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Grover Lewis: An Appreciation

June 25, 1995|DAVE HICKEY

Grover Lewis was among that great first generation of Rolling Stone writers who chronicled the art and excess of popular culture in the late 1960s and '70s. His pieces on such subjects as Sam Peckinpah, Robert Mitchum, Duane Allman, John Huston and Paul Newman are collected in " Academy All the Way. " He published a volume of poems, "I'll Be There in the Morning If I Live" (see Page 6), and at the time of his death on April 16 he was working on a memoir, " Goodbye If You Call That Gone, " which may yet see the light of day.

Since my old pal Grover Lewis no longer walks among us, let me begin by saying that, as a physical creature, by the standards of the culture, Grover was nobody's dream date. But he had an air about him, something likable and complicated. He had this lanky Texas stance, a big mouth with a big smile, and attired as he usually was, in boots, jeans and some goofy '40s shirt, faintly squiffed and glaring at you through those thick Coke-bottle glasses, he was a caricaturist's delight: all eyes, mouth, angles, sweetness and ferocious intelligence. Moreover, he was a Southern Boy to the end. He believed in truth and justice, and through all the years of dope and whiskey, Deadheads and deadlines, movie stars and rented cars, he remained an alumnus of that old school.

As a consequence, women were always calling my attention to Grover's "courtly manner"--alluding to his charm, even. Dogs and babies, I suspect, would have probably done so as well, could they have testified. But to me, Grover was always like Prewitt in "From Here to Eternity," a clenched fist in a frail package--prince and pauper in equal parts--always passing some outrageous, absolute judgment on your life and work, while appealing to your sympathy by bumping into a chair. Which is pretty much my definition of "exasperating"--that uncanny ability to break your heart while making you smile--so you never knew whether to thank Grover or forgive him for his impertinence. In my own case, since we were old and permanent friends (and Texas boys too, cagey with mutual respect) I usually settled for neither.

Grover was, after all, the most Stone wonderful writer that nobody ever heard of. He was also a fellow survivor of hard-scrabble, bar-ditch Texas and as blind as a cave bat in the bargain. He had been since birth, so he had to wear those wonky glasses. So when he really ticked me off, I comforted myself with imagining Grover and his old running-mate, Larry McMurtry, back at North Texas State in the '50s: as campus pariahs, as these two skinny, four-eyed geeks in goofy '40s shirts, scuttling along the sidewalk head to head, toting copies of The Evergreen Review and plotting their mutual apotheosis--in the aftermath of which they would both be famous authors, claiming any female who fell within their view.

The pleasure I took in the imagined tableau of pathetic "geekdom," of course, was considerably enhanced by the improbable fact that both Larry and Grover, each in his own way, actually achieved their apotheosis (and its consequent surfeit of feminine companionship), did it so rapidly, that, by the time I met them in the early '60s, they were no longer geeks. They were "promising Texas writers," marking the path I fully intended to follow out of town.

By the early 1970s, McMurtry was producing novels at a steady clip, living as he does now, in various places, like a fugitive. Grover and I had seen the blessed vision--Texas in the rear-view mirror--and were ensconced on opposite ends of the country practicing something called "new journalism," which, in fact, was nothing more than Victorian reportage with neon punctuation--Dickens and Stevenson and De Quincey in meaner streets with stronger drugs. Grover was in San Francisco working for Rolling Stone, writing landmark stories about movies and rock 'n' roll--inventing pop genres such as "the location story" and "the tour story." I was in New York going for something a little more effete, writing about art for Art in America, and about rock 'n' roll for The Village Voice. As a consequence, our paths began crossing in airports and bars, in press trailers at country music festivals and Allman Brothers' concerts. Out of these encounters, we forged a friendship based, first, on our mutual distaste for contemporary Texas, and, last and always, on our fatal love of the life we found ourselves leading. Both of us had read enough books and seen enough highway to know what a lovely moment it was.

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