‘Frenzied Founder’: Louis Black profile

March 12, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

Louis Black is a wreck. For this particular newspaperman, this fact is not news. People who know Black are quick to say he is unsettled, self-loathing, temperamental, explosive and passionate to a fault. Almost unanimously, they invoke an ugly synonym for “jerk” to describe him. (Almost unanimously, they still love him.)

Black, co-founder and editor of the Austin Chronicle, denies none of it. His snarled personality — a knot of contradictions and impulses in the cause of doing something important and good — makes for interesting encounters, lively anecdotes, inflated legends and flamboyant fictions. He is known as much for these as for his foibles and tics: squirming in his chair, pacing the floor, flapping his hands. His mouth runs with astonishing velocity. Just watching him makes you jittery.

As the face of Austin’s alternative weekly and co-founder of the South by Southwest music, film and interactive festivals, which run this week, Black wields great influence and has accomplished much for the city. SXSW has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Austin coffers and earned the city an international reputation. Black and his colleagues at the Chronicle and SXSW have propped up and nourished the local music and film scenes that so many take for granted.

Without Black, a music fanatic and film savant, the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World would lack much of its cultural stock.

“The music scene would have died a long time ago,” says Mike Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly. “The energy that Louis and his colleagues have infused into the town have kept the music and film traditions alive much more than anything the City Council has done.”

That energy has a price tag. Black’s emotions, especially his anger, tend to get away from him and make messes.

“He’s a very passionate person,” says Michael Hall, former managing editor of the Chronicle and now a senior editor at Texas Monthly. “That means all the great things that come with being passionate. But, on a dime, Louis can also show the darker side of what passion will lead you to do.”

He struggles with this. He is in therapy. The guy formerly known as Louis Black is trying to mellow. Meanwhile, he has a newspaper to run and world-famous festivals to put on.

Black’s partners in SXSW are Chronicle co-founder/ co-publisher/co-editor Nick Barbaro and Roland Swenson, who, with Louis Meyers, created the music festival in 1987. (Meyers now heads the International Folk Alliance in Memphis, Tenn.) The film and interactive festivals were launched in 1994.

But as the front man glad-handing and meeting with city officials, political groups and arts organizations, Black has become the public persona of the Chronicle and SXSW. It’s a powerful position that engenders fear and loathing in some, though Black shoos away those ideas.

“I really don’t feel powerful. Just because I ended up at the head of the parade carrying a flag doesn’t mean I started it,” Black says. “I was one of many people, and I was lucky to be in some places to make things happen. Most ‘power’ that is attributed to me has to do with the Chronicle doing what it thinks is right rather than any kind of machinations. There are tons and tons of people making things happen. We’re in this together.”

Balding, with the kind of beard that makes this fit, average-sized man of 55 look mildly bearish, Black admits he does far too much, thanks to a kaleidoscopic attention span and an unruly breadth of passions. He can’t say no to projects that speak to and excite him.

He is almost quaintly hands-on, personally checking entry badges at SXSW music and film events, barking directions at volunteers, giving rambling introductions to films, making sure the annual festival glides and hums. SXSW is his baby, one in a brood that includes the Austin Film Society and, by extension, Austin Studios, the filmmaking space at the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport.

And, with Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith, he also created the Texas Film Hall of Fame, which marked its sixth year Friday night.

But the same molten passion that fuels the Chronicle and SXSW can singe those close to Black. His tantrums are legendary at the Chronicle office, where simple editorial disputes have escalated into fisticuffs.

“There were shattered doors and dented desks,” recalls Marjorie Baumgarten, Chronicle film editor, who has been at the paper since its birth in 1981. She has been reduced to tears by Black’s outbursts.

A well-traveled Chronicle anecdote has Black blowing up at then-politics editor (and future City Council Member) Daryl Slusher, shouting and kicking craters into Slusher’s desk. All the while, Black was holding his infant son, Eli.

“Daddy’s all right, don’t worry,” Black recalls cooing. But the baby wasn’t the only one Black frightened.

