When the editors at Creative Loafing told me that the paper's 30th anniversary was upon us, I immediately volunteered to write about John Grooms. He is CL's longest serving editor, Charlotte's modern Mark Twain and my close friend.
I admit, after several rounds of cancer, I've worried that I would soon be writing John's obituary. But John says he's fine now, so I'm glad to have this opportunity to publicly thank him for inspiring writers and journalists; artists and musicians; and every day Jills and Joes to speak truth to power. John effectively forced folks to pay attention to Charlotte's creative scene and even closer attention to the city's infamously creative politicians.
Grooms was not this paper's first editor, but he might as well have been. Hired in 1987 to help the first editor, he soon began doing her job for her and, over time, made local history by giving Charlotte's finest a place to shine. Not that he had any idea what he was doing when the paper launched.
According to Grooms, for the first two years the paper was "useless," since it had no money to pay quality writers. And he says the first editor "had no idea what the alt-press was and wanted stories like 'a day in the life of a groundhog at the history museum.' I shit you not."
Ann Wicker first met Grooms when he taught a history of rock'n'roll class at Central Piedmont Community College in the late 1980s. The two friends — along with countless others — pined for coverage of Charlotte's musicians and artists.
Wicker, now an author and editor, freelanced for Loafing for a couple years under Grooms until, says the Charlotte native, "I hung around so much that they finally hired me."
Wicker credits Grooms for being able to spot and attract talented and award-winning writers like Perry Tannenbaum, Frye Gaillard and Hal Crowther. "He believed in his writers and backed them up," Wicker says, adding that he often fought with the paper's then Atlanta-based publisher to pay them more.
"He was really high-minded about what stories could be," says Gaillard, an author twenty times over who once wrote for Creative Loafing and now lives in Alabama. He continued, "John was fearless. I thought he was as good of an editor as I found anywhere."
"Editors can only put out a paper as good, or as insightful, as the people they bring in," says Grooms, "which is why my first and most important ongoing emphasis was to keep upping the paper's writing quality, and I think that is what finally drew people to us: it was a smart paper with a natural, sharp sense of humor."
Frankly, I don't think he's giving himself enough credit; if Creative Loafing has such a persona it's because Grooms does too. Of course, I'm biased. I'm also somewhat terrified that it's up to me to explain to you how important he is to both CL and to Charlotte — at one point I even asked him to write this himself! It's tough to explain how his snarky style still flavors the pages of this rag and how his memory for local politics is long and full of juicy tidbits, such as former Charlotte Mayor and U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick's proclivity for talking to inanimate objects.
Kids, if you don't know who Myrick is, you could Google her or you could read this from Grooms: "She latches on to one specific issue and flogs it obsessively. If it's not teenagers being ruined by 'Satanic' heavy metal music during her City Council days, it's the evil nature of traffic problems. If it's not traffic, it's coffee pots talking to her (true story, unfortunately). If it's not Mr. Coffee coming to life, it's illegal immigrants wrecking American culture."
Grooms always keeps it real. In my estimation, his style is reminiscent of Mark Twain and other great American writers who could infuse public issues with blunt and needed honesty.
As Wicker puts it, "John does not suffer fools," and that certainly includes Charlotte's elite. For two decades, Grooms used his platform as CL's editor to insist that local leaders consider the views of those who don't rub elbows with them on the daily, that they exit their yes-man bubbles and listen to the people of Charlotte who, often through their creative works, stand in for the city's soul.
As a kid growing up in rural Alabama, reading Creative Loafing was one of the things I loved about visiting the big city, which to me then was Atlanta. (My dear Millennials, this was before the time of the internet, when everything couldn't be read on pocket computers.) So, when I began visiting Charlotte in the early 2000s, I was delighted to find the paper here, too.
To me, this paper – in all cities where it's found – has always resonated more with my friends and I than the corporate dailies. Hollis Gillespie's rants in her "Mood Swings" column is the early version of "Girls" – seriously. Reviews of shows and movies and bands introduced me to the local creative class, validated the work of many of the coolest people I know and helped me figure out what do every weekend. And, thankfully, "The Blotter" helped me realize that no matter how much I was fucking up, I wasn't the worst fuck up in town by a long shot.
What I really loved, though, was finding people like Grooms and Tara Servatius (see Erin Tracy-Blackwood's piece on Servatius on page 20) sharing their views on local and state government happenings. I didn't always agree with either of them, but I appreciated the public debate.
That, dear readers, is a core tenet of our country; the ability to share and publish our thoughts and beliefs, to share government happenings with candor and honesty and without fear is so important that our country's Founding Fathers made those rights concrete as the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, our number one freedom in this country's Bill of Rights. That we have alt-newspapers like Creative Loafing is as American as baseball and apple pie, and if John Grooms didn't actually bake that pie for us here in Charlotte, he's certainly the one who put it in the window and made sure it was edible.
