CHICAGO — Jeff Tweedy emerges from the wings strummimg an electric guitar and the jam-packed crowd at Lounge Ax erupts, but there is a slight problem. A CD of Beck’s Odelay is still playing in the background, so Tweedy straightens all the way up and tries to catch the eye of his wife Sue Miller, who co-owns the beloved rock-in-a-box club. Finally, she sees that the band is ready to start, so she cuts the canned music and just like that, the best album of 1996 seques into the music of the second-best record of the year, Wilco’s Being There. Symmetry smiles.
“Music is my savior,” the elfin-faced Tweedy sings on “Sunken Treasure,” the leadoff song on this first date of the current U.S. tour. “I was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.” He then moves his guitar around to his back, grabs the microphone and seizes on the steady rhythm. “I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll/ I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll/ I was named by rock ‘n’ roll/ Not the same since rock ‘n’ roll.” Then the peaceful, easy song, the hinge on which the new double disc swings, dissolves into a dissonant lather, with bassist John Stirratt bounding across the stage with a monstrous series of thuds while Tweedy flails away on his guitar, whipping his head up and down like the memory of a thousand teen-age concerts.
The crowd is momentarily stunned by such primal aggression from this band of happy groovers, who are among the leading lights of the so-called alternative country or “twangcore” movement. But when the members get back in place and break into “The Long Cut,” from Tweedy’s days with the Uncle Tupelo band, the jovial mood returns and suddenly it is 1993 again. Before the breakup. Before the marriage. Before the baby. Wilco will play a few more Uncle Tupelo songs, and all heaven will break loose amongst the college-age crowd. But it is the new songs, running the gamut from drippy piano numbers to folky shuffles to lush ’60s pop and rockers that put the hammer down, that will define the tenor of the show.
“A lot of this record is about trying to stay interested in music, while so many bigger things are going on,” the 29-year-old Tweedy would say in an interview the next day, before the second sold-out show at Lounge Ax. “The birth of my child (10 months ago) was so humbling. When I held Spencer for the first time I realized that my real life, not some surreal rock ‘n’ roll existence, had just begun.”
On such songs as “Misunderstood,” “Monday,” “Sunken Treasure” and “Someday Soon,” Tweedy re-explores his connection with rock ‘n’ roll and uses it as a metaphor for other relationships in his life. When he sings “I am so out of tune” on “Sunken,” he pauses before saying “with you.” On “Someone Else’s Song,” he equates a creative drought with a listless romance. “The Lonely 1” (which Tweedy swears is not about Replacements-ex Paul Westerberg), finds our protagonist joining thousands of others in worship.
Uncle Tupelo rise and fall
The album Being There is the story of a struggle of priorities within a man who’s always leaned on music to give him direction in life. In the echo of his favorite songs by Husker Du, the Replacements, Mott the Hoople and Velvet Underground, among many more, Tweedy found meaning that resonated. He read all the rock rags, worked in a record store and started a band with Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, his friends since junior high in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill.
Tweedy and Farrar burned with too much ambition to ever be satisfied with indistinction, however. But such talent and drive between two frontmen was apparently more than the band could support, and Uncle Tupelo broke up in June of ’94.
“The roles changed over time,” manager Tony Margherita said, referring to Tweedy’s emergence as an equal to Farrar, who was clearly the point man in the early years. “There was an ongoing debate over the direction of the band and I was constantly being drawn in to referee. Then one day Jay quit to do his own thing (forming Son Volt). And that turned out to be a great thing for everybody.”
The other members of Uncle Tupelo — drummer Ken Coomer, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and Stirratt — stuck with Tweedy and called themselves Wilco. Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets played guitar on the first album “A.M.,” then Jay Bennett was hired to play guitar just before the band embarked on its first tour, which kicked off in style with a scintillating performance at Liberty Lunch during South by Southwest ’95. “That was a big one,” Tweedy said about the Austin showcase. “I didn’t know if anyone cared about this new band because, you know, it wasn’t as if Uncle Tupelo had been some majorly successful band. And then after our set, the record label people were acting like we won the Super Bowl. It was like this big shot of confidence right at the beginning.”
Wilco returns to Liberty Lunch on Tuesday. Son Volt plays the club on Nov. 13. Partly because of the successes on Wilco and Sun Volt, but also because of an influential music magazine and a Web site both named after “No Depression,” Uncle Tupelo is more popular now than they were they were together.
The music of the first three Tupelo albums holds no magical place for Tweedy, however: “I think those are pretty good albums, but it’s kind of painful to hear us trying to figure out what we wanted to be,” he said. “Jay was always pushing for us to get more and more sincere, more and more pure, but I thought that early on we were trying a little hard to be authentic.” It was Farrar who spearheaded the band’s foray into coal-miner songs, while Tweedy, the mophead to Farrar’s mope, has grown in affinity for Faces-like lovable loser anthems like “Monday” and “Dreamer in My Dreams” from the new album.
Tweedy’s idea to name the new album Being There, after the film about a childlike gardener who is considered and economic genius when his simple components are elevated as grand metaphors, stems partly from his rejection of the Uncle Tupelo mythology. “How did rock ‘n’ roll become so important?” he said. “We’re a band that simply does what we do, and yet there are all these interpretations and analysis. `Being There’ (the film) is based on a misunderstanding that keeps getting more and more ridiculous, and I think that rock ‘n’ roll is a little like that.” In one scene, the Sellers character mentions a room upstairs and people think he’s talking about heaven. When Tweedy sang “Passenger Side” (on A.M.) about a guy deciding that he’d rather take the wheel than be driven around, the lyrics were said to describe his coming out as a bandleader. But Tweedy said the song was inspired by his decision to quit drinking alcohol almost six years ago.
As for the determination to make Being There a double CD (though at $17.98 it’s priced like a single disc), Tweedy said that was partly because he thinks it’s a little unfair to expect people to listen to one CD for 70 minutes. “One of the things I always loved about vinyl records was that each side had its own personality — its own spirit,” he said. “I like to think of these two discs as side one and side two: separate, yet together.”
Where’s the sound man?
Woody Allen has said that 80 percent of life is just showing up, and when that life revolves around rock ‘n’ roll you can make that 90 percent. The four official members of Wilco, plus pedal steel player Bob Egan (on loan from Freakwater) have all shown up at Lounge Ax on the afternoon of their first show of the tour, but nowhere to be found is Stan, the house sound man. According to club owner Miller, Stan knew he was supposed to be there at 2 p.m., and as the idle time crawls from 2 to 3 to 4 p.m., the nearly 20-year veteran of the nightclub business gets in an increasingly foul mood. Miller is a cherished character of the music biz because, like Mary Richards, she has the ability to turn the world on with her smile. This afternoon, however, she’s Lou Grant grumpy.
The mood picks up immensely, however, when manager Margherita shows up with the hot-off-the-press issue of Rolling Stone containing a four-star lead review of Being There. Moments later, Jeff’s brother Steve and mother Jo arrive with five freshly bought copies of the vinyl version of “Being There,” which came out a week before the CD. “Gather round lads,” Tweedy jokes Spinal Tap style, `Smell the Glove’ is here.”
Jo Tweedy is so proud of her son’s accomplishments that she’s turned Jeff’s old bedroom into an archive room, with boxes full of clippings, numerous copies of albums, demos, photos and press releases. She has every Uncle Tupelo and Wilco T-shirt, as well as the dress a teen-age, and by the end of the night it was practically torn to shreds,” Mrs. Tweedy said. “It came with a bonnet, but Jeff didn’t wear that.”
“All my sons are completely different,” she said. “The oldest is I guess what you’d call a redneck. He works with the railroad. Steven, the middle one, is a yuppie stockbroker. And Jeff is, well…,” she said, extending her arm in introduction as her son played his guitar in the distance.
