Clubs by Michael Corcoran, Musicians by Chris Riemenschneider, Additional writing by Don McLeese
Published in Austin American-Statesman October 17, 1996
Sometimes it’s still like it was Friday night at Liberty Lunch. About 500 people have paid $7 to see two local bands and as the couples break off into little dance circles during 8 1/2 Souvenirs, then push up front to yell the words to all the old songs by Shoulders, owner Mark Pratz beams.“Five hundred people and they’re all adults — I’m in heaven!” he said. Bar sales would be brisk. Liberty Lunch would make money on a show it didn’t have to gamble on, for a change.
In recent months, though, the venerable and beloved Lunch has been having more of the other kind of night. This is the one where a slew of local bands play to crowds barely large enough to span the front of the stage, or even worse, when the same barren stretch greets a national act with a tour bus chugging in the alley and a clump of surly English roadies to pay.
On those nights when Pratz sits lonely by the cash register, he thinks about ways to get new Austinites to his club. He thinks about all the competition in town, with the high ticket shows at the Austin Music Hall, the Backyard and Southpark Meadows, and he wonders how he could afford to stay in business if his rent increases 33 percent again when his leaseis up in a few years. He daydreams about opening a 3,500-capacity venue so hecould offer more of the recognizable acts that draw the entertainment dollars from North and West Austin. Then he splits up the door and sends his local bands home with enough money for a late night lament at Taco Cabana.
Such is the plight, the blues in the night, of the fading tradition known as Austin music. It’s like your mother is Billie Holiday and your father is John Coltrane, but they’re both dead and they didn’t leave you anything. The Austin club scene has long been the lifeblood of local music, but as rents go up and the priorities of music fans shift, the carefree Austin shuffle has slowed to a dirge that muffles the economic boom’s echo.
“The people who grew up on Liberty Lunch and Antone’s have gotten married and settled down. And nobody’s taken their place,” said Louis Meyers, who books Antone’s and used to book the Lunch. “People aren’t moving to Austin for the music scene. They’re coming here for jobs.”
Meanwhile, those who do still live the club life have more choices than ever before. “We’re proud of our clubs here,” said Mike Mordecai,who books several nightspots, including La Zona Rosa, “but the truth may be that we have too many.”
Too many clubs? In Austin? That’s a little like the pope complaining about too many Catholics in Rome. But then, there’s only one pope and he never had to depend on Storyville to pay the electric bill.
Among those who don’t know how to pronounce “Roky” and who think Liberty Lunch is slang for a free meal, Austin is state politics, the Longhorns and the killer B’s — Barton Springs, barbecue and bock beer. For the world at large, however, music is Austin’s claim to fame. It’s the sound that makes the town.
But as the metropolis sprouts with more people, who have more money in their pockets, the local original music scene has been bypassed as if the new prosperity was zooming by on an overhead freeway. With higher-paying jobs pushing rents through the skylights and displacing the lower income bohemian types who thrive on local bands (and vice versa), musicians are either moving away or working harder than ever to live at the subsistence level. The new stock insult advice to musicians in Austin is “Don’t quit your two day jobs.”
One might think that a surging Austin economy would benefit the music scene. The flaw in the trickle down theory is that most of the upwardly mobile newcomers seem more interested in karaoke bars, meet markets, strip joints or ‘Net surfing than immersing themselves in the nightlife that is uniquely Austin’s. But then, with a few exceptions — from Christopher Cross and Eric Johnson to the alternative mainstreaming of the Butthole Surfers — local acts have generally been ignored by the masses.It’s just that the snubs were easier (and cheaper) to live with before the mainstream moved to town.
Jess Blackburn, a spokesperson for IBM, which recently transferred nearly 700 people to the area from Boca Raton, Fla., said his company does tout the Austin music scene as an incentive for moving to the area, just as it does area restaurants, theater and lakes.
“How big of a factor (music) plays in their decision to move here is questionable because it usually just comes down to economic reasons,” Blackburn said. He added that the IBM Club — sort of a social sign-up group at the company — frequently organizes trips to concerts. He conceded, though, they’re usually for touring shows at the Erwin Center or Southpark Meadows.
“I’m sure a lot of the younger, single employees who have relocated here — maybe a lot of the programmers — might go to places like (Antone’s) on their nights off,” he said.
Phil Brewer, executive director of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, said his organization also promotes Austin music to visitors and newcomers and he believes many of the residents up there are aware of its unique qualities. He just didn’t know how often Round Rock residents make the trek to downtown Austin for music. “It’s really not that long of a drive, but if you have to drive it in rush hour every day, then it is,” Brewer said.
Haven of creativity
Since the early ’70s, when Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker made Austin an outlaw outpost, the city has been a haven of creativity and civility in the middle of Texas, hospitable to cosmic cowboys, bluesbusters and punk rockers alike. Its musical dynamic has flourished through a confluence of conducive circumstances: cheap rents, supportive audiences, a healthy club circuit and an ever-expanding pool of talent. Austin has been seen as that special place that pumps with a backbeat heart and bends for the sake of the song.
Every March, Austin hosts South by Southwest, a musical Utopia attracting a growing number of annual conventioneers, who witness magical sets, stoked by a population of Austinites who know their music like they know their migas. Meanwhile, dozens of Austin-based touring acts serve as musical ambassadors across the globe, giving Austin an almost mythical reputation as the city where “real music,” the kind played for the sheer passion of it, reigns supreme. Where other cities have statues of generals and statesmen, Austin has Stevie Ray.
Little wonder, then, that musicians and fans from all over the country, and the world, have long considered Austin the promised land. At this pivotal period of Austin’s development, the question is whether that promise can grow as the city does, or whether the Austin boom spells its doom as a music mecca.
As the rents in Austin have skyrocketed almost 80 percent since 1988, so has the cost of living the musician’s life. Restaurant jobs are always available, but most offer night work, when musicians need to play gigs. While an estimated 137,000 new jobs have been created in Austin over the past five years, according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, a majority of them have been high-tech, and many of them have been taken by the more than 60,000 people who have moved into the city limits during that time.
The capital city may be enjoying prosperity as a vortex of the high-tech industry, after years of tax incentives and other seductions, but little of the fruits have reached the deli tray of a music scene that was previously one of the city’s major draws. For musicians, the cost of equipment, rehearsal space, sound technicians, recording and rent have all risen, while the money that most can make on the local club circuit is bottoming out.
“I certainly haven’t noticed any club paying more,” said Mandon Maloney, a member of the hard rock outfit Wookie, which has usually played three or four shows a month for about three years. “You’re lucky to even get a free beer these days.” Escalating Costs
It’s not that the clubs are necessarily enriching themselves at the musicians’ expense. According to recent bar receipts tabulated by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the swanky jazz hotspot Cedar Street is the only live music venue in the Top 10. Other success stories are the Continental Club, which has been selling upwards of $60,000 in alcohol per month partly because of wildly successful happy hour shows that appeal to the early-rising, straight-job crowd and Pearl’s Oyster Bar, one of the few live music venues north of Koenig Lane. Meanwhile, such noted nightclubs as Antone’s, the Back Room, the Hole in the Wall, Steamboat, Emo’s and the Electric Lounge don’t even crack Austin’s top 50.
Live music venues are generally still charging ’80′s prices because one thing we learned off the bat is that you don’t raise your beer prices in Austin,” said Jay Hughey, co-owner of the Electric Lounge. Eric Hartman of Emo’s said some of his customers are still grumbling over the $2 cover charge he implemented about 18 months ago. “It cost $18 to see Beck at the Music Hall and everyone went, but a lot of people don’t want to pay $2 to see a band that they don’t hear on the radio or see on MTV.”
Mike Crowley, manager for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Monte Warden and Dale Watson, said that many of the veteran musicians who have long been Austin standard-bearers are getting hit hard by the changes. “It’s like you’re old furniture and everybody wants to look over you to see who’s coming to town next,” Crowley said.
While competition keeps cover charges low and spreads a finite number of live music fans across dozens of venues all over town, rising costs put the squeeze on clubs’ precarious profit margins. “This is the worst shape I’ve seen the local music scene in since I started in the club business in the ’70s,” Steamboat owner Danny Crooks said. “Steamboat grosses $40,000 a month. It always has. But beer prices keep going up. Shiner Bock just raised their price to $17.50 a case, and it was only $7 acase a few years ago. Advertising costs go up. The cost of doing business keeps going up.” Crooks said that whatever the club takes in is eaten up by expenses.
Another escalating cost is the money paid to touring acts. Said Cactus Cafe manager Griff Luneburg, “We used to have our own niche, singer-songwriters, but now you’ve got clubs like Stubb’s, La Zona Rosa and Saxon Pub booking some of the same acts. Usually, the acts go to the highest bidder, which drives costs up all the way around. It used to be that you could fill your club three or four nights a week with local talent, but these days you live and die by the roadshow.”
Meanwhile, many club owners report that their customers are spending less money at the bar. “Storyville always packs the place,” Meyers said, “but where their average bar business was about $6,000 a year ago, it’s dropped down to about $4,000 a night.”
