’s entirely possible Johnson got advice that a few hours south of San Antonio on the coast, he could rest and recuperate. And fish.

During the Depression, fishing was eating. To eat was to live.

 

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