2015 in Words

Hangin' with my pals at a KKK-Neo Nazi Confederate flag rally back in July. Photo: Courtesy Steve Eberhardt
Where did 2015 go? I'm not quite sure. If you didn't see much of me, it's because I was probably somewhere getting berated by politicians, hanging out in Myrtle Beach, or geeking out about Atlanta. Oh, there was some big news too: I moved across town from Creative Loafing to Atlanta magazine back in July. It wasn't an easy decision. But it was the right move at the right time. I couldn't be happier to be working with Steve and Scott—two fellow CL alum—and host of incredibly talented editors who help make sure I don't mess up the magazine's glossy pages (among many other things).

I've got some stories already in the works for 2016. I can't wait to share them with y'all. Before I do, here's a short list of the stories that I was most proud of in 2015. I hope you enjoy them if you didn't have the chance to read them yet.

The New Georgia Problem: Millions were raised, thousands of voter applications went missing, and a lawsuit was filed in Rep. Stacey Abrams’ bid to hold Georgia’s largest voter registration drive in two decades. But something isn’t right. (Creative Loafing)

Creative Loafing’s 2015 Golden Sleaze Awards: Recognizing the General Assembly’s awful, absurd, and asinine actions during the legislative session. My favorite part? That glow-in-the-dark jellyfish made it into the Gold Dome. (Creative Loafing)

What's next for Atlanta Public Schools? The school system’s historic cheating trial verdict has closed the books on one of the city’s darkest moments. (Creative Loafing)

Living on death row in Tennessee: 'The rollercoaster is exhausting' Thirty-four inmates are volleyed between life and death as the state grapples with lawsuits on the constitutionality of legal injection and the electric chair. (Guardian)

Unanswered: Metro Atlanta police officers have fatally shot at least 75 people since 2010. In some cases the use of deadly force has been questionable. Local leaders could make reforms to prevent future shootings now. Will they? (Creative Loafing)

Don't be a tourist: Too many Atlantans sit on the sidelines when it comes to shaping the city. That needs to change. (Creative Loafing)

'Still a racist nation:' American bigotry on full display at KKK rally in South Carolina. (Guardian)

Owner of Mississippi's last abortion clinic won't stop fighting for her patients: The Jackson Women’s Health Organization is threatened by a 2012 Mississippi law that would limit access to abortions. With the clinic’s fate in the supreme court’s hands, Diane Derzis is focused on the survival of ‘a place that cares.’ (Guardian)

Back on Track: The man who saved MARTA believes it can save us all. Will we get on board? (Atlanta)

Ranking the 55 men and women who run metro Atlanta: From Nathan Deal to Killer Mike, I helped put together this exhaustive list for Atlanta's "Power" issue. (Atlanta)

The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous: Five years after the death of Sparklehorse leader Mark Linkous, Max Blau talks with many of the idiosyncratic songwriter's closest friends and collaborators, shedding light on an artist who compelled listeners to heed the beauty of darkness. (Pitchfork)

How less than six square miles could determine Atlanta’s next mayor: A seismic shift in the city’s racial makeup means two Atlanta annexation campaigns are being closely watched. (Atlanta)

In addition, some kind individuals nominated me for awards for my work in 2014. I was a finalist for the Atlanta Press Club's Rising Star given to a journalist under 30, one of the Chicago Headline Club's Peter Lisagor Awards for my Jason Molina profile for the Chicago Reader, and four Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards (three with Creative Loafing, one with the Chicago Reader). For the second year in a row, CL's "Fresh Loaf" won the best blog award. It was bittersweet to see that happen as I was leaving the paper. But I have little doubt Thomas, Rodney, and company will be back for the three-peat in 2015. Oh, and that Sparklehorse story? That was picked up by both Longform and Longreads, which was pretty neat to see that happen. Not a bad year at all.

The story behind the artwork for Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co.

In learning about Jason Molina's life over the past two years, dozens of people told me incredible stories about Jason and his impact on their lives. One of my favorites that didn't fit into "Jason Molina's long dark blues" came from William Schaff, a Providence visual artist who's illustrated album covers for the likes of Okkervil River, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Brown Bird. Among his earliest works was the cover of Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co. Here's the fascinating story behind how it was created.

It was sometime around 1999. I was working at Kinko’s. I couldn’t go to Jason’s show, but asked a friend to give him a book. Months later, I got an email from Jason who said it’d be fun if we trade art sometime. I was floored. I wrote him back saying sure, “I love sending stuff in the mail.” That led to the initial mail art correspondence we had where he would draw something on the road, mail it my way, and I’d draw something back. We kept upping the ante when we mailed art. 

Years later, I was at a show he was playing in Boston. He mentioned he wanted to see himself drawn as one of the bird skull creatures I do. That night, I drew a picture of him playing guitar, but with this crow’s skull head. I wrote: “If you really liked this, you should record a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s 'Tower Song.' I don’t care if it’s on a boom box or in a studio.” He recorded not only that one, but also “I’ll Be There in the Morning” and some others on the tape. He said: “If you really liked my Townes songs, maybe you’d consider doing the cover for my next record. Here are some of the songs on it.” They were songs that would later appear on Magnolia Electric Co. Jason, without me even having to say how I work, just said, “You know what, all I was thinking about when I did this album were owls, pyramids, and magnolias. You go from there.”

