MichaelCorcoran.net

Austin, what did I do to deserve you?

Posted by mcorcoran on November 16, 2017

Gary Clark Jr. on HBO’s “Sonic Highways.” This article is from Nov. 2014.

Four high schools in four years and then released into a world I felt like I had no part in. Tried to find a home in Los Angeles and then upstate New York, but I kept coming back to Honolulu, a city where a tan meant more than ideas. No place else to go.

And then, at age 28, I found Austin, and for many years after that had to laugh when someone called Hawaii paradise.

The Austin segment of the Foo Fighters’ series Sonic Highways screened last night at Studio 6A, the original home of “Austin City Limits,” the night before it airs on HBO. After the episode ended to impressed applause and scattered standing ovations from the invited studio audience, head FF and Highways director Dave Grohl and “ACL” producer Terry Lickona, who plays a big part in the hour-long doc, sat in easy chairs onstage. They talked about Austin and the 8-part series and that big piano on the stage with them that had been played by Ray Charles, Tom Waits, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many other greats on Austin’s live music TV show that turned 40 this year.

Grohl recalled his first visit to Austin, as an 18-year old drummer for D.C. punk band Scream, and how he immediately felt “safe” here. Austin was an oasis on the road, a place to let loose creatively without the threat of redneck bullying. San Francisco-on-the-range, this college town was different than all the others out on the road because it was also the capital of the most diverse musical state in the union. New York and L.A. aren’t for everybody and so Austin became a different sort of musical Mecca. One that took money out of the equation.

“We just played Austin last night and you wouldn’t believe we were in Texas,” my friend Andrella, on the road with the Cramps, wrote me in a postcard around 1980. “Punks in mohawks, rockabilly kids, wild crowd, great show!” That was the note that put Austin in my mind’s map.

I arrived, as we all did, with the energy of exploration and the determination of making this fresh start count. This is a city that people have moved to since the ‘60s for the quality of stimulation. We came here because where we were just wasn’t doing it for us, and so the best icebreaker question in Austin is “what oppressive shithole are you from?” It’s notable, then, that the two standouts of Sonic Highways:Austin are native sons Gary Clark Jr. and Roky Erickson.

Austin, what can I do to preserve you?

Clark talks about growing up in far South Austin, unaware of the live music scene on the other side of the river, and then snapping at his friend since third grade Eve Monsees when she showed him the downtown clubs where blues, reggae, rock and jazz pushed out from doorways onto the streets. “Why did you keep all this from me?” the 14-year-old Clark asked. He was reborn.

The guitarist recalls when things started changing on the music scene, when the condos went up downtown and the cops started showing up with sound meters that measure noise, not music. “This is what we do here!” Clark says of the local music way of life in Sonic Highways’ pivotal scene. It doesn’t matter anymore that the music was here first.

The ambitious idea behind Sonic Highways, also the name of the Foo Fighters album which comes out Tuesday, is that the band recorded one song each in eight different American cities, filming footage for an hour documentary each week. They would learn as much about that city’s musical history as possible through interviews for the doc, record the backing tracks in a historically significant studio and then Grohl would write the lyrics based on lines from the interview transcripts. The other cities in the already- acclaimed series are Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville, Seattle, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.

The Austin song is “What Did I Do?/ God Is My Witness,” which is about falling in love with something that’s slipping away. “What did I do to deserve you?” Grohl sings at one point, setting up a marrow-melting solo from Clark Jr., who showed up at the session without a guitar and left with a brand new Gibson SG (“Take it,” Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear said to Clark. “It’ll never sound that way again.”) Later in the Beatle-like song Grohl asks “What can I do to preserve you?”

This is no allegory. This song is, in part, about the soul of Austin, Texas being priced out of the market. Ironically, the Austin segment is so galvanizing that we can expect new waves of unsatisfied citizens to move here in the months to come.

The hourlong spotlight is a great summation of what Austin music is all about, touching heavily on the Vaughan brothers, Willie Nelson, 13th Floor Elevators and Townes, as well as Antone’s, Raul’s, Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo. Can’t fit everyone in an hour and so there’s little to nothing on Sir Doug, the “new sincerity” guitar bands, Spoon, Alejandro, the Scabs or the current garage scene. This Sonic Highway, with the exception of Gary Clark Jr., ends at about 1982.

If all the good stuff happened here before you arrived, that’s your fault. But the Austin segment brings up some good points about holding onto the history. Studio 6A is hallowed ground. Taking that elevator up to the 6th Floor and then going down the hallway with all the iconic Scott Newton photos and then entering the 320-capacity studio, the years snapped back in tight nostalgic recoil. This is where some of our favorite memories were made.

But everything that happened in Studio 6A is preserved. On tape and digitally. The stuff’s that’s going away forever are the clubs. And then the musicians. The City of Austin hasn’t done much to either preserve or nurture the activity that gives Austin its slogan. Once Austin’s crown jewel, the music scene is now just another thing to dangle from the bracelet. The way of life: is it over?

After the screening, I went to the Broken Spoke on the rumor that Willie Nelson was going to play a secret set in honor of the club’s 50th anniversary. The place was crazy, like Mardi Gras at the OK Corral, with the crowd encroaching on couples dancing to Jesse Dayton and the string of musicians he called up- Scott Biram, Rosie Flores, Jesse Harris and so on. It felt more like the last night of the Spoke than an anniversary, but it was a blowout sans regret.

Jesse Dayton, hard charger

There’s no backstage at the Spoke, just “back there.” A door from the stage opens outside, and there were about 30 of us hanging out, smoking, passing around a bottle of hooch in a bag. There were a couple of writers and a few musicians and a guy in a Devo-esque electric cowboy suit, plus a couple of blonde drunken sweethearts to keep it interesting. You could hear the band pretty well back there and they were doing the Joe Maphis song “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” and it felt like the original honky tonk roadhouse that the Spoke is.

Willie never showed, but it didn’t matter.

Still glad I moved here 30 years ago. Still think about leaving every day. It’s not just the traffic, but the phoniness and pretense that permeate the whole nouveau city. But at times like last night, it feels like paradise again. Watch Sonic Highways tonight, then go out and hear some people sing and play. The magic may be harder to find, but you can always follow the music.

 

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There’s never a wrong time to be born

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

Suzanna Choffel photo by Houston Chronicle. The following article was first published in 2014.

This story was done, then completely lost and I had to start all over again. Hate when that happens more than just about anything that doesn’t include a catheter, but unlike all the other times, it had nothing to do with a computer glitch or mental mistake while saving. I had to rewrite the whole damn thing after I received word from Austin singer Suzanna Choffel that she’s pregnant.

“I guess this changes everything,” Choffel texted. She has no idea.

Really happy for Zanna and her Persian bodybuilder lawyer boyfriend, but this was going to be a story about a young musician leaving the velvet rut of Austin, where she was born and raised, to gamble on New York City. A tale of a strong woman who put her life, her career, on the line and met a well-connected manager in Manhattan who believes in her 100%. Their ambitious dreams together sparkled like the skyline, and if this story was ever optioned for the movies, I was thinking about a soundtrack like the one from Run Lola Run. “Little Bunny Foo Foo” was not in the picture!

Choffel is blissfully happy and she’ll continue to make her music, but her April release- a daughter- takes precedence over all else. It was back to the word mines for yours truly. I had spent too much time lately thinking about Suzanna Choffel’s career to just walk away with nothing.

You may recall the sultry singer from her three-song stint on The Voice in 2012 or maybe you first heard that French surname connected to the online love fraud documentary Catfish, where a woman sent a grainy You Tube video of Choffel singing “Tennessee Stud” to a much-younger man and said it was her. Her song “Archer” was used for a Dell commercial and another original tune “Hey Mister” won $10,000 in a national Famecast contest. The Austin High grad been on the verge of stardom for nearly eight years and I’ve been in her corner the whole time.

I’ve been a fan of Choffel’s since she taped a great live segment for ME Televison, the all-Austin music access channel that went away without much acknowledgement after the music community fought hard for it for more than a decade. There’s a sensual smoke to her voice that seems as it would fit in with fans of Amy Winehouse and Adele, and yet Choffel is still toiling in the clubs. When I caught her set in NYC’s Rockwood Hall in August and hung out with her for a bit afterwards, I was impressed with how she moved with the rhythm of the capital of the world. Her adventurous streak had found a home.

But when Choffel announced that she and former Momo’s clubowner Paul Oveisi were expecting their first child in April, the Big Apple’s temptation was no longer in play. Oveisi, who is working to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, continues to split time between NYC, where the couple rents a room in Chelsea, and Austin, but Mommie Nearest is staying home.

With or without child, she wouldn’t be going anywhere anyway. Last week, Choffel started recording her third LP at the Churchhouse studio in East Austin with Aussie producer David Boyle (Okkervil River, Black Joe Lewis), who’s been in Austin so long- about 30 years- the accent is almost an affectation. This is the recording situation that’s almost perfect for Choffel, whose sound bears an unmistakable affinity for Brazilian music. Boyle has played keyboards for such Rio grandmasters as Bebel Gilberto. I can see those two working well together in that studio with the high ceilings and spiritual stamp.

But the story has changed, at least from my side, and if I have to read one more Facebook post about how Choffel is now doing something “for two” I might lose it. “Initially, I was scared shitless and just so overwhelmed about what this meant for my career,” says Choffel, 34, who didn’t tell anyone besides immediate family that she was pregnant until she was at 16 weeks. “And then slowly, with a lot of talking it out and journaling and reaching out to other musical mamas, I realized that this is not only doable, but it can actually enhance your career in many ways. Up until now my whole life has just been about me and my career. I did whatever I wanted to do, whenever. This gives me some boundaries, which I think might be a good thing. Time is more precious, to be treated with respect.”

I understand that. While raising my son, I perfected the two-hour profile. He would go down for a nap at about 2 p.m. and there was no such thing as writing block. I don’t care what I was working on- a 10,000-word profile of Willie Nelson or a review of a Terri Hendrix record- by the time I heard the wake-up cry at about 4 p.m. I was done. Gain a kid and lose all those weak excuses about feeling the vibe. Just as dancing is a representation of having sex, making a record is an approximation of childbirth. There is no greater form of creativity- and any two morons can do it- so you have to work hard to make your experience special.

The over/under on which of Choffel’s next LPs will be “for children of all ages” is two.

But for now, she’s hunkered down with Boyle, out to make the album that Nell and I talked about.

This was also going to be a story about Nell Mulderry, Choffel’s NYC-based manager, whose BOSS Sounds company handles all the Miles Davis reissues for Sony Legacy, as well as other music marketing concerns. It’s rare that Mulderry manages acts, but when she heard Choffel’s second-place entry (“Stumble”) in an international songwriting contest, she says she heard “a totally original artist” that you’re lucky to come across once every few years. Mulderry went right to www.suzannachoffel.com and saw that the singer had recently moved to NYC and was set to appear at the ZirZamin underground club in the Village that weekend. (Opened by Oveisi in late 2011, ZirZamin closed about two years later.) The live set cinched the deal for Mulderry, but Choffel was still under contract with The Voice at the time. Her televised audition, singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” got Adam Levine and Blake Shelton to turn their chairs around and she chose Shelton to be her coach. The next week was the battle round and Choffel advanced singing “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine.

In that week’s wrapup of the show, Rolling Stone magazine singled out Choffel as “the only artist you’d want to listen to a complete album by,” but her run ended the next week when Zanna Ouise, as her friends call her, went up against Cassadee Pope, the eventual season winner. Before that sing-off, show producers gave Choffel a list of four song possibilities and asked her to rank them according to preference. Choffel put “Jolene” at the top and “Will You Be Loved” at the bottom, but producers had her do the Bob Marley song, which is not really a singer’s showcase, but Choffel could’ve played the hell out of it on guitar. (She taught herself to play by listening to Marley records for hours and hours every day while at Austin High.)

Choffel says she had to wrestle long and hard with the idea of being on a TV singing talent show, but she’s long been taken for granted in her home town and seemed to only get recognition when she mixed it up with the world. Still, she’s a child of Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts album, which changed her from a Whitney Houston karaoke singer to a serious artist, writing her own songs from the heart. Getting bounced from The Voice may have stung her pride a little, but it also meant she could get on with her true career.

Once free from NBC’s contract, Mulderry signed Choffel and got NYC’s Red Parlor Records to reissue 2011’s Steady Eye Shaky Bow as Archer. Though Steady Eye seemed strong enough to break Choffel nationally, getting tons of airplay for “Raindrops” on KGSR and other AAA stations, the momentum was shaken by the move to NYC and split from Austin-based Rainmaker Management. The reissue was important in getting Choffel on the scene with new product to promote and she toured Europe extensively, finding a new favorite spot on earth in the French village of Choffel.

After she became pregnant and career priorities changed, Choffel and Mulderry parted ways.

Well, look, I’m just kinda rambling here because I lost my story and you never really do get back on track when that happens. Here’s my original lead:

It’s been three years since her last album, two years since she appeared in three episodes of The Voice, but Suzanna Choffel looks to make her career the top priority in the next year. There are going to be a lot of champagne toasts in early 2015, when Choffel’s next album, produced by David Boyle (Okkervil River, Black Joe Lewis) should be in the can. Look for her to be running around all over town during SXSW in March. Nothing is going to distract Choffel in 2015, when she plans to continue living in both New York City, where she and boyfriend Paul Oveisi rent a room in Chelsea, and her hometown of Austin. An adventurous traveler, don’t be surprised if Ms. Choffel jets off to France or Brazil at a moment’s notice.

It’s all worthless now, but one thing remains unchanged from my original draft. The headline. “There’s Never a Wrong Time To Be Born” originally was aimed at how the fast-changing music business shouldn’t change the creative process. Choffel, who says “I was born either 10 years too early or 10 years too late” may have come of age at the worst time to make money as a musician. But it’s the best time to connect with those who get you and will find ways to keep you making more music. Even if your priorities flip.

Come to think of it, the title of this article actually fits better now.

 

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They couldn’t make ‘Blazing Saddles’ today

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

They couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles” today. Not in this vitriolic racial climate, where a Super Bowl quarterback can’t even get a backup job because he wouldn’t stand for the anthem, and owners are afraid of offending fans. This culture would be less without “Blazing Saddles,” my vote for funniest movie ever made.
I’m troubled by what’s happening on social media, which is influencing- dominating, even- the minds of the world like nothing since religion. Facebook and Twitter are like a church service, where both sides of the aisle bicker back and forth at each other. They each have their own priest/website. Also, their own ministers of propaganda. But nothing gets done really, but the shouting. After awhile it becomes a drain.
Harmless (though offensive) posts are sucked into the agenda and contorted into mobilizing shapes. “This is an attack on our values!” It becomes a war for a few hours and then everybody moves on to the next thing.
If I was a young writer today, not one eligible for Social Security next month, I’d be wristslapped away from any outrageousness. Taught early on to comply to accepted notions- lest the fury of the Internet strike me down. I’d try to be the most colorful journalist on the party line, not the guy who wrote a column for the Austin Chronicle during the AIDS epidemic that belittled guys who used condoms for hetero-sex. The Chron never got more nasty letters than after the “Die Like a Man” column, but they didn’t come for a couple days- not a thousand in 90 seconds. Maybe a few phone calls went around, but nobody boycotted the Chronicle. Nowadays- boom!- 100,000 people think you’re a piece of shit.

