Margaret Moser, Queen of Austin, Is Dancing In The Light

Here’s a story I wrote about my friend Margaret Moser for The Record: Music News from National Public Radio


June 18 was the beginning of a weeklong Open House at Tex Pop, the South Texas Museum of Popular Culture — a storefront wedged between a head shop and convenience store in an aging strip center at the corner of Margaret and Mulberry in San Antonio. Inside, in the largest of three rooms, museum founder and director Margaret Moser is seeing her first visitor of the day, Kathy Valentine. In an adjacent room, Moser’s mother Phyllis Stegall and a niece greet arrivals as they wait their turns. The mood is somber, which on any other day could be attributed to it being a Sunday morning, except that everyone here knows Moser is living on borrowed time. The one exception to the caliginous vibe is the day’s person of interest and honor — she’s smiling, laughing, holding hands, hugging, listening to and telling stories. Having the time of her life.

While Moser was an aspiring, wiseass music writer and budding provocateur in her early twenties, Kathy Valentine — best known as a founding member of The Go-Gos and presently leading The Bluebonnets — remembers herself as a sixteen-year-old guitar-playing wannabe. Moser had recruited Valentine to join the all-female Geranium Cabbages, an offshoot of the satire project Sons of Uranium Savages. Both had been smitten with Suzi Quatro, the assertive female rocker from Detroit who’d become big in England. Valentine says she made it through two practices with the Cabbages before peeling away to start Austin’s first punk band, The Violators. “We wanted a real band,” Valentine says, looking over and smiling affectionately at Moser. “[Geranium Cabbages] wanted to have fun.” Margaret beams, listening.

Next is Chris Gray, culture editor of the Houston Press weekly, who has driven two hundred miles from Houston with his wife Lauren and baby boy Oliver. Moser discovered Gray when he was a nineteen-year-old student writing for the Daily Texan newspaper at the University of Texas. “He had so much attitude, ” Margaret remembers. “I said, ‘If you’re going to write this s*** for free, come work for us at the Chronicle.'” He did.

Valentine and Gray are familiars to Moser, their presence at this living good-bye not all that surprising. The three Mexican-American teenagers joining Moser on the couch, not so much. “These are the Tiarra Girls,” Margaret says, introducing the sisters Tori, Sophia and Tiffany Balitierra.

Debbra Baltierra and her husband Hector Baltierra knew all about Margaret. “She contacted the band from out of the blue,” Debbra Baltierra, their mother and manager, tells me. “She reached out to the girls, liked their Facebook page, and really encouraged them. The girls were like, ‘Tell us about her!’ They were super surprised. She’d contact them regularly to see what they were doing. Last year, she showed up at a gig here in San Antonio at Market Square. She got up on stage and said, ‘This is what you need to be listening to! These girls are going to be the next big thing!’ She wanted to share the band with the rest of the world.”

One of the best parts of this Sunday open house, Moser would later say, was being able to introduce Kathy Valentine to the Tiarra Girls. They’re going to make some music together.

Margaret Moser’s gran adios comes as no surprise to anyone. In 2014, she retired from the Austin Chronicle after thirty-three years of writing about music for the publication, and from her gig founding and running the Austin Music Awards, the Austin-focused event that kicks off the music portion of South By Southwest. She moved back to her hometown of San Antonio. Moser’s diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer in February 2013 had everything to do with it. But she did not go home to die; after marrying longtime companion Steve Chaney, she went home to take what she had learned in Austin and put it to work in San Antonio. She founded the South Texas Museum of Popular Culture, the aforementioned “Tex Pop,” modeled after the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture in Austin, where Moser had first gotten the bug for historic preservation.

To that end Moser, who has been memorialized in stone (with the Margaret Moser Plaza on West Third Street in downtown Austin, not too far from South By Southwest headquarters) was going to show San Antonio how to recognize and show off its own musical riches, just as she had done in Austin for more than 40 years. It has not been an easy task, despite San Antonio’s musical history being, arguably, far richer and more diverse than Austin’s. Consider Robert Johnson’s and Lydia Mendoza’s recordings in the ’30s, Sir Douglas Quintet, Big Bill Lister, honky-tonk mainstay Johnny Bush, Adolph Hofner and his Tex-Czech sound, the indelible Selena, Sunny and the Sunliners, Steve Earle, Rudy and The Reno Bops, The Royal Jesters, Girl In A Coma, Piñata Protest scenes like the sixties-era Swing Time teen television show, the Teen Canteen music venue, Chicano soul groups from the ’50s and ’60s, the psychedelic Tex-Mex accordionist Esteban Jordan, the Sex Pistols’ appearance at Randy’s Rodeo, pop hitmaker Christopher Cross.

