“Superfly Me 2004”: Eating every meal in East Austin for a month

galloways

Photo by Peter Yang, design by Mike Sutter AAS 2004

Whenever it’s time for lunch or dinner, my mind starts to drive. If I’m at the office, my mental route is east, down either Cesar Chavez Street, with all its great Azul to Arkie’s variety, or East Seventh Street, which could be the best avenue for the appetite in Austin. Surveying the dining options starts the pleasure process. If I’m at home near Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards when hunger hijacks my attention, my mind moseys south to East 12th Street, where the consistent La Morenita Mexican restaurant and the aptly named Maxine’s Soul Kitchen provide good options across the street from each other.

Sometimes my mind can motor as fast as the camera from Run Lola Run and it spends a lot of time tearing down Chicon Street, from East 12th to Cesar Chavez: Galloway Sandwich Shop, Nubian Queen Lola’s, TJ’s Seafood, La Michoacana and Mr. Natural are fave grubberies on that glorious culinary corridor.

Before I moved to my new ‘hood two years ago, I had no idea there were so many great funky joints to eat east of Interstate 35. When I lived in Hyde Park, east side cuisine meant Sam’s BBQ and El Azteca. It was eenie meenie miney mo, barbecue or Mexico.

But I’ve always been a follower of the “eat where you live” philosophy, and after two years of chancing dives and diners, of turning my cholesterol into mo’lesterol, I’ve discovered that a person could be content eating exclusively on the east side. Then, a few months ago, a documentary called “Super Size Me,” in which the protagonist ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month, caused a stir and got me thinking. What if I did an article about eating every meal in East Austin for a month? I even had a working title: “Superfly Me.” My editor looked at me like I was a brave soul, going to great sacrifice for the sake of a story. But, in reality, when he gave the OK, it was like assigning me to report on the backstage scene of a gentlemen’s club. Sometimes this can be a really good job (and sometimes you’ve got to write about what’s going on with the Austin Music Network).

A side order of quirks

Southern cooking, Cajun cuisine, barbecue, hamburgers and Mexican are the Big Five of comfort food, and there are excellent examples of each in East Austin. I haven’t been able to find good pizza, and Asian restaurants are about as prevalent as Pat Boone songs booming out of car trunks, but there’s plenty of everything else here.

The subject of “Super Size Me” gains a lot of weight and suffers other health problems after his month at Mickey D’s. After spending all of July eating my way across East Austin, I felt a different sort of change, more mental than physical. Even as I’d gained a few pounds (if you want to know what you’ll weigh after eating at Maxine’s, just step on a scale holding your plate of food), I had a little more swagger in my step. When genuine love and care and a lifetime of experience are passed on through food preparation, eating out can be spiritual.

But sometimes you get a bad piece of meat.

During my monthlong “challenge,” I had some of the best meals of my life, but also some of the worst. Sometimes on different days at the same restaurant. The maverick diner has to take chances.

I sought out the joints that had some character, that were as far away from America’s food-court mentality as you could get. The east side has its own way of doing things, that’s for sure, and at first I was slightly irritated by some of the quirkiness I’d encountered. Jonesing for a hoagie one afternoon, for instance, I went to the Galloway Sandwich Shop and discovered that it’s not a sandwich shop at all, but a cafeteria-style home cooking joint. The first time I went to La Michoacana, meanwhile, I stood at the food counter for several minutes and no one took my order. Finally, one cook pointed to the line at the grocery checkout and said something in Spanish that probably translates to: “You gotta pay first, Mr. Clueless.”

Another thing that takes some getting used to is that every restaurant east of the freeway seems to have a 19-inch TV with bad reception, tuned to Jerry Springer or Oprah or Judge Whoever.

I used to feel a little uncomfortable about being the only white person at a soul food joint, but after July I’ve come to understand that nobody cares what race you are when they’re looking down on a plate of smothered pork chops. Besides, it’s like when comedian Chris Rock is ragging on white people in his routine, then throws in an aside that present Caucasians are excluded. “You cool,” he says to the whites in the audience. “You paid money to see me.”

East-side stories

Lola's House of Love

Great Cajun soul food at 12th and Rosewood.

Food is generally only as flavorful as the person who cooked it. “Soul food” is more than a down-home marketing term; the best meals tell a story, like when you’ve had some of Nubian Queen Lola’s crawfish etouffee, you know she’s from Louisiana and that she cooked side by side with her mother since she was old enough to stir a wooden spoon. But that’s only part of Lola Stephens’ story.

She moved to Austin from Lake Charles, La., in 1980, soon after graduating from high school. Austin was supposed to be a brief stopover on Lola’s journey to Hollywood stardom, but when she got a job here as a cashier she never made it any farther west. In the late ’80s, Stephens was unemployed and homeless for two years. But she got back up on her feet and now raises four daughters, three adopted from a friend.

Lola Stephens

Early this year, Stephens saw a “For Rent” sign on the former location of Nanny’s, a much-missed home-cooking joint at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street, and she said the Lord came to her and said, “That’s your place.” Stephens had no money, but scraped together $500 from friends, relatives and kind-hearted strangers, to pay a month’s rent. She painted the place purple and yellow, Mardi Gras colors, and hung beads from the ceiling. On the board outside she scrawled spiritual messages, but she still didn’t have the equipment to open. “There was this white man who would drive by and he asked me why I wasn’t open yet,” Stephens says. When she said she needed money for pots, pans, a cooler and other essentials, he took her shopping and spent more than $1,000. Nubian Queen Lola’s opened six months ago.

TJs

TJ’s Seafood used to be at E. 7th and Chicon. Photo by Peter Yang.

Assisted by her daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 17, Stephens works 18-hour days to keep her dream alive, sometimes catching a nap on a cot in a back closet. Then, on Sunday, the only day her restaurant is closed, she feeds the homeless out of her back door. True story.

TJ’s Seafood, a Vietnamese-owned restaurant at East Seventh and Chicon streets that caters to African Americans, is another curious joint. It opened in 1992 at a former location of Gaylord’s Hamburgers, whose decor has barely been touched. The reason the seafood is relatively cheap ($6.95 for a 12-piece jumbo shrimp dinner) is because there’s no middle man: Co-owner Jennifer Tranh’s mother owns a shrimp boat in Port Arthur and supplies the 10 seafood restaurants all over Texas and Oklahoma that are operated by her 12 children. The Tranh family harvested shrimp in Vietnam before they fled Communist rule in 1975. Knowing these sorts of details almost makes up for TJ’s soggy French fries and the tasteless side salad that a picky hamster would send back.

More slices of heaven

* Maxine’s Soul Kitchen, 2931 E. 12th St. (220-3650). Maxine Carlock and her husband, LaVern, bought the old Soul Kitchen about a year ago, and they’re still messing around with the menu. Beef tips and rice, Salisbury steak and hamhocks are perennials, but Maxine has been known to whip up an oxtail stew or pepper steak if someone asks. After working in the food service industry for 30 years, cooking mainly at nursing homes, this is Maxine’s first restaurant and if a recent visit, which found Longhorn football legends Johnny “Lam” Jones and Donnie Little humming in approval, is any indication, she’s scored a touchdown.

* Taco Sabrosa, 5100 E. Seventh St. (385-8898). The cleanest-looking taqueria in town, with a spacious courtyard and very reasonable prices, this place has, quite literally, a lunchwagon soul. The old coach that used to sit at the corner of Shady Lane has been built into the kitchen, which serves up a mouth-exploding al pastor taco called the Gringas. This is one of the few good Mexican restaurants on the east side open late on weekdays and at all on Sundays.

* Tony’s Southern Comfort, 1201 E. Sixth St. (320-8801). Not spectacular, but consistently good, the opening of this down-home eatery about a year and a half ago signaled an east side re-vittle-ization. Best chicken-fried steak east of the Broken Spoke.

* Gene’s, 1209 E. 11th St.(477-6600). Along with Ben’s Longbranch BBQ, this is the top spot where West eats East. Most of the Cajun dishes are just so-so, but the shrimp po’ boys are tops. (Clothing tip: Wear a bright shirt to Gene’s to make sure you’re not invisible to the wait staff, which I have been a couple of times.)

* La Michoacana, 1917 E. Seventh St. (473-8487). This place is so real, so plucked out of Mexico, that I’ve been there a couple dozen times for fajita tacos and I’ve never heard a single customer or employee speak English. Even the confusing parking lot screams Nuevo Laredo.

* Mr. Catfish, 1075 Springdale Road, (927-6666). Known for serving the best fried shrimp in town, this place also serves up some stellar sides of gumbo, red beans and rice and homemade hushpuppies.

* Los Comales, 2136 E. Seventh St. 480-9358. In the mood for cheap, flavorful flame-broiled steaks in a classic south-of-the-border setting? This place won’t let you down.

* Mi Madre’s, 2201 Manor Road (322-9721). Although it’s officially considered East Austin, I don’t think of Manor Road that way. It’s uptown. But I decided to extend the boundaries for the story because I wasn’t about to go a month without those perfect, plump breakfast tacos from here.

