There were some mistakes made during the layout
process of my last column, and I flew into our weekly writers
staff meeting this past Thursday with a copy of that issue
in hand. I was fully prepared to beg my Editor, Isaac Friese,
to verbally flog whoever was responsible for what I thought
was a colossal blunder. Irony reared its very ugly head though
when, before I could get to Isaac, I myself was met by our
Art and Photography Editor, Larry Stern, who wanted to know
if I knew how to spell Jimi Hendrix, referring to my mention
of him in the same column. “Of course,” I replied
as a nagging horror began to wash over me. I was thinking,
“Oh my God, what if I spelled the guitar god’s
last name with a c-k-s as opposed to an x?” “Why?”
I nervously asked. “Did I not spell it right?”
“No,” Larry says with a sarcastic (or was it sadistic)
smile. “You spelled it J-I-M-M-Y”! Of course,
to my utter disgrace, this conversation took place in front
of another writer, James E., who, to his credit, didn’t
laugh out loud. My only weak defense was to inform Stern that
I had at least gone to the trouble of finding out how to spell
“Linkin Park” correctly for the article in question
and continued to hold my head defiantly high. Mercifully,
I still hold my position as a staff writer for Rank and Revue
but I’m sure, even as I write now, that there are spirits
creating a special place for me in rock and roll purgatory
for my own monumental bungle. Needless to say, by the time
I got to Isaac, I had developed a certain sense of empathy
for the layout artist I had intended to blast and was sure
there were logical reasons for his error. Who knew? He was
probably living with a small child and utterly sleep-deprived!
After all, mistakes like this will happen on occasion as I
was told by Isaac, especially in a fledgling music publication
like this where we are short staffed and eyes are blurry after
they have relentlessly read, cut, pasted, posted, and designed
pages in the two day whirlwind period that occurs just before
the paper goes to press.
I bring this humiliating story to light simply
to show a small example of the many levels of frustration
that can occur in the world of music journalism. The pay offs,
though, make it all worthwhile. Imagine a job where you occasionally
have an opportunity to get inside the head of an artist whose
work you adore. Imagine having a voice that might sway public
opinion in the subjective world of musical tastes. Imagine
having the power to elevate an artist to new levels of success.
Is the pen mightier than the guitar? Of course, that answer
is slanted, but the two go hand in hand. Artists need the
media like castaways need running boats. .
I was fortunate enough this past week to spend
some time chatting with a very astute writer for The Austin
Chronicle (I’m sure nothing like the aforesaid story
has ever happened to him). He is none other than Christopher
Gray, author of The Chronicle’s weekly column TCB where
readers can get the scoop on the hot happenings in the local
music scene. In addition to TCB, he writes record reviews,
an occasional feature story, and a small high school football
box at the back of the paper. Yes, TCB stands for ‘takin’
care of business’ but no, it is not derived from the
Bauchman-Turner Overdrive song of the same name. Instead it
is inspired by, or dare I say pays possible tribute to, the
slogan that was painted on the side of Elvis Presley’s
private plane in the 70’s. Legend has it that the saying
was the motto ‘The King’ lived by and he even
had TCB engraved into the handle of his gun.
It was classical music that he heard on the
radio that first stirred Gray’s soul. He began playing
with the orchestra at his Friendswood, Texas, junior high
school and stayed with it throughout high school. He first
played the cello and later played bass and occasionally wrote
for his high school paper for kicks. He came to The University
of Texas here planning to major in music theory and play in
their orchestra, but when scheduling conflicts arose around
band practices, he began to look in another direction. His
schoolteacher father knew a UT student who worked for the
Daily Texan, the self-proclaimed “best known student
medium in the century.” Gray’s father recommended
that his son talk to his friend at the student publication
about writing for them. Gray did and was brought on immediately.
He began writing a lot for the Texan and was beginning to
feel a strange pull towards this new endeavor. As luck would
have it, someone at The Chronicle was feeling a strong attraction
to his writing as well. Margaret Moser, the notorious former
ringleader of the “Texas Blondes” (that is another
story in and of itself) and current staff writer, was following
Gray’s work in the UT paper for several months and called
him one day asking if he might be interested in writing for
The Chronicle. While freelancing there, he met Randall Stockton
of Beerland fame and did a short stint as bass player for
Stockton’s group, The Long Walking Band. Through playing
in the band and writing reviews, his love of music was beginning
to expand to the sounds of blues and rock, but after nine
months with TLWB, his drive to write won out and he eventually
landed a full time paying gig with The Chronicle.