Austin learned to honor and champion music and music people on Moser’s watch, culminating with the official embrace of the slogan Live Music Capital of the World in 1991. Musicians in San Antonio are still considered blue-collar, just a cut above gang members and ex-cons. The city’s various music tribes are scattered, disorganized and, until Tex Pop came along, long lacked a physical space that recognized their contributions. There was a reason why the local response to that “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was “Keep San Antonio Lame.”

Austin’s music community has been going through a rough patch with singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave’s very public passing, managing to ward off the ravages of malignant sarcoma to come out and sing “Good Night, Irene” one last time along with the rest of the cast at his tribute show at the Paramount Theater. He died two days later on May 21, the same day producer and all-star sideman George Reiff passed away from complications due to Stage IV lung cancer that had spread to his liver, bone marrow, and brain.

Two weeks after those deaths, Moser ended treatment for her terminal disease and publicly announced she had gone into hospice, letting friends know that now would be a good time to come see her.

And so they did. Close to two hundred friends drove eighty miles from Austin for that Sunday Open House.

Getting laid wasn’t the goal

Margaret Moser was a brash nineteen-year-old when she hit Austin in 1973. She had embraced the groupie life, revealed to her both in a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine she picked up at the North Star Mall and in the subsequent book Groupies and Other Girls: A Rolling Stone Special Report by Jerry Hopkins, John Burks, and Baron Wolman. Her first conquest, as such, had been in 1970 in San Antonio, with one of the members of Blue Cheer, after breaking up with her boyfriend. Moser slept with other rockers in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Antonio too, learning firsthand that getting backstage, riding in limos and partying in hotel suites was maybe even more rock ‘n’ roll than the bands that played the music. She was good at it. She dressed provocatively and she had good ears.

But getting laid wasn’t the goal. Nor was being a writer or an interpreter. She just wanted to be where the action was. “I wanted to be part of the crowd,” she said near the end of her Open House week. “I wanted to hang out in the Armadillo Beer Garden like everybody else, and sit around and drink beer and talk about Marcia Ball, see Willie Nelson walk through. That was kind of the dream.

“I wanted to be part of that group. I wanted to be in this life. I wanted to see what they were seeing, in the way they were seeing it. It didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to be the singer, the guitarist, or the center of attention. I just wanted to know where that came from, where that power came from, where that passion came from.

“For me, it came from words and the way they blended into music in my head. It’s so powerful. And as a girl, I couldn’t talk about it to anybody. Guys could talk about this stuff.”

Margaret Moser and The Texas Blondes in October, 1980.

Ken Hoge

Moser fit right in as the hell-raising fan girl, cooling in the clubs until last call, following bands of all persuasions – The Skunks, Standing Waves, and other punk bands at Raul’s, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Little Stevie Vaughan at Antone’s and the Rome Inn, watching and hearing her close friend Lucinda Williams grow into a serious singer-songwriter at the Austin Outhouse, emmajoe’s, and the Cactus Café.

In 1976, she scored a gig as office manager and cleanup woman at the Austin Sun alternative bi-weekly and immediately started feeding gossip she’d overheard to columnist Bill Bentley for his “Backstage” column. Her inside dope was so good that she wound up taking over the column.

She scored her first byline offering to interview Randy California of the band Spirit, which she did while he bathed in his Driskill Hotel room bathtub. “I was naked except for my notebook and pen,” Moser later wrote. She got the story.

This was around the same time Margaret appeared on my radar. We’d both became regulars at Antone’s, the storied blues club on Sixth Street started by Clifford Antone. One afternoon, working her way down the block from Antone’s with Bill Bentley and Sterling Morrison — Bentley’s bandmate and a former member of the Velvet Underground — and their friend Marvin Williams, they walked into Benny’s Tavern, the last “Men’s Only” beer bar on Sixth. Margaret was just as loud and loaded as anyone. They ordered their beers and, after a pregnant pause, Margaret told the silver-haired barkeep she’d have one, too. Her voice wasn’t loud or obnoxious, just confident; she was such an open, unnerving presence that the bartender did not hesitate to serve her. After downing her first glass, she ordered another and was served promptly. It’s unknown whether or not Margaret knew Benny’s was, as the sign outside read, a Men’s Only beer hole at the time. She did know she was thirsty, and saw the cool little scene inside Benny’s through friends she knew from Antone’s and OK Records next door, and invited herself in, and became part of the scene in a matter of minutes. By doing so, she’d broken the gender line of the last “Men’s Only” bar on Sixth.

Meanwhile, the Austin Sun folded and most of the staff headed west to California in 1978. Moser stayed. When the Austin Chronicle stepped into the void and started publishing in 1981, there was no question who the gossip columnist would be.

