Interview: NPR’s Ed Ward on his new book, advice to young writers and why he regrets being "lumped in" with rock critics

“...either be born rich or marry rich if you can, because you’re certainly not going to get rich being an author.”

click to enlarge NPR Fresh Air's rock & roll historian Ed Ward. - facebook.com
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NPR Fresh Air's rock & roll historian Ed Ward.

You learn a few things after several trips around the sun, and one of the greatest gifts older cultural icons can give their admirers is an honest, straight-forward conversation. In a short Q&A with Creative Loafing Tampa, Ed Ward did just that. The 68-year old is the official rock & roll historian for NPR’s Fresh Air, and he just released a new book, The History of Rock & Roll Vol. 1: 1920-1963.

REVIEW: THE HISTORY OF ROCK & ROLL VOL. 1: 1920-1963

In our review, we call the 380-page tome an “excavation of the long and storied history behind the beginnings of music’s most celebrated genres.” Ward says he’ll take a less chronological approach to the second installment and promised that he won’t “talk as much about the Beatles and Stones and the usual suspects as I am about the forces that caused them to change.”

He’s also got some pointed advice for young writers and anyone worried about development leading to the relocation or extermination of traditional music venues.

Read our chat below, and read our review from the Books Issue here.

CL: What would you say to younger writers reading your stuff or listening to you on Fresh Air and aspiring to write a book one day?

Ed Ward: I’d say consider it carefully, and maybe think about self-publishing. Find a good agent, which will mean you’ll have to have a really commercial book, because the market is saturated, and only excellent ideas stand out. And either be born rich or marry rich if you can, because you’re certainly not going to get rich being an author.

After publishing Vol. 1, what’s your approach to Vol. 2?

More thematic and less strictly chronological. There are a couple of themes emerging at the end of Vol. 1 that will take over soon. There will also be a lot of paring of detail, because we’re now entering into a richly documented era, and, just as I wasn't going to compete with, say, Peter Guralnick’s books on Elvis, I’m not going to talk as much about the Beatles and Stones and the usual suspects as I am about the forces that caused them to change.

You’ve seen music venues come, go and relocate. What do you say to music communities who are seeing beloved venues (long running and new) being lost to gentrification and residential/retail development?

Too late. There’s no money in music, and you need money to resist those forces. The day of garage-to-Grammy performers is over. There’s no money in records, and touring wears people out prematurely. There’s less incentive to have a local scene, with repeated shows by local performers, and anyway, audiences want their music to be free. I don’t see a way out of this.

How have you changed your writing and research approach now that the internet has changed the way we archive music history (short form content)?

Not much: my primary sources were paper books and physical CD liner notes. I trust them, although when I forget someone’s name or need to find a fact, I may start at Wikipedia or discogs.com, which is a wiki, but I always take it one step further.

You’re a near master at taking to the airwaves and telling rich stories from the past. How would you like to see journalists doing the same for the emerging artists we’re inundated with today?

I have no idea. I don’t engage with present pop music. Nor do I understand how today’s pop journalists can exist in a media ecosystem that provides neither editors nor payment. The guy who has my old job at the Austin American-Statesman (for which he is paid) has to write for the paper and its website, blog, and post photos and videos. That job was hard enough when I did it 35 years ago. I don’t envy him.

Do you have any regrets about your career or life?

A little late for that, don’t you think? I regret being lumped in with the “rock critics,” since that term absolves the media and other journalists from taking you seriously, and I protest every time someone uses that term on me. Of course, most other “rock critics” aren’t very knowledgeable outside of rock music, so no wonder they don’t get respect. I do wish I’d had another skill I could have fallen back on in hard times but it seems that every regret – like missing American life for 20 years after I got stranded in Europe – is balanced out by, for instance, the incredible experience that it was at times and the insight into another way of life it gave me.

The book is this great living history, but there has to be some stuff you had to leave out. How do you make that distinction between what needs to be in the final manuscript and what details get left out?

The narrative is all. If it impedes the narrative or sends it up a blind alley I’ll have to backtrack my way out of, I either solve that problem or decide it’s not relevant. There are dozens of great records I didn’t mention, performers who get short shrift, and details I saw no way to include: a DJ who climbed a tree until, gee, I forget what, but it was in Rock of Ages; or the fact that I found pop singles by Ronnie Dio in the early ’60s in Billboard – he was apparently a lot older than he let on – or background on some people I mention. Some of it may wind up in Vol. 2, where I’ll feel less worried about backtracking into a bit of Vol. 1’s territory. Or not.

Ed Ward is the shit. He blogs when he can at City On A Hill, and you can follow him on Twitter. Hear his voice on NPR.

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Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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