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Waylon Jennings: Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?

Posted by mcorcoran on June 15, 2019

(This is one of the 42 profiles contained in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran)

Waylon Jennings had it all. Rugged, movie-star looks. A warm, forceful voice. A gift for writing frill-less songs that roused the soul. But one quality rose above all the others. When he announced his arrival as a country music superstar with 1968’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” he sounded like no one who had come before him. That’s only happened three or four times in the history of country music. 

In an era when label bosses kept their acts in the middle of the road, Jennings swerved from side to side and told them to eat his dust. That black hat wasn’t just for decoration, hoss.

Waylon was one of the first country hitmakers to use his touring band in the studio and the first to record an album of ten songs by an unknown writer. In accomplishing these feats with a pair of 1973 LPs—Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and the Billy Joe Shaver-penned Honky Tonk Heroes—Jennings was a true “Nashville Rebel,” the raging soul of outlaw country music. He was Elvis Presley as a hardhead, able to bring vocal grace to any style of music, but always keeping it Southern.

Give credit to Chet Atkins and RCA for sticking with Jennings for seven LPs before his first big hit. It wasn’t easy. But the music was so damn good, they just knew the folks would eventually catch up.

Though most often aligned with Willie Nelson, Waylon’s true kindred spirits were Buddy Holly, his Lubbock mentor, and Hank Williams, whose headbutts against the Nashville establishment were recalled in Jennings’s own experience on 1975’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Although Jennings had co-written some of his previous hits, including “Just to Satisfy You” (with fellow ex-DJ Don Bowman) and “Good Hearted Woman” (with Willie Nelson), Waylon needed no help at all with the defiant “Hank,” whose B-side “Bob Wills Is Still the King” was a light-hearted jab at Willie.  

Eventually, Jennings became as important to the country field as Holly was to rock. Two smalltown Texas kids who shook up conventions and made the music business bend their way. Elvis Presley played Lubbock five times in 1955, while a member of the Louisiana Hayride, which impacted the town’s young musicians profoundly.

Those born in Texas were instilled with the belief that they were a little bit bigger, smarter, and a whole lot stronger than non-Texans. “But the really tough part,” Jennings said in his 1996 autobiography, “is when you go out in the world and find out that you ain’t.”

His swagger, made musical by his trademark pulsing bass lines, could not mask the air of vulnerability he brought to his recordings like “Storms Never Last,” written by his beloved wife Jessi Colter, and the 1986 cover of “Will the Wolf Survive” by Los Lobos.  

The sense of loss was deep when Jennings succumbed to diabetes-related health problems in Feb. 2002 at age 64. Long before social media, the wake was wide-ranging, because his music always knew what we needed.

A high school dropout, Jennings met Holly, a year older, in 1956, when an 18-year-old Waylon was a DJ/ performer on Pappy Dave Stone’s KDAV country radio station in Lubbock and Holly had released his first singles (produced in Nashville by Owen Bradley) to an audience of crickets.  

Buddy Holly and his band of Crickets became a sensation the next year, having huge hits the last half of 1957 with “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy” and “Not Fade Away.” When Holly became increasingly more adept in the studio and wanted to work with other artists, Waylon was the first he tapped, producing a single never released (“Jolie Blon”) in Sept. 10, 1958. Later that year, Holly split from the Crickets and hired Waylon as his touring bassist. In an oft-told footnote, Jennings gave up his seat on the light plane that crashed and killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in an Iowa field on Feb. 3, 1959.

Though his career’s opening teaming was sobered by tragedy, then soaked in survivor’s guilt, Jennings played well with others. The subsequent triumphs with Willie Nelson on “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” and others created an “outlaw country” scene that was really as much about brotherhood and respect as it was about defiance and weed. Waylon’s early ‘70s heyday evoked a restless spirit embraced later by Travis Tritt, Steve Earle, and any rockers who let the radio linger on a country station when an old classic came on. Or the other way around.

What other country act could tour with Lollapalooza, as Jennings did in 1996, and survive playing before a crowd that came to see Metallica, Soundgarden, Rancid, and Rage Against the Machine?

Jennings has always been cool country, playing Max’s Kansas City in 1973 during the heyday of the New York Dolls. His autobiography was co-written with Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, though Waylon’s music had nothing to do with the punk scene except that he created from the gut and was beholding to no one. “There’s always one more way to do things,” he said in Waylon. “That’s your own way. Everybody deserves the chance to do things their way at least once.”

Jennings made the most of that chance and never went back to the way things used to be. Thanks to the bulldog negotiations of manager Neil Reshen, who restructured the deal with RCA Victor in 1973, Waylon was the first Nashville artist to be granted complete creative control. Music Row chiefs couldn’t argue with the results, as 1974’s This Time and 1975’s Dreaming My Dreams are wall-to-wall masterpieces that sold well.

Always surrounded by bikers as bodyguards, Jennings cut an imposing presence. He played up his brash persona with such album titles as Ladies Love Outlaws and The Ramblin’ Man, but later scoffed at the maverick image as a marketing tool — one that inadvertently led to the 1977 cocaine bust described in “Don’t Y’All Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.” But Jennings had to admit the renegade tag fit in one regard. “You start messing with my music, I get mean,” he told one interviewer.

His resonant, authoritative voice was used to narrate the popular TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, inspired by the 1975 film Moonrunners, which also featured Waylon’s voiceover. The radio version of Waylon’s self-penned theme song “Good Ol’ Boys,” his biggest hit in 1980, included a line aimed at The Dukes opening montage, which didn’t show Jennings’s face, just his hands on a guitar: “I’m a good ol’ boy, you know my mama loves me, but she don’t understand why they keep showing my hands and not my face on TV.”

Offered face time on televised award shows, however, Jennings said “no thanks,” on the grounds that performers should not compete against each other. He skipped his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and during the ’60s he declined to appear on the Grand Ole Opry because a full set of drums was forbidden. That rule was eventually dropped.

“He knew exactly what he wanted,” said Austinite Floyd Domino, who played piano in Jennings’s band from 1982 to 1986. “Whatever you played, he’d tell you to play it an octave lower. He always wanted the emphasis on the down beat.” Like most great musicians, Jennings heard a sound in his head and he wasn’t going to let anyone change it.

“I’ve always felt that blues, rock ’n’ roll and country were just a beat apart,” Jennings said in interviews. And it was Jennings who brought them all together with a distinctive West Texas stomp.

Born in Littlefield, 40 miles northwest of Lubbock,  and raised in a household where Bill Monroe was still the king, Jennings started playing on the radio at age 12. “Some people have their music,” he said in 1984. “My music has me.”  And with Holly, the first successful rock and roller to write, produce, and play on his own records, he found a mentor for the ages. 

Holly’s death at age 22 left Jennings shattered and alone. Contractually obligated to continue on the tragic Winter Dance Party Tour, Waylon couldn’t even attend Buddy’s funeral. When the father of Waylon’s first wife Maxine fell ill in Scottsdale, Arizona, and she wanted to move there, he welcomed the change of scenery. It didn’t take long for Waylon to become the hottest thing in the Greater Phoenix area, as his Waylors packed the 1,200-capacity J.D.’s nightclub in Tempe five nights a week. Drums were a neccessity, so Jennings hired Richie Albright, an Oklahoma native living in Arizona, who would be his most trusted sidekick for the next 20 years. The band’s repertoire was almost all covers, mixing country with rockabilly and blues. They even did Bob Dylan songs.

Willie Nelson met Jennings at around that time and, finding out he was making about $1,500 a week at JD’s, advised him to stay in Arizona. But the allure of national stardom drew Jennings to Nashville in 1965, the year he starred in the low-budget film Nashville Rebel, which came with a soundtrack LP on RCA.

Jenning had signed a deal with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in ‘63, but after creative misunderstandings (“They were thinking Al Martino,” Jennings explained, “and I was thinking Flatt & Scruggs”), Jennings asked out of his contract so he could sign with Chet Atkins at RCA. Atkins found out about Waylon through Nashville songsmith Bobby Bare, who heard “Just to Satisfy You” on the radio in Phoenix, checked out the Waylors at J.D.’s and called Chet to tell him he’d found the country Elvis. Alpert and Atkins were friends, so Herb stepped aside, a greedless act for which Jennings was forever grateful.

New to Nashville, Waylon became fast friends and eventually moved in with Johnny Cash, who was deep in his pill-popping daze. The Men in Black shared a studio apartment before Cash married June Carter.

“Stop the World (And Let Me Off),” from his RCA debut Folk-Country, was not only his first Top 20 hit, but a personal reflection on that crazy time, when Jennings sometimes played pinball for 36 hours straight. During his 1970s glory years, Jennings switched to powdered fuel and amassed an addiction to cocaine that cost him about $1,500 a day and redefined his old nickname “Waymore,” which he got from an obscure cartoon character. But with such No. 1 smashes as “I’m a Ramblin’ Man,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” and “Amanda,” Jennings could afford the endless bumps. 

After finally getting drug free, Jennings found success in the mid-’80s with the Highwaymen, country’s version of the Traveling Wilburys,  a supergroup consisting of Jennings, Nelson, Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. During a solo club tour of 1993, when Jennings told as many stories as he sang, he recalled being impressed with Willie’s ability to memorize new songs on a Highwaymen tour.

“I’d say, ‘I just can’t learn any more songs,’ but Willie would say, ‘I’ll do one more.’ Willie had ten more songs in the show than the rest of us,” Jennings recalled. “Then the first night of the tour I look over and Willie’s got all the lyrics right in front of him on a music stand. I coulda strangled him.”

The pair didn’t always get along. Where Willie is a trusting soul, Waylon was always suspicious, always worried that someone was going to take advantage of him. It didn’t help when Willie enlisted Waylon for the disastrous Dripping Springs Reunion festival outside Austin in 1972.

If not for music, Waylon and Willie probably would’ve never had anything to do with each other. But there’s no denying the magic, the mystique, those two created together with their new language of big sky freedom. The music they made alone, they made together.

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GETO BOYS AND D.J. SCREW: Where the Dirty South Began

Posted by mcorcoran on June 9, 2019


It’s East Austin in 2003 and the slow and furious promenade rolls almost non-stop. When an SUV, spewing trunk-rattling bass, sidles up to the corner of 12th and Chicon, the intersection sounds like Vietnam, 1968.

You’ve heard the stuff — that rap music with the nuclear bass that flattens out and sustains like a heavy appliance on the fritz. You’ve heard it whether you wanted to or not.

Houston-based hip hop, slowed and manipulated to sound like a hallucinogenic flashback, is the new punk rock. 

