Writer reflects on 20 years on the music beat

Tales from the tonal trenches

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly



The Chautauqua Summer Series program director used to host a little gathering of Boulder music media types in the wintertime, an informal punch-and-doughnuts thing where we’d vote on acts we’d like to see at Chautauqua that summer. It was fun — it gave local writers and radio personalities and players a chance for some schmoozing and trading of war stories, good shows we’d seen, new CDs, industry gossip.


On the way out after one of these sessions one year, I distinctly remember our host commenting to one of the other writers, after hearing about a colleague who had flamed out somehow, “Yeah, writing about music is really a young man’s game.”

That statement, delivered offhandedly as I recall, has always stuck with me.

This was a few years before Leland Rucker, who now writes a weekly column about developments in weed legalization in these very pages, asked me to contribute to this new weekly publication called Boulder Weekly. Rucker and I had some history. I had written for him at a couple of other locally published periodicals in the ’80s and early ’90s; he had accustomed himself to the Excedrin-sized perils of editing my copy (no trivial exercise in those days), but I think he also trusted me to get him properly sized stories on time. A good section editor can fix quarrelsome copy; he can’t fix mortally late copy.

And so one of the first stories that Rucker assigned me was a shoe leather report on the local retail commerce in used CDs. Hard to imagine now, but the music industry was pretty freaked out by the growing phenomenon of people buying CDs, taping them and then selling the original media. Ripping a CD in those days meant copying it onto a cassette.

It was a fun story to do (all the stores agreed that the most off-loaded CD, the one that they wouldn’t take anymore, was Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction), but even then I’d been around long enough to remember the last iteration of music-copying panic, the civilization-threatening Blank Cassette Scare of the 1970s. They had Congressional hearings on that one.

Stevie Wonder proposed that every blank cassette sold have an artist’s album on one side, so you were at least filling some label’s till while you plotted to clandestinely copy someone else’s copy of Get The Knack to your Nakamichi.

In the intervening years, of course, the music industry has survived the used CD, survived Napster (well, they killed that), survived BitTorrent, survived Kim Dotcom. The Weekly has survived as well, while the newspaper business around it resists an achingly long march to possible obsolescence, defying the odds, it seemed, by sheer force of will.

So while I wasn’t new to the weekly music column game, the ride at the Weekly, Boulder’s upstart arts and news weekly publication, proved to be a great one. Les Claypool telling us in 2001 how he hates to be bored. McCoy Tyner reflecting in 2002 on John Coltrane’s fear of flying and Bud Powell’s sad demise. John Paul Jones recalling how much he hated touring with Led Zeppelin. Al DiMeola wondering why he couldn’t get the same radio play that Kenny G did. Leo Kottke being mad, years after the fact, that Michael Hedges died so young. Herbie Hancock enthusing, in between bites of his lunch, about an impromptu duet with Max Roach at a European jazz festival. Interviewing Los Lobos for the Weekly’s second edition, and five times since.

And countless stories on Boulder’s own success stories. Leftover Salmon, String Cheese, Trace Bundy, The Motet, West Water Outlaws, the subdudes, Sean Kelly, Big Head Todd, Newcomer’s Home, Elephant Revival, Paper Bird, Big Gigantic, Danny Shafer, Otis Taylor, Yonder Mountain String Band. And even a few Boulder ex-pats, like Jerry Joseph, who, years after moving to Portland, felt like he was being stalked by ghosts whenever he was back in town, and Steve Conn recalling Monday Night Madness gigs with Gris Gris at Jose Muldoon’s back in the day, vying with Sonny Landreth’s band on alternate weeks to break the bar record.

For me, the work has always been about the players: dealing with the tidal convulsions of the industry, the grind of endless tours in cramped and rickety buses, navigating the fickle tastes of club or theater audiences, the balance between craft and logistics. Years ago, I used to write much more opinionated columns — this is great, this sucks — the kind of stuff that music critics write to call attention to themselves and their self-anointed roles as tastemakers. But the players are doing the heavy lifting, not me. Most of the time, their stories are a lot more interesting than what I happen to think about them.

Still, I’ve taken my share of lumps along the way. After being publicly (and comically) accused of being a Deadhead by another local writer in the early ’90s, a decidedly criminal offense for a real music critic, I found myself ironically targeted by scorching hate-emails after a skeptical column I did on a Phil and Friends gig at Red Rocks in 2001. I vowed never to write about the Dead or Deadheads again, nominally breaking that pledge a few years ago by interviewing Mickey Hart. Neither of us really wanted to talk about the Dead, though, and for that I was grateful … er, thankful.

And the time when a local club operator threatened to sue me over an inartfully constructed sentence suggesting that his venue had gone out of business. And the time I misidentified Wammo as Asylum Street Spankers’ Christine Marrs’ husband — I heard from her real husband on that one. On Facebook. They broke up not long after that little mistake (the band, not the marriage), and ever since I have felt vaguely and irrationally responsible.

So the tread has a few miles on it, but it’s all good. It may sound trite to say that the Weekly is a survivor and so am I, even if it’s a little true. Instead, we’ll just say that it’s easy to keep going after 20 years for this upstart little newspaper.

Why? Because after 20 years, we’re both still young.

Hey, this is Boulder, and in Boulder, everybody is young.

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