In the early years, Mrs. Tweedy used to rent the venues, take the money and even help load up after the show, but these days she spends a lot of her time keeping up with her son’s career. When he’s on the road, she scours America On Line’s “No Depression” file, which sees heavy posting after each Wilco or Son Volt show. “If I want to know what shirt Jeff was wearing or what he said to someone after the show, I just go on line,” she said.
The mad Webbers are not exactly appreciated by the band, however. After sound check, the members headed over to an Italian restaurant about 100 yards up Lincoln Avenue from Lounge Ax, where the conversation opened with recounting some of the things they’ve either read or heard about themselves via the Internet. “These days, if I’m talking to someone after a show and they’re asking a bunch of questions, I ask them if they know about the ‘No Depression’ file,” Bennett said. “If they do, I watch what I say. Or sometimes I don’t say anything because I’ve seen how things can get twisted on the Internet.”
“People believe what they want to believe,” Tweedy added. “I recently did an interview with No Depression magazine, and I told the guy how me and Jay used to buy albums by the Stray Cats and we went to St. Louis to see INXS, but none of that was in the article. There are some people who want to think that me and Jay were listening to Woody Guthrie records in the seventh grade, but we were just regular geeky rock fans.”
The last song of the first show of the tour begins like the first song ended, in a stomp of noise. “Misunderstood” is a song about why kids turn to rock ‘n’ roll or at least why this 29-year-old kid did so many years ago. “Back in your old neighborhood/ Cigarettes taste so good/ But you’re so misunderstood/ So misunderstood.” Later, in the lonely strum of a guitar is a verse lifted from “Amphetamine,” a Peter Laughner song: “Take the guitar player for a ride/ He ain’t never been satisfied/ He thinks he owes some kind of debt/ It’ll be years before he gets over it.” Tweedy didn’t write that, but for him to choose those words over all the rock music that has filled his life attests to a personal connection.
Being There is about being a fan amidst all the phoniness and jealousies and misunderstandings that engulf this crazy thing called “rock.” It’s about falling in love again with playing music. It’s about taking a long look at what you’ve become and giving the mirror a wink before heading off to the stage you deserve.
“After he raped me, he had this look in his eyes like he wanted to kill me,” says Vivian Harbottle. “I begged him for my life. I told him that I had three kids… He just kept staring at me. I was crying ‘please don’t kill me’ and then he finally left.”
A DNA match would tell Harbottle, a year and a half later (May 1997), that the man who sexually assaulted her near the railroad tracks in Bastrop was Rodney Reed, who is currently on death row for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites. The 19-year-old HEB cashier was killed April 23, 1996, six months after the Harbottle assault.
“I’m no angel,” says Harbottle, 56, who has had three DWI convictions and an assault charge after a bar fight. “But that man raped me.” She says she decided to do her first interview about the October 1995 incident because “no one is speaking up for the victims. No one is saying what a dirtbag Reed is. Everything is getting twisted around.”
Reed supporters celebrated a stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in February, just ten days before his March 5 date with the lethal injection in Huntsville. Amid much controversy, claims of Reed’s innocence, and charges of racism, the CCA is reviewing the case. Reed’s defense team points to Stites’ ex-boyfriend, former Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell, as the likely perpetrator, after Fennell pled guilty in 2008 of sexually assaulting a woman in custody while on duty in Georgetown.
But Harbottle says there’s no doubt in her mind that Reed is guilty. Six months after the Stites murder he was involved in another kipnapping and attempted sexual assault, but that victim escaped. “I don’t feel so bad for me,” she says. “I feel really bad for Stacey. If we were able to pin (the Harbottle rape) on Reed, she might still be alive.”
Harbottle was intoxicated the night she was raped, she admits. After a night of partying at Ray’s Place on Chestnut Street, where she used to work as a bartender, Harbottle started walking to her stepson’s house via the railroad tracks behind the bar. “Reed just came out of nowhere,” she says. They sat on the tracks and talked for a few minutes, she said, but when she got up to leave Reed threw her to the ground and raped her. “He had his hand over my mouth and then the train went by with the horn blowing,” she said. “No one could hear me scream.” The incident occurred about 100 yards from Reed’s house, but the case went cold when Harbottle couldn’t identify her attacker. She walked back to Ray’s and called police that night in ’95, but “it was dark and I was drunk,” she says. Police were able to draw a DNA sample, however, which matched when Reed turned himself in for a petty drug charge in April ’97 and submitted DNA. That’s also how he became a suspect in the rape/murder of Stites.
It’s been 20 years and “everybody keeps telling me to move on, to forget the past,” she says, “but how can I when (the Reed case) is in the news all the time.” Harbottle says she’s been harassed by Reed supporters and had to report one to the police so he would stop coming by her restaurant (the short-lived In Cahoots in Bastrop) and grilling her about her testimony. She was called by the prosecutors during the sentencing phase of Reed’s trial. Four other former Reed rape victims also testified. “I’ve been called a liar and a whore,” she says. “I’ve had to stay off the Internet because it’s just too upsetting.”
Recognizing her name from the trial transcripts, I approached Harbottle after seeing her comments on the first Reed story published on michaelcorcoran.net. “Well,” she said on a phone message in return, “I guess I’m finally ready to talk about what happened to me.”
Reed was not charged in the rape of Harbottle, she said, because he was convicted of the greater charge of murder. There is no statute of limitations in Texas for rape. Reed’s DNA was also found in a 12-year-old girl who was raped by an intruder.
I don’t like action movies or superheroes or any of that stuff. I’ve got enough fantasy in my real life, so when I pay money to be entertained, I like reality.
One of my big fantasies when I was starting out was that I would become friends with my musical heroes through interviewing them. It didn’t work out that way. Elvis Costello basically hung up on me. Bruce Springsteen canceled further aftershow visits from journos on his “Tom Joad” tour after I super-ghermed him backstage at the Austin Music Hall. I’m a total dork around nobodies, so you can imagine when I’m trying hard to impress with my knowledge and sense-of-humor. I may have inspired the “dropped call” button that celebrities seem to have on their phones.
But the one time I actually felt like a brother for awhile was when I went to Hollywood to interview Metallica for a Creem magazine cover story. Tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about Metallica. Never really a metalhead, though the tapes I crammed on during the plane ride were pretty damn good.
I didn’t really have anything to wear to the interview, just the clothes I had put on in Austin, so I went to a mall and bought a cool $65 shirt from the Guess store. Now, I had some time to kill before the interview, which was to take place at the studio where Metallica’s “black album,” was being recorded. So I visited my friend Susan Levy at MCA for a bit. The label had just put out the first Bell Biv Devoe album and Susan gave me a t-shirt, which I put on in the bathroom. It had all this colorful hip hop graffiti. My plan was to drive to Lankershim Boulevard, then change into my $65 shirt after I found a place to park. But, damn I pulled into the parking lot and there was Lars, pacing around. The drummer saw me and came over. “You the writer from Creem?”
OK, so we’re going with the ironic ghetto boy band attire. To hang out with Metallica. But maybe being interviewed by someone not wearing a black death metal t-shirt was a nice change of pace. I had a nice conversation with the group. They put me in a room with big speakers and played “Enter Sandman” and the other new recordings and I didn’t really know what to think. But those guys were so starved for approval that I just gave it to them. And it made for an enjoyable three hours. It was one of the best features I wrote during that time. And “Sandman” made them huge. Who knew?
So about three or four years later, I’m in Las Vegas at the opening show of the 1994 Lollapalooza tour (Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Nick Cave, Tribe Called Quest, etc.) Hanging out sorta backstage with all the other critics. Every once in awhile they’d bring out one of the acts for a presser and, for some reason, there was Kirk Hammett of Metallica, talking to Perry Farrell. He looked over at where I was standing and said “Hey, Bell Biv Devoe!” Oh, yeah, man, that funky t-shirt, huh? I ran into him at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago and we talked then, too.
That’s how you make friends with your heroes. You do your job with the commitment that they give to theirs. And just be original, godammit. Nothing you say is gonna impress them. Knowing that takes the pressure off.