Another big concern among longtime clubowners, is the recent 3,000-capacity additions of the Austin Music Hall and the Backyard, both owned and operated by Direct Events. These venues typically host touring headliners who draw hugeaudiences (and their entertainment budgets) away from clubs that book local or lesser-known national acts.
“What’s happened is that because of its growth Austin has become an `A’ market, and we’re getting more national acts through than everbefore,” said Tim Neece, who manages the Music Hall and the Backyard. But after a near-disastrous summer season at Southpark Meadows, where only the H.O.R.D.E. festival and Jimmy Buffett topped 18,000 ticketholders, the big name caravan is expected to approach cautiously next year.
“Austin has gotten closer to the threshold of what it can support,” Neece said. Such underattended shows as Hootie and the Blowfish, Def Leppard and Sting not only caused Houston-based Pace Concerts (which books Southpark) to lose tons of money, but they sucked away dollars that might’ve been disposed at the doors and bars of Austin clubs.
“The problem is the concert business is hurting all over the country, and the agents and the managers are all looking at Austin now as a major market opening up,” Crowley said. “(Austin artists) have to compete with Jimmy Buffett and Neil Diamond now, and not each other.”
Luneberg said the influx of more touring shows has hurt the club scene, but he also attributes the current club slump to what he terms “a vicious cycle.”
“Some local bands play too often,” he said. “It’s out of necessity, because they’ve gotta pay the rent, but the more you play, the less you make.”
Meyers agrees. “The local acts that do draw spend most of their time on the road,” he said. As for the ones who can make a living on the hometown circuit: “It’s the same as it always was: 10 percent of the bands make 90 percent of the money.”
Clubs have to fill their stages with someone every night, which means that they either book the same bands over and over or hand their mikes to green groups who should be woodshedding instead of showcasing. Either scenario makes for a lackluster scene.
“People aren’t going to the clubs like they used to, and that’s partly because the music’s getting stale,” Crooks said. “There’s nothing new out there that’s grabbin’ me.”
Ironically, in a town renowned for its support of original artistry, some musicians have been paying their bills by forming Neil Diamond or Jimmy Buffett cover bands or working up Beatles tunes to play at deb parties. Even Superego frontman Paul Minor, organizer of the Hole in the Wall’s weekly Rock ‘n’ Roll Free-for-All, a cutting edge showcase of new, original talent in town, makes most of his money in a longtime cover band called the Argyles. The group plays everything from “Pretty Woman” to “Girl From Ipanema” at everywhere from country clubs to Christmas parties for the president of the State Bar of Texas.
“I make more money (in the Argyles) than I do at my full-time state job,” said Minor, who also works 40 hours a week at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He said that all this side activity is just part of the dues you have to pay for the privilege of playing original music in Austin.
“Anybody who doesn’t have a fulltime job shouldn’t be in a band,“ he continued.
“I work hard,” said Guy Forsyth, who makes a fulltime living at his music, fronting both the Asylum Street Spankers and his own blues band. “I’ve poured concrete, I’ve been a stuntman, I’ve done a lot of hard jobs, but none is as hard as being a musician. Of course, I enjoy it, so that makes it easier, and I’ve been lucky enough to have two bands that people seem to like to hear. But I worked hard to try to put on a good show and have people come out and hear those bands.” Signs say ‘Keep Away’
Austin’s rising costs and diminishing returns aren’t just hurting musicians who live here, they’re stifling the scene by keeping away musicians who have considered moving to Austin or who had a brief foray here, but left after seeing how expensive and low-paying this music community can be.
Venerable country-folk singer Lucinda Williams, for instance, was an Austin resident through the late ’80s and early ’90s before moving to Nashville about two years ago to work on a still-uncompleted album. Just this year, she thought about moving back permanently and began looking for a house in Austin. Her acting manager (and bass player) Dr. John Ciambotti said when she added up the math and the hassles, though, Williams figured it would just be easier and more economical to stay in Nashville.
Mary Cutrufello, until recently Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s guitarist and a solo artist who just released her debut CD, lived in Austin for about a year before moving back to Houston two years ago. While she said many other reasons factored into her choice to leave Austin, money was one of them.
“I don’t work in just Austin or Houston; I work the triangle between here, there and Dallas, so I could live anywhere, it’s the same distance to work,” Cutrufello said. “But it’s impossible to make a living at it and live in Austin. I guess some people can do it, but there aren’t many. The problem is, there’s too many trying to do it, and too many not trying hard enough.”
Another group Austin lost to cost is Ed Hall, whose bassist Larry Strub cited high rents in Austin for his decision to take a teaching job in Taiwan. While musicians in Austin have always had to work straight jobs until they joined the select few who can make it on music alone, these days the “select few” is even fewer. Even local musicians with major-label deals punch the clock: A member of Fastball manages a bagel shop, one of Sixteen Deluxe’s founders works at Wheatsville Co-op and top local producer John Croslin clerks at Half Price Books.
Wookie’s Maloney has a job at Emerald Point Marina on Lake Travis, and the rest of his bandmates have fulltime jobs — at a state agency and a nursery to name two. While he said they are among the lucky to not have suffered dramatic rent increases, just keeping up with the cost of living in Austin — which has become the highest in the state, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association — is difficult enough.
“We’re all working 40 hours a week and still having a hard time,” he said. “It’s hard just to find time to practice, when we can all get together.” Hostile Housing
The ideal way for bands to practice as much as possible and to cultivate the all-for-one camaraderie is to live together in a big house, which is what three of the four members of AMANSET (American Analog Set) have been doing since this summer, when they moved from Arlington into a three-bedroom house near Burnet Road and Koenig. It was supposed to be the place where they created music, a haven for spur-of-the-moment songwriting and inspired jams. AMANSET bassist Lee Gillespie worked and savedfor several months to afford the rent and to finally move down to Austin to join the rest of the band.
“I was really excited,” Gillespie said. “The house was something we really wanted. We really thought it was the perfect place for the band to play and move ahead, you know, in Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World. … We kind of got let down hard.”
After the band had practiced a couple of times, the neighbors complained. Looking for a more soundproof spot, they moved all their equipment from the living room to singer Andrew Kenny’s bedroom, where things became so crowded the only way to get from one side to another was to crawl over the bed. The neighbors complained again, this time prompting the landlord to threaten eviction.
Sure, no one wants to go to bed hearing the sounds of someone tuning a Les Paul at 2,000 watts down the street. But when bands like Ed Hall or Agony Column were happily blaring music at home seven or eight years ago, they were known — often glorified — as the loudest bands in town. These days, American Analog Set is known as the quietest in town, a band that (like Bedhead or Low) thrives on stillness. They don’t even play live very often because the bar noise drowns them out.
“It’s definitely a sign of the times,” said Josh Robertson of Trance Syndicate, the Austin-based label that has released albums by AMANSET and Ed Hall. “(AMANSET) had a hard time finding a house, a hard time paying for it. And now, they can’t even play music in it — their music.”
Gillespie has had trouble even finding a job since moving to town. He got so desperate, he said, he signed on at 7-Eleven, only to lose the job after a week and a half because he had to leave town for a couple of days because of a personal emergency. You can be sure that no touring musicians have jobs at 7-Eleven.
“I obviously wasn’t too upset about losing a job at 7-Eleven, but now I’m so in debt, I’m panicking,” Gillespie said, noting Blockbuster Video has since turned him down, too. An estimated 40 percent of Austin’s workers are underemployed (stuck in jobs considered below their education level), according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and you can be sure that many are musicians.
Ken Miller, a supervisor at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where dozens of musicians are working now or have in the past, said the school has a dilemma when it hires a musician who may have to take a day off for band practice or a week or two off to tour.
“They bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm in, and that’s especially vital when you’re working with kids with special needs,” Miller said. “But no employer wants their employees to have to take a lot of time off, and we certainly don’t, because anything that upsets the routine can upset the children. … We’re usually real supportive when someone’s band has some big show coming up, or we really root them on when their record comes out. But that usually means they’re not working for us anymore.” Not Worth It Anymore
Robert Harrison, singer for the once commercially promising pop group Cotton Mather, has adapted a practical attitude after pushing his band for almost 10 years: He’s more or less given up on regularly performing live. “For us, its like this big debacle to get on stage, and it’s just not worth it anymore,” Harrison said. “We go out, and we see the same 30 faces we saw at the last show, the same 30 faces we always play to, and we’re happy they’re there, of course, but it loses its charm.”
Harrison, whose job at Ginny’s Copies helps feed his vintage guitar habit, can see the current slump in a positive light, however. “Good musicians don’t run when things get tough. Musicians are at their best when they’re being challenged. Maybe it will force some of us to be more resourceful.”
Amid the current disparity between Austin’s economic boom and the financial hardships facing the local music scene, some clubowners also are pondering how best to face the future.