There goes the Pulitzer

All right, here we go. Confession time. Although I vowed to eat every July meal in East Austin, I had to give myself a couple of exemptions. On July 5, after a day of tubing in San Marcos, I ate with family at Rivendell, a Hobbit-themed health food restaurant in S.M. They were hungry; I was hungry; we were 30 miles from East Austin and besides, it was a federal holiday. Lapse No. 2 was also unavoidable at the time. I had three 10-year-old kids in my charge for a day and I couldn’t think of a place in the neighborhood that they, all eaters of only things yellow, would enjoy. This was before I knew about Mr. Catfish, so I took them to Dave & Buster’s.

OK, I admit it. I broke my vow, not once, but twice.

Jim Romenesko’s media news Web site oughta be all over this scandal. (“Journalist Betrays Public Trust By Eating At Hobbit-Themed Restaurant.”) This project, which began so well-intentioned, may end in disgrace, but if it makes any difference, I’m still eating every meal on the east side.

I’ve learned to savor the flavor, to embrace the pace of Austin’s eastern time zone. All the little quirks spice up the experience, I’ve found. Or, more to the point, once you’ve sat down to a plate of Maxine’s beef tips and rice or gnawed around the bone in Nubian Queen Lola’s pork chop sandwich, Bennigan’s just ain’t gonna cut it.


Johnny Degollado, the Austin Accordionista

Johnny-Degollado photo by Bob Zink

Story originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2002.

It is 1954, and 19-year-old accordionist Johnny Degollado, “El Montopolis Kid,” is on the road with a conjunto group that plays the migrant worker circuit, hitting the Texas towns where the populations double during picking season. At a quick-stop grocery in Littlefield, near Lubbock, Degollado notices an attractive cashier. Her name is Antonia. They make clumsy small talk as he pays for his sodas, and he asks for her mailing address so he can send postcards.

“Antonia,” Degollado keeps repeating, as he walks back to the band’s station wagon. What a pretty name. Antonia Degollado; better yet. He writes her a love letter and a long-distance romance blossoms. Six years later a wedding date is set.

That first meeting is recalled on “La Cajera” (“The Cashier”), the title track to Degollado’s new album, which comes out next week. But why record the ode to love at first sight so many years later? This is a love story with an intermission of more than 30 years. After a disagreement about how much time Degollado would spend out on the road, among other things, the 1960 wedding never took place and the couple broke up.

“She was a girlfriend I had at one time/ That I can not forget, even for a moment,” the lyrics to “La Cajera” translate into English.

“I guess we were too young to get married, but throughout the years I thought of her often,” Degollado says. “When we’d come to Shiner, where most of her family lived, I’d ask about her.” He just wanted to say he was sorry for the way things turned out between them.

He got the chance in 1992, when “Toni,” as most people know Antonia, showed up at one of his shows at Mexic-Arte on Congress Avenue. “My daughter was coming through Austin on her way to San Antonio, where we lived, and she bought the Austin paper,” says Antonia. “There was a big picture of Johnny, and I wondered if that was my Johnny, my first boyfriend Johnny.” After deciding that it was, Antonia, a divorced mother of four at the time, and her sister Alicia decided to go to Austin, “just to see the show, nothing else. I figured that Johnny was married and I didn’t want to interfere.”

Degollado had been married, twice, and was the father of six kids, but he was single in ’92. Against her sister’s wishes, Alicia approached Degollado and asked if he remembered an old girlfriend named Toni.

“My eyes lit up,” says J.D., as he’s known now.

“Well, she’s sitting over there,” Alicia said.

When the former lovers talked that night at Mexic-Arte, it was as if the decades had been hours. They started seeing each other again right away, then after a few months J.D. said, “Let’s get married for real this time.”

The couple will be celebrating their 10th anniversary Sept. 19. La Cajera, which ends in a celebration of finally finding a treasure, is J.D.’s gift to Toni.

The album also contains a tribute to Degollado’s mentor, Camilo Cantu, the accordion great who gave up performing in 1963 and was never recorded. Cantu, who died in 1998 at age 90, usually didn’t title his songs, which were all instrumentals. But whenever he played Janie’s Place on East Seventh Street, a bar owned by his first wife, a drunken patron would call out a request for a certain song by singing its melody (badly). Hence “La Calle Siete” had a name, so Cantu wouldn’t have to hear his song butchered. Degollado reprises “La Calle Siete” using the same “sordita” tuning that Cantu perfected to give his accordion a fuller sound.

Camilo Cantu on accordion 1940s.

Camilo Cantu on accordion 1940s.

“He was up there with all the greats — Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, Don Santiago Jimenez,” Degollado says. “They called him ‘El Azote de Austin,’ ‘the Scourge From Austin,’ because he’d go to towns and blow everybody away. But Mr. Cantu didn’t care about recognition.” When Cantu was inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1987, he sent Degollado, Austin’s most prominent figure in the conjunto scene, to pick up the award.

Cantu also gave Degollado permission to take songwriting credit for songs Cantu had written. “He told me that if I hadn’t recorded those songs, no one would ever know they existed. He just passed them on to me and said, ‘They’re your songs now.’ ”

But taking credit for songs he didn’t write doesn’t sit well with some. “When J.D. recorded ‘La Lupita,’ one of Camilo Cantu’s greatest compositions, and I saw the name ‘Johnny Degollado’ listed as the writer, I went to J.D. and said, ‘That’s not right,’ ” says local conjunto historian and photographer Daniel Schaefer. “But he said that’s the way the old man wanted it.” Cantu, who was alive at the time “La Lupita” was a regional hit, didn’t voice an objection, Degollado says.

The two had an almost father-son relationship, especially after Cantu took on Degollado as an apprentice in his accordion repairing and tuning practice. “He was as talented in repairing accordions as he was in playing them,” Degollado says.

It was a 1942 performance by Cantu at the old La Polkita joint in Del Valle that inspired a 7-year-old Degollado to learn the accordion. “I just stood there, watching Mr. Cantu’s fingers move and that big sound from the accordion,” J.D. says. “I was hooked.”

Degollado still has his first squeezebox, a two-row button Hohner accordion his father paid $40 for in 1945. It sits in a display case in the backyard shed where Degollado works repairing and retuning accordions. This was the job Cantu had passed on to him. “It was important to him to keep the craft alive,” says Degollado, who also refinishes antique furniture in the shed. “He told me that just as he had passed the torch to me, I had to pass the torch when the time came.”

Degollado, 68, has recently started teaching the trade to 18-year-old A.J. Castillo, who plays in his father’s conjunto group Rumores. About 75 percent of the business is fine-tuning new accordions by filing the reeds to change tunings and level vibrations. “If there’s no one to fix the accordions, then people will stop playing them, and without the accordion, there’s no more conjunto,” Degollado says.

Known as “musica nortena” in Mexico, conjunto has thrived in the region from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, to San Antonio since the turn of the century when Hispanic button accordion players (inspired by polkas from Czech and German immigrants) teamed with bajo sexto guitarists to create a new sound. Conjunto enjoyed a creative surge in the 1930s when Narciso Martinez, from the Rio Grande Valley, practically abandoned the left-hand chord and bass buttons and instead concentrated on flashy, cat-quick runs on the treble and melody buttons controlled by his right hand. With the bajo sexto holding down the bass lines, the Martinez style would be adopted by almost all conjunto accordionists, except the irascible Cantu, who continued to play the buttons on both sides of the accordion and scoffed at those who didn’t.

In 1947, Valerio Longoria of San Antonio added trap drums and vocals to this previously all-instrumental music, creating the precursor to contemporary Tejano music.

As a teenager who performed often on Austin’s KTXN radio, Degollado picked up the nickname “El Montopolis Kid,” after the East Austin neighborhood where he still lives. He also found a musical running buddy for life, bajo sexto player Vicente Alonzo, who has anchored Degollado’s conjunto band for more than 45 years. During the 1950s heyday of conjunto, they’d play five or six nights a week.

But in the ’60s, conjunto started getting a bad rap as poor people’s music and was rivaled in popularity by a new, more sophisticated, accordion-free style called “orquesta” or “musica decente,” decent music. Such still-popular acts as Little Joe y la Familia and Ruben Ramos come from the orchestra tradition.

“There was definitely a division. Folks who liked the orchestras hated conjunto,” J.D. says. “And if you were a conjunto fan, you didn’t like the orchestras.” But when orchestras started playing and recording several Degollado compositions, including “Un Cielo” and “De Ti Estoy Enamorado,” his group was able to cross over somewhat. A prolific songwriter, J.D. has penned more than 100 songs in his career, not counting the ones Cantu taught him.

A favorite subject is his first love, the one he practically left at the altar to hit the conjunto circuit. Once, in San Antonio in the ’70s, Toni heard a song on the radio called “El Pintor” about a young couple breaking up and regretting it later, and she thought about her Johnny. When the announcer said the song was by Johnny Degollado, Toni almost fell over.