Whenever it’s time for lunch or dinner, my mind starts to drive. If I’m at the office, my mental route is east, down either Cesar Chavez Street, with all its great Azul to Arkie’s variety, or East Seventh Street, which could be the best avenue for the appetite in Austin. Surveying the dining options starts the pleasure process. If I’m at home near Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards when hunger hijacks my attention, my mind moseys south to East 12th Street, where the consistent La Morenita Mexican restaurant and the aptly named Maxine’s Soul Kitchen provide good options across the street from each other.
Sometimes my mind can motor as fast as the camera from Run Lola Run and it spends a lot of time tearing down Chicon Street, from East 12th to Cesar Chavez: Galloway Sandwich Shop, Nubian Queen Lola’s, TJ’s Seafood, La Michoacana and Mr. Natural are fave grubberies on that glorious culinary corridor.
Before I moved to my new ‘hood two years ago, I had no idea there were so many great funky joints to eat east of Interstate 35. When I lived in Hyde Park, east side cuisine meant Sam’s BBQ and El Azteca. It was eenie meenie miney mo, barbecue or Mexico.
But I’ve always been a follower of the “eat where you live” philosophy, and after two years of chancing dives and diners, of turning my cholesterol into mo’lesterol, I’ve discovered that a person could be content eating exclusively on the east side. Then, a few months ago, a documentary called “Super Size Me,” in which the protagonist ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month, caused a stir and got me thinking. What if I did an article about eating every meal in East Austin for a month? I even had a working title: “Superfly Me.” My editor looked at me like I was a brave soul, going to great sacrifice for the sake of a story. But, in reality, when he gave the OK, it was like assigning me to report on the backstage scene of a gentlemen’s club. Sometimes this can be a really good job (and sometimes you’ve got to write about what’s going on with the Austin Music Network).
A side order of quirks
Southern cooking, Cajun cuisine, barbecue, hamburgers and Mexican are the Big Five of comfort food, and there are excellent examples of each in East Austin. I haven’t been able to find good pizza, and Asian restaurants are about as prevalent as Pat Boone songs booming out of car trunks, but there’s plenty of everything else here.
The subject of “Super Size Me” gains a lot of weight and suffers other health problems after his month at Mickey D’s. After spending all of July eating my way across East Austin, I felt a different sort of change, more mental than physical. Even as I’d gained a few pounds (if you want to know what you’ll weigh after eating at Maxine’s, just step on a scale holding your plate of food), I had a little more swagger in my step. When genuine love and care and a lifetime of experience are passed on through food preparation, eating out can be spiritual.
But sometimes you get a bad piece of meat.
During my monthlong “challenge,” I had some of the best meals of my life, but also some of the worst. Sometimes on different days at the same restaurant. The maverick diner has to take chances.
I sought out the joints that had some character, that were as far away from America’s food-court mentality as you could get. The east side has its own way of doing things, that’s for sure, and at first I was slightly irritated by some of the quirkiness I’d encountered. Jonesing for a hoagie one afternoon, for instance, I went to the Galloway Sandwich Shop and discovered that it’s not a sandwich shop at all, but a cafeteria-style home cooking joint. The first time I went to La Michoacana, meanwhile, I stood at the food counter for several minutes and no one took my order. Finally, one cook pointed to the line at the grocery checkout and said something in Spanish that probably translates to: “You gotta pay first, Mr. Clueless.”
Another thing that takes some getting used to is that every restaurant east of the freeway seems to have a 19-inch TV with bad reception, tuned to Jerry Springer or Oprah or Judge Whoever.
I used to feel a little uncomfortable about being the only white person at a soul food joint, but after July I’ve come to understand that nobody cares what race you are when they’re looking down on a plate of smothered pork chops. Besides, it’s like when comedian Chris Rock is ragging on white people in his routine, then throws in an aside that present Caucasians are excluded. “You cool,” he says to the whites in the audience. “You paid money to see me.”
Food is generally only as flavorful as the person who cooked it. “Soul food” is more than a down-home marketing term; the best meals tell a story, like when you’ve had some of Nubian Queen Lola’s crawfish etouffee, you know she’s from Louisiana and that she cooked side by side with her mother since she was old enough to stir a wooden spoon. But that’s only part of Lola Stephens’ story.
She moved to Austin from Lake Charles, La., in 1980, soon after graduating from high school. Austin was supposed to be a brief stopover on Lola’s journey to Hollywood stardom, but when she got a job here as a cashier she never made it any farther west. In the late ’80s, Stephens was unemployed and homeless for two years. But she got back up on her feet and now raises four daughters, three adopted from a friend.
Early this year, Stephens saw a “For Rent” sign on the former location of Nanny’s, a much-missed home-cooking joint at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street, and she said the Lord came to her and said, “That’s your place.” Stephens had no money, but scraped together $500 from friends, relatives and kind-hearted strangers, to pay a month’s rent. She painted the place purple and yellow, Mardi Gras colors, and hung beads from the ceiling. On the board outside she scrawled spiritual messages, but she still didn’t have the equipment to open. “There was this white man who would drive by and he asked me why I wasn’t open yet,” Stephens says. When she said she needed money for pots, pans, a cooler and other essentials, he took her shopping and spent more than $1,000. Nubian Queen Lola’s opened six months ago.
Assisted by her daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 17, Stephens works 18-hour days to keep her dream alive, sometimes catching a nap on a cot in a back closet. Then, on Sunday, the only day her restaurant is closed, she feeds the homeless out of her back door. True story.
TJ’s Seafood, a Vietnamese-owned restaurant at East Seventh and Chicon streets that caters to African Americans, is another curious joint. It opened in 1992 at a former location of Gaylord’s Hamburgers, whose decor has barely been touched. The reason the seafood is relatively cheap ($6.95 for a 12-piece jumbo shrimp dinner) is because there’s no middle man: Co-owner Jennifer Tranh’s mother owns a shrimp boat in Port Arthur and supplies the 10 seafood restaurants all over Texas and Oklahoma that are operated by her 12 children. The Tranh family harvested shrimp in Vietnam before they fled Communist rule in 1975. Knowing these sorts of details almost makes up for TJ’s soggy French fries and the tasteless side salad that a picky hamster would send back.
More slices of heaven
* Maxine’s Soul Kitchen, 2931 E. 12th St. (220-3650). Maxine Carlock and her husband, LaVern, bought the old Soul Kitchen about a year ago, and they’re still messing around with the menu. Beef tips and rice, Salisbury steak and hamhocks are perennials, but Maxine has been known to whip up an oxtail stew or pepper steak if someone asks. After working in the food service industry for 30 years, cooking mainly at nursing homes, this is Maxine’s first restaurant and if a recent visit, which found Longhorn football legends Johnny “Lam” Jones and Donnie Little humming in approval, is any indication, she’s scored a touchdown.
* Taco Sabrosa, 5100 E. Seventh St. (385-8898). The cleanest-looking taqueria in town, with a spacious courtyard and very reasonable prices, this place has, quite literally, a lunchwagon soul. The old coach that used to sit at the corner of Shady Lane has been built into the kitchen, which serves up a mouth-exploding al pastor taco called the Gringas. This is one of the few good Mexican restaurants on the east side open late on weekdays and at all on Sundays.
* Tony’s Southern Comfort, 1201 E. Sixth St. (320-8801). Not spectacular, but consistently good, the opening of this down-home eatery about a year and a half ago signaled an east side re-vittle-ization. Best chicken-fried steak east of the Broken Spoke.
* Gene’s, 1209 E. 11th St.(477-6600). Along with Ben’s Longbranch BBQ, this is the top spot where West eats East. Most of the Cajun dishes are just so-so, but the shrimp po’ boys are tops. (Clothing tip: Wear a bright shirt to Gene’s to make sure you’re not invisible to the wait staff, which I have been a couple of times.)
* La Michoacana, 1917 E. Seventh St. (473-8487). This place is so real, so plucked out of Mexico, that I’ve been there a couple dozen times for fajita tacos and I’ve never heard a single customer or employee speak English. Even the confusing parking lot screams Nuevo Laredo.