Three years after his Nov. 16, 2000, death, DJ Screw still rules the streets, wreaking havoc with his psychotic-sounding remixes. Forget the trippy delicates like PM Dawn and De La Soul; DJ Screw made rap music psychedelic. But the attendant lifestyle, which included “sippin’ lean,” codeine cough syrup, to get the full sluggishly hallucinogenic effect of the music, ended up killing him at age 29. Screw protege Big Moe dubbed Houston “The City of Syrup” with his 2000 album, but by the end of the year, the mayor of the screwheads was gone. The autopsy reported the cause of Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis Jr.’s death as an overdose of codeine, with traces of Valium and PCP also in the bloodstream.

Not since the death of Selena have so many Texas music fans grieved as when Screw died, quite simply, from trying to get too slow.

Other Houston producers, most notably Michael “5000” Watts of Swisha House, keep pumping out the slowed-down jams. But even Watts has to admit that, “Screw started the revolution. He slowed it down and chilled it out when all the other cats were trying to go faster, harder.”

The “Dirty South” sound (originally called “Down South”) was pioneered by the Geto Boys, rode dirty with UGK (Underground Kingz) in the mid-’90s and then was taken to the bank by Master P in the late ’90s. Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans joined the rumble and in December 2003, Southern hip hop accounted for six of the top ten slots on the Billboard Hot 100.

Houston was so hot it was hard to believe that in the late[KD1]  ’80s, the only Texas rap acts of any note were Donald “The D.O.C.” Curry, the Dallasite who hooked up with Dr. Dre and the N.W.A. crew, and the Geto Boys, who set out to make West Coast gangstas come off like Young MC. Houston rap was inferiority’s revenge, a reign of audio terror from a town tired of everyone saying they ain’t got shit!

Where Miami was known for its heavy bass sound in the late ’80s and L.A. was the home of “gangsta” rap, Dirty South mixed those elements and slowed ’em down with a beat equally influenced by ’60s Memphis soul and New Orleans funk.

With the 1989 release of the Geto Boys’ Grip It! On That Other Level, it became apparent that the other level was to rhyme more explicitly, more violently than anybody else. Just as the Sex Pistols hijacked standard rock riffs and forced them into their rebellion, the Geto Boys pinned traditional rap formats to the wall by the sheer intensity of their anger and confusion. The group’s motto — “We’d rather be hated for what we are, than loved for what we’re not” — was not an empty pose.

Featuring a dwarf with a slasher fixation named Bushwick Bill, a suicidal poet in Brad “Scarface” Jordan, and boxer playa Willie D, fresh from a stint in prison for robbing a Texaco station, the G.B.s pushed the envelope of bad taste so far it required extra postage. Rapping about urban paranoia over an Isaac Hayes sample, the Boys had a huge hit with “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” in 1991, then became every frat boy’s favorite rap group after “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” (a resurrected forgotten single from 1993) became the nuts-swinging sound of Mike Judge’s 1999 cult hit Office Space.

The quartet, soon to be a trio with the exit of DJ Ready Red, began the ’90s in a haze of controversy. When producer Rick Rubin signed the Geto Boys to his Def American label in 1990, his distributor, Geffen, refused to release the group’s self-titled CD. The depictations of rape and mutilation, which the G.B.’s argued was a common subject of horror flicks, was too much for Geffen, which had no problem putting out Andrew Dice Clay’s sexist, homophobic comedy albums or the Satanic metal of Slayer. In an interview with Rap-A-Lot Records’ honcho James “Lil J” Smith in 1993, he implied that the G.B.’s were used by Rubin to get out of his Geffen deal and onto one with Warner Brothers that gave him more autonomy.

“Think about it,” said Smith, who now goes by J Prince. “It was a good business move on his part.” WB treated Geto Boys like a dirty diaper and after the musically powerful CD didn’t launch the trio onto the top tier of the gangsta world, they were back on Rap-A-Lot with a word to the record biz establishment: We Can’t Be Stopped.

Scarface, who wrote most of Bushwick’s rhymes and co-produced with his childhood friend Bido and a cat he met in New Orleans called N.O. Joe, had the most successful solo career of the group. The Diary (1994) and The Fix (2002) are considered masterpieces of streetwise rap.

Between those releases came D.J. Screw, who built on the bottom to change everything. One can debate which was the first rap record, who invented house music or whether punk rock started with the New York Dolls or the Ramones, but there’s no denying that Smithville native Robert Earl Davis originated the bass-heavy remix sensation that still reverberates today. It doesn’t matter who’s at the mixing board, the slowed down stuff is still called “screw,” in deference to the originator.

Working as a Houston DJ in the late ’80s, Davis accidentally hit the pitch button while a rap record was playing, slowing everything down and accenting the bass. There’s your big swang ‘n’ bang. Named after his penchant for damaging wack records by scratching them with a screw, Davis became DJ Screw and the subgenre he invented was called “screwed and chopped.” Chopped refers to the technique of repeating and rearranging lines, first utilized in Houston by ’80s mixtape king Darryl Scott.  

“When you get hooked on screw, you can’t listen to anything else,” says Ahneris LaPicca, who co-owns Non-Stop Music in Austin. “The radio sounds too fast, like Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

A customer asks to sample the new Lil’ O CD, but rather than play a bit on the store sound system, LaPicca hands it to the guy, who takes it out to his car. It’s a new twist on listening stations. “This is ridin’ music, man,” LaPicca says. After a few minutes listening to the CD in his car, the customer says he’ll take it. He drives around the parking lot, swerving to the beat (“swangin’”) and cutting the wheel sharply (“bangin’”).

LaPicca calls his place a “screw shop,” not a record store, and estimates that 90 percent of his sales are screwed and chopped CDs from Houston. LaPicca estimates that there are about four or five “screw shops” in Austin, but there are also several fly-by-night entrepeneurs who sell bootlegged DJ Screw CDs out of their houses, flea markets, and the trunks of their cars. “It’s really hard to get the legit stuff,” says LaPicca.

In the beginning, you had to buy DJ Screw’s music like you were buying drugs. After he came upon his accidental innovation of slowing down hip hop, Screw started making tapes, remixes of national acts like N.W.A. and Above the Law, and selling them for ten dollars each at his house in the South Park section of Houston. Sometimes working around the clock for three days straight, with a crew of up to 15 rappers, Screw produced hundreds of albums, which he chose to sell on tapes he bought in bulk from Sam’s Club rather than on CD. Such was the demand in the mid-’90s, that Screw had to install a security gate that stayed closed until 8 p.m. every night. When it swung open, there were usually about a dozen fans, many who drove in from Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, and even Atlanta, ready with their crisp twenties and fifties.

Eventually, the producer opened Screwed Down Records & Tapes on Cullen Blvd. in South Houston, where you shoved your money in a sliding tray to a clerk behind a plexiglass window. When his music first became widely available on CD in 1998, Screw caused such a single-minded sensation that thieves who broke into Austin’s hip hop mecca Musicmania stole only DJ Screw CDs and didn’t touch anything else in the store. The early rumor was that the selective heist was in retaliation for the DJ’s appropriation of other rappers’ work without compensation. (In Screw’s world, a royalty statement is something the Queen might say.) But the culprits were never caught.

Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that he understood the rage of the Geto Boys and the hard-edge of H-Town, when he visited the Fifth Ward, a beat-down neighborhood with its dirt roads and shanties. In comparison, Chuck D said the ghettos in NYC were like Club Med.

Everything about the Geto Boys was harder, even their posse’s choice of drugs. When you rode with the G.B.’s you snorted PCP or smoked “fry,” a marijuana-filled cigar soaked in embalming fluid which produces psychotic thoughts.

When Screw took over in the mid-’90s, his legion of “screwheads” popularized codeine cough syrup as a new form of mental dishevelment when they rode around sipping from large styrofoam cups of spiked Big Red. In actuality, Houston’s been partying on codeine since the late ’40s, when the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club served cough syrup sodas as soft drinks after “last call.”

In Houston in the ’90s — and far beyond — skull-melting volume became its own kind of drug. Listening to screw on a factory-installed system was like watching a killer whale in captivity. If you wanted to really free Willy, you had to get a custom job. You wanted the bass to fry your neck hairs, to knock your fillings loose.

Bass is a sound that you can physically feel. It grabs you and shakes you. In recent years, car shows have added competitions for the loudest bass sound, but instead of decibel meters, judges use a device that measures air pressure. It’s a physical thing, like surviving Houston as ghetto boys and girls.

It’s all about the big bottom end, those menacing sound waves that won’t back down. It’s about being the baddest mammal on the planet, about slinking in your ride, embracing the bass and feeling ten feet low and bulletproof.



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Roky’s Return to the River of Golden Dreams

Posted by mcorcoran on May 31, 2019

A rafter-shaking chant of “Raw-Key! Raw-Key! Raw-Key! Raw-Key!” with an ocean of overhead hands clapping in rhythm. Walking onstage at the Hultsfred Festival in June 2007 was psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, who just six years earlier was in such a state of mental and physical dishevelment that it seemed unlikely he’d ever play another show.

But when Erickson and his band opened the Swedish set with “Cold Night for Alligators” – Erickson’s voice confident and shimmering, his guitar-playing forceful and instinctive – it became sensationally apparent that this wasn’t going to be a freak show, but a stunning resurrection.

When the set ended a euphoric hour later with a powerful version of the 1966 cult classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the former 13th Floor Elevators frontman reviving the banshee wail that turned Janis Joplin into a rocker, the crowd demanded an encore with such intensity that if it hadn’t gotten one, there probably would have been a riot.

The comeback of Roger Kynard Erickson (“Roky,” pronounced “Rocky,” combines the first two letters of his first and middle names) was the most improbable in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, as if Syd Barrett had rejoined Pink Floyd and stole the show.

Offstage, the man credited with inventing “acid rock” with the Elevators in the ‘60s was blowing minds by doing everyday things like driving a Volvo and exercising his right to vote. “It’s really a miracle,” said younger brother Sumner Erickson, who was awarded legal guardianship of Roky from their mother in 2001. Evelyn Erickson was an unorthodox caregiver, who supported her oldest child’s decision to not take his meds, even though it meant he sometimes had to sit between walls of white noise to quiet the voices in his head. Evelyn did not want to numb her gifted child.

Roky’s recovery started with medication and therapy and a move out of the section 8 housing , where he lived like a hermit except for daily visits from his mother. Sumner took him up to his home in Pittsburgh for a year and when Roky came back down to Austin he had new teeth and a smile, though he clearly still had mental issues.