I’ve always been a contrarian: ask my sisters. I try to find the angle that no one else is using- for reasons I would soon prove! My goal as a writer has never changed: Be Interesting. To me, there’s nothing to everybody repeating the same opinion. What do you learn from that?
I’m not very well educated, but I’ve got a masters degree in arguments. Taking the wrong side, I’ve found, is how you learn the most. There was a time, when SXSW was small, I made some flippant comment around a couple of Boston guys, that the Celtics always drafted the best available white guy. It almost came to violence when I called Larry Bird overrated and Kevin McHale all elbows. But after things calmed down, these guys gave me a lesson on McHale’s value that “30 For 30” couldn’t match. I really had no idea. We shook hands and went our ways, though I couldn’t resist a “Celtics Suck!” from the distance.
If we had that dispute on Twitter today, they would’ve gone through all my posts of the past couple years, screen-shooting the most ridiculous. They would’ve twisted what I said (“Larry’s afraid to play D? This asshole’s from Austin, TX”) They would’ve mobilized their network of Celtics fans and told them where I worked, what kind of car I drove. It would’ve been brutal.
The Internet won the election for Donald Trump and it’s dividing our country like no one person could. But it’s also an amazing tool for the times. I keep telling myself I’m done with social media. Just too much twisting, too many people trying to bring each other down. It’s home of the new witch hunt, only this time the witches are doing the hunting.
But I can’t turn away. It’s too informative (if you weed out the bullshit sites), too engaging, too fun. I’m not going to sacrifice all that because people can really be bullies on social media.
It’s not my time anymore, as a freelance provocateur. I can’t take all the negative shit like I used to. My days are limited and not to be used for explaining myself (or “mansplaining”). I’m just a guy with opinions and a laptop. I drive a beige 2015 Kia Soul. And I write about Texas music.

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I love the years, but sometimes hate the days

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

I’ve let myself go. Look at those words individually: let myself go. Where is the negative?

It’s liberating to grow old and not give a shit. I don’t want to die and I do things to add time between now and that day, but I’m not going to do dumb stuff to look younger or lie about my age. I’ll walk in a circle on a trail, then spend $7 for a juice, but I’m not doing anything with dyes and scalpels.

I’m proud of all the 61 years I’ve been alive and look forward to every birthday. Another year I beat evil and biology. It’s another year longer than I thought I would live. Age is a number on a scoreboard and this ain’t golf.

I had to use a cane for awhile after some surgery and I kept using it even after I healed. Man with a cane gets respect in a crowd. It’s a poor man’s bodyguard. People clear you a path when you have a cane, and no one’s looking to start some shit. An advantage of aging no one ever talks about.

What’s the worst thing about growing old? Depends.

Not quite there yet with the dumpster drawers, but I’m up on the downsides of getting old. The constant aches are kind of a drag, but it’s still better than being young and stupid.

You know you’re getting old when you’re online searching for a masseuse and you’re hoping it’s the real kind, not some woman you pay to jerk you off.

Mortality is acknowledged every night when you clear your computer history because there’s a chance you might not wake up and who’s going to understand that the Google search for Hung Mexican Men was for some research on drug cartel violence?

Age is the elephant in the room… watching “Judge Judy” at full volume. It’s something that’s always there, but in the back of your mind. Like the spare bedroom at your kid’s house that’ll be your dorm room until graduation to the nursing home. If you’re lucky.

 

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Saving “Home on the Range”

Posted by mcorcoran on November 13, 2017

The Lebermann family of Austin: L-R Lowell Sr., mother Virginia, daughter Virginia, father Henry and daughter Jeanne.

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam/ And the deer and the antelope play. Thus opens one of the most beloved tunes of Western American folklore, a song that may have been lost forever if not for the efforts of a trio of Austinites: song hunter John A. Lomax, musician Henry Lebermann, who scored the tune from a rough field recording, and his wife Virginia, who wrote it all down.

I have to thank Lois Pattie, the former assistant of the late Lowell Lebermann (ex-City Councilman), for sending me two and half typewritten pages that Lowell’s grandmother Virginia Carrington Lebermann wrote about how she and her husband Henry transcribed the music and lyrics for “Home On the Range,” which was published in 1910 in Lomax’s massively important book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The Lebermanns scored 25 songs in all, including “Git Along Little Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail.”

Here is the recollection in Ms. Lebermann’s own words, using her punctuation:

THE STORY OF “HOME ON THE RANGE” – AS IT HAPPENED BEFORE MY EYES

One day in June 1908, Mr. John Lomax, an administrator at the University of Texas, turned up in a colored saloon beyond the Southern Pacific depot in San Antonio, Texas, lugging an old-fashioned Edison recording machine about the size of a hay wagon.

The Negro proprietor had been a camp cook and for years had sung songs up and down the Chisholm Trail. Lomax found him behind the saloon, under a tree, asleep. He punched him in the ribs and told him that he wanted to record one of his songs.

“Come back tomorrow,” mumbled the singer.

This Lomax did, and under the mesquite where he had previously found him, the first recording of “Home On the Range” was made.

Finally, Mr. Lomax’s interest in the cowboy ballad brought him to our door. He came because he had heard of the musical ability of my husband Henri Leberman (note: Virginia always used the less-German one “n” spelling of her married name and spelled Henry Lebermann’s first name in the French way.) I remember so well the day he came to our house, carrying with him a satchel full of old Edison records that he had made—not only of the old Negro’s singing, but of cowboys singing around the campfire at night while they were camped on the range.

Lomax explained to my husband that he wanted musical scores written for all these tunes, so that they could be printed in a book he was compiling called “Cowboy Songs.” The scoring was a tremendous undertaking since some of the records were badly scratched, and in some cases the rhythm of the songs was poor.

The records in those days were cylindrical in shape, and the process of recording was extremely difficult since the machine in which the blank cylinders were placed was manually operated. The recordings produced were none too good at best, and the 25 that Lomax brought to our home were worse than usual. My husband was thus not very enthusiastic about doing the work.

Mr. Lomax offered Henri a choice of royalty on the book or cash payment for his work.

My husband was a teacher in the Music Department of the Texas School for the Blind, and a very fine pianist and organist he was. To him the classics were all to be desired, for he had no interest in “hill-billy” music as he called it. I tried to get him to take a chance that the cowboy songs would some day be the folk songs of the West.

I didn’t know at the time that I would live to see “Home On the Range” become the favorite song of our President, Frankin D. Roosevelt, and one loved by all Americans.

It was now the beginning of a long summer vacation, so after much persuasion, Henri agreed to write the music. I remember the hours we spent with the records, playing the tunes over and over as my husband arranged the proper music, harmonizing chords and runs to bring out the beauty of the melody.

After finishing a phrase, he would dictate the notes to me, and I would write the manuscript. After we had worked for weeks, we finished the music of all 25 records. We had scored the most sung of all cowboy songs.

Early that fall, Mr. Lomax returned to our home to pick up the manuscripts, and he was very pleased with the results.

He, again, offered Henri a royalty from the sale of the book, but Henri refused. I urged him to take the royalty, but he couldn’t be persuaded. Although he had done a very fine piece of work, all he wanted was payment for his services. Mr. Lomax paid him and then left with the manuscripts under his arm.

After the “Cowboy Songs” book was published I called on Mr. Lomax at his home in Dallas and asked him to sell me the original manuscripts Henri had dictated to me. I wanted to place them in our Texas University Museum as a tribute to my husband. Mr. Lomax said he had many old manuscripts and a number of them had crumbled to decay, these including, possibly, the manuscript from which “Home On the Range” was printed. I came home with a heavy heart.

In November 1957, an article appeared in the Dallas Morning News written by Walter C. Hornaday of the Washington Bureau of the News. Following is a part of the article:

“’Home On the Range,’ a most famous song of the West, was saved from oblivion by the late John Avery Lomax, noted Texas collector of folklore ballads.

Dr. Brewster Higley, a La Port, Indiana, doctor who went to the Kansas frontier, wrote the words.

The doctor’s poem was first published in the Smith County Pioneer in 1873, about a year after he wrote it. The tune was written by Daniel E. Kelly, a miller at Gaylord, Kansas.”

In “Cowboy Songs,” Mr. Lomax acknowleged my husband’s part in making “Home On the Range” a success. Hundreds of congratulatory letters poured in.

We felt happy that Mr. Lomax publicly acknowleged that it was Henri’s music that led to “Home On the Range” being a success.

I think Henri was very pleased, but being a very humble man, would never acknowledge that he had done anything great.

-Virginia Leberman, circa 1960

I met Ms. Pattie, an Australian native, in 2009 when I was writing a profile of Henry Lebermann, her former boss’ grandfather, for a series called “The Secret History of Austin Music.” As a music teacher at the Texas School For the Blind since 1901, Henry Lebermann mentored such future giants as Leon Payne, who wrote “Lost Highway” and other country classics, and whistler Fred Lowery. But the sightless visionary Lebermann had the most fascinating story of them all.

Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas “Little Campus” in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.

During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments. Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology. This is all cool Austin history stuff that I had to argue into the story about an influential unknown musician.

Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941. After graduating from the blind school, Lebermann moved to Alvin to become a farmer. But when his father and brother were killed in the 1900 Galveston hurricane, with Henry barely surviving, he moved back to Austin to carry on the work of his father, a noted composer and orchestra leader. Records show that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.

The Lebermann-led school orchestra was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.

After a year’s courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell Sr., who would become a doctor in Commerce, Tex., was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.

It’s believed that Lomax visited the Lebermanns when they lived on Manor Road. Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), was a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

“We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people,” Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline “Blind Genius at State Capital.” “Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home.”

Such balance was also evident in their work together, as Virginia became strong at the things Henry couldn’t easily do. He listened to the records Lomax dropped off with earphones and called out the notes to Virginia. They worked side-by-side like this for hours every day.

But their work was not forgotten. “The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust,” Lomax wrote of the tune a black San Antonio barkeep sang for him after he sobered up. “But the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives.”

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Gettin’ Mighty Crowded: the story of SXSW is the story of Austin today

Posted by mcorcoran on November 11, 2017

This column is from Feb. 2014

Sunday is March 1. MARCH FIRST! People in Austin start freaking out- a mix of horror and excitement- when they flip the calendar and see it’s March. The chest pounds like being in the tunnel before a big football game. The third month means South by Southwest and, godammit, we’re going to do it right this year.

SXSW turns Austin into a dead buffalo and all the people who come are the Indians who use every piece of the animal. Every building, every parking lot, every side street, every park. They stuff their faces and dance to tribal beats and go a little crazy in the spirit of celebration. And when they go home there are always a few they leave behind.

One of the advantages of our town is that we have a built-in conversation starter that bypasses the weather. “What brought you to Austin?” Cab drivers to yoga instructors, they all have a story. The number one answer used to be “attended the University of Texas and decided to stay.” But today it’s because they came to Southby one year and decided they could definitely live here. The registration line at the Convention Center in mid-March is the Ellis Island of New Austin, a land of opportunity for people with reasonable expectations.

SXSW used to be “the music industry’s best kept secret” and the people who came here from all over the country (mostly Oklahoma and Louisiana in 1987, the first year) went back home and told everyone about this paradise they had found. The music was good stuff from road-tested professionals, the clubs were right next to each other and the weather was better, the beer cheaper and the people friendlier than back home. Some got laid. We didn’t even need breakfast tacos, but that foldable deliciousness was a spectacular bonus. This town during SXSW in the ‘90s was a moveable feast equal to Paris in the ‘20s. I shit you not.

The monster of mid-March became an action-packed trailer for the indie film “Move To Austin.” The word got out like a mutha, as SXSW became the cultural party of the year. Lately, Austin during the ten days of madness more closely resembles a montage of apocalyptic chaos, which has called for scaling down.

Austin is no different than any other cool place- it had to show off. It’s only natural, no one is to blame. I was one of those doing the bragging, writing a seven-page spread on the Austin music scene for Spin magazine in 1986. “The New Sincerity” was the headline and the piece focused on bands like True Believers, Zeitgeist, Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, Daniel Johnston and Dino Lee. We were all on a mission to tell the world what an amazing town we had found.

Then SXSW started and legitimized Austin as a music industry town. Nashville with soul, an affordable L.A. An estimated 150 people a day are moving to Austin, while 40 a day move away, usually because they can’t afford to live here anymore. Used to be you could house the whole band and the roadie for $750 a month. For that price these days you’ll get a studio apartment next to a Jiffy Lube south of Ben White.

So what brought me to Austin 30 years ago? I thought I’d never ask. I got a postcard one day from a friend who toured with the Cramps as girlfriend/ lighting tech. It said the band had just played a punk club called Raul’s and I wouldn’t believe how hip this town in Texas is. I ran a t-shirt business in Honolulu with tattoo artist Mike Malone. Around the same time he got a newsletter from an Austin jug band his friend Travis Holland was in. We were pretty bored in Hawaii and the t-shirts- which we advertised in biker magazines- were really taking off, so we had decided to move to the mainland to cut down on postage. But where?

I also remembered that my rock critic hero Lester Bangs lived in Austin for awhile. We up and moved and Malone set up a tattoo shop at 2712 Guadalupe St., but hardly anybody came by because only military guys and bikers got tattoos back then. There were only two tattoo shops in town in 1985 and they were both pretty dead, so Malone ended up returning to Hawaii after a couple years.

But I stayed, long enough to attend every SXSW. Long enough to watch Austin become an overcrowded bar that used to be a place where there was always an empty booth. You drive by and see the line outside and can’t even remember that night that girl who’s now your wife surprised you by rubbing her bare foot on your crotch from across the table. That booth is still there. You just can’t sit there after about 9 p.m. Or when there’s a festival in town (AKA “the weekend.”)

A couple of ironies to point out: SXSW was started by the Austin Chronicle, a liberal weekly with an anti-growth agenda, and it was held on Spring Break week because all the UT students would be out of town.

Austin fiddler Ruby Jane with Lady Gaga at Stubb’s during SXSW 2014. Billboard magazine photo.

In recent years, as the buzz got out about free Jay-Z and Kanye concerts and free booze at music industry parties and flocks of film celebrities and people getting laid, Austin became a Spring Break destination. Padre Island still gets the bronzed and the blasted, but the more parsimonious collegians head to ATX to get their free(k) on. It’s the party of the year if you know how to work it and if you don’t and you have $30 you can get one of the RSVP services popping up to enter your name in as many free party lotteries as they can.

This is the part of South by Southwest that’s not really SXSW, the foliage that has practically overgrown base camp. You see, SXSW Inc. is really only what goes on in the Convention Center and the venues they have under contract. Everything else is fair game and corporations, craving a clientele of tastemakers, come to town with money to melt and impressions to make. If the SXSW event you want to go to has a RSVP link, it’s not really SXSW. It’s the afterparty that goes on before, during and after the main event. But like a rap concert where there are 11 people standing on stage and only two mics, the afterparty has become the big draw.

“I thought SXSW was supposed to be for unsigned bands,” the old sandwich artist’s mope, has been magnified in recent years, as such acts as Coldplay, Prince, Eminem, Usher and the like have taken high profile slots.In 2014, the iTunes Fest took over ACL Live, Austin’s downtown jewel, but it was not really SXSW. Just as the Austonian high-rise condo isn’t really Austin.

Although their sanction is slapped on the event, SXSW organizers had nothing to do with Apple’s decision to bring the iTunes Fest to town. Believe me, they didn’t want to give up their very best venue, the 2,750-capacity ACL Live, with not a bad seat in the house, to a corporate giant trying to bask in their heat. But iTunes Fest was coming no matter what and so the best SXSW could do was convince Apple to work with them.

