Last week, I wrote this story about Charlie’s Playhouse. Which led to my discovery of photos by Neal Douglass of a female impersonators’ show at an unnamed East Austin bar. Today, I went to the Austin History Center and went through a city directory for 1957. Here are all the bars I could find in the black part of East Austin.
Blue Moon Bar 1902 E. 7th St.
Babalu Club 1618 ½ E. 6th St.
Barton’s Tavern 1900 E. 12th St.
Club Capree 1810 Chicon St.
Cobra Club 2321 E. 7th St.
Ellen’s Tavern 1626 Rosewood Ave.
Flamingo Club (Charlie’s Playhouse) 1201 Chicon St.
Harlem Novelty Bar 1010 Lydia St.
Harvey’s Place 1710 E. 1st. St.
The Hub 2200 E. 7th St.
J.C. Bar 1906 E. 7th St.
J.R. Club 2006 E. 7th St.
James Tavern 1133 E. 11th St.
Lecol Club 2136 E. 7th St.
Lo Jo’s 1407 E. 6th St.
M&B Club 2206 Webberville Rd.
Mackey’s Tavern 1618 Rosewood Ave.
Pearl’s Bar 1512 E. 6th St.
Raven Club 2148 E. 7th St.
Scoot Inn 1308 E. 4th St.
Senate Tavern 1811 E. 6th St.
Shallow Box Club 2310 Webberville Rd.
Silver Slipper 1627 Rosewood Ave.
Sport Bar 1200 E. 6th St.
Tasby’s Tavern 1922 E. 6th St.
V&V Club 1112 E. 11th St.
White Swan 1906 E. 12th St.
Wide Awake Club 1518 Rosewood Ave.
Your Place 1400 E. 12th St.
I found a few new interesting details about Charlie’s Playhouse. Owner Charlie Gildon, as he was known, was actually named Ernest Gildon. Perhaps Charlie’s sounded cooler for a nightclub. Now it makes sense why he named his afterhours joint Ernie’s Chicken Shack.
Also, Charlie’s Playhouse was originally located at 1201 Chicon St. After Gildon bought the Sho Bar from Tony Von in ’57, he moved the Playhouse there. The Flamingo Club moved into the old Charlie’s location.
On Feb. 9, the media will turn enmasse to acknowlege the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ culture-changing first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. But let’s also mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man who stayed true to his musical vision and brought hardcore Texas country music to the masses without sweetening it for easier consumption.
A song like “Walking the Floor Over You,” which “The Texas Troubadour” recorded in Dallas in 1941, is so simple in message, so basic in structure. Yet, you not only hear that song, you can practically see it as well. Many of Tubb’s songs, including “Thanks a Lot,” “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” and “Soldier’s Last Letter” set a time and place as if there are visual dimensions to those nasal tones.
You’ve been to that place that he’s singing about, but it’s either been modernized beyond recognition or it went out of business a few years ago. It’s good to go back, though, even for as long as it takes Ernest Tubb to sing “I Love You Because.”
E.T., they used to call him, and many of his diehard fans still do. It’ll take more than a billion-dollar Spielberg movie to make longtime country fans think of calling anyone or anything else E.T.
In 1947, he became the first country artist to headline at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, but he played every roadhouse in Texas that year, too. Tubb and the Texas Troubadours played dance music, pure and simple. But when they started drawing rowdy crowds, especially in the oil towns of East Texas, they had to turn up the guitars and beat on the drums so the music could be heard over the chattering crowd. Amplification is at the core of the honky-tonk style and Tubb and his Troubadours were one of the first country bands to feature an electric guitar.
Another change credited to Tubb was replacing the term “hillbilly music” with “country and western.” “Hillbilly” was considered a derogatory term at the time, especially if, like Tubb, you came from the flatlands of Texas (born in Crisp, he grew up with a succession of relatives in West Texas after his parents divorced).
“If you call me a hillbilly,’ you’d better say it with a smile,” Ernest would say. He was never seen in public without wearing a tailored suit and a ten-gallon hat.
By brushing a layer of Texas grit on country music, Tubb expanded the range of what was heard on the Grand Ole Opry, which he joined in 1943. Tubb was the great ambassador of honky tonk.
“The thing I always liked about E.T.’s style is that he brought a lot of blues to country music,” says Austin musician Junior Brown, who wrote and recorded “My Baby Don’t Dance To Nothin’ But Ernest Tubb,” perhaps the most heartfelt tribute song since the Buddy Holly ode “American Pie.”
Ernest Tubb was inspired to play music by the blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, so it was only natural that he would keep the Delta influence in his country. Plus, Tubb featured guitarists like Billy Byrd and Leon Rhodes, who were always interested in what T-Bone Walker was up to on the other side of town.
Tubb never did meet “The Singing Brakeman,” though they both lived in San Antonio in 1933, the year of Rodgers’ death. Soon after, Ernest impressed Rodgers’ widow, Carrie, with his dedication to the Rodgers style and she not only gave the upstart her husband’s old guitar, she helped him obtain a recording contract with Victor Records in 1936. After he had his tonsils removed in 1939, Tubb couldn’t yodel very well so he switched to making hard-edged country dance music.
Junior Brown was lucky enough to meet his idol several times through the years, first at the Hitching Post in Albuquerque in 1969. “He brought a lot of dignity to country music, and you can truly say that Ernest Tubb never sold out,” Brown says. “He stuck to his style, no matter what else was hip at the time, and whenever we’d talk, he’d emphasize how important it is for the younger players to keep country music going.” And Junior Brown has been carrying out that mission with his guit-steel contraption.
“E.T. is not the only influence in my music, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of another musician who’s had such a profound effect on me,” Brown says. “Even more than whatever I learned from him musically, Ernest Tubb taught me a lot about taking pride in country music, the real country music.”
Brown’s sense of authenticity was tested when Marty Stuart, then a Nashville star, asked Brown if he wanted to come on board Tubb’s old tour bus, which Stuart had just bought. “Nah,” Brown answered. “The last time I was on that bus, so was Ernest Tubb.”
Tubb, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965, owned a landmark record store in downtown Nashville, just a couple blocks from the Ryman Auditorium. An unknown Loretta Lynn performed at the store, a scene recreated in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with Tubb playing himself.
Perhaps the most fitting vignette about Ernest Tubb comes from John Morthland’s book “The Best of Country Music.” Morthland last saw Tubb in December 1981. At the time, E.T. had found an audience with roots-crazy punk rockers, and he was playing in a Manhattan club full of kids in mohawks and leather jackets. According to Morthland, he was “singing to the trendies with more vigor and enthusiasm than you’d dream possible from a man pushing 70, and not altering his show a bit for this audience, either. They had to take Ernest Tubb the way everyone else did or not take him at all.”
So let’s flip the guitar, as E.T. did thousands of times at the end of a performance and give a hearty “THANKS” to the honky tonk pioneer who helped preserve a style that continues to define his home state to fans the world over..
It’s one of the most notorious bookings in Austin music history, the weekend in 1968 that Muddy Waters and his band played the Vulcan Gas Company, with an albino blues guitarist from Beaumont named Johnny Winter opening the show. On the Friday night, the Waters band didn’t arrive until after the Winter trio finished.
“They did a standard 45 minute set,” Vulcan owner Don Hyde recalls of Muddy’s Friday show. As you can see from the photo, they weren’t even wearing their customary suits. “It was only 10:45, so I asked Johnny if he would play for a couple of more hours. He said sure.” Waters did hear that set, when JW came out and blew the doors off the place.
There was a pay phone on a wall backstage and Muddy made a collect call to Memphis and got King Curtis on the line. Hyde was standing next to him. “He said, ‘King, you won’t believe this!’ and held the phone out into the air for a half minute, while Johnny played,” Hyde recalled. “Then he took the phone back and said ‘He WHITE, I mean he is really WHITE! Do you believe this shit!?’”
“The next night, Muddy’s band came back dressed to the nines and played for over two hours,” Hyde says. “They blew Johnny off the stage, then they did a couple of tunes together.” Winter went on to produce and play on some of Muddy’s great ’70s albums.
Asked about that weekend, his first visit to Austin, Muddy’s harmonica player Paul Oscher says he doesn’t remember any time Winter cut Muddy’s band. “It wasn’t possible,” said Oscher, who now lives in far South Austin. “I think maybe we’d been driving all day Friday and we were tired. And then we were well-rested on Saturday and got down to business.”
In the New York Times obit for Bobby Blue Bland, who passed away in June 2013, it says that Bland discovered, not too long before his death, that he and James Cotton were half-brothers. Born in 1930, Bland was fathered by I.J. Brooks, who then abandoned the family. Cotton was born five years later in Tunica, Miss. Apparently, Bland found out that Cotton’s father was also I.J. Brooks, who also soon left that family. Cotton was taken in as a kid by Sonny Boy Williamson II, the good one. The story was always that Cotton had been orphaned but later he admitted that story wasn’t true.
No denying that there’s some resemblance.
By Michael Corcoran
(originally published in 2003)
When Jack White of the red-hot White Stripes announced “It’s good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson,” at Stubb’s in June 2003, most in the soldout crowd likely had never heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin, who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock. We have become used to being saluted as the home of T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. But who is this Blind Willie Johnson?
The first songs he recorded, on a single day in 1927, are more familiar. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children,” Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut LP and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.
Johnson’s haunting masterpiece “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” was chosen for an album placed aboard the Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Foreseeing an extraterrestrial intercept, astronomer Carl Sagan and his staff put together “Sounds of Earth” – including ancient chants, the falling rain, a beating heart, Beethoven, Bach and Blind Willie.
Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know almost as much about the mysterious Blind Willie Johnson as we do.
Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks, the singer remains a biographical question mark. Only one picture of him, seated at a piano holding a guitar with a tin cup on its neck, has ever been found. A search on the Internet or a browse of libraries and bookstores reveals the slightest information on this musical pioneer, and almost all of it is wrong.