“Eddie Wilson did it the right way with his Threadgill’s World Headquarters (a restaurant soon to open on Barton Springs Road),” said Liberty Lunch’s Pratz. “First he went out and lined up the investors, then he started building. That’s the way you’ve gotta do it today: Get the money first, because you can’t assume that it’ll come later.”
Luneberg sees the future of Austin music heading north. If Austin’s new citizens with good jobs aren’t coming to see local music, bring the music to them. “If I was going to open a new club,” he said, as the sounds of touted Trish Murphy rang out through a near-empty Cactus on a recent Wednesday night, “I’d open it out by the Arboretum.”
Top-selling bars for July 1996
Topless bars fill four slots on the TABC’s July rankings of the Top 10 selling bars in Austin. After Cedar Street (No. 4), the highest-ranking club that hosts live original music is Tejano Ranch at No. 35.
2.|Chuy’s Hula Hut^$210,127
6.|Joy of Austin^$147,203
7.|The Oasis Cantina^$145,283
10.|Oil Can Harry’s^$130,135
Live original music clubs:
53.|Pearl’s Oyster Bar^$58,888
69.|The Back Room^$51,095)
94.|Hole In the Wall^$42,059
117.|La Zona Rosa^$35,164
“This is Tony Von, T.V. on the radio, in living color.” The mellow, mesmerizing voice rolled out of the 1260 slot on the AM dial at 4 p.m. every weekday and at 2 p.m. Saturdays from 1954 until tragedy was a sad silencer in 1979. His real name was Tony Von Walls, and his radio nickname was “the Master Blaster,” but most everyone knew the irrepressible KTAE disc jockey and soul concert promoter as T.V. When the wild sax of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Von’s opening theme, came skronking out of the speakers, a community gathered together, if only spiritually.
He played gospel and blues side-by-side, just as nightclubs and churches were often next door to one another in East Austin. But more significantly, at a time before cell phones and pagers, Von was how Austin’s black community knew what was going on. He’d plug shows, give birthday greetings and announce events, often in free-form rhyme. “Tony was black radio back in the day,” says local blues artist Major Lee Burkes, whose hit song “Break These Chains” got its earliest airplay on Von’s show. “Communication was sometimes quite difficult back then so I’d listen to T.V. to see where I’d be playing that night.”
Austin’s reputation as a town where live music is a way of life, was built not just by the players and singers, but club owners, disc jockeys, journalists and record store owners. Tony Von performed all those duties. Radio was his calling, plus he opened the Show Bar and a record shop on “the Cuts” (popular slang for East 11th Street) in the early ’50s. After selling the club to Charlie Guildon, who later changed the name to Charlie’s Playhouse, in 1955, Von moved full time to Taylor, where he opened another record shop that he could plug on the air. He also brought such acts as James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner to Doris Miller Auditorium, and occasionally wrote for the Capital Argus, a black publication. Von put a lot of miles on his car driving back and forth from East Austin to Taylor.
“Tony yielded a lot of power,” Burkes recalls. “He had all the connections.” He didn’t make much money on KTAE, but used those airwaves to his advantage in business. Many of the biggest names in black music played at Von-promoted shows for free (which translated into tons of airplay), while Von provided the backing band, which was usually Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets. If you liked a song Tony played, you knew it was in stock at Von’s record shop. He always seemed to be working three angles at once.
On the air, however, he was the personification of laid-back. “Be cool, be back and remember one fact: We love you,” is how T.V. signed off each day.”Austin truly was ‘the live music capital of the world’ back in the ’60s,” Burkes says. “These days, it’s not even close to how much music was going on in East Austin, and Tony Von had a lot to do with it.”
A native of Dallas, Von moved to Austin to attend Sam Huston College. Back in Dallas after graduation, Von got his start in radio at KLIF, but it didn’t work out because Von wouldn’t embrace the corny “Jackson the Jiver” persona radio legend Gordon McClendon had devised for him. Von made a better impression on KTAE owner Gillis Conoley who was looking for a replacement for Jukebox Jackson in the afternoon. KTAE specialized in country and rockabilly, but the station also made time for R&B and Spanish music (Chicano DJ George Martinez followed Von’s show for 10 years).
In a 1977 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Von laid out the inclusive philosophy that made his show a forerunner of community radio. “I have always believed in playing anything by everybody, anybody and nobody,” he told writer Ronald Powell.
Two years after the Statesman story was published, Von met his tragic fate in the form of ex-con James Earl Pullins. Von was working in his record shop on East Walnut Street the evening of June 20, 1979, when an intoxicated Pullins stood in the middle of the street and fired a shotgun in the air. Von got his pistol and told Pullins to put the shotgun away and Pullins moved on down the street. He returned a couple hours later, however, and found Von in the Soul-Ful Club across the street from his record shop. One blast from the shotgun killed the black music entrepeneur. He was 54.
Having served two prison terms for armed robbery, this third strike against Pullins ensured a life sentence, so prosecutors didn’t try him for murder, thinking his guilty plea on an aggravated assault charge would put him away for good.
But after only 10 years in the joint, Pullins was paroled in 1990 because of prison overcrowding. Three years later, he was found shooting a stolen gun in the air in San Antonio and sent back to prison.
This many years later, Tony Von is not quite as big a local black radio icon as Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst or the great gospel announcer Elmer Aikens, who both worked for KVET. The Brooklyn band TV on the Radio doesn’t even know about the original, having taken their name from British DJ Tommy Vance, who calls himself “TV on the radio.” The catchphrase was born on the second floor of a building in downtown Taylor 53 years ago. The man who called himself that was one of the most important voices in Austin’s African American community for 25 years.
originally published in 2004, with quotes added following the death of Tommy Ramone.
The singer was an Olympic-sized geek with obsessive-compulsive disorder who found his escape in grandiose pop songs. The guitarist was a sullen, right-wing former street tough turned control freak. The bassist was a bottom-feeding junkie who used to rent his body on street corners for heroin. The drummer, a Hungarian immigrant with a love for all things American, was the sensible one, and the other three resented him for it. No four guys from the same neighborhood were more different from each other. And yet, when Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Doug Colvin and Tommy Erdelyi donned their uniform of black leather jackets and ripped jeans and spit out 90-second songs, which would’ve run into each other if not for the shout of “1-2-3-4!,” they became brothers: Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy. The Ramones! Presenting themselves as much as a street gang as a band, they were the group every outcast dreamed he was in; thus many went out and started their own versions. No band has ever moved more pawnshop guitars.
The Ramones, who never had a top 40 album and yet were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible, had barely touched their instruments until the first band practice. They were the GED of musical training, making up years in hours. Suddenly, you didn’t need to know how to play to be in a band. You just had to have guts and two chords memorized. This was a revolutionary idea in 1974, one that reverberates 30 years later, even as many new punk bands think it’s Green Day they’re copying.
The beloved quartet from Forest Hills, Queens is the subject of End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, which touches on all the important facets of their career, including their 1976 ignition of a British punk scene that almost swallowed them up, and their continual attempts to break into the mainstream.
But the fascinating documentary, more reality show than concert film, is also the story of what it’s like to be in a band, the ultimate dysfunctional family.
“I thought the movie was pretty accurate,” drummer Erdelyi, the last surviving original member, said ten years ago. Tommy Ramone passed away from bile duct cancer Friday at age 65. “But you’d really have to have a six-hour movie to get it all in. We were all very intense guys, with a lot of big egos floating around, so there was a lot of inner band conflict.” The Ramones are what happens when a quartet of losers stumbles upon a musical invention and saves rock ‘n’ roll. But they’re still the same misfits.
“We couldn’t play anyone else’s songs, which turned out to be a blessing,” Tommy said in 2004. “We were writing songs like nobody else was writing. And Joey had this great pop voice.”
Musically, the Ramones presented a unified front — they all knew their distinct roles. But offstage these four parts of a puzzle didn’t always fit together like “Gabba Gabba” and “Hey!” Joey and Johnny didn’t speak to each other for the last 16 years of the band’s existence after Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and married her (reportedly the inspiration for Joey’s song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”). Dee Dee and his girlfriend Connie, meanwhile, were Sid and Nancy with better luck, self-destructive co-dependents prone to stabbing and punching each other. They all fought like brothers but didn’t always make up like they were of the same blood.
“Johnny was a controlling monster,” recalled Tommy. “He was a master of the divide and conquer mentality. It could get brutal in the band. It was three against one when we went out on the road. I wasn’t treated well by the other guys so I just said ‘I’ll continue to help you guys make records, but life’s too short for this crap.’”
Joey Ramone got his revenge when the band went into the studio with Phil Spector to record End of the Century in 1980. “Johnny liked the hard, fast stuff and Joey liked pop music,” Erdelyi recalled in 2004. “Working with Phil Spector was a dream come true for Joey, but a nightmare for Johnny. Spector’s got a fetish with tall people. He had pictures of Wilt Chamberlain on the wall.”
As much as they despised each other, the Ramones had to stay together because they knew it was the only band any of them could be in. In the end, they didn’t even go to each other’s funerals.