Owls, pyramids, and magnolias.

Jason Molina's long dark blues

Christopher Dilts
Nearly two years ago, I set out to write a story about Jason Molina. If you're not familiar with him, Jason was a prolific songwriter who founded both Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. and became a major influence in modern Americana (Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Glen Hansard, and just about every artist on Secretly Canadian's roster). He helped pave the road for many musicians, but never received the recognition he deserved.

For all Jason offered the world as an artist, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. He died in March 2013. He was 39. Two months before he died, I exchanged a few emails with him about the story. He wasn't ready to talk. I never talked to him.

Since his death, I've been working on telling the largely untold story on his life, songwriting, alcoholism, and death. That process has included more than 40 interviews, multiple trips throughout the Midwest, and countless hours writing the piece. And it's finally out today with the Chicago Reader, my first piece for my hometown alt-weekly.

You can read the full 7,000-word story here.

Stories, stories, stories

It was a hectic summer. And I wrote some more stories along the way about a college radio station takeover, a reunited rock band, a new school superintendent, a gubernatorial candidate, a group of inner-city dirt bike riders, a father-and-son rock collaboration, and a hip-hop duo's homecoming, and more.

Jason Carter's tightrope act: Jason Carter must step out of his grandfather's shadow to become Georgia's next governor. But he can't win without the former president. (Creative Loafing)
Jeff and Spencer Tweedy: Everybody Goes Home: Max Blau unravels the most harrowing period of the Wilco frontman's family history. (Consequence of Sound)
Urban dirt biking is illegal and it’s rising in popularity: Some #ATLBikeLife members say it keeps them away from drugs and gangs. Some local authorities and residents say it’s a menace. (Creative Loafing) Outkast return to Atlanta with electric, star-studded show: Big Boi and AndrĂ© 3000 pay tribute to their hometown with help from 2 Chainz, Future and Bun B. (Rolling Stone)
Album 88's future is up in the air: After 43 years of student-run radio, GSU secretly decided to flip WRAS to daytime talk. What does GPB's takeover mean for WRAS 88.5 FM? (Creative Loafing)
Picking up the pieces of Atlanta Public Schools: Can new superintendent Meria Carstarphen save the troubled school system? (Creative Loafing)
The Rock*A*Teens: An Oral History: After a 12-year hiatus, the influential Cabbagetown rockers return. (Creative Loafing)
The changing face of Downtown Atlanta: It's the neighborhood's biggest year since the 1996 Olympics, but what has tourist development done for residents lately? (Creative Loafing)

Oh, and I won a few awards along the way. In April, the Atlanta Press Club gave me an award for being Atlanta's best non-daily print reporter in 2013. CL's new and culture blog, Fresh Loaf, received recognition as the best staff blog in the country among alt-weeklies. And I made a tiny contribution to CL's 100 Dishes, which came in third place at the 2014 Association of Food Journalists for "Best Food Multimedia Presentation." Hurrah!

How Dikembe Mutombo’s Finger Changed The NBA

Since May 2013, I've been working on a story about Dikembe Mutombo's finger wag (no, no, no!) and how it turned him into an unlikely NBA superstar and a global icon. I had the privilege of chatting with Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Kemp, Lenny Wilkens, Steve Smith, Bismack Bioymbo, and some of his former teammates at Georgetown. And it's finally published with Buzzfeed. An except is below:

Dikembe Mutombo doesn’t remember the first time he wagged his finger in a basketball game, but he does remember why. In 1992, the 7-foot-2-inch rookie center was an NBA All-Star, but he played on a bad team, the Nuggets, in a midsize city, Denver. And he was from a country, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), that most Americans can’t place on a map. Sneaker companies were dishing out multimillion-dollar endorsement deals to the league’s best and best-known players, and Mutombo knew he needed to establish a marketable trademark move to accompany the prodigious blocked shots for which he was already making a name.

“Back then, I would shake my head when I used to block shots,” Mutombo, now 47, recalls at his Atlanta foundation’s headquarters, where he spends much of his time these days. “I really didn’t have a signature…I had to come up with something [for when] I was dominating a game.”

Mutombo, wearing a light blue dress shirt with sleeves two inches too short, sinks into his black leather office chair, extends his long legs the width of his wooden desk, and sends a text to his wife, Rose. Inside the bright green-and-yellow office, reminders of Mutombo’s career are scattered alongside photographs from trips to Africa. Several boxes of new high-tops rest on a spare table, alongside a Mutombo-licensed basketball. In front of his monitor sits a mouse pad prominently displaying his face, which, much to Mutombo’s surprise, was — is — still very much everywhere.

Who wants to read Mutombo?