* Mr. Catfish, 1075 Springdale Road, (927-6666). Known for serving the best fried shrimp in town, this place also serves up some stellar sides of gumbo, red beans and rice and homemade hushpuppies.
* Los Comales, 2136 E. Seventh St. 480-9358. In the mood for cheap, flavorful flame-broiled steaks in a classic south-of-the-border setting? This place won’t let you down.
* Mi Madre’s, 2201 Manor Road (322-9721). Although it’s officially considered East Austin, I don’t think of Manor Road that way. It’s uptown. But I decided to extend the boundaries for the story because I wasn’t about to go a month without those perfect, plump breakfast tacos from here.
There goes the Pulitzer
All right, here we go. Confession time. Although I vowed to eat every July meal in East Austin, I had to give myself a couple of exemptions. On July 5, after a day of tubing in San Marcos, I ate with family at Rivendell, a Hobbit-themed health food restaurant in S.M. They were hungry; I was hungry; we were 30 miles from East Austin and besides, it was a federal holiday. Lapse No. 2 was also unavoidable at the time. I had three 10-year-old kids in my charge for a day and I couldn’t think of a place in the neighborhood that they, all eaters of only things yellow, would enjoy. This was before I knew about Mr. Catfish, so I took them to Dave & Buster’s.
OK, I admit it. I broke my vow, not once, but twice.
Jim Romenesko’s media news Web site oughta be all over this scandal. (“Journalist Betrays Public Trust By Eating At Hobbit-Themed Restaurant.”) This project, which began so well-intentioned, may end in disgrace, but if it makes any difference, I’m still eating every meal on the east side.
I’ve learned to savor the flavor, to embrace the pace of Austin’s eastern time zone. All the little quirks spice up the experience, I’ve found. Or, more to the point, once you’ve sat down to a plate of Maxine’s beef tips and rice or gnawed around the bone in Nubian Queen Lola’s pork chop sandwich, Bennigan’s just ain’t gonna cut it.
Story originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2002.
It is 1954, and 19-year-old accordionist Johnny Degollado, “El Montopolis Kid,” is on the road with a conjunto group that plays the migrant worker circuit, hitting the Texas towns where the populations double during picking season. At a quick-stop grocery in Littlefield, near Lubbock, Degollado notices an attractive cashier. Her name is Antonia. They make clumsy small talk as he pays for his sodas, and he asks for her mailing address so he can send postcards.
“Antonia,” Degollado keeps repeating, as he walks back to the band’s station wagon. What a pretty name. Antonia Degollado; better yet. He writes her a love letter and a long-distance romance blossoms. Six years later a wedding date is set.
That first meeting is recalled on “La Cajera” (“The Cashier”), the title track to Degollado’s new album, which comes out next week. But why record the ode to love at first sight so many years later? This is a love story with an intermission of more than 30 years. After a disagreement about how much time Degollado would spend out on the road, among other things, the 1960 wedding never took place and the couple broke up.
“She was a girlfriend I had at one time/ That I can not forget, even for a moment,” the lyrics to “La Cajera” translate into English.
“I guess we were too young to get married, but throughout the years I thought of her often,” Degollado says. “When we’d come to Shiner, where most of her family lived, I’d ask about her.” He just wanted to say he was sorry for the way things turned out between them.
He got the chance in 1992, when “Toni,” as most people know Antonia, showed up at one of his shows at Mexic-Arte on Congress Avenue. “My daughter was coming through Austin on her way to San Antonio, where we lived, and she bought the Austin paper,” says Antonia. “There was a big picture of Johnny, and I wondered if that was my Johnny, my first boyfriend Johnny.” After deciding that it was, Antonia, a divorced mother of four at the time, and her sister Alicia decided to go to Austin, “just to see the show, nothing else. I figured that Johnny was married and I didn’t want to interfere.”
Degollado had been married, twice, and was the father of six kids, but he was single in ’92. Against her sister’s wishes, Alicia approached Degollado and asked if he remembered an old girlfriend named Toni.
“My eyes lit up,” says J.D., as he’s known now.
“Well, she’s sitting over there,” Alicia said.
When the former lovers talked that night at Mexic-Arte, it was as if the decades had been hours. They started seeing each other again right away, then after a few months J.D. said, “Let’s get married for real this time.”
The couple will be celebrating their 10th anniversary Sept. 19. La Cajera, which ends in a celebration of finally finding a treasure, is J.D.’s gift to Toni.
The album also contains a tribute to Degollado’s mentor, Camilo Cantu, the accordion great who gave up performing in 1963 and was never recorded. Cantu, who died in 1998 at age 90, usually didn’t title his songs, which were all instrumentals. But whenever he played Janie’s Place on East Seventh Street, a bar owned by his first wife, a drunken patron would call out a request for a certain song by singing its melody (badly). Hence “La Calle Siete” had a name, so Cantu wouldn’t have to hear his song butchered. Degollado reprises “La Calle Siete” using the same “sordita” tuning that Cantu perfected to give his accordion a fuller sound.
“He was up there with all the greats — Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, Don Santiago Jimenez,” Degollado says. “They called him ‘El Azote de Austin,’ ‘the Scourge From Austin,’ because he’d go to towns and blow everybody away. But Mr. Cantu didn’t care about recognition.” When Cantu was inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1987, he sent Degollado, Austin’s most prominent figure in the conjunto scene, to pick up the award.
Cantu also gave Degollado permission to take songwriting credit for songs Cantu had written. “He told me that if I hadn’t recorded those songs, no one would ever know they existed. He just passed them on to me and said, ‘They’re your songs now.’ ”
But taking credit for songs he didn’t write doesn’t sit well with some. “When J.D. recorded ‘La Lupita,’ one of Camilo Cantu’s greatest compositions, and I saw the name ‘Johnny Degollado’ listed as the writer, I went to J.D. and said, ‘That’s not right,’ ” says local conjunto historian and photographer Daniel Schaefer. “But he said that’s the way the old man wanted it.” Cantu, who was alive at the time “La Lupita” was a regional hit, didn’t voice an objection, Degollado says.
The two had an almost father-son relationship, especially after Cantu took on Degollado as an apprentice in his accordion repairing and tuning practice. “He was as talented in repairing accordions as he was in playing them,” Degollado says.
It was a 1942 performance by Cantu at the old La Polkita joint in Del Valle that inspired a 7-year-old Degollado to learn the accordion. “I just stood there, watching Mr. Cantu’s fingers move and that big sound from the accordion,” J.D. says. “I was hooked.”
Degollado still has his first squeezebox, a two-row button Hohner accordion his father paid $40 for in 1945. It sits in a display case in the backyard shed where Degollado works repairing and retuning accordions. This was the job Cantu had passed on to him. “It was important to him to keep the craft alive,” says Degollado, who also refinishes antique furniture in the shed. “He told me that just as he had passed the torch to me, I had to pass the torch when the time came.”
Degollado, 68, has recently started teaching the trade to 18-year-old A.J. Castillo, who plays in his father’s conjunto group Rumores. About 75 percent of the business is fine-tuning new accordions by filing the reeds to change tunings and level vibrations. “If there’s no one to fix the accordions, then people will stop playing them, and without the accordion, there’s no more conjunto,” Degollado says.
Known as “musica nortena” in Mexico, conjunto has thrived in the region from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, to San Antonio since the turn of the century when Hispanic button accordion players (inspired by polkas from Czech and German immigrants) teamed with bajo sexto guitarists to create a new sound. Conjunto enjoyed a creative surge in the 1930s when Narciso Martinez, from the Rio Grande Valley, practically abandoned the left-hand chord and bass buttons and instead concentrated on flashy, cat-quick runs on the treble and melody buttons controlled by his right hand. With the bajo sexto holding down the bass lines, the Martinez style would be adopted by almost all conjunto accordionists, except the irascible Cantu, who continued to play the buttons on both sides of the accordion and scoffed at those who didn’t.
