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Sun Down

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 11/29/2000

Amid worries about creeping de-Bawlmerization at The Sun, the daily is losing some distinctive home-grown talent in coming months. The roster of departing Sun staff includes two native-born writers who jumpstarted their journalistic careers with City Paper in 1977, back when Baltimore's Most Established Alternative Weekly was still called City Squeeze. One is music critic J.D. Considine, who, I note with dismay, failed to mention his CP tenure ('77-'81) in his farewell article in the Nov. 26 Sun. (I will graciously assume that his editor is to blame for the omission.) Considine filed his first freelance piece with The Sun in May 1977, the same month the proto-CP published its inaugural issue, with Considine as a prominent contributor. Also retiring from The Sun is Rafael Alvarez, who first labored for the daily in 1977 as a truck dispatcher, concurrent with his first contributions to the Squeeze.Most of the anticipated Sun diaspora stems from a buyout deal the paper has offered to editorial, advertising, and financial staff. The Sun officially explains the downsizing as a way to offset rising production costs and boost profits, which (according to analysts cited by the Baltimore Business Journal) lag behind those of several of its Tribune Co. brethren. The buyout deal won't be finalized until Dec. 20, after which this column will revisit the subject in detail.

Considine was ineligible for the buyout. He left the paper on his own initiative after 14 years as it's pop-music critic. Sometime this week he will move to New York City, where he is to debut Dec. 4 as managing editor of the new music magazine Revolver. Considine's new employer is Harris Publishing, which produces such newsstand perennials as Guitar World and Guns and Ammo.

A Towson native and a life-long Baltimorean, Considine's eyes and ears have long been more nationally than locally attuned, at least judging by his output. Since the mid-80s he contributed regularly to national publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, Musician, Guitar World, Entertainment Weekly, and Playboy. (He is also the author of a book on Van Halen.) His Sun assignments have all but precluded coverage of the local music scene. (Recent exception: He was dispatched some months ago to review the mayor's band, O'Malley's March, which he summarily dismissed.)

Readers over 40 may recall that it was Considine who introduced Baltimore to punk rock in the pages of the early Squeeze. He has continued to interpret new music ever since, with the encyclopedic discographic knowledge that we've come to expect of pop critics, plus an unjaded ear for the music itself. (Full disclosure: I've known Considine since '78, when we were bandmates in a new-wave outfit as well as CP contributors. We still see each other socially, every other year or so.) When we spoke recently, I mentioned a colleague's complaint that "Considine likes everything." Is he an uncritical critic? O'Malley's March aside, Considine replies, "I don't see it as my job to explain why something sucks. There's a lot of music that does genuinely stink, and I don't review it. . . . I try to determine what a piece of music is trying to accomplish and decide if the music is successful." He admits, however, to "exceedingly broad tastes. . . . The one thing I'm most proud of is that I haven't been confronted with music I couldn't learn enough about to write about."

That's a fair self-assessment. Considine writes about genres I find generally unlistenable--gangsta rap, for example, or electronica--in such a way that I get a sense of why other people like the stuff. And when he's forced to tell us why something is, in the final analysis, godawful, he does so with literate good humor. "One thing I'm definitely not going to miss is having to review several dozen Christmas records," he says, noting the fortuitous timing of his departure.

If Considine is a national writer with a Baltimore background, Alvarez will be a Baltimore boy wherever he ends up--which will probably be Baltimore. He's always had a wholehearted nostalgia for the Highlandtown of his youth and a romantic affinity for the grubbier aspects of local street life. In a recent interview, he recalled his favorite CP assignment as "riding a garbage truck for a week." His latest fictional work, Orlo and Leini (Imprints, 6/14,, stars a hedonistic junkman with a velvet-lined love nest on the Canton waterfront.

Alvarez' first print-related Sun gig was as an "agate clerk"--a quaint term referring to the tiny agate type used to compile sports results. Subsequent beats included police reporting (including, he says, "hearts-and-flowers sidebars" about crime victims), obituaries, dispatches from the beach at Ocean City, and a long mid-90s mission to the heart of Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish enclaves. "I slowly and methodically worked my way pretty deep into the communities," he recalls, "and wrote about [them] from the inside out--a pretty neat trick for a Catholic boy from St. Joe's."

"I love The Sun," Alvarez reflects on the end of his tenure at the daily. "I grew up here, I learned how to write here, I've developed what I consider a loyal readership." But he says he now finds himself "more interested in art than in news." The buyout, providing more than a year's pay and health coverage, will give the luxury to pursue various creative channels (although he says he will continue to freelance for The Sun). Along with his fiction (Orlo and Leini followed another story collection, The Fountain of Highlandtown), Alvarez recently bought a storefront at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Macon Street and dubbed it the Fountain of Highlandtown Gallery. On Dec. 15, the space will open an exhibit of work by seven local photographers whom Alvarez commissioned to record "a week in the life of Greektown." Another ongoing project is an anthology of the work of Tom Nugent, maverick ex-Sun writer, journalism teacher, and mentor to Alvarez and others (Mobtown Beat, 7/28/99).

While reinventing himself, Alvarez says his immediate plan is to work at the Musical Exchange, a record store in Mount Vernon. "I'll be filing vinyl, looking for that missing copy of Trout Mask Replica."

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