For decades, Erickson wouldn’t let anyone touch him, but on recent tours of Europe and North America, he hugged fans back, signed autographs and posed for photos after shows. But it’s not like Roky could appear on a talk show. His words and thoughts don’t follow usual patterns.

“Where Roky’s concerned, ‘normal’ is just a setting on a washing machine,” said tour manager Troy Campbell. “He just comes out of left field sometimes, like the other day we had pizza and I asked if he’d had enough to eat and he said ‘I’m full as a ghoul.’”

“His musicianship, his voice is 100% back,” said Clementine Hall, the queen of the acid ball when the Elevators were the house band. “But I don’t know if he has the same wit and intellect. He didn’t say a thing at dinner.” Her and ex-husband Tommy Hall, the Elevators’ jug player and LSD guru, met with Roky after his San Francisco return in March 2007. The Roky she met in 1965, when Tommy poached the hellfire singer from his high school band, the Spades, and put him in front of an adventurous combo from Kerrville called the Lingsmen, was funny, unpredictable, full of offbeat energy.

Although it’s assumed, because it’s such a garage rock classic, that “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was a hit in the summer of ’66, the record peaked at #55 on the Billboard singles chart. It’s noted more for what it inspired, plus the way it’s turned into a Texas “last call” rock anthem. The debut LP The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (International Artists), which includes that first single, plus “Roller Coaster,” “Reverberation” and three songs from Powell St. John, was the first time “psychedelic” had been used to sell music. But this was no mere marketing ploy. This was a band that backed that far-out lifestyle all the way, with a “play the acid” mantra. They were right in time with Haight-Asbury, though 2,000 miles away.

“Tommy just wanted to get everybody high” Evelyn Erickson told me in 2007. “Well, Roky was already high. That’s where the trouble started.” Roky was the oldest of five boys, but always doted on like he was the youngest. Evelyn was a former opera singer turned religious, who liked to dress up and wrote poetry. Roky’s father Roger, an architect, was a workaholic and alcoholic, often away on business, so the first born became Evelyn’s neurotic obsession.

The band’s habit of ingesting LSD before every performance (except drummer John Ike Walton, who swore off after a bad trip) was not conducive to a long run. Who was thinking about the future during the time of assasinations and Vietnam? The band, featuring Stacy Sutherland’s proto-psych guitar, peaked with second LP Easter Everywhere, released 11 months after the debut. Third and final studio album Bull of the Woods, which finds Sutherland stepping up front for a barely-there Roky, was a frazzled double LP that had its moments. But mind expansion had turned into musical excess. Without Roky’s voice, the Elevators were too much like everybody else.

And that was it for the beloved cult band, which experienced a flashback of kudos after the inclusion of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (which Roky wrote as the 15-year-old and originally recorded with the Spades) on the landmark 1972 Nuggets compilation.

The band became moot when Roky pleaded insanity to avoid the penitentiary after a marijuana bust on Mount Bonnell in Feb. 1969. But after repeated escapes from the Austin State Hospital to see his girlfriend Dana, Erickson was shipped off to the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, where he spent two nightmarish years.

“The patient, a 21-year-old male, was incoherent when arrested for marijuana on Feb. 28, 1969. He has had private psychiatric care at Hedgecroft Hospital in Houston and has had electro shock treatments.”  – from Roky’s medical report, 3/19/69, Austin State Hospital

Clementine Hall said Roky was damaged from the EST, performed without consent. “Roky escaped from Hedgecroft, and Tommy brought him to stay with me in San Francisco,” she said of the summer of ‘68. “He was different. He said the Russians were talking to him through his teeth and that they wanted him to do bad things.” Clementine took him to the beach where he let the waves crash into his body, the only thing that calmed him.

After Rusk, Erickson’s once-trippy music took on horror movie themes, such as “Creature With the Atom Brain” and “I Think of Demons.” He called himself the Evil One, his band the Aliens and made some pretty good records on his good days. His 1976 single “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” shared Rolling Stone’s top single of the year with “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. “Don’t Slander Me”/”Starry Eyes” was another triumph in 1984. On the eve of that single’s release, Roky told Third Coast magazine, “When I write a song I like to do it for an audience, but a lot of times my music scares them because they don’t understand what I’m trying to say.”

When he played the Ritz Theater in Austin in 1987, backed by Will Sexton, Speedy Sparks and other longtime supporters, it felt like the final Roky Erickson concert. He struggled and seemed lost. The magic was gone.

Roky didn’t play a show for 18 years. The resurrection started in March 2005 when Keven McAlester’s engrossing documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me premiered at SXSW. Days later, a clean-shaven and cordial Erickson played three songs at Threadgill’s to great acclaim. “It was advertised that Roky would do only one song, ‘Starry Eyes,’” said Peyton Wimmer, a longtime mental health counselor and family friend. “So, when he played a second and a third song, we were pretty shocked.” Four years of anti-schizophrenic medication and a new set of teeth, paid for by Henry Rollins, had given Roky the confidence to get back up in front of people. Six months later, he played to a crowd of well over 10,000 at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, tears of joy and disbelief streaming down the faces of fans. The next year, Erickson and his band, featuring Cam King on guitar, played Coachella and first-ever appearances in New York, Chicago and London.

“Guys like Roky make music that’s an amazing place to go,” Rollins told the Austin American Statesman as the comeback roared. “Coltrane and Miles and Hendrix were able to do this. It becomes more than the music and more than the lyrics- a total environment.”

On Christmas Day 2006, Erickson weaned himself off Zyprexa, his final medication. “I’ve seen some pretty remarkable recoveries,” said Wimmer, “but none as dramatic as Roky’s. It’s very rare for someone to come completely off meds and do so well.” 

Sumner Erickson has to laugh. “It turns out Mom was right about Roky not needing medication.” The family reconciled after the screening of You’re Gonna Miss Me, with Evelyn telling her sons that she had no idea how much stress she’d been under. 

Roky Erickson is the way he is because of the weird and lovely Evelyn, who could’ve been played by Ruth Gordon the day I met her. I think she was about 80, but you could see in her the 24-year-old. She was the kind of woman that might get up and dance to the jukebox at a bar. At 80. “He was babied and babied and babied by his mother into total helplessness,” Clementine Hall told writer Paul Drummond in the exhaustive bio Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. “But I’ll say for her that she also made him an extremely loving and generous person.”  

In 2010, Erickson made his first album in a decade and a half, backed by Austin indie-rock darlings Okkervil River. It seemed an odd musical coupling at first- Austin’s mystical madman and its articulate Pitchfork band. Erickson’s triumphant return to performing was based on his ability to rock hard on such setlist exclamations as “Don’t Slander Me,” “Two-Headed Dog” and “Slip Inside This House,” so it was assumed that his comeback album would be one of screeching vocals and big sonic strokes.

But producer Will Sheff, the Okkervil River guide, had a different idea. True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti Records) is a record of tattered little songs that had practically been abandoned, brought back in a spiritual whirl of dust and hope. 

“I obsessively listened to about 60 songs that Roky had written, that were either never recorded or minimally released,” Sheff said. Although he’s a fan of Erickson’s “horror rock” material, Sheff found himself drawn more to the songs of simple grace. “Roky was in a prison for two years and he had to come to terms with the thought that his musical career could be over,” said Sheff. Such freshly recorded songs as the title track, the delicately moving “Forever,” the haunting “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” and the album’s hinge “Please Judge” were the soundtrack to the years when he went from Austin’s golden child to its most notorious recluse. “These songs were written to serve the immediate purpose of keeping him sane,” said Sheff. “They’re so powerful.”

“Roky’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time and a completely unique guitar player,” said Sheff, who earned a Grammy nomination for his liner notes. “But I think the way I’ve most been influenced by working with him is in his lyrics, the way he puts words together in a totally jarring way. He’s created his own private vocabulary.”

If not the greatest musician Austin has produced, Roky Erickson is certainly the most influential. In March 1966, Janis Joplin and the 13th Floor Elevators shared a stage for the first and only time. It was a benefit for ailing fiddler Teodar Jackson at the Methodist Student Center on the U.T. campus. Janis belted out blues songs accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar early in the show and stood at the side of the stage when Roky and the Elevators practically levitated the crowd with their intense mind and soul control. “Janis took a long, hard look at Roky and his energy,” recalled St. John, who was also on the bill. “She was riveted.” Three months later, Joplin was a screeching rocker herself, fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company.

The year Joplin died of a heroin overdose, 1970, Erickson was locked up in a hospital with murderers and rapists. His mind was going, going, going…

But coming on 50 years later, Roky was touring the world in the palm of worship. He’s not only a garage rock legend, but the living lesson ‘60s psychedelia ignored. Time, it turns out, is the one that has the answer.

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Memphis 1994

Posted by mcorcoran on May 11, 2019

It’s the latest in a series of dead Friday nights on Beale St., and if 11-year-old “Little Momo” Tabron appears any more bored, you’ll be tempted to snap your fingers in front of his face.

This kid – who’s spent half his life playing drums for tips on Beale – looks as if he’d much rather be playing video games. And yet he never drops the beat.

His father, Moses Tabron, yelps the vocals and plays the trumpet as if this family trio (rounded out by wife/mother Laurie on keyboards) were a full-fledged R&B revue. Instead of headlining at the New Daisy Theatre, they’re playing on the sidewalk in front, where three drunken guys, one in a cowboy hat, smile and sway to the mobile soul music.

One of the three guys puts a dollar bill in the tip jar and whispers a request to Moses who gives him a “you must be kidding” glance.

“Ah, man,” says Moses, “you’re in Memphis.”

It’s anyone’s guess what song the man wanted to hear, but you can be sure that it wasn’t one of the thick, raw, gritty, soulful, greasy, heart-pumpin’ songs that Tennessee’s real music capital is known for. Just as they won’t serve you bland gumbo in New Orleans or a nine-ounce lobster in Maine, no Garth Brooks covers are allowed in the city that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll and sweet soul music.

The home of Elvis Presley – the fans still flock to his grave at Graceland in Memphis – Sun Records, B. B. King, Carla Thomas, Al Green, Hi Records, Booker T. & the MG’s, Junior Parker, Stax Records and Carl Perkins – Memphis is where straw-chewin’ country music belly-ed up to gritty R&B and where the down-and-dirty blues went to church and came out screaming about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Memphis is the mystical crossroads where the blacktop collides with the sky to create blessed percussion.

Those familiar with Memphis describe it as they might an exciting street corner, where intersecting ideas lean up against the lights and wait for something to happen . . . and it always does.