In 1947, Valerio Longoria of San Antonio added trap drums and vocals to this previously all-instrumental music, creating the precursor to contemporary Tejano music.
As a teenager who performed often on Austin’s KTXN radio, Degollado picked up the nickname “El Montopolis Kid,” after the East Austin neighborhood where he still lives. He also found a musical running buddy for life, bajo sexto player Vicente Alonzo, who has anchored Degollado’s conjunto band for more than 45 years. During the 1950s heyday of conjunto, they’d play five or six nights a week.
But in the ’60s, conjunto started getting a bad rap as poor people’s music and was rivaled in popularity by a new, more sophisticated, accordion-free style called “orquesta” or “musica decente,” decent music. Such still-popular acts as Little Joe y la Familia and Ruben Ramos come from the orchestra tradition.
“There was definitely a division. Folks who liked the orchestras hated conjunto,” J.D. says. “And if you were a conjunto fan, you didn’t like the orchestras.” But when orchestras started playing and recording several Degollado compositions, including “Un Cielo” and “De Ti Estoy Enamorado,” his group was able to cross over somewhat. A prolific songwriter, J.D. has penned more than 100 songs in his career, not counting the ones Cantu taught him.
A favorite subject is his first love, the one he practically left at the altar to hit the conjunto circuit. Once, in San Antonio in the ’70s, Toni heard a song on the radio called “El Pintor” about a young couple breaking up and regretting it later, and she thought about her Johnny. When the announcer said the song was by Johnny Degollado, Toni almost fell over.
“Even after we broke up in 1960, I kept writing songs about Toni,” J.D. says. “Whenever I’d write a sad song I’d think about how things didn’t work out. If I wanted a happy song, I’d think about us dancing together.”
In a couple of weeks they’ll be dancing the dance that once seemed an impossibility — their 10th anniversary waltz. And if there’s any justice, the song playing will be one composed by Camilo Cantu. Indeed, in the familiar feel of conjunto, long known as “Mexican wedding music,” love and tradition twirl together like smitten dancers, like young and old hearts that pump the same blood, like the accordion and the bajo sexto.
“Don’t waste my time telling me how great you are” – Robert F.X. Sillerman, to a banker, not a hip hop artist with the ability to sell a ton of tickets.
Sillerman started the consolidation of the North American concert market with money he made from selling SFX Broadcasting to Austin radio magnate Steve Hicks for $2.1 billion in 1996. That year Sillerman, who pocketed $250 million in the transaction, paid $27 million for Ron Delsener’s East Coast concert business (keeping legendary Delsener aboard as right hand man), then started snapping up just about every big promoter in the country, paying $68 million for Bill Graham Presents, $94 million for Nederlander, $190 million for Houston-based Pace Concerts and so on. Within two years he had spent about $2 billion on 11 regional concert promoters and 82 venues. Everybody in the business thought Sillerman was crazy, paying too much (except for the Delsener deal, which was a steal).
Besides promoters, Sillerman paid “too much” for talent, guaranteeing Rod Stewart $350,000 a show, for instance, more than twice what he was previously making. Sillerman personally negotiated the double bill of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon- two great American songwriters with no love for each other- which netted the pair $250,000 a night each, much more than they could earn separately. It didn’t take long for Sillerman to earn the nickname “the Sam Walton of pop music,” only Sillerman didn’t discount prices, he drove ticket costs (which had long been undervalued- hence scalpers) way up.
Sillerman’s genius, it turns out, was using the loyalty and passion of concert fans as a selling point to corporate sponsors. He packaged magic moments and sold them to national advertisers for millions and millions of dollars. He’s the reason for all the signage and logos you see at festivals today. Sillerman’s background was in radio, as he bought his first two stations in 1978 with “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, so he knew from “demographically desirable consumers.”
In 2000, just four years after he started paying big bucks for promoters and their sheds (amphitheaters), Sillerman sold SFX to San Antonio-based Clear Channel Entertainment for $4 billion. The radio giant’s concert division was named Live Nation in 2005. Five years later, Live Nation and Ticketmaster merged to create Live Nation Entertainment.
Live Nation has been buying up the country’s biggest festival promoters, including a majority interest in Austin-based C3 Presents in late 2014 for a reported $120 million, as well as, more recently, the company that promotes Bonnaroo. The marriage of consolidation and corporate sponsorship was officiated by Robert F.X. Sillerman almost two decades ago.
SFX Entertainment was reincarnated in 2012 as EDM promoters, buying chunks of Tomorrowland, Electric Zoo, Rock In Rio and the online DJ store Beatport.
This story first appeared in 2010 in the Austin American Statesman.
by Michael Corcoran
The music business is full of hard-luck stories, but no Austin act rose faster and fell harder than metal band Pariah in the 1990s. Like Guns N’ Roses three years earlier, they were signed to Geffen Records by golden boy talent scout Tom Zutaut. But there were no multiplatinum records or stadium tours for the former classmates at Clark High School in San Antonio. “We were on the label for five years and have only one album to show for it,” said singer Dave Derrick. “It was a frustrating time, to say the least.”
After relocating to Austin in 1990, Pariah regularly sold out 1,000-capacity venues, but on their final show, soon after officially being dropped by Geffen in 1995, they played to less than 300 at their home club, the Back Room.
Two weeks later, the band’s bassist and driving force, Sims Ellison, put a shotgun to his face and pulled the trigger.
But in taking his own life, Ellison, who suffered from anxiety and depression for years, eventually helped save the lives of other musicians. His suicide was the inspiration for the SIMS Foundation, which provides low-cost mental health services to uninsured musicians who, because of irregular working hours, low pay, easy access to alcohol and drugs and often-volatile intraband relationships, have a unique set of psychological needs.
“Anytime SIMS sets up anywhere in the public, we have at least one person come up to us and say they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for SIMS,” said Tricia Forbes, executive director of the foundation.
Ellison didn’t drink or smoke, but the band was his life. When it crumbled and his mates, including younger brother Kyle Ellison, went their separate ways after nearly 10 years of constant camaraderie, it was apparently too much for 28-year-old Sims Ellison. On top of that, his girlfriend of nearly three years, then-unknown actress Renee Zellweger, had broken up with him six months earlier.
“I miss him every day,” said Pariah singer Dave Derrick, before he played a Pariah tribute set for the 15th anniversary SIMS Foundation Benefit Bash five years ago. “It bothers me that most people only remember Sims as the guy who killed himself, if they know him at all. He was the sweetest guy you could meet, with a goofy sense of humor. He spent every waking hour working on making Pariah as successful as possible.”
Pariah drummer Shandon Sahm recalled Sims Ellison as full of nervous energy. “He used to say, ‘If you ain’t stressed, it ain’t happening,'” said Sahm, the youngest son of Texas music legend Doug Sahm.
“If he was in a place where people knew him as Sims, the bass player for Pariah, he was totally cool,” said Derrick. “But if he was in any other social situation, he couldn’t cope. He’d show up at a backyard barbecue and pace for 10 minutes and leave.” Derrick said he never saw Sims finish a plate of food. “He would constantly stir his food, but not eat it.”
Derrick wondered if two middle school incidents forged Ellison’s social phobia. “When he was about in eighth grade he bought a Mötley Crüe T-shirt at a concert and was robbed of it at knife-point in the bathroom. Then a few months later, a bully went up to him at the mall in front of his friends and cold-cocked Sims for no reason. Knocked him out just to show off,” Derrick said. “He knew that, as a member of Pariah, he was protected – no one was going to hurt him.”
The three years with Zellweger, when the band was signed to Geffen, were Sims Ellison’s happiest, Sahm said. Zellweger’s best friend at the time, her “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” co-star Lisa Newmyer, dated Kyle Ellison, younger than Sims by three years, and the four practically lived together at the Railyard Apartments downtown.
In December 1994, Zellweger split with Sims Ellison and moved to LA, where Jerry Maguire would make her a star less than two years later.
