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[whitespace] Nicky Baxter Taking Notes: Music critic Nicky Baxter (in a picture from the late '80s) was always attuned to the best of the South Bay's cultural scene.

A Writer's Life

Nicky Baxter, 1956-1999

By Michael S. Gant

A NEWSPAPER LIKE Metro thrives on the opinions--strongly held and passionately defended--of its writers. One of our strongest and most passionate voices, Nicky Baxter, passed away this week. Baxter, age 43, was found dead last Sunday afternoon, Aug. 22, at his apartment in San Jose. The cause of death has not yet been determined.

Wilford Nicky Baxter was born in San Francisco on May 24, 1956. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he received his undergraduate degree. He continued his education at San Jose State University, earning a master's degree in library science. Nicky worked for many years at the San Jose Public Library and freelanced for local papers, including BAM and the East Bay Express.

Nicky began writing for Metro in 1986, our second year of publication. His reviews, profiles, stories and calendar picks continued unabated for 13 years, making his name one of the paper's most familiar bylines.

Among his first appearances in our pages was a review of Neil Young's Landing on Water album. This short piece heralded the arrival of a confident, stylish critic. Over the years, Nicky never lost his belief that Young, at his best, delivered rock & roll that counted for something. In a calendar pick this spring, he wrote, "No other rocker wrenches more out of a single note."

Nicky was determined not to be pigeonholed in his tastes. His music writing ranged freely over a multitude of genres, from jazz and blues to hip-hop and alternative, from funk and R&B to heavy metal and punk. He was as comfortable parsing the fatalism of the Meat Puppets as he was taking readers on a guided tour of George Clinton's deep funk grooves. He often championed bands that refused to stick to type, bands that experimented with fertile musical mixes. On occasion, he even offered readers a quirky take on classical composers and performers.

Although music was his primary love, Nicky often wrote book reviews, analyzed movies and visual art, and tackled political issues. A keen observer of the gender wars, Nicky took author Terry McMillan to task for her black-male-bashing in Waiting to Exhale. His examination of the blaxploitation genre of the '70s revealed the ways in which a new crop of filmmakers subverted some old cinematic stereotypes.

In the aftermath of the Rodney King uprising in 1992, he delivered a blistering editorial that addressed the reality of being black in America: "I cannot inveigh against the street-fighting men and women. Their actions must be weighed in a carefully detailed context. ... The rage that erupted across the nation for those few days was not a reaction to Rodney King alone. It is a loud and unruly 'No!' to racial injustice."

Politics and art were inextricably linked for Nicky. A U.S.-born African, he frequently highlighted the fault lines between the races that could be heard in the music. He agitated against the industry strictures that he believed sometimes constrained the vision of black artists.

At his best, Nicky knew how to translate the ideological into the realm of the intimate. His 1995 essay on the Gang of Four noted, "Rather than ... ranting against the idea of monopoly capitalism, the band proceeded from the premise that in order to get a handle on that system of economic--and hence, social--relations, it is necessary to scrutinize the relationships, the interior battles, between men and women. ... But what made the Gang of Four's take on social relations so intriguing was its 'objectified' commentary. The band never chose sides, it simply described the phenomenon at its point of combustion."

A TIRELESS SUPPORTER of the local music scene, Nicky made sure that Metro's readers never lost sight of such home-grown heroes as jazz trumpeter Eddie Gale, guitarist John Wedemeyer and drummer Wally Schnalle. In his last piece for Metro, he gave a boost up to San Jose's Recruits, a band, in his words, "headed for the big leagues."

A dedicated and deeply knowledgeable fan of the blues, Nicky often wrote about the old masters and young lions of the genre when they stopped in town at clubs likes JJ's Blues. June Stanley, owner of the blues venue, became a friend of Nicky's over the years. "Besides being well-informed about the blues," she recalls, "he wanted to keep the music alive and help the musicians. He would come here and meet the musicians. He was a big part of their lives and mine."

Local music promoter Chris Esparza first met Nicky about the time his former club, Ajax Lounge, opened its doors. "He would come by and check out our music," Chris remembers, "and we would bitch, moan and laugh together about how frustrating the music scene could be in San Jose, but he would always encourage me to keep moving forward and not to give up."

Nicky's influence remains strong, Esparza notes: "If I was asked to create a list of those people who have helped me build my dreams in San Jose, Nicky would be on it, and I only hope he knew that. He was an understanding ear and a supportive voice."

Ron Johnson, bassist and bandleader of Nappy Head Newton, remembers Nicky's devotion to local musicians: "He was just totally supportive of everything I did and encouraged my art--not just me but local groups. ... He was the voice of blues and jazz and world music in the community."

Drummer Wally Schnalle seconds the recollection of many about Nicky's dedication. "His love for music certainly shows up in the intergrity of his attitude toward music," Schnalle says. "When we talked about what was going on in the musical world, he didn't pull his punches. I respected his opinions because they weren't bullshit."

NICKY IS SURVIVED by brother Glen Baxter of Gilroy, sister Regina Richardson of San Jose, girlfriend Margie Davis and father Wilford Nicky Baxter Sr. "My brother was in a lot of ways a folk hero to me," Glen Baxter says. "He was definitely someone I looked up to, someone that I a lot of times found myself measuring up against.

"He had the same kind of heart I did--he was a very caring person who had a sensitive heart. He loved music with a passion; he loved writing with a passion," Glen Baxter continues. "He was an activist in the community ... always involved at the [African American Community Services Agency] and always willing to stick up for others."

Nicky's memorial service will be Friday, Aug. 27, at the Jones Mortuary, 660 Donohoe St., East Palo Alto. At Metro's press time the hour had not been set, but those who wish to attend can call 650/323-2481 for details. Donations toward funeral expenses can be made in care of Glen Baxter at 1685 Brentwood Lane, Gilroy, 95020.

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From the Sugust 26-September 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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