Barney! Biz! Bluebonnets!

And other signs that Texas Monthly's brain trust doesn't have a neuron left

It's been more than 25 years since the story appeared in the magazine, but some longtime readers no doubt will recall Gary Cartwright's September 1973 eulogy of Texas cowboy Carl (Bigun) Bradley, who appeared in ads as the "Marlboro Man" and drowned on a bucking bronco at age 36. There are women in Texas who can recite verbatim lines from the various essays about motherhood and womanhood by Prudence Mackintosh that regularly appeared in the 1970s and early 1980s. Other stories often mentioned as nuggets of the golden age are Broyles's feature on the King Ranch (October 1980), Cartwright's sympathetic portrait of Jack Ruby (November 1975), Griffin Smith Jr.'s unmasking of Houston's three gigantic law firms (November 1973) and Reinert's piece exposing Texas as the center of the hit-man profession (December 1973).

The magazine stood out in part because there was a dearth of quality journalism in the state back then. Daily newspapers in Texas were a joke, and Texas Monthly boldly said so with a June 1974 cover story that rated them. The cover of the issue, featuring a photo of a goat eating a newspaper, trumpeted: "Texas Newspapers: BA-A-A-AD."

Texas Monthly exuded youthful confidence, which wasn't surprising since the majority of those putting out the magazine were men in their twenties or early thirties. Also not surprising, the magazine had an obsession with sex and the female form.

Texas Monthly today could not get away with what it put on many of its covers during the 1970s. Several issues featured gratuitous cover illustrations of attractive women in various forms of dress and undress. The unrefined tendencies of the early Monthly are what Levy likes to emphasize when critics draw a contrast between the magazine's golden age and today. It's his best defense.

"First of all, people who remember the good old days have bad memories, okay?" he says. "I mean, the magazine was celebrated. Oh wow, people loved us. But go back to the magazine's first ten years. Read it.

"In going back not only through the first couple years of the magazine but the first ten years, I say to myself, 'How did we ever survive? Why did they ever buy us?' We were edgy in the context that what we did was brand-new. We were so leading-edge because the traditional journalism in Texas was very conservative, awful and had a whole bunch of sacred cows."

The magazine would still be considered edgy today if it did more of what it did in, say, its February 1976 issue, which was devoted to the magazine's annual satirical "Bum Steer Awards." The cover photo featured then-governor Dolph Briscoe looking downright dopey as he waves and smiles in front of a herd of cattle. The headline says: "Find the Bum Steer in This Picture." A story inside asks, "Why Does Dolph Briscoe Want to Be Governor? (And When Is He Going to Start?)" Briscoe was starting his fourth year as governor at the time.

In contrast, the January 1999 "Bum Steer Awards" cover featured a photo illustration of Barney, the purple dinosaur, smoking a cigar while reading the Starr Report to a group of children. It was a mystifying choice in that it attempted to poke fun at a national embarrassment, even though Texas has plenty of its own. And it was quite a stretch to peg the passe kiddies' pal as a Texan.

Today's Texas Monthly relies heavily on movies and music as well as household-name celebrities, some with tenuous Texas ties such as Barney, Rodman and actress Sandra Bullock, all of whom have graced the cover in the last 12 months. Interestingly, the biggest-selling issue by far in 1998 bucked that trend. Its cover story revisited a mythic Texas institution, King Ranch, and exemplified the kind of journalism that gave Texas Monthly its good name. Dallas-based writer Skip Hollandsworth spun a tale about the last descendent of the founding family being pushed out by the corporate board that runs King Ranch. It was the perfect illustration of old Texas struggling to survive in modern Texas. It was the perfect Texas Monthly story.

The latest issue of the magazine returns to the movies, featuring a cover story that revisits the principals involved in the 1971 cinematic classic about a dying Texas town, The Last Picture Show. Levy has just finished reading it cover to cover and offers a loud opinion.

"We're putting out a phenomenal magazine," he says. "It's incredible! It's so good! It's so compelling! It's mesmerizing!"

Levy, in denial about the shortcomings of his own enterprise, nevertheless is a gleeful critic when he thinks others are falling down on the job -- specifically, those who run the city of Austin. He seems to pay more attention to the minutiae of local politics than to the machinations at his own magazine. Since he doesn't think Texas Monthly needs fixing, and he's convinced he's right, he frequently sics his dogged personality on other targets.

Texas Monthly may suffer as a result, but observers of Austin city politics are inevitably entertained.

In November, days before Austin voters were to decide on a $75.9 million bond issue for parklands, he sent voters a two-page campaign letter blasting the measure. Levy pops off about city services and policies all the time, but he wasn't prepared for the response this particular venting would get.

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