Derrick said Sims Ellison bought himself a shotgun for Christmas that month.
Meanwhile, Geffen Records had decided to drop Pariah and pay the band $50,000 to dissolve the two-album deal. The band, rounded out by guitarist Jared Tuten, decided to take a hiatus after one last show at the Back Room.
“Sims was really bummed about everything,” said Derrick, “and I told him he really should get a dog. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘That’s a great idea!'” That was the last time Derrick saw Sims Ellison, who got a job at Urban Outfitters on the Drag two weeks before his death.
“Some people were theorizing that he killed himself because Renee left him or because the band was being dropped, but it was deeper than that,” Derrick said. “Being on Geffen was worse than being dropped by Geffen. That wasn’t it. There was something inside him that none of us could see. You play it back in your head, like ‘I should’ve done this or done that,’ but the truth is that we were all in shock when it happened.”
David Garza is one of thousands of Austin musicians helped by the assistance program inspired by the Sims Ellison tragedy. “I was having a hard time a few years ago with a personal relationship and with my label,” said Garza, who released two critically acclaimed but soft-selling albums on Atlantic in 1998 and 2001. “I was raised Mexican American Catholic. We didn’t go to therapy – that was for weirdos. If you had a problem, you went to confession.” But Garza had musician friends who’d been helped by SIMS, which has a network of 60 therapists and treatment centers that charge greatly reduced rates. With an operating budget of $600,000 a year (about 25 percent of which comes from KGSR’s “Broadcasts” CD), SIMS helps an estimated 600 Austin musicians a year.
Such musician-aimed services weren’t available to Pariah, whose disappointing career could be summed up by the night in early ’94 when the members gathered around the TV to watch their video for “Powerless” debut on MTV’s “Headbangers Ball.” They waited and waited for almost three hours until just before 2 a.m., when their video aired, the last one of the night.
Signed after a South by Southwest showcase in 1990, Pariah had to wait almost three years until the release of To Mock a Killing Bird in 1993. In between, Nirvana exploded and grunge made Pariah’s brand of glam metal obsolete.
“Pariah had the worst timing ever,” said the band’s co-manager Wayne Nagel, who founded the SIMS Foundation in June 1995 with his Austin Rehearsal Complex partner Don Harvey and Sims’ father, Houston oil engineer Don Ellison. “If the record had come out the year after they were signed, it would’ve been a whole different story.” Instead the band was forced to wait more than two years while Geffen threw all its clout and resources into the much-delayed Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion two-album project.
“Sims was saying, ‘What are we going to do? Metal’s not cool anymore,'” Sahm said of one of Ellison’s obsessions. “We started off as a hard rock band like Guns N’ Roses and somewhere along the line we turned into Smashing Pumpkins. Still, I think we were getting better as a band by expanding our horizons.”
Geffen didn’t see it that way. “Zutaut was the king of metal,” Nagel said of the A&R man who signed Mötley Crüe and Metallica before Guns N’ Roses. “He wanted the band to keep it metal.”
Treated like kings by Geffen before To Mock a Killing Bird came out, the band couldn’t get phone calls returned when the album didn’t take off.
Pariah met Zutaut, who did not answer an e-mail request for comment, backstage at SXSW 1990 after a scorching set at the Back Room. “He said he didn’t have time to sign another band, but that, just by him coming backstage, we were going to get signed,” Sahm said, with a laugh.
Nagel said Pariah received eight offers from labels after that SXSW appearance. It turns out that Zutaut did sign Pariah to Geffen, but he wasn’t kidding about being too busy. “It was all about Guns N’ Roses,” said Derrick. “We weren’t the only band put on hold.”
Sahm said, looking back, the band should’ve signed with Chrysalis, who photoshopped a group photo of the band so they looked at home inside the label’s headquarters. “They loved our song ‘Shatter Me’ and were ready to put it out to radio right away. But instead we went with the big shot. Chrysalis couldn’t give us a $100,000 advance, but Geffen did.” The label also gave Pariah a $250,000 recording budget that soared to $500,000 by the time the album was finished at Madonna’s Maverick recording studio in LA. (Sims Ellison hit it off with Madonna and appeared in her “Deeper and Deeper” video.)
“We were young and stupid,” Derrick said of signing with Geffen for the upfront money. “But we were all in it together. If there was any motto with Pariah, it was ‘The band comes first.'”
The SIMS Foundation, named after a lovable, yet troubled Austin musician, was formed for what comes next.
by Michael Corcoran, 2005
Which ones would you add/ subtract?
- “YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME” by 13 Floor Elevators (1966). Psychedelia is born as the region rocks to a new soul shouter named Roky Erickson.
- .“I FOUGHT THE LAW” by the Bobby Fuller Four (1966). Written by Sonny Curtis (who would later pen “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme) and originally recorded by the post-Buddy Holly Crickets, the definitive version was by these guitar-rockers from El Paso.
- . “THAT’LL BE THE DAY” by Buddy Holly (1957). Perhaps the most influential single in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Holly’s first smash hit provided the model for the gtr-gtr-bs-drms four-piece that would rule pop music for decades.
- “HONKY TONK HEROES” by Waylon Jennings (1973). This revved-up version of the Billy Joe Shaver song proved Waylon to be the Elvis Presley of country music, a forceful vocalist who made every song he touched his own. The band, meanwhile, shook up the “countrypolitan” climate with a fat, sweaty groove honed in the roadhouses from Amarillo to Beaumont.
- “DARK WAS THE NIGHT (COLD WAS THE GROUND)” by Blind Willie Johnson (1927). The moaning instrumental Ry Cooder calls “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.
- .“HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY” by George Jones (1980). An epic of emotion from the Beaumont hillbilly who became country’s best-ever singer.
- “MIND PLAYIN’ TRICKS ON ME” by Geto Boys (1991). Inner-city blues made these Houston rappers wanna holler. Pouring their paranoia over a slinky Isaac Hayes sample, the G.B.’s took gangsta rap to a headier space.
- “ONLY THE LONELY” by Roy Orbison (1960). This West Texan master of operatic pop set the stage for his brooding persona with this majestic hit. “There goes my baby/There goes my heart,” he sings, as the drums snap a cold cadence. “Maybe tomorrow a new romance/No more sorrow, that’s a chance you’ve got to take,” he finishes with a voice that knows resolve.
- “BLUE EYES CRYIN’ IN THE RAIN” by Willie Nelson (1975). An early look at Willie’s interpretive genius. Not only a sign of “Stardust” to come, but 2:17 that anchors “Red-Headed Stranger.”
10. “WOOLLY BULLY” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (1965). The rollickingTex-Mex party anthem continues to fill dance floors and drivers’ hearts.
- “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL” by Leadbelly (1936). A traditional prison daydream ode about a train that, if its light shone on you, you’d be freed, updated when the man born Huddie Ledbetter was doing time in Sugarland.
12. “TIGHTEN UP” by Archie Bell and the Drells (1968). One of the first records to recognize that sometimes a groove is all you need.
- “WOMAN BE WISE” by Sippie Wallace (1925). The model for Bonnie Raitt’s sassiness came from this gutbucket blues number about keeping good love to yourself.
- “LA GRANGE” by ZZ Top (1973). A classic-rock eternal that never fails to bring out the air guitars.
- “ELLIS UNIT ONE” by Steve Earle (1995). Springsteen got the title track to “Dead Man Walking,” but Earle buried him with this dark exploration of life in a prison town.
- “EL PASO” by Marty Robbins (1959). Between Robbins’ sturdy vocals and Grady Martin’s exotic guitar, you can almost feel the spirit of border town love.
- “SHE’S ABOUT A MOVER” by the Sir Douglas Quintet (1965). Producer Huey P. Meaux posed them as Brits, but there was no mistaking where this chunk o’ fun came from: Texas (and Ray Charles).
- “WALKIN’ THE FLOOR OVER YOU” by Ernest Tubb (1941). The ultimate honky tonk song and the first country hit to feature electric guitar.