Joey was the first to go, dying of cancer at age 49 in 2001. Dee Dee, 50, died of a heroin overdose in 2002. Johnny passed away from prostate cancer in 2004 at age 55. Tommy was 65 when he passed last week.
“It’s just so bizarre the way they went — one right after the other,” Erdelyi back in 2004. For the past 10 years he WAS the Ramones in the flesh and his passing was an obituary on the band that started punk. “I feel like my contributions to the band have been overlooked through the years. Then, after Johnny passed away, everybody’s going ‘Tommy Ramone is the last one left.’ All of a sudden, everybody remembered that I helped start this band, that I produced those early albums. In my heart I’ve always been a Ramone. It’s just bizarre that I’m getting all this attention now.”
Erdelyi had one quibble with the End of the Century doc, which takes its name from the Spector album. “That part where Johnny and Dee Dee say that I had nothing to do with the Ramones sound — that’s (bull) and they knew it. Those guys never wanted to give me any credit because they were afraid that I’d get all the credit,” Erdelyi said. “The truth is that the Ramones was my concept. I saw the New York Dolls and they weren’t great musicians, but they were the funnest band to go see… We were also big Stooges fans- we were really the only ones in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t hard to figure out who would be the Ramones.”
In the beginning, Tommy was the band’s manager and adviser. But when original drummer Joey showed he could sing the tunes the guys were writing, he was moved to lead vocals. Unable to find a suitable drummer — after all, what self-respecting musician would play with these lunky bashers? — Tommy sat at the kit out of necessity.
At first they tried to play songs by their favorite bands, the Stooges, the Dolls, the MC5, but they weren’t good enough, so they made up their own songs. “Judy Is a Punk” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” were in the earliest batch. Incompetence was the mother of invention. Each musician just did what came naturally — Johnny playing fast aggressive chords, Joey singing like Ronnie Spector, with Dee Dee and Tommy just going where the adrenaline took them. Nobody had ever sounded like the Ramones before they debuted at CBGB in August ’74, a gig recalled in the film with great amusement by a handful of witnesses.
Some thought they were a joke band, but the Ramones were totally serious.
“I knew, even before the first gig at CBGB, that we had something totally innovative,” Erdelyi said.
Soon they were packing CBGB, which was becoming a graffiti-covered incubator of such anti-Pink Floyd acts as Blondie, Television and Talking Heads. As the band’s success became more tangible — all that press had translated into a record deal and larger live gates — Johnny stepped in and took control of the band’s finances, often orchestrating power plays within the band. “Johnny saw the Ramones as a once-in-a-lifetime thing and he was going to push that thing for all it was worth,” Erdelyi recalled.
All the personal conflict shown in “End of the Century” doesn’t diminish the legacy of the Ramones; it actually enhances it. Onstage, they were brothers, liberated from humdrum, hopeless lives, beating the odds with a baseball bat, oh, yeah. They chanted “Hey ho! Let’s go!” and we followed them. We had no idea there was all this turmoil within the band, and we didn’t care.
They were the Ramones. They were us. And when they played “Rockaway Beach” or “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” or “Commando,” we all forgot about our problems.
He gave Kenny Rogers a gig in 1959 and replaced David Clayton-Thomas in Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972, but piano player Bobby Doyle made the most impact locally by establishing Ego’s, a dark apartment complex lounge on South Congress Avenue, as a live music venue in the early ’90s. A musician’s musician, Doyle succumbed to lung cancer in 2006 at age 66.
Able to handle requests for songs by everyone from George Gershwin and Nat King Cole to Jerry Lee Lewis and Stevie Wonder, Doyle, who was blind, was a brilliant, self-taught piano thumper who possessed a raspy, soulful voice.
“There aren’t too many white guys that can do Ray Charles, but Bobby Doyle was one of them,” said keyboardist Riley Osbourn.
“He had such a broad range,” Osbourn said. “He could play blues, R&B, gospel, jazz. . . . He had his own style by combining all those things.”
He was “the main cat,” said former Asleep At the Wheel pianist Danny Levin. “If you were thinking about doing a solo piano thing, Bobby Doyle was the guy you looked up to.”
A Houston native, Doyle moved to Austin at age 7 to attend the Texas School for the Blind. While at McCallum High, where he was the first blind student to graduate, he played on KVET-AM on Saturday mornings.
“Bobby always had a transistor radio in his pocket,” said Eddie Wilson, who would later book his former classmate at Threadgill’s. “He’d be bopping to the radio in class. He’d keep it just loud enough for him to hear, but not the teacher.” Bassist Jon Blondell, who played in a trio with Doyle in the ’90s, said the pianist “had the ears of a bat.”
After high school, Doyle started the Bobby Doyle Three, a popular local jazz outfit, with a University of Texas student named Kenny Rogers on standup bass. Rogers soon dropped out of college to play full time with Doyle, singing high harmony and playing bass on the 1962 album “In a Most Unusual Way.”
The trio disbanded in 1965, and Rogers went on to become a country-pop sensation.
“Bobby told me that he used to write checks for Kenny Rogers for five years, then Kenny went on to make $200 million and ain’t written Bobby a check once,” Wilson said.
But the Gambler never forgot Doyle; about 10 years ago, David Letterman asked Rogers to name the best musician he’d ever played with, and “Bobby Doyle” came out instantly.
Doyle also impressed producer Phil Spector, who used him on several sessions in the late ’60s, when Doyle lived in Los Angeles.
When Clayton-Thomas left BS&T in ’72, Doyle was tapped as a replacement, but the piano player didn’t last long with the horn-driven pop band, appearing on only two tracks on 1972′s “New Blood.”
Doyle moved back to Austin in the late ’70s and performed five nights a week at an East Riverside Drive lounge. But he was soon back on the road, ending up with steady work in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe during the ’80s.
He moved back to Austin for good in 1990, performing every Thursday and Friday at Ego’s, a dive he’d enjoyed playing during visits to Austin.
The word got out that there was an incredibly soulful singer and piano player at Ego’s, and Doyle’s sets soon were frequented by musicians and hipsters. Two nights a week, the dank, hidden joint on South Congress was cooler than any basement jazz club in Greenwich Village.
Because of Doyle’s draw, the club started booking other acts, even rock bands, and the dive was transformed into a scrappy stop on the live original music circuit.
Doyle also played regularly at the Driskill Lounge and Eddie V’s. Doyle played regularly until two months ago, when he became too ill. Wilson said playing music was one of Doyle’s few pleasures after his wife, Mary, died in August 2004. They had been married for 17 years.
“They were quite a team,” Wilson said. “I’ve never seen a couple have so much fun together. He was ready to go the day after Mary died.”
Footage of Doyle singing “Blowin’ In the Wind” at the Playboy Mansion in the Hugh Hefner documentary has led to more interest in Doyle’s career.
The boogie woogie was born in East Texas, pioneered by George and Hersal Thomas (the older brothers of blues singer Sippie Wallace), who heard music in the choogle of steam locomotives. On such pre-1920 Thomas brother numbers as “The Fives” and “The Rocks,” the percussive left hand aped the rhythm of trains carrying lumber from the Piney Woods, while the right hand created a whistle of movement with dazzling, improvised trips up and down the ivories.
Among the most proficient of their keyboard disciples was Robert “Fud” Shaw, who grew up on his father’s farm in Stafford, near Houston. Shaw was a favorite on the barrelhouse circuit – named for the barrels of booze at speakeasies during Prohibition – but he retired from performing in the 1930s to open a grocery store/barbecue joint in Austin.
Before it was called boogie woogie after Alabama piano thumper Pine Top Smith’s 1928 recording “Pine Top Boogie Woogie,” the style was known as “Fast Texas.” But in Houston they called it “that Santa Fe thing,” in reference to the Santa Fe Railroad that shot through Fourth Ward as free passage to points beyond.
Houston-based music historian Mack McCormick was so intrigued by the piano tradition of that one neighborhood that he took a job there as a 1960 census taker. Besides the usual questions, McCormick would ask about the hot piano players. Many of the greats had passed on, but McCormick heard that Fud Shaw was living in Austin. Shaw moved here in 1935, playing piano and running numbers. A nudge from a judge and a 1939 marriage to second wife Martha got Shaw into more legitimate pursuits. His first market was at 1000 West Lynn St. in Clarksville. In the ’50s he moved to the building at 1917 Manor Road that now houses Salty Sow.
Shaw kept an old upright piano at his grocery store and practiced every day. But he had been retired from the music biz for almost 30 years when McCormick tracked him down in 1963, which wasn’t hard to do. Shaw’s store was not only a hub of the black community, but also a favorite of collegians and politicos.
“When my grandfather would drive around, he’d know every single person on the street,” said Lea Walker-Clark.
Folks knew Shaw played piano, but they didn’t know that he was keeping alive an African American musical tradition, if only in the back room at Shaw’s Food Market, which everyone called the Stop ‘n’ Swat. When McCormick produced Shaw’s “Texas Barrelhouse Piano” album (later retitled “The Ma Grinder” and reissued by the Arhoolie label), he marveled at how the 55-year-old’s playing was as crisp as the white dress shirts he favored. Because Shaw hadn’t burnt out in clubs, where there’s pressure to chase the trends, his original barrelhouse style, which mixed elements of ragtime and jazz and slow blues with boogie woogie, was wonderfully preserved.