“Even after we broke up in 1960, I kept writing songs about Toni,” J.D. says. “Whenever I’d write a sad song I’d think about how things didn’t work out. If I wanted a happy song, I’d think about us dancing together.”

In a couple of weeks they’ll be dancing the dance that once seemed an impossibility — their 10th anniversary waltz. And if there’s any justice, the song playing will be one composed by Camilo Cantu. Indeed, in the familiar feel of conjunto, long known as “Mexican wedding music,” love and tradition twirl together like smitten dancers, like young and old hearts that pump the same blood, like the accordion and the bajo sexto.


Robert F.X. Sillerman and the roots of concert consolidation

Robert Sillerman

Robert F.X. Sillerman

“Don’t waste my time telling me how great you are” – Robert F.X. Sillerman, to a banker, not a hip hop artist with the ability to sell a ton of tickets.

Sillerman started the consolidation of the North American concert market with money he made from selling SFX Broadcasting to Austin radio magnate Steve Hicks for $2.1 billion in 1996. That year Sillerman, who pocketed $250 million in the transaction, paid $27 million for Ron Delsener’s East Coast concert business (keeping legendary Delsener aboard as right hand man), then started snapping up just about every big promoter in the country, paying $68 million for Bill Graham Presents, $94 million for Nederlander, $190 million for Houston-based Pace Concerts and so on. Within two years he had spent about $2 billion on 11 regional concert promoters and 82 venues. Everybody in the business thought Sillerman was crazy, paying too much (except for the Delsener deal, which was a steal).

Besides promoters, Sillerman paid “too much” for talent, guaranteeing Rod Stewart $350,000 a show, for instance, more than twice what he was previously making. Sillerman personally negotiated the double bill of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon- two great American songwriters with no love for each other- which netted the pair $250,000 a night each, much more than they could earn separately. It didn’t take long for Sillerman to earn the nickname “the Sam Walton of pop music,” only Sillerman didn’t discount prices, he drove ticket costs (which had long been undervalued- hence scalpers) way up.

Sillerman’s genius, it turns out, was using the loyalty and passion of concert fans as a selling point to corporate sponsors. He packaged magic moments and sold them to national advertisers for millions and millions of dollars. He’s the reason for all the signage and logos you see at festivals today. Sillerman’s background was in radio, as he bought his first two stations in 1978 with “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, so he knew from “demographically desirable consumers.”

In 2000, just four years after he started paying big bucks for promoters and their sheds (amphitheaters), Sillerman sold SFX to San Antonio-based Clear Channel Entertainment for $4 billion. The radio giant’s concert division was named Live Nation in 2005. Five years later, Live Nation and Ticketmaster merged to create Live Nation Entertainment.

Live Nation has been buying up the country’s biggest festival promoters, including a majority interest in Austin-based C3 Presents in late 2014 for a reported $120 million, as well as, more recently, the company that promotes Bonnaroo. The marriage of consolidation and corporate sponsorship was officiated by Robert F.X. Sillerman almost two decades ago.

SFX Entertainment was reincarnated in 2012 as EDM promoters, buying chunks of Tomorrowland, Electric Zoo, Rock In Rio and the online DJ store Beatport.

Here’s more about Sillerman’s acquisition of radio stations and transition into the concert business.

 


The loving legacy of Sims Ellison

Sims Ellison by Todd V. Wolfson

Sims Ellison by Todd V. Wolfson

This story first appeared in 2010 in the Austin American Statesman.

by Michael Corcoran

The music business is full of hard-luck stories, but no Austin act rose faster and fell harder than metal band Pariah in the 1990s. Like Guns N’ Roses three years earlier, they were signed to Geffen Records by golden boy talent scout Tom Zutaut. But there were no multiplatinum records or stadium tours for the former classmates at Clark High School in San Antonio. “We were on the label for five years and have only one album to show for it,” said singer Dave Derrick. “It was a frustrating time, to say the least.”

After relocating to Austin in 1990, Pariah regularly sold out 1,000-capacity venues, but on their final show, soon after officially being dropped by Geffen in 1995, they played to less than 300 at their home club, the Back Room.

Two weeks later, the band’s bassist and driving force, Sims Ellison, put a shotgun to his face and pulled the trigger.

But in taking his own life, Ellison, who suffered from anxiety and depression for years, eventually helped save the lives of other musicians. His suicide was the inspiration for the SIMS Foundation, which provides low-cost mental health services to uninsured musicians who, because of irregular working hours, low pay, easy access to alcohol and drugs and often-volatile intraband relationships, have a unique set of psychological needs.

“Anytime SIMS sets up anywhere in the public, we have at least one person come up to us and say they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for SIMS,” said Tricia Forbes, executive director of the foundation.

Ellison didn’t drink or smoke, but the band was his life. When it crumbled and his mates, including younger brother Kyle Ellison, went their separate ways after nearly 10 years of constant camaraderie, it was apparently too much for 28-year-old Sims Ellison. On top of that, his girlfriend of nearly three years, then-unknown actress Renee Zellweger, had broken up with him six months earlier.

“I miss him every day,” said Pariah singer Dave Derrick, before he played a Pariah tribute set for the 15th anniversary SIMS Foundation Benefit Bash five years ago. “It bothers me that most people only remember Sims as the guy who killed himself, if they know him at all. He was the sweetest guy you could meet, with a goofy sense of humor. He spent every waking hour working on making Pariah as successful as possible.”

Pariah drummer Shandon Sahm recalled Sims Ellison as full of nervous energy. “He used to say, ‘If you ain’t stressed, it ain’t happening,'” said Sahm, the youngest son of Texas music legend Doug Sahm.

“If he was in a place where people knew him as Sims, the bass player for Pariah, he was totally cool,” said Derrick. “But if he was in any other social situation, he couldn’t cope. He’d show up at a backyard barbecue and pace for 10 minutes and leave.” Derrick said he never saw Sims finish a plate of food. “He would constantly stir his food, but not eat it.”

Derrick wondered if two middle school incidents forged Ellison’s social phobia. “When he was about in eighth grade he bought a Mötley Crüe T-shirt at a concert and was robbed of it at knife-point in the bathroom. Then a few months later, a bully went up to him at the mall in front of his friends and cold-cocked Sims for no reason. Knocked him out just to show off,” Derrick said. “He knew that, as a member of Pariah, he was protected – no one was going to hurt him.”

Renee and Sims. Polaroid by Todd V. Wolfson circa 1992.

The three years with Zellweger, when the band was signed to Geffen, were Sims Ellison’s happiest, Sahm said. Zellweger’s best friend at the time, her “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” co-star Lisa Newmyer, dated Kyle Ellison, younger than Sims by three years, and the four practically lived together at the Railyard Apartments downtown.

In December 1994, Zellweger split with Sims Ellison and moved to LA, where Jerry Maguire would make her a star less than two years later.

Derrick said Sims Ellison bought himself a shotgun for Christmas that month.

Meanwhile, Geffen Records had decided to drop Pariah and pay the band $50,000 to dissolve the two-album deal. The band, rounded out by guitarist Jared Tuten, decided to take a hiatus after one last show at the Back Room.

“Sims was really bummed about everything,” said Derrick, “and I told him he really should get a dog. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘That’s a great idea!'” That was the last time Derrick saw Sims Ellison, who got a job at Urban Outfitters on the Drag two weeks before his death.

“Some people were theorizing that he killed himself because Renee left him or because the band was being dropped, but it was deeper than that,” Derrick said. “Being on Geffen was worse than being dropped by Geffen. That wasn’t it. There was something inside him that none of us could see. You play it back in your head, like ‘I should’ve done this or done that,’ but the truth is that we were all in shock when it happened.”sims-new-logo-web

David Garza is one of thousands of Austin musicians helped by the assistance program inspired by the Sims Ellison tragedy. “I was having a hard time a few years ago with a personal relationship and with my label,” said Garza, who released two critically acclaimed but soft-selling albums on Atlantic in 1998 and 2001. “I was raised Mexican American Catholic. We didn’t go to therapy – that was for weirdos. If you had a problem, you went to confession.” But Garza had musician friends who’d been helped by SIMS, which has a network of 60 therapists and treatment centers that charge greatly reduced rates. With an operating budget of $600,000 a year (about 25 percent of which comes from KGSR’s “Broadcasts” CD), SIMS helps an estimated 600 Austin musicians a year.

Such musician-aimed services weren’t available to Pariah, whose disappointing career could be summed up by the night in early ’94 when the members gathered around the TV to watch their video for “Powerless” debut on MTV’s “Headbangers Ball.” They waited and waited for almost three hours until just before 2 a.m., when their video aired, the last one of the night.

Signed after a South by Southwest showcase in 1990, Pariah had to wait almost three years until the release of To Mock a Killing Bird in 1993. In between, Nirvana exploded and grunge made Pariah’s brand of glam metal obsolete.

Pariah l-r Shandom Sahm, Kyle Ellison, Sims Ellison, Dave Derrick, Jared Tuten. Photo by Todd Wolfson.

Pariah l-r Shandon Sahm, Kyle Ellison, Sims Ellison, Dave Derrick, Jared Tuten. Photo by Todd Wolfson.