- “OKIE DOKIE STOMP” by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Other guitarists can do T-Bone Walker, but no one besides Gatemouth could play this one the right way.
- “BEFORE THE NEXT TEARDROP FALLS” by Freddy Fender (1975). Born Baldemar Huerta, Fender made his pop breakthrough with this No. 1 single that sounds like doo-wop finally reaching the Rio Grande Valley.
- “WALK AROUND” by Soul Stirrers (1939). The blueprint for doo-wop and soul was laid out in this recording by the gospel quartet from Trinity. On the South Side of Chicago, future Stirrer Sam Cooke was listening.
- “LONG BLACK VEIL” by Lefty Frizzell (1959). This tragic story of loyalty and love wins the coin toss with “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.”
- “MATCHBOX BLUES” by Blind Lemon Jefferson (1927). Just as he moved from Mexia to Dallas and then to Chicago (where he was found frozen to death in a snowbank in 1929), this sightless singer is credited with taking blues from the fields to the barrelhouses to the urban centers.
- “MAL HOMBRE” by Lydia Mendoza (1938). This single hit big with Hispanics all over the country and Mexico and helped usher in the Tejano subgenre.
- “DANCE FRANNY DANCE” by Floyd Dakil Combo (1964). A Texas bar band standard. Substitute “Linda Lu” by Ray Sharpe, “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head or “Thunderbird” by the Nitecaps, if you prefer. They all created a huge rumble that is still felt today in dark, smoky clubs.
- “NEW SAN ANTONIO ROSE” by Bob Wills (1944). A distillation of all that is pure Western Swing (though “Ida Red” was a close second in the Wills slot for providing the pattern for Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”).
- “GET ON BOARD LITTLE CHILLUN” by Ella Mae Morse (1945). Not “Cow Cow Boogie,” the first-ever gold record for Capitol? What about the original version of “House of Blue Lights”? Nah, this one swings harder, making full use of this Mansfield native’s elastic vocals.
- “PANCHO AND LEFTY” by Townes Van Zandt (1971). Dozens of great Townes songs are represented here by his most famous.
- “HARPER VALLEY PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley (1968). This song of small town hypocrisy, written by Tom T. Hall, became the hit of the year by this singer from Anson, Texas.
- “PIECE OF MY HEART” by Janis Joplin (1968). Never before has vulnerability sounded so powerful than when this outcast from Port Arthur got her revenge.
- “YOU’LL LOSE A GOOD THING” by Barbara Lynn (1962). Another Meaux discovery, this left-handed guitarist from Beaumont straddled the border between Texas and Louisiana with this Top Tenner that shook up a stale national music scene for a while.
- “DRIFTIN’ BLUES” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (1945). This smooth blues hit, written and sung by Blazer Charles Brown, was a primary influence on Ray Charles’ early style. (Note: Guitarist Johnny Moore grew up in East Austin.)
33 “SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN” by Kris Kristofferson (1972). Stark, honest storytelling and a voice that seizes the details
- “DALLAS” by Joe Ely (1972). “Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night” is a great opening line (by Jimmie Gilmore), and Ely keeps up the intrigue with his heel-grinding delivery.
- “WILD SIDE OF LIFE” by Hank Thompson (1959). A hit from the Waco-born honky tonker so massive it registered an answer song, Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
- “GOING DOWN” by Freddie King (1971). King had ripped better on other tracks –“Hideaway,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” “Remington Ride,” “In the Open,” etc. — but this one gets the nod for the stamina to survive so many bad barroom versions. Nice piano by Leon Russell, too.
- “STREETS OF LAREDO” by Gene Autry (1936). An incredibly deep song and the version that made it famous. (Note: Autry is also responsible for the best Texas Christmas song. He co-wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus.”)
- “TRUCK DRIVER BLUES” by Ted Daffan (1939). This steel guitarist from the Houston area had a bigger hit with “Born To Lose,” but this number, which introduced the truck drivin’ song to country radio, had greater implications.
- “JOLE BLON” by Harry Choates (1947). The Cajun national anthem was given itsdefinitive version by a wild-eyed fiddler from Port Arthur.
- “SINCE I MET YOU BABY” by Ivory Joe Hunter (1956). A blues ballad that meets rock ‘n’ roll head on and doesn’t flinch.
You’ve seen Sarah Brown on-stage if you ever went to Antone’s in the ’80s or early ’90s. She was the house bass player when Antone’s was a blues club, period, and so she backed everyone from Big Joe Turner and Sunnyland Slim to Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and Otis Rush. For almost 30 years, Brown has been one of Austin’s most valuable – and visible – side musicians. But something only her closest friends knew until recently is that Brown, in her early sixties, is a descendant of John Augustine Washington, the youngest brother of George Washington. Although Brown is a blood relative of our first president, George Washington, she’s not a direct descendant, as George and Martha Washington had no children. Nor did John Augustine’s son Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon and became a Supreme Court justice.
“Being a blues musician, it just wasn’t relevant to me to be a Washington,” said Brown, a Michigan native who has lived in Austin since 1982. The Washingtons she was committed to follow in the tradition of were Dinah and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, not America’s first family. “Our grandmother told us that we must amount to something in our own right because whatever blue blood we had was thin,” Brown said. George Washington is her great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.
She knew her ancestors had slaves – it’s well-known that the father of our country owned human property – and she had a problem with that, but “it just wasn’t something that I thought about too much,” she said. The African Americans she worked with were heroes and legends; why dwell on an ugly past?
But in January 2011, her family’s legacy as slaveholders came to visit her in books and papers that she helped her cousin Tom Washington prepare for auction. When Brown’s uncle Nathaniel Washington Jr. died in 2007, his will stated that the family’s artifacts, including a piece of George Washington’s original coffin and papers that go back to 1662, were to be sold at auction with the proceeds to be divided between Brown, her sister and nine cousins.
A rare book auction in New York City in 2011 drew $31,000 for a pair of Revolutionary War-era books that had belonged to the Washington family. A memorabilia auction in Dallas was expected to attract much more money, with estimates in the six figures for surveying tools George Washington owned at age 16.
Brown received the books and papers because friend and fellow Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga is one of the country’s top experts in the restoration of old books. As the material sat there on Brown’s dining room table, awaiting appraisal and repair, Brown started reading. She found family papers in which slaves, with dollar value attached, were listed as assets alongside livestock, farm tools and furniture. She read about slaves being bought and sold by family members, some of whom fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War.
“It was all very disturbing,” she said. “The more I read, the more it made me wonder if some of the people I’ve been playing with all these years are descendants of slaves once owned by my family.”
One of the most telling books was a record of the Fifth Virginia Convention, held in Williamsburg, Va., in May 1776, just two months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. An early version of the U.S. Bill of Rights was adopted at the convention, a galvanizing moment in the American Revolution.
“I’d read in one part (of the book) that all men are created equal, but then there were many pages that told of plantation owners seeking restitution for slaves who had been jailed and killed when they tried to escape to the British side,” Brown said.
George Washington, who inherited 10 slaves from his father as an 11-year-old, was conflicted about slavery, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow. Even as he came to believe that human bondage ran against the principles on which the new nation was founded, he kept slaves until he died in 1799. His will, however, provided that all 124 of the black people – and a few white people – he owned be set free after the death of wife Martha. He also provided pensions for the older slaves.
The more Brown has found out about her famous family, the more she wants to know, especially since she’s found evidence, though inconclusive, that one or more of her ancestors fathered children with their slaves. “I may have African American cousins I don’t know about,” said Brown, who has spent many late nights searching sites such as www.afrigeneas.com and comingtothetable.org, which serve as a connection for the descendants of slaves and slaveowners.