The whole game has changed at SXSW, just as it has for the entire entertainment industry. The music portion of SXSW used to be the main focus, with about 90% of the attention, and the other 10% going to fledgling interactive and film components. Today, music lags far behind interactive for the simple fact that the Internet made music free. Spotify has rented a big house in West East Austin (west of Chicon) for around-the-clock partying, while the record labels have a cheese, fruit and vegetable tray in the corner of a dive bar.

SXSW brings out the best in people and the worst. I’ve been saying that since year two. But the city has become so overrun with a Mardi Gras- like party atmosphere that even the city government noticed. Unlike the New Orleans blowout, SXSW is an industry event. Aside from the few superstars- like Prince and Justin Timberlake last year- who are paid handsomely to play corporate parties, almost all the 2,000 plus acts come to SXSW to play basically for free in front of industry folks who can help their careers. The energy from true fans helps the show, but generally the more the public gets involved, the more watered down SXSW gets. A lot of folks who used to come to the convention every year to network and learn, have sworn off SXSW forever. It’s become too much of a challenge to navigate through the tens of thousands who come to town because they heard there’s free shows everywhere.

In an attempt to limit the madhouse’s scope, the city began putting a cap on the number of special event permits in 2014, reaching capacity almost two months before the event this year as well. The city permitting department even prevented Lady Gaga from playing on the Doritos stage (last year). The official reason was that the demand would be too much to handle, but I think there were closet “little monsters” in on the decision who just couldn’t stand the desperation of their idol playing on a 50-foot-tall chips dispenser.

But there’s nothing to limit the number of folks who are moving to Austin. “Yeah, it sucks, but tell me a better city to live in,” is what I hear from friends when we sit around. We used to argue True Believers vs. Zeitgeist, now we debate about what we hate more: Mopac or I-35.

But just as there are two SXSWs, there are two Austins. What you loved about this town when you first moved here is still there, you just have to look for it. “The land of opportunity for those with reasonable expectations,” remember that motto.
On Sunday afternoon I went to an old haunt, the Hole In the Wall, and it was almost like the old days. Someone had a Weber grill going on the patio and bands were playing country music and blues and stompin’ folk. People were sitting at picnic tables draining pitchers, talking politics, gossiping, laughing. It brought me back, but I couldn’t stay long.

Amid the craziness of SXSW, you can find scenes from SXSW 1993, I’m telling you. There will be little moments that are big in your heart. The mistake a lot of people make when SXSW approaches is becoming obsessed with seeing it all, being everywhere. You want to be where they’re “killing it” on Facebook or hashtag facemelt on Twitter. The fear of missing out is wasted energy, let me tell you as a veteran of every SXSW.

In the early years of Southby, there might be only two or three big parties a day, so if you missed one you felt like a loser. But in less than a couple weeks it’ll be all day, all night, wall-to-wall music and partying. Forget the big picture. That’s just traffic. Look at what’s in front of you and you just might stumble onto the set that makes you fall in love with live music all over again. Stop reading nametags and you’ll meet people who know how to share themselves in meaningful ways. Finding the individuals in the crush, the artists in hucksterville, is not usually something you can plan.

SXSW brings out the best and the worst in all of us.

But here’s the thing I like most about when our town becomes Super Austin, the Burning Brand Festival. The lines, the crowds, the gridlock are a great advertisement for going out to the clubs and the restaurants when it’s not SXSW.

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Goodbye Old Friend: Ian McLagan 1945- 2014

Posted by mcorcoran on November 10, 2017

When Kim McLagan died in a car accident in August 2006, it hit especially hard because I knew how devastated her husband Ian McLagan was. You’ve never seen a veteran couple so in love. Kim was Ian’s angel and they made each other laugh.

I was at the Statesman when the sad, stunning news came and I was supposed to write an obit on the 57-year-old former British model, ex-wife of Keith Moon and best friend of Beatles wives, but I just couldn’t move. “How’s that obit coming along?” an editor came by after about half an hour. No place colder than a newsroom. He came by again and said, “I need it NOW!” How was I supposed to write when my friend’s life had just been torn apart? But I plowed through and got it done. Can’t tell you how many times that scenario repeated in my mind and I told the editor to leave me alone to grieve.

When I found out that Ian McLagan, Manor’s only member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had died Wednesday after suffering a stroke, I had one part of me saying to get an obit up. But I let myself reflect for awhile, going for a drive while Facebook and Twitter were blowing up. I was thinking about how Mac, this member of British rock royalty, was much more a musician than a rock star. He was part of the community, not gated off from it. Mac hustled gigs to pay the bills- good gigs, mind you. And when he had enough money, enough songs, he made albums like this year’s United States, which upped his roadwork. McLagan died the day before he and his band were to embark on a cross country tour with Nick Lowe. Lowe became worried when the ever-dependable McLagan failed to show up for rehearsal Tuesday. Friends checked in on the keyboardist and found him in his bathtub, barely breathing, apparently the victim of a brain hemorrhage. At 2:39 p.m. Wednesday McLagan, 69, was dead.

Faces-era Ian McLagan

Unlike other Sixties and Seventies rock icons, McLagan didn’t come to Austin to retire on his laurels. He came here to thump that piano and sing like he and his mates were up to no good. He could break your heart when he sang about Kim, but he could also make you forget everything besides needing another beer with a romping pub rocker. He had a tradition to uphold!

The music world has never seen anything like the British Invasion of the 1960’s, when the Beatles, soon followed by the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Hollies and many more mopheads with bad teeth, took the best of American music, from the blues to Buddy Holly, dressed it up on Carnaby Street and sent it back over the Pond as an exotic new strain of rock n’ roll.

Nobody’s had a vision of what Heaven might be that beats London in 1965 and Ian McLagan, keyboardist of the Small Faces, was right in the thick of it. Unlike the entourage-laden bands of today, who pretty much keep to their own circle, the British bands of the ’60s all hung out together. Like astronauts who’ve walked on the moon, they were a special fraternity. No one else could understand what they were experiencing, though everyone else was trying real hard to find out.

After Ron Wood joined the Stones, Rod Stewart went solo and the Faces broke up, McLagan toured as a sideman for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg and many more. He also had his own group, the Bump Band, for club work in Los Angeles, where almost all the British rockers moved in the ‘80s.

While on tour with Rod Stewart in 1994, Ian and Kim signed the papers to buy a two-story wooden house on 15 acres six miles outside of Manor. This was right after the big earthquake in L.A. He loved that the town had a British name and that there was a great restaurant, Little Thailand, not too far away. But the main reason the McLagans chose to live near Austin was because Mac’s best friend from the Small Faces, Ronnie Lane, lived here. Lane had been diagnosed with MS in the late ‘70s, but had made remarkable progress since moving in 1985 to Austin, where he was embraced as a musical hero, not just for the Faces, but his Slim Chance solo record and the Rough Mix collab with Pete Townshend.

But Lane couldn’t take the Texas summers and, newly married and in declining health, moved to Colorado just two months after the McLagans arrived. He died in 1997.

“Ronnie was the soul of the Faces,” McLagan said in ’99. “Rod’s songs are all about girls and parties, but the reason they worked is that Ronnie would follow up with a song that went deeper.”

McLagan wrote two songs about Lane — the rollicking pub song “Hello Old Friend” and the touching “Don’t Let Him Out of Your Sight” – and included them on his 2000 LP Best of British, which garnered universal great reviews, but didn’t sell too well

That year, McLagan also released his autobiography All the Rage. When I went out to Manor to interview him, the photos from the book were scattered around his studio. One showed a 17-year-old Ian riding in the back seat of a car being driven by Howlin’ Wolf, who used McLagan’s Muleskinners band as backing on a British tour. “Wolf was the coolest,” he said. “When we met him, he put his arms around all five of us, pulled us towards him and said, `My boys.’”

There were lots of photos of Mac hanging with the Stones, whom he toured with in ’78 and ’81. “So many great times,” he said as he thumbed through a stack of photos of him and Mick and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie. “When I saw the Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond that first time (circa ’62), I knew that that was all I ever wanted to do. There was never a Plan B.” The Stones picked McLagan and his Bump Band to open their historic 2006 concert at Zilker Park.

Early signs looked for McLagan to play for tens of thousands again in the summer of 2015 as a headliner this time, with the reunited Rod Stewart and Faces. McLagan’s keyboards were as essential to the Faces sound as Johnnie Johnson to early Chuck Berry, so the prospect of a reunion got Mac excited. Now, that was a rock n’ roll band, women.

“The Faces definitely had a reputation for partying, ” McLagan said, when we sat down for a pair of Guinesses in the Laughing Dogs Pub inside McLagan’s house. “It was something the record label was all behind, this image of us as elegantly boozing rock ‘n’ rollers.” Every day the band would check into their hotel rooms and greeting them would be a full bottle of their liquor of choice (Jack Daniel’s for Mac). Often the band members would take their half-empty bottles onstage and swig throughout the show, accenting the band’s charming recklessness. Even though Rod Stewart wore scarves and dated supermodels, the Faces maintained a working-class connection mainly because they refused to take any of this rock ‘n’ roll stuff seriously.

It was an attitude Mac brought to Austin, where he and his band played almost every Thursday at Lucky Lounge.

Nashville may have the Country Music Hall of Fame and Seattle may have the Experience Music Project, but Austin had a living, breathy, rock your face off monument with Ian McLagan. A fabulous keyboard player, who’d played on such important records, McLagan was confident in his place in rock history. But we also remember him fondly as a man who carried himself less as a legend of the British Invasion than that white-haired bloke on piano who’s gonna bury your favorite young band.

 

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As long as you’re not finished: the Harvey “Tex Thomas” Young Story

Posted by mcorcoran on November 10, 2017

Photo by Scott Newton. This story first published in 2014.

The song started as a poem on a postcard to a brother in prison. It was first recorded in the ‘90s on an album nobody bought. I first heard it in Nashville last month, sung by Joe Pug, a 30-year-old rising star of deep, dark pop songs.

“This next one is by an Austin songwriter named Harvey Young,” Pug said at the High Watt Club, and I stood there, stunned by the incongruity of the moment. This hip “new Dylan” was covering a song by Tex Thomas (Harvey Young), whose Dangling Wranglers terrorized the Austin’s country music scene of the ‘80s. Led by Young and his musical sidekick Danny Levin, those raucous R&B cowboys played Hut’s every Sunday for a decade. But even possessing some of the best musicians in town, the talk was always about the crazed antics of “The Rawhide Messiah” Young, who possessed the energy and the ethics of a profane preacher. Nobody could talk down or out-drink or over-entertain Tex Thomas.

The rumor was that he also wrote great songs, but I never got close enough to the hearth, hanging back with the coke whores and lip-chewers and the guys with the skunkweed pockets. More drugs than hamburgers were sold in Hut’s on Sunday nights, let me tell you.

Back at Nashville’s High Watt, where the closest to a drug deal was someone buying a beer in thanks for a Benadryl, Joe Pug stepped up to the mic and started:

From deep dark wells comes pure clean water
and the ice will melt as the day gets hotter
and the night grows old as the sun climbs into the sky

The club grew quiet except for the voice and the strum. And then came the chorus, with a melody that packed more of the meaning:

As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again
As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again

When this beautiful song about hope and rebirth was over the crowd erupted and I felt a little low. I moved to Austin in 1984 and yet I didn’t know Harvey Thomas Young had such inspiring songs in him. I’d heard all the drug stories, but didn’t know this wildman had poetry in his soul. I was reminded of the time at SXSW circa 1991 when the great Memphis musician Jim Dickinson introduced a song by Blaze Foley to zero reaction. “Haven’t y’all heard of Blaze Foley?” he said to blank stares. This was just two years after Foley was shot to death on West Mary Street. “He’s from right here in Austin and he was a great songwriter. Ya oughta be ashamed.”

Harvey Young, now 64, never stopped writing songs, even though his heyday in the Austin music scene was over two decades ago. He just released his first album since 1995, More Than We Was, to get down for posterity such deep and wondrous songs as “Vagabond Soul” and “Don’t Say No.” The theme of all his material, Young says, is that life is a gift to embrace with both hands, even when things aren’t going great.

Young possesses what could kindly be called “a songwriter’s voice,” but the songs of this musical grandfather run around in your mind when you’re asleep if you listen to them late at night.

“My parents used to take me to Hut’s to see the Dangling Wranglers when I was nine years old,” said Young’s guitarist Gabe Rhodes, whose mother Kimmie goes back with Harvey Young to Lubbock in the ‘60s. “And I didn’t realize how much that music had sunk in subconsciously until I started playing those old songs with Harvey (recently). “We’d play ‘Highways of Gold’ or ‘Fugitive Animal’ and I’d be thinking ‘I KNOW that song!’ They never left me.”

We were talking at Guero’s on Wednesday, where I met with Young and Pug to discuss their unlikely mentor/protégé relationship. Pug later joined Young and his newest Wranglers (Levin, Rhodes, bassist Zeke Jarmon and fiddler Ian Stewart) for a version of “Deep Dark Wells” that aired live on Sun Radio 100.1 FM. “Harvey’s songs are part pop, part psalms,” said Pug, who moved to Austin from Chicago almost five years ago. “I think some of them are worthy of the Great American Songbook.”

Joe Pug and Harvey Young at Guero’s 2014.

The spirituality of Young’s music was preserved in the ‘80s in the collection Hut’s Hymnal compiled by Casey Monahan, who now heads the state government’s Texas Music Office. Nearly 25 years later, Monahan was the link between Young and Pug, turning the young songwriter onto the West Texas “warrior poet” about four years ago. Born Joseph Pugliese in Maryland, the wavy-haired Pug was a young playwright hopeful who dropped out of the University of North Carolina in 2005 to become a singer-songwriter in Chicago. Carpentry paid the bills, but at nights Pug hit the open mikes and assembled enough good material to record his first EP Nation of Heat. Before it became commonplace for musicians to give away their music to help create a fanbase, Pug handed out and mailed CD samplers to anyone who was vaguely interested and even a few who weren’t. But the music resonated and Pug ended up selling 20,000 copies of Heat. Leadoff track “Hymn #101,” embraced by NPR as the work of a rising songwriter, opened the doors on a career boosted by a two-month stint in the U.S. and Europe opening for Steve Earle on his Townes Van Zandt tribute tour.

A taste for Texas

Night after night, only two men came onstage with their acoustic guitars: Pug, then Earle. It was a master class in songwriting and performing for the kid from Maryland, whose compositional roots kept taking him to Texas. Such Lone Star songwriters as Earle, Van Zandt, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Gilmore and Butch Hancock connected deeply with Pug, so after the Earle gig ended, he decided to move to Austin. He wanted to breathe in the air that had exhaled such tender masculinity in song. Pug had just released his full-length debut Messenger to critical raves and was ready to embark on his next chapter.

Monahan was friends with Pug’s label head Logan Rogers at Lightning Rod Records and he arranged a “welcome to Austin” breakfast with Pug at Cisco’s in 2010. During the meal, Monahan’s phone rang and he said he had to take it. “It’s someone who might be interested in my rent house,” he said. As coincidence would have it, the caller was Pug’s girlfriend Jamie Zanelotti (The Hems) and by the end of the week the former high school sweethearts were Monahan’s tenants.

Between their houses is a shed where Monahan played records by some of his favorite songwriters from Texas. “Joe was such a fan of the Flatlanders,” said Monahan, “and I wanted him to hear some of the other greats from Lubbock, so I played David Halley, Eddie Beethoven, R.C. Banks and Harvey Young.” Pug soaked it all in, but that Young song “Start Again” was the one that really stalked his writer’s mind.