Perched on one of the Mississippi River’s highest bluffs, Memphis has long been a place that drew people. Before humans inhabited the area, animals flocked to the Chickasaw Bluff, on which Memphis is built. The main thoroughfare of Poplar Ave., in fact, was once a buffalo trail.

Producer Jim Dickinson, who’s worked with everyone from bluesman Furry Lewis to the Replacements, theorizes that the same force that makes people gravitate to Memphis makes its recording climate so special. “Recording is just magnetizing tape, so whatever pull there is in the air can have an effect in the studio,” he says.

Led Zeppelin used to record at Ardent Studios. ZZ Top still does. Even such alternative groups as the Replacements, Gin Blossoms, Tragically Hip, Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream and the Dallas band Spot have trekked to Memphis, hoping that some of the storied groove would rub off on them.

But even as Memphis earned a national reputation for creating thrilling sounds, the city fathers discouraged its image as a center of black music and culture, Dickinson says. Under the auspices of urban renewal, much of Beale St. was torn down in the ’70s. And the old converted theatre on East McLemore Ave. that housed the legendary studio and offices of Stax Records met with the wrecking ball in the late ’80s.

“It’s just a case of the city getting rid of black history,” Dickinson says. “They were always embarrassed that Beale St. had this wild reputation, so they tried to erase it. And the ironic thing about Stax being torn down is that it was done by the black church that owns the land.

“There were no plans to put up anything else, they just wanted it gone so they wouldn’t be reminded of the sinful music that came out of that building. It’s awful to think about just how much has been lost.”

Dickinson says that, in the past few years, the city leaders have tried to embrace the Memphis musical legacy, realizing that it’s the city’s No. 1 attraction to visitors. But it’s nostalgia that’s thriving, at the expense of contemporary sounds.

“Beale St. goes through spurts,” Moses Tabron says after his family’s last set, “but right now it’s sputtering. The people just ain’t comin’ out like they used to, and the feeling ain’t there.” He counts the night’s take – about $100 – while Little Momo breaks down his drum kit and Mom packs up her keyboards.

“Beale St.’s comin’ back,” he says, as if to convince himself. “There’s just too much history here, too many memories. You know, it’ll always keep comin’ back.”

Tabron looks over at his station wagon and gives the “on my way” signal to Momo, who drums the dashboard and shoots back an “any day now” look. He just wants to go home.

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Rock Critic Confessions

Posted by mcorcoran on February 8, 2019

Notes on a rock critic life

It’s a risky business, having ideas in public. Sometimes it’s better to let a thought simmer in your head for a few days before airing it out.

Example: Backstage at the opening date of Lollapalooza ’94 in Las Vegas, I was having a nice conversation with Kirk Hammett, the friendly and unassuming guitarist from Metallica. Since profiling his band for Creem a few years ago, I’ve run into Kirk a few times, and he’s always been very cool. Just a regular guy.

We were talking about Billy Corgan’s proficiency as a guitarist – me saying the big Pumpkin was a great player, the true guitar hero of alternative rock, and Kirk calling him “a little too retro.” Then Kirk qualified his opinion with a joke:

“How many guitarists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Answer: “Fifty: One to screw it in and 49 to say they could do it better.”

I was the envy of my rock-scribe peers, who drifted closer to me and Kirk, hoping to overhear something for their story and maybe pick up a few pointers about how to be so hip that rock stars will talk to you without someone named Heidi having to set it up.

Everything was going well until Nick Cave’s guitarist walked by wearing tight black pants, a pink shirt, pointy shoes and a cowboy hat. He was holding his ax, and I had this thought that I couldn’t wait to share.

“Being in a band used to be so cool,” I said when the Cave-man passed. “It was real daydream material, but nowadays it’s kinda ridiculous to be in a band. The rock scene is all over. In five years, we’ll be talking about rock musicians the way we think of mimes today.”

I hit my stride and kept going. “I think the public is finally catching on to the rock ‘n’ roll facade,” going on and on about how insincere and cynical rock has become. I questioned the motives of the modern musician and, with a sweep of my arm across the stage and the audience, I said, “This is all based on myth and illusion, and heaven help the poor saps who believe in it.”

This didn’t sit well with either Hammett, who suddenly realized he had to be somewhere else, or the eavesdropping crit clique, which pretty much jumped me for the next 10 minutes. Heck, they were just about to introduce themselves to Metallica’s guitarist, and I blew it.

The more I think about what I said, though, the more I’m convinced that I was right. And you know what? A good example of this devitalization of rock is Metallica. They used to be a great band because they stood for something more than playing chords and flinging hair. Unpretentious and hard-working, Metallica was the home team, the good guys, the one metal band that received universal respect.

But now we see that the band, which held off making a video until its fourth album, is slated to play at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, in tribute to the naive, sunshiny hippie spirit that Metallica’s songs blow to smithereens. Tickets to Woodstock ’94 cost $135 each and originally were sold only in blocks of four. If Metallica cared as much about their fans as they used to, they’d realize that most fans don’t have that kind of money, let alone three friends.

When drummer Lars Uhlrich hooked up with guitarist James Hetfield and original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (now with Megadeth) in 1980, it was a time when hard-rock bands were a blur of leather, sparkles, headbands and poofy hair. But Metallica, which took its cue from several obscure European metal bands like Diamond Head and Tygers Of Pan Tang, went onstage wearing T-shirts and jeans.

Riding Hetfield’s unique lead guitar style, the influenced became the influential with their 1983 debut LP, Kill ‘Em All. As inspirational to the current thrash scene as the Ramones’ first album was to punk, Kill ‘Em All set the blueprint for most of the heavy metal that would come after it. When early stage fright speeded up its songs, Metallica found a new beat that plugged right into the socket of frustration and alienation. The sound was a raw conspiracy of jackhammer beats, guitars that sounded like huge Wagnerian bees and the voice of Hetfield, which implied Satan possessing a choirboy.

A blast of integrity in the face of all the phonies who formed bands just so they could get chicks, Metallica was one of the first Los Angeles metal bands that could find the righteous groove.

Every two years they’d get off tour long enough to make a pretty decent metal album. And they always had the best T-shirts.

In 1991, however, something horrible happened to Metallica: They became hugely successful rock gods, selling more than 10 million copies of their self-titled album and even having a Top 10 hit with Enter Sandman. The band members tried to keep things from deviating into the usual rock star trappings, but they changed anyway, if only in perception.

Metallica tried to rekindle that closeness they’d once had with their fans by designing a stage that had about 50 seats sunk down into the middle of it. The problem with the pit was that it felt like a pit and the “lucky” fans looked like carnival geeks. You half expected the road manager to poke ’em with a stick every once in a while, which is not exactly the “we are you are we” effect the band was going for.

Metallica is a case of a band reaching the point where its music is overtaken by its popularity. What does Metallica mean anymore? Can Enter Sandman still have any relevance after we’ve heard it on the car radio about a thousand times? Metallica was cool in the beginning because it was so unlike the other hard rock bands. But its music has been made ordinary by its accessibility. Metallica used to be a band that someone had to tell you about, but all of a sudden its music was everywhere and its members’ faces were everywhere and we wondered if, you know, maybe they did start the band just to get chicks. The only thing they did wrong was to play the game and become superstars, but by doing so Metallica has become the band it once revolted against.

Sure, they can still kick heads in concert; they’re a very tight and powerful band. But look closely at Metallica onstage and you see guys with guitars around their necks and sticks in their hands. And hundreds of people backstage waiting to tell them how great they are.

Next?

The truth: I’ve attended almost every single concert I reviewed

I had this reputation for reviewing shows I didn’t actually see. Normally, a music critic would fight that sort of character assault, but I played it up. Rock n’ roll bad boy. Like preachers, music critics are in the myth biz.
In truth, it only happened twice, both times in Chicago. One was a popcorn offense- a local band promoting their new release with a pre-show Jagermeister party. This was 1990 and I’d never had the chilled liqueur before that tastes like licorice. After about six shots, I said “Are you sure there’s booze in this?” At least that’s what they told me. I was assisted to the couch they had in the dressing room at Lounge Ax to nap it off until show time.
I woke up to see the members of New Duncan Imperials toweling themselves off, with clumps of powder blue tuxedos on the floor. OK, no problem. They gave me the set list and told me a few of their antics and no one was the wiser when my 10-inch review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The second time was much worse. It was the next year and my drinking had gotten way worse as I was on the outs with The Love of My Life #3. Got a call one day with a question that my mind answered “Fuck, yeah!” while my mouth said let me check my schedule, why, yes, I am available that day. “Do you want to review the Neil Young concert in Chicago for Rolling Stone magazine?”
This was back when Rolling Stone really meant something. And Neil was hot again with “Ragged Glory,” the album with Crazy Horse, topping many year-end lists. This was the tour with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion opening. You dream about reviewing Neil Young for Rolling Stone. And it was big money for me.
It didn’t matter that I was only moderately familiar with Mr. Young’s oeuvre. I brought my friend Dave Suarez, who knew every burp. We were a couple of lunks in the crowd, drinking beers during the opening sets. When it was my turn to get more, right after Sonic Youth, I was in this massive line (thinking “Five dollars for a fucking beer!”) when my old friend from the Continental Club Terry Pearson walked by and did a double take. He had left Austin to be Sonic Youth’s sound man. “Hey, man,” he said after we hugged, “we’ve got beers backstage and the band is not big drinkers.” I had the full-on “Rolling Stone reviewing Neil” pass, so I just followed him back there.
OK, you’re way ahead of the story, but you’re not wrong. One Heineken became six or seven. I got along pretty well with Lee Renaldo, who took photos of my John-John tattoo, and I knew Steve Shelley from Debbie Pastor, while The Couple kinda checked me out like I was a sociology project. They want to see demented? We could hear Neil and Crazy Horse onstage, but I had to have just one more.
As I was leaving to go back into the arena, a single man was walking my way. Neil Young. Shit! The set was over, so I caught just the encore, which led off with the disposable “Welfare Mothers.” That song had never received as much ink as on the subsequent RS review. I scrambled back to Suarez. “You missed a great show, man.” What did he play, what did he say, details, details, details? But I guess Dave was pissed I never came back with his beer. He couldn’t remember shit.
The biggest Neil Young fan I knew was Rick from 11th Dream Day, so I called him up the next day. I could’ve been coy, like “What were your favorite songs last night?” But I just came out and told him what happened and he saved my ass. Not only knew the entire set list, but which guitar tunings were used. So I wrote the review and everything was cool.
Made one big mistake, though. I trashed Sonic Youth, who bored the hell out of me. (As always.)
About a week after the full-page review was published, I got a call from Barbara O’Dair, the assigning editor. Someone narked on me, most likely The Couple. “We heard you were getting drunk backstage for most of the show,” she said. Um, well, um, I was taking some new medication, and um, I felt faint, um, and I have a friend with Sonic Youth, um, do you know Terry Pearson? Great sound man. You know he got the gig with Sonic Youth because they were double-booked one night in Austin with Brave Combo and clear-headed Terry made it all work, and, um, he saw I was having trouble with the medication, and said why don’t you come backstage and lay down, and, um…”
I was fucked. No more assignments from Rolling Stone. But the weird thing is, I got a contract a few weeks later from Rolling Stone asking to reprint my review in a book they were doing on Neil Young.
A later Neil Young assignment would even further exemplify the kind of anti-critic I was. The editor called and said they were starting a new feature called Overrated/ Underrated, where two critics would state the pro-and-con cases for a certain artist. The first one would be Neil Young. I guess he read my Rolling Stone rave. Are you interested? Sure, I said, and we discussed money, length, deadline and all. But just before we hung up I said wait a second. “Which side do you want me to argue?”

