Texas Outlaw Writers Newsletter: John Nova Lomax Memorial Edition

Texas Outlaw Writers Newsletter: John Nova Lomax Memorial Edition
John Lomax III, John Nova Lomax, and Julia Taylor (John Nova's mother)

The Outlaws are sad to announce the passing of one of our own, John Nova Lomax. Maybe "one of our own" is a bit of a stretch, but John was one of the early contributors here on the Texas Outlaw Writers website and newsletter.

He's listed as a "guest writer" on our "About" page. John maintained his own Substack, and was, at the time, working for Texas Highway's Magazine as a "writer at large."  On "Ruckus," his personal Substack, he describes himself as "A Bayou City scribe / Gulf Coast Bullshitter. I speak grackle and almost died in a cabin on a river."

My big idea, as I've noted before, was to gather a few of my journalist and writer heroes and put a Substack together that featured their work. A lot of writers and creatives were starting their own personal newsletters, often asking for a monthly "subscription" donation... what if there was a collection of great writers under one banner? A buy-one-get-many proposition! Lomax was already putting out his own Stack,  but he indulged me and said that I could use some of his Substack articles and even some of his older Texas Highway Magazine pieces that he could republish on his personal sites.

Before we get to John Nova's life and times and the many, many tributes that have been flooding in to various publications, let me get you links to a couple of our regular articles that the Outlaws were working on before we got the news about Lomax. These are timely pieces that deserve your attention.

Limitless Debt Limit Clown Show.

The national news story that seemingly won't resolve itself is the so-called debt ceiling crisis. The result of this impasse may present itself without any help or hindrance as a non-negotiable deadline looms.

Roger Gray is worried about the results of this debt limit charade and the effect it has on world opinion. Not that it matters to MTG or OAC.

Bozos At The Gates | Texas Outlaw Writers
The barbarians at the gates have been replaced by sillier but scarier buffoons.

Florida Man Gets Goofy.

There is a weird political battle going on in Florida between the state’s governor and Disney World. Ron DeSantis is taking on the House of Mouse - the state’s largest employer and taxpayer - which seems a weird way to get public support. And he’s the guy the GOP thinks can take on Trump??? Outlaw Jim Moore thinks the weirdness runs all the way through the entire list of Republican presidential hopefuls.

Of Presidents and Potentates | Texas Outlaw Writers
DeSantis takes on Disney, potentially losing jobs and tax $. And the GOP thinks he can take on Trump? This insanity runs through the entire GOP list of hopefuls.

When I first contacted John Nova Lomax about contributing some of his work to our newsletter, I did it as a fanboy. I had read his writing as far back as his articles for The Houston Press, and I had enjoyed his work at Texas Monthly. He loved history and delighted in turning accepted "wisdom" on its head when he brought to light an action, event, or personality that was not portrayed accurately. His piece on the Alamo's famous architectural "hump" is a great example (spoiler: it wasn't there during the famous battle.) In another bit of Alamo history revisionism, he pointed out that the Alamo wasn't really much of a sacred "shrine" until the early 20th century when state leaders realized that identifying with the Lost Cause narrative wasn't really a winning message. So marketers went to work focusing Texas brand identity toward the glorious victory at San Jacinto after the noble sacrifice of the Alamo defenders. There were also cowboys conquering the Indians, Westward expansion, cattle drives, and importantly - leaving the Old South behind. Nova was writing this stuff before the current fights over teaching the classic Alamo narrative were making headlines.

But mostly I had fun interacting with him on Facebook. Nova would often write mini-articles about his adventures in the Houston and Texas Food, Music, Culture and Art scene. Or he might just share his fascination with discarded sofas. Or old abandoned telephone booths. Or State Inspection signage that invariably had misshaped Texas outlines.

A sofa. A story. 

I'm not alone in my appreciation for his appreciation. People would comment on his sofa pictures, the photos of freeform, abstract Texas signage, derelict phone booths, and shared stories about his personal life. Whereas most comment threads on social media degenerate into political fights and personal insults, Nova's "followers" always seemed grateful for his humor and honesty (and the chance to share their reactions.) They would send him pictures of phone booths that THEY found, or they delighted in posting a curbside couch discovery that THEY made. They also loved to share their own personal lives with someone who was so emotionally bare and available. Reviewing some of his social media posts, it's clear that anyone who ever met him or even interacted with him on one of his Facebook threads considered him a friend. Unless you were Mattress Mac or a Houston Texans coach.

To honor John, I want to post links to several obits and tributes that have been offered by some of the publications that he worked for or by writers that knew him better than I did. Take the time to read them, and you will learn more about John, his loves, and importantly, the demons that he faced and that shaped who he was as a person and a writer.

Let's start with a piece from Mike Vance, also a guest Outlaw contributor. Mike knew John Nova as a friend and also as a co-author.