“Pariah had the worst timing ever,” said the band’s co-manager Wayne Nagel, who founded the SIMS Foundation in June 1995 with his Austin Rehearsal Complex partner Don Harvey and Sims’ father, Houston oil engineer Don Ellison. “If the record had come out the year after they were signed, it would’ve been a whole different story.” Instead the band was forced to wait more than two years while Geffen threw all its clout and resources into the much-delayed Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion two-album project.

“Sims was saying, ‘What are we going to do? Metal’s not cool anymore,'” Sahm said of one of Ellison’s obsessions. “We started off as a hard rock band like Guns N’ Roses and somewhere along the line we turned into Smashing Pumpkins. Still, I think we were getting better as a band by expanding our horizons.”

Geffen didn’t see it that way. “Zutaut was the king of metal,” Nagel said of the A&R man who signed Mötley Crüe and Metallica before Guns N’ Roses. “He wanted the band to keep it metal.”

Treated like kings by Geffen before To Mock a Killing Bird came out, the band couldn’t get phone calls returned when the album didn’t take off.

Pariah met Zutaut, who did not answer an e-mail request for comment, backstage at SXSW 1990 after a scorching set at the Back Room. “He said he didn’t have time to sign another band, but that, just by him coming backstage, we were going to get signed,” Sahm said, with a laugh.

Nagel said Pariah received eight offers from labels after that SXSW appearance. It turns out that Zutaut did sign Pariah to Geffen, but he wasn’t kidding about being too busy. “It was all about Guns N’ Roses,” said Derrick. “We weren’t the only band put on hold.”

Sahm said, looking back, the band should’ve signed with Chrysalis, who photoshopped a group photo of the band so they looked at home inside the label’s headquarters. “They loved our song ‘Shatter Me’ and were ready to put it out to radio right away. But instead we went with the big shot. Chrysalis couldn’t give us a $100,000 advance, but Geffen did.” The label also gave Pariah a $250,000 recording budget that soared to $500,000 by the time the album was finished at Madonna’s Maverick recording studio in LA. (Sims Ellison hit it off with Madonna and appeared in her “Deeper and Deeper” video.)

“We were young and stupid,” Derrick said of signing with Geffen for the upfront money. “But we were all in it together. If there was any motto with Pariah, it was ‘The band comes first.'”

The SIMS Foundation, named after a lovable, yet troubled Austin musician, was formed for what comes next.


Texas Top 40: the greatest recordings from the music mecca

by Michael Corcoran, 2005

Which ones would you add/ subtract?

  1. “YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME” by 13 Floor Elevators (1966). Psychedelia is born as the region rocks to a new soul shouter named Roky Erickson.

The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators

  1. .“I FOUGHT THE LAW” by the Bobby Fuller Four (1966). Written by Sonny Curtis (who would later pen “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme) and originally recorded by the post-Buddy Holly Crickets, the definitive version was by these guitar-rockers from El Paso.
  1. . “THAT’LL BE THE DAY” by Buddy Holly (1957). Perhaps the most influential single in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Holly’s first smash hit provided the model for the gtr-gtr-bs-drms four-piece that would rule pop music for decades.
  1. “HONKY TONK HEROES” by Waylon Jennings (1973). This revved-up version of the Billy Joe Shaver song proved Waylon to be the Elvis Presley of country music, a forceful vocalist who made every song he touched his own. The band, meanwhile, shook up the “countrypolitan” climate with a fat, sweaty groove honed in the roadhouses from Amarillo to Beaumont.
  1. “DARK WAS THE NIGHT (COLD WAS THE GROUND)” by Blind Willie Johnson (1927). The moaning instrumental Ry Cooder calls “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.
  1. .“HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY” by George Jones (1980). An epic of emotion from the Beaumont hillbilly who became country’s best-ever singer.
  1. “MIND PLAYIN’ TRICKS ON ME” by Geto Boys (1991). Inner-city blues made these Houston rappers wanna holler. Pouring their paranoia over a slinky Isaac Hayes sample, the G.B.’s took gangsta rap to a headier space.

    Waylon by Scott Newton.

    Waylon by Scott Newton.

  1. “ONLY THE LONELY” by Roy Orbison (1960). This West Texan master of operatic pop set the stage for his brooding persona with this majestic hit. “There goes my baby/There goes my heart,” he sings, as the drums snap a cold cadence. “Maybe tomorrow a new romance/No more sorrow, that’s a chance you’ve got to take,” he finishes with a voice that knows resolve.
  1. “BLUE EYES CRYIN’ IN THE RAIN” by Willie Nelson (1975). An early look at Willie’s interpretive genius. Not only a sign of “Stardust” to come, but 2:17 that anchors “Red-Headed Stranger.”

10. “WOOLLY BULLY” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (1965). The rollickingTex-Mex party anthem continues to fill dance floors and drivers’ hearts.

  1. “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL” by Leadbelly (1936). A traditional prison daydream ode about a train that, if its light shone on you, you’d be freed, updated when the man born Huddie Ledbetter was doing time in Sugarland.

12. “TIGHTEN UP” by Archie Bell and the Drells (1968). One of the first records to recognize that sometimes a groove is all you need.

  1. “WOMAN BE WISE” by Sippie Wallace (1925). The model for Bonnie Raitt’s sassiness came from this gutbucket blues number about keeping good love to yourself.
  1. “LA GRANGE” by ZZ Top (1973). A classic-rock eternal that never fails to bring out the air guitars.
  1. “ELLIS UNIT ONE” by Steve Earle (1995). Springsteen got the title track to “Dead Man Walking,” but Earle buried him with this dark exploration of life in a prison town.
  1. “EL PASO” by Marty Robbins (1959). Between Robbins’ sturdy vocals and Grady Martin’s exotic guitar, you can almost feel the spirit of border town love.
  1. “SHE’S ABOUT A MOVER” by the Sir Douglas Quintet (1965). Producer Huey P. Meaux posed them as Brits, but there was no mistaking where this chunk o’ fun came from: Texas (and Ray Charles).
  1. “WALKIN’ THE FLOOR OVER YOU” by Ernest Tubb (1941). The ultimate honky tonk song and the first country hit to feature electric guitar.

    Gatemouth

    Gatemouth

  1. “OKIE DOKIE STOMP” by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Other guitarists can do T-Bone Walker, but no one besides Gatemouth could play this one the right way.
  1. “BEFORE THE NEXT TEARDROP FALLS” by Freddy Fender (1975). Born Baldemar Huerta, Fender made his pop breakthrough with this No. 1 single that sounds like doo-wop finally reaching the Rio Grande Valley.
  1. “WALK AROUND” by Soul Stirrers (1939). The blueprint for doo-wop and soul was laid out in this recording by the gospel quartet from Trinity. On the South Side of Chicago, future Stirrer Sam Cooke was listening.
  1. “LONG BLACK VEIL” by Lefty Frizzell (1959). This tragic story of loyalty and love wins the coin toss with “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.”
  1. “MATCHBOX BLUES” by Blind Lemon Jefferson (1927). Just as he moved from Mexia to Dallas and then to Chicago (where he was found frozen to death in a snowbank in 1929), this sightless singer is credited with taking blues from the fields to the barrelhouses to the urban centers.
  1. “MAL HOMBRE” by Lydia Mendoza (1938). This single hit big with Hispanics all over the country and Mexico and helped usher in the Tejano subgenre.
  1. “DANCE FRANNY DANCE” by Floyd Dakil Combo (1964). A Texas bar band standard. Substitute “Linda Lu” by Ray Sharpe, “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head or “Thunderbird” by the Nitecaps, if you prefer. They all created a huge rumble that is still felt today in dark, smoky clubs.
  1. “NEW SAN ANTONIO ROSE” by Bob Wills (1944). A distillation of all that is pure Western Swing (though “Ida Red” was a close second in the Wills slot for providing the pattern for Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”).
  1. “GET ON BOARD LITTLE CHILLUN” by Ella Mae Morse (1945). Not “Cow Cow Boogie,” the first-ever gold record for Capitol? What about the original version of “House of Blue Lights”? Nah, this one swings harder, making full use of this Mansfield native’s elastic vocals.
  1. “PANCHO AND LEFTY” by Townes Van Zandt (1971). Dozens of great Townes songs are represented here by his most famous.
  1. “HARPER VALLEY PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley (1968). This song of small town hypocrisy, written by Tom T. Hall, became the hit of the year by this singer from Anson, Texas.
  1. “PIECE OF MY HEART” by Janis Joplin (1968). Never before has vulnerability sounded so powerful than when this outcast from Port Arthur got her revenge.

    Janis Joplin circa 1962.

    Janis Joplin circa 1962.

  1. “YOU’LL LOSE A GOOD THING” by Barbara Lynn (1962). Another Meaux discovery, this left-handed guitarist from Beaumont straddled the border between Texas and Louisiana with this Top Tenner that shook up a stale national music scene for a while.
  1. “DRIFTIN’ BLUES” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (1945). This smooth blues hit, written and sung by Blazer Charles Brown, was a primary influence on Ray Charles’ early style. (Note: Guitarist Johnny Moore grew up in East Austin.)