“I was a terrible leader and manager for a long time,” Black says. “I was yelling and screaming, I mean psychotic screaming. One of the horrible things I discovered at the Chronicle is what a terrific jerk I am.”

“Louis is an (expletive), and he’s the first to admit it,” Hall says. “That’s what makes him so effective, so good at what he does. It’s also what makes him so horrifying.”

Browbeating, hectoring, threatening — these are the weapons of a man intent on working his will. More than one Austinite has compared him to Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles’ fictitious newspaper baron and civic bully in “Citizen Kane,” who was based on despotic newspaper crusader William Randolph Hearst.

Black has become a caricature of a caricature, using his loved and hated “Page Two” column in the Chronicle as a liberal-progressive pulpit from which to rant and ruminate on any topic that inflames him, from advocating light rail to bemoaning the decline of American film criticism.

“Read his ‘Page Two’ column,” Hall says. “Sometimes you’re a paragraph into it, and you wonder, ‘What is going on here?’ Louis needs an editor. He not only needs an editor on his personality — he can go overboard in ways that can hurt people — he needs a writing editor, because he can just be incoherent.”

“He’s just this huge, huge personality,” Baumgarten says. “I always laugh when somebody says what a nice guy Louis is, how sweet he is. You know right away this is someone who doesn’t know him well.”

When Black infuriates people, “it’s not because of an evil heart or a lack of a caring soul,” Levy says. “He’s just going so fast. Some people mistake his abruptness for rudeness. It’s not. He has so much he wants to accomplish, there’s not enough time in the day.”

“A lot of people hate my guts,” Black readily admits. Self-awareness, it seems, does not bar misbehavior. “Especially in the early days, I was a jerk. I made a lot of people’s lives a lot more miserable than they had to be. I had no subtlety, no grace.”

Back then, when something got in his way, his first reaction was to stomp it. It so happened that Austin Film Festival founders Barbara Morgan and Marsha Milam were planning to start their festival in 1994, the same year Black was rolling out the SXSW Film Festival and Conference. So they met to talk.

This is what Louis told them: “Don’t think because we’re friends I’m going to help you with this. In fact, not only will I not help you, but I will fight you — mean, lowdown, dirty and nasty.”

“I’ll never forget that,” says Milam, who remains a fan and friend of Black’s.

Before he even hears this anecdote, Black says, “Anything they tell you is true, as long as it’s nasty. I was so freaked. My whole life I’d wanted to have a film festival, and here they suddenly come with one of their own. I was too wired and insecure.”

Insecurity becomes a major theme when talking to Black at length. He deploys self-deprecation as crutch and shield, and, like a true neurotic, seems to almost bask in it. A sampling:

“My writing is a mess, just a horrible mess. . . . I don’t know how to use punctuation. I was in my 30s before I knew how to spell ‘please.'”

“I’ve always been very immature. I figure out social graces very slowly, and sometimes not at all. I do lots of very stupid things. I tend to talk too much, lose focus, not pay attention.”

“I’m a clumsy human being.”

“I’m a terrible name-dropper. I think it’s a way of saying, ‘See, I’m worth something. I know all these interesting people.’ ’’

Black has an unmistakable speaking voice, a high, nasally, New Jersey bray. Someone recently nailed it, likening it to Police Chief Wiggum’s on “The Simpsons.” Which leads to more self-deprecation: “I find my voice very annoying,” Black says.

One suspects that it is in Black’s childhood where his therapist is tilling very rich, very dark soil in search of what made the man. He was a miserable child.

Born in 1950 in Manhattan to a close, middle-class Conservative Jewish family — mother, father, two sisters — young Louis struggled in school and life. A Jewish Charlie Brown, he was cursed with a blanket ineptitude that furnished no outlets for a restless mind. He was an abysmal student, a misfit and a loner until his early teens.

“I probably had attention-deficit disorder. I was slightly dyslexic. I was lazy, an underachiever,” he recalls. “I had nothing. I didn’t like sports. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t sing. I was tone deaf. I couldn’t play an instrument. I sucked at languages. I was terrible at school. I was expected to fail, to break my parents’ hearts.”