An intriguing letter from abolitionist Urbain Barbier to Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew, led Brown to “Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon” by Scott Casper. She’s also been in communication with the author through email. “It’s a great, close-in look at slavery through the history of slaves and free African Americans who worked at Mount Vernon, from General Washington’s day through the 1980s,” said Brown. Her research, which she hopes will be the basis for a book about her family and her life interacting with blues royalty, has also turned up some brighter moments. Last month, Brown found a letter from Laurence Washington dated Aug. 27, 1816, that detailed a decision to free slaves owned by him and wife Mary. “We are both decidedly of the opinion that God of nature made them as free as ourselves,” the letter said, “and they are held in bondage by ruffian force and savage violence.” Freeing their slaves “was an act that could no longer be postponed.”
Brown said “it really made my day” to find that letter. “There’s such a fissure in this country between slavery and democracy,” said Brown. “It runs like a fault line from the American Revolution to modern times. People are still suffering from its effects.”
Before poring over the auction materials, Brown’s knowledge of her family’s history centered on the Washingtons who moved from West Virginia to Washington state around 1905 to homestead.
Brown’s mother, Glenora Washington Brown, told Sarah stories of her lawyer father, Sarah’s grandfather, Nathaniel, who drowned in the Columbia River in 1926 trying to save his brother and sister, who also drowned after being swept downstream in a powerful current.
Brown was born in Chicago, but moved at age 6 to Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father, Deming Brown, taught Russian literature at the University of Michigan. Her first instrument was the cello, but then the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, and Brown switched to electric bass. “I took the backward route in discovering the blues,” she said. “From the Beatles I found out about Chuck Berry and from there I found Chess Records and the world of the blues.” In her early 20s Brown moved to Boston, which had a vibrant blues scene. She often played the Speakeasy in Cambridge and backed her “first blues genius” in Big Walter Horton.
Needing a change of scenery after a bad breakup, Brown moved to Austin and got a gig playing bass for the Leroi Brothers, whose drummer Mike Buck she knew from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
It was as the bassist in the Antone’s house band that Brown built her reputation and made her gender a nonissue. “If anyone had a problem with me being a female bass player, I didn’t hear any of it,” she said. “Sometimes, they’d come to the club and look at me a little strange when I put on my bass, but it’s really all about the music. If you could play, you were cool.”
Along with guitarists Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien, drummer George Rains, guitarist/organist Mel Brown and sax player Kaz Kazanoff, Sarah Brown backed almost every blues great of note during the ’80s and early ’90s at Antone’s glorious location at 2915 Guadalupe St.
“What’s central to my life is the music created by slaves,” she said, underlining why her new research project has become almost an obsession. Blues grew out of the so-called Negro spirituals, or slave songs, sung in the sweltering fields of the South. In singing about troubles and hardships, often to a call-and-response cadence, the days became more bearable. The music soothed the souls.
Some of those slaves had children who had children who had children who made guitars out of cigar boxes and screen door wires, then grew up to create the music that inspired rock ‘n’ roll.
And many have, no doubt, been backed by an Austin woman, a descendant of exalted American Revolutionaries, who has walked those bass lines from the South to Chicago and back.
Seven generations from George Washington
Sarah Brown’s lineage:
Sarah’s mother Glenora (b. 1917) was the daughter of Nathaniel Willis Washington (b. 1881). His father, Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1839) moved his family from Charles Town, WV to Washington state in 1905. Bushrod’s father was Thomas Washington (b. 1812), whose father was also named Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1790). That Bushrod was the son of Corbin Washington (b. 1764), whose father was George Washington’s youngest brother, John Augustine Washington (b. 1736).
PORTLAND, Ore. — After “Giant recording artists” Big Car broke up in early 1992, bassist Jeff Groves sold everything he owned, including his home recording studio, and embarked on a gypsy adventure with his new bride, Laura. They just took off and drove all over the continent, from Mexico to Nova Scotia, Maine to San Diego, sleeping in the bed of their Toyota pickup and taking their time. When they rolled into Portland after a year on the road, however, the journey ended.
Jeff and Laura weren’t looking for anything in particular when they left Austin, but they ended up finding the hidden treasure of Portland. Looking and feeling a lot like the best part of Manhattan dropped down into a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, Portland shirks its repute as some Weegun-wearing yuppie Disneyland by being as real as Mary’s Club, whichis a cross between “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name, and an old-fashioned burlesque joint. All that’s missing at Mary’s is the comedy, but it’s easy to supply your own, especially when the “dancers” have conversations that could just as easily come in a laundromat: “What time do you have to pick up the kids?” “We’ve been here a year and a half, and it seems like every week I find another cool place,” Jeff Groves said over a beer in the bar of Hung Far Low, one of his latest discoveries. The upstairs Chinese restaurant, with its pristine ’50s furniture, dark-red lighting and jolly bartender, epitomizes the homey-eerie paradox of the town strapped by bridges and shaded by so many dark corners.
When Groves started talking about his band, the Raging Woodies (same name, different lineup than his old San Antonio combo) and their well-received show at Key Largo on Thursday, I was shaken from sweet affinity and reminded of why I had come to Portland. Last week, Thursday through Saturday, the town was host of the North by Northwest Music and Media Conference, and if the name sounds familiar to more than Hitchcock fans, it’s because the convention was organized by the folks who make Austinites willing hostages (mostly) of South by Southwest every March.
Tons of bands, lotsa clubs, tedious panels, parties every evening, schmooze or lose — you know the routine — but the Portland affair felt strange, like it was a pilot episode for a convention organizers are hoping will be picked up. Wristband sales picked up as the weekend neared, to save the conference financially, but attendance at the seminar measured less than 20 percent of the nearly 5,000 people who attended SXSW last March. Unlike the Austin conference, which puts our burg in a tizzy for about a week, NXNW had seemingly little affect on Portland as a whole. That’s partly because of the numbers, but it also could be that this is just too much town to be swept away by panels and showcases.
Like an episode of “Northern Exposure” directed by David Lynch, Portland is a strangely magnetic metropolis where the underlying tangles with the overwhelming, a city of layers begging to be peeled back. Andit’s a great town to walk in.
All within ten blocks of the Benson Hotel, I found 1) Dr. Bill’s Learning Center, a bizarre adult bookstore with cowboy boots and hats in the front window and shelves that display classic books next to skin mags and porno tapes; 2) The Rialto, a classic old man’s bar with an off-track betting parlor; 3) Powell’s World of Books, easily the best bookstore I’ve ever been in; it makes San Francisco’s City Lights look like an airport bookshop; 4) several great seafood restaurants, including the spectacular Jake’s; 5) Chinatown; 6) countless ethnic eateries, serving up Thai, Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Japanese and old Italian fare; and 7) more great coffee places than panhandlers. If I was a free man, I would live here.
I also walked to many of the clubs, which, like those of Austin, are mostly close to the downtown hotels. But the acts were generally so lame compared to the SXSW roster that the clubs were often the star attraction.
The Obvious, from Salt Lake City, were the perfect example, trotting out their tired affectation of Alice in Chains for a vaguely interested crowd that had been browbeaten into standing. Fortunately, the show was in the Paris Theatre, a brilliantly converted porno palace, so even as the band was spooning out its canned angst, there was plenty to keep your mind occupied in the venue haunted with the ghosts of a million gropes.
Other cases of bad band-good club were Portland’s pedestrian Gravelpit at the graffiti-covered punk mecca Satyricon; Billy Jack, from nearby Eugene, at the cavernous Roseland; and Truly at LaLuna. I loved Truly’s latest album on Capitol, but in concert the band’s extreme loudness couldn’t make up for a mysteriously missing ingredient in their sound. Something was wrong, but the band drove me out into the unseasonably cold night before I could figure out what it was.
The biting drizzle was Portland trying to show a downside to the countless out-of-town attendees who kept chanting, “I could live here/ I could definitely live here” like a mantra. But it was the chill of adventure that made Portland so alluring on the last weekend of September. The town may might seem bleak to some or as strangely sinister as a municipality from the mind of Stephen King, but it provided splendid diversions in the midst of yet another derby for the dull and derivative.
Above all, Portland tells us that there’s more to life than music.