Months on the trail of the man, whose music rang with an intensity previously unrecorded, turns up a living daughter and a death certificate – and little else. Finding witnesses who knew Johnson is about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Many are dead or too old to remember.
Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie and his backup singer Willie B. Harris, they’re too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. “I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible,” said Kelly, 72. “But I was just a little girl when he went away.”
And while the death certificate corrects some previously accepted misinformation (he was born in 1897 near Brenham, not 1902 in Marlin, and died in 1945, not 1949, in Beaumont), the document doesn’t tell you how he lived from 1930, when his recording career ended, until his death. It doesn’t tell you how many times he was married and how many kids he fathered. It doesn’t tell you how he learned to play such a wicked bottleneck guitar or which Pentecostal preachers he modeled his singing voice after. It doesn’t verify the widespread legend that Willie was blinded when a stepmother threw lye in his face at age 7 to avenge a beating from his father. Refuting the myth that Johnson died of pneumonia, from sleeping on a wet mattress after a fire, the certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor. But when it also lists blindness as a contributor, the coroner’s thoroughness becomes suspect.
Unquestioned is the opinion that Johnson is one of the most influential guitarists in music history. “Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James. “He’s the apogee.”
An instinctive virtuoso, Johnson made his guitar moan, slur and sing, often finishing lyrics for him, and throughout the years, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder and many more have expressed a debt to the sightless visionary.
And yet, the 1993 double-disc “Complete Blind Willie Johnson” has sold only about 15,000 copies on Sony/Legacy. No doubt, more than half of those sales were to guitarists.
1930s Mississippi Delta blues man Robert Johnson grew into a full-blown rock icon in part because of the mysteries of his life and death, but Willie Johnson has not benefited from his enigmatic existence. Even though his guitar-playing inspired a host of Delta blues men, from Johnson and Son House to Muddy Waters, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of pre-war music preferred by collectors and historians. He sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His gruff evangelical bellow and otherworldly guitar were designed to draw in milling mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.
When word got out late last year through the community of music historians and record collectors that Blind Willie had a daughter, who was still living in Marlin, 28 miles southeast of Waco, there was a collective gasp of hope that new information would surface. Maybe there was a box with pictures, letters or gospel programs that would fill in the huge gaps. Maybe Willie B. Harris had told her daughter details about her father, like how he lost his sight and where he learned his songs.
The discovery of an heir also stirred the interest of musical estate managers, such as Steve LaVere of Mississippi’s Delta Haze company, who visited Kelly in November 2002. In his role managing the estate of Robert Johnson, LaVere has aggressively collected back royalties from Columbia Records and such performers as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
“It’s all about getting the pennies to roll in your direction – we’re talking about eight cents a record (in songwriter royalties),” LaVere said. “Eventually, the pennies turn into dollars.”
But when LaVere left Marlin to return to his offices in Greenwood, Miss., he didn’t have a signed contract that would give him the right to represent the estate of Blind Willie Johnson. “I was a little miffed,” he said. “I thought we had laid out the groundwork on the phone and would be able to sign a deal, but some people just don’t know what they have, what it’s worth, and they’d rather do nothing than feel like they might get cheated.”
Kelly said she just didn’t want to rush into anything. “You know, old people don’t like to sign stuff right away,” she said as she maneuvered her wheelchair through the cramped quarters of 817 Hunter St., where Blind Willie lived with Kelly’s mother in the early ’30s. It’s a four-room box with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat.
Kelly said that she’s never received a penny from her father’s music.
But first she has to fly the flag, said lawyer William Krasilovsky, who wrote “This Business of Music,” the industry bible. “You say, ‘Here we are. We represent the heirs of Blind Willie Johnson.’ ” Until an estate is established, there’s no place to send royalties that may be due.
“I guess I should hire someone to see about getting some money for the family,” Kelly said. “I need to make a move here.”
But just how much money might she be due?
First off, forget about lucrative songwriting royalties. Almost all of Johnson’s material was derived from such public domain sources as religious hymns and old “Negro spirituals.”
But Krasilovsky said the Blind Willie estate could earn money by copyrighting his arrangements. “Does the work have distinctive fingerprints of originality that qualify for a new derivative copyright of public domain material?” he asked, reading from a copyright law book.
“Distinctive fingerprints” fits Blind Willie’s truly original style like the steel cylinder he used to slide over his pinky. ASCAP and BMI, organizations that collect songwriting royalties for artists and publishers, pay about half as much for to copyrighted arrangements as they do for original compositions.
Blind Willie Johnson’s recordings were probably made under the “work for hire” agreement prevalent at the time, which mean that Sony can claim ownership of the masters. But that’s a contention that makes music historian Mack McCormick bristle. “They can’t produce a contract, they can’t produce the masters,” he said. “Look at the source material for the Blind Willie set. They had to borrow 78s from collectors. Sony claims they own the music and they don’t even have copies of the fuckin’ records!”
California-based estate manager Nancy Meyer, whose Bates Meyer company represents the heirs of T-Bone Walker and many other vintage blues and jazz players, said if she were hired by Kelly, she’d form a publishing company and file copyrights for all Blind Willie’s recordings. “Since the material was never copyrighted, the clock hasn’t started,” she said, referring to amount of time that passes before the material is deemed “public domain” and therefore free for anyone to use. Copyrights are protected for a 28-year term from the date the copyright was originally secured, with a 28-year renewal period, followed by a 19-year term of renewal, for a total of 75 years.
Still, Krasilovsky said, record labels and artists’ management could claim “abandonment,” as several did when LaVere hired Krasilovsky in 1974 to collect royalties for the Robert Johnson estate. But several others, including Eric Clapton, handed over money without protest. “He was a gentleman,” Krasilovsky said of Clapton, who had a huge hit with Johnson’s “Crossroads” while a member of Cream. “He said, ‘I don’t rip off music.’ ” The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, meanwhile, were taken to court and ended up settling with the Johnson estate. LaVere estimates that in the 13 years since the release of the Robert Johnson boxed set on Columbia, Johnson’s catalogue has earned well over $10 million, with LaVere taking a 50 percent commission.
One act intent on doing right by their influences was Peter, Paul & Mary, who insisted that the Rev. Gary Davis receive royalties for their version of “Samson and Delilah” (a slight variation of “If I Had My Way”), which they learned from his recording. “He wouldn’t sign the paper to declare that he was the sole writer,” said Krasilovsky, who represented Davis. “Here he was, playing on the streets with a tin cup, and he refused to sign. I asked him who did write the song and he said ‘God’ and I said, ‘That’s allowed.’ ” Davis eventually received a check for $90,000.
“Z’rontre!” Kelly called out to her great-grandson, her voice cutting through the loud cartoons watched in the living room by two kids lying on the floor. “Come here and get Mama that box of papers.” A little boy bounded in from the bedroom and climbed up on a chair to reach a rectangular plastic box. “This boy’s only three years old and he can do everything for me, even fetch me some water,” said Kelly, who’s stricken with arthritis and other ailments. “He’s my legs.”
She pulled out a few fragile documents, including a birth certificate which says that she was born June 23, 1931, to Willie Johnson, occupation listed as “musician,” and a mother whose maiden name was Willie B. Hays.
Kelly said she remembers her father staying with her mother until she was about seven or eight years old. That would put him in Marlin until at least 1938. But two years after Kelly’s birth, her mother had a daughter, Dorothy, with a man named Joe Henry, according to Kelly. Six years later came Earline, from another father. Kelly recalls that her parents had remained married even as Willie B. Harris was having kids with other men and Blind Willie was drifting from street corner to church to train station for months at a time.
“We was working people, see,” said Kelly. “My mother understood that my father had to leave Marlin to make money. She worked seven days a week as a nurse. I’d say, ‘Mama, please stay home today’ and she’d say, ‘But I gotta work’ and I’d understand.”
During the era in which Blind Willie recorded, artists didn’t expect royalties. They took whatever the labels paid them, usually around $25 to $50 per record, and the labels claimed all rights. “They had just made a record,” Columbia field recorder Frank Walker, who helmed Johnson’s remarkably fruitful 1927 session, said in an interview in the ’60s. “To them that was the next best thing to being president of the United States.”
Johnson’s first 78 rpm – “If I Had My Way” backed with “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” (titled “Motherless Children” by Clapton) – sold a remarkable 15,000 copies, even more than Bessie Smith’s recordings of the day. By 1930, however, the Depression dried up demand for gritty country blues/gospel, and Blind Willie’s recording career was history. But as was his nature, Johnson kept on the move, playing “from Maine to the Mobile Bay,” according to what his touring mate Blind Willie McTell told John Lomax in a 1940s interview.
“People recalled hearing him at times over KTEM in Temple and on a Sunday-morning church service broadcast by KPLC in Lake Charles,” said McCormick. “He left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably ‘God Moves on the Water’ about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God.’ ”
Blind Willie’s music was revealed to a new generation of country blues enthusiasts (including Bob Dylan) with the 1952 release of the Harry Smith anthology “American Folk Music,” which included Johnson’s “John the Revelator.” The “Blind Willie Johnson” album came out on Folkways in 1957, with a key detail wrong. Second wife Angeline Johnson, who was tracked down by music historian Samuel Charters in 1953, was credited with the backing vocals performed by first wife, Willie B. Harris.
This error was uncorrected until the mid-’70s, when a Dallas music collector named Dan Williams drove down to Marlin to see if he could find anyone who knew Blind Willie. “I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie’s ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson,” Williams recalls. “Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris.”
After hearing Harris sing along to the Blind Willie records and talk about details of the recording sessions that only those present would know, Williams ascertained that she was, indeed, the background singer.