33 “SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN” by Kris Kristofferson (1972). Stark, honest storytelling and a voice that seizes the details

  1. “DALLAS” by Joe Ely (1972). “Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night” is a great opening line (by Jimmie Gilmore), and Ely keeps up the intrigue with his heel-grinding delivery.
  1. “WILD SIDE OF LIFE” by Hank Thompson (1959). A hit from the Waco-born honky tonker so massive it registered an answer song, Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

    Ella Mae Morse

    Ella Mae Morse

  1. “GOING DOWN” by Freddie King (1971). King had ripped better on other tracks –“Hideaway,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” “Remington Ride,” “In the Open,” etc. — but this one gets the nod for the stamina to survive so many bad barroom versions. Nice piano by Leon Russell, too.
  1. “STREETS OF LAREDO” by Gene Autry (1936). An incredibly deep song and the version that made it famous. (Note: Autry is also responsible for the best Texas Christmas song. He co-wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus.”)
  1. “TRUCK DRIVER BLUES” by Ted Daffan (1939). This steel guitarist from the Houston area had a bigger hit with “Born To Lose,” but this number, which introduced the truck drivin’ song to country radio, had greater implications.
  1. “JOLE BLON” by Harry Choates (1947). The Cajun national anthem was given itsdefinitive version by a wild-eyed fiddler from Port Arthur.
  1. “SINCE I MET YOU BABY” by Ivory Joe Hunter (1956). A blues ballad that meets rock ‘n’ roll head on and doesn’t flinch.

 

 


Blues bassist Sarah Brown, descendant of famous slave owners

Sarah Brown. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

Sarah Brown. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

You’ve seen Sarah Brown on-stage if you ever went to Antone’s in the ’80s or early ’90s. She was the house bass player when Antone’s was a blues club, period, and so she backed everyone from Big Joe Turner and Sunnyland Slim to Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and Otis Rush. For almost 30 years, Brown has been one of Austin’s most valuable – and visible – side musicians. But something only her closest friends knew until recently is that Brown, in her early sixties, is a descendant of John Augustine Washington, the youngest brother of George Washington. Although Brown is a blood relative of our first president, George Washington, she’s not a direct descendant, as George and Martha Washington had no children. Nor did John Augustine’s son Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon and became a Supreme Court justice.

“Being a blues musician, it just wasn’t relevant to me to be a Washington,” said Brown, a Michigan native who has lived in Austin since 1982. The Washingtons she was committed to follow in the tradition of were Dinah and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, not America’s first family. “Our grandmother told us that we must amount to something in our own right because whatever blue blood we had was thin,” Brown said. George Washington is her great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.

She knew her ancestors had slaves – it’s well-known that the father of our country owned human property – and she had a problem with that, but “it just wasn’t something that I thought about too much,” she said. The African Americans she worked with were heroes and legends; why dwell on an ugly past?

But in January 2011, her family’s legacy as slaveholders came to visit her in books and papers that she helped her cousin Tom Washington prepare for auction. When Brown’s uncle Nathaniel Washington Jr. died in 2007, his will stated that the family’s artifacts, including a piece of George Washington’s original coffin and papers that go back to 1662, were to be sold at auction with the proceeds to be divided between Brown, her sister and nine cousins.

A rare book auction in New York City in 2011 drew $31,000 for a pair of Revolutionary War-era books that had belonged to the Washington family. A memorabilia auction in Dallas was expected to attract much more money, with estimates in the six figures for surveying tools George Washington owned at age 16.

fukunaga

Glenn Fukunaga

Brown received the books and papers because friend and fellow Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga is one of the country’s top experts in the restoration of old books. As the material sat there on Brown’s dining room table, awaiting appraisal and repair, Brown started reading. She found family papers in which slaves, with dollar value attached, were listed as assets alongside livestock, farm tools and furniture. She read about slaves being bought and sold by family members, some of whom fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War.

“It was all very disturbing,” she said. “The more I read, the more it made me wonder if some of the people I’ve been playing with all these years are descendants of slaves once owned by my family.”

One of the most telling books was a record of the Fifth Virginia Convention, held in Williamsburg, Va., in May 1776, just two months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. An early version of the U.S. Bill of Rights was adopted at the convention, a galvanizing moment in the American Revolution.

“I’d read in one part (of the book) that all men are created equal, but then there were many pages that told of plantation owners seeking restitution for slaves who had been jailed and killed when they tried to escape to the British side,” Brown said.

George Washington, who inherited 10 slaves from his father as an 11-year-old, was conflicted about slavery, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow. Even as he came to believe that human bondage ran against the principles on which the new nation was founded, he kept slaves until he died in 1799. His will, however, provided that all 124 of the black people – and a few white people – he owned be set free after the death of wife Martha. He also provided pensions for the older slaves.

The more Brown has found out about her famous family, the more she wants to know, especially since she’s found evidence, though inconclusive, that one or more of her ancestors fathered children with their slaves. “I may have African American cousins I don’t know about,” said Brown, who has spent many late nights searching sites such as www.afrigeneas.com and comingtothetable.org, which serve as a connection for the descendants of slaves and slaveowners.

An intriguing letter from abolitionist Urbain Barbier to Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew, led Brown to “Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon” by Scott Casper. She’s also been in communication with the author through email. “It’s a great, close-in look at slavery through the history of slaves and free African Americans who worked at Mount Vernon, from General Washington’s day through the 1980s,” said Brown. Her research, which she hopes will be the basis for a book about her family and her life interacting with blues royalty, has also turned up some brighter moments. Last month, Brown found a letter from Laurence Washington dated Aug. 27, 1816, that detailed a decision to free slaves owned by him and wife Mary. “We are both decidedly of the opinion that God of nature made them as free as ourselves,” the letter said, “and they are held in bondage by ruffian force and savage violence.” Freeing their slaves “was an act that could no longer be postponed.”

Brown said “it really made my day” to find that letter. “There’s such a fissure in this country between slavery and democracy,” said Brown. “It runs like a fault line from the American Revolution to modern times. People are still suffering from its effects.”

Before poring over the auction materials, Brown’s knowledge of her family’s history centered on the Washingtons who moved from West Virginia to Washington state around 1905 to homestead.

Brown’s mother, Glenora Washington Brown, told Sarah stories of her lawyer father, Sarah’s grandfather, Nathaniel, who drowned in the Columbia River in 1926 trying to save his brother and sister, who also drowned after being swept downstream in a powerful current.

Brown was born in Chicago, but moved at age 6 to Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father, Deming Brown, taught Russian literature at the University of Michigan. Her first instrument was the cello, but then the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, and Brown switched to electric bass. “I took the backward route in discovering the blues,” she said. “From the Beatles I found out about Chuck Berry and from there I found Chess Records and the world of the blues.” In her early 20s Brown moved to Boston, which had a vibrant blues scene. She often played the Speakeasy in Cambridge and backed her “first blues genius” in Big Walter Horton.

Needing a change of scenery after a bad breakup, Brown moved to Austin and got a gig playing bass for the Leroi Brothers, whose drummer Mike Buck she knew from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

It was as the bassist in the Antone’s house band that Brown built her reputation and made her gender a nonissue. “If anyone had a problem with me being a female bass player, I didn’t hear any of it,” she said. “Sometimes, they’d come to the club and look at me a little strange when I put on my bass, but it’s really all about the music. If you could play, you were cool.”

Along with guitarists Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien, drummer George Rains, guitarist/organist Mel Brown and sax player Kaz Kazanoff, Sarah Brown backed almost every blues great of note during the ’80s and early ’90s at Antone’s glorious location at 2915 Guadalupe St.

“What’s central to my life is the music created by slaves,” she said, underlining why her new research project has become almost an obsession. Blues grew out of the so-called Negro spirituals, or slave songs, sung in the sweltering fields of the South. In singing about troubles and hardships, often to a call-and-response cadence, the days became more bearable. The music soothed the souls.

Some of those slaves had children who had children who had children who made guitars out of cigar boxes and screen door wires, then grew up to create the music that inspired rock ‘n’ roll.

And many have, no doubt, been backed by an Austin woman, a descendant of exalted American Revolutionaries, who has walked those bass lines from the South to Chicago and back.

 

Seven generations from George Washington

Sarah Brown’s lineage:

Sarah’s mother Glenora (b. 1917) was the daughter of Nathaniel Willis Washington (b. 1881). His father, Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1839) moved his family from Charles Town, WV to Washington state in 1905. Bushrod’s father was Thomas Washington (b. 1812), whose father was also named Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1790). That Bushrod was the son of Corbin Washington (b. 1764), whose father was George Washington’s youngest brother, John Augustine Washington (b. 1736).