The Texas Blondes

Moser had her own posse, The Texas Blondes, so-named by John Cale, her paramour whenever he was touring through and maybe even her one true rock ‘n’ roll love. The Texas Blondes showed up at all the happening gigs at the Armadillo, Club Foot, Raul’s, and Liberty Lunch in Austin, and backstage in venues on the West and East coasts, moving as a pack. One Texas Blonde — a perpendicularly red-headed teenaged pixie named Dayna Blackwell, who lived with Moser and her first husband Ken Hoge for a stretch — took James Osterberg, Jr., aka Iggy Pop, home to New Orleans to live with her parents for a couple of months.

Moser learned what the performing end of the business was like as the leader of the Jam and Jelly Girls dancers, who performed lewd and raunchy routines alongside Dino Lee & His White Trash Revue, Austin’s show band of the eighties. But writing was becoming her thing. She took on the subject of groupies seriously, networking and developing personal friendships with Pamela Des Barres of Hollywood’s GTOs and the raunch-blues singer Candye Kane, among others, sitting on panels and discussions, and examining the lifestyle in print. She mused in a Chronicle article that groupies were “the unsung Florence Nightingales of rock & roll, substituting backstage blowjobs and the risk of clap for a gracious bedside manner.” It wasn’t all limos and laminates, she admitted, “But it beat Saturday nights on Sixth Street.”

For all the sexual innuendo — and actual sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — the hang was, really, all about the hang; being around music people, showing off Austin to out-of-towners on tour, making sure all needs and wants were met and fulfilled. It was a form of hospitality Austin already had a reputation for, going back to the Armadillo World Headquarters in the early ’70s. Margaret just made it more fun.

Beginning in the mid-’90s, Moser started writing Austin’s music history in the Chronicle and in her memoirs. Her scholarship was impressive, especially on Austin’s psychedelic, blues, and punk histories. She uncovered new information about the origin of a thirtieth, unrecorded Robert Johnson song “Fishin.'”

Along the way Moser matured into a mother hen, encouraging and mentoring new musicians and new music people freshly arrived from somewhere else, schooling them in the local ways, making sure they understood Austin was where you came to express yourself and not hold back. As the lunch lady who delivered pizza to the kids enrolled in Michelle Murphy’s Natural Ear music camp, she always offered a few words of wisdom and listened with a sympathetic ear.

Not done dancing

That Sunday Open House at Tex Pop turned out to be the start of a very busy week. Margaret was doing pretty much what she’s always done, delegating tasks to her sizeable posse, giving three assistants — her husband Steve Chaney, BFF E.A. Srere, and Jennifer Milbauer — plenty of advice how to juggle her schedule, slotting people in, weighing tribes and personal likes and dislikes, making for the perfect eight-day-long going away party.

Moser in 2017.

April Ceja/Courtesy of Margaret Moser

New wave stalwarts The Standing Waves serenaded her with an acoustic set. So did country music songwriter and performer Monte Warden, who was first championed by Moser when he was fifteen years old. Jon Dee Graham and his son William Harries Graham played some songs, and Jon Dee drew a Bear as Hellcat sketch for her. Susan Antone of Antone’s Nightclub dropped by with singer-pianist Marcia Ball and radio personality Jody Denberg. Punks, new wavers, Texas Blondes and Jam and Jelly Girls, New Sincerity-ites, hard rockers, roots rockers, disc jockeys, writers, publishers, blues hounds, Tex-Mexers, pop stars, people you never heard of, people who’d just met Margaret all came by. Margaret was part of all their worlds.

Music has been on her mind and in her head more than ever. Her computer screensaver displays these lines written by Ray Wylie Hubbard: “The days in which my gratitude exceeds my expectations are really good days.” The first time she saw those words, she wrote a column about it.

“This has been the most ungodly experience,” Moser said as her Open House week wound down. “I’ve been given what is almost like this cruel luxury, this incredible gift to say good-bye, say farewell, to say thank you. Most people will never get the chance to do something like this. It’s not slipping into darkness. This is dancing in the light… at night, especially. People say, ‘It must be so hard at night.’ No!

“Things lighten up, like I’m on a mountaintop. I can see all around. I can see Clifford’s there. I can see Paul Ray’s there. I see our friends. I see our relatives. I see people I know I’m not related to, everybody. It’s out there. There is something out there. And whether it’s just a brief frisson of energy that lasts no more than a second, when we go, I truly believe there’s something that we go through that then allows for continuation of energy in this universe which keeps bringing us all back.”

She’s not done dancing. The exhibit she curated on Robert Johnson in Texas is traveling from San Antonio to Austin, opening at Antone’s Night Club on July 1. “It may go to Mississippi next,” she said. “I’m told it’s far more comprehensive than the exhibit that’s up in Clarksville.” She’s booked a hotel in Austin for more visits with friends before and after the Robert Johnson exhibit opens. Music will be played. Margaret Moser will make damn sure of that.

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