Pug played Young’s 1995 CD Highways of Gold over and over and learned the chords and words to the #12 track without ever really knowing the title. After recording it as “Deep Dark Wells” and putting it on his 2012 LP The Great Despiser, he received a call from Harvey a few weeks before the LP’s release, thanking him for recording “Start Again.” Oops. The Pug album was already printed and ready to ship. “Ah, don’t worry ‘bout it man,” Young said with a laugh. “I think that’s what the (Mapleshade) label called it. I never did have a name for it myself.”

The lyrics for “Deep Dark Wells” came from a postcard that Young was going to send to his brother Norbert, in prison for bank fraud, but it was intercepted by Monahan while collecting lyrics for Hut’s Hymnal.

“It’s the only song we do that I didn’t write and we play it every night,” said Pug of the Young cover that he’s grown so close to. “It’s like marrying a woman with a kid and eventually the kid becomes your son. I identify with ‘Deep Dark Wells’ so strongly that if we have a short 10-song set, that’s one that we’d play.”

A family’s deep, dark wells

Born in 1951, Young grew up on a farm near Littlefield, the hometown of Waylon Jennings. Toddler “Tommy” moved with his family to Bakersfield, where his father was an in-demand lap steel player. Harvey Sr. was always on the road, touring with Patsy Cline for almost two years, so he became almost a mythic hero to his oldest son.

With a new brother and sister for Tommy, the family moved back to Texas in the early ‘60s and bought a farm in Farwell, near the New Mexico border. On July 4, 1964, Young’s parents and younger siblings Norbert and Debra, were coming to pick him up from his aunt and uncle’s farm, where a 13-year-old Tommy had worked all day. But Tommy heard a horrible crash about a quarter mile from the farm and went running. It was the family car, broadsided on that country road by a drunk driver. Harvey Young Sr. was dead. The rest of the family was hospitalized.

“I was not the same after that, as you could imagine,” said Young, whose mother Pauline also almost died in the crash. “I had been a good student, testing in the top 4% in the state, but my mind was just in the clouds. I had been emotionally destroyed, so I built a wall around myself so it wouldn’t happen again.”

Young found solace and release in the set of drums his father had given him just a few weeks earlier. “He said I should learn to play an instrument I didn’t have to tune,” said Young, who dropped out of high school to play drums for bands in Lubbock.

“I was scared of Tommy Young, which is what we called him back then,” said R.C. Banks, who moved from Lubbock to Austin in the late ‘60s to play music. “He was a tough sumbitch and he carried a chain with him,” said Banks. “Plus his Uncle Boozie was a gangster. You were wise to stay away from the Youngs.” But Banks’ band Showdown needed a drummer. And Tommy had a van, which was really the main reason Banks hired him. But in an O. Henrian twist, Young sold the van for a plane ticket to Austin and rent money.

“I had been in Austin about a year and I was wonderin’ what the big deal was,” said Young. “But then one day (in 1973) I went to a concert at Hill On the Moon on City Park Road and that changed the way I thought about music. It was the Storm, with Jimmie Vaughan, opening. Then Roky Erickson (with 13th Floor Elevators), who had just gotten out of the state mental hospital. And then Willie Nelson. That show made me realize that rock and country and blues could all fit together.”

Young was a good drummer, able to play everything from “Cisco Kid” to “Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” but he was also a songwriter on the side and came to rehearsal one day with an original composition he wanted Showdown to work up. “We fired him on the spot,” Banks laughed. “If you were a drummer, you kept your songs to yourself.”

But the material Young was writing was good and Banks, who was dating Chris O’Connell of Asleep At the Wheel at the time, suggested that Young pitch songs to the Wheel. Harvey ended up going on tour with the Western-swing band as a roadie/gofer and that’s when he met pianist Levin, who’s still his musical spouse 40 years later. The pair collaborated on “Don’t Get Caught In the Rain” for O’Connell, hitting the country Top 40, just barely. The Wheel also recorded Young’s “Baby.” Getting those first two cuts did everything for the songwriter’s confidence.

Young, who has always held day jobs as a rock mason or carpenter, was especially moved by Nelson’s 1975 masterpiece of spiritual redemption. “My dream was to one day make a record as good as Red Headed Stranger,” Young said, laughing. “Still dreaming.”

But Young was so serious about songcraft that, at age 25, he bought a 3 ½ acre spread on the San Gabriel River in Liberty Hill to use as a writer’s retreat. He’s lived there since 1976, the last 33 years with wife Patti.

He also kept an apartment in Austin- party central- during his 14 years fronting Tex Thomas and the Dangling Wranglers. He admits that the drinking and drugging got out of hand, but he made time to write. It kept him from going over the edge.

The title track of the Dangling Wranglers’ second LP Screaming In the Night came from a nightmare Young had about the car crash that took his father and his childhood.

“Danny and I always took songwriting seriously,” he said. “The Wranglers were supposed to be the vehicle to get the songs out to the people, but that vehicle just ran over everybody.”

We’re sitting on a picnic table outside at Guero’s and Young, uncomfortable in the heat, swigs water from a gallon jug. Pug, whose Windfall album is coming out Feb. 24, drifts away to call Jamie, now his fiancée, but not before a little marital advice from Young. “You gotta swallow a lot of shit when you’re married,” he said. “But you do it because you love them. That’s the secret.”

His songs aspire to a purpose, Young said. “If people like to dance to some of them, that’s fine, but I never set out to write a dance song. For me, a song starts with an emotion I want to pursue. I try to write songs that could be helpful or hopeful to someone going through the same thing.”

When Pug sat back down, Harvey excused himself to get some chewing tobacco, making sure everyone was cool with that. It was a chance to talk about Young in ways that would sound ass-kissing if he were there. Pug said the songwriter Harvey most closely resembles, in terms of spiritual storytelling, is Billy Joe Shaver. Like Shaver, Young grew up writing poetry in grade school. Both writers have the gift of exploring a range of emotions in simple lines.

And both are veteran fist-fighters who have never really gotten over the hardships of their youth. Pug came to Texas to find out what it is about his favorite songwriters, and there it is. Life is hard because it should be. Such grace does not come without debts to pay.

Joe Pug sings “Deep Dark Wells” at Guero’s 10/8/14

 

 

 

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Michael Corcoran’s LAWN

Posted by mcorcoran on October 28, 2017

I TRY PRINCE’S 5X HOT CHICKEN AND… DOWN GOES FRAYZHUH! DOWN GOES FRAYZHUH!

You ever wake up in Kentucky and wish you were home? Then, outside is not a taxi to take you to the airport, but a Nissan Altima with three weeks of funk and a shriveled wardrobe in the trunk. Yesterday was supposed to be spent exploring Lexington, KY and then bedding in Nashville, but I was more set on eating a chunk of the hours between me and Austin. It’s been a great 23 days on the road, but you know what would sound great right about now? My old life. My morning routine. My favorite grocery store.

Lexington had some great architecture on the way to the horse wagering den. Unfortunately, there a big, dumb college in the middle of it, so you’ve got these beautiful buildings with “Go Cats!” signs on them. There’s a great record store on Limestone called CD Central and I had a good grilled summer vegetable sandwich at Stella’s Kentucky Deli. The people were noticeably friendly. But a move from Austin to Lexington would be like dating your ex-wife’s less talented and not-so-interesting sister. And there’s construction everywhere.

My best friend from Nashville was still out of town, so I just buzzed into Prince’s Hot Fried Chicken, in a strip mall of North Nashville, then headed towards Memphis. When you eat at a hot chicken place in Nashville and say it’s not so great, everybody tells you that you shoulda went to Prince’s. It’s in what some people would call the ghetto and I think it may have started the hot chicken craze.

“Mild?” the woman at the counter asked, sizing me up. No, hot, bitch, I said. Maybe not all those words. I got a half chicken for $11 and was carrying that thing out to the car like it was a football and I had nothing but end zone in front of me. I plopped the bag on the trunk and started digging in right there. “Eat that shit!” a woman yelled out from a passing car. “Tear that chicken up!” said her male companion. I didn’t care. I was hungry and this was not Rodeo Drive.

OK, I have to say I was not quite prepared for the heat. Holy shit! My lips were burning, my tongue was on a spit. The first bite was so good and then…thousand one, thousand two… your tastebuds are in a firefight. Has seasoning ever caused a heart attack? In Hawaii they have an expression “broke da mouf,” which really describes anything delicious. Prince’s literally broke my mouth. Last night was the first time I’ve ever taken a painkiller over something I ate.

Lunch today in Memphis, always a disappointment. Me and that city have never really gotten along. New Orleans either. Growing up in Hawaii, I’ve seen how tourists can ruin a good thing. But scenery is one thing. Please stay away from the soulful music.

 

Don’t you start me cAARPing

Considering I’m such a Thrifty Lazar, it makes no sense that I’ve waited until I’m 59 to buy an AARP membership. You pay $16 a year to save about $150- there’s no debate. But I’m allergic to the hard sell and AARP bombarded me with mail-outs and such the day I turned 50, so I was determined to do this without them. And I have, to a certain extent, devising my own discount systems. I didn’t have AARP, but I did have RCW, the reimbursement ceiling walkaway, which is when you go into the motel, ask the rate and then say “shoot, my employer will only reimburse me for ($10 less).” In about 75% of the cases, the clerk will give you that rate before you hit the door out, but you have to be smart about it. Usually doesn’t work if you smell curry at check-in or if the parking lot is full of cars. And don’t try the RCW if it’s the only motel around. They’ll just laugh at you.

But what really convinced me to break down and get the old timer’s card was watching a man about my age check-in right ahead of me at the Motel 6 in Hagerstown, MD a couple nights ago. He asked for a 2 p.m. check-out and got it. When it was my turn, I got the usual 60+ discount, but he wouldn’t give me the late check-out or free wifi. “That’s only for AARP members,” he said. I went online ($2.99 later) as soon as I got in the room and signed up. Do you know how many columns have been wrecked over the past 9 years by the 11 a.m. checkout? This is a game-changer.

NOTES FROM THE ROAD

* Day One of my “You’re Not Homeless If You’re On the Road” tour found me driving through a horrible storm just north of Dallas and doing something I never do when I’m traveling on my own dime: I checked into a Holiday Inn Express instead of my usual $39.99 Motel. I think I’d rather have 103 degree temperature than pay $103 for a hotel on the road, but there was no driving through that flood warning and the H.I. Express was the only thing off that exit in Royce City.
Gosh, was it worth it! I was reminded of that Eddie Murphy clip on Saturday Night Live when he experiences life as a white man. So, THIS is how the rest of you do it? Best sleep I’ve had in years- and then a “breakfast buffet” that had real food, not just cereal and stale muffins.
Dinner tonight in Memphis, then maybe a Patel 6 on the way to Nashville. I don’t want to get spoiled, so I’m gonna stay at a nice place every OTHER night. Some sleep ’til Brooklyn!

* Day Two of my “YNHIY On the Road” tour was rather uneventful, but I just checked into the Motel 6 on exit 66 to see if I can change that. Was looking forward to eating at the Cozy Corner BBQ in Memphis, but they closed at 6, about half an hour after I got there. Downtown Memphis was full of tourists, so I got back on the freeway and ended up eating at a Waffle House. Listened to a bunch of Otis Gibbs podcasts on the nine-hour drive today, including the one where he reads from my Blind Willie Johnson article from 10 years ago. And then the next couple hours I kept thinking about how I’ve gotta give that Blind Willie research another try. I’m going to D.C. sometime during this sojourn to go through some African-American newspapers at the Library of Congress. In Texas, the Dallas Express and the Houston Informer were the big papers, but there were several smaller publications that would be great to find. You never know.
Tomorrow: lunch in Nashville at Epice, this Lebanese place Callie Khouri told me about (she’s another famous Lebanese from Texas). If it’s not open, I’ll try a Taste of Cuba by the Fairgrounds, which is fantastic! I ate there every day when I stayed at the Red Roof Inn during Americana Fest in September.
I’m thinking I might end up in Asheville, NC tomorrow night. Then DC Monday.

BEFORE AUSTIN

Honolulu’s most famous concert promoter Tom Moffatt, who started off as a radio guy and promoted some of the famous Elvis Presley shows in Hawaii, has a column called (unfortunately) “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’,” which is a mix of gossip and memories. Every week he finds some old clipping and pulls quotes from it. This one is about my review of an Earth, Wind & Fire concert in 1975- 40 years ago!-when I was 19. Since EW&F was one of the biggest acts at Bonnaroo this weekend, it seemed a fitting time.

I was a music critic for about 9 years before I moved to Austin in 1984. This piece from my personal website will catch you up on my writing life Before Austin and also give you a juicy tidbit about the EW&F show, which I believe was my second concert review. Definitely the first time I bought drugs.

Going through Manhattan to talk to 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 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 LP 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!

 

Found out the hard way

If you use a pair of scissors to cut open the package of tilapia, you need to use a different pair to trim your moustache, even hours later. The woman at HEB looked at me like I’d just raised my head from between Angela Lansbury’s thighs.

HOW DO YOU KNOW A BIKER IS FROM AUSTIN?

Austin may have the lowest number of biker gang members, per capita, of any city in Texas. APD reports that there are only 50 outlaw bikers in this city of 1.4 million. At first I thought that number was way low, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a vest-wearing 1%-er in Austin except to protest helmet laws or go to a David Allan Coe concert.

But here’s how you know it’s an Austin outlaw biker:

1. He cooks crystal in a food trailer called “You Do the Meth.”
2. He “got his wings” by eating an airport breakfast taco at 3 p.m.
3. He and his gang were once hired to do security at Old Settler’s for all the gingko tea they could drink.
4. He won’t go to a Hank Williams Jr. concert because of his politics.
5. He complains that the ROT Rally was so much cooler when it was about new bikers trying to sign with gangs. Now it’s all corporate, like the Doritos Bandidos Stage.
6. He has nearly 100 ‘likes’ on his “Let’s Get Ramsay Midwood Booked on ‘Austin City Limits'” Facebook page.
7. He rides a Harley Prius.
8. He volunteered at SXSW, got his badge, and never showed the fuck up!
9. His favorite way to pass the time on long rides is to rate Gourds albums first-to-worst.
10. He helped his MC brother Bird strongarm his way into the Austin barber shop business.

The MAHU STATE

Oahu was an oppressive place to grow up. Lotsa bullying and locals “hijacking” your change or punching you out for a laugh. Every day was Kill Haole Day somewhere. But the Islands were surprisingly accepting of transvestites. At Aiea High School we had three or four guys who dressed and talked like girls and nobody really bothered them. It was a part of Hawaiian culture, where if you had all sons, one of the boys would assume the daughter role in helping the mother.
Anyway, all this stuff about Bruce “I Am Woman” Jenner brought me back. I can imagine a Hawaiian family watching the Diane Sawyer interview and going. “So da guy like be one mahu? So wot!”
Some dummies have wondered if Jenner’s revelation would taint his gold medal in the 1972 Olympics. Instead, I think it ranks Jenner as one of the greatest athletes of all time. Could you imagine if a woman won the men’s decathalon today!
(Yes, hehheh, I said “taint”).

I’ve hated crawfish boils since about halfway through the first one. Eating mudbugs is like cracking a safe for $876. But I’ve finally understood the appeal. It’s a feast without food or fuss, and everyone’s  got something to do with your hands. Plus, it’s an excuse to get as nasty and drunk as you’d like. We in Nawlins, darlin.’