20 years later: when SXSW went to Portland

61578_160209057339433_100000510191789_458564_4970250_noriginally published Oct. 3, 1995, the second of seven years of NXNW

PORTLAND, Ore. — After “Giant recording artists” Big Car broke up in early 1992, bassist Jeff Groves sold everything he owned, including his home recording studio, and embarked on a gypsy adventure with his new bride, Laura. They just took off and drove all over the continent, from Mexico to Nova Scotia, Maine to San Diego, sleeping in the bed of their Toyota pickup and taking their time. When they rolled into Portland after a year on the road, however, the journey ended.

Jeff and Laura weren’t looking for anything in particular when they left Austin, but they ended up finding the hidden treasure of Portland. Looking and feeling a lot like the best part of Manhattan dropped down into a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, Portland shirks its repute as some Weegun-wearing yuppie Disneyland by being as real as Mary’s Club, whichis a cross between “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name, and an old-fashioned burlesque joint. All that’s missing at Mary’s is the comedy, but it’s easy to supply your own, especially when the “dancers” have conversations that could just as easily come in a laundromat: “What time do you have to pick up the kids?” “We’ve been here a year and a half, and it seems like every week I find another cool place,” Jeff Groves said over a beer in the bar of Hung Far Low, one of his latest discoveries. The upstairs Chinese restaurant, with its pristine ’50s furniture, dark-red lighting and jolly bartender, epitomizes the homey-eerie paradox of the town strapped by bridges and shaded by so many dark corners.

When Groves started talking about his band, the Raging Woodies (same name, different lineup than his old San Antonio combo) and their well-received show at Key Largo on Thursday, I was shaken from sweet affinity and reminded of why I had come to Portland. Last week, Thursday through Saturday, the town was host of the North by Northwest Music and Media Conference, and if the name sounds familiar to more than Hitchcock fans, it’s because the convention was organized by the folks who make Austinites willing hostages (mostly) of South by Southwest every March.5562075365_50c5002cf2_z

Tons of bands, lotsa clubs, tedious panels, parties every evening, schmooze or lose — you know the routine — but the Portland affair felt strange, like it was a pilot episode for a convention organizers are hoping will be picked up. Wristband sales picked up as the weekend neared, to save the conference financially, but attendance at the seminar measured less than 20 percent of the nearly 5,000 people who attended SXSW last March. Unlike the Austin conference, which puts our burg in a tizzy for about a week, NXNW had seemingly little affect on Portland as a whole. That’s partly because of the numbers, but it also could be that this is just too much town to be swept away by panels and showcases.

Like an episode of “Northern Exposure” directed by David Lynch, Portland is a strangely magnetic metropolis where the underlying tangles with the overwhelming, a city of layers begging to be peeled back. Andit’s a great town to walk in.

All within ten blocks of the Benson Hotel, I found 1) Dr. Bill’s Learning Center, a bizarre adult bookstore with cowboy boots and hats in the front window and shelves that display classic books next to skin mags and porno tapes; 2) The Rialto, a classic old man’s bar with an off-track betting parlor; 3) Powell’s World of Books, easily the best bookstore I’ve ever been in; it makes San Francisco’s City Lights look like an airport bookshop; 4) several great seafood restaurants, including the spectacular Jake’s; 5) Chinatown; 6) countless ethnic eateries, serving up Thai, Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Japanese and old Italian fare; and 7) more great coffee places than panhandlers. If I was a free man, I would live here.

I also walked to many of the clubs, which, like those of Austin, are mostly close to the downtown hotels. But the acts were generally so lame compared to the SXSW roster that the clubs were often the star attraction.

The Obvious, from Salt Lake City, were the perfect example, trotting out their tired affectation of Alice in Chains for a vaguely interested crowd that had been browbeaten into standing. Fortunately, the show was in the Paris Theatre, a brilliantly converted porno palace, so even as the band was spooning out its canned angst, there was plenty to keep your mind occupied in the venue haunted with the ghosts of a million gropes.

Other cases of bad band-good club were Portland’s pedestrian Gravelpit at the graffiti-covered punk mecca Satyricon; Billy Jack, from nearby Eugene, at the cavernous Roseland; and Truly at LaLuna. I loved Truly’s latest album on Capitol, but in concert the band’s extreme loudness couldn’t make up for a mysteriously missing ingredient in their sound. Something was wrong, but the band drove me out into the unseasonably cold night before I could figure out what it was.

The biting drizzle was Portland trying to show a downside to the countless out-of-town attendees who kept chanting, “I could live here/ I could definitely live here” like a mantra. But it was the chill of adventure that made Portland so alluring on the last weekend of September. The town may might seem bleak to some or as strangely sinister as a municipality from the mind of Stephen King, but it provided splendid diversions in the midst of yet another derby for the dull and derivative.

Above all, Portland tells us that there’s more to life than music.


Gossip is not for wimps

A week after my ranking of the “25 Most Powerful People on the Austin Music Scene” made higherups at the Austin American-Statesman uncomfortable, I unleashed this column that got me called in on the carpet again. From Feb. 24, 2000 XL.

inside:out ad

A few months ago, several music critics held an intervention of sorts on me. We were all sitting at a table at the Bitter End and I was updating everyone on the status of the Farrah Fawcett-Greg Lott romance, when suddenly they all turned on me. “Man, what happened to you?” said one guy. “Do you actually like writing a gossip column?” asked another. “Is that any way for a grown man to make a living?” These friends of mine were concerned that I’d gone over the edge, pushed to insanity by having to review one too many Lyle Lovett concerts. They couldn’t understand why anyone with a job as a music critic would suddenly decide to shift focus to a column about parties, local celebrities and inside media dirt.

But I think sharing secrets is a much more personal and worthwhile pursuit than listening to a record four times in a row and then writing if it’s any good. Music critics should have term limits and so, even though I still keep my hand in on the music side, I decided to try something different.

In a 1994 bio of Walter Winchell, who popularized the three-dot format to connect the tidbits, Neal Gabler wrote that “(Winchell) understood that gossip, far beyond its basic attraction as journalistic voyeurism, was a weapon of empowerment for the reader.” When I started my “Austin Inside/Out” column a little more than two years ago, I felt like a National Guardsman called into active duty.

The response was instant and often intense.

“Invading the lives of the famous humanizes them,” Gabler continued, “and in humanizing them demonstrates that they are no better than we are and in many cases worse.”

A theme of such lauded recent films as “Happiness,” “The Ice Storm” and “American Beauty,” is that if you go deeper than the facade of the good life you’ll find dysfunction. “Blue Velvet,” the pioneer of Hollywood’s new social pornography, laid it out with an opening that showed a beautifully green lawn, but then the camera zoomed beneath the lushness to show a couple of insects grappling. A good gossip column operates with a similar eye for the grimy truth.

But I don’t see the role as a three-dot columnist as digging for dirt as much as it is to be the great equalizer, building up those who deserve it and knocking down those who have too much. I’m the drawback to being rich and famous. In this game of pop culture, celebs are the quarterback and I’m the linebacker. If I get a good, unblocked hit/item on them, I can’t feel guilty if they lay there in pain. The fans/readers demand that I don’t hold back, though sometimes I do.

Writing gossip is a risky business and I’m constantly asking myself if running a certain item is going to be worth the screaming phone message or the call on the carpet. I try not to print anything that could have a profound effect on someone’s life or livelihood, so all you married philanderers are safe. But sometimes I just have to forge ahead and go with my instincts, prepared to deal with the consequences.inside:out a1Scan 126

That this can be an emotionally hazardous occupation has been recently exemplified by the flap caused when Austin Internet movie newshound Harry Knowles posted what he believed to be the Oscar nominations the day before they were officially announced. In a remorseful, apologetic follow-up, Harry related that his list, which he touted as “deep from the halls of the Academy” a day earlier, had actually come from the computer of an ABC.com researcher who was digging up bios on probable nominees. Though Knowles’ list of eight names per category contained all the actor and actress nominees, it didn’t mention “The Cider House Rules,” up for the best picture nod, so Knowles was left with bits of omelet in his beard. Oscar’s head man Ric Robertson told Variety that the Academy was considering charges against Harry’s aint-it-cool-news.com pending an investigation to discover “how Knowles knew to hack into that particular database.” Knowles insists that he received the list from a first-time source and no hacking was involved.

I’ve also been burned by trusting a source who, it turned out, overstated their access to the truth. In the firestorm that followed, I just kept running all the details through my mind, like a football team watching film after a painful defeat, and in the end I became a better columnist because of that setback. Hair grows back thicker after a head is shaved.

I’m committed to the gossip biz, no matter how sissy such a job may seem on the surface and I hope to continue writing “Austin Inside/Out” until it’s no longer fun and challenging. Or until the day my son comes home from school all bruised and tattered and says, “Dad, the kids at school said you’re a gossip columnist.” If that happens, I’m back to asking the 17-year-old kid sitting next to me what song Bjork just played.


2000: The 25 Most Powerful People On the Austin Music Scene

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Published Feb. 17, 2000 in XL

drawings by Guy Juke.

Power. Clout. Influence. Juice. Who’s got it in the Austin music business?
Here they are: the scene’s heaviest hitters. These movers and shakers are the ones who get their phone calls returned in an instant and who can get an audience with national bigwigs.