“She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell at the last session in Atlanta (April 20, 1930) and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same studio the same day.”
Charters made the correction, crediting Harris, in his notes to the 1993 boxed set, but repeated Angeline Johnson’s contention that she married Blind Willie in Dallas in 1927. There is no record of such a marriage in Dallas County, or in the county clerks offices of Falls, McLennan, Bell, Milam, Jefferson or Robertson counties. But then,
neither is there evidence, besides Kelly’s birth certificate listing her as legitimate, that Blind Willie and Willie B. were ever married.
Researching history about long dead blues men is fueled by random payoffs, much like slot machines and singles bars. You run your fingers down the pages of big, dusty books for hours and then you find a bit of information, a bit of new evidence, and it all becomes worth it.
But dozens of hours in search of details on the life of Blind Willie Johnson resulted in almost zero positive reinforcements. A five-hour drive to Beaumont yielded the slightest new info; a city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest St. That’s the address listed on Blind Willie’s death certificate as his last residence.
Besides the entry on the death certificate, there is no evidence that Blind Willie Johnson is buried in Beaumont’s “colored” Blanchette Cemetery, a seemingly untended field littered with broken tombstones and overrun with weeds. If Johnson had a headstone, it’s gone now. When the cemetery floods, a man who lives across the street said, sometimes wooden coffins can be seen floating away amongst the debris. There is no peaceful rest, no solitude for the ages, for the migrant musician.
His music, meanwhile, continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard.
Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to “Paris, Texas” on “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground),” described it as “The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.” On that Voyager 1 disc is hard evidence that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.
by Michael Corcoran
For most people who’ve even bothered to consider it, Austin music is Stevie Ray Vaughan, PBS’s Austin City Limits, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Willie Nelson, Joe “King” Carrasco, Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely. But then most people think New York City is only Manhattan.
If Thomas Wolfe were an Austinite now, he might write “only the dead know Poison 13.” Austin’s “other” musical boroughs may not attract huddles with Sly Stallone and Sam Shepard, as Stevie Ray has, and they’ll never co-headline with Frank Sinatra in Vegas, like Willie, but in the hot-and-cold world of day-to-day life they supply the best reasons to venture out into what literary homeboy O. Henry designated “the live music capital of the world.” Well, that was later. First he called Austin “the city with the violet crown.”
Unfortunately, no one except O. Henry has ever seen that violet crown. He must’ve had some good shit. Another thing nobody’s ever seen is Willie Nelson. We see his property — all sighted Austinites do, but never his own folky self, except onstage. It must be hard for Willie to go out in public even in his home town. He can’t put on a disguise; he already seems to be wearing one.
The rest of us eat, drink, sleep, and look for kicks in The Little Town With the Big Guest List, walking around in circles as if playing a big game of musical chairs. We know we’re OK so long as the music doesn’t stop.
Living in Austin and not enjoying music is like Klansman who sells large portable radios for a living. Music is everywhere. Original music, cover bands, acoustic, electric, grass roots, or Republican. Folks sing out loud while walking the streets. Hear unfamiliar music in a cab: it’s most likely the driver’s demo.
Blues is still happening and country is still kicking, though now it’s a mere shadow of the late-‘70s monster it was when Austin was headquarters of the “progressive country movement,” a term that suggests Chick Corea in a cowboy hat. Also skateboarding downhill of late is the hardcore crowd, which lost considerable steam with the closings of first Raul’s and then Club Foot. The subsequent breakup of the beloved Big Boys really gave the sheep in wolves’ clothing something to whine about.
You’ll still find top-named third-world music at Liberty Lunch, trendy dancing at the many gay discos, and an incredibly popular Sixth Street of fern bars, glitzy clubs, and piano bars that entertain the gentry like a funkless Bourbon Street.
Amid this incredible overlay of music we have yet to note what is so quaintly referred to as “the scene.” The most noteworthy new development in Austin music is what former Skunk Jesse Sublett has dubbed “the New Sincerity.” Seeded by such influences as the Byrds, former Austin residents Rank and File, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, the Velvet Underground, and hometown hero Roky Erickson, and incubated at the Beach Cabaret with its open booking “policy,” this scene has the jaded, over-musicked townies and college students once again excited about going out. They return home only when the last glistening drop of activity has been squeezed from the night — speed is the drug of choice, as it is in most happening scenes — and music is merely the sound track to the action, which contains equal parts promiscuity, incest, alcohol, gossip, spirit, pettiness, conceit, and after-gig parties.
* * * *
Veronica loves True Believers, Wild Seeds, and Doctors’ Mob; likes Dharma Bums, and Glass Eye; hates Zeitgeist. Lesa loves Zeitgeist and Dharma Bums, likes Wild Seeds and Texas Instruments, thinks True Believers are so-so. Patrice loves True Believers, Zeitgeist, and Glass Eye and likes everyone else except Poison 13. Lorelei loves Stevie Ray Vaughan and thinks the scene her three roommates are into is “much to-do about nothing.” Veronica, Lesa, and Patrice hate Lorelei.
Home is a big, white, four-bedroom house on Rio Grande Street. Veronica and Lesa found it in the classifieds and rented it for its hardwood floors, fireplace, high ceilings, and big yard. Lesa knew Patrice, who was ready to move from her parents’ house after too many lectures after too many nights ended at 5 AM. Veronica found Lorelei scanning the “Roommates Wanted” board on campus and told her the deal: $187.50 a month, plus one-quarter of the utilities. She moved in the next day. That was four months ago, before the house was nicknamed “the Hilton.”
Lesa and Veronica knew a couple of guys from R.E.M. — the smart money’s on “in the biblical sense” — and when “the only band that mutters” was scheduled to play the City Coliseum, the girls decided to throw a post-concert party.
The word spread through the hangar-like 3,800-seat concert venue like the map opening credits of “Bonanza.” “Party at the Hilton. R.E.M.’s Supposed to show.” Despite a great set, the band was barely brought back out by a smattering of applause. Frequently, what appears to be an atypically laid-back Austin audience simply consists of restless scenesters waiting for the show to conclude and the party to commence. Even an encore sing-along which Austin usually takes to like a Kennedy to politics, fell flat. R.E.M. finally closed with a version of “Wild Thing,” which must have beat out “Louie, Louie” in a coin flip, and traffic was bumper all the way to Rio Grande Street. Music is fine, but a party? Now that’s something to celebrate.
Nobody brings anything to parties in Austin. If someone invites you to a barbecue, you might bring a 12-pack of Busch (or Budweiser, if you want to make a good impression), but at the big, no-invitation-needed, after-gig parties, everyone immediately heads for the keg and remains within a 10-foot radius until it foams empty.
It seemed that people from every faction, from every band, from every perch on the generous fringe were at “the Hilton” after R.E.M.’s show. But what else is new? The girls were in a great mood, except Lorelei, who watched the crowd get ugly when she followed Scratch Acid on the turntable with Joe “King” Carrasco. Lorelei retreated to her room, where she smoked a solo joint and played as much Joe “King” as she wanted, which turned out to be a song and a half. She heard voices in the hallway calling to “Dino” and suddenly perked up. Finally. The only guy she wanted to sleep with from this whole “crazy punk scene” had arrived. She licked her lips in the mirror, gave a curiously EST-like smile, and rejoined the party.
Lorelei was drawn to her first Dino Lee show after hearing her roommates talk about how gross he was. They described the strap-on dildo he called General Lee, the leather zipper mask he wore to sing love songs such as “Everybody Get Some (But Don’t Get Any on Ya),” his fat female backup singers, and the way he made girls in the audience eat raw meat.
Lorelei talked Spoons into taking her to the next Dino show. Spoons looked like a biker and fancied himself a modern Viking, but he’d never really make it. He drove a Toyota and looked both ways and dropped his voice a decibel when he called blacks “niggers.”
He loved Lorelei because she looked like Debra Winger playing a biker chick, and she made him feel like Hell’s Angel material when they were together. The Dino show was at the Doll House, a “titty bar” that makes it a suitable venue for “The King of White Trash.”
After a wait that would make a POW fidget, the six-foot-six-inch “Grandmaster Trash” materialized through a smoke screen with four strippers holding his leopard-print cape. To call Dino Lee “tacky” is to call David Berkowitz “moody.” Tacky is wearing a suit Lucy might’ve seen in her worst Ricky Ricardo nightmare, but what do you call a guy who garnishes it with a Skeletor mask and a grass skirt? To dress as Adolph Hitler is tacky, but when one masquerades as Der Führer in a bathrobe at a show celebrating one’s candidacy for mayor, that’s pushing things to the limit. Dino Lee is the Chuck Yeager of bad taste.
While Lorelei wandered off to discuss lava lamps, velvet paintings, Elvis’s Vegas years and methods of birth control with Dino Lee, Patrice’s room had become the scene of a hootenanny. Brian, a friend from Houston who wasn’t in a band but played like he should be, was coaxing blessed accompaniment out of an old Martin, joining five others in songs by Hank Williams, Violent Fernmes, the Mamas and the Papas, and improv blues numbers, which aren’t too tough because they’re slow and you get to use the first line twice. Nancy, with eyes transfixed on Brian’s knees, which peeked out from jeans that shoulda had Joey Ramone’s name on the label, remarked, “At least this beats Daniel Johnston.” Brian aborted the song in mid-strum. Lonesome Dave shot her a look that maimed. Patrice laughed, “God. Daniel Johnston. Doesn’t that poor guy know we’re all making fun of him?” Dave promised he wouldn’t get into this argument again. You can’t debate musical taste, but the all-knowingness in Patrice’s voice made him say, “I’m not making fun of him. I think he’s a great songwriter.” The quiet-until-now girl next to Nancy spoke up. “That’s not talent,” she said. “That’s a freak show.”