He could still play “The Cows”, “The Fives” and “The Clinton,” signature Santa Fe tunes, as if the old gang were still playing hot piano in the sportin’ houses in the Fourth Ward and in the Brazos bottoms towns.
Newly rediscovered, Shaw performed with Janis Joplin at a blues concert on the University of Texas campus in April 1966. The great blues singer Victoria Spivey sang Fud’s praises in Record Research magazine that same year, calling the pianist a “true representative of the wonderful Texas blues tradition.” Rod Kennedy booked the piano pioneer at the Kerrville Folk Festival for 14 straight years.
The folkies and the hippies embraced the original blues musicians, but unlike most of the others, the description “itinerant bluesman” didn’t apply to Shaw. The player got his entrepreneurial gene from a father who not only raised cattle and hogs, but owned a barbecue joint and market.
The family owned a Steinway baby grand piano that Shaw, a skilled calf roper and bronco tamer, had to play on the sly because his father didn’t want him to get any notions about becoming a musician. But the kid discovered talent early on and paid for his own lessons. “I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything,” Shaw said in the liner notes of his 1963 recording debut. “I told ‘em when to shake it and when to hold back. That’s what this music is for.”
When they laid Robert Shaw to rest at Capital Memorial Gardens in May 1985, a heart attack victim at age 76, they buried the man, but not the tradition he helped keep alive.
In fact, some who work at 1917 still feel the spirit. Citygram Magazine tells this eery ghost story of the boogie woogie man:
“Long before it was Salty Sow – or Red House Pizzeria, El Gringo, or J Mueller’s BBQ – the space on Manor Road was a grocery store and barbecue restaurant named the Stop n Swat. The business was owned by Robert Shaw, a successful blues musician who pioneered a style of barrelhouse piano which he used to play for his customers. The back house, now a bar area called The Trough area, was where he lived, right next to his store.
Late one night when Salty Sow’s manager Peter Van Etten was closing, he saw a man in a vintage fedora lingering in the back corner of the restaurant. When he stepped inside to tell the man they were closed, he had vanished. When he described the man to another employee, they looked up a picture of Robert Shaw and found that he matched the description quite exactly. Bartender Jonathan Pacheco walked to the back house one day and heard a voice very distinctly introduce themselves as Robert. He walked back up to the front, slightly confused, inquiring about the “new guy.”
Other employees have reported a cold draft by the very same window, even in the middle of the summer, and a door that will occasionally slam, despite the fact that it doesn’t even pull closed very easily…another fun fact: Salty Sow serendipitously opened on May 16, 2012, the 27th anniversary of Shaw’s death.”
Her friends in Manhattan told her to be careful, the club was a hellhole and the clientele was pretty rough. Even the cab driver gave her a warning on the way to CBGB, the New York City club that spawned punk rock. When Rebecca Kohout looked around the graffiti-covered club full of black leather and ripped shirts that night in 1977, she had to laugh. “I thought, man this place isn’t scary at all. I mean, I hung out at the One Knite.”
CBGB was the Copa compared with Austin’s most notorious dive, located at 801 Red River St. where a much-expanded Stubb’s currently sits. From 1970, when a trio of pals bought the business for just under $2,000, until it closed on July 4, 1976, the One Knite was known for its hanging junkyard decor and its illegal after-hours parties that often raged until dawn. Carly Simon, Peter Fonda and Peter Boyle were among those visitors who were steered into the Austin version of a speakeasy.
But the most lasting legacy of the club is the musicians who started out there and went on to bigger things. Long before Clifford Antone opened his first namesake blues club on Sixth Street in 1975, the One Knite hosted the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Angela Strehli, Paul Ray and the Cobras, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely and many, many more. They all played for tips.
“There was never a cover at the One Knite, so bands didn’t make any money to speak of,” says Ball, who formed Freda and the Firedogs after sitting in with Bobby Earl Smith’s band at the club. “But it was a place where you could really cut your teeth.”
Cleve Hattersley of Greezy Wheels remembers the crowd being right on top of the stage. “They were in your face, and pretty rowdy sometimes, but they would be cheering you on. It was a great feeling.”
In the early ’70s, when Austin was first getting a national reputation as a music town, the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon got most of the attention, deservedly so. But the scruffy downtown joints like Split Rail, Chequered Flag, Alamo Lounge and the One Knite are where the Austin club scene, the one that lives on today, was being born.
It was a time of war protests and love-ins, when local scenesters had names like the Guacamole Queen, Red Fred and Summerdog. It was a time when there was no “Ray” between “Stevie” and “Vaughan.” Ray Hennig of the Heart Of Texas Music store on South Lamar Boulevard recalls driving Stevie Vaughan to the One Knite almost every night after Hennig closed up for the evening. “He’d play every guitar in the shop all day long, then go to the One Knite to jam all night,” Hennig says of a then-19-year-old Stevie, whose earliest bands Blackbyrd, the Nightcrawlers and the Cobras were One Knite mainstays. Jimmie Vaughan and Bramhall’s band Storm played every Monday night for five years.
But music wasn’t always the primary draw at the One Knite, which had a coffin-shaped front door and served dollar pitchers of beer. “People didn’t care who was playing,” says Ball. “They’d come to the One Knite just to hang out.”
“It was more of a clubhouse than a place of business,” recalls Wayne Nagel, a local booking agent and band manager. “It was just so wide open, with a real cast of characters.” “Anything goes” was anything but an empty cliche at the One Knite, whose pool table easily converted into a craps table.
The antithesis of the “cosmic cowboy” scene that was popular at the time, the One Knite’s interior was painted as black as bassist Keith Ferguson’s fingernails. And with a fleet of Harleys always parked out front, the One Knite’s aroma of danger was almost as strong as the stench of stale beer.
This counterculture Cheers was where the Banditos biker gang sat next to former President Lyndon Johnson’s Secret Service detail who sat next to joint-rolling flower children who sat next to East Side bluesmen and law students. They all sat under such objects as lawn mowers, tricycles, bed springs, shoulder pads and typewriters, which hung from the ceiling.
“The Secret Service guys were pretty laid back,” says co-owner Roger Collins, whom everybody called Roger One Knite. “They said as long as we weren’t counterfeiting money or plotting to kill the president, we were cool.”
Although the origins of the One Knite name, inherited from the previous owners, are unclear, the name fits this many years later because remembrances of the dive almost always begin with the words “One night . . .” One night a group of militant feminists from Lubbock tried to shout down Storm, claiming the blues lyrics were sexist. They were no match for Jimmie Vaughan’s Stratocaster, however, and the libbers soon left. One night the Banditos decided to have a little fun with the band Dirty Leg. In order to be admitted back into the club after a break, each band member had to allow a gnarly, teeth-missing, biker mama to give them a big wet kiss. One night a touring British band came in during a Storm set and asked if they could jam, but when they said they weren’t a blues band, the members of Pink Floyd were denied the stage.
Get a bunch of ex-One Knite regulars together, like at the One Knite Reunion at Stubb’s in May 2004, and you’ll hear so many stories about a time, quite frankly, the tellers are lucky to have lived through. But don’t expect the beer to flow as freely as in the old days. “I’d say that most of the old regulars have either passed away or gone through rehab,” says Kohout, who organized the reunion concert.
While clubs were ordered closed at midnight in the early ’70s, owners Collins, Roddy Howard and Gary Oliver merely padlocked the front door from the inside and let the revelry continue. We’re not talking about just sneaking a beer after closing time.
When someone pulled out a couple of machetes and a bag of marijuana, the cheers would go up for a Hot Knife Party. “The knives were heated red hot on the kitchen stove,” recalls T.J. McFarland, who played drums with D.K. Little at the time. “Then a handful of pot was spread along the length of one knife. The other hot machete was laid on top of the first and the knives screamed and spewed smoke like a rocket. The room would fill up with pot smoke and people got so stoned so fast . . .”
There had to be rules amid such chaos. “After midnight, we’d unlock the door only once an hour,” says Collins, who slept in a broom closet in the ladies’ room. “We’d pick up all the beer and clean up all the evidence, then let out whoever wanted to go.”
The men in blue often were waiting to corral the OK gang, once hauling 14 employees and customers off to jail in a paddy wagon. “They were trying to run us out of business,” says Collins. Sometimes the cops, headquartered just a block away, would barge in two or three times a night, checking IDs and looking for drugs. Collins kept a log in 1973 that showed his club was raided 150 times over a three-month period.
It would be the IRS that finally put the joint out. “We spent all our money on partying,” Collins says. Well behind on back taxes, the club held a benefit in late ’75 starring a red hot Willie Nelson. Tickets were $2.50 each. Even though the club was jammed almost four times over the legal capacity of 150 people, the event barely broke even because nobody could get to the bar.