Going through Manhattan to interview a neighbor

I’m like the Cat Lady of pet peeves I’ve got so many running around. One of my big ones is when an Austin musician hires a high-powered NYC publicist that you have to go through to set up an interview. I’ve been emailing back and forth six times, like a negotiation, to talk to someone whose house I pass on the way to and from HEB. This is the kind of publicist I hate, the one who wants to make sure you focus on what they want, which, in this case, is a new album coming out in a couple months. (I should point out that I’m not trying to interview Beyonce, but someone who plays the Continental Club.) Normally, at this point I would say “forget it” and move on to the next story. But I’m having fun toying with this woman. She kept asking me how much of the article is going to be about the new album (how the fuck do I know?) and I either ignored her or was intentionally vague. She was persistent because, you see, it makes her day when the story comes out and she can harangue the writer about how it ended up different from how he or she “promised” it would be.
After the third email, in which she specified emphasis points on the release, I almost emailed back “what album?” but I caught myself.
I’m not going to tell you who the Austin artist is, but if you read a 2,000-word article that mentions an upcoming album, without naming it or giving the release date, you’ll know they have a pushy NYC publicist. God, I love my job!

GRAMMY STORIES? YEAH, I GOT ONE

I’m not a great talker. I couldn’t sell earmuffs to an Eskimo. But I talked my way into the Grammys once. It was the night after I crashed Clive Davis’ A-list black tie party at the Beverly Hilton. Something was going on that year- 1995.

The Dallas Morning News sent me to L.A. for five days to cover the Grammys because this was back when big newspapers had a lot of money for shit like that. But I had to write different stories every day. I reviewed club shows by Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, did a party scene report and hung out in the lobby during Clive’s big bash, just taking note of all the celebs for my daily column. I knew the publicist for Arista, Clive’s label, who was at the entrance checking credentials, then she came over to me and said, “Carlos Santana is coming on next and his new album (Supernatural) is going to be HUGE (it was). Clive would want a critic to see this, so I’m gonna turn my head and you’re gonna walk right past me, OK?”

So I did just that. I scooted by her in my black t-shirt and ripped jeans and found myself in a huge ballroom, full of big stars. Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Tyson, Puff Daddy, Bobby DeNiro, Will Smith – they were all sitting 10 feet away from me. Whitney Houston was onstage singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and then she was off and Santana came on with Wyclef from the Fugees. As soon as their song was over, I was being led out of the room by security, but I was grinning. I’d be able to write about attending the most exclusive Grammy party of them all, as if I was invited. Also, I talked to Dallas native Erykah Badu for 10 seconds when she was walking through the lobby, so I had a quote from a big local. Shit, man, I was gold.

Which was a relief because I had kinda fucked up a couple weeks earlier. I sent in my request for press credentials to the Grammys a little late and there was no room for me. But I’d covered the Grammys before and spent most of the time in the press room watching the show on TV. They’d parade the winners by every minute or so, but the quotes were hardly ever any good, so I figured that I could just cover the show from my hotel room and no one would be the wiser. The Associated Press had a file of backstage quotes I could pull from. Just had to give them credit at the bottom.

So I was getting all set up in my room. Beer on ice, joints rolled, just had to find what channel the show was on. This was about an hour before the Grammys were to start. I went to the channel menu for 5 p.m., which was 7 p.m. Dallas time, and no Grammys. I scrolled to the right and it said that the show aired at 8 Pacific. FUCK! They delayed the broadcast on the West Coast. I wouldn’t be able to watch it on TV and make my deadline. WTF! I didn’t know what to do but throw on some clothes and run down to the lobby and get a cab to the Shrine Auditorium.

Here’s a detail I don’t really need, but I’m gonna throw it out there to show just how fucked my day was going. About three blocks down Hollywood Boulevard I saw Elvis Mitchell on the sidewalk. My friend who was a bigwig in L.A. “Pull over!” I told the cab driver and I went over to Elvis to see if he had any suction with Rogers and Cowan, the Grammys publicists. Only, it wasn’t Elvis Mitchell. It was a black guy with long dreads in expensive clothing and black horn-rimmed glasses, but it wasn’t fucking Elvis! I turned around to see my cab leaving, so I had to run back to the hotel lobby and get another cab. I’m dripping with sweat, heart palping, all the way to the Shrine.

Every road was blocked off for about a quarter mile except for limos, so I had to run the rest of the way to the Grammys. So, I finally got there. Now what? I couldn’t get credentials a couple weeks ago; how were they going to let me in, sweating like a dopesick junkie, 10 minutes before the show started? But I didn’t have any other choice.

Luck shined on me, however, when I saw my old friend Chris Morris of Billboard. “Chris, please, could you send someone from Rogers and Cowan out here?” I said from outside a chain-link fence. About five minutes later there was some guy in a suit, looking at me with the right amount of skepticism. I told him my story and how I would probably get fired if he didn’t let me in. “There’s no place for you,” he said. Just let me watch the show from a monitor somewhere, I said. I don’t care if it’s in the men’s room. The guy, whose name was neither Rogers nor Cowan, said, “OK, but you owe me, big time.” Brother Theresa led me to the press room, picked up a big bowl of lettuce on the catering table and said “sit here.” And I did, for the whole show. Press folks would come by with their plates and fill up with cold cuts and carrot sticks and the like and then they’d get to me and turn around.

But I was in heaven. The adrenaline of just getting there had my fingers flying on the keyboard. I was sending all these great dispatches from backstage at the Grammys. Got a few short one-on-one interviews even (Chris from Soundgarden, Don Was, Booker T, Tony Bennett in the men’s room). Bruce Springsteen was winning everything for his “Streets of Philadelphia” song and so during the commercial break before Record of the Year, I finished my A1 recap. Just needed to hear the name “Bruce…” and I’d be sending before they got to “…steen.” I had really kicked ass.

“And the Record of the Year goes to…” My finger was ready. “Sheryl Crow for ‘All I Wanna Do’!” Are you fucking kidding me?!! Goddammit, man. Now I had to rewrite the whole first part of the article. And my final deadline was in 10 minutes. But I did it. And I was done. Shit, man, I even talked my way into the A&M Records party, just two blocks from the Roosevelt Hotel, where I was staying. What a motherfucking day!

That’s kinda like how every day is. I mean, not insanely hectic or heart-racing. But we just take things as they come- bring it on-  and do the best we can. But sometimes you look back and go “how did I pull that one off?”

Bitch!

Direct line to Billy Ray Cyrus

I became a pretty decent obit writer because of my time at the Dallas Morning News (’92-’95), which didn’t really hold entertainment writers in high regard unless they consistently landed on 1A. And the easiest way to get a front page byline was writing a celebrity obit. The Morning News didn’t use a single AP obit for a musician in the three years I was there.

When Coway Twitty died, however, I was busy as hell and kinda hoping my bosses would let me outta that one. But I was the country music critic at the time and CW was a major dude, I guess, so I had to fit it in. The reason the day was so stressful was that I had a phoner with Billy Ray Cyrus that took me two weeks to set up. It was during that period, right after “Achy Breaky Heart” came out, when Cyrus was the biggest thing in all of music. His first LP “Some Gave All” debuted at #1 on Billboard and stayed there for 17 consecutive weeks, a maiden run that’s never been matched. He was a sensation who hardly did any interviews, but since the DMN stories were picked up on the wire, his handlers felt they could just do mine and that would cover the country. It was a major coup. But then Conway Twitty died and I was distracted.

I was finishing up my Twitty obit when Billy Joe called for the 15-minute phoner. He politely asked me how I was doing and I said I had been gutted by the news of Conway Twitty (not really) and then Cyrus, very poignantly, told me how listening to Twitty when he was a boy made him realize that country music could also be pop and rock n’ roll without losing its twang. Boom, there was my lead quote on the obit! The next day I got all kinds of congratulations from the big editors, who thought I’d moved mountains to get a quote from the biggest star in the music biz. Today, this would be like Patti Labelle dying and getting fresh quotes from Beyonce. Even the New York Times couldn’t get ahold of “the new Elvis of country.” My Cyrus story wasn’t scheduled to run for another two weeks so they were sixpence none the wiser.

 

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12th and Chicon Soundtrack

Posted by mcorcoran on December 18, 2018

East Austin’s most infamous corner used to be called “The Ends” in the 1930s because that’s as far as the streetcar went on East 12th St. When buses replaced streetcars in 1940, 12th and Chicon was still the last stop. “We called it the Ends when I was coming up,” said Dorothy McPhaul, whose grandfather Simon Sidle, the antique dealer, lived on 12th and Chicon in the early ‘50s. The corner had it’s own language, like everyone called the liquor store “Blue-eyed” because the proprietor was an African-American with blue eyes.

From its 1935 opening until it burned down in 1973, the Harlem Theater anchored entertainment on the Ends. “They showed anything and everything that the ‘white only’ theaters were done with,” said Ed Guinn, one of the few blacks who was part of Austin’s hippie scene as a member of Conqueroo. “Saw lots of scratchy versions of films there for years.”