Girls just don’t understand Daniel Johnston. You almost have to be one of the last guys in P.E. to get hair on your balls to really appreciate his broken songs. He plays dork music and has acquired a covey of followers who appreciate his teetering Neil Young/ Mr. Rogers voice and nervous demeanor. He walks on-and-offstage briskly and usually plays only three or four songs that are normally greeted with wild applause — some genuine, some sarcastic, like cheering for the biggest spaz on the B-team when he finally scores a basket. Daniel doesn’t do encores under any circumstances; if you don’t believe it, ask the fellow backstage at the Beach who held open the window while Daniel crawled through it rather than face a crowd yelling for more.
Such adulation is a far cry from selling corndogs for a touring carnival, which brought Johnston to the Austin area from his home state of West Virginia in 1985. Appreciate him or not, he’s still the only person to perform on MTV (as part of “The Cutting Edge”‘s recent Austin special) while still working at McDonald’s. Much of his minimum wage goes to making copies of his cassettes, “Hi, How Are You” and “Keep Punching Joe,” which he hands out like business cards, refusing to take money for them.
In a town where everyone works hard to stand out, Daniel Johnston does it effortlessly. He’s uncalculatedly Warhol flat in a place where virtuosos are a nickle a half-dozen.
While Austin’s favorite controversy — Daniel Johnston, genius or gerbil — raged on in the designated folksinging nook, members of Doctors’ Mob had snuck their new album, “Headache Machine,” on the record player in the main room. When you go over to the group’s house, they play their record. As the Mob drummed their knees and strummed their pockets in time to the record they’ve heard a thousand times, one fellow musician remarked, “God wasn’t that pleased with himself when he created the world.”
“He had six days, we only had three,” was the typical Mob response. A good band of the Replacements/Hüsker Dü “play-‘em-all-and-let-the-soundman-sort-‘em-out” philosophy, the Mob endears itself to the scene through its unapologetic affinity for bad ’70s bands like Kiss and Ted Nugent, and by having created a new language based on such moronic teen flicks as “Hot Dog: The Movie” and “Porky’s Revenge.” They’ve made “I think he’s trying to back-door you, man” Austin’s “Where’s the beef?”
IRS Records’ recent foray into The Little Town With the Big Empty Dotted Line to film “The Cutting Edge” gave the Mob a chance to brush up on their Los Angelese. Posing as an A&R type at the post-filming party at the Beach, Mob singer Steve Collier went up to Brian Beattie of Glass Eye and said with mock sincerity, “I like what you guys are trying to do.”
Guests were circulating, getting drunk, and having a good time when a whisper with an exclamation point soared across the room: “They’re here.” Suddenly the flier near the front door, trumpeting a two-week-old gig that nobody went to, became of interest to six or seven people. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was outside, looking around as well-wishers reminded him of gigs they were at five years ago, and he couldn’t remember where R.E.M. was the day before.
Stipe was in the living room with a beer, letting Lesa feel his grown Kojak cut, when Steve Collier approached and handed him the Doctors’ Mob album. “We’re big fans of yours and we’d really be honored if you’d take this,” Collier said while bystanders waited for the joke; but there was none. Collier was sincere. Not wanting to carry the album around with him but not wanting to hurt Collier’s feelings either, Stipe thanked him for it and said, “Why don’t you put It on?” The groan was heard on the front lawn.
* * * *
Derelicts. Winos. Hobos. Bums. They call them “dragworms” in Austin because they hang Out on “the Drag,” Guadalupe Street, which separates the University of Texas from the real world. One of them walked into Salads and Subs wearing the official dragworm arm band, a strip of tape around the arm at the elbow, which showed he had money on him but was about a quart low on plasma. He ordered a #7 sandwich- turkey and cheese- and since this was his only meal of the day and nobody liked him no matter how he acted, he was real demanding. “Is that all the meat you’re gonna give me? He gave me a lot more yesterday. Put mayonnaise on both sides. More cheese.” A real pain in the ass. But Allan Cox remained polite. He was getting off in a few minutes and didn’t want to end his work day in some hassle with a dragworm.
At six o’clock Cox took off his apron and thanked the manager for letting him leave a couple hours early. Bob didn’t mind; lie was kind of tickled to have a rock star working for him. “You looked good on TV, Allan. It must’ve been the lights,” he joked about Dharma Bums’ recent appearance on “The Cutting Edge.” Allan just smiled and left to run a few errands before getting ready for the show he had that night with the True Believers.
“They let anyone on TV these says,” said the dragworm said with his mouth full.
* * * *
Not wanting to pull up to a crowd, Lesa parked her car 100 yards from the entrance to the Continental Club. As she walked to the entrance, Lesa hoped that no one would come up to her and talk about their project. Everybody in town is working on a project — a record or a video or an art show or an article or a goddam poetry reading or something — is all great but Lesa didn’t always like to hear about it. She had no projects to talk about. She was a geology major who loved her family and would give everything she had, which is quite a lot even if you don’t count what’s in storage, to be able to write or draw or play music. She takes good pictures with her Nikon every now and then, but doesn’t claim to be a photographer. She already has her place on the fringe: she throws good parties.
There were a lot of scrubbed and decorated new faces at the True Believers/ Dharma Bums show, which happens to the scene twice a year when a new semester starts at UT. Only a couple girls were wearing the Madonna bow, though several others tried to hide the summer-long dent in their hair with teasing and side parts.
After the show, Patrice leaned against the bar talking to Alejandro Escovedo, the former Nun and Rank-and-Filer who heads True Believers. Veronica wondered what Al would think if he knew Kodak paper bearing his toothy, dimpled, and married smile was bound to Patrice’s chest with an adhesive of sweat. Patrice had such a crush on Alejandro. All the other girls gawked at his brother Javier, whose long, black, wavy hair, soft looks, and uniform black-leather vest over longsleeve white shirt is computer-date material for girls who outgrew David Lee Roth last week. But Patrice only looked at Javier when he intersected her vision of Alejandro.
Patrice, Veronica and Lesa sat on the couch at somebody’s house later that night. Much later. The bands had already come and gone from this party. It was 6:30 AM, the party was winding up, and the girls were winding down from the lines of speed they’d done in Johnny’s car. The only other leftovers were four guys who were, thank God, engrossed in Bullwinkle videotapes. None were prospects.
“It was full tonight,” Veronica said as she threw back another throatful of gin. “Love those True Believers. I wonder if I still think Zeitgeist is better?”
“I thought Dharma Bums were hot tonight,” Patrice said emptily. “I love that horn section. It reminds me of the horns on the Rolling Stones album that ‘Bitch’ is on. ” She was beat. “Jon Dee Graham told me — actually he didn’t tell me, he told Ed Ward, but I was in the same conversation — that from the Skunks to the Lift to True Believers he’s always been in ‘the best band in town,’ and he said that it means absolutely nothing.”
“Who the hell is the Lift?” Veronica asked.
“The scene just doesn’t seem real,” Patrice said.
“MTV is real,” Lesa interjected.
“It isn’t. That’s what I mean. Daniel Johnston couldn’t even watch himself on MTV. He had to clean the deep fryers. Money is real, but nobody’s making it except trendy discos like Club Iguana and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Patrice said.
“And Willie Nelson. He’s making money,” Veronica said, getting up with a slight sway.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Patrice said, also getting up, “whether our scene is really great, and the bands are really special, or if we’re just lonely people trying to create continuous company.”
Veronica looked at her and started to reply, then stopped, and fished into her pocket. “You drive,” she said, and gave Patrice her car keys.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” – W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.”
NEW YORK CITY — It’s a long Tuesday, this 21st of April, which begins for Fastball with a 9 a.m. live acoustic appearance on some stupid radio station on Long Island. In the afternoon are phone interviews seemingly on the half-hour, as writers from Alaska to Florida want to know what “The Way” is about. “It could be about anything,” says guitarist Miles Zuniga, of the utterly catchy song written by bassist Tony Scalzo. “To me, that lyric about `Where were they going without ever knowing the way?’ is about being in a band,” Zuniga tells the critic from the New York Daily News. “With most jobs you can plan your trajectory, but in a band, you either go over or you don’t.” That he says this from the green room of the “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” show, while Scalzo banters with another scribe on the other phone and drummer Joey Shuffield is in makeup, underlines that Fastball is going over well indeed. “The Way” has been the No. 1 song on the Billboard
modern rock radio chart for more than a month now, giving the Disney-owned Hollywood Records its first bona fide hit. The album “All the Pain Money Can Buy” is moving more than 20,000 units a week, which is 10 times more than the 2,000 total sales of the band’s first Hollywood LP “Make Your Mama Proud.”
“I’ve never had things go right before,” Zuniga says to the oft-asked question about how the band is reacting to the sudden success. “The last album was selling about 40 copies a week, and I remember one week it sold 65 and we were all going, `It’s starting to explode!’ ”
David Garza: Sell the artist first
David Garza, whose new Atlantic release “This Euphoria” completes a remarkable “Boy II Man” transformation, is another Austin artist who’s starting to make some noise nationally. Rather than give the hard push to a single from the album, Atlantic sees the 27-year-old Garza as an organically grown product whose fans don’t respond well to hype. The label sees him as someone with a great Ani DiFranco-like story of finding success on his own terms, and so they pushed him onto a tour as DiFranco’s opening act. Sell the artist first, and the songs will sell themselves: That seems to be the strategy. But Garza is restless. He wants to rock. “I miss my band,” he says by phone from a Cincinnati hotel room. “To me that’s what it’s all about: getting up there with your electric guitars wailing while thousands of people go nuts. Meanwhile, here I am, night after night, playing an acoustic guitar for a group of people that can’t wait to see Ani DiFranco.”
