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Originally published Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Music critic Patrick MacDonald looks back on nearly 50 years in the biz

Patrick MacDonald, longtime Seattle Times music critic, says farewell to his readers.

Seattle Times music critic

They finally caught on.

I won't be getting away with it any longer.

After 35 years, The Seattle Times has realized that they have been paying me to go to rock concerts. Paying me to hang out with rock stars. Paying me to leave the office early and go home with a stack of free CDs to do "research."

Actually, I've volunteered to leave at this time as the paper trims its staff — a terribly hard decision to make. This is my last piece.

It's been a great run. I have been so lucky, so blessed to have spent my entire working career — going back to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer 46 years ago — involved in things I love: music, media and writing.

It all started when I got a part-time job as a file clerk in the P-I's morgue (newspaperese for "library") at the age of 17, thanks to my aunt, who was the publisher's executive secretary. Within months of my arrival, I was writing book reviews. At 18, I started writing music reviews.

The first one was for the Kingston Trio at the Opera House. Not exactly what I had in mind, but at least I was perceptive enough to realize that the opening act, a new comedian named Bill Cosby, had potential.

At the P-I, I wrote about the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Donovan, Cream and dozens more. I wrote while a student at West Seattle High School, Seattle University and the University of Washington (where I was editor of The Daily). I started writing the nightclub column a month after I turned 21.

Eventually, I moved into the Arts & Entertainment department. There were just two of us (the editor was Rolf Stromberg, a great mentor), so I covered everything, from movies to plays to opera. It was a great foundation in the arts.

At the Daily and the P-I, I learned the craft of journalism, including reporting, editing, page makeup, etc. I never took a journalism class (my UW major was political science).

In early 1969, I was sent to interview the new program director of Seattle's first progressive-rock station, KOL-FM. He said he was looking for knowledgeable disc jockeys who could program their own shows. And I was thrilled when he asked if I wanted to try my hand at it. I started as a weekend jock in March 1969. In 1970, I quit the P-I to become a full-time jock, on the air from 6 to midnight, Monday through Friday.

For the next three-and-a-half years, I had the most fun of my life, going on the air every night and playing my favorite tunes while taking calls from listeners. It was a wonderful time for rock 'n' roll. I still miss it.

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But a new owner suddenly dictated a change in programming, favoring "soft rock." I quit on the spot. I had already been writing for Rolling Stone, as a local stringer, and concentrated on that. I took a job as managing editor of a new monthly called The Flag, a precursor to The Weekly.

In late 1973, I wrote a letter to the A&E editor of The Seattle Times, Wayne Johnson, asking to join his staff. Three days later he called and offered me a part-time job. I took it. In 1975, I became a full-time employee, and have been at it ever since.

I'm at a loss to put into words how grateful I am to have experienced so many wonderful performances and met some of my heroes. I cherish the time spent with Jimi Hendrix, and am humbled to have met Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Tina Turner, Ray Davies and so many more (see sidebar).

The first rock star I met was Fats Domino, at a Sunday afternoon concert in 1956 at Eagles Auditorium (now part of the Convention Center). I was 11 years old. My friend Danny Eskenazi and I had started the International Fats Domino Fan Club, which got us backstage.

When Fats returned for The Big Show of Stars for '57, at the old Orpheum Theater (now gone), we went backstage the first night, and he gave us 10 tickets for the next night. We took our brothers and friends and filled a whole row. Backstage, I met Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, the Everly Brothers and Paul Anka (just missed Chuck Berry).

That same year, I saw Elvis Presley, a show I'll never forget — Sunday, Sept. 1, 1957, at Sicks' Stadium (also gone). He wore his gold lamé jacket and ended "Hound Dog" lying flat on his back.

As fan and critic, I've seen them all: Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Madonna, Prince, Tony Bennett, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Celine Dion, etc., etc. I witnessed the explosion of punk rock (thank you, Sex Pistols) and the phenomenon of grunge (thank you, Kurt Cobain). I was there at the beginning, when rock was born in the '50s. It has been part of my life ever since.

My only regret: I never saw the Beatles, having missed both their performances here because I was on junkets to New York both times. That said, travel has been another benefit of my job. I've been to London, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Austin and Vancouver covering stories.

I'm reluctant to leave now because it is a great time for music. The White Stripes, the Raconteurs, Kings of Leon, Kanye West, Fleet Foxes, Chris Brown, John Legend, Alicia Keys, John Mayer and Beyoncé are just some of the great artists carrying on the legacy of pop music.

I know I haven't been the best rock critic, the most knowledgeable or the most perceptive. I'm in the shadow of betters who have influenced me, including Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Robert Hilburn and David Fricke.

When I was young, I took myself too seriously, and was somewhat aloof and detached. I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now. I've been saying for the past decade or so that I'm finally learning how to do this job. I want to thank my editors, especially Doug Kim, for helping me find myself as a writer and critic. The one thing I hope I have been, and have striven for, is to be a good writer. I hope I have been readable.

Having experienced the work of so many creative artists for more than 50 years, I know I have learned and grown from them. I have also been challenged and entertained.

The music will always be there and I'm not leaving it. My passion for it remains.

What am I going to do now? Well, of course, I'm going to rock 'n' roll all night and party every day!

Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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