Our first entry is Willie Hutch’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” from The Mack, one of the last films shown at the Harlem Theater:

2.“I Got Rhythm” by Teddy Wilson Trio

Samuel Huston College dean of boys James Wilson and his teacher wife Pearl had a son Teddy, born in Austin in 1912. The family moved to Alabama when Teddy was six to take teaching jobs at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute. Teddy became the Jackie Robinson of jazz in 1935 when he integrated the Benny Goodman Trio (with Gene Krupa) and then went on to play with all the greats, but especially Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. (Ironically, THE Jackie Robinson taught P.E. at Huston in 1945.) This number features Gene Ramey, also born in Austin, on bass. Ramey’s illustrious career included stints in the bands of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

3. “Blues After Hours” by Pee Wee Crayton

Rockdale-born guitarist Pee Wee Crayton moved in 1935 to the West Coast, where he was a contemporary of Dallas guitarist T-Bone Walker. But he played Austin often after that, visiting some of his old haunts like Manning’s Café at 1810 E. 12th or the Club Alabama next door at 1808, currently the home of Dozen Street. He sat in at the original Charlie’s Playhouse at 1201 Chicon before it moved to E. 11th in 1957. Crayton had his first R&B #1 in 1948 with this instrumental on Modern Records.

“No Way Out” by Joyce Harris and the Daylighters

In 1960, rock n’ roll history was made when black band Clarence Smith (nee Sonny Rhodes) and the Daylighters backed Joyce Harris, a white female singer on Domino Records. Their raucous single “One Way Out” is a classic, highly valued by collectors. To this day some still think Joyce Harris is black. But the logistics could get hairy in Jim Crow Austin. Harris recalled looking for the Daylighters the day of the session. Finding them coming out of the White Swan (currently King Bee Lounge) she called out “Get in, fellas, we’ve gotta make a record,” but they initially refused to get in the car of a white woman in East Austin. They eventually got in and rode to Roy Poole’s studio on East Sixth Street ducked down below the windows. 

“Stop Now” by Bells Of Joy

Gospel and blues resided next to one another in urban neighborhoods and the best acts of those genres learned to borrow from the other one. Ray Charles has credited the smash 1951 religious smash, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells Of Joy with inspiring his first #1 hit “I Got a Woman” (1954). In turn, the Bells, influenced by Ulit Street barrelhouse piano player Lavada Durst, put a lot of R&B into their sound.

“Tuxedo Junction” by Erskine Hawkins

Legendary band director B.L. Joyce, who founded the L.C. Anderson High Yellow Jackets in 1933, was a tailor by trade at 1706 E. 14th St. He also taught alterations at Sam Huston College and made sure all his musicians looked tight. Disciplinarian Joyce was a J.P. Sousa man- if he caught you playing jazz he’d throw you out of the band, so the top players like Kenny Dorham, Hermie Edwards, Ray Murphy, Paris Jones, Warner “Rip” Ross and Buford Banks (trumpeter Martin’s dad) would sneak off after band practice to play improvisational jazz in the backyard of Roy and Alvin Patterson at 1709 Washington Ave. Joyce bent his “no jazz” rule only once, when Anderson was not only getting its butt beat on the football field, but in the band section, by archrival Wheatley High of San Antonio. “They were showing us up, playing all these hot, big band swing numbers,” recalled Alvin Patterson, who replaced Joyce as band director in 1955.  “So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you and Kenny were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.” The crowd went crazy when the band came out swinging.

“Runaway Love” by Linda Clifford

Another graduate of the Yellow Jackets was Gil Askey, the Motown trumpet-player/ arranger who was Diana Ross’s music director for 10 years. Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Nominated for an Oscar for his score for Lady Sings the Blues, Askey also wrote and produced this 1978 disco hit for NYC singer Linda Clifford.

“Night Train” by James Brown

All-black Anderson High produced not-only substantial musical talent, but a couple of major NFL players: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Richard Lane. Nicknamed “Night Train” by fellow Los Angeles Ram Tom Fears in 1952, Lane intercepted 14 passes (in a 12-game season) that rookie year- a record that’ll probably never be broken, even in 16 games, plus playoffs.

“Here Comes the Judge” by Pigmeat Markham

Blues music integrated Austin like nothing before it. Bill Campbell, a white guitarist from Smithville, picked up blues singles at King’s Record Shop at 1812 E. 12th and East Side Records at 1213 E. 12th and learned to really play by sitting in with guitar slingers like Freddie King at Ernie’s Chicken Shack (1167 Webberville Road) and Sam’s Showcase at 1922 E. 12th. He showed a couple of brothers from Dallas named Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan where to find the real stuff. Campbell was especially valuable on tour with musical comedian Pigmeat Markham, whose 1968 recording of “Here Comes the Judge” laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Fellow guitarist Major Lee Burkes recalls that Campbell would rent two or three rooms in all-white motels and the black musicians would sneak in. Campbell was also the take-out king at restaurants in the south.

“I’ll Save the Last Dance For You” by Damita Jo

Gil Askey’s cousin was R&B/jazz singer Damita Jo, the only child of Creole chef Herbert DeBlanc and schoolteacher Latrelle Plummer DeBlanc. They both stayed at 1010 Olive Street with their grandmother Mathilde when they returned to Austin on yearly visits.  Damita Jo had hits with “answer songs” to “Save the Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters and “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. She also possessed comedic flair and was a regular on Redd Foxx’s 1977 TV variety show.

“Scuttle Buttin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan 

When Stevie Ray Vaughan was recording his second LP Couldn’t Stand the Weather in New York City in 1984, he wasn’t getting the right feel, so he had someone call up Sam’s BBQ at 2000 E. 12th for an overnite shipment of his favorite food. That got the record back on track.

“Alone Together” by Kenny Dorham

Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973, were all former Yellow Jacket band members. But, musically, the standout has to be Kenny Dorham, who replaced Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948. Although Dorham, “the thinking man’s trumpet player” was on the bandstand with Parker on the sax great’s final public performance in 1955, he spent most of the early ’50s freelancing for Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt and others. In 1954, he co-founded the highly influential Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey.

This selection is an instrumental version of a tune made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics speak out for a segregated East Austin community that may have lived in the shadow of mainstream Austin, but shone brightly on its own.

“Alone together, beyond the crowd/ Above the world, we’re not too proud/ To cling together, we’re strong/ As long as we’re together”

Bonus track:

“Sweetback’s Theme” by (an uncredited) Earth Wind & Fire from the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’  Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, which was held over at the Harlem Theater in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jimmy Bowen: A Pirate, a Poet, a Pawn and a King

Posted by mcorcoran on November 28, 2018

Nancy Sinatra and Jimmy Bowen circa 1967.

The 25-year-old Texan sat in the limo outside a Palm Springs desert compound for about an hour, waiting for Frank Sinatra. The junior exec had been recently hired by Reprise Records, which had half a dozen strong acts, but the problem was that there were over 100 on the label. Reprise was founded by Sinatra in 1960 and rescued by parent company Warner Brothers, with Sinatra retaining 1/3 ownership, three years later. That’s when Jimmy Bowen came aboard. “Sinatra would have a few drinks in some lounge and sign the piano player. He was out of control,” recalled the sheriff’s son from the Texas Panhandle. “So one of my first jobs was to tell Mr. Sinatra we had to drop more than half the acts he’d signed. I was scared shitless, knowing he was going to fire me- or worse.” Finally called inside, Bowen laid out the direness of the financial situation. “Mr. Sinatra downed a glass of Jack Daniels, then he said, ‘well, do what you gotta do’ and walked away. I left before he could change his mind.” The long ride to Palm Springs was a lot shorter on the way back.

When Bowen told the story 30 years later, he was Music City’s feared “Chairman of the Board.” When your music biz baptism was firing about 70 friends of Frank Sinatra, it’s no big deal to clean house when you take over as head of a Nashville label, which Bowen did six times from 1976 to his 1995 retirement. As the incoming chief at MGM, MCA (twice), Elektra/Asylum, Warner Brothers and Capitol, he’d generally keep two or three people and fire the rest. Bowen even pink-slipped the A&R guy who signed Garth Brooks, Capitol’s  golden goose in a Stetson. The designated label-fixer axed so many people he stopped going to industry parties. “The last one that I went to, I looked around the room and realized that I had fired half the people there – some of them two or three times,” Bowen said.

In a town known for humility, where honchos ask if you’d like some coffee, then fetch it themselves, Bowen made sure everyone knew who was boss. “Whenever you have a meeting with Bowen, you have to go to him,” said MCA’s Tony Brown, then Bowen’s main rival. Wearing a Greek sailor cap and aviator glasses, Bowen  brought the Rat Pack mentality to the Hat Act reality and never really fit in. “I was a Yankee for the first time in my life,” Bowen said of his two decades running (some might say “ruining”) Nashville.

But here’s where Jimmy Bowen matters: he produced 67 #1 country singles and 10 #1 country albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, making superstars out of Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty and George Strait. “The music belongs to the artist,” was his credo, something else he said he learned from Sinatra. “The worst mistake a producer can make is to think it’s his record. A good producer should do as little as possible- or as much as necessary.”

Bowen arrived in Nashville with a proven track record in the pop field, producing signature songs of Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody”) and Sammy Davis Jr. (“I’ve Gotta Be Me”), with arranger /conductor Ernie Freeman.

Bowen started getting a little cocky after winning 1967’s Record of the Year Grammy for “Strangers In the Night,” but Sinatra was still in charge of the recording sessions. “He’d usually nail it on the first take, but sometimes there’d be a second take,” recalled Bowen. “But that was it. Frank didn’t do a third.” After Sinatra’s second take of “That’s Life” Bowen said, “let’s try one more,” and Sinatra shot back “no, we got it!” But Bowen persisted and Sinatra called him a “fuckin’ hayseed!” in front of everybody (including fiancee’ Mia Farrow), and stormed out. But about 10 minutes later, Sinatra was back. “ONE MORE TAKE!” he said, and that was the one they used on the classic “That’s Life.” That’s why he’s practically spitting the lyrics in his most over-the-top performance.

Bowen famously butted heads with Garth Brooks in the early ‘90s, but as a label exec, not a producer. Although Bowen oversaw multi-million sellers No Fences in 1990 and Ropin’ the Wind in ’91, Brooks blamed Bowen for slower sales of The Chase in 1992 and In Pieces in 1993. And why the hell did he have to change the label’s name from Capitol Nashville (AKA “The House That Garth Built”) to Liberty and move the offices miles away from Music Row? Brooks wanted a deal like the one Michael Jackson had signed, giving him more than a 25% royalty rate: Bowen told him he wasn’t Michael Jackson, which, according to Bowen’s 1997 Rough Mix autobio,  pissed off GB to no end. In 1994, Brooks told honchos at Capitol’s parent company EMI that he wouldn’t deliver his next album if Bowen was still in charge.