Garza can’t wait to fall down again. He did it in the first minute on the very first show on a tour opening for multiplatinum labelmates Matchbox 20. “It was at an arena in Detroit Rock City, with about 7,000 people ready to rock, and the band
had started playing `Kinder,’ with all that wild guitar,” Garza says. “It was all so perfect that when I stepped up to the mike to sing I just became overwhelmed by the moment of rock. My knees gave out and I was on the floor. I’ve never known anything as powerful as that moment, my first time playing in an arena. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Spoon: Fans make the best music
Also taking a let-the-music-do-the-talking approach is Elektra Records, regarding the major label debut of Spoon, the Austin trio that has released a previous LP and EP on NYC’s Matador Records. Although “A Series of Sneaks” has at least five songs that would sound great on the radio, the label wants to let the entire album create a relationship with listeners. At a beer garden picnic table at the Dog and Duck, 27-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist Britt Daniel talks about one of those can’t-miss numbers. It’s the last song on the record and it’s especially noteworthy because of the richly melodic and passionately sung chorus: “Don’t tell me I’ve lost you/ I’ll feel so sad alone/ I just can’t believe it.” It sounds a little like Pavement doing “MacArthur Park.”
“That song was originally going to be a breakup song,” Daniel says of “Advance Cassette,” “but when I thought about having to sing it every night for the next year, I decided to change it to be about losing a great recording that you might not be able to find again.” When he requires inspiration, all he needs to think about is his collection of “everything by Julian Cope that I can get my hands on.”
Fans make the best music (i.e. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, etc.) because their understanding of what great songs can do is deepened by example and experience. They want to make listeners feel the way their favorite songs make them feel. Fans like Daniel, who grew up with the hippest record collection in Temple, Texas, are willing to make the sacrifices. “We used to make our own T-shirts,” he said of his group of high school friends. “It’s not like you could walk into a store in Temple and find a Spacemen 3 T-shirt, so we did our own.”
When he went off to college it was to the “cool town” of Austin, where he got an RTF degree (the slacker diploma) from the University of Texas and a Band 101 education with such groups as Skellington (named after a Julian Cope album), the Alien Beats and, soon after graduating in 1993, Spoon. Influenced by British pop and psychedelia, Daniel asked his mother for a distortion pedal for his 21st birthday. He figured his mom would get a midline model for about $50. Instead she asked the music store clerk for the best distortion pedal and came home with The Metal Zone, the accessory that has saved many a hair band. “You can tell by the name that it’s pretty uncool. `The Metal Zone’ is definitely not punk,” Daniel says. “But it sounds great.” Combined with Daniel’s electrified acoustic guitar and transistor amp, The Metal Zone makes for one of the most unique guitar sounds that you’ll soon be hearing on MTV and on modern rock stations all over the country.
Breaking the Austin cycle
There is something different going on in Austin music right now. For all its repute as a song’s favorite town, Austin has never made much of a dent on MTV-fed America or the Billboard charts. The home of Willie Nelson has always been a blues town and a honky-tonk country mecca and a place where the Butthole Surfers, Poison 13 and Scratch Acid spliced punk and metal to send a shock felt all the way to Seattle. But Austin has had limited success in the field of pop (as in “popular”) music. We like it bluesy and simple, with guitars all around. We like to gape at amazing (or merely long) solos, and we like to dance when we’ve got a few in us. Then, if we like the band live, we just might buy their record.
With acutely accessible acts like Fastball, Spoon and David Garza, however, the studio is becoming as important as the stage. We’ve generally had to listen to Austin recordings with a pre-fond heart and critics have had to grade this homegrown product on a curve, but with such fresh tracks as “Metal Detektor” and “No You’re Not” by Spoon, “Discoball World” and “Float Away” by David Garza and “The Way,” “Better Than Before” and “Slow Drag” by
Fastball, Austinites have, for once, created music with a universal appeal. The lack of an “Austin Sound” helps these acts hoist themselves out of the Velvet Rut that has lulled so many local acts into making music that accepts Austin as a final destination. There have been Austin-based hits in the past: “Tuff Enuff” by the Fabulous Thunderbirds made it to No. 10 in 1986, Charlie Sexton’s “Beat’s So Lonely” was No. 17 and Timbuk 3′s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” hit No. 19 the same year. Just two years ago, “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers was a No. 1 modern rock smash, and such Austinites as Dangerous Toys, Eric Johnson and Jimmie Vaughan have gold albums on their walls. (Shawn Colvin isn’t an Austin musician: she just lives here.) But these successes are far overwhelmed by the list of Austin acts who’ve sold poorly for major labels: Poi Dog Pondering, LeRoi Brothers, Lou Ann Barton, Year Zero, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Kelly Willis, Will and the Kill, Will T. Massey, True Believers — the list goes on and on. Too often, Austin acts have gone into the studio in an attempt to capture the live set, but what the best newer bands are doing is creating something that’s not an accessory to the live act, but work that stands on its own. It’s Austin music that can be thoroughly enjoyed without holding a $3 bottle of beer, and it’s speaking to fans far beyond the rootsy sweathogs of Scandinavia.
Backstage with Conan
The members of Fastball seem understandably nervous as they wait to make their national network debut on the Conan O’Brien show. Road manager Brad First, who’ll be driving the band’s equipment to South Carolina the next day, is trying to find out which guitars Scalzo and Zuniga need for their “MTV Live” performance, but Scalzo just puts his hand on his forehead and says, “I . . . just . . . can’t think right now.” Meanwhile, Zuniga takes his seventh or eighth stroll down the hall to see if fellow guest Gwyneth Paltrow has arrived. “I don’t know why Miles has been drinking so much cappuccino,” First says. “He’s going to pee his pants up there.”
The band relaxes during sound check, when Conan O’Brien gets up from his monologue-polishing and bobs his head enthusiastically to “The Way,” which he would later describe as the kind of song you can’t get out of your head so you hum it for two or three weeks until your friends beat you up. A fledgling guitarist, who goes through the day’s rehearsal cradling and noodling on a big hollow-body electric, O’Brien asks Zuniga and Scalzo to show him the chords to “The Way.” “Just get Guitar World next month,” Scalzo says, and it almost seems flippant, but the no-nonsense Scalzo was being serious: The song is to be structurally analyzed in the next G.W.
“The first time I heard this song on the radio, I was with my girlfriend late at night,” O’Brien says, “and I started to get my guitar out, but then I realized: I’m with my girlfriend late at night. Just book the band on the show and let them show you the chords.”
Can we get a picture, too?
There in the wings, seconds before Fastball was to take its place on the Conan O’Brien stage, Miles Zuniga sees it. A bottle of Jack Daniels. How did they know? Is this a cool show or what? Taking this vision as some sort of divine rock ‘n’ roll providence, Zuniga decides to knock back a belt before going onstage. It is iced tea. “I should’ve known it was too good to be true,” Zuniga says. It turns out he didn’t need that shot of courage. The band is great on “Late Night,” with Scalzo hitting every vocal peak and Zuniga turning in a couple of short but adventurous solos. A charmed O’Brien seeks Fastball after the show and jokes about their Buffalo Springfield sideburns look. “You oughtta grow your sideburns so they meet at the chin, give you that monoburns look like Elvis had for awhile,” O’Brien says. When the band asks if they could take a picture together, Conan says, “We can’t have that,” feigning a superior air. As they finally take a picture together, O’Brien a full head taller than the three diminutive ‘ballers, the talk host says, “Hey, whose hand is on my ass?” then he adds, “No, don’t move it. Keep it there, ah.”
As the band leaves the NBC studio to get in the black Range Rover that will take them back to the hotel, Zuniga says, “Wouldn’t you think they’d at least send a stretch limo?” When the band gets inside, a Puerto Rican couple from the Conan audience comes over to the car and asks for autographs. “Can we get a picture, too?” the guy asks. “You guys were great.”
“All right,” Scalzo announces, “everybody out.” The driver takes the photo of the band and their newest fans, standing and smiling like it’ll always be like this.
Meet Miles Zuniga
Miles gets his real drink after the Conan taping at a funky yet charming restaurant/bar on Eighth and 45th called Smith’s. After the O’Brien triumph, Zuniga is wound up and wants to do some celebrating, but neither Shuffield nor Scalzo drink, so he hits the joint across the street from the hotel. “I’ve never been in the cool band in Austin,” says Miles, whose resume includes stints in Go Dog Go (a band whose ex-membership includes Joey Shuffield), the Neptunes, Band From Hell, Chinese Cowboys and Big Car. “I’ve been pushing for success for 10 years solid, but I wasn’t ready for it earlier,” he says as he sips a Cape Cod (or vodka and cranberry juice to the Irish-accented bartender who had never heard of a Cape Cod). “During the Big Car period (early ’90s), I was so full of myself. If I’d ‘a had a hit then I’m pretty sure I would’ve self-destructed.”
You’re not supposed to crave success over the pleasure of playing in Austin, but from the very start Zuniga was pegged a hustler, a self-promoter, a rock ‘n’ roll kid into all the trappings — fame, groupies, parties. Even as his songwriting improved steadily, from the Neptunes standout “Johnny Speaks Spanish (and He Carries a Gun)” to the more introspective numbers he’d sing in acoustic solo sets, Zuniga was hard to take too seriously. Partly, that’s because he’s a real funny guy, able to do a wide range of impressions, from Ronald Reagan to MTV’s Matt Pinfield. But also, Zuniga just wanted it too bad. If it
hadn’t been rock ‘n’ roll, it would’ve been stand-up comedy, acting or as a presidential assassin, but Miles Zuniga was going to be famous somehow.
Hollywood Rec publicist Sharrin Summers likes to tell the story about how, two years ago at SXSW, Zuniga spent more than an hour bonding with some little guy at a party, and when it was time to leave and the guy gave his card, it was Neil Strauss of the New York Times. Well, Golly Geewiz. Anybody who knows Miles sees another scenario: Zuniga arrived at the party and quickly cased the crowd for the person who could best further his career.
