So as not to bury my lede — something Courtney accused me of more than once over the years — I’ll put it up front: Courtney Haden, who died on January 6, was Birmingham’s Jon Stewart.
And he was Jon Stewart decades before we knew who Jon Stewart was. On radio (if my memory is still any good, with Kicks 106 in the early 1980s and then with Rock 99 in the 1990s) and in a whole slew of what were once called alternative publications from the 1970s through this decade, Courtney was unfailingly witty, charming, and funny. He shot barbs that stung, and then made you laugh about it.
I’m not at home as I write this. My home is in South Orange, New Jersey, a dozen miles from the Lincoln Tunnel, so I don’t have access to copies of the publications for which Courtney and I wrote. I must be one of the few people who has anywhere near a complete file of The Paperman, The Birmingham Reporter, the Southsider, Boz Art, Creative Loafing, Blue Note, Southern Style, Fun & Stuff, the Birmingham Weekly and, most recently, Weld (not, the editor insists, an alternative paper). Courtney also wrote for a weekly called Black & White, though I didn’t.
I’m quoting from memory, but some years back Courtney wrote a response to a Birmingham News writer named Mary Colurso. He didn’t bury his lead: the headline read “Mary Colurso Must Die.” Actually, his arrow wasn’t pointed at Colurso so much as at Madonna; Ms. Colurso had written to the effect that whether you love Madonna or hate her, you simply can’t ignore her. Courtney spoke for a great many of us when he wrote — and I have to paraphrase as I’m working from memory — “I don’t love her or hate her, and I certainly can ignore her.”
I can be a little more literal on another recollection. Our names were linked on Paul Finebaum’s radio show when he was in Birmingham. Here is one of his most memorable parodies. If you didn’t know, that was Courtney parodying Alastair Cook on Masterpiece Theater. If you didn’t get the association with Jon Stewart, perhaps you do now.
Maybe the best way to appreciate Courtney is by reading him. To my knowledge, Weld is the only place to find a collection of his pieces. One of my favorites was a look back at a lifetime of attending rock concerts: Dig specially those last couple of paragraphs.
The Rock Hall Museum is a beautiful tomb on the Lakefront for the relics of rock and roll, less a tribute to musicians than to the merchants who packaged them in the first place. All those lovingly collected artifacts so masterfully displayed there are of but fleeting interest, for the songs were all that ever mattered, really, the songs and the personal, private epiphanies you derived from them. Rock and roll was found precious because it evoked passion from a passionless society, it uttered emotional truths on behalf of a population rendered mute by the postwar American experience. Its artifacts are of little consequence, because the fact is, we already carry the museum around in our heads.
Is rock and roll dead at last? Not necessarily; there are great young bands proliferating to carry on the tradition of big noise and confusion. Rock and roll thrives 60 years down the road, one of the few world musics to have developed succeeding generations of devotees. The music that was the soundtrack for youthful alienation becomes the music of those who begin to rage against the dying of the light.
Chuck Berry could probably tell you: perhaps ya just keep rockin’ because you can.
This was a man who was blessed with two priceless attributes: the ability to be funny and the knowledge to know when not to be.
We both wanted to write for the Village Voice, but he didn’t want to leave Birmingham to do it. When I moved to New York, I told him I had made a contact at the Voice but didn’t know what story idea to pitch. “Write about Birmingham,” he told me. It was good advice. My piece on a football weekend in Birmingham became the first story I had printed in a major publication.
At this point I have to admit with embarrassment that when I sat down to write about Courtney, I felt stumped. I had known him since the mid-1970s, when he dropped into the office of The Kaleidoscope, the student paper at UAB, where I was editor. He said he wrote for the Crimson White in Tuscaloosa. Over the years, we shared many things: our interpretations of Van Morrison lyrics, our inability to figure out the plots of Raymond Chandler novels, and why we felt justified in skipping a Muhammad Ali fight on TV to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert.
But I never knew anything about Courtney himself. I don’t know when he got married, if he had children, or even where he lived. Over the 2015-16 holidays, I went crazy trying to track him down, leaving messages everywhere — or at least trying, but finding his voicemail at Boutwell Studios full. We didn’t connect until I was back in New Jersey — I tried his Boutwell number one more time, and he picked up!
We talked for about two hours, going over spots in Birmingham we both frequented, including the Homewood Toy and Hobby Shop. We lamented the closing of the restaurant on Cobb Lane (though I’ve heard it has reopened as a taco place) and celebrated how great Milo’s hamburgers are and how glad we were they hadn’t watered down the quality by becoming a national franchise.