Was Lou Reed there?
As one could imagine, given the ability of Hot Knife Parties to slice and dice memory cells, there are several versions of how the One Knite was transformed from a hangout for University of Texas law students to a musical launching pad.
The most tantalizing story has the seed for future seediness planted when members of the Velvet Underground and a ragtag entourage of Austin fans took over the club after a VU show at the Vulcan Gas Co. in 1969. As “Joey,” which is how Joe Ely was billed at the time, played a solo acoustic set from a stage that was four tabletops nailed together, Lou Reed was messing around with a young woman and she tumbled from table to stage mid-song.That’s one story.
“I remember the girl falling down on the stage,” Ely says, “but I don’t remember Lou Reed.”
Gary Oliver was told about that crazy night in a weird bar and he ended up frequenting the place and got a job as a part-time bartender. Eventually he bought out one of the three owners, who was graduating from UT and moving away.
Oliver, currently an editorial cartoonist for the Marfa Sentinel, still has the $600 receipt for his share of the business. His friend Roddy Howard soon bought out another partner for $600. Eight months later, Roger Collins bought out the last law student owner for $750 and the One Knite was ready to rock.
“In the beginning we had only acoustic acts, like Jimmie Gilmore, Blind George, Little & Crow, Cody Hubach,” says Oliver. “Then one night in 1971, the guys in Storm came in and said, ‘This is the best blues dive we’ve ever seen. When can we play?’ We didn’t have a real stage, especially for a band with drums, so they just set up on the floor and played. They were incredible and the place was packed.”
The next day, a proper stage was built and the One Knite became a blues bar.
“The One Knite had an across-the-highway feel,” says Hattersley. “No club west of I-35 had such a funky East Austin feel like the One Knite.” W.C. Clark liked playing the room so much that he quit the Joe Tex band to play the One Knite with Southern Feeling (featuring Angela Strehli).
“After Storm, even the folk acts were turning up with full bands,” Oliver says. One of those was the Flatlanders, featuring Ely, Gilmore and Butch Hancock, backed by such Lubbock cohorts as drummer McFarland and guitarist John Reed.
“We really felt in our element at the One Knite,” Ely recalls. “Those were some of our best shows.” Ely and company thought those nights were resigned to hazy recall until they heard, just a few months ago, that two of their One Knite sets, one in 1972, the other in ’74, were recorded on Oliver’s reel-to-reel. “We had no idea we were being recorded. We were stunned, and thrilled, when we found out that those tapes exist,” Ely says.
And now a CD, available at the reunion show, then at Waterloo Records, captures the crazy, magical scene. “When we played the One Knite, it never felt like a real gig,” Ely says.
An exuberant ‘Bash’
Besides running the club, the One Knite owners hosted outdoor concerts, the most notorious of which was the 1973 “Last Bash On the Hill” off City Park Road. Roky Erickson had just gotten out of Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, so the 13th Floor Elevators reunited for the free show. An unannounced Willie Nelson also played a set.
Organizers expected 3,000 people; 15,000 showed up. The One Knite crew lost money and angered local authorities as fans ditched their cars from miles around when the traffic stopped moving. But, oh, what a party! During this time of Vietnam, the hippies of Austin knew how to forget.
But being numb for so long just gets old, not to mention life-threatening. You cherish the memories that survive and move on. Or, you know, the other thing happens.
Like many of the ex-One Kniters, Roger Collins went through rehab and got sober. Today he lives in San Angelo with his son and daughter and is employed as a clinical social worker at a psychiatric hospital. “I got my early training running the One Knite,” he jokes.
Collins was on hand for the reunion, but his former partner Gary Oliver skipped the proceedings on principle. His beef? They charged a cover.
Hey, that’s no way to remember a wide-open joint where fans got in free, bands passed the hat, and the ’60s met the ’70s with the sizzle of hot machetes.
Going back in the archives to find something on Bob Dylan to post on his 73rd birthday. This was written in advance of the best Dylan show I will ever see- Nov. 1995 at the Austin Music Hall- when he called up such Austinites as Doug Sahm, Ray Benson, Charlie Sexton and, maybe, opening act Ian Moore to jam.
In a conversation about Bob Dylan in the late ’60s, John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine, “I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. I’d be completely free-form in the book, but when I went to write a song I’d be thinking `dee duh dee duh do dooo, do de do de doo.’ And it took Dylan to say `Oh, come on now, they’re the same thing.”’ Bob Johnston, who produced Dylan’s magical ’65-’72 period, underscored Dylan’s importance this way: “Before Dylan came along, songs were all about `moon’ and `June’ and `I’m just a fool for you, baby.’ I mean, Pat Boone was the top dog of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Then came that nasal voice, and you wanted to laugh when you first heard it, but then you started listening to what that voice was saying, and you didn’t laugh. You changed and started noticing things, like all the black maids waiting to catch buses to the rich part of town. Or you looked beyond the daily Vietnam body count on the news and saw the faces of dying youths. You started asking questions.
Bob Dylan is the most important musician of the 20th century because he changed a generation’s way of thinking and forged a literary style of rock that is still vital 54 years after Robert Zimmerman boarded a Greyhound bus in Minneapolis, and Bob Dylan stepped off in New York City.
He took his name from poet Dylan Thomas, but in his early days on the Greenwich Village folk circuit, Dylan was styled after Woody Guthrie, whom he’d often visit in the hospital where the pioneering protest singer was wasting away with Huntington’s disease. Steeped in the folk tradition of stealing out of respect, young Dylan did Guthrie right down to the Huck Finn cap and the penchant for talking blues.
From the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac, Dylan found an undercurrent of jacked-up expression to tap into. But on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the 22-year-old established himself as a major talent in his own right with such moving compositions as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” In his nasal, stretched-out voice, Dylan wiped the likes of Frankie Avalon, Boone and Bobby Rydell off the face of the earth.
Critics often trace the roots of punk back to the Velvet Underground, but that band’s leader, Lou Reed, was a cheesy pop songwriter until Dylan came around to meld poetry with popular music. The song that probably triggered the punk- rock tradition was “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which was inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” What Dylan brought to Berry’s rapid-fire wisecracks was a streetwise swagger and a sound as exuberant and dangerous as a bus speeding downhill with arms sticking out of all the windows.
The year was 1965, when Dylan was booed by the folk Nazis of Newport because he came out with an electric band and snarled holes into the kumbaya night as he spit out “Johnny’s in the basement/ mixin’ up the medicine/ While I’m on the pavement/ thinkin’ ’bout the government,” as the band plugged into the audience’s hostility and flailed away, unflinching. That was a great punk-rock moment, nine years before the Ramones first counted off “1-2-3- 4” at that bar in the Bowery called C.B.G.B.’s. Rage and release are the cufflinks of punk, and Dylan’s early rock material remains some of the most snarling music ever made. The lyrics didn’t always follow some apparent meaning, but just hearing them, you know exactly what they’re about.
The generation whose voice was Dylan’s has grown old and had kids and sought comfort where adventure once reigned. And for a while, Dylan did, too, performing infrequently from his alleged 1966 motorcycle accident until his born-again Christian period in the late ’70s. As evidenced by Dylan’s 1984 appearance on the David Letterman show, backed by L.A. punk band the Plugz, the singer-songwriter has opted for a rawer sound during his last 30 years of almost nonstop touring.
Sometimes Dylan’s stripped-down approach works great, as with 1995′s “MTV Unplugged” segment and subsequent album. With an ever-changing repertoire (“Drifter’s Escape,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway” seem to be the only constants) and a solid, unflashy band in drummer Winston Watson, bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist John Jackson and steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, this season’s edition of a Dylan concert is purported to be a winner.
This is good news to fans who’ve followed Dylan’s inconsistencies lately. Like Frank Sinatra, who was tagged for forgetting the words of his signature tunes on his latest tour, Dylan has good days, when his dark genius shines through, and he has bad days, when the audience is forced to play “name that tune.” Such standards as “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Just Like a Woman” have been rendered almost unrecognizable with Dylan’s mumbling and aimless rearranging.
But then, as with Sinatra, there’s no denying the powerful presence of Dylan, even on an off night. He’s Bob Dylan, whose music touched and helped change the world, and to many fans, that’s enough.
Throughout his startling career, Dylan has often been two people simultaneously: the folkie and the rocker, the hedonist and the moralist, the Christian and the Jew, the imitator and the original, the gypsy and the sofa lump, the center of attention and the pained recluse. And now he’s the living legend who plays the kind of joints that Natalie Merchant plays. But that’s how he seemingly wants it, plugging in with his overachieving garage band and rolling down Highway 61 one more time.
Off the road, he’s just another schlub at home, taping Larry Sanders and cooking spaghetti. But on the stage — any stage — he’s Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the rock era. On tour, he gets to be Bob Dylan all day long, and can you blame him for wanting that?
Dylan: The essential recordings
1. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). Dylan’s self-titled debut consisted mostly of reworked traditional numbers, but this follow-up was filled with powerful originals such as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Masters Of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All hail the new songwriting genius.