The pay-per-view-worthy staredown between the control freaks was averted, however, when the label head was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in late 1994 and retired to Maui. (Bowen was not involved in any way in Garth’s Life of Chris Gaines debacle in ’99, it should be pointed out). As of early 2019, Bowen, 81, was living in Arizona with fifth wife Ginger. Liberty was changed back to Capitol Nashville after Bowen left.

Bowen with Floyd Cramer and Johnny Rivers

•••

“I didn’t really like country music growing up,” said the Dumas native, who teamed with fellow West Texas State student Buddy Knox in 1956 to chase the Elvis vapors to the top of the charts.

They called their rockabilly band the Orchids and wore matching purple shirts. After Roy Orbison of Wink and his Teen Kings played the college in Canyon, Bowen asked him where he got that great sound on “Ooby Dooby,” his first single.  “Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis,” Orbison said.

A few weeks later, bassist Bowen and guitarists Knox and Don Lanier, with session drummer Dave Alldred, crossed the border into New Mexico to see if they had some magic in them. The resulting self-released single – “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox with the Orchids b/w “I’m Stickin’ With You” by Jimmy Bowen with the Orchids- attracted the attention of NYC’s Roulette Records (Lanier’s sister was a model in New York and knew co-owners Morris Levy and Phil Kahl), who split it into two 45s and renamed the band Rhythm Orchids. “Party Doll” was Roulette’s first #1 record, while Bowen’s single, with “Everlovin’ Fingers” on the flip side, hit #14. Bowen released several more 45s on Roulette, but none hit the Top 40. “When the girls stopped screaming and I could hear myself sing,” Bowen said in ’93, “I figured I needed to find another way in the music business.” Mobbed-up impressario Levy gave the kids from Texas a glimpse into the real-life music business, where payola ran radio and a couple thugs materialized whenever the subject of monies owed came up. “You want royalties,” Levy would bellow, “then go to England!”

Bowen laughed at the hard lessons learned from the record man who was the model for the Hesh character in The Sopranos. We were sitting in a whatever room in Bowen’s brick mansion on Franklin Road in late ’93, and he reminded me of Ben Johnson from The Last Picture Show in the way his drawl made every word count. He rarely went into the office, he said, because that’s where they think about today. “My mind is on next September,” he said. But not on this day, when Bowen seemed to enjoy reminiscing for a career profile in the Dallas Morning News.

After a brief time doing A&R for Bob Marcucci’s Chancellor Records (Frankie Avalon, Fabian), Bowen was hired as a staff producer at Reprise in 1963. One of his first projects with the label was “The Lonely Surfer” by Jack Nitzsche, which reached #39 on the charts. But it was his work on The Intimate Keely Smith and Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which  knocked the Beatles out of #1 in 1964, that put producer Bowen on Sinatra’s radar like a jumbo jet. Everybody else forgot that Sinatra had recorded “Everybody Loves Somebody” 17 years earlier. Rising star Bowen became part of the inner circle when he married Keely Smith, a close friend of Sinatra’s, in ‘65. He also helped first daughter Nancy Sinatra by putting her with Lee Hazlewood of Port Neches, who co-wrote and produced smash hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking” in 1966. When the Sinatra father/daughter duet had a #1 hit the next year with “Something Stupid,” Bowen was listed as co-producer though he wasn’t in the studio. The kid from Dumas was learning how the music business worked.

Sinatra and Keely Smith.

The Golden Boy and Louis Prima’s ex had a messy divorce in 1969, by which time Bowen had formed Amos Records as a mirror of Reprise, signing such past-prime acts as Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Mel Carter and Johnny Tillotson. The label didn’t have a single hit record in its three years, but two Amos acts would play a part in music history, when Glenn Frey of Longbranch Pennywhistle and Don Henley of Shiloh joined together with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner to form the Eagles. Amos LPs by Longbranch and Shiloh (whose membership also included J.D. Souther and future Warner Brothers Nashville president Jim Ed Norman, respectively) stiffeded, but the Eagles released the best-selling album of all time with Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.

Bowen’s country music mentor was Tompall Glaser, whose Hillbilly Central recording studio in Nashville gave birth to the ‘70s “country outlaw” movement with recordings by Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson and many more. When he moved to Nashville in ’76, Bowen hung out at sessions and listened to every classic country record Glaser thought he should hear. Perhaps Bowen’s first great move was encouraging Hank Williams Jr. to pursue his true identity as a rowdy country rocker.

Texas can boast several top record producers as native sons. T Bone Burnett of Fort Worth helmed the multi-platinum O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (2001) and Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (2007), in addition to acclaimed LPs by Los Lobos (How Will the Wolf Survive?), Gillian Welch (Revival) and Elvis Costello (King of America). Jim Beck of Dallas recorded Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and many other honky tonkers in the early ’50s before he died after accidentally inhaling cleaning solution. Houston’s Huey Meaux produced classic garage rock by Sir Douglas Quintet, R&B by Barbara Lynn and country by Freddy Fender. Then there are Tom Wilson of Waco and Hillsborough’s Bob Johnston, who produced, not only classic ‘60s Bob Dylan albums (Johnston took over for Wilson on Highway 61 Revisited), but the Velvet Underground, the Animals, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra (Wilson) and Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel (Johnston). Amazing bodies of work from two guys who grew up 40 miles from each other in the middle of Texas.

But no one’s resume is more impressive than Bowen’s. Before he was 30, he produced classic recordings by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Then came all those number ones in Nashville, including the dry spell-ending “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” for Merle Haggard and “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr. His creative and business brains got together to spearhead Nashville’s conversion to digital recording technology in 1986- a year before Los Angeles studios followed suit.

The knock on Bowen, who produced an average of one album a month for 15 years, was that he was just in the room- when he wasn’t on the golf course. He usually shared production credit with the artist. But that’s how Bowen wanted it, to get the full commitment of the person whose music this was. When Reba, then a moderately successful country pop singer, signed to MCA in 1984, she told label boss Bowen she wanted to go back to her roots, with fiddles and steel guitar. He gave her the keys to make My Kind of Country, and McEntire won her first of four consecutive CMA awards for best female vocalist. There are a lot of stories like that.

Many of those Bowen fired became label heads and other prominent Nashvillians, which could be why his name is not suitably revered today. But nobody mastered both the business and the creative ends of the music industry, not to mention the pop and country fields, like Jimmy Bowen.

Through it all, he said he’s operated under a simple mantra: “You make music for tomorrow, not for today.” The records he made still stand up.

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Nanny Dearest

Posted by mcorcoran on November 23, 2018

I told y’all a couple months ago about the time an on-the-clock dancer from the Yellow Rose babysat my three-year-old son. Well, on the 7-hour drive from Marfa, I remembered quite a few more details of that night in ’97 or ’98. To refresh: Don King, who managed the Yellow Rose, invited me to cover a special event at the strip joint. It might’ve been an anniversary, but the guest-of-honor was Augustus Busch, the CEO of Budweiser at the time. A bunch of local celebrities (Dale Dudley, that baseball player Kelly Something, etc) were going to be on hand, so it would be good for my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column.
At the time, Sugar’s and the Yellow Rose were in heavy comp to be THE gentlemen’s club in town and they were both feeding me items about celebrities stopping in. I had just had something about George Clooney partying at Sugar’s (and leaving with a dancer in the middle of her shift) and so the Yellow Rose wanted to get some attention, too. DK said I was VIP all the way, but I had to call him that day and say I couldn’t make it. My babysitter had canceled. “I’ve got a whole list of babysitters here,” Don said, and in my mind he was holding a sheet of paper with names of actual babysitters that maybe the employees had shared with each other. “I’ll send her in the car and you get in and come to the Rose, then when you want to leave, the car will take you home and pick up the babysitter.” OK, I said. Not 30 minutes passed before a black limo pulled up to my Hyde Park shanty and a tall, platinum blonde with heavy makeup stepped out. She introduced herself with a normal name, like Melanie, but even with all that perfume, you could still smell the pole on her. She was a stripper who probably danced as Destinee.
I didn’t know what to do. I made some small talk, while wondering if I should send her back. But then I made a decision. I could either stay home with my toddler and watch “Fox and the Hound” for the third time or go to the VIP room full of naked women and booze. The column was important to me, so I went. But I felt guilty right away. What if she was abused as a child and that’s why she’s a stripper, I thought. The abused become abusers. When I arrived at the YR, I tried to drum up a column item as soon as I could- then head back to Hyde Park before she was showing little Jackie how to cut up lines. At the time, Budweiser had a campaign where they stamped “Born On” dates on their beer, to show how freshly they’d been bottled. I came up with the line that Mr. Busch wasn’t at the party for pleasure, necessarily, but to check the “Born On …” dates on the dancers’ derrieres to make sure they were of legal age. Had my item! I was out of there in 10 minutes.
I came home to see Jack laying on the couch, blissfully, with Melanie patting his head. They were watching MTV- a Madonna video, I believe.
As if this night could not have been more memorable, it was also when three-year-old Jack uttered his first curse word. When I came in the front door, he sat up and said, “Why the FUCK are you home so soon!”
OK, I made up that last part, but the rest is true. Don King should be able to verify it.

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The worst thing I ever went through never happened

Posted by mcorcoran on November 11, 2018

Was this really happening? Being marched, handcuffed behind my back, through the crowd of about 5,000 at Waterloo Park, sobered me up and gave me time to think practically. Busted for hitting on a joint a friend passed me, I would certainly be fired from my job as music critic for the Austin American Statesman and so as the faces, some familiar, stared at me with looks of shame, horror and amusement, I considered my options. Maybe this newfound notoriety would help me get an edgier new job. Maybe this was a sign that I should switch fields and start writing screenplays. Maybe Willie Nelson, the great hemp activist, would play a benefit concert to keep me out of the shelters. Maybe this would end up being a good thing.

But the dominating thought was this: who the fuck gets arrested for smoking a joint at an outdoor music festival in Austin?! A concert here sans marijuana smoke is a hockey game without a fight. If there’s a balcony at a Raffi concert, there’s a parent torching up in the darkness.

And those guys don’t get arrested. Oh, but not me, public enemy number one. On March 30, 2000, while I was reviewing the Cajun/Zydeco-themed Swamp Romp, I accepted an offer to make the music sound better and was about to go from “My Toot-Toot” to my cellmate. When the park police (“there are a lot of kids and families here”) emptied my pockets onto a table, I recognized a song being played from the stage a quarter mile away. “Excuse me, officer,” I said. “Could you please write ‘Hot Tamale Baby’ in my notebook?” If I was going down, by God, it would be as a professional.