Miles Zuniga has dreams that you can’t take away, and the main one is of him singing a song he wrote late at night in front of a predominantly female audience on a nationally televised program. That the Fastball moment finds Scalzo in the spotlight must be such a double-edged sword in Zuniga’s gut that you can’t really ask him about it. The song’s a great piece of ear candy, sung splendidly by Scalzo, and it’s taken Zuniga as far in his career as he’s ever been. But, if he were a basketball player and the score were tied with three seconds to go, Zuniga would want the ball. “I think this band has a lot more than one hit in us,” he says, sensing the unasked question. “The label’s looking at one of my songs for the next single.” The inside word is that the radio promo people at the label have suggested Zuniga’s “Fire Escape” as the followup, though the guitarist thinks either “Slow Drag” or “Sooner or Later” has a better chance of clicking. What no one will tell Zuniga is that “Better Than Before,” the stirringly sung Scalzo number, is the song on “All the Pain” that could best follow-up “The Way.” Zuniga has talent, to be sure, but Scalzo is a world-class pop singer and constructor of melodies. It seems clear that Hollywood wants to promote Fastball as a band with two front men, but what happens when Zuniga’s single stiffs?
‘I’m glad it was my song that became the hit,” Scalzo says the next day in his Times Square hotel room. He’s got MTV on and he’s eating soup from one of the many gourmet soup kitchens that have sprung up in NYC since “Seinfeld.” “You go through so much rejection in this business that you become this ball of self-doubt,” he says. “Hearing your song on the radio or playing it on TV just validates what you’ve been doing for half your life.”
As if on cue, the video for “The Way” comes on MTV and Scalzo straightens up at attention. “Whenever I hear them mention Fastball on MTV, it’s as if sparks are flying from their voices,” Scalzo says. Don’t let his holdin’-on-to-the-day-job attitude and constant pining to be back in Austin, where his wife Nanette is seven months’ pregnant, fool you: Scalzo is digging every minute of his band’s success. But he does think that the band’s expense account is getting out of hand. “The wine was flowing at dinner last night,” he said. “At $130 a bottle, I might have to start drinking again, as long as I’m paying for it.” Most of the band’s expenses, including the $1,500 suit Zuniga bought to wear on “Late Night” (before deciding to slum it in a $300 shirt), are recoupable, which means the money is taken out of future royalties. In other words, Scalzo is paying for it.
But the 33-year-old, who looks like “Mean Streets” era Robert DeNiro’s kid brother, has been around the block enough to know he’s lucky to be in this position. The son of a career Marine, Scalzo moved around a lot as a kid before settling down in Orange County, Calif. He started drinking at age 13 and then moved onto the hard stuff for teen-age years that he was lucky to live through. Scalzo gave up alcohol 10 years ago, with the drugs soon to follow. It was a promise of a job as a working musician that moved Scalzo, his then-girlfriend and daughter Scarlet to Austin in 1992. Light Storm Records, owned by “Titanic” director James Cameron, had signed an Austin singer-songwriter named Beaver Nelson; Scalzo and drummer Jamie Riedling had been hired as the rhythm section. When Riedling moved back to L.A., cursing Austin’s lack of surfing, ex-Wild Seeds drummer Shuffield was brought aboard. Guitarists Paul Minor and Nelson rounded out the band. “I was promised $1,000 to move to Austin, but, of course, when I got here there was no money. Paul and Beaver were out of town, so there was no place to stay for a couple days. Here I was, virtually broke and homeless, with a baby to take care of — Welcome to Austin!”
To make matters worse, Scalzo and Shuffield were fired from the band after recording an album that was never released. Seeing this crack rhythm section suddenly available, Zuniga decided to lick his wounds from the demise of Big Car and start another rockin’ pop trio, which he would call Magneto. When it was discovered that there was a popular band in Mexico called Magneto, the Austin trio added USA to its name. When they signed to Hollywood, the band decided to go for a whole new name, first choosing Starchy, but then settling on Fastball after Spoon’s Britt Daniel told them from the stage of the Hole In the Wall: “I like you guys too much to allow you to call yourselves Starchy.” When the NY Daily News writer asks Zuniga why the name change from Magneto USA, Zuniga says, “I don’t know if they even have the ‘Rock In Rio’ festival anymore, but all I could see was us getting the chance to play, but then losing the gig because the Mexican band Magneto was popular in South America and there would be confusion over the name.”
Miles Zuniga has always thought big.
This one’s for the Howards
It all boils down to a song that people can’t get enough of. When you hear “The Way” on the radio or see it performed in a pop culture context like the Conan O’Brien show, it just seems so perfectly placed. The lyrics appear to be as uplifting as the melody, so people are always asking what inspired the song, but Scalzo has become more evasive about what it means in recent weeks. “It wasn’t written as a tragic song. It was written before they found the bodies,” he says.
The bodies belonged to Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly Salado couple who went out for a cup of coffee and ended up driving all the way to Arkansas. “I read the first story in the Statesman, that they’d disappeared, and the first thing that hit me was that this older couple could have just decided to chuck the straight life and headed out on an adventure. I got caught up in the romantic notion.”
The Howards were found two weeks later in their car, which had tumbled over a 25-foot cliff in Northwestern Arkansas. Asked what he tells interviewers who press on the fate of the couple, Scalzo says, “Sometimes I tell them that they were found, that everything was cool. Everybody loves a happy ending.”
OASIS `BE HERE NOW’ (Epic)
Even when they were so unknown that they had to feud with Blur to get noticed, Manchester, England, band OASIS — led by a pair of uncouth party yobs named Gallagher — laid claim to the title of the best band on the planet. On their third album, “Be Here Now,” which hits stores today like a ton of neon molasses, the reasons why that’s a true boast have become clearer.
Quite simply, Liam Gallagher is an exceptionally instinctive and attractive singer with the power to, as Graham Parker once sang, “turn a cliche into a sensation.” Witness his treatment of “All Around the World,” with its feel-good lyrics and “Hey Jude”-like chorus, and you can also say he has the ability to turn a Coke commercial into a stirring anthem.
Meanwhile, older brother Noel Gallagher, the band’s songwriter and lead guitarist, is an awesome creature of melody with a supersonic guitar drive that, in conjunction with Paul Arthurs’ sheets of six-string rhythm and Paul McGuigan’s brazen bass lines, gives this pop band its edge. The songs have gotten a little slower and longer, with a more textured sound, but that doesn’t make them any less searing and exuberant.
Although there’s not much here that matches the melodic jolt of the band’s 1994 debut “Definitely Maybe” (“Columbia,” “Bring It on Down,” “Live Forever”) or “Some Might Say” and the title track of their second album “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” there’s also nothing as instantly skippable as “Shakermaker,” “Up in the Sky” or “She’s Electric” from the first two albums. “Be Here Now” is a pleasure-packed journey from the first cut to the last (not counting the pretentious string-laden outro).
Consistency is not a word you’d expect of a band whose songwriter seemingly loves his every burp, and in a way consistency also implies the backhanded compliment “maturity.” “Be Here Now” finds Oasis in a more satisfied mood befitting the Gallagher Brothers’ new marital states (24-year-old Liam to actress Patsy Kensit, 30-year-old Noel to longtime girlfriend Meg Matthews). To extend the Fab Four comparisons Oasis seems to thrive on — as evidenced by their use of Beatle titles in song lyrics (the latest: “Down the long and winding road … back home to you” from “My Big Mouth”) — this album is their “Rubber Soul.”
Lyrically, Noel sometimes sports a naive vision of brighter, better days ahead and leans toward the obvious (“Stand By Me,” “Don’t Go Away,” the “Get on the roller coaster/ The fair’s in town tonight” intro to “Fade In-Out”), but he writes melody lines that can elevate the simple sentiments into grandiose statements. Hearing Liam wrap himself around the stunningly gorgeous “Don’t Go Away,” for instance, is to erase every other song that has said the same thing. Then when the singer teeters between a whine and a wail on “My Big Mouth,” the album’s lone hard rocker, he gives it some much needed bite. And how’s this for a slice of autobiography: “Into my big mouth you could fly a plane/ Who’ll put on my shoes while they’re walking/ Slowly down the hall of fame?”
Besides being one of the most beloved of the newer bands, selling more than 4 million copies of “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” Oasis is also one of the most loathed. Their brash, beer-spilling attitude, mixed with the omnipresence of last year’s lighter-than-air hit “Wonderwall,” have made them the band that people love to hate. But Oasis generally gets tremendous respect from longtime rockhounds and people in the music industry. Plus, they receive the Johnny Depp seal of hip approval, as the music-crazed actor adds slide guitar to “Fade In-Out.”
If you’ve been listening to rock music daily for decades or for only the past few years, you should be able to hear something special about Oasis. It’s pure pop music in the Beatles tradition, but it’s rougher and harder to reflect the changing times. The music of Oasis is as direct as a string of “yeah, yeah, yeahs,” but it’s also dense and evasive. It goes through walls, even with the front door open. It swaggers and it staggers, right back to loving arms.
Oasis is the last great true rock ‘n’ roll band (opposed to those grand bores like Smashing Pumpkins and U2), and their indelible link to the first great rock ‘n’ roll band symbolizes a full circle in the band era. After the Beatles caused hysteria in 1964, thousands and maybe millions of kids went on to start four-piece guitar bands, and the public developed an affinity for these musical teams through the ’90s. When Don Henley or Glenn Frey have released solo albums in recent years, for instance, these albums practically go straight to the cut-out bin. But when Henley and Frey call up fellow wash-ups Joe Walsh, Don Felder and Timothy B. Schmitt and call themselves the Eagles, they’re soon topping the charts and grossing millions per concert. Fans love bands.