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964). More future classics including the title track, which still serves as the anthem of the turbulent ’60s, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965). Dylan goes electric on the first side of this album, offering up “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm,” among others, but then ends the album with a string of his greatest acoustic songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” If you can afford only one Bob Dylan album … you need to find a better-paying job.
4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965). The title track is perhaps Dylan’s most electrifying number, and this album ends with what could be his darkest tune, “Desolation Row.” This is a record of extremes, with the classic first track, “Like a Rolling Stone,” leading into the snarling “Tombstone Blues.”
5. Blonde On Blonde (1966). This double album generally is regarded as Dylan’s greatest recorded triumph, but that’s mainly because it had twice as much music, because everything Dylan did during the amazingly prolific ’65-’66 period was absolutely brilliant.
6. John Wesley Harding (1968). It was the height of ’60s freakdom. The Beatles just had made “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” while the Stones were working their bit of weirdness with “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request.” Meanwhile Dylan bucked the trend by making an album of acoustic moral parables. You’ll find “Drifter’s Escape,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on this one.
7. Blood On the Tracks (1974). Dylan’s latterday masterpiece opens with the enduring “Tangled Up in Blue” and just keeps on rolling through material such as “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Don’t call it a comeback!
8. Infidels (1983). After his puzzling, yet not altogether meritless born-again period, Dylan launched this return to Philistine-like prowess. “Neighborhood Bully,” an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, rocks hard, while “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and “Sweetheart Like You” are tuneful emotional workouts.
9. Oh Mercy (1989). Producer Daniel Lanois gave Dylan a textured bedrock sound that inspired such groove-oriented tunes as “Political World” and “Everything’s Broken.” Never before has a producer’s stamp been so evident on a Dylan album, but one can’t argue with the results.
10. The Bootleg Series (1991). This three-disc set shows that Dylan’s throwaways and unused tracks are better than almost anyone else’s keepers. It’s amazing that “Blind Willie McTell,” recorded 10 years earlier, never made it on an album until now.
“How significant was T-Bone Walker to the evolution of the blues?” he repeats the question. “Well,” he says after a long pause, raising his index finger. “You look back at everyone who’s ever stood in front of a band playing the guitar and it all traces back to one man. T-Bone Walker was the first person to ever play blues on an electric guitar: How significant is that?”
But Vaughan knows Walker’s contributions go deeper than having access to new technology. Leaving it at that is like lauding a brilliant author for being the first to write a book using a word processor.
“T-Bone created a whole new language for the guitar,” says Vaughan, whose concise leads and impeccable sense of swing and rhythm show that his guitar speaks T-Bone fluently. He reaches for his 1951 Gibson hollow-body electric on the couch in his manager’s office on South Lamar; axe in hands he seems more comfortable talking about Walker, whose work in the 1940s was as major a musical influence as Texas has produced. Vaughan starts playing riffs you’ve heard on records by the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Vaughan’s former Fabulous Thunderbirds and the conversation comes alive.
“You’ve heard this one a hundred times before,” he says, playing the driving intro to “The Crawl,” a T-Bird mainstay. “That’s a T-Bone lick. Here’s another,” he says, strumming the harmonic chords that open Walker’s most enduring composition, “Call It Stormy Monday.” Vaughan then hits a note and sustains it with a finger wiggle a la B.B. King, performs a jazz-billy run like the ones Scotty Moore used to play with Elvis Presley, executes the bent-note double stops identified with Chuck Berry, then apes the choppy rhythms of nascent funk guitarist Jimmy Nolen of James Brown’s band. These licks all started with Walker, who was born in Linden and raised in Dallas. The electric guitar has been the defining instrument of the past 50 years and T-Bone Walker was the first guitar hero.
“You know how everyone was blown away when they first heard Jimi Hendrix?” Vaughan asks. “Well, imagine what it must’ve been like to hear T-Bone for the first time, when those riffs were brand new.” Hendrix had contemporaries who were doing amazing things — Clapton, Jeff Beck, Link Wray, Buddy Guy — but before T-Bone there was no such thing as electric blues. He was the template for so many great guitarists who would follow. In Texas, a Mecca of electric blues guitarists, you had Austin’s Pee Wee Crayton, Orange’s Gatemouth Brown, Beaumont’s Johnny Winter. Dallas gave us Freddie King and the Vaughan brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Ray, and Houston could boast Albert Collins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Johnny Copeland and Billy Gibbons, all carrying T-Bone’s torch.
Tuesday’s just as bad
Like Louis Armstrong, perhaps his only rival in terms of American musical innovation, Walker was a born entertainer who delivered flash with feeling. A former vaudeville dancer who shared stages with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, among others, Walker had the nimble feet to match his hands. A razor-sharp dresser and silky smooth vocalist, he epitomized the slick uptown sophisticate. He held his guitar like a baby, perpendicular to his body, and caressed the strings on slower numbers. But his blond, hollow-bodied Gibson would suddenly transform into an acrobatic instrument, as T-Bone played it behind his head while he did splits.
Unfortunately, there’s almost no film footage of Walker in his post-war prime. But witnesses have described an insatiable showman who bridged Cab Calloway’s wild-eyed swing with Chuck Berry’s propulsive strolls and Hendrix’s histrionics. T-Bone did almost everything Jimi did later — from exploiting feedback to playing with his teeth — but stopped at setting his guitar on fire. (An inveterate gambler, T-Bone didn’t want to blow his stake on replacements.)
A true case of being ahead of his time, or at least too early for adequate documentation, T-Bone remains a woefully overlooked figure in the history of popular music. Such Chicago bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are bigger icons. And B.B. King has made a healthy living from the bag of tricks he learned from Walker’s early recordings. Meanwhile, the Martin Scorsese-produced six-part documentary on “The Blues” made only passing mention of the genre’s most important guitarist.
“It’s impossible to spend an hour in a blues club and not hear a dozen T-Bone inventions,” says Vaughan. “And half the players have no idea who they’re copying.”
The way Vaughan found out about Walker in the early ’60s was the way he found out about all his heroes, by tracing backward. “I heard ‘Hideaway’ on the radio and bought a Freddie King record. And on the back of the record it said that he was influenced by T-Bone Walker, so I went out and got a T-Bone record.”
A 12-year-old Vaughan flipped for Walker instantly, then was amazed to find out, months later, that the guitar god was from the same Oak Cliff neighborhood that the Vaughans lived in. Walker had moved to L.A. in 1935, at age 25, but he’d visit Dallas often.
One evening in the mid-’60s, Vaughan met his idol at the Empire Ballroom on Hall Street in Dallas. “He wasn’t even on the bill. It was B.B. King, Freddie King and Little Milton, but T-Bone had showed up to sit in on organ,” Vaughan recalls, with a giddiness that seems to never have subsided. “He was there at the back door with his two little granddaughters and my jaw dropped. He was dressed to the nines, as always, and I said, ‘Man, you’re T-Bone Walker!’ I love your records.’ ” The legend made the kid’s day, talking to him for about 10 minutes.
Vaughan would see T-Bone several times over the years, until the great pioneer suffered a stroke on New Year’s Eve 1974 and died of bronchial pneumonia three months later. “He could hit a note like this,” Vaughan says, striking the bottom string, “and sustain it, and the women would fly out of their seats. He was the first guy who could do that.”
And thus, a million would-be guitar heroes were hatched.
Jazz instincts, blues roots
Aaron Thibeaux Walker grew up around music. His mother, Movelia, picked the guitar and sang the blues, and his stepfather, Marco Washington, played a variety of stringed instruments. A regular guest at the family’s house was the country blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson, who enlisted an 8-year-old T-Bone as his “lead boy,” to guide him from juke joints to street corners in Deep Ellum. You can’t get an education like that at Juilliard.
“He had a jazz player’s instincts, but he was brought up in the blues,” says Vaughan.
T-Bone’s first instrument was the banjo, which he preferred to the guitar because it was louder. But he made more tip money as a dancer and left Dallas as a teen to tour the South with medicine shows. He also played banjo and guitar with the Cab Calloway orchestra for a week — the gig was first prize in a talent contest — which led to a record deal with Columbia in 1929. But T-Bone, sounding like a pale imitation of blues crooner Leroy Carr, hadn’t yet found his identity when he recorded “Trinity River Blues” and “Wichita Falls” as Oak Cliff T-Bone. The 78 didn’t make much noise outside of Dallas.
In the early ’30s, Walker had a street act with Charlie Christian, an ex-Dallasite living in Oklahoma City, who would be immortalized as jazz’s first great electric guitarist. Let that settle in: The two greatest guitar pioneers of the 20th century were a pair of Texans who played together for tips on street corners in Oklahoma City. The pair were probably introduced to the electric guitar by Eddie Durham, the San Marcos native who made the first known amplified guitar recording on 1935′s “Hittin’ the Bottle” with the Jimmy Lunceford orchestra.