Gray loves his job and is an avid fan of the
Austin music scene. Ask this man what some of the highlights
from his writing career have been, and rather than rattling
off big names and intriguing stories (even though he has written
about and interviewed the likes of Radiohead, White Stripes,
Audioslave, George Jones, and Psychadelic Furs, to name a
few), he will begin to tell you how cool it is to do what
he does right here in Austin. Sure, he gets off to hanging
backstage at the ACL Fest or Willie’s Picnic, but as
far as he’s concerned, the real honor has come from
getting to know the people in the local scene from the musicians
to the bartenders and door people. He has made many good friends
here, including the members of Grand Champeen, whom he will
be accompanying to New York in a couple of weeks when they
road trip it there for a CMJ Showcase. We’ll keep our
fingers crossed that the band thinks twice before letting
Gray drive. One of his favorite pastimes is driving really
fast in his treasured Ford Mustang.
If you are an aspiring artist, it never hurts
to have a music journalist in your corner. For that matter,
it can come in handy for established artists as well. On a
gloriously overcast day, as we sat at a picnic table on the
grounds sandwiched between The Chronicle and SXSW offices,
here is what Gray had to say about artists and the media.
R&R: What is the importance of an artist generating press
for themselves while playing at the club level?
CG: Well, it’s very important because
usually that’s the first time that their music will
be in contact with the general public and also with the media.
It’s the first step that every band has to take, to
get their music out there to that level so they can start
to work their way up.
R&R: What does an artist do to entice
you to write about them?
CG: There’s all different things. I
mean, it could be just word of mouth, or I might just happen
to be in a club when someone starts playing but it all comes
back to the music. If I don’t like what they’re
doing, I probably won’t make the time to go and see
them. I have really widespread musical tastes, so it’s
not that much of a stretch for me to like someone (as it turns
out, Gray is also a fan of country music as well). I think
a lot of writers only like one really narrow area of music,
and I’ve always tried to stay away from that. I always
try to be as open-minded as possible. Even if I don’t
care for something, I always try to look for what might make
other people care about it. The main thing is to just have
the songs and make sure people hear about them because we’re
out there all the time looking for things to track down that
we might be into.
R&R: Does it help to send in press kits
CG: Oh yeah…anything they can do to
make us aware of them, they should do it. The more we know
that they’re out there, the more likely we are to say,
“Okay, I think I’ll go check that out.”
R&R: Do you choose the artists that you
review, or does The Chronicle assign them to you?
CG: It’s usually about half and half.
I have a pretty good idea about what I want to write about
and my editor knows me pretty well, too, so he knows the kinds
of things that I do well and he sends those things my way.
Then I come in a lot and say, “Hey, I want to write
about this…” and that’s fine too.
R&R: How do you obtain the information
that appears in TCB?
CG: Some of it is just stuff I happened to
hear when I’m out (this job keeps Gray out watching
bands at least five nights a week on average) talking to people
at the clubs. Sometimes, it’s tips I get through email,
sometimes phone calls.
R&R: You choose to work in Austin. What
appeals to you about the music scene here?
CG: It’s just that there is so much
music, that there is something going on every night of the
year which makes it really easy to cover. The local talent
is head and shoulders, I think, above what is out there on
the national level. Really, I can’t think of a better
place to be writing about music than here because you get
all the great things about Austin and you get this totally
dynamic, multi-layered music scene at the same time.
R&R: Knowing all that you know now…what
is the best piece of advice you could give to aspiring artists
in this crazy pursuit of success in music?
CG: Just don’t get discouraged. It’s
going to take a while for what you do to catch on and take
hold with people. You just have to keep after it as long as
you believe in it. Don’t let clubs not wanting to book
your band right off…or if they do, don’t let small
crowds keep you from keepin’ on. It takes a long time
to build up a career in music. I mean, it took me I don’t
know how many years to get to a level where I could just do
this and not worry about some other job so I could pay the
bills. So just keep after it. The longer you keep at it, the
more people you’ll start to know, the more places you’ll
find where you can fit in and the easier it gets.
There goes that perseverance theme again.
Someone once said that there are no statues built for critics.
But I will take this opportunity to say that I, for one, find
it incredibly uplifting to know that there is a Christopher
Gray among us in Austin, someone that genuinely respects the
talent here and enjoys being able to help in elevating artists
to new heights of achievement. Hats off to you, Chris! The
rest of you, keep reaching for the dream. As a great man once
said, “Keep on keepin’ on”! Peace.
[Editor’s note: Ok, to settle the matter
once and for all. Yes, I did make the mistake of misspelling
Jimi Hendrix’s first name in one of the previous issues
(Issue #7/Amplified Heat review/Red Eyed Fly). But, like I
will continue to explain till the very day I die, I did and
do know how to spell his name properly. Yet, as I had been
under deadline pressue, needed another review for the Fly,
had been up all night, had to listen to several people griping
all day and hadn’t eaten in an eternity… –
you get the point. Shit happens. But really guys, I am not
a total dipshit as assumed. Thank-you very much for your time
and attention to this matter. P.S. Larry Stern, kiss my hairy
white ass. – Isaac Friese]