1. BILL HAM

With his Lone Wolf management company out on Bee Cave Road, Ham kept ZZ Top prosperous years beyond their prime by embracing MTV during its early “synth years” and mining the Texas mythology. He’s also given hope to upstart rockers Pushmonkey, getting them gigs at Woodstock ’99 among other plums. His Hamstein Publishing arm, meanwhile, was recently ranked No. 2 in the country music field by Billboard, with five No. 1 singles in 1999. In the pop market, Hamstein co-owns such international smashes as “Believe” by Cher and “Bailamos” by Enrique Iglesias. Ham’s greatest accomplishment, however, is perhaps his most bittersweet: Just as country music was about to explode, he put a black cowboy hat on a kid singing James Taylor songs in a pizza parlor, but then was taken to court years later by that protege, Clint Black, who charged Ham with taking astronomical management fees. The suit was settled out of court, but Ham still owns Black’s publishing on his first three albums.

2. STEVE HICKS

After founding the Capstar radio giant in 1996, Hicks helped introduce the “virtual radio” concept, delivering major league homogeny to the minor markets. Radio Ink magazine’s “Executive of the Year” in 1998, Hicks quickly started acquiring stations, including the SFX group for just over a billion dollars. Locally, he paid $90 million for KASE and KVET and created a format sensation (since subsided) with the ’70s funk station KFMK (105.9). The biggest news came in October when Hicks’ stations (now under the AMFM umbrella held by brother Tom Hicks) were part of a $23.5 billion deal with Clear Channel of San Antonio, which created the largest radio group in the world. Real power is when you get Elton John, Jimmy Buffett and the Beach Boys to play for your friends, as Hicks will do later this month when he celebrates his 50th birthday in the Caribbean.

3. WILLIE NELSON

Willie calls his band Family, but that description extends throughout the local music scene, especially in the Pedernales and Arlyn studios owned by his nephew Freddy Fletcher and the venues owned by his longtime business associate Tim O’Connor. An American folk hero and Austin’s good-vibe ambassador to the world, Willie’s also been one of the scene’s major employers through the years. And Willie knows how to give back, doing countless benefits and helping out individuals in need.

4. ROLAND SWENSON

(with Louis Black, Nick Barbaro and Brent Grulke)

rolanddrawing

Willie may have given the Austin music scene a national profile in the early ’70s, but as the director of everybody’s favorite music conference, South By Southwest, Swenson keeps us vital in biz consciousness year after year. SXSW shows the crowd (800 bands, 7,000 badge-wearers, etc.) the best side of Austin and generates incredible press. What’s more, Austin’s often-strapped nightclubs get a windfall that will usually get them through the lean months. As editor and publisher of the Austin Chronicle, Black and Barbaro, respectively, could get their own entry on the list. But in terms of national influence, SXSW is the most important thing they’ve done for the local music community.

5. TIM O’CONNOR

O’Connor’s Direct Events business (with partner Tim Neece), which controls such venues as the Backyard, Austin Music Hall and La Zona Rosa, has prospered because of the flexibility in booking acts according to ticket demand. If a La Zona Rosa show sells out quickly, he can move it to the twice-as-big AMH. If a Music Hall concert is tanking, he can move it over to the 1,400-capacity La Zona. His next big project is expanding the capacity of the Backyard from 3,000 to 7,500, which will give Austin a much-needed mid-size venue. Tim’s a tough one. When all the other club owners in town were delighted with packed houses and happy to give SXSW the door proceeds, O’Connor demanded a cut — and he got it.

6. JODY DENBERG

jodydrawingThe road to Susan Tedeschi’s Grammy nomination in the prestigious Best New Artist category began at KGSR, when program director Denberg and music director Susan Castle heard something they liked and started playing the record to their loyal listeners. The same thing is happening with Shelby Lynne, who’s starting to get a big push from her record label after being encouraged by early Austin sales due to KGSR airplay. Even more important, KGSR’s playlist is closely watched by other stations across the country, who’ve added such Jody-approved acts as R.L. Burnside, Buena Vista Social Club and Patty Griffin. Kelly Willis has sold 16,000 copies of her recent album in Austin, and a lot of that is because of KGSR’s support. What’s more, Denberg compiles the hugely successful “Broadcasts” CDs that benefit the SIMS Foundation to the tune of about $60,000 a year.

7. RAY BENSON

Most Austinites know him as the affable leader of Asleep at the Wheel, a group up for six Grammys Feb. 23. But Benson is also an astute studio owner, a co-founder of the R&B Foundation and a polished producer, whose most recent discovery, 11-year-old Billy Gilman, was recently signed to Sony Nashville. He not only sings on that McDonald’s commercial pushing breakfast burritos, but he produced the spot and snagged the account. Benson’s an old Austin icon who knows his way around the new Austin.

8. CARLYNE MAJER

As executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Majer has signed up more than 700 members and made Texas a real force in the Grammy voting body. They’ve even started a Tejano category because of the influence of NARAS Texas. Even more noteworthy, however, is the way this former Austin Music Commission chair is often consulted by politicians on issues pertinent to the local music scene. As a former club owner, band manager and song publisher, Carlyne has done it all, so her opinion weighs a lot.

9. JOHN KUNZ

His Waterloo Records store is nationally respected and locally loved for its selection and staff of music lovers. Not only has Waterloo been named Record Retailer of the Year by trade groups (it’s up against Amazon.com this year), but it’s the best place to find releases by obscure Austin artists. And this is one place where acts get a stage for in-store appearances.carlynekunz

10. TERRY LICKONA

The producer of “Austin City Limits,” Lickona decides which local acts get national exposure (Monte Montgomery, Mary Cutrufello) and which ones don’t (Alejandro Escovedo).

11. PETER BAY/JANE SIBLEY

Sibley kept the Austin Symphony going through the lean years, and just as it seemed to outgrow her guidance, along came conductor Bay, who instantly won the respect of his musicians and audiences. Bay has gone well beyond the core job description of leading the orchestra and doing a few pops concerts every year. By working with Austin songwriters like Darden Smith, Bay has expanded the boundaries of what a symphony can be, and through his charisma as a conductor, he leads the charge to turn Palmer Auditorium into a world-class concert hall.

12. DANNY LEVIN AND WALLY WILLIAMS

As owners of the Tequila Mockingbird studio, these guys have turned “keep your day job” from being an insult to musicians to one of the main ways they can survive strictly by playing music. Such local artists as Jon Blondell, Charlie Sexton, Lisa Tingle and David Halley have helped pay the bills by doing commercials for such T.M. clients as Southwest Airlines, Budweiser and Ex-Lax (Halley made $15,000 for singing “City of New Orleans,” also known as “Good Morning America,” on an Ex-Lax commercial). The top ad agencies in the world know about Tequila Mockingbird, which has turned out to be a great thing for local working musicians.

13. LOWELL FOWLER

He’s come a long way since he did psychedelic light shows at such legendary Austin clubs as the Vulcan Gas Co., Mother Earth and the Bucket. Today, Fowler’s the founder/chairman of High End Systems, one of the world’s largest concert lighting companies, with branch offices in London, L.A., Singapore and, in two weeks, New York City. Most of High End’s 350 employees work out of the headquarters on Braker Lane, where the state-of-the-art Wholehog lighting console is produced. Besides concerts, from Lilith Fair to Metallica, High End’s lights have also been used in the “Austin Powers” movies and in the most recent Super Bowl.

14. DAVIS McLARTY

Before this former Joe Ely drummer retired from playing to start a booking agency, Austin artists might’ve had to go through as many as four different regional agents to book a national tour. But McLarty, who knows through his playing experience how unforgiving a badly conceived tour can be, puts his stable of acts such as Kelly Willis, Reckless Kelly, Bad Livers and Ana Egge in clubs coast to coast, all from the garage office of his South Austin home. Business has gotten so good that McLarty recently took on Wayne Nagel to handle such newer clients as Soulhat and Mojo Nixon.

15. CHARLES ATTAL

The Stubb’s co-owner is also the manager of up-and-comers the Damnations. But the biggest thing is yet to come, when he partners with J-Net Ward and Mark Pratz on the new version of Liberty Lunch that will give Attal control of venues that can handle any crowd from 50 to 2,000.

16. CLIFFORD ANTONE

He may seem more like a figurehead or greeter at Austin’s most famous nightclub, especially with his impending sentencing for a marijuana trafficking conviction hanging over his head, but make no mistake about it, Antone’s is Clifford’s club.

17. CINDI LAZZARI/JOE PRIESNITZ

She’s the lawyer who helped get big settlements for Austin acts Gomez and Olive when European bands started using their names. She also sued for Dale Watson to get royalties owed by High Tone, and she’s the key figure on the side of acts in the ongoing Watermelon bankruptcy saga. He’s the manager of Eric Johnson, Kelly Willis, Chris Duarte and Charlie Robison whose clear-headed decision-making and personal attention inspires loyalty from his clients. Together, they’re married and the parents of three children.