Ripper and Rex

I’m not complaining, but sometimes I wonder why I turned out to be such an abrasive, prickly, contrarian. Believe me, I don’t do it for the reaction. Who wants to be hated? But I just can’t help myself.  This all might have something to do with my two greatest influences as a teenager: professional wrestler Ripper Collins and acerbic movie critic Rex Reed. King Ripper was an obnoxious bleach blonde heel, doing that Andy Kaufman insult-the-natives bit back in the late ’60s. He would badly mispronounce all the Hawaiian towns and street names, which really pissed off the Hawaiian people. They hated that effeminate insult machine, but he was my favorite. Nobody can make me laugh like the queens, which is why I record every episode of Modern Family, but fastforward through all the scenes with the old rich guy and the hot Colombian wife.

Rex Reed, also gay, was the king of bitchy one-liners. My favorites were when he called the Liv Ullman remake of Lost Horizons “Brigadoon with chopsticks and criticized Lady Sings the Blues by pointing out that “Billie Holiday didn’t get famous singing like Diana Ross.” When I first started writing reviews I tried to come up with lines like that. Reed was the first talk show guest who talked shit about big stars and huge Hollywood productions. I dug his fearlessness.

Pro wrestling was big in the Islands when I moved there with my family in 1971. The whole thing fascinated me and I’d watch the matches every Saturday afternoon on KGMB-TV. Even better than the action from the ring were the locker room interviews. (Actually not a locker room as we found out when one wrestler punched a “locker” and the whole studio facade fell down.) Ripper Collins and Mad Dog Mayne were the biggest villains and tag team partners, but they had a falling out and fought in a “Loser Must Leave Town” match, which Ripper lost. So he was in my life only a few months.

But something exciting has happened in my life today. I found this new web site, dedicated to 50th State Big Time Wrestling. Anybody else out there who grew up in Hawaii in the ’60s or ’70s will be very excited about this.

The Accidental Plagiarist

I was on the staff of the Austin American Statesman for 16 years, from 1995 to 2011, when I took a retirement buyout. But I could’ve been fired in May 1998, or at least I lived in fear of that for a couple weeks. I kept waiting for someone to realize that I had lifted a couple short paragraphs from the New York Times without attribution for a front page obit. I wasn’t trying to pull anything over, and my editor saw me take the words of Stephen Holden, but I didn’t put the NYT credit line at the end as I should have. Maybe I would’ve just been reprimanded, but I worked on my resume anyway.

The day Frank Sinatra died was a big one for me. I had not been much of a fan in the ’60s, when my beloved Top 40 charts were infiltrated by “Strangers In the Night” and “Something Stupid,” and never really got Frank until the late ’80s. I was up in Chicago, trying to get a job with the Chicago Sun-Times, and when I found out the arts editor was a dyed-in-the-wool Sinatra fanatic, I did every Frank piece imaginable. I interviewed Sammy Cahn, the Sinatra songwriter who had a one-man show in town. I did a big Sunday arts section lead on Sinatra at 75. I talked Frank with Chicago writer Bill Zehme, who was working on a bio. I became a 34-year-old Sinatraphile in about two months. Then, when I was hired by the Dallas Morning News in ’92, my first Katie Award was for a Frank Sinatra appreciation.

Now, a lot of folks don’t realize that in my 16 years with the Statesman, I was only the “pop music critic” for the first three years. After that I was titled a “feature writer,” though I specialized in music profiles. On the sad day of May 14, 1998, I came to work to find that another writer had been assigned the Sinatra obit and I took it away with such force that I even surprised myself. “The fuck you are!” I think I said, before delving in fully, completely. This obit was going to be great, and I had several hours to write it.

When it was done and I handed it in, the editor said it still needed something, so I looked through the available sources, the Associated Press, New York Times and the like and found what he was looking for. Like this, I showed him, and he said “perfect,” so I cut and pasted and then went home to crack beers and listen to that magnificent voice.

Got a call from the copy desk, which was almost mandatory for A1 stories. There were no credits at the end of the story. Did I write the whole thing? Usually the editor put those in, so my first thought- the fatal thought- was that the three or four sentences I borrowed from the NYT had been deemed insignificant for attribution. I told the copy editor that there was no need to give credit to any other sources. Then I spent the next half hour- it was getting close to the 11:30 p.m. drop dead deadline- debating with myself on whether or not to call back and say, “come to think of it…” but I didn’t. Huge mistake.

The next morning I left the newspaper sit on the driveway for hours before I got the nerve to pick it up. I read the obit and it was worst than I thought it would be. The lifted NYT piece was on A1 before the jump. My editor had better love the sight of gear boxes and exhaust pipes, I thought, because I was going to have to throw him under the bus. But how would I justify lying to the copy desk in that moment of weakness and clouded judgement. Hey, I could also blame the beer.

But nobody ever brought it up. I guess nobody noticed. Or maybe the editor had been called in and took the blame for the oversight. I just put the whole thing out of my mind. But recently I was sorting my old boxes of clippings and I came across my Sinatra obit. But I just quickly tossed it in my A1 obits box. It was one of the best obits I ever wrote and I couldn’t stand to look at it. And that’s punishment enough.

 

Staci

When I was coming up, older women had names like Gertrude and Dorothy. But if you were born in 1950, you’re now 65 and you might have the name of a young person. That just messed with me on Facebook. I’m not using her real name, but it was something like Staci Seymour, and she’s been “liking” alot of my posts and leaving cute comments, so I clicked on her name. Staci Seymour is an old lady and she’s got one of those “I give up” short haircuts. 95% of her photos are of kids and dogs and what looks like an office retirement party. And for a few seconds there I thought we might have something going on. Listen, I know I’m hideous, so if my real name was, say, Wes Starr, I’d probably change it to Michael Corcoran on facebook. Just so no one gets the wrong idea.

“Raised” by ignorance

We are always being asked to try to understand the motivations of criminals. What in their upbringings brought upon such violent and/or selfish behaviors?
Could we accord the same empathy to racists? No one is born a racist. How did they get there? Maybe if we understood that better we could work on ways to eradicate the trait.
It’s not against the law to be an everyday racist, so we can’t try and rehabilitate them in lockup. But since it usually starts with parenting (as with criminals), we can hope the next generation is raised by people who have experienced the beauty of diversity.

A NIGHT ON MARS

A spotify question. If someone was to play, I don’t know, say “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars, 11 times in a row, there’s not a way for anyone to know, right?
When I was growing up in Hawaii, they’d make a huge deal about anyone local making a big splash on the Mainland. Yvonne Ellison was a supastah because she had that one hit from “Jesus Christ Supertar.”
And now Hawaii can boast the President of the United and the world’s greatest pop star. Bruno Mars, who went to Roosevelt High like Ellison, is a big star, but with his talent you wonder why he’s not bigger. Some of his stuff aims too low, but he’s a great singer and writer.

TEXT TO THE BISHOP: ‘WE DID IT!’

 

If Bishop Fred Jones of the Mount Zion COGIC in Markham, TX didn’t already have a sermon about patience, he surely has one now. Three years ago, Austin filmmaker Alan Berg and his wife/business partner Kristin Johansen-Berg (their Arts + Labor film/media company hosts this web site) came to see a gospel showcase at SXSW that I’d invited them to. They were especially drawn to my favorite act, the Jones Family Singers from Bay City, who are as inspiring offstage as they are on.

This year’s SXSW features the world premiere of Berg’s documentary “The Jones Family Will Make a Way.” Three years is not especially long in the making of a documentary, but this project seemed like it was never going to end. In the middle, the Bergs paid for the family of gospel musicians to make a CD at Jim Eno’s Public HiFi studio. And they seemed to dispatch an Arts + Labor camera crew to every podunk gig. And they kept interviewing me. Although my dream for the movie was that it would be a Jones Family Singers concert film, with some backstage and at-home stuff sprinkled in, it was becoming clear that I was a big part of the narrative. I was the gospel enthusiast and JFS champion who wouldn’t give up. I really don’t like anything that comes out of my mouth, especially in public, but I was so grateful that someone else cared about the Jones family. Someone who could get down their story for posterity. If it was good for the Jones Family, I was going to do it without complaint.

Last night I watched “The Jones Family Will Make a Way” and it far surpassed any expectations. It’s about the realities of a family gospel group trying to stay vital while playing a style of “hard gospel” that hasn’t been especially popular since the Sixties. But it’s also about why people do what they do, even if the rewards may not be here on Earth. I’m the atheist in a movie about a Pentecostal preacher and his deeply religious family. But during the course of the movie, a greater theme comes out. People from completely different backgrounds and ideologies can have more in common than you’d think. Especially when great music brings them together.

“The Jones Family Will Make a Way” plays Wednesday March 18 at 11:30 a.m. at the Paramount Theatre, Friday the 20th at the Marchesa (11 a.m.) and Saturday the 21st at the Vimeo Theater (1:30 p.m.) in the Austin Convention Center. These are all huge theaters, so the public will be able to buy tickets to see this fantastic film. And since the doc is part of the 24 Beats Per Minute segment, those with music badges can also get in.

You’ll laugh out loud at least once and cry at least once. Any more of either is up to you.

 

 

GOSSIP IS NOT FOR WIMPS!

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

 

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

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

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

The response was instant and often intense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WHAT’S WITH ME AND THE DIVAS?

 

“Dear Dad, I have some startling news: Your eldest son is gay.” That was my lead in the first draft of a Celine Dion concert review from ten years ago. The show was a schmaltzy smorgasbord of bombastic ballads, over-the-top production numbers and more costume changes than Isaac Mizrahi getting dressed to meet Jude Law . . . and I just ate it up.

It didn’t seem possible that I could be heterosexual and at the same time get goosebumps when Celine did a video duet with Barbra Streisand on “Tell Him.” My comedic writer’s voice has always been a gay male (Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares,” to be exact), but did it go deeper than that?

I’m not attracted to men, except for Johnny Depp who, let’s face it, is just a woman with a moustache, but that didn’t seem to matter when tears welled up during “My Heart Will Go On.” Later that night, typing away at a San Antonio motel, I was ready to emerge from the closet of denial.

The next morning, however, I chickened out and gave the delete key a workout, sending in a more standard review. (My catty comment that Celine could be dubbed “Edith Pilaf” for a French number that was as bland as rice flew in under the gaydar.) I headed home with thoughts of chicks and Budweiser and AC/DC. Never liked show tunes, I rationalized. Hated “Mommie Dearest.”

But on the drive back, I traced my affinity for gay musical icons, now commonly called divas, and wondered if maybe I had hit a suppressed nerve. I go way back with the boys, even before seeing Bette Midler in 1973, when I was a senior at the same high school Miss M had graduated from 10 years earlier. I’ve been one of those people, people who need Barbra, since the late ’60s, and, of course, there was sweet, tragic Judy Garland pandering for my love and devotion before that.

Could it be that only my ears are queer? Why was I so into Cyndi Lauper, who’ll turn local gay bars into ghost town saloons Monday night when she plays La Zona Rosa? Tina Turner is an incredible singer — of course, I applauded her. But Debbie Reynolds? Eartha Kitt, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Liza Minnelli — I’ve loved all the gals in the Oilcan Harry’s Hall of Fame.

 

Cher’s different, OK? I’ve been hot for that girl and her bronzed tummy forever, so when I went to review Cher’s show at the Erwin Center a couple years ago, I had no idea she had such a gay following. At least 80 percent of the audience that night would’ve rather dressed Cher than undressed her.

But then I started thinking: “Of course!” Cher meets the three main criteria to be a queer icon.

No 1: She’s what many of the gay men I’ve known aspire to be: a strong woman. She’s tough, but not hardened. She’s not afraid to cry (witness the Sonny Bono funeral). Streisand is the queen here, but Pink is the current princess of the bold, vulnerable feminine type.

No. 2.: Cher uses bawdy language and makes randy analogies. If gay goldfish could name themselves, Bawdy and Randy would be leading monikers. Midler’s not a big star because of her singing voice. There are women doing Wal-Mart commercials who could bury Bette vocally. But nobody’s naughtier, nobody’s more outrageous onstage. You’ve gotta be outspoken if you want to headline over Gloria Gaynor.

No. 3: The third major component of being put on that feather-and-rhinestone-covered pedestal is that you have to be easy to impersonate in drag shows. Here’s where Dolly Parton got in. And Josephine Baker. And Grace Jones. Barbara Mandrell will never be a character in one of those “Boys Will Be Girls” revues because she doesn’t have an instantly recognizable look. Diana Ross is a gay icon. Martha Reeves isn’t. Paris Hilton: gay icon. Nicole Richie: not.

Fiona Apple was so close to becoming a queer hero, but then she broke up with magician David Blaine and he made her career disappear. But Joss Stone could end up Soundscanning some big CD sales numbers in San Francisco if she follows some or all of these steps:

Marry badly and often, at least once to a gay man who’s fooling no one.

Develop an addiction to painkillers. Make a controversial appearance on David Letterman’s show (cigar optional). Don’t marry Bobby Brown.

But most of all, spread the love, baby. Give the audience everything you’ve got and look absolutely fabulous doing so.

Did I just write “absolutely fabulous”?

Dear Dad…

BILLY RAY CYRUS, I OWE YA ONE

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 Conway 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.

 

GRAMMYS 2015 COMMENTS

* When they said “Here’s Ariana Grande to sing Just A Little Bit of Your Heart,” I hoped she had a song called “Your Heart.”
* Am I the only one who thought Rihanna, Kanye and Paul McCartney in silhouette with the music starting were The Band Perry?
* Why does every Nashville backing band these days look like they had a Monday residency at Steamboat in ’89?
* Call me a ’60s burnout, but I think a better use of Paul McCartney’s time at the Grammys would’ve been speaking about Lifetime Achievement Award winner George Harrison rather than playing rhythm guitar for Kanye and Rihanna.
* From now on when a great artist makes a cameo that makes no impact on the song it’ll be called doing a Herbie Hancock.
* “Eh, mate, I’m on the Grammys Sunday can you finish this forearm tattoo?” Sorry, Ed Sheeran, I’m leaving on vacay. “I’m rollin up me sleeves anyway.”
* What’s that Kanye/McCartney collaboration called, “Ego and Ivory”?
* Watching with the sound off. Did Michael Cera just win Album of the Year!?
* Well, there it is “Music’s Biggest Night,” and tomorrow morning anyone with half a brain will still be talking about Bob Dylan’s speech Friday.
* Nobody ever talks about Kanye’s charitable side. He’s raised millions for narcisstic fibrosis.

 

BOO FOR ‘YE

I think Kanye has talent and I like his overall weirdness, but he should be banned from the Grammys next year. Imagine if a football player ran onto the field from the stands to protest an official’s call and then went on TV to rant about how the winning team was a disgrace to athleticism and should give the trophy to the losers.
Beck’s album was written and produced entirely by Beck. Beyonce’s album had 34 songwriters and 16 producers. No knock on Beyonce, who’s so gracious and a tremdendous performer, but who’s the true artist?

A DATE WITH CAROL BURNETT

For a few months in 1978, I lived in a studio apartment in Pico Rivera, a suburb of Los Angeles that looks like it sounds. I slept on the couch and my friend Kathy slept on a futon on the floor. We were separated by a small dining room table and two chairs.

Next door was a Rodeway Inn, which had a lounge where bands played songs by Merle Haggard and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. I was over there just about every night. Kathy was a tattoo artist who worked during the day and so at night I’d give her the place. Sometimes she came with me to the Rodeway.

That’s where I met a small girl with short hair and a cute face named Carol. I didn’t know her last name for awhile, but after a couple weeks she said she was married to a guy whose last name was Burnett. “Wow, Carol Burnett,” I said and she sighed. But you couldn’t let that one go by.

