ALTHOUGH IT'S BEEN WELL OVER half a decade ago, I still vividly recall the very first time I spoke to John Stoehr.
I’d called to let him know one of my bands was playing at a local club. Having seen his byline in the newly-retooled Connect Savannah, I was happy they’d finally made the music writer job a staff position. But I’d been warned he was both snide and dismissive of local artists, so I made sure I was sweet as pie when I phoned.
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
John told me matter-of-factly that he’d never heard of my band, thus we must not be worth much.
“Lemme explain something to you,” he continued in an absurdly condescending manner. “There’s no story there. Now, if you were to tell me your lead singer was a dog, then that’s a story.”
“You mean if he was unattractive, then you’d write about him?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “If you had an actual dog that came out and sang the words. That’s worth putting in the paper.”
I responded that if our band was in possession of an English-speaking dog that could sing rock songs on cue, I wouldn’t be calling up someone like him and begging for a lame blurb in a weekly paper. I’d be on f@#ing Letterman.
Still determined to develop a positive relationship with the only guy in town whose business card read “Music Editor,” I bit my tongue, and offered to put he and a friend on the guest list, buy them a beer and let him see our band in person.
“Don’t bother,” he replied. “To be honest, I don’t enjoy seeing local bands.”
I was flabbergasted. “You don’t enjoy seeing what kind of local bands?”
“Any local bands. I’m not interested.”
“But, I don’t get it. Aren’t you the music editor of a local paper? Isn’t your job description to cover local bands?”
“I do whatever I want,” he replied with palpable disdain.
Through a strange and fortuitous series of coincidences, not too much later I found myself taking over John Stoehr’s position at this paper. In prepping for that job interview, I gave some thought to what I’d do differently with the position, if allowed.
I’d try my best not to belittle or mock local talent merely to look hip or superior. I wouldn’t write features on artists who weren’t from our immediate vicinity (or passing through on tour). I wouldn’t exaggerate the worth of mediocre locals out of a misguided sense of hometown pride — but conversely, I wouldn’t discount local talent by assuming everything is done better outside one’s own city’s limits.
Most of all, I wouldn’t stoop to pitting local acts against each other in print just to watch the sparks and the papers fly (out of their boxes).
I’d write mostly expository pieces, as I was sure participants in the local music scene, after routinely being either blown or completely ignored by the press, weren’t ready to hear serious criticism. And I saw no point in putting them on the guillotine when a friendly pinch might do.
Then again, I wouldn’t sugarcoat my true feelings, either. If someone had the nerve to present something of an extremely low quality, I’d see it as my duty to call them out on it, for the sake of our readers.
I believe, and still do, that’s the best way to fairly report on a fledgling local scene such as ours: honestly, but erring on the side of inclusion and encouragement.
Stoehr would later turn up as arts reporter at the Savannah Morning News, where he brought that same bitter, mean-spirited narcissism to much of his work. It’s been an open secret around town for years that he single-handedly alienated and/or outright insulted most everyone he came in contact with in our A&E community.
Along the way, he penned some of the most transparently slanted hatchet jobs seen in this market for the past few decades — not to mention the inappropriate comments which peppered some of his most bewildering pieces.
For some reason the daily paper stuck by him, defending him against completely legitimate complaints from all corners. Why? Only they know.
Perhaps it’s because they sell papers while we give them away, and a juicy, inflammatory, tabloid-style front page article about, say, a private disagreement between two grown men in the local jazz world might stir up some muck and move some pricey pulp at fifty cents a pop.
Now, Stoehr’s leaving us, and taking a position as arts writer at the Charleston City Paper, a free rag much like Connect. That’s in many ways fitting, as he exhibited an extreme case of Charleston envy ever since he moved to Savannah.
Annually in the SMN, he devoted so much space to sycophantic coverage of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival that anything he’d write about hometown events at that time of year seemed almost out of place.
But he couldn’t leave town before taking one last parting shot.
In his recent debut column for the City Paper which has become instantly notorious for its A) shortsightedness, B) egomania, C) crybaby demeanor and D) good old-fashioned lack of class, John has finally come squeaky-clean about his long-standing, intense dislike for virtually everyone involved in Savannah’s arts and entertainment community. And not just dislike, but simmering, brooding resentment.
Resentment which he tries (unsuccessfully to those of us on this side of the bridge) to recast as some sort of valiant quest for truth in what he broadly paints as a town filled with crooked, talentless, artistically stunted hacks who simply couldn’t handle his steely glare and Geraldo-like dedication to “hard news.”
To hear Stoehr tell it, The Man was keeping him down, expending no small amount of good ol’ boy conspiratorial effort on quashing his investigative journalist approach to A&E.
There’s only one problem. It’s horseshit. Delusions of grandeur from a misanthrope.
Sure, Savannah’s arts community has been coddled for decades, as most cities’ have, whether or not they’re held up as a fine arts Mecca (which many of you here have realized is a facade). Sure, some folks have set themselves up well as figureheads in local arts organizations. Sure, there’s a strong, vocal contingent of natives wary of — and quick to write off — folks from up north and the ideas they bring.
So what else is new?
Those frustrating elements aren’t specific to Savannah by any means. (I’ll bet if anything, they’re even more entrenched in Charleston, as Mr. Stoehr may soon discover.) Slowly, but surely, however, time passes and things change. Naturally.
That’s not to say they can’t be helped along by the local media, but a brash, antagonistic transplanted blowhard with a whole pack of Duracells on his shoulder has no right to be surprised when he receives scant cooperation (or even outright distrust) from people he’s trying to publicly “bring down” to pad his tear-sheet file for a hopeful leap to a larger market.
I realize it may seem churlish for me to pen this column. However, Stoehr’s very public screed practically begs for a rebuttal in a forum more easy to happen upon than the comments section of the City Paper’s website — which already boasts over two dozen responses to his column, virtually all from long-suffering Savannahians celebrating his exodus and Charlestonians who don’t dig that he introduced himself to them by bashing the hell out of the last place he earned a paycheck.
The reason it’s worth bringing this up in Connect Savannah is to contrast the antics of a self-professed “cultural critic” who’d rather pull at a string for the sake of watching an imperfect sweater unravel — and drawing attention to himself in the process — with the attitude that I and the rest of our editorial staff hold to.
Namely: to try and showcase the best our city has to offer in terms of arts. Not with a blind eye to shortcomings, but ever mindful of the power of constructive criticism.
We’re not interested in tearing someone else down just for the sake of making ourselves feel taller, with a big shit-eating grin on our face.
That’s Charleston’s problem now.
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