18. CASEY MONAHAN

A matchmaker supreme, Monahan, of Gov. Bush’s Texas Music Office, is a one-man chamber of commerce for the music industry, helping to put the people together who make the deals. He also compiles the Bible of the biz, the Texas Music Industry Directory, perhaps the single most valuable resource for Texans who make their living in the music trade.

19. SUSAN WALKER

She didn’t write “Mr. Bojangles,” but her tenacity and commitment in guiding the career of husband Jerry Jeff has been even more important in building the Tried & True Music mini-empire. Every talented flake needs a Susan Walker in their life, but very few are lucky enough to get one.

20. BOB WOODY

Besides owning several Sixth Street clubs (the Ritz, Soho Lounge, Shakespeare’s, Blind Pig, the Ale House) and the Old Pecan Street Cafe, Woody is known as the guy who gets things done downtown through his leadership in the East Sixth Street Community Association and the Downtown Commission. He’s the unofficial “mayor of Sixth Street.”

21. BILL MARTIN

They call him “the Mailman” in reference to his former day job, but as president of the Texas Gospel Announcers Guild, Martin dedicates himself full-time to the effort to expand the reach of gospel music these days. He not only does a show on KIXL (970 AM), but has a hand in just about every major gospel event in the state, from promoting Kirk Franklin concerts to organizing the annual TGAG convention. The TGAG has also helped develop interest in secular sounds through its gospel workshops and a project coming soon, a play written by great gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey called “Precious Lord.” There are 159 stations in Texas playing black gospel music, and “the Mailman” is known by the program directors at all of them.

22. PAUL LEARY

The guitarist for the Butthole Surfers has turned a gift for hard work and detail into traits that make him one of the most successful producers from Austin, with platinum albums by Sublime and Meat Puppets on his resume. He’s just wrapped up Reverend Horton Heat’s next LP and is working on Won Santo Condo before he gets back to his first love, the Butthole Surfers’ next album.

23. MARK PROCT

Two years ago he would’ve been in the top five, but after he was dropped by Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II and watched Storyville break up, Proct’s Mark I Management company had to start all over. His rebound has been remarkable, however, as he landed the most promising band in town in Vallejo and got them a nice deal with Sony offshoot Crescent Moon.

24. STEVE WERTHEIMER

If Wertheimer is a fan of your music, he’ll book you into his Continental Club and stick with you even if the crowds are slow coming. Such acts as Toni Price, Junior Brown, 8 1/2 Souvenirs (whose first record was a hot-seller for Continental Records) would not have reached their current level of success if not for Wertheimer’s loyalty. And with a second Continental Club opening soon in Houston, Steve will give Austin acts a new home on the road.

25. GARY POWELL

As the leading storybook and song album producer for Disney, (including “A Bug’s Life,” for which he’s up for a Grammy), Powell is the baby-sitter you only have to pay once. The longtime producer for Joe Scruggs helped take children’s music beyond the nursery rhymes. His studio in Oak Hill employs several local musicians and has had the likes of Goldie Hawn trudging out 290.

JUST MISSED THE LIST

* Paul Korzilius: As Bon Jovi’s manager, Korzilius handles a multiplatinum act about three years away from a lucrative reunion tour. But Korzilius resides on the outskirts of Austin in virtually every way. Not a force, locally.

* Jan Mirkin: This veteran manager has moved in major circles, but her main client, Ian Moore, has been on a fatherhood-related hiatus, which has taken Mirkin out of the flow. She does get extra power points for being the local ASCAP rep.

* Sandra Bullock: Yeah, she can get you on the “Tonight Show,” but only if you’re dating her.

* Charlie Jones: The unflappable Middleman Productions honcho did a great job with A2K and the Antone’s Blues Festival. He’s definitely one to watch in 2000.

* Andy Langer: He profiles local groups for the Chronicle, plays their music on 101-X and does weekly “Backstage Pass” segments for News 8 Austin, yet the biggest thing he’s done for Austin music was getting a tape of Magneto USA (now Fastball) into the hands of a Hollywood Records A&R rep.

* Willie Cisneros: Longtime Tejano promoter, who’s recently branched out into rap concerts.

 


It’s a ‘ME’ thing (some of my best friends are selfish)

published in Jan. 1996

We’re a racist society. You hear those words so often and so matter-of-factly these days that they’re rarely questioned, but charges of racism, even those with some merit, are often just a thick sheet of smoke that hides a far more reaching problem. We are a selfish society. It’s not so much the color of one’s skin as the inability to get out from under it that is responsible for many of our woes.

I’m a member of society, and I’m not a racist. All my friends and relatives are members of society, and none of them seem to be racist. But they’re selfish — every damn one of them — and so are the overwhelmingly white Nebraska Cornhusker fans who have cheered star running back Lawrence Phillips even after he had pleaded no contest to charges of assaulting his former girlfriend. He’s black, she’s white, but even more importantly to the self-image of Nebraskans, he can help bring another national championship back to Lincoln. Meanwhile, the victim is living proof of the down side of the “win at all costs” edict, and so she has been swept under the Astroturf.

Advancement has a funny way of showing itself, but let’s not dismiss the strides in civil rights that have been made in this country. Thirty years ago , blacks couldn’t use the same restrooms as whites in some parts of the country, but these days a black man can kill two white people and get away with it, so long as he can afford the best lawyers. Now, that’s equality.

Still, the stirrers of the melting pot always are looking to adda little spice, so they play up the negative. When Arizona citizens voted against a paid holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1992, the shouts of “racism” drowned out the reasoning that Arizona is full of elderly taxhaters on fixed incomes who would vote against a paid holiday for Christmas if given the chance.

The old want what’s best for the old. White people want what’s best for white people. Black people want what’s best for black people. This is a selfish society where the rich want to keep all their money, while the poor feel entitled to more of their own. People are insecure about what they want, so they just want everything.

If you come to your “secret” fishing hole and find a man with his line in the water, you’ll instantly dislike him, no matter who he is, because he’s taking away just a little bit of what was yours. I suppose if the angler was black, you’d call that racism, but really the negative feeling comes more from a general fear and mistrust of others. A lot of people who are considered racist really just don’t like anybody.

The public basically loves things that it can identify with. Women who just got dumped by some jerk love that Alanis Morissette song, while fans of felines laugh out loud at those stupid cat cartoon books. Meanwhile, the citizens of Dallas cheer for the Cowboys, while those in San Francisco root for the 49ers, regardless of the personnel, because those teams represent them, those sofa lumps who only touch a pigskin when picking up a slice of bacon.

The reason the horoscope is such a popular section of the newspaper is because, unless your name is Jim Bob Moffett or P.J. Harvey, it’s the only thing in the paper about you. George Carlin nailed this new egocentricity with a funny routine that traced the evolution of magazine names from populist themes such as Life and People to current exclusive and narcissistic titles such as Us and Self.

Whoever called the ’80s the “Me Generation” wasn’t thinking very broadly: The truth is that we’re residing in the “Me Millennium,” with the long and narrow road cutting across lines of sex, class, race, nationality, occupation and on and on. People don’t seem to care much about other people, period, but race gets most of the ink.

Once a year, it seems, a major news event or an overrated Spike Lee movie will force the race issue to the fore, and during 1995, it was the Simpson arrest and trial. During the famous low-speed chase, predominantly white crowds cheered on the white Bronco containing a black man accused of murdering two white people, and I thought to myself, “Well, at least they can’t cry `racism’ this time.” This handsome, well-spoken sports hero had crossed over so well to the “white world” that it seemed almost appropriate for a white cast member to portray him in the obligatory “Saturday Night Live” skit.

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, however, no one ever will go broke betting on the race card. Johnny Cochran certainly beat the house, and

news organizations and networks have profited in fanning the flames. But the real problems never really are addressed because the malfunction is inside all of us. This is a self-centered world overun by useful oxymorons such as “reverse racism,” where politicians boast about their accomplishments and predict victory or run the risk of being perceived as soft.

Everybody’s looking for an excuse, from those on the psychiatrist’s couch struggling to understand how they turned out just like their parents to the street corner hustler who sells crack because at least he doesn’t have to ask if you want fries with that. Whenever hard-core liberals, black and white, cite a disturbingly high percentage of black males in prison, they never tell you how many are innocent, because that would screw up their tidy equation. What’s more, many in the equally close-minded, angry white sector still believe that women have babies to get more welfare, which is as ludicrous as thinking that a singer would commit suicide to sell more records.

It’s time to sink the slave ships that have made this society so queasy, but too many people are still aboard, refusing to trust the promise of liberation. People are afraid, and you really can’t blame them.

So don’t.

Instead, resign yourself to the fact that the center of the universe is inside every individual. We are a selfish society, with acts of racism falling under that umbrella.

But ask yourself two things: If this was truly a racist society, why would so many white people love Michael Jackson, an African American who was accused of molesting a white child and ended up paying the kid to drop the charges? Also, why would so many black people stand by the singer, who has gone through incredible lengths to look like a white person?

Also, if this society is indeed consumed by the disease of racism, with white supremacists training for a race war, then why is Simpson still alive?