Grooms, who enjoyed publishing Servatius' contrary views but doesn't agree with her on nearly anything in the political realm, credits her "dogged reporting" for generating so much pressure on the local housing department that its leader had to quit during a time when, he says, "No one could depend on him."
But Grooms, also the author of Deliver Us from Weasels, a collection of the Boomer With Attitude columns he published in CL after his editorship was over, didn't go to college to become a media man. He studied political science at Belmont Abbey in Belmont, N.C., at least until they kicked him out in the spring of 1969 when, as a member of the Southern Students Organizing Committee, he aided members of the Black Student Union who took over the school's science building in protest. (He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1971.)
Stories like that only scratch the surface of Grooms' personal history of political action. His views were influenced by a childhood split between Belgium and Gaffney, S.C., spending his formative years in a hippie enclave and a couple of decades of holding the powerful to account in Charlotte. A couple thousand words on this page can't begin to fully express his love of music, which is what drew him into this crazy line of business in the first place.
"I had no idea what I was going to do (after college)," says Grooms. "I'd taken too much acid and was spaced out as shit," he said through laughter, though it's almost certainly true.
"The truth is it took a while for any vision — other than helping local artists — to evolve," Grooms says of CL's early days. "The reason for that was we didn't have any money for serious news coverage until about four or so years in."
"John always wanted the paper to have news features alongside music listings and entertainment writing," says Wicker, who Grooms credits with keeping CL organized for more than 12 years, even through the time when they had to fax (fax, y'all!) marked up copy to the paper's headquarters in Atlanta for a final round of editing.
And sometimes, Creative Loafing was the news. Like that time city leaders gave The Charlotte Observer control of the Uptown boxes full of free newspapers. The O, feeling threatened by CL, disallowed the alt-weekly paper a slot. Fortunately, then owner Deborah Eason was "very litigious," Grooms says, "She didn't know what she was doing, but she would stand up for the paper when needed."
She sued The Observer and won; and the paper is still in those boxes, The O is not in control of them and, though we'll never know for sure, Grooms suspects that the undisclosed amount of money she garnered through such lawsuits helped her to recoup her losses from the paper's first few years and allowed her to invest back into it.
"When she increased our budget by 75 percent, that's when we really started rocking," says Grooms.
Then, in 1994, the NCAA Final Four Basketball Tournament was lured to Charlotte. The problem was, Grooms recalls, there wasn't anything to do in Uptown back then. As he remembers it, city leaders had to beg restaurant owners to open temporarily in Uptown just to feed the crowd.
The city put up a grand façade, in other words, which CL satirized with a literal one.
"We did this whole thing where it was like, 'Welcome to Charlotte', but we ran a picture of Paris on the cover," says Wicker.
Grooms says CL offered the basketball fans reviews of places like Crowder's Mountain that ran alongside images of Mt. Fuji. "It was hilarious," Grooms recalls, laughing. "Every one (of the 'things to do in Charlotte') was a punch in the face, a 'this is how absurd you are'" to city leaders, he says.
Both Grooms and Wicker say they believe it was the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce that sent minions through the streets of Charlotte to collect thousands of copies of that issue and file them in a dumpster behind the old First Union building.
In the next issue, Grooms published a letter from CL's lawyers that went something like this: "That's completely fucking illegal."
When I try to talk to him about his legacy, Grooms, in his cantankerous way, disagrees. "I drew in writers who shared similar views of the city and life, and I let them guide coverage. And whenever the opportunity presented itself, we stuck it to some weasel or another," Grooms says. The writers were so good, Grooms says, "I learned about writing by editing."
When I suggested that he has helped bring the powerful to account in this city he dismissed the idea, then reluctantly cops to the "one great expection," which was the 1989 mayoral race. "I got sick of Myrick bashing her opponents' 'lack of morals,' so we dug up the info on how she broke up her husband's first marriage which led her to cussing on the John Boy and Billy Big Show and landed us on First Edition."
Then there was the attempted censorship of Angels in America, Grooms recalled. "The rest of local media, with a couple of Observer exceptions, followed our lead, since they seemed to have no idea why people were all excited," he wrote via email.
"Okay, maybe we did think about bringing the powerful to account," he continued, "It just didn't happen often enough.
"We woke up a large part of Charlotte to the unexpected but delightful fact that although they dominated local media since time immemorial, they — bankers, hustlers, Calvinists and other dullards — were not the only residents of the city. And that those 'other' people often had more interesting ideas and views on life than supposed city leaders."
John Grooms, this is why we love you. Thank you for giving 'other' people a voice and for creating a space for Charlotte to celebrate what makes her beautiful; thank you for creating a space for citizens and journalists to shine a light on important issues in our community.