Carol said her husband left her because he decided he was gay, but she had a one-year-old boy. They shared a room with her uncle, a truck driver who rented by the week. I used to see Carol at the Rodeway every time I went, but sometimes she’d just pop in for a minute, then go back to her kid.

I didn’t see her for about a month so I asked her uncle where she was and he told me that the boy was diagnosed with leukemia and Carol was with him at the hospital. When they came back to the Rodeway, Carol didn’t tell me much and I didn’t really ask. She was scared, though.

One day I was looking through club ads and I saw that there was a show at the Troubadour starring Jackson Browne’s brother Severin Browne on Monday and the cover was only $2. I didn’t have a job and had come to L.A. from Honolulu with about $80 to my name, so the price was right. I asked Carol if she wanted to go see a concert and she said yeah.

We rode the city bus from Pico to West Hollywood- a 90-minute ride- and had cheeseburgers at Barney’s Beanery on Santa Monica Blvd. before the show. We walked by the Tropicana Motel and I showed her where Tom Waits used to live and she nodded.

At the Toubadour, a club I’d heard about for years, we sat in the balcony, right at the rail. I didn’t know any of Severin Browne’s songs, but I remember thinking that some of them were as good as his brother’s. Carol listened really hard to the lyrics, her chin on the rail.

On the bus back to Pico, she nuzzled her head in my shoulder and I put my arm across her back and we didn’t say a word. When we got back to the Rodeway, she said it was the best night she’d had in months. Then there was a long kiss and she headed to her uncle’s room to see her boy.

When I got back to the apartment, Kathy said she had a guy coming over soon. She gave me a blue valium, but I couldn’t go to sleep for a long time.

 

CONFESSIONS OF A HUNGRY, DRY DRUNK, BROKEDICK MUTHAFUCKA

The other day I met a woman who I found so attractive. She was age appropriate- about 10 years younger- and talented and driven and kind. It was cool to hang out with her. But then I went home without another thought.

The first thing that was taken away was intercourse. About six years ago I got this thing called Peyrone’s Disease, which you can look it up, it’s not so bad. Peyrone’s means “son you’re a lesbian.”

Then, it was alcohol. I got socked by the doc, who told me I was done and I listened.

The latest ex-joy of my life is food. I’m on the road a lot and the last half hour of coming into Austin all I would think about was where I was going to eat. Do I take this route, which goes right by Via313 Pizza, or maybe I could get drive-through from Dan’s Hamburgers over here and then take South Lamar home? I’ve gotta admit, I’m been a fucking Hoover, but that’s how I am. I’ll do something that’s bad for me as long as I can, as hard as I can, and then I know when it’s over.

The sex thing taught me that really well. Oh, I coulda went to this doctor in San Antonio named Tyrone Jones (this is not a stupid sixth grade routine), who would stick a needle down there every two weeks for a few months (at about $1,200 a shot), but I decided against that. Who wants to drive to San Antonio twice a month?

I just told myself, OK, that’s not going to rule your life anymore. In fact, you might as well be dead in that area. Fine. I can deal with that. Beautiful ladies: this is why I’m always so professional. And, to tell you the truth, it takes away a lot of stress and wasted energy.

But it made me drink a lot.

Which takes us to food. Post-alcohol, my greatest temptation was the bakery section of a grocery store. They have these carrot cake cupcakes at Trader Joe’s that are so addictive I’d have to eat one in the parking lot before I even started the car. Two years of that brought a diagnosis of diabetes, which I knew was just a matter of time. So, now there’s barely anything at all in Trader Joe’s that I can eat. Now, this is the toughest one of them all because, unlike sex and booze, food is a necessity. I’m not going to cut it out entirely, just the good stuff.

Anyway, I’ve lost 20 pounds in a month, just eating vegetables, fish and chicken. And I’m going to keep losing more. This is me now. Pizza’s not an option. The constant thing, through all these changes, is that I want to live as long as I can. That’s been my #1 goal as soon as I heard about death. Life is just dealing with whatever comes your way.

Not having a choice is not as bad as not having a life.

 

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?”

THE GREAT GADFLY REVISITED

They say 110 new people in Austin every day never heard of “Don’t You Start Me Talking,” but it was one of the things that made this burg cooler than other cities in the ‘80s. We had breakfast tacos, Roky and Daniel, bock beer, the Sessums family’s Black Cat Lounge  and the funniest, most irreverent music column in the land. I’m not just blowing smoke up my own ass, though if that could make you high you can be sure I would’ve done it in the ‘80s. I moved to Austin when I was 28, with nine years of fanzine and throwaway rag experience, and found my soulmate in a scene that had stories and personalities and creativity and innocent energy and, then, methamphetamine because that much fun didn’t want to stop.

I don’t have to wonder what it must be like to be Jay Z because I had that life in the ‘80s. I was a celebrity wherever I went, respected by the street and feared by the straights. Never had to pull out my wallet for anything. And I had my hot Houston chick Suzoncee. That’s how it was in my mind, at least. The Thursday that the Austin Chronicle came out, the delivery guys would drop those bundles of Corky meat like they were feeding hungry lions and a pack of people would grab their fill.

I hadn’t reread those columns in over 25 years because I was afraid they wouldn’t measure up to my memories and I was right. Research for a book project has required me to spend hours at the Austin History Center, where old issues of the Chron are kept in boxes, poring over those old columns, and these are some of my observations.

* I was brutal and sometimes unnecessarily mean. I’d like to apologize to Eloise Burrell, Van Wilks, Charlie Sexton, Kim Wilson and anyone else whose name I forgot belonged to a person.

* I had zero journalistic ethics. Attribution, schmattribution. When Scratch Acid, one of the most influential Austin bands of all time (see Nirvana, Mudhoney), broke up I wrote that it was because “they hated each others’ guts.” No sources, no quotes. I got most of my info at afterhours parties when I was wasted and couldn’t remember who told me.

* I was pretty fucking funny at times, but some of my bits bombed. And I used the same lines more than once sometimes. I just forgot.

* My balls as a battering ram could get a SWAT team into any building.

It’s been a humbling experience going back, but I’m glad I was able to confront a part of my life that’s been glorified a little too much. The memories were as painful as they were jubilant, especially the “Austin Music Sucks” column. Not the hateful reaction- that was fine- but laying on the floor, doubled-over in a crank overdose, when I got an angry call from a musician friend whose band came in second in the Corky’s Star Search contest when they were clearly the best. I wanted to go to Brackenridge because I thought I was dying, but Suzee said they’d just pump my stomach and so I stayed home and went to the typewriter and spilled out my guts.

Besides that one time, I wrote every column the same way, in one, long, meth-filled night, starting at 6 p.m. when I got off work at the Mr. Lucky T-shirts shop at 2712 Guadalupe St., and going until about 8 or 9 in the morning. Then I’d walk down the alley to the Austin Chronicle two blocks away and hand about seven perfectly-typed pages (from about 4 a.m. on, I was too fried to do anything but retype) to editor Louis Black. He’d read a page and hand it to publisher Nick Barbaro, who would read it and hand it to typesetter Kathleen Maher, who would hand it to anyone else who was around. There would be laughter and groans, but, to the Chron’s credit, they never asked me to change a thing. Not in the three years I wrote that thing. Not even when I scoffed at AIDS and encouraged my fellow hets to not use condoms and “die like a man.”

The biggest writing influences in my life were not Lester Bangs and Charles Bukowski, those I loved those guys and emulated their lifestyles. They were Rex Reed, who used to come on The Mike Douglas Show and bury movies with a single line (“Lost Horizons is Brigadoon with chopsticks”) and pro wrestler Ripper Collins. I grew up in Hawaii, where pro wrestling and roller derby, with all that fake provocation, were on TV every Saturday. And I’d go to the Civic Auditorium on King Street for matches. I just loved the way they’d get the fans all crazy with the emotional baiting and that’s what I did with my writing from the very start.

Anyway, I’m headed to San Marcos now to drop off another stack of old columns for the kid to type up and I’ll continue to post them on the Arts + Labor site under the “Corky At 30” heading.

I always think it’s weird when someone who wins an Oscar or a championship says that they’re humbled by the victory. In reality, it’s probably the opposite. They sure didn’t seem humbled when they were jumping up and down with their fists in the air. But rereading “Don’t You Start Me Talking” has definitely brought me down to earth. There’s some really bad writing in there. Some questionable choices. Time and place had a lot to do with the success. Besides all the great music, Austin of the ‘80s was my paradise because I found a small city that could laugh at itself. I can’t believe I never got punched out.

 

WELCOME TO BUESCHER STATE PARK. DON’T MOVE HERE.

I know when you find a special place of nature and solitude, you’re supposed to keep it to yourself, but this park is so underused I’m going to give you a tip. With temps expected in high 60s/ low 70s this weekend (Feb. 7&8), Buescher State Park, on Hwy 71 about 45 miles east of Austin, is the perfect getaway. There’s a nice 7.7 mile trail through the forest and a lake stocked with trout (allegedly) and empty picnic tables and wood-fired grills all around. Only $4 per person and kids free. I like to drive deep into the park to find my spot, but if you’ve got kids you might want to stay near the lake. Free fishing poles for the kids to use- ask at the entrance. On the drive home, take the scenic 12-mile drive to Bastrop State Park. Or head into Smithville for some world class Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ.

 

MY DESERT ISLAND DISC (TODAY)

alabama3

I have several alltime favorite albums of alltime. But these days when I go to play them, I think about it, then don’t. What more can Horses by Patti Smith, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, Thriller by Michael Jackson, NRBQ at Yankee Stadium, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Get Happy by Elvis Costello or any of those other desert island discs still do for me? But Hits and Exit Wounds by Alabama 3 never gets old. It makes me go like this. Besides The Sopranos theme song, which gets a rap break here, there’s just about every style of rock and country, all boosted by a percolating dance beat. It’s EDM for old, fat stoners. The great thing about Spotify is that I can stop now.

Chris Gray (ex- Jack Ruby guitarist) plays a JD in a photo shoot.

Chris Gray (ex- Jack Ruby guitarist) plays a JD in a photo shoot. David Ornstein (right)

THE DAYBREAK YEARS

I never made more than $10,000 a year until I was 33 years old, but I’d have to say I’ve been lucky in employment. One of my best jobs, which paid $150 a week, was working at the Daybreak antique clothing store in Albany, NY from ’80- ’82. I was 24 when the Ornsteins, the Jewish/ Irish couple who owned the store, hired me and when I told them I didn’t know anything about antique clothing, David Ornstein said, “then find a way to be indispensible.” My way was to be reliable- I never missed a day in two years and was late only once- and to watch the customers like a hawk. Before I got there, Daybreak had a pretty bad shoplifting problem because the Ornsteins were always busy doing something else. But as far as I know, I only got beat once by a thief. It was a pretty, blonde college kid who stuck a $90 Victorian lace blouse into a shopping bag she brought in from another store. I took David aside and said I was 99% sure that girl stole something, so we had to let her walk. If you accused someone of shoplifting and checked their bags, they could sue you if they were innocent. The Ornsteins were my family up their in Albany and I felt like I let them down.

They worked from about 6 a.m. until late at night seven days a week, but David said his job was “Christmas every day.” He always found at least one treasure that someone didn’t know they had. Sometimes on the weekends I’d go with them to estate/rummage sales and David and Beenie (which is what everyone called wife Maureen) were something to watch. David would always be first in line to get in, and as he ran through the house/garage/church annex like a crazy person, Beenie would find a way to hold up the rest of the line behind her for a few precious seconds. David used to tell me “never be worried how you look when you’re making money” and true to that, he’d just rip the hundred-year-old quilts off the beds and carry rare pottery like a football, while Beenie would waddle up the stairs, holding on to each rail so no one could get past. The Ornsteins were competitive as hell when it came to getting merch for their stores, but they were also incredibly generous. It was a game to them, in a way, and they didn’t like to lose.

daybreakad

The only person I’ve seen who came close to the Ornsteins in the area of vintage clothing acquisition is Jenna Radke of Lucy In Disguise on South Congress. When I moved to Austin in ’84 and thought I was an ace picker, I called Jenna the Dragon Lady. Aggressive? No, no, that’s for folks who step in front of an old man to grab a white linen jacket. Jenna was/is ruthless. That’s why her store’s still doing great business. I’d show up at sales and if Jenna was checking out, I’d just turn around and go home. She’d get it all. See, that’s the thing about folks who are in the used clothing business. They don’t cherry pick. If there are 127 pairs of stiletto-heeled shoes, they’re not going to leave any for the rest of you.

I got to know her Jenna later and she’s one of the best friends anyone can have, just don’t fuck with her business. I told her about the Dragon Lady nickname and she just smiled like it was the biggest compliment. And it was.

Jenna’s only weakness was that she collected dolls. That would get her away from the clothes for a minute, which is what happened one day in ’84, when I got to a row of beaded sweaters before she did. It turned out they were all moth-eaten near the bottom and therefore worthless, but I folded them so only the beads showed and walked right by Jenna to rub it in. That was a great day! My girlfriend found some cool shoes, then put them down to try on something and look in the mirror and Jenna snatched them up. The girlfriend got no sympathy from me. “Never, ever, ever, put something down!” I admonished. There are rules in the game.

Actually, there’s only one rule: all is fair. Once David bought a Coco Chanel suit for $40 and sold it for $85. The woman who bought it, took it apart, made patterns and mass-produced the suits for an expensive women’s clothing store, probably making tens of thousands of dollars on the deal. Good for her, was David’s reaction. He just caught the fish; it didn’t matter what the restaurant did with it or how much they charged. The thrill was in the find.

Clothes by Daybreak: Boardwalk Empire.

Clothes by Daybreak: Boardwalk Empire.

One of David Ornstein’s greatest tricks was talking his way into sales the night before the public came through. The State Museum of New York bought all its period clothing for exhibits from Daybreak, so David would call on Friday, identifying himself as “a buyer for the State Museum,” which wasn’t really a lie, but it was stretching it a bit. He’d say he couldn’t make in on Saturday and the sellers would be flattered that the museum was interested in their junk, so they’d let David in early.

For the first year at Daybreak, I wasn’t allowed to buy anything, which was fine by me. People would bring in their old clothes to sell and I’d have to describe it to David and Beenie over the phone. If it sounded good, they’d drive over to look at it. But they were teaching me what to look for. Any large size pumps were gold, gobbled up by the drag queens. And anything gabardine, cashmere or beaded. David could run his fingers down a rack of old clothes and pull out vintage shirts while casing the rest of the room. After awhile, so could I. This was back in the days when Sally Ann’s and Goodwill didn’t know from vintage and you could always find a cool ‘50s shirt if you put in the time. Nowadays, I don’t even bother. The whole world’s been picked over. In upstate New York the Ornsteins got it all and if you’re a fan of Boardwalk Empire, The Great Gatsby remake or a number of other TV shows or movies set in the 1890’s to 1960s, you’ve seen their clothes.

David and Beenie don’t have the store any more. They have a warehouse with five floors of vintage attire for rent. Appointment only. One floor is nothing but 1920’s formal wear. Half of another floor is covered with old fedoras. These days, they rent clothes for movies more more money than we used to sell them in the early ‘80s.

But their biggest moneymaker is the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show they put together a couple times a year, including this weekend. They have about 90 high end vintage clothes vendors and designers come from all over the world to find pieces that they can copy like that woman with the Chanel suit.

That's me laying on my girlfriend Donna's lap. L-R Justin, the Mechanical Servants with Robert Durlack, DJ Peggy Apple, Chris Gray, Ruby Cadillac and Brad Whiting.

That’s me laying on my girlfriend Donna’s lap. L-R Justin, the Mechanical Servants with Robert Durlack, DJ Peggy Apple, Chris Gray, Ruby Cadillac and Brad Whiting.