We also talked about how extraordinary the castle building on 21st Street is and how no one seems to notice it, how splendid it was that the Lyric Theater had been restored and revived, the inexhaustible charm of Jim Reed Books and how it’s really more of a museum than a bookstore (I always thought that the inside of Courtney’s mind, if willed into reality, would look like Jim’s bookstore), how wonderful it was that downtown seemed to be coming alive again, and how distressing it was that The Birmingham News only printed three times a week (making the survival of weekly papers more important than ever).
We recalled the time we were in a car with Hunter S. Thompson as he drove down Red Mountain on 20th Street and shared his fantasy of dying by crashing through the guardrail and over the cliff, how sad it was that Birmingham had traded the Eastwood Mall for a Walmart, the sad decline in the quality and number of cafeterias, how amazing it was that The Nick had survived all those years as a rock club, about what ever happened to Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits (the first band I ever wrote about for Creem magazine), how baffled we were that despite the colossal waste of money and energy UAB brought back their football team, how Howell Raines had introduced us to slaw dogs at a little place near The Birmingham News building in 1975 and how good they were, how back in the mid-’70s the Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue was the only place you could get a cup of coffee on Saturday night — and it was free!
We remembered the time we stared at each other with incredulity as we watched Gary Busey snort line after line of coke in a hotel out on Highway 280 while babbling to us incoherently about his role as Coach Bryant in The Bear (which proved to be one of the worst movies ever made).
And, finally, we talked about how Birmingham could benefit from reviving the black culture and business around Fourth Avenue, where the Little Savoy Theatre had been the center of black Birmingham culture in the 1920s through ‘40s, how sad it was that they had torn down the old train terminal all those years ago and then never built anything on that site, and we rejoiced that Birmingham had been able to keep both Rickwood Field and Legion Field standing.
We talked about everything except Courtney’s own life. When I heard of his death last week, I had to call people who knew him to get information on his personal life and background. Glenny Brock gave me this:
“You know he was only a student at Alabama for a quarter. Maybe a quarter-and-a-half. He had an 8 a.m. broadcasting class. A few weeks into school, he got an overnight gig at a radio station. A few weeks into that job, he wondered why in the hell he needed to get up early and pay to ‘learn’ how to do what he was already doing at work. He did, however, continue writing for the Crimson White. For, like, eight years. He just got handed off from editor to editor — all students, of course — until it occurred to someone to ask him when he was going to graduate. And he was summarily fired when the administration realized he wasn’t a student.
“He had his first byline when he was eight years old: a review of who-knows-what appeared in the Shades Valley Sun. He liked to brag that every newspaper that published him eventually folded, as though his byline all but guaranteed the inevitable shuttering.”
Rosalind Fournier (whose surname was Smith when Courtney and I first met her, and whom we both greatly admired for continuing Fun & Stuff after the editor, Bobby Humphreys, accidentally drowned), recalled the time Courtney took her to a Bob Dylan concert:
“I used to see him often… But more recently he was the ‘conductor’ for our neighborhood float in the Christmas parade, and he had step-grandchildren close to one of my son’s ages.”
Another story offers a glimpse into Courtney’s warmth and wit.
“Since he had become very active in his step-grandchildren’s lives, I saw him a lot at school/sports events. Once I ran into him at a school festival, where I was stuck manning a booth that had no traffic. It was the “fish walk” — some version of musical chairs where the winner gets a free fish as a prize. I complained to him that no one wanted to play, so he asked me what kind of fish we were giving away.
“I think they’re goldfish.”
“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “Tell ’em it’s salmon.”
There was more personal stuff in Glenny’s and Rosalind’s stories than I had known about Courtney in nearly 40 years, and the truth is, if he hadn’t left us, I probably wouldn’t ever have learned those things.
Henry James wrote a story called “The Jolly Corner” about a man who moves away from his home and family in New York and goes abroad for several years. He finally returns and goes back to the old family house, where he sees a ghostly presence that we come to understand is the him that would have been had he stayed home.
I know this may be something of a stretch, but I always felt a little that way about Courtney and me. We shared so many things — values and passions and experiences. He was one of the best writers I’ve ever known, and I asked him once why he didn’t leave town so his talent could find a wider audience. He paused, then said, “I feel I can make more of an impact here. I feel like I can be myself here, more than I could anywhere else.”
I always wanted to say to him, “You could have been so much more if you’d gone to New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta or wherever.” I realize now that Courtney Haden achieved everything he wanted to be. I’ll count myself as lucky if one day I can say that about myself.
Whenever I was back Birmingham, I’d pick up a copy of whatever paper Courtney was writing for. I felt like I was reconnecting with the self that might have been had I stayed. I now have the inescapable feeling that a piece of me has been lost forever with his passing. But you folks who are reading this, you’ve lost even more than I have.