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The rock critic with the bus pass and ear plugs

It is 1.20am at the Atomic Cafe, and a mega-decibel rock band called Iodine is in full roar. A few dozen fans line the black-painted walls, their heads thrashing with the music. But sitting on the floor right up front, just feet from the blast of the amplifiers, is a small old lady. Incredibly, she has fallen asleep.

With smudgy pink lipstick, heavy stockings and two over-stuffed bags by her side, the woman gives a good impression of a tramp. On stage, however, they know exactly who she is, and their concerned glances in her direction betray their dismay. Jane Scott is in the house and she has nodded off on them.

But then it has been an extremely long day. We are at the famously edgy South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, where scores of new artists vie every year for attention from the industry. Jane is here because, as rock critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, she is always at important music events around the United States. In fact, at 77 years old, she has been covering them for three decades.

Jane admits she is unique. "I must be the only rock writer who is going to their 60th high school reunion this summer," she exclaims with her cartoon-character laugh. "And I know I'm the only one with both a backstage pass and a golden years bus pass in my bag." Hollywood is pondering a television comedy series about her - Lily Tomlin has been approached to play the part of revered but slightly dotty critic - and there is an exhibit about her work at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, itself in Cleveland.

Jane revels in telling her story. At school, she used to hide copies of Hit Parader between the pages of her Latin exercise books. After serving in the navy in the war, she was hired by the Dealer where she rose slowly through the ranks, eventually becoming editor of its teen section. In the early 1960s, she was assigned full time to music. "My first big interview was with Lennon, can you believe that?" she giggles.

That was in 1966, when the Beatles were on a second US tour. Jane almost fluffed it when they would not let her into the group's hotel suite. Locked out with her was Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, but eventually they both got in. Even in those days, she admits, she was "a middle-aged lady with dyed blond hair". She took instantly to Paul McCartney - Sir Paul - and he still sends her birthday cards.

"There is no other person in America like her," says Bob Santelli, education director at the Hall of Fame. "What is interesting is how many major rock stars, from David Bowie to Bruce Springsteen, really adore her and give her the kind of attention that other music journalists would die for. I've done shows with Springsteen where he will say, 'Is Janey here? I want to see her.'" At a recent appearance at Cleveland's Coliseum, Springsteen added "Dancing in the Dark" to his set at the last moment and dedicated it to Jane.

Some now whisper that Jane no longer competes as a writer, and is simply too nice about every artist. She will go to almost anything. A colleague on the Dealer can only remember her once refusing to see a band. It was called Living With The Thrill Kill Kult. She enjoys heavy metal, underground and even some rap. "I can get bored of it sometimes, but I think Snoop Doggy Dogg is good, you know, he presents himself well. But I don't dig his attitude towards women," Asked to list her favourite acts, she offers the Kinks, Springsteen, ZZ Top, Rage Against The Machine and the Wallflowers.

Jim Benson, 40, a Cleveland disc jockey, remembers going to see a "really disgusting" group called the Mentors when he was 15. "They were singing about anal sex and stuff and someone pointed out Jane Scott. She looked like my mother, I couldn't believe it. In those days everyone read Jane Scott on Friday to find out what was going on. Before MTV and music television there was Jane. She was the source."

Some friends allow themselves an occasional laugh at Jane's eccentricities. Our day together began with her stuffing slices of toast into her bag at breakfast that would later become peanut butter sandwiches. "It is part of my survival kit," she explains. "I never go out without it." Other items include ear-plugs, safety pins and a little pack of Kleenex for toilet purposes. "One time, I was at a Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Grateful Dead concert - phew, wasn't that a strange combination? - and they ran out of lavatory paper."

Then there was the recent evening when Jane insisted on going to the newspaper canteen for an ice-cream before leaving for a Tracy Chapman concert. A colleague recalls Jane squealing in the middle of an especially moody number on realising she had put the ice-cream in her handbag and forgotten about it. The ensuing scene as Jane turned out the soggy contents of the bag distracted even Chapman.

Pressed about her age, Jane says she has no thoughts of retiring. She concedes, however, that it has been hard for a long time to get any of her peers to accompany her to, say, a Soundgarden gig. "Oh, dear, they've never heard of them. I used to take their children, but now it is their granchildren."

Back at the Atomic, I tap Jane on the shoulder. She wakes in a flash and seems embarrassed, as if her reputation for geriatric stamina may somehow have been marred. It had not. And at any rate, ear-splitting Iodine, we both agree as we stumble out on to the street, had not warranted staying awake for.