The Long Kiss Goodbye: The Search for Vinnie Vincent

KISS is being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week. Because of that, Rolling Stone asked me to track down the band's former guitarist Vinnie Vincent, who has lived in seclusion in a small Middle Tennessee town outside Nashville for nearly two decades. Here's my story about the once-brilliant, now-reclusive musician and my monthlong search into his bizarre world.

Smyrna, Tennessee, is not a likely place to find a guitar god, or anyone in particular, which meant it was just about perfect for Vinnie Vincent. For a while anyway. The town of 42,000 people is roughly 25 miles southeast of Nashville, and full of non-descript McMansions and farmhouses kept watch over by lazily grazing goats and cows. There are cozy residential subdivisions, too, where children's bikes are strewn across the well-manicured front lawns of one-story brick ranch houses. 

One property near the outskirts of town, though, sticks out amongst all the idyllic sameness. Behind a forbidding eight-foot-tall picket fence and a padlocked gate stand two houses. Paint cans, a television set and stuffed black garbage bags litter the driveways. This is where guitarist Vinnie Vincent — who gave life back into Kiss in the early Eighties, when the bandmembers had removed their makeup but seemed musically ready for embalming, and then became a hair-metal solo star in his own right — has lived in seclusion for the last 15 years. Or, more accurately, had lived. It's hard to know where Vincent is these days.

Read the full story over at Rolling Stone.

2013 in words

It's been a busy 2013. I've written a whole bunch of stories along the way for Creative Loafing and some other lovely publications. There's been hundreds of articles that have allowed me to understand Atlanta far better than ever before. A few stories also gave me an excuse to travel throughout the South and back home to Chicago.

As the year winds down, I compiled a few of my favorite ones (in chronological order) just in case you missed 'em throughout the past year. Hope you enjoy a few. See you in 2014.


-The Past, Present, and Future of Grady Memorial Hospital: A three-part series on Atlanta's largest hospital. (Creative Loafing)
-South By Southwest: Is It Worth It?: Artists, industry figures, and 40 Austin-bound musicians weigh in. (Consequence of Sound)
-Trying to Make It at SXSW: An Atlanta band, filmmaker, and entrepreneur hit up Austin's 2013 mega-conference. Was it worth it? (CL)
-The Fight For Wilcox County's First Integrated Prom: Last month, black and white students from a tiny south Georgia county attended prom together for first time. Was this a big step away from the past or a small aberration in a community doomed to repeat it? (Buzzfeed)
-Lauryn Hill’s Rise And Fall, 15 Years After The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill: Despite the tumultuous, and at times mysterious, struggles surrounding the former Fugees emcee and Grammy Award winner, it’s easy to forget how much she mattered at the height of her career. (Stereogum)
-Neko Case: Through the Woods: On her latest record, Neko Case provides listeners with a rare glimpse into her personal world that, in many ways, exemplifies why she’s one of today’s finest songwriters. (Consequence of Sound)
-Jeff Fuqua, Atlanta's Most Controversial Developer:  After 25 years, more than 8 million square feet, and lots of opposition, few have shaped the city like Fuqua. (CL)
-Atlanta chases its Silicon Valley dreams: Hundreds of new companies and dozens of co-working spaces are making Atlanta a Southern startup hot spot. (CL)
-How Spotify Engineered the New Music Economy: In a post-Napster music industry, Spotify seems to have concocted a winning monetization formula, but not all its participants are happy with the numbers. (Mashable)
-Braves New World: A tax-averse suburban county is clamoring to build a publicly funded stadium, a professional baseball team is fleeing a resurgent city, and the mayor seems cool with demolishing a 16-year-old former Olympic complex. Welcome to Bizarroville. (CL)

Other stories:

-Why Dualtone Matters: Despite Grammy-level success, tiny Nashville label Dualtone still remains under the radar. (Nashville Scene)
-A Farewell Transmission: Thoughts on Jason Molina's Passing. (Paste)
-Mayor Reed's 140-character evolution: @KasimReed's once-lonely tweets have become something greater. But what exactly? (CL)
-Step away from the trombone: Atlanta's panhandling ordinance snags street musicians. (CL)
-Robert Ellis Expands Beyond Country Roots: Nashville songwriter teams up with producer Jacquire King on forthcoming third LP. (Rolling Stone)
-This Georgia hospital shows why rejecting Medicaid isn’t easy: Grady may be forced to make service cuts in light of Georgia’s refusal to expand its Medicaid program. (Washington Post)
-Why Georgia can't kill Warren Lee Hill: The state's new lethal-injection law undermines its repeated attempts to kill one of its death row inmates. (CL)
-Man Man Tighten Up for On Oni Pond: Philly experimental rockers hope to shed preconceived notions with fifth LP. (Rolling Stone)
-Atlanta's largest nonprofit patrons: Few have shaped the city's philanthropic world like Robert Woodruff and Alicia Philipp. (CL/NPR affiliate WABE)
-Quitting Religion: At a certain point, God became god to me. (CL)
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