I welcomed those random calls when John was looking for my thoughts about Mirabeau Lamar (I hate that pompous, bigoted Georgia poltroon.) or the greatest Texas minor league baseball nickname (I say the Weimar Hormigas, though the club may or may not even exist anymore.)
Rest Easy John Nova Lomax | Texas Outlaw Writers
“I’m of the opinion that the loss of John’s writing and his sheer doggedness in following the rabbit trails of a good story equates to a loss for all of Texas, whether the state knows that or not.”

If you're into folklore or country roots music or the Delta blues, you may recognize that Lomax last name. The Lomaxes collected old folk stories and all manner of traditional music heard from the mountains of Appalachia to the prisons in Texas.

from Mimi Swartz, Texas Monthly:

Pedigrees are generally eschewed in Houston, but John Nova had one that explains his wide-ranging tastes and perceptions. He was descended from generations of folklorists and writers, people who understood the importance of the seemingly ordinary, of tradition, of the small things that can tell you so much if you are willing to just pay attention. Lomax’s great-grandfather was the famous folklorist John Avery Lomax, author of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, published in 1910. With his son Alan, John Avery wrote myriad books and created the Library of Congress’s Library of Recorded Sound, which contained over 17,000 songs. His grandfather John Avery Lomax Jr. was a land developer and professional singer who founded the Houston Folklore & Music Society and managed the career of Lightnin’ Hopkins. John Nova’s grandmother Bess Lomax Hawes was a songwriter (she wrote a hit for the Kingston Trio) and directed the folk grant program for the National Endowment for the Arts. The couple received the Presidential Medal of Arts. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, John Nova’s father, John Lomax III, was an early founder and writer for the underground newspaper Space City! before moving on to Nashville, where he became the manager for the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle who, in turn, became surrogate big brothers to the young John Nova.  -Mimi Swartz, Texas Monthly

Read Mimi's full tribute here.

If you were lucky enough to sit with John Nova for any length of time, you would be taken down one rabbit trail after another talking about every genre of music you can imagine and how it developed, who advanced or adapted the style, who was a poser or a hack and who was an authentic and original player. John would play something on his phone or over a Bluetooth speaker... "Listen to this... do you hear that guitar? Who does THAT remind you of???" Or he would relay some intrigue over who stole whose lyrics or styles or chord progressions. You could barely keep up with his excitement, and you were left with that same desire you had in high school to run to Cactus Records or Sound Warehouse and buy up 20 LPs to "discover" that music for yourself.  

Margaret Downing, editor at the Houston Press put together a great obit. She talked to several of his friends and family members.

(Quoting his stepfather, Chip Phillips) "I was present when Nova asked one of the doctors on the ICU that was telling him he was dying, what would be listed as the cause of death. The doctor told him cirrhosis. Nova said 'Can we tweak that a little bit?' The doc was being all business at the time and said 'The fact that your liver is not functioning is what is causing your kidneys to fail so yes, cirrhosis.'
"Nova said it was just a series of bad decisions. I said so is that what you want listed as the cause of death and he said that would work. Death by a series of bad decisions.
"Also we talked about what he wanted to be written on a grave marker. He said 'To Live is to Fly.' Which is a Townes Van Zandt song. Also, he said 'Learn From My Mistakes.'"
Remembering John Nova Lomax: A Gifted Story Teller
John Nova Lomax, the incredibly gifted writer about music and Texas life, who made it his practice to talk with people no matter their backgrounds, who absorbed local history and wrote about it with authority, who had a never-ending sense of curiosity, died too soon on the morning of Monday,…

John reflects on some of the time he and his mom spent with Townes Van Zandt

John Nova's father, as has been noted, was for a time Townes Van Zandt's (and Steve Earle's) manager. Nova's mom was, by most accounts, somewhat of a Townes groupie, spending a lot of time around Townes and whatever entourage he had around. And she took her son along for the ride. Townes, as any good Texan knows, is pretty much the poet laureate of Texas music. Fellow musician Steve Earle once said in an interview that Townes was "the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." However, Townes was the quintessential drunken poet, notorious for showing up for his shows falling-down-drunk. In addition to alcohol, he had a nasty little heroin problem. This is the environment that Nova was raised in.  

As effed up as Townes was, Nova knew that his art was the real deal. Did he internalize that this archetypal drunken poet was the example he should follow? Perhaps there's some of that. But the most tragic figure in this already grim picture of childhood was his own mom.