I was basically an orphan when I was 18 and my mother died, then my father said I couldn’t live at home anymore. So I guess I was looking for parental models. I’ve already told you about Kate Hellenbrand and Michael Malone, the tattoo artists who bought Sailor Jerry’s shop, so I had to tell you about the Ornsteins as well.

They taught me that being first in line was everything, so get up before everyone else. And David Ornstein definitely stepped up my sarcasm game. We’d set up at big antique shows like Brimfield, Mass. and he’d be running commentary under his breath the whole time. “Oh, for the power,” he’d say when some rich lady with no taste would saunter up in a hideous outfit. It was short for “Oh, for the power to see ourselves as others do.” He hated, of course, when browsers would scoff at his prices, which seemed high then, but would now be a steal. One time a very large woman in a beaded sweater looked at the tag at one of David’s and exclaimed, “$85! Then, mine must be worth $100,” and as she sulked away David whispered “in yardage alone.”

The best jobs are when you learn something and laugh alot. And when you make friends for life. Every day is Christmas. Goddamn right!

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“I’m only going to drink when it’s part of an experience,” I told my girlfriend circa 1990. I had tried to quit completely, but one night I was backstage at a Los Lobos show and one of the members handed me an ice cold Heineken and so I drank it- and about five more. The gf was upset, but I said I just got swept up in the moment. It didn’t mean I was going back to my ways. “Part of an experience.”
So, a few days later, she came home and I was sitting in the living room with a beer. “Oh, the lights, the colors!” she mocked.
Nobody has ever pegged me so hilariously as that woman. Can’t say that I miss her because she still makes me laugh out loud once a week.

ET. Funny lady.

ET. Funny lady.

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Feb. 1: Grace period is over today on Austin’s “hands free” law aimed at cellphone users. Serious question: do the violations  include eating while driving? I sometimes like to buy a cheeseburger to make sure I hit every goddamn green light.

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I had one of those Sam Malone moments recently. You remember that Cheers episode where he reads, with much difficulty, War and Peace to impress Diane? Then after all that he finds out there’s a movie. My doctor prescribed me a pill that makes you pee out sugar. I’ve lost 10 pounds in two weeks. There’s a MOVIE?! There’s a PILL?!

 

1986 postcard from cartoonist Peter Bagge says it all.

1986 postcard from cartoonist Peter Bagge says it all.

 

OCCUPY AUSTIN! MORE OF IT!

They say 110 people a day move to Austin. You look at the weather in the Northeast and wonder why it’s not 2,000 a day. Who can live like that for months every year?
Austin will never again be the laid back groovers paradise so many pine for, so I say that if we’re going to be a big city, let’s REALLY be a big city. Embrace growth, encourage migration. Austin, we’re a hit! Now, let’s capitalize like we’re Taylor Swift.

Austin’s problem is from trying to stem growth. City government lost that one. They’ve left us up shit creek without a riverwalk. Now let’s get that long overdue infrastructure going! Let’s see some fucking rail. Build us a major league baseball stadium. Hey, how ’bout some museums for the tourists? Stop whining and start figuring out how we’re going to take these new people’s money. About Austin, Andrea was True when she sang “More More More.”
Three million people by 2025!

MY FAVORITE BANDS IN THE PLACES I’VE LIVED

Ronnie Dawson and High Noon with Johnny Carroll. Dallas Feb. 1993.

Ronnie Dawson and High Noon with Johnny Carroll. Dallas Feb. 1993.

It’s important to have a favorite band that you can see all the time. A band that you know is going to make you feel good and so when a show is on the horizon the bad days are bearable. They make your region bigger because you’ll drive an hour to see them. And if you move to another city, they’ll take you home while they’re on the road and your face in the crowd will warm them up.

Here are the bands that saved my life, or at least my night:

Mountain Home, ID 1965-71. Devil’s Care, a trio of scarf-wearing black airmen who did Hendrix, Stax and garage rock. Bonus: drummer used metal sticks.

Honolulu, HI 1971- 78. Honolulu Doggs, some white kids who could really play the blues. Gotta put gay bar Aerosmith imitators Widow in here, too.

Weirdo

Weirdo

Los Angeles 1978-79. The Weirdos, my first real live punk band, who I saw at the Whiskey and knew I’d found my thing.

Albany, NY 1979- 82. NRBQ. Actually they were from Saugerties, about an hour south, but they played J.B. Scott’s and SUNY Albany as often as a local band.

Honolulu, HI, ’82-’84. The Squids, Hawaii’s first punk band with gigs.

The Squids (with Frank Orrall)

The Squids (with Frank Orrall)

Austin, TX ’84- ’88. The LeRoi Brothers, Butthole Surfers and the Commandos. Never missed a show by any of those bands.

San Francisco 1988. Sister Double Happiness, led by the great Gary Floyd of the Dicks.

Never Enuff

Never Enuff

Chicago 1989-92. Enuff Z’Nuff, whose heavy metal Cheap Trick wasn’t really a new thing, but I got high on it anyway.

Dallas 1992- 95. Ronnie Dawson and High Noon, who were just starting to join forces to dee-stroi every rock club.

Damnations

Damnations

Austin 1995- present. The Gourds, the Damnations and Buick MacKane.

These were the bands that made me a superfan. I did need them in my life and I would like to thank them all.

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Whatever happened to story?

I am not a prude. But are there any cable TV shows that don’t have gratituous sex, topless starlets, guys receiving BJs, girls getting tailpiped etc.? I am not a prude, but I couldn’t get past a single episode of “Californication.” Even “Modern Family” on ABC had a reference to a little girl at the playground showing her cooch. Of course the worst was that scat-munching scene from “Girls” that just must’ve made Mr. and Mrs. Brian Williams so proud. I am not a prude, really. But watching people have sex is just distracting, unless you’re trying to get off. Soft-core porn is like middle school and I’m not clamoring to go back. The ones I I really feel for are young actresses. If they won’t get naked or allow themselves to be banged up against a corrugated metal shed, they won’t work.
OK, now back to my “Gunsmoke” DVD.

 

corkymaxineFrom my Austin Inside/ Out column May 16, 1998

Welcome to the latest installment of “Aniston Inside/Out,” a weekly column dedicated to every movement of mane maiden Jennifer Aniston, the “Friends” star who’s inspired more hairstyle makeovers than the military induction process. The reason I’ve given this column over to America’s sweetheart, in town to play a waitress (what a stretch!) in Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” is that she obviously loves seeing her name here. Why else would she start hanging out with Brad Pitt over at the Four Seasons? The gorgeous ones were spotted, very much together, on Sunday afternoon near the hike and bike trail, where they had gone to look for Aniston’s escaped canine Norman. Although the posters announcing a $1,000 reward for the terrier kept joggers’ eyes on the ground, a couple of walkers looked up to see Pitt, wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans, and Aniston in cut-offs and a tank top, walking past. “They said ‘Hi,’” said one witness. “They weren’t holding hands, but they looked like a couple.”

Aniston got her dog back Monday, when an unidentified man turned in the pooch, which he found at Second and Congress, to the Town Lake Animal Shelter.

brad-pitt-jennifer-aniston4-600x450

Here are some zingers from Austin/Inside out, which was published in the Statesman from 1998-2001:

* Sandra Bullock‘s latest film “Gun Shy” has opened quieter than the doors of a monastery, doing only $700,000 in 300 theaters in its first weekend… Let’s put a moratorium on Minnie Driver sightings, please. She’s been getting around so much you have to wonder if the pace is dazin’ Miss Driver… Leatherface is back… and we’re not talking about another Jack Palance revivial. Unapix Entertainment has a 25th anniversary version of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on the way… Why is Doris Day, the leader of the pet pack, not on the list at Kinky Friedman‘s “Bonefit.” Apparently, she travels about as well as a Reuben sandwich… Remember Michael MacCambridge, whose taxing overcoverage of a certain musician from New Jersey caused this paper to be nicknamed The Austin American Springsteen? He’s close to signing a six-figure deal with Random House to write a history of pro football…NFL star Ricky Williams still has an apartment in Austin. Chad “Kato” Patmon has to live somewhere… While performing in Dallas recently, Courtney Love recalled a hot and heavy makeout session with Texan Matthew McConaughey. The constant condiment to Courtney’s comments, however, are grains of salt…My new nickname around the house is “Grasshopper.” That’s how fast I hit the mute button when that commercial of Sara Hickman singing from the roof of a Clark Wilson home comes on…Members of Cheap Trick earned a new nickname from their waitress at Guero’s on Thursday: “Cheap Tip”… Julio Iglesias Jr. was in town last week to do radio interviews, not record a duet with Paula Nelson on “To All the Money Our Dads Have Made.”… The way she’s rebounded from the President’s infidelities, the First Lady’s name should be Hillary Rodman Clinton…Comedian Jerry Seinfeld popped into Sixth Street blues joint 311 Club Saturday night, raising the mean income of clubgoers to $27,000 a year… Lawyer Jimmy Nassour paid $2,000 for a Bible owned by famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair at an estate sale Saturday, which opens the possibilities for other ironic purchases: How much would you pay for a copy of “Walden Pond” from developer Gary Bradley? A set of steak knives from wispy singer Abra Moore?…Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines has filed for divorce from bass player Michael Tarabay. Irreconcilable salaries; there’s your trouble… One thing you’ll never read in this column is an item that begins “Overheard at Vespaio…” The new Italian hotspot at the former location of Western wear shop The Lariat is LOUD…

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I miss mahus. The Hawaiian transvestites of my youth, always so much fun to hang around. The Islands had a completely different attitude about boys who would be girls. We had about four or five transvesites at Aiea High School and it wasn’t any big thing. In Hawaiian custom, if you have three or four sons in a row, you raise one of them as a female to help the mother. Didn’t have the stigma as on the Mainland. When quaaludes were the thing, mahus were the ones who sold them at clubs. Seconals, too. They could outparty anyone. I should one day write about my times with the mahus on Hotel Street and Waikiki. I remember the first time I heard Chicago house music, when it was getting big, and I thought, that’s just mahu disco. I’d heard it at Hula’s and the Wave.

Why all this now? I met a pretty young transvestite at a coffeehouse in San Marcos tonight. My son’s friend. The fond thoughts came back. The kid is on his own.

RICHARD LINKLATER DIDN’T THANK ME AT THE GLOBES. HE DIDN’T HAVE TO.

In 1998, I attended the premiere of Richard Linklater’s film The Newton Boys at the Paramount Theatre. The next day I unmercifully trashed it in the Statesman, which made me a pariah of the local film community. Rick is a good guy who does so much for Austin. I wrote that Linklater had lost his way since Before Sunrise, (“My Dinner With Andre with a Eurail pass”) and that he needed to look long and hard at the director he wanted to be. Soon after, he started writing Boyhood, the film that just won the Best Picture- Drama award at the Golden Globes, paving the way for victory in the Oscars.

A lot of folks thought that Newton Boys review, under the headline “The Emperor’s New Movie,” was mean-spirited and unfair. Sample text: “The film is full of surprises. In fact, I kept asking myself how it could get any worse, but with every “love” scene between Matthew Mahogany and Juliana Marginal, my lowest expectations were exceeded. McConaughey can carry a movie like Linda Tripp can keep a secret.”

Tough love? Perhaps. But it obviously inspired a young filmmaker from Huntsville, who is now king of the cinematic world. When Linklater gave his acceptance speech for the Best Director Globe, he kinda rushed through it and seemed to forget a few people. But it’s like they say, the ones who deserved to be thanked know who they are.

(This is all just a goofy, tongue-in-cheek way to say: Congratulations, Rick Linklater! You make Austin proud, awards or not.)

 

NFL_Logo

I’M BOYCOTTING THE NFL FROM NOW ON. WHO’S WITH ME?

I’ve given thousands of hours of my life to NFL football, but the league is not going to waste any more of my time. I’m out. Will never again watch another pro football game. Not after a spectacular, clutch, fourth-down catch by Dez Bryant was overruled in the review booth because some nerd decided to make himself important. The call was that Bryant did not have possession and did not make a “football move” after catching the ball on the one-yard line. Replays show Bryant having control of the ball and reaching for the goal line- a football move- before the ground caused the ball to come lose. Everyone who saw it saw an incredible catch, but because of rulebook semantics the ball could’ve bounced off #88’s helmet. This is not in the spirit of the game. There are too many men in suits who make too much money- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s salary is $42 million a year- not to get involved and when they fuck it up for the players, they’ve ruined football.

Dallas would’ve scored the fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown on the next play. Instead, the Packers just had to run out the clock for the win.

That call was payback, like sending O.J. to prison for stealing back his own stuff. The NFL made a “make-up” call for the atrocious flag pickup in Dallas a week earlier that robbed the Detroit Lions. Dez ran on the field without his helmet to argue the call, which made him a target of the refs, who stick together like NYPD. The huge difference between last week’s ref botch and this week’s is that the Lions didn’t make a great play and have it taken away. They got lucky, then had it taken away. Even as I felt bad for Lions fans, I was happy for the Cowboys to live at least another week. But after having that shit done to me and my team, I’m just not having any more of this.

I would like to apologize to my son for all the Sunday afternoons I was not available when he was growing up. I was conned by a sports league that claimed the players who did their jobs best would win the game. It’s all a big sham and the diehard fans of NFL teams are the biggest dupes. Get a life! I am.

On top of this bad ref crap, the NFL is in the midst of paying out billions of dollars to former NFL players who’ve suffered permanent brain damage because the league kept quiet on the risks of repeated concussions. Players who were shamed to going back into games after having their “bell rung” have committed suicide in troubling numbers. Malcolm Gladwell was right; the NFL is evil and greedy. But like a bad marriage, I’m packing my mental bags and getting the fuck out.

I had hoped to spend next weekend watching the Cowboys getting blown out by Seattle, as the Packers now will. But now I have to make other plans. For the rest of my life’s Sundays.

Anybody want to start a Sunday afternoon book club? Or maybe we could make sandwiches for the homeless. I suddenly have all this free time. NFL stands for Not Foolingmeany Longer. Get a life? Just did.

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DICKINSON ON THE MATS 1989

I should warn you that January looks to be a very Austalgic month for me due to a couple of writing projects. Going through all the old files, panning for gems. Finding a lot of photos of Suzee Brooks, the only Austin Music Award I ever needed. I’ve got a deal to write a book about my time with Austin music and it was something that I quickly agreed to, but then wondered, first of all, who gives a shit? And then how do I write it without coming off like a self-important asshole? Then I had the idea to name it after the “award” voted for me by the readers of the Austin Chronicle in 1986, and it all fell into place. I know exactly what I’m going to do with this book, which is to do what I’ve always done: trash thyself first and the gates fly open. The Worst Thing To Happen To Austin Music is coming on the Arts + Labor imprint in late 2015/ early 2016.

Suzee Champeny Brooks 1986.

Suzee Champeny Brooks 1986.

I found something this morning that’s too good not to share: the transcribed interviews with the Replacements and their producer (Pleased To Meet Me) Jim Dickinson from 1989.

Dickinson on the sessions: “They let me know when they were done. They just started putting on their coats. I started talking about money and they’d leave. They knew how much it was costing them- around $180,000. All it takes to make a record sound good is money.

They have an idea that goes beyond music. The Mats are like some kids who were sitting at home, trying to be a rock n’ roll band and they looked over at the TV and saw The Three Stooges…I can’t imagine what it was like with Bob Stinson. When I went back and listened to their earlier records, there’s this kind of linear melody playing that’s in all the stuff that was obviously Bob. I kept telling the manager, ‘Bring him on. I can handle him. Let’s cut him.” But Westerberg told me, ‘no, man. I still have nightmares about that guy.’