A musical wolverine
If you watch MTV or listen to modern rock radio, however, doesn’t it seem easier to slip into Beavis and Butt-head-like mocking as bands have become increasingly vain and silly, while feigning aggression in their Fabian Cobain compositions? The current crop of rock bands has been sprayed by the pesticide of cynicism, selling their souls for one big hit as some twisted new sort of careerism. It’s no wonder that most of the hipper kids these days would rather listen to the electronic apocalypse harkened by the likes of Prodigy and Chemical Brothers.
Fifteen years ago, the same teen-agers looking for something harder, faster would discover Metallica or Anthrax. Nowadays, they’re cranking up studio nerds who can’t play “Louie Louie” on the guitar. It’s getting to be more about the sound than the process, and the idea of lovable lunkheads piling into a van and heading out to play music in the rock-in-a-box clubs of America is starting to seem ludicrous. One wonders how long before rock musicians are held in the low regard we now reserve for mimes.
Right here, right now, Oasis makes 95 percent of the other modern rock music being made sound like well-produced pablum. They’ve exposed all the tough poseurs by being real jerks, and they’ve brought personality, no matter how abrasive, back to a rock arena overrun with shave-headed politicians and leather-clad hawkers of sugar water. In the midst of so much personal chaos and turmoil, the brothers Gallagher have found order in their art and in turn have widened the gap between the fabulously mediocre and the truly gifted.
Oasis is a musical wolverine, eating as much as it can from a fresh kill. When they’re full and are ready to hang it up, they’ll urinate on the rest of the meat so no one else can eat it.
by Michael Corcoran
“Free-form radio will not die as long as I’m alive,” Larry Monroe told the Austin Chronicle in 1997. Thirteen years later, he signed off at KUT, which had cut his hours on-air and implemented a partial playlist.
“I’m Larry Monroe, and I’ll see you in the future,” the DJ said at the end of his final “Blue Monday” on KUT on August 30, 2010. After 29 years at the station he moved on to KDRP in Dripping Springs for the freedom to play whatever he wanted to.
Friday morning, Monroe signed off for good. He was 71. The beloved Austin music institution died after being admitted into the hospital with breathing difficulties. His last public appearance was Wednesday at Guero’s, where he hosted a live radio broadcast and struggled to announce the acts due to belabored breathing. For years, Monroe suffred from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Monroe was the king of the segue, expertly dovetailing songs into each other to create perfect radio themes. On his signature programs “Blue Monday” and “Phil Music” he crafted playlists like a true artist.
A native of Indiana, Monroe attended Ball State University, where he had a friendly rivalry in the radio-televison-film department with David Letterman. Watching his former classmate’s career soar didn’t make Monroe jealous in the least. He was following the dream he had as a teenager making his radio debut as a high school basketball announcer. Larry Monroe lived to make a connection through music. He wanted to play something that the listeners would hold in their hearts and after so many years of that he became a piece of this town’s spiritual infrastructure.
No one person has done more for Austin music. Not just for playing so much of it, but for serving as this town’s personal trainer for good taste in music.
On Facebook on this Blue Friday, Minnesota musician Paul Metsa posted something that held true for any of us who were lucky to have Larry Monroe’s musical taste and knowledge at our fingertips. “I just adored his show and looked forward to it whenever I visited Austin,” Metsa said of those days before streaming. “He represented, to me, everything that I envisioned Austin to be about.”
After KUT cut the hours of mainstays Monroe and Paul Ray, an organization called Save KUT put together “Twang Dang Doodle,” a three-club event to raise awareness of this homogenization of Austin radio.
One of the highlights was a reunion of Two Nice Girls, whom Larry championed on KUT. Even more significantly, the DJ helped pull Laurie Freelove of the band out of homelessness and depression. He also did so much for Blaze Foley. So many instances of his generosity were recalled on social media Friday.
Special programs on the nights that Doug Sahm and Townes Van Zandt passed away remain some of the most moving hours of Austin radio. Monroe provided solace and inspiration.
Monroe got his first paying job in radio after graduating from Ball State, hired on as the overnight DJ at a station in Ann Arbor, Mich. He then got a job at WABX in Detroit, one of the best underground stations in the country. But when the station switched to a more commercial format, Monroe quit on the air. In Detroit in 1971, he did an interview with Kris Kristofferson that he recalled in 2010. “He stormed off the stage because the sound was awful, but I caught up with him and, among other things, he told me about a couple of songwriters from Chicago – John Prine and Steve Goodman – who didn’t even have record deals at the time.”
He tried other jobs for a couple years, but returned to radio at a small station in Nashville. But because of his adventurous tastes in music, he kept hearing that Austin, then in the heat of the progressive country movement, was where he needed to be.
In 1977, he got a job at KOKE-FM, which was radio ground zero for the cosmic cowboy movement. But within a couple weeks, the station’s format had changed to country hits. “My heart just dropped,” Monroe told the Chronicle in 1997. “My job had disappeared.” He bounced around a few Austin stations, but he finally got his dream job on March 1, 1981, when he was hired at KUT.
“One of the things that disturbed me most about the radio I listened to was the randomness of it,” he told the Chronicle. “I would be so jarred when an element would change and it just shouldn’t be there. What I wanted to figure out was how to make the transitions smooth.”
Monroe’s encyclopedic knowledge of songs allowed him to perfect his segue (which he always spelled “Segway”) style of tying songs together. He never tired of soaking up as much music as possible and went out to the clubs almost every night after his shows. His famous streak of 444 consecutive nights of live music may never be broken.
Like Clifford Antone, Larry Monroe did not just want to provide entertainment, but education and enlightenment. And Austin is a much richer place because of it. Kids learned about Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie and Fats Domino because their parents played Monroe’s shows at home. He upheld a standard of music in this town. It’s not just for the background. It belongs deep inside.
Monroe is survived by his girlfriend, photographer Ave Bonar, who he romanced late in life, and an adult daughter Sara. He’ll be buried in Indiana at a private ceremony. Plans for an Austin memorial are in the works.
“Larry Monroe was the live music capital of the world,” someone wrote on Facebook Friday. A slogan that no one can deny.
Originally published in 2004.
The 15 years since his passing have been kind to Blaze Foley. While he was alive, the singer-songwriter had released only a single and an LP that was never distributed aside from a box full of vinyl albums he would barter for beers and cab rides.
In recent years, the “derelict in duct tape shoes,” as he’s described in the 1998 Lucinda Williams song “Drunken Angel,” has vaulted to folk hero status. Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett are among those who have recorded his compositions, plus he’s inspired four tribute albums and is the subject of two upcoming films. His killing at age 39 continues to haunt an Austin music community that has suffered its share of cancer fatalities, drug overdoses, suicides and car wrecks, but has had little experience coping with the shooting death of one who writes songs.
All these years later, his friends and fans still question the jury’s verdict that acquitted Carey January of Foley’s murder by reason of self-defense. Saying he feared for his life, January admitted shooting Foley, a friend of his father, Concho January, with a .22-caliber rifle in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 1, 1989. When the defense portrayed the 6-foot-2, 280-pound Foley as a menacing bully, violently injecting himself into a family dispute, several of Foley’s supporters walked out of the courtroom in disgust. That was not the Blaze Foley they knew.
An ice storm blew into Austin on Feb. 4, the day of Foley’s funeral. At the jam-packed service, guitarist Mickey White passed out the lyrics to “If I Could Only Fly,” Foley’s trademark song, and as the ragtag congregation sang those words about wanting to soar above human limitations, the song grew spiritual wings. Without the money for a police escort, the funeral procession got smaller with each red light and almost everyone got lost. Cars did doughnuts on the ice and packs of autos tore down South Austin streets in all directions. Many of the mourners didn’t make it to the burial at Live Oak Cemetery. Someone at the gravesite busted out a roll of duct tape, Foley’s favorite fashion accessory, and folks started adorning the casket. Some of his friends made duct tape armbands or placed pieces over their hearts. Kimmie Rhodes started singing an old gospel song as the casket was lowered, and the tears nearly froze before they hit the ground.
“The whole day was so chaotic, yet so beautiful,” recalls guitarist Gurf Morlix. “It was exactly the way Blaze would’ve wanted it.”
They always talk about his eyes, how he could fix a glance on you and make you feel either two feet tall or like a million bucks. Those who knew him well — a number that seems to grow every year — use words like compassionate, honest and courageous to describe a lumbering giant whose songs could make hard men cry. But his friends also remember Foley as belligerent, abrasive, highly opinionated and drunk more often than not. There were two Blaze Foleys, and if you didn’t know both of them you didn’t know either. Songwriter Mandy Mercier, whom Foley lived with from 1980 to 1982, knew both Blazes.
While Mercier worked temp office jobs to pay the bills, Foley would stay home with a pack of fellow ne’er-do-wells who passed around guitars and bottles of hooch. Folks would ask Mercier and her roommate Lucinda Williams — who shared a soft spot for self-destructive rogues — what they saw in such men. “They had something that we wanted,” Mercier says. “Creative conviction. They would explore difficult subjects, but they could walk the walk.” There was a hobo camp near the railroad tracks behind Spellman’s, the former folkie haven on West Fifth Street, and Foley would tell Mercier that if she had any guts, she’d quit her job and live there and write songs all day.
During the times he was without a girlfriend or a friendly couch, he’d sleep wherever — and whenever — he could. Though he preferred flopping on top of pool tables (or below them during hours of operation), he’d sometimes sleep in Dumpsters on cold nights. “See that ‘BFI’?” he’d say, pointing to the logo of the waste removal company seen on Dumpsters. “That stands for ‘Blaze Foley’s Inside.’ ” Foley lived life on the edge because that’s where you’ll find the best stories. “There’s a scene in the movie ‘Salvador’ where one of the characters is telling a wartime photographer that the key is to get close enough to the subject to get the truth, but not too close or you’ll get killed,” says Mercier. “That’s how Blaze wrote songs, from the front lines of experience.”