Much of the adventure and fun involved shoplifting, or “techniquing” as Mama liked me to call it when she and I stole groceries together in the late ’70s. It wasn’t unusual for us to go into a store, pile the cart high with meat, and then just walk right out the door. To ensure my silence, we stole toys, lots, large ones too—a Big Wheel-style trike, a Star Wars Death Star play set. I remember once someone asked Mama how we could afford all these goodies, whereupon she concocted a tale about a garage sale we’d stumbled upon wherein bereft parents were selling off their dead kid’s playthings. -JNL in Houstonia Magazine

I'm going to post the link here so that you get a full picture of the origin and depth of Mama's demons.  It's tough, but you need to read it to understand John:

Of Unknown Origin
What are we to make of those who make us? An essay by John Nova Lomax.

To recap: his mom was treated for months with opioids for horrific burn injuries that she received as a small child. When she is old enough to participate in the counterculture of the times, she discovers alcohol, codeine, and also another opioid. "The heroin, it gave me relief, the same relief I had known in the burns ward.” In fact, according to relatives, John Nova was a heroin baby. As an adult, he found the same relief that had been familiar to his mom and was unable to break that cycle.

When we were first putting the Texas Outlaw Writers together, John called me up and said he knew someone that should write with us. I contacted her and she was flattered, but she claimed she was not "quite ready" to put her own stuff out there. But I picked this up from her Facebook page, and it was as thoughtful a tribute as there could be. From Amber Erceg:

John, in a chat with Amber about his relationship with his mother. 

Amber also had a difficult relationship with an alcoholic parent. She wrote,

"I remember feeling so frustrated that John seemed able to love her unimpeded by her treatment of him. But his understanding of her must have been absolutely foundational to the wistful appreciation he had for broken things.  And of course, that’s one of the things that made him beautiful."

Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski is similar to John Nova in his appreciation for all things Texas. Joe has been writing about Texas music, history and culture for a little longer than John. Like so many, he felt Lomax had further to go with his career.

Over the years, I kept an eye on the young man. He had chops. He enjoyed writing about crime and criminals, a skill passed along by his friend and Houston Press colleague Steve McVicker, who relished writing about people gone wrong... John wasn’t always easy to find, bouncing from the Houston Press to Swamplot to Houstonia to Texas Monthly to Facebook to Substack. We finally became colleagues in 2020 at Texas Highways, where he carved a niche writing stories no one else could have ever thought of.
-Joe Nick Patoski in Texas Highways Magazine

His wonderful tribute to John is in Texas Highways Magazine and can be found here.

We sat on his screened porch and talked awhile, and as expected, he played some music cuts that he had on his phone through a little bluetooth speaker. Every song had a backstory. I asked him about his time at U.T. For all of his fanaticism over the Longhorn football team, I didn't know that he flunked out after one semester. I asked about his writing, and why he'd left Texas Monthly where he had produced some great work. He shrugged and explained that there were a bunch of new editors, "kids really," that had no idea what the real Texas was about. He said something vague about the overall quality of the magazine. Something about not being able to work the stories the way he liked.

The conversation changed to his family, and how proud he was of his kids. (His son, John Henry, had just started at UH after having honorably finished an enlistment in the army.) John Henry was already writing his own stories for the Daily Cougar.  Nova beamed just as much when he talked about how well his daughter was doing in high school. He mentioned his ex-wife in a very respectful tone several times. So I "went there." Um... "why the divorce?" He started to say something, and then just looked at me and said, "See, here's the thing about me, Chris. I pretty much fuck up everything good that happens to me." He gave it a bit of a forced chuckle.

Even in hospital, he could make us laugh. 

"Like a broken mirror pieced back together, Lomax reflected a fragmented city back to itself...
Sometimes when I felt adrift, he wasn’t the calm captain offering passage back to shore. But he was an exceptional pirate. I say this knowing full well that piracy is not a zero-sum endeavor. In foggier moments, I convinced myself John only hurt himself, but I know that to not be true".
-Andrew Dansby, The Houston Chronicle

Andrew Dansby of the Chronicle was also a friend and admirer of John. He wrote a wonderful obit for the Houston Chronicle.

When I spoke with John on his screened porch, I had been pursuing a meeting with him for months. We had already started our little Newsletter and he had shared some of his writing with us. But I wanted to meet him. I had admired his work for so long, and during the pandemic, I had vowed that I would stop putting off those things that were so easy to delay. I was also a fan of writer Cort McMurray, a wonderful essayist who often wrote guest columns at the Chronicle. John was a fan of Cort's also, and both of them had let me "friend" them on Facebook. Each had allowed me to comment on their posts. I noticed that John and Cort enjoyed some great banter on each other's pages. Cort could be hysterically funny in one paragraph and turn around to be poignant in the next. He was Mormon, and wrote openly about his faith. His day job? He owned a pool cleaning company.

During the Times of Covid, John had gone through rehab, and I had messaged Cort to ask if he knew anything about it. He was gracious enough to confide that he was truly worried that John Nova was in some serious trouble. John would make it through rehab, but Cort became ill at some point and went to the hospital. He had surgery that should have been routine, but something went wrong, and he died unexpectedly.