I’m surprised they made a Replacements record, because the one I made wasn’t really a Replacements record. ”

Jim Dickinson.

Jim Dickinson.

After the article ran in Spin, Dickinson sent me a test pressing of a Big Star record he produced, as appreciation for “not making me look like an asshole” in the article. It was Third/Sister Lover and in one of my most regrettable decisions, I sold it for $25 at a record shop on Clark Street in Chicago. I didn’t have a turntable and wasn’t a fan of Big Star back then. My friend Scott was coming in from Madison, Wisc. that day to see the Reivers at Lounge Ax and I was broke. Sold it for beer money. I included the letter from Dickinson as authentication and for several years after I was afraid I’d run into Jim and he’d say “Hey, I just got a letter from someone saying he bought a Big Star test pressing in Chicago and he wondered what else might be for sale.”

The great James Luther Dickinson, who would’ve been an amazing music critic if he wasn’t a musician, passed away on Aug. 15, 2009. If he knew about my dumb-ass transaction, he had the class to not bring it up. I remain fully shamed.

REPLACING CASEY

The Austin music scene was rocked Wednesday with the news, first reported in the Austin American Statesman, that Casey Monahan had been ousted as director of the Texas Music Office after 25 years in the position. Monahan, who has six weeks to pack his shit and GTFO, has done so much for the Texas music industry by being the original, human Linked-In. He’s a facilitator, who opened up Europe to Texas acts- and vice versa- like no one before him.

But incoming Governor Greg Abbott apparently wants his own person in the job after he takes office later this month. This New York Times article by Reeve Hamilton about Dr. Strangegov’s top aide Daniel Hodge (“who brings me my water and my scarves”), gives a hint at what might become of the Texas Music Office. Hodge, 36, is a big fan of Pat Fucking Green and the ballcap country crowd. His “close friend” Brendon Anthony is a former Fucking Green fiddler, who no longer tours and so he seems like a possible replacement. Perhaps, Texas will soon be not only a Red State, but a red dirt music state. When you elect Greg Abbott, you get Josh Abbott, too. Starting next month, when there’s “a call from Canada” to the TMO, it won’t be the country to the north wanting to do business in Texas, it’ll be Cody Canada from the Departed wondering how that goodwill tour of Steamboat Springs, Colo. is going.

Get ready, folks, it’s about to get real dumb here. T-Bone Walker and Freddy King are old news. Everyone knows Texas music history started with Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen.

Sam the Sham, Casey the Man and Holger Peterson, good to the last drop.

Sam the Sham, Casey the Man and Holger Peterson, good to the last drop.

*****

In my life, bleach has done as much damage as good. Just like editors. A leaky cap on a bleach bottle just ruined my favorite shirt (a gabardine fifties retro I bought at Buffalo Exchange in Phoenix for $15). This was a few weeks after another bottle left bleach spots on the carpet of my new car. So even though bleach has whitened my clothes for decades, I’m giving it up. No use for bleach or editors any more.

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The best thing about Facebook is that you can do things that would be considered rude in real life situations. Like, if you’re talking to someone face to face and they say something dumb or boring, you can’t just walk away. People can’t approach anyone at anytime in the flesh world as they can on FB, which is one of the worse things.

I always said that drinking was just something to do when there’s nothing to do, but now interacting with this network of people is my better bad habit.

People act like Facebook is a watered down version of real life, that you really can’t get to know someone through an online platform. But I think the opposite is true. You get to know folks better here. The physical facade is gone and so you’re left with their ideas. Who are the dummies who think they have everyone fooled? Who are the borderline racists with a liberal front? Who are the blatant opportunists? Which ones own guns? Who has a subtle sense of humor that you didn’t know about? Who are the people who think they’re funny, but aren’t?

Who are the narcissists?

THEY HAD ME AT RONNIE SPECTOR

What do you call someone who has figured out how to use a mental illness to his or her advantage? An artist. Obsessive, insecure, creating from an altered reality. Their crazy intelligence sets them apart, but it’s  the ability to harness it that puts them above all the other nuts.

“That’s it! That’s the voice I’ve been looking for!” Phil Spector said and jumped up from the piano when he heard Ronnie Bennett, backed by her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Tally, sing “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” at an audition in Manhattan in 1963. It was the echo of streetcorner New York, a doo wop hustle teased up in a torna ‘do. Ronnie Bennett’s voice cut through and Phil Spector, who would marry/hold captive the singer in 1968, needed such a focal point for his layers of splendid mania.

The Ronettes, produced by Spector, had a very short run at the top- five top ten singles from 1963 until the breakup in ’67. The rumor was that Phil sabotaged Ronnie’s career so he could have her to himself and in her memoirs, the four years she spent as Mrs. Phil Spector made Tina Turner come off like Cher Bono.

But even in such unfortunate circumstances, the girl group had a huge impact, especially with “Be My Baby,” the Jeff Barry/ Ellie Greenwich/ Phil Spector song which defines the “wall of sound.” Would Martin Scorsese’s breakout film Mean Streets have had such a spectacular opening sequence if “Be My Baby” hadn’t tied together all the elements of youth and misadventure?

Ronnie was the mermaid in Brian Wilson’s sandbox, the Peppermint Lounge vibrato that grew a tall, gawky Queens teenager named Jeffrey Hyman into Joey Ramone. (Joey got his revenge against band bully Johnny Ramone when Phil Spector doted on Joey, the punk rock Ronnie Spector, and ignored Johnny’s buzzsaw while producing End of the Century for the Ramones in 1980.)

Years later, a British jazz/soul vocal genius named Amy Winehouse gave Ronnie Spector tattoos and self-destruction. Perhaps because the Ronettes lasted such a short time, their music is even more precious today. It’s as if Diana Ross didn’t have a long and sometimes spotty career after the Supremes.

 

Ronnie Spector, now 71, hardly ever tours. I can’t remember the last time she performed in Austin. On some of those early Ronettes tours, Phil Spector sent out a Ronnie Bennett imitator so he could keep her in the studio. That voice, that voice! Enough to drive a man insane.

But that’s the voice I’ve been looking for. It’s been a crazy year, so I plan to see it out with Ronnie Spector, backed by an 8-piece band and singers, at the Spiderhouse Ballroom on Wednesday night. It’s a psychedelic extravaganza with a “Wizard of Oz” theme and art installations and fuzz-farming opening acts, including Black Angels’ spinoff Christian Bland and the Revelators, when they had me at Ronnie Spector. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (snuck in when ex-hubby Phil was sent to prison) hits the stage at 11:30 p.m.

For tickets, $55 in advance, go to www.spiderhouseballroom.com.

Honolulu: The Dogg Years

My first favorite local band was Widow, whose singer Frederick Welsford was from Boston so he did all that Steven Tyler stuff, like scarves on the mike stands, because Aerosmith was not yet known. It was rock n’ roll in the flesh: Chuck Berry covers, some originals, lotsa eyeliner. They played a gay bar on Kalakaua Avenue, but they got more women than anybody. I was there every weekend and even sang with the band once for an article about singing with the band.

The next local band that had me as a journalistic groupie was the Honolulu Doggs circa 1976. They played at the Dragon Lady (which later became the Wave), a dry hustle Korean bar by day and rock club at night. The Doggs turned me onto the blues heavy at age 20. The singer Jim Wood was a badass harmonica player and his brother John was the best blues guitar player in Honolulu, that’s for sure. Their dad was a naval officer, but they got as far away from McGrew Point as you could get, spiritually. If the Doggs were playing that night, it was a good day, and since they played six nights a week, I was in heaven. You know, I had some connections from my gig at Sunbums magazine, and so I’d get them gigs whenever I could. But this was during the disco era and sometimes people didn’t want to hear a rock band, they wanted to dance to records played as loud as a band. I got the Doggs a well-paying gig at a Radford High School dance and the crowd hated them. There was even a meeting going on in front of the stage between some of the students and the organizers during the set. The Doggs played every funky number they knew and still no one danced. That was when I learned a valuable lesson about trying to help bands. If it goes wrong, it’s your fault.

But, then I got them another good-paying gig, for a Punahou High graduation party, and that one was a total blowout. The band got tipped a couple hundred extra by the parents because it went as well as they could’ve hoped. The Doggs opened with “Nadine,” the Chuck Berry song, with Jim playing this especially meaty harp lick, and everybody rushed to the front of the stage and just started rocking out. One of the first great nights of my life.

The Doggs were also my initiation to heavy drugs. Well, not the band so much as the scene. Hawaii was a muthafuckin’ drug paradise in the ‘70s; lotta cocaine being snorted in parking garages, hits of LSD and handfuls of mushrooms or reds (seconal) being passed around. And China White. If you wanted to hang out with the Doggs you had to chase the dragon. They had to make sure you weren’t a cop and if you didn’t throw up you were still suspect.

Listen, I got to town after the Armadillo was torn down. Never went to the first Soap Creek up in Westlake Hills. But I was at the Dragon Lady for six nights in a row in ’76 when the Muddy Waters band (sans the Mud man) stopped by around midnight to jam and I don’t think I’d trade that experience for anything, even six Van Morrison encores. There was Pinetop Perkins on piano, Bob Margolin and Lonnie Brooks on guitar, Jerry Portnoy on harmonica, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums and Calvin Jones on bass and vocals. They were in town for the Kool Jazz Fest at the Waikiki Shell and after their set, they’d saunter in to the Lady and take turns jamming with my favorite band. I mean, I was crazy for the Chicago blues and this was the greatest blues band, 10 feet away from me, night after night. They were into the Doggs, too, which made it really special.

The Wood brothers got burnt out on Hawaii and so they took up an offer from a couple of young coke fiends to fund their relocation to Berkley in ’78. Jim and I were working on a fanzine together to be called The Honolulu Lie, but he left halfway through so I changed the name to Honolulu Babylon. I would get occasional reports that Jim was up in San Francisco, singing in the punk band Seizure, while John settled in L.A., where he worked in a recording studio and played dates backing Warren Zevon.

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Dealing with the devil: Houston gospel from the house of Robey

Posted by mcorcoran on October 25, 2017

 

Don and Evelyn

Houston’s Don Deadric Robey- half black, half Jewish, all gangster- beat Berry Gordy by 10 years to become the first African American record mogul. A gambler and a hustler, he did not get there by playing fair, but Robey put out some of the greatest gospel, R&B and rock n’ roll records of the 1950s and ‘60s from a building in Houston’s tough Fifth Ward. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into getting down than fitting in.

The 2809 Erastus Street address housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ‘53, and in a back office he launched Peacock Records to try and make his discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown a star. That didn’t quite happen, but Peacock hit it big in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” predating the sensational Elvis Presley cover by three years. After he acquired the Duke label in the early ‘50s, Robey’s stable of acts contained not only Gatemouth, but Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright.

Robey’s empire included the Buffalo Booking Agency, run by the irreplaceable Evelyn Johnson, which repped many black entertainers out on the “chitlin circuit” and gospel highway. Robey insisted that his acts tour incessantly and if they had jobs they couldn’t leave, like Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951, he sent out singers to pose as them. As a one-stop operation, Robey got a piece of everything and used strong-armed intimidation to make negotiations go his way.

“He might’ve ripped me off,” Gatemouth Brown told me in 2004, “but if it wasn’t for Don Robey, nobody would’ve ever heard of me.” Such sentiments fueled impressario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII.

What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn’t matter as long a people were buying them. Robey had five labels, including Back Beat (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” in ’65) and Song Bird (“Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” by Inez Andrews in ’73.)

As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known, in its early years, as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris- and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.

Robey with Al “TNT” Braggs and Bobby Blue Bland.

Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey’s label and booking agency, Houston was gospel’s second in command.

It all started with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday when you mentioned “The Five Blind Boys” you were talking about the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937, included tenor Lawrence “Shorty” Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late ’40s).

After school, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama- and both acts ended up keeping the new names.

On tour in Houston in 1950, the Mississippi Boys met Robey, who decided he could sell some gospel records by adding a drum beat to quartet singing. While the first session with the “Original Five Blind Boys” did not produce a hit, the second session created a monster with “Our Father.” That intensifying of The Lord’s Prayer, over a repetitive bass drum, validated Robey’s vision by being the first black gospel record to hit the jukebox. Before that, almost all quartet records were a capella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.

Early Bells of Joy

Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. Austin gospel group the Bells of Joy had a huge hit in 1951 following that Robey formula on “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The lyrics were written by Lavada Durst, the KVET disc jockey who’d just recorded a piano blues single for Peacock as “Dr. Hepcat.” With sales of 700,000 copies, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” won the Cashbox award for best-selling religious single of 1951.

Before 1956, when a full studio was built at 2809 Erastus, Robey and musical directors Joe Scott and Dave Clark used Bill Holford’s ACA (Audio Company of America) studio on Westheimer. Peacock artists were in and out of there all the time, as Robey kept signing acts like the Southern Wonders, Christian Travelers, Stars of Hope, Golden Harps and Gospelaires.

Peacock got thick in the game in 1952 when Robey signed established gospel stars the Dixie Hummingbirds, who rival the Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones as the most consistently great gospel quartet of them all. Led by the inventive, charismatic Ira Tucker, the “Birds” could sing it all, exemplified by 1953 smash “Let’s Go Out To the Programs,” in which the group delivered perfect imitations of the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy and, lastly, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with Robey. “The only thing that you had to watch was, if you had a deal with Don, you had to keep him with the deal (because) if he could talk you out of it, he would…If he could scare you down, he would.”

Roscoe Robinson of the Five Blind Boys, who replaced Brownlee as lead singer in 1960 after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road. “After our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” said Robinson, 86. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in ’62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated. “He said he would cut us in on a lot of money (Peacock sued Chess for $450,000) if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group,” said Robinson. Robey put it out there that Robinson went against his own to sign with a white man, so he was effectively blackballed, he said, and had to leave gospel for R&B, having a minor hit in 1966 with “That’s Enough.”

By all accounts- and I do mean all– Robey was the black Lucky Luciano, ruling his musical turf as a ruthless boss. Such was Robey’s rep that when his rising star Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself to death on Christmas Day 1954, rumors started that it was actually a hit on an artist looking to leave his label. (Disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)

 

In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke (reportedly using a Colt .45 as a bargaining chip), Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin’s first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.’s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.

The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Peacock were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by making the full, funky band essential. The group, who would go on to be known as “The Temptations of Gospel,” recorded the spiritual hit “Ain’t Got Long Here” at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in ’62 and Live At the Music Hall in ’67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Alabama, was an acolyte of Brownlee and Cheeks, taking Peacock’s anguished rasp sound full-circle. The band’s soul-funk influence is still prominent in current Texas gospel acts like the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers.

Little Richard was also on Peacock Records for a spell, in 1953, with his band the Tempo Toppers. In an interview with Dave Booth, Little Richard recalled that his signing was not voluntary. “I wouldn’t sign that contract,” Richard said, “and I ended up signing it because he beat me so bad. I had ran away from home…and he took advantage of it.”

By the late ’60s, Robey was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos. As in the music biz, his specialty was calf-roping and tieing.

When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several co-“written” by Deadric Malone, Robey’s pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was shortlived. The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. Made a lot of money that’s probably all long gone. But also made a lot of records that will last forever.

 

 

Sources include “Let’s Go Out To the Programs” by Ray Funk, Rejoice! magazine 1990. Thanks to Robert Darden.

Listen to a playlist of Peacock gospel.

 

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