Foley was fearless, all his former associates agree. “Blaze had no doubts about his immortality. He thought he was bulletproof,” says songwriter Carlene (Jones) Neuenschwander, now living in Colorado. “I guess that proved to be his undoing.”
Common sense told Blaze Foley to keep out of a father-and-son relationship that he saw as abusive. After all, Blaze’s friend Tony “Di Roadie” Scarano, gave a statement to police that he had heard Carey January, a 39-year-old known as J.J., threaten to kill Foley if he didn’t stop coming around the house at 706 W. Mary St. in South Austin. But common sense didn’t pull much weight with this wild-eyed maverick, who delighted in headlines like “Blaze Destroys Warehouse.” He was 100 percent songwriter, and nothing cool rhymes with logic.
Foley met Concho January in June ’88. The singer was living two blocks away, on the old man’s route to David’s Food Store. One afternoon Blaze and a half-dozen other songwriters were picking on the porch when Concho stood to listen for a few moments before heading on for a bottle of Thunderbird wine. On the way back, Foley waved Concho inside the gate. After about an hour Carey showed up and started yelling at his father to get home. “Blaze didn’t like the way J.J. was talking to the old man,” says Neuenschwander, one of the pickers. Foley started dropping in on Concho, and the two became drinking buddies. If Foley could borrow a car, he’d take Concho, who had a broken hip, on errands, including cashing his Social Security check the first of the month. Stories about “my old pal, Concho” started creeping into Foley’s between-song chatter. He’d bring the old man to his gigs at the Outhouse.
“That was just like Blaze to latch on to some poor, old, lonely man who’d been through some rough times,” says musician Lost John Casner. The teeth-baring acrimony grew between Foley and Carey January, an ex-con who had spent four years in prison for a 1975 charge of heroin delivery. It escalated into violence on Aug. 9, 1988. Police received a disturbance call at 706 W. Mary St. that afternoon and found Foley and a neighbor sitting on the steps holding ax handles with black electrical tape for grips. Carey was across the street, yelling to the cops that those men beat him with the clubs. Foley admitted hitting Carey across the back and on the head, but said he was just defending Concho. The police report described Foley as “very intoxicated.” Foley pleaded nolo contendre to unlawful possession of a weapon and received 180 days probation and a court order to attend at least two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week.
Friends say that the singer managed to stay sober for a couple weeks at a time but then would fall off the wagon hard, going on drinking binges. Foley seemed to have been on a tear the last night of his life. Early in the evening, he was 86-ed from the Austin Outhouse when he got in the face of a regular who had used an anti-Arab slur while watching the news. The next stop was the Hole In the Wall, which had recently lifted a longtime Blaze ban at the behest of Timbuk 3, who were at the height of their “Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” phase. The duo of Pat MacDonald and Barbara K didn’t forget that Foley was their first Austin friend and supporter. It didn’t take long for Blaze, who always seemed to be ranting about something, to be shown the door at the Hole.
He ended up at the South Austin home of fellow hard-living songwriter Jubal Clark, then borrowed a friend’s Chevy Suburban, without permission, to drop in on Concho at about 5 in the morning. The old man had a lady friend over, and the three drank cheap wine until Carey emerged from his bedroom and broke up the party with a single gunshot. Foley was shot at about 5:30 a.m. He was pronounced dead at Brackenridge Hospital at 8:14 a.m.
“I got home from a gig late one night and there was a phone message from Lucinda (Williams),” Morlix recalls. “She said there was something she had to tell me but that she’d call me back in the morning. I just sat down and cried. I knew it was Blaze. I knew something bad had happened.”
Defendant Carey January talked about Foley’s eyes when he took the stand in September 1989 to claim that he shot the songwriter out of fear for his life. “He was coming at me,” January testified. “I could see fire in his eyes. . . . I had seen that look before, when he hit me with the ax handle.” When police arrived at 706 W. Mary St. minutes after the shooting, Foley was outside, lying face down on the ground, clutching a blue notebook. When they asked him what happened, Carey January said, “I don’t know.” Foley, still conscious but bleeding badly, was able to answer. “He shot me.” Who? the officer asked. “The guy you’re talking to,” said Foley.
Sixty-six-year-old Concho January told police that Carey killed Foley without provocation, as the songwriter was sitting in a bedside chair, showing the old man a book of his drawings. Twelve days after the killing, someone set Concho’s house on fire while he slept. Though the arsonist was never found, the police report noted that Concho was going to be a state’s witness against Carey, who was in jail. But Concho, who died in 1994 at age 71, still testified at the trial that Carey shot Foley without justification. But the elder January, whom defense attorneys dismissed as “an old fool” and “the world’s most reliable drunk,” proved to be ineffective.
“You don’t choose your eyewitnesses. That’s the risk of every prosecution,” says attorney Kent Anschutz, who still pains over losing the case when he was assistant district attorney. “But I have to tell you that my heart sank when Concho got up on the stand and couldn’t even point out his son right in front of him.” The jury deliberated just over two hours before finding Carey January not guilty of first-degree murder by reason of self-defense.
The release party for the essential “Live at the Austin Outhouse” cassette, recorded a month before Foley died and featuring such signature Blaze tunes as “Clay Pigeons,” “Small Town Hero,” “If I Could Only Fly” and “Election Day” was intended to be a benefit for a local organization for the homeless. Instead, proceeds went to cover the balance due on Foley’s funeral costs. It seemed, at the time, that the cassette would be the last anyone heard of Blaze Foley, but friends, including singer-songwriters Rich Minus, Calvin Russell, Jon Emery and Pat Mears, have done much to keep Foley’s songs alive, recording three albums of Blaze covers and one album of odes to the songwriter. “Live at the Austin Outhouse” was released on CD in 2000 and has sold more than 5,000 copies, with almost half of those in Europe. Two Foley-based films are in the works.
Kevin Triplett quit his job as an engineer to make the “Duct Tape Messiah” documentary, and David Parks, the youngest son of “Shaft” director Gordon Parks, has written a script called “If I Could Only Fly.” It doesn’t hurt that the songwriter’s biggest fan is country music’s greatest living legend. “Merle Haggard’s obsessed,” says Mercier, who like several former Foley associates has been summoned to Haggard’s bus in recent months. “He wanted to know about Blaze’s life experiences. I told him that Blaze had had polio as a child, so one leg was shorter than the other and he’d sorta drag his foot when he walked. Merle was so moved by the image.” Haggard wanted to hear all the old Blaze stories, like the time Foley lay in Guadalupe Street to prove his love for Mercier and indeed stopped traffic — including the cop car that took him away. “See how much I love you,” he shouted to Mercier as he was led away in handcuffs.
Michael David Fuller performed his first set as “Blaze Foley” in 1977 at a dance club behind the Hole In the Wall that booked singer-songwriters during happy hour. “He was hilarious and his songs were great,” says Morlix, one of six audience members. “He’d pull stuff out of his bag and give a little show-and-tell presentation between songs.” For the next three years Foley and Morlix were inseparable, moving to Houston and inhaling the fragrant Montrose folk scene, where Shake Russell, John Vandiver, Nanci Griffith and Townes Van Zandt were regulars. Foley started writing songs in Georgia in 1975, where he billed himself “Dep’ty Dawg” and tried not to sound too much like his model John Prine. But he truly came into his own in Houston. “There were better singers, better songwriters, but no one was more committed to his songs than Blaze,” Morlix says.
It was inevitable that he would meet Van Zandt and they would become hard-drinking buddies. “Blaze idolized Townes — not only his songs, but his lifestyle. He started drinking vodka, Townes’ drink,” says Morlix. “Sometimes it got out of hand.” Of Foley, whom he immortalized with 1994′s “Blaze’s Blues,” Van Zandt used to say, “Blaze has only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.” Van Zandt, who passed away the first day of 1997, credited Foley with inspiring “Marie,” his bleak masterpiece. “Blaze was real interested in the dispossessed,” Van Zandt told KUT radio’s Larry Monroe in 1991. “I thought a lot about Blaze when I wrote ‘Marie’ because he had so much to do with turning me on to that problem.”
Morlix says that whenever Foley raged — and it was often — the subjectwas almost always injustice. But sometimes his unwillingness to back down from any confrontation was just plain scary. Once in Los Angeles, when Foley was talking to a woman, her jealous boyfriend pulled a gun and said to get lost. “Blaze said, ‘Just go ahead and shoot me,’ ” says Morlix, a stunned witness. “I’d bet Blaze said the same thing to the guy who shot him in Austin.”
‘I’ve moved on’
At last year’s 35th reunion of the old L.C. Anderson High School class of ’68, Carey January brought framed certificates to the Hilton gathering. But, then, perhaps he felt he had a lot more to prove than his classmates, who passed around wallet-sized photos and business cards. “We were all so happy to see J.J.,” says fellow alumnus William Ward. “Everybody knew about that problem he had with the shooting, so it was so good to know that he had turned his life around.”
“How did you get my number?” asks January, now 54. He has lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, where he says he is an outreach specialist. He says he’s received several citations, including one from then-Gov. Gray Davis commending his efforts to get health insurance for the underprivileged. He strongly declined to comment on any aspect of the Foley murder case. “It was 15 years ago,” he says. “I was acquitted. I’ve moved on with my life. I’m not O.J. Simpson. I don’t want any publicity.”
Sometimes in death you get what you deserved in life. Foley always wanted to be considered a great writer, not just a good one, mentioned alongside his heroes Prine, Haggard and Van Zandt. Fifteen years after his final entry in the blue notebook he clutched outside 706 W. Mary St., Blaze Foley’s legacy is as rich as he could’ve hoped for. Like the homemade trinkets and little Goodwill toys he would slide into the hands of friends, his songs are the lovingly crafted, well-worn gifts he left behind.