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'One of the greatest': Austin rock 'n' roll critic and historian Ed Ward has died at age 72

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Rock 'n' roll critic and historian Ed Ward has died.

After failing to respond to friends and neighbors, Austin rock 'n' roll critic and historian Ed Ward was found dead by police on a welfare check at his South Austin home late Monday afternoon, his friend Jon Lebkowsky has confirmed. He was 72.

Among the first staff music critics for the American-Statesman, Ward wrote or cowrote four books, including two volumes of a comprehensive history of rock music. He was in Austin working on a third volume.

"Ed Ward was the critic of all music critics," said author and journalist Joe Nick Patoski, who recommended his friend Ward to replace him as music critic for this newspaper in 1979. "From the early days of Rolling Stone magazine through Creem and the Village Voice to the Austin-Statesman, 'Fresh Air,' and beyond, he never shied from voicing his opinion on cultural matters that counted most for his generation."

Ward also was passionate about food and wrote about it for the Austin Chronicle under the pen name Petaluma Pete.

"He was fond of barbecue and Mexican food," Lebkowsky said. "He liked dives and out-of-the-way places. Ed was so great, completely cantankerous. And he was a consummate critic, a critic of everything. At the same time, he was a wonderful friend and he really did look out for his friends."

Born Nov. 2, 1948, Ward grew up in Eastchester, N.Y., and attended Antioch College, a private liberal arts college in Ohio. A fan of folk music, he started writing on the subject in 1965. Based in San Francisco, he served as a staff writer for Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy.

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Austinites got to know him as the music critic for the American-Statesman from 1979 to 1984.

"He transformed the job," said Peter Blackstock, who worked in the newspaper's sports department during the early 1980s and now shares the music beat with Deborah Sengupta Stith. "The paper decided to go big and outside with Ed. When I was in high school, I first started reading Ed, about concerts coming to the Erwin Center. He covered the big stuff. He also took the Austin music scene seriously. He could converse in the country world but was definitely from a rock 'n' roll background. His timing was right to dovetail with the Austin punk scene during the late '70s and early '80s."

The critic was not without his own critics.

"The 'Dump Ed Ward' stickers started appearing about a month after his byline," Patoski said. "Music people in Austin weren’t used to sharp criticism. In many respects, Ed was Austin's first real music critic. His documentation of the scene as it boomed in the 1980s is without peer."

Ward was among the first employees of South by Southwest. He later became better known as a rock historian. He served in that capacity for NPR's "Fresh Air" and he contributed to the PBS documentary series "Get Up, Stand Up: The Story of Pop and Protest." He continued to write freelance music articles.

In 1993, Ward moved to Berlin, Germany, where he lived until 2008. He moved from there to Montpellier, France, then back to Austin in 2013. He told friends and colleagues he could not find essential research material in Europe.

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In 2016, he came out with "The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963," and in 2019, "The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 2: 1964–1977." When asked by American-Statesman reporter Joe Gross about the subject of his next volume, Ward said he would likely start with the rise of what music critic Robert Christgau called “semi-popular music,” the sort of thing that, as Ward says, “everybody you knew liked and didn’t chart or sell.”

Ward was also interested in the story of Eddie Wilson needing a place to put on Austin "proto-psychedelic oddballs Shiva’s Headband," whom Wilson was managing at the time, which led to Wilson founding the Armadillo World Headquarters.

“Austin was one of America’s most amazing semi-popular scenes,” Ward told the American-Statesman. “If you live in Austin, it’s kind of taken for granted. You know a lot of the names associated with it, but most people don’t.” Ward also planned to take on such genres as reggae, progressive country, heavy metal and punk.

"I met Ed at Antioch college in Ohio," musician Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel said. "He taught the first course on rock and roll history. He was instrumental for us getting our first record deal. One of the greatest rock 'n' roll writers and historians. He will be missed."

From all accounts, Ward kept his public and private personae sharply separated. 

"From the outside looking in, Ed was caustic, loud, curmudgeonly and highly opinionated," Patoski said. "Those who knew him more intimately recognized a sweet-hearted puppy dog inside. No one who has crossed my path knows music like Ed did. His passing leaves a mighty void in his wake."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.