Editor's note: In writing a story that no one wanted to write, I’ve attempted to share my paltry musings on friend and former colleague John Nova Lomax — and have enlisted some gifted Houston journalists who knew him to do the same.
When word circulated that longtime Houston writer John Nova Lomax passed away at age 53 early Monday, May 22, those of us who knew him fired off stilted texts and meandered through phone calls — many filled with a lost silence.
The loss for his family is immediate and obvious — for his father John Lomax III, who stalwartly kept us apprised of his son’s status, for his son John Henry and his daughter Harriet Rose, for his family, and his countless friends and colleagues.
And then there’s the extended loss — Houston’s loss. Lomax was an esteemed veteran of the Houston Press, Houstonia, Texas Monthly, Texas Highways Magazine, and other notable publications. He authored and co-authored several books, including Houston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City and Murder and Mayhem in Houston: Historic Bayou City Crime. He could amble into his office — late — and craft 3,000 words in roughly the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee.
Born to spin a yarn, Lomax deftly and superbly chronicled the weird gumbo that is life in Houston and Texas at a time when, quite frankly, it just wasn’t that cool to do so. One wonders — if Lomax had launched his career in this modern era of Instagram Texas humor pages and Houston and Texas-lovin’ apparel sites — would he have championed his hometown and state like everyone else is doing, or would he have simply moved onto the next interesting thing? Such was his way.
I knew Lomax as a star and starmaker and “the music guy” in Houston when he invited me to join his monthly music industry happy hour/mixer in 2003. Based on his authoritative writing and how locals fawned over him, I initially expected a snooty, lithe folk hero dressed like an alt-country vocalist — think Ryan Adams. Hell, even his name sounded like a country singer-songwriter.
The burly man I met, however, was clad (almost always) in a black T-shirt, cargo shorts, and black flip-flops. He was gregarious and easygoing. To my surprise, he didn’t grill me over my musical taste, he instead appreciated it and came to rely on it when I joined the Houston Press editorial staff in 2004.
We bonded over old-school music, TV, video games, college football, how Kanye West was starting to scare us. As coworkers and friends, we’d sit at bars and talk about seemingly everything — except the heavy, important things that men often escape via those bars and bottles. His quiet knowledge and navigation of those struggles made him the ideal biographer for troubled musicians with turbulent lives.
A raconteur, rapscallion, and occasional rogue, Lomax was — to my surprise — quite thoughtful (a layered word when referring to him) when I suddenly left the Press in 2007 due to health issues. Always casting a suspicious eye towards anything fake, gentrified, or sleek, Lomax scoffed at my townhouse, sports car, and “metro” attire, but loved my sports memorabilia and my golden retriever. He made a living targeting contradictions, dichotomies, and the just plain odd and sketchy.
Little wonder that he’d become famous for pointing out the absurd amount of mattress stores in Houston or highlighting the surreality of all the abandoned sofas adorning our local streets. This was a man who lived and worked in nuance, irony, and intrigue — all while walking around barefoot in the Press offices.
I had pondered visiting Lomax, as I always called him, before he passed away — far, far too young — and thus, I’ve left a few things unsaid. I’m haunted by how we’d go from energetic chuckles while talking football or animals to mumbling and drifting off when a friend’s struggles came up.
And so at the risk of sounding preachy, in honor of Lomax, I’d humbly offer that it’s always wise to ask tough questions to friends — and say the things that need to be said.
Now, speaking of what needs to be said, I’ll yield to more gifted writers for their recollections of the supremely talented wordsmith, coworker, employee, and friend John Nova Lomax.
Margaret Downing, Houston Press
Downing was Lomax’s editor at the Press at a time when the alt-weekly was unrivaled in Houston for its coverage of investigative news, art, music, and food. She managed a formidable newsroom full of big egos and personalities like a cagey player coach, shepherding writers and editors who’d later move on to movies, novels, and national acclaim. It should be noted that arguably Lomax’s best work was under Downing’s direction. Read her remembrance of Lomax here.
Yes, there were big egos and personalities during the time John was in the Houston Press newsroom but that went with enormous talents. They would make outrageous challenging coverage proposals — John certainly among them in this — but they would pull them off with exhaustive reporting and narrative writing that drew in readers who'd invest in long story, magazine-style work. They delved into the real Houston and along the way, won a good share of national, regional, and statewide journalism awards.
My favorite memory of John Nova is probably how he would prepare for our annual Christmas luncheon for the editorial department. We did it on site, took over the conference room with drinks and turkey and BBQ, and while others brought side dishes, John provided the music for several years. He was a master of mixtapes and loved to share.
All these years later, I still have a mixtape he made for me, highlighted by Kirsty MacColl's ‘In These Shoes?’ She died too young, too.
Brian McManus, global editorial director for NMG
Coming off as hysterical, goofy, and possibly a little insane, McManus burst onto the scene as the Press's nightlife columnist and feature writer. He has since held leadership positions at VICE and recently returned to Houston.
We used to have so much fun together at SXSW. We went in some capacity every year for about six years straight. We’d meet up a couple times during the weekend, always at the Village Voice-sponsored party but beyond that too. We had very different tastes in music but would always find at least one or two crossovers that we'd attend together. I’d love reading his coverage of the week when it would wrap, understanding there was quite a bit he’d left out that I had a front row seat for.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say he taught me everything I know. I can’t overstate how green I was when he took me on. I didn’t know what a lede was. I had lots of ideas about stories to write and Houston culture I thought should be covered, but no real clue how to execute. He let me learn on the job, an incredible gift I’ll never take for granted. He’d tell me I needed to get to the point sooner. He taught me about the economy of words while reading over drafts and asking what I could take out. I would pay such close attention to his notes and edits. As time went on, there’d be fewer of both, and I felt tremendous satisfaction about that.
I’m going to miss our check-ins so badly I can barely stand thinking about it. I’ve been in Philly and New York since ’05, and we’d catch up three or four times a year on long phone calls. I have a family now (he actually encouraged me to have kids when I had my doubts), and when the pandemic started, we moved back to Houston part time. I was looking forward to spending actual time with him again.
That never happened, save for one hospital visit, but the phone calls continued. It was great talking about Dad things in addition to the regular stuff we’d talk about — music, history, various degenerates. Now I’m crying.
Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle
Few around can spin a yarn like Andrew Dansby, the impossibly talented Houston Chronicle feature writer. Dansby, who penned a tribute to Lomax that is at once aching and charming, knew Lomax and his family better than most and rightfully gets the last word.
I remember a Sunday afternoon at Ervin Chew Park eight or nine years ago. The kids played at the splash pad, while we went through a bottle of wine and talked about Nick Lowe, John Berryman, and which birds were the biggest assholes (blue jays).
Maybe it’s an understated memory but it stands from all the others I was too drunk to remember as clearly. Topics didn’t change as much as they just found different directions, as if blown around by the wind.
Great a writer as he was, I think he was an even better talker.