Cort's death, like John's, hit his friends and fans pretty hard. No one has said this, but I think John took it harder than anyone. It wasn't long after that when his last round of troubles started. John told me that the real tragedy was that Cort had just sold his pool business so that he could return to his hometown in NY and begin a second career as a full-time writer. I'm not suggesting that this caused John to relapse, he would have probably done so regardless, but it was surely another bit of despair in a life that was becoming unstable.

But for me, Cort's death had made me more determined to meet John.

By that time, he was living along the San Bernard River near Brazoria. I travel to South Texas frequently, so I had tried a couple of times to arrange lunch with John during one of my drives down south. He usually had a deadline for a project he was working on, or simply wasn't available. On one trip, I called him up after setting his address in my GPS. He picked up the phone and I asked if I could stop by, or if we could meet for BBQ or something. He hemmed and hawed, and before he could offer a definitive answer, he was off talking about the Astros. Or a song he just heard by a group that shared a drummer with an old jazz band that was famous in the 50s. There was maybe a story about a group of immigrants that lived out in the middle of the fifth-ward, but they had roots in the Caribbean, and they had the best food and they truly didn't fit in with their neighbors, and... and...

I kept following my GPS, and suddenly I was pulling up to this little shack. I asked John if his place had a black door and a double driveway (or whatever it was.) He went silent..." You're here? You came to my house?" I suddenly realized that maybe I had overstepped and had fallen into the realm of creepy. "Uh, I could go on if you're busy... probably should have been more clear..."

"No, no... let me get to the door. Come on."

The house looked pretty "rustic." It was one large, open room with a kitchen to one side. There were clothes strewn about, and dishes piled in the sink. l asked to use the water closet after having been on the road for a couple of hours. The bathroom could only be described as early 60's gas station. Rusty sink and bath, ancient plumbing fixtures, dirty towels. Buccee's it was not. I went back out front and John invited me out to the porch where he was chopping a few massive onions to make an onion soup. He invited me to dinner, but I did not intend to stay that long.

John was interviewed by Ira Glass of "This American Life" podcast fame. He told a hilarious little story from when his kids were young and they were coming home from a vacation. A short audio snippet:

Prologue - This American Life
A few years back, when he and his family were driving home from a vacation in Texas, John Nova Lomax realized that the police were aggressively tailing him.

M. Yvonne Taylor has also been a contributing writer to our Outlaw effort. She knew John Nova and had lost track of him. A writer with a deep mother wound, she connected with John immediately on a deep level. After losing touch with him, Outlaw Myra Jolivet put them back in touch when John was first hospitalized. She was as devastated as the rest of us to hear of his passing. Here is her tribute, including a lovely poem for John.

Shadow and Light | Texas Outlaw Writers
There is something to be said for our lives today, hidden behind stories, those we tell ourselves and those we post. There is always so much more to us, hidden behind the veil.

I mentioned our meeting in the shack down by the river. I left out a key detail. John looked like hell. His hair was a mess, his skin was pale and puffy, and I could only guess he was at least a couple hundred pounds overweight. It shocked me, having only "known" him through his social media photos... photos of him as a cute baby. Shots of a tow-headed kid. Pictures of a strikingly handsome adult. And here he was, shuffling around in massive, stretched-out sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt.

Though my questions may sound invasive in our conversations together, you know by his writing that he wears his heart - his whole life - on his sleeve. When he spoke about his rehab (that he had already made public,) I just asked him, "so, are you clean?"

He didn't even pause, "No. But I'm only drinking wine, now."

What an absurd answer. Wine? All of the alcohol, with twice the sugar, I thought to myself. But if you've been close to someone with this disease, you know there is nothing rational about it.

As the child of an alcoholic though, my heart just sank. Substance abuse is tough enough to come back from and John was in deep. I knew his morbid obesity would make things that much worse. After he was hospitalized a few weeks later, it was revealed why - he was dealing with some terrible, infected, open wounds. On top of all that, they were having to treat his severe pain with... fentanyl. It seemed to me that a recovery was even further out of reach.  

"See, here's the thing about me, Chris. I pretty much fuck up everything good that happens to me."

Maybe. More like you were dealt an extraordinarily bad hand, Nova. All that hurt from your mom... the drugs, the mercurial personality, and ultimately, the abandonment. It made for incredible stories for you to tell, gave you some amazing insights into people, and formed you into an empathetic, kind soul. But it only tamped down that hurt a little bit, and it didn't help that she left you with some memorable lessons in and a prescription for self-medication.  

To paraphrase the Bard, "May flights of grackles sing thee to thy rest, John Nova."

John's GoFundMe page is still open. There will be medical bills and expenses for his family to pay, and any funds left over will go to his kids. You can find details, here.

All photos from John Nova Lomax's collection