Growing up in the suburb of Teaneck, N.J., he loved to read literature, history and comic books. And he fell hard for movies. In his neighborhood lived a kid named Leonard Maltin, who would grow up to become a respected film scholar, author of best-selling film books and a host of movie shows on television.
As teenagers, Maltin and Black would hop the train to Manhattan, where they would spend whole days pinballing from the Museum of Modern Art to galleries and theaters, watching three or four films a day. This went on through high school.

(Around this time, Black also befriended famous comic book writer Otto Bender after he sent the older man a fan letter. Wherever he goes, it seems, Black rubs elbows with famous people, be it his writing professor John Irving, close friends and directors Jonathan Demme and John Sayles, or, in Austin, all the musicians and filmmakers who live here or drop in.)

Starting in 1968, Black spent two years in college preparatory classes with hopes of getting into Boston University. He was rejected.

In 1970, he attended Windham College in Vermont, where he studied English and writing with Irving.

After graduation, Black hit the road, staying at friends’ places in various states. In 1974, he made his first trip to Austin; he returned in 1976 and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Texas to study English.

Equipped with years of film knowledge, Black quickly made friends with the members of Cinematexas, the UT film society, including Barbaro and Baumgarten. Black switched majors to film theory and history in 1977.

In 1981, he and Barbaro started the Chronicle with $80,000 borrowed from Barbaro’s mother, a loan they later paid back.Black calls that era “easily the best time of my life.” At last he was a star student, immersed in his primary passion — movies — and writing and hanging out with like-minded pals.

“He was not exactly destined for success,” Maltin recalls. “It took him time to find himself, and part of that came about when he moved to Austin. Anyone who knew Louis in his quasi-hippie phase, or as the world’s oldest grad student, might find it surprising to see how successful, and influential, he is today.”

Black lives in a big house in Tarrytown with his wife of 18 years, Anne S. Lewis, a lawyer turned journalist and filmmaker, and their son, Eli, now a teenager. They live well, but Black doesn’t flaunt it. He drives a 2005 Toyota Camry, the first new car he’s ever owned. (‘‘I drive badly. I drive like Mr. Magoo.’’) He dresses frumpily, Austin casual. In some ways, staking his claim in a neighborhood bastion of established Austin has mirrored the Chronicle’s inexorable arc toward the mainstream.

“On paper, I have done better than I ever dreamed possible in my life,” Black says. “But it’s on paper. We’re not cashing out the Chronicle or South by Southwest. If we did, I would have money.” (Black says he has “no earthly idea” what the lucrative festival would fetch if it were sold.)

Success has mellowed Black. So has his wife. So has therapy. Black has been on this path to a recovery of sorts since the mid-1990s, he says, after his eruptions crossed too many lines and alienated too many people.

“I think I’m coming out of it,” Black says. “If you talk to people from the Chronicle and South by Southwest, I’m not as big of an (expletive). I didn’t realize people were intimidated by me, and so I treated a lot of people badly because I felt so powerless.

“I got to grow up in public and get over my stunted emotional growth and work with wonderful people. There are people who I didn’t treat well, or we both didn’t treat each other well. It wasn’t like I was the only mental case on the ship. I was maybe the worst.”

“We were all brash,” says Louis Meyers. “We all got thrust into positions that we probably weren’t emotionally prepared for. We were high-strung and trying to make things happen. We really didn’t understand the concept of taking a deep breath.”

Black has changed, friends and colleagues say. He’s toned it down and taken stock. That’s what he hopes, because he has much more work to do, work that he loves: the writing, the paper, the festival.

“Is there grace and redemption? Yes,” Black says. “I look back and think that in some ways I am the luckiest person I know. I do what I love. I do it every day. I really do think South by Southwest has made a difference in what I care about: independent music and independent films. The Chronicle has made a difference in Austin, and I hope to God it’s fun to read. This is a journey.”

But demons as ferocious as Black’s aren’t easily defeated. He’s still negative, an unreconstructed pessimist. And that dark side might just be the right place for him.

“I’ve always worked best from a position of weakness. It’s all those self-esteem issues,” he says.

“I’m working on it. I’m working on it.”

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