At the art of the matter …

At the Boston Herald, the time and the resources ran out on the music writing role of Nate Dow — and every other full-time staffer at the two Boston daily papers.

OPINION:

A not-so funny thing happened on the way to this forum. …

When I joined the Boston Herald in 1994, there were two full-time music columnists working for the paper and more than a dozen other staffers (me included) contributing to music coverage  from other editorial departments in which they were employed. Today, there are zero full-time music writers at either of Boston’s daily newspapers. What scant coverage is provided to the ever-dwindling readerships comes from freelancers for whom the Globe and Herald need not offer employment benefits nor promise of regular, sustaining pay.

Alas, this is the same policy followed by the federal government and our public schools. When budget cuts are ordered, the arts are always targeted first — as if art and artists are viewed as frivolous, non-essential, and not worthy of investment. This thinking is stripping spirituality and creativity from American life daily. There’s a reason music is central to virtually every religious observance, and also why the soundtrack of films are often more memorable and moving than the dialogue. It universally imparts human hopes, desires and emotions in ways that words fail. 

In the heyday at the Herald, we were running music features virtually every day of the week, and twice-weekly roundups of album reviews. It was not unusual to see as many as 25 CD reviews spread across two pages. The contributors knew how popular those reviews were because we heard the feedback. And when the Herald website became a viable resource for readers, analytics showed that the music stories, and album reviews, in particular, regularly generated more clicks than even the paper’s most polarizing and controversial columnists. Even that empirical proof was not enough to stave off the death of music writing, and so it began its slow disappearance, fading like invisible ink from the dailies’ pages.

This is not an isolated experience for Boston and its music community. When I was assigned by the Herald to my first concert review, a show at the Original House of Blues in Harvard Square in ’94, the venue was housed in a handsome Greek revival building with bas-relief busts of blues legends lining the ceilings. It was both homage and education. The names of each star and his or her hit songs rimmed the busts, and often caused the curious to go on a quest to learn more about each artist. It was a warm and intimate space filled with folk art, and run by staffers who were either musicians themselves or came to the job through some other connection to the industry. It exuded art. It was still a gem nine years later when I was given the sad assignment to cover the last show at the the Original House of Blues, a Los Lonely Boys performance in 2003. That felt as if I was attending the funeral of a friend.

Today, the misnomered House of Blues is the music equivalent of a big box store, stripped of all sense of creative community, an unwelcoming square of cinderblocks, full of restricted areas, and run with the steely enforcement of a police state. It is, of course, designed for one thing now: to maximize revenue.

While the financial demands on owners of music clubs drive tough decisions, just as cost cutting in the Globe and Herald arts coverage was predicated, there are precious few clubs that exist today in Boston solely or chiefly for music. For Johnny D’s Uptown Music Club, the last comfortable mid-sized venue in our area, that mission became too much of a burden and it closed in 2016. By my count, not including the concert halls, there remain just seven venues in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville — Club Passim, Lizard Lounge, Toad, Cafe 939, the Back Room at the Burren and Thunder Road — that serve that mission and qualify for “listening room” reverence. It says a lot that the “best listening room in Boston” isn’t even in Boston. Norwood’s Fallout Shelter is a nirvana in that sense, a place where musicians and their art are celebrated with the respect they deserve. (Expect to read more about the Fallout Shelter here in coming weeks.)

There are other locales that want to be identified as music clubs but their business models undercut that desire through rooms or policies that are ill-equipped or ill-designed to deliver. Boston City Winery is the chief offender in that class. While its other franchises are fully geared to music and designed that way, Boston City Winery inexplicably gave the smallest part of its Canal Street footprint to its music room, creating what feels more like a cramped wedding banquet hall than a place for music to be celebrated. It’s clearly more interested in being a chic wine and food purveyor than a music room. Shame. Similarly, Atwood’s Tavern frustrates me like an unruly child. Based solely on its booking preferences, it should by my favorite venue in Greater Boston. But the internal battle between neighborhood tavern and music club is evident on a nightly basis. The disjointed space creates a clear divide between the listeners and the talkers. The stage is practically a rumor to the people at the far end of the bar, so I understand the logistics of the issue, but after finding myself having to ask fellow patrons to stop the chattering one too many times, I decided I could no longer abide by the divide. I’ll attend only Atwood’s matinees now.

I fully understand the need to maximize the bottom line at music clubs, a point made especially clear when veteran musicians tell me they earned more for gigs on the ’70s and ’80s than they do now, and when music staffers at newspapers have gone the way of print circulation, which is to say a death spiral.

Starting this blog is my way of trying to champion musicians and music and stay attuned to the industry and artistry I love. Music has long been a big part of my life. My mother was a singer of operatic talent, my father was such a fan of big band and New Orleans jazz, that he spun his impressive 78 collection nearly every night of my childhood. My brother was an accomplished guitarist, and singer-songwriter and one of the best harmonica players I ever heard. I played trombone as a youngster and was named first chair in the Colorado All-State Jazz Band before I traded my Conn for a Smith Corona.

In short, music is in my blood and on my brain …

I have taken in two cats as an adult, and derived both of their names from the music world, Kiko from the Los Lobos song “Kiko And The Lavender Moon” and Tipitina, named for both Professor Longhair’s most famous song and the iconic New Orleans music club that adopted the name in his honor. My walls are covered with three decades worth of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival posters, and it seems as if I cannot go more than one waking hour (tops!) without listening to music.

My vacation trips are almost always to America’s great music cities, including New Orleans, New York, Nashville, Memphis, Austin and Chicago. I prioritize properly. When I am filling out my personal calendar, I grudgingly enter medical appointments first, then go straight to my hit list of gigs. Everything else is scheduled around that.

So there you have it. This is how I arrived here. And now, a year removed from the bankruptcy of the Herald and loss of my newspaper job, I feel as if I’m coming home. It’s a new challenge this time because I will augment stories with my own photos, which have grown out of a hobbyist interest in photography. I’ve never been much of a conformist, and I have no plans on being that with As Heard Here. I envision some offbeat feature stories and other oddities to tickle my musical fancy … and hopefully yours.