Durham, better known as an arranger and composer (most notably with Count Basie in the ’40s), was among those who told Walker he needed to relocate to L.A. for more musical opportunities (a move also made by Texans Oscar Moore, Charles Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, PeeWee Crayton and more). So in late ’35, Walker left his wife, Vida Lee, behind in Dallas and took off on Route 66, driving a car and towing another for an auto transport company. His first gig on the vaunted Central Avenue of black nightclubs was as dancer and emcee with Big Jim Wynn’s band. But even though he wasn’t playing guitar onstage, Walker was tinkering with amplification techniques. Hugh Gregory’s “Roadhouse Blues” book, which meticulously explores the roots of Stevie Ray Vaughan, quotes Wynn as saying that Walker “had a funny little box . . . a contraption he’d made himself.”
It wasn’t until July 1942, however, that Walker played electric guitar on a record. Hired as a rhythm player for a session by bandleader Freddie Slack, Walker was given two spotlight turns, on “Mean Old World” and “I Got a Break Baby.” When Walker’s crisply pronounced notes interspersed with trumpetlike slurs and whelps, the guitar dropped its secondary status and popular music changed forever.
Before Walker, the blues was a solo acoustic form. With amplification bringing the guitar up front, no longer to be drowned out by horns or drums, T-Bone laid the full-band framework that would rule R&B in the post-war decade and eventually spin off into the rock ‘n’ roll combo.
“He didn’t model himself after anybody else,” Vaughan says. “He was the model.”
The electric guitar had been invented in 1931, when George Beauchamp devised the so-called “frying pan” lap steel for Rickenbacker. The guitar featured an electromagnetic pickup in which a current passed through a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, creating a field that amplified the steel strings’ vibrations. For the first few years after its introduction, amplified guitars were strictly the domain of Hawaiian steel guitarists, but that would change in 1936, when Gibson developed a hollow-bodied, Spanish-styled electric,
At first, the idea of an electric guitar was scoffed at by band leaders, who saw the invention as a novelty, unable to produce “authentic” sounds. The appeal to players, however, was that they could, at last, pick out melody lines that could be heard over a band. While in Benny Goodman’s band in the late ’30s, Christian shut up the detractors with his complete mastery of the ES150, which would come to be tagged “the Charlie Christian guitar.” (Sadly, Christian died from tuberculosis in 1942.)
1947-48 would prove to be Walker’s landmark period. After signing with the Black & White label, led by “music first” mogul Ralph Bass, Walker and his crack band recorded more than 50 titles in 18 months, ranging from the raucous “T-Bone Boogie” to the pop ballad “I’m Still In Love With You” to the slow blues classic “Call It Stormy Monday.”
Fifteen years later, a 12-year-old white kid, sitting in his bedroom in T-Bone’s old neighborhood, was trying to duplicate Walker’s solos, puzzling out how to make the riffs part of his own musical lexicon. “I’d try to get into his head when I listened to his records,” Jimmie Vaughan says. “I’d wonder, ‘How did he get from here,’ ” he says, strumming a series of repetitive chords, “to here,” a jazz-inflected arpeggio.
The riffs Walker invented have become cliches, pounded into the ground by players who think they’re copying Duke Robillard. Nothing kills a thrill like hearing “Stormy Monday” by a band with three guitarists. You can go out, grab a snack and be back before they’re done telling you that Tuesday’s just as bad. Walker’s innovations are so dyed into the blues/rock fabric that it’s hard to believe that this music was once revolutionary.
But Jimmie Vaughan still remembers how he felt when he first heard T-Bone Walker. “T-Bone was a total original,” Vaughan says. “After I’d been exposed to his guitar-playing, I told myself that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It pretty much ruined any chance that I’d end up with a responsible job.”
As he turns his ES150 on its side, so the strings are perpendicular to his body, Vaughan plays another favorite lick by his hero. “Hear that tone?” he says. Indeed, the notes resonate fuller. “That’s why he played the guitar like this. Amazing, huh?” He’s no longer in his bedroom, but in his manager’s office. And he’s still trying to get inside T-Bone’s musical mind. *
10 ELECTRIC GUITAR ALBUMS THAT SHOULD BE IN EVERY TEXAS BLUES FAN’S COLLECTION
BY MICHAEL CORCORAN
T-Bone Walker- ‘Blues Masters: The Very Best of T-Bone Walker‘ (Rhino)
This single disc gives a lot of Bone for the buck, but if you want to go the triple-disc route, get “The Complete Capitol/ Black & White Recordings” (Capitol).
Pee Wee Crayton- ‘The Complete Aladdin and Imperial Recordings’ (Capitol)
The first man to front a band with an electric guitar was Walker. The second was this Austin native, who, like B.B. King, began as a T-Bone acolyte but grew some swing of his own.
Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown- ‘The Original Peacock Recordings’ (Rounder)
Gate’s 1950′s work with Don Robey is gritty electric blues at its best. Amazingly, the 79-year-old can still sling the heat.
Lightnin’ Hopkins- ‘The Herald Recordings’ (Collectables)
From sessions in the early ’50s, this raucous party represents the hard-driving soul that linked country and electric blues.
Freddie King- ‘Hideaway: The Best of Freddie King’ (Rhino)
Such dexterity. Such range. Such soul. This’ll make you melt all your old Eric Clapton albums.
Albert Collins- Frostbite’ (Alligator)
The greatest guitarist to ever play Antone’s is in top form on this 1980 release, which includes “Snowed In,” where the Iceman’s guitar duplicates the sound of a car trying to start on a cold winter
Johnny Copeland- ‘Texas Twister’ (Rounder)
This compiles the Houston native’s best work on Rounder, concluding with three Afro-blues tracks that “Clyde” recorded in Africa.
Johnny Winter- ‘Johnny Winter’ (Columbia)
Lousy voice, but what magnificently athletic axe work.
Fabulous Thunderbirds- ‘What’s the Word?’ (Takoma)
That rare white band that doesn’t come off like the Sha-Na-Na of the blues.
Stevie Ray Vaughan- ‘Texas Flood’ (Epic)
The album that almost singlehandedly resurrected the electric blues guitar hero in 1983. If T-Bone was the spark, SRV was the flame. The magic.
by Michael Corcoran
originally published in 2001
Charles “Lucky” Attal looks back to 1959 and wonders if his life would have been different if he’d happened upon that garage sale on East 11th Street just a few minutes later and the bowl marked 50 cents had already been sold. Would he have gone into the antique business if he hadn’t brought his find to Red River Street antique dealer Theresa Mays, who took a long look at the beautiful blue glass-cut bowl and offered the skinny Austin High School student $100.“That was when I realized I could make a living buying and selling antiques,” says Attal, who had aspired to be a criminal defense attorney after college. Instead, he opened his first antique shop in 1965 and today is one of the state’s most prominent appraisers.
A hundred bucks was a lot of money in the ’50s — Attal says he would’ve been happy to get $10 — but Mays was guided by a simple philosophy: “Buy right, sell right.” And Attal kept coming back to Tannie’s and Theresa’s Antiques at 1122 Red River, one of several black-owned shops on the strip north of East Sixth Street. “Theresa knew the business inside and out,” Attal said.
That a soft-spoken Lebanese American teen-ager and a spunky middle-age African American would form a bond is not unusual when you realize that the antique business is built on intersecting lives. As the chair once owned by a blacksmith sits in the foyer of an Old Enfield mansion, it holds a connection to the past.
Theresa used to say you’re never alone in a room with antiques. They talk to you. They tell you their stories.
The tale of Theresa Sidle Mays Hardeman, who passed away in December 1999, will be told through her artifacts next month when Attal Galleries handles her estate sale. Helping Attal, the student going full circle on his mentor, get ready is Theresa’s niece Dorothy McPhaul, who says, “I’m the last in the line.” Her family has been in the Austin antique business since grandfather Simon Sidle opened a shop on Red River in 1920. McPhaul owns Johnnie’s Antiques, the shop at 911 E. Sixth Street where Theresa and Dorothy’s mother Ilesta moved in 1973 after their Red River storefronts were torn down. On the side of the building the pair proudly painted “Simon’s Daughters.” Today the shop is open on an appointment-only basis.
McPhaul remembers going to her grandfather’s shop at 1302 Red River when she was 8 or 9, not to marvel, but to manipulate. “Papa was kinda tight with his money, so whenever I needed a dollar to go to a show or something, I’d start picking up his finest items. Papa loved his glassware and his figurines and he’d get so worried that I’d break something that he’d give me a dollar just to get rid of me.”
They called him Ole Simon even when he was middle-aged because he seemed to have a way about him that suggested wiseness beyond his years. Simon Sidle (originally spelled “Seidel” after the Brenham family that owned his parents, Isaac and Mary, as slaves), moved his wife, Emma, and family from Pflugerville to Austin in 1918, just months after the birth of his ninth child, Theresa. After working for a white junkman named Mr. Noyes for a couple years, Sidle pioneered the Red River antique district, opening at 807 Red River in a building, ironically enough, which is currently co-owned by Charles Attal