As the cops ran my name for priors and warrants, I pictured that crackling police scanner on the desk in the Metro section of the newspaper. “C-O-R-C-O-R-A-N, Michael. Age 44.” He had to spell the last name two or three times because they always do, thinking the second “C-O-R” is repeating the first one for clarity. Then, after about a 30-minute wait, they cut me loose. Just like that. “On your way and don’t come back tomorrow.”

I understood, in that moment, how it feels to win a Super Bowl. Instead of “I’m going to Disneyland!” I was “Not going to jail!” But instead of thanking my lucky stars and going home, I went to a club and celebrated not hitting rock bottom.

Then reality hit the next morning. My bosses were going to find out. Someone in the audience who didn’t like an old Alanis Morrissette review or something, was going to dime me. What are the chances in a crowd of 5,000 that no one wants to see the rock critic fired? That’s 5,000 movie critics giving the new Adam Sandler movie a pass. If not the crowd, the Statesman cops reporter was going to blab. I was done at the Statesman. And maybe in journalism.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me. Just a week earlier, my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column had been suspended and I was publicly flogged for material deemed not up to the paper’s standards of accuracy and tone. It had been building for awhile since Michael Dell’s people called the publisher about a little Jewish holiday joke, but last straw status goes to two items: 1) my account of a Texas Monthly photo shoot in which the art director, speaking of clothing, said “there are too many whites over here and too many colors over there.” Everybody laughed because she pointed to a section of mostly white people over here and then black people over there, and singer Malford Milligan joked “I haven’t been called colored in awhile.” It was all in fun, but there were charges of racial intent, the guy who wanted me fired would stop at nothing and my peeps caved in. That was bullshit. 2) But the second reason was all my fault. I fucked up by reporting that Matt’s El Rancho was towing cars during SXSW, when, actually, they had someone stationed at the entrance to turn festgoers away. My contention that Matt’s was towing out of jealousy of Maria’s Taco Xpress next door, which was attracting thousands a day to the music and tacos, made it potentially libelous, so I fell on the sword. But that wasn’t the end of it.

The Monday after all this went down, Austin talk radio all over the dial blasted the Statesman and talked about things that only myself and my superiors were privy to- mainly the Texas Monthly incident- and I was called on the carpet. Holy crap, was that editor fuming! I explained that my then-girlfriend, one of the most well-connected public relations persons in town, had simply told her curious friends what had happened and how can I control what my girlfriend says? I couldn’t even get her to go to Emo’s with me. “Well, you’d better get her under control or you might get fired!” the editor told me.

Six days later I was in handcuffs with a cop leading me through the crowd. As a pre-emptive strike, I went to my first-ever, long-overdue AA meeting the next day. I figured that on Monday, when I was called in again, I could say I’m currently a member of a 12-step program blah, blah, blah and maybe they might think treatment instead of termination. It was worth a shot.

That first meeting was uncomfortable, of course, because it meant trading what I loved- getting high- for what I hated- public speaking. I was terrified of being called on to share and so I used the same “not me not me not me” look as I do when a magician is looking for “volunteers.”

The guy leading the meeting introduced a theme: “the worst thing I ever went through never happened.” The worst thing. I ever went through. Never happened. I kinda thought about it a little, boiled it down to “stop worrying so much” and went back to watching the clock like the big hand was my kid playing soccer.

The next day I went back to work expecting it to be my last day. A friend called and said he’d heard I got arrested at the Swamp Romp. Great. It was just a matter of time until the word hit the glass offices. But that first day nothing happened.

Tuesday was also a day of dread, as I realized, the sleepless night before, that the editors needed time to figure out how and when to sack my sorry ass. Again, nothing. I went by the Metro desk to see who would avert their eyes, but it was business as usual. By Wednesday and Thursday I started wondering about those sadistic fucks in management. It seemed cruel to draw out the obvious. I kept going to meetings.

A week went by without mention of my RWI, reviewing while intoxicated, arrest. Then another. I was out of the woods. I stopped going to meetings. But I never forgot what I heard that first one.

The worst thing I ever went through never happened.

I ended up working at the Statesman another 11 years after the Swamp Romp incident. I drank and smoked heavily during that time, aside from a couple months here and there, when I sat with other Catholics in the basements of Protestant churches. So many times I gave it all up one day at a time. But then one day I’d be at the beer barn drive-through telling myself just this one time to blow off steam. Nobody needs to know. Then three years later, I’d be back at the meeting with the worst hangover of all time.

I quit drinking after going to rehab in November 2012. It’s holding this time like never before and some days I don’t miss it at all. Most days, actually.

The concept of embracing the higher power was easy because I grew up in a time when the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Cream and the like were Top 40 artists. Whatever I was going through, there’d be a song on the radio that would tell me what to do. “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon convinced me to quit a job that I was miserable in. “When a Man Loves a Woman” kept me in a trying relationship until it was really time to move on.

But it was in a dark room stained with cigarette smoke that a song that didn’t need music taught me a lesson I access every day. Stop punishing yourself needlessly. Don’t obsess over things you can’t control. Let the angels help.

My Swamp Romp review ran as planned, though the evening’s headliner was inexplicably not mentioned. And nobody cared. The highlight of the night to me was “Hot Tamale Baby,” written in my notebook in a different hand.

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Hunt Sales Memorial- from 2012

Posted by mcorcoran on November 1, 2018

With Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” Hunt Sales laid down the most famous drum intro in rock history, the rollicking jungle beat heard on TV commercials, in the movie “Trainspotting” and daily on Jim Rome’s sports radio show. But that perch in posterity will have to be reward enough, as Sales has never received a dime in royalties for the distinctive beat. “Lust For Life” was written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie for the 1977 album of the same name; drummer Sales was paid a work-for-hire fee for the sessions.

“At least ‘Trainspotting’ used the whole song,” said Sales, who has lived in Austin since 1993. “In most cases, they just use my drum beat or copy it.” Sales said the money he was paid should’ve covered only the album, not the music’s re-use in commercials and movies. But litigation is expensive and there has long been a gray area in copyright law about backup musicians receiving royalties. “At this point, I’ve moved on,” he said.

Hunt Sales 2018 Photo by George Hancock.

“Iggy thinks that everything happens because he’s Iggy,” said Sales, who met fellow Michigan native Pop when he and bassist brother Tony were recruited by Stooges guitarist James Williamson to play on the “Kill City” LP in 1975. The Sales brothers and guitarist Ricky Gardiner backed Iggy on a world tour in 1977. Later that year they all went into the Tansa Studios in Berlin, right next to the Wall, to begin work on the “Lust For Life” album. Bowie and Pop were co-producers.

“The band was so tight after ‘The Idiot’ tour,” Sales said. “I think we made the whole record in five days.” Among the better-known tunes on the LP is “The Passenger,” which has also been used in movies, Vera Wang commercials and as the lead-in instrumental music for “Anderson Cooper 360.” Again, no royalty cheese for Major Tom-Tom.

“Iggy is a great songwriter and has a lot of good ideas,” Sales said, “and David was one of the only guys to catch on to that at the time.” Iggy directed drummer Sales to come up with a “George of the Jungle”-type rhythm for “Lust.” Sales also incorporated a favorite beat from 11 years earlier — “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes — as well an intro he heard on Armed Forces Radio.

Sales threw all those elements together to create an intoxicating rhythm that underscores Iggy’s lyrics about drugs and debauchery. The inclusion of “Lust For Life” at the beginning of “Trainspotting” is routinely included in lists of best-ever uses of music in film.

On the other hand, the employment of the ironically titled ode to drug culture in a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line commercial was chosen in 2006 by NPR listeners as the most inappropriate use of music in an advertising spot.

Sales, whose new project Hunt Sales Memorial plays Thursday at the Continental Club, could talk about his past for a couple hours and still leave out some cool stories. The son of TV pioneer (and jazz fanatic) Soupy Sales, Hunt can recall eating his cornflakes on Sunday morning while his dad’s good friend Frank Sinatra was crashed out on the sofa. Before his pie-in-the-face routine became a national sensation, Soupy Sales had a nightly TV show in Detroit called “Soup’s On,” which hosted the biggest jazz performers in the country as they passed through Detroit.

Through his father, Hunt met his drum mentor Shelly Manne, an icon of the West Coast Jazz movement and the go-to studio drummer of the ’50s and ’60s. Manne gave Sales his first set of cymbals at age 7 and, along with another mentor Buddy Rich, gave the youngster words to drum by: “Don’t play the beat, BE the beat.”

When Hunt was 11, the Sales brothers’ band Tony and the Tigers was signed to Roulette Records by reputed mobster mogul Morris Levy (the model for Hesh in “The Sopranos”). By 15, Hunt was on his own, living in New York City and hanging out with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon. He played on his first hit single the next year, “We Gotta Get You a Woman” by Todd Rundgren.

Hunt Sales first became captivated by Austin in 1976 when he toured Texas with the short-lived Capitol Records power trio Paris, featuring Bob Welch (ex-Fleetwood Mac). “There was definitely a cool Texas music vibe,” he said. He found the scene much more supportive than the cutthroat world he grew up in. But it wasn’t until after Sales finished a three-year stint (’89-’92) as the drummer in David Bowie’s Tin Machine that Sales finally moved to Austin.

Aside from a year in Nashville in 2006, Sales has lived in South Austin for almost 20 years. His oldest daughter Cali, a talented visual artist, is finishing up at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. He also has a 4-year-old daughter, Sugar, with Heather, his wife of six years.

The 58-year-old said he doesn’t dwell on what he might be owed for past work. “The music I care about is the music I’m making now.” Hunt Sales Memorial includes former Ronnie Dawson guitarist Tjarko Jeen and bassist Bobby Perkins. “We’re going for a modern version of the Jazz Messengers,” said Sales, who also handles vocals. “Art Blakey’s always been one of my favorites.”

The band’s name is inspired by another drum hero: Buddy Miles. “I met him when he was a 15-year-old kid playing with Wilson Pickett, and, of course, I loved him with Hendrix in Band of Gypsies,” Sales said. “So I was excited when I heard he was living in Austin.”

When Sales went over to see Miles, the icon was in deteriorating health and had few visitors. He died of congestive heart failure in Austin in February 2008 at age 60. “They had a big Buddy Miles Memorial at Threadgill’s and it was packed,” said Sales. “There were these guys in leather pants and white tennis shoes onstage playing in homage to Buddy and I was thinking, ‘Where were these guys four months ago when Buddy was sick and lonely?’ I decided to call my band Hunt Sales Memorial so we’d always get a big crowd.”

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