Ed Ward — a respected music critic and scholar, former Rolling Stone editor, and author of several authoritative histories of the history of rock & roll — has died at the age of 72.
According to fellow writer and friend Joe Nick Patoski, Ward passed away at his home in Austin on Monday and had been suffering from health issues, including diabetes. An exact cause of death was not given. His agent also confirmed his death to Rolling Stone.
Born Edmund Ward on November 2, 1948, Ward was raised in Eastchester, New York, and attended Antioch College. In 1967, he met Paul Williams, the founder of Crawdaddy, at a Tom Rush and Judy Collins concert in New York, and soon after began writing for the magazine, one of the first to seriously cover rock & roll. Ward soon started contributing to Rolling Stone, where he specialized in part in electronic music. In 1970, at the recommendation of Greil Marcus, Ward moved to San Francisco to become the reviews editor of Rolling Stone, replacing Marcus in that job.
Leaving RS by year’s end, Ward went on to become a contributing editor at Creem for much of the Seventies. He continued writing for Rolling Stone, where he called Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus “sadly undistinguished at best and embarrassing at worst” and Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity “loaded with dead spots.”
In 1979, after moving to Austin, Ward became the music critic for the Austin American-Statesman, a job he held until 1984. Described by friends as good-hearted but tough and no-nonsense as a critic, Ward immediately made some enemies when he dared to pan at least one local band on the scene, resulting in a “Dump Ed Ward” movement, complete with bumper stickers. “Ed was a force of nature, and as a critic, he was pointed and sharp,” Patoski tells Rolling Stone. “He got so much blowback, but he never let it bug him.”
In 1987, Ward was also involved in the launch of South by Southwest, the Austin music conference that would become one of the most important annual gatherings for musicians, writers, and industry types. Leaving the Statesman, Ward moved on to The Austin Chronicle. Ward was also the staff rock historian for NPR’s Fresh Air until 2016.
Starting in the mid-Eighties, Ward made the leap into books. In 1983, he published Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, on the late Sixties and Seventies blues guitarist (which was recently revised). In 1986, he was the co-author (with Ken Tucker and Geoffrey Stokes) of Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. In 2016, he published his own narrative study of the music, The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1. A second volume arrived in 2019. In a planned but uncompleted third volume, he was hoping to tackle “punk, disco, MTV, rap, grunge,” and other genres, he said.
In 1994, Ward moved to Berlin to work on a magazine that never got off the ground, but stayed and concentrated on writing about art and food. He moved to Montpellier, France, in 2008 before eventually returning to Austin in 2013. “If you sat down with him, flowers of knowledge would open up,” Marcus tells Rolling Stone. “Whether it was Sausalito or Berlin, he knew stories about this building or the scandal behind this restaurant. He was a wonderful storyteller. The world was richer when you were around Ed.”
“I regret being lumped in with the ‘rock critics,’” Ward said in 2016, “since that term absolves the media and other journalists from taking you seriously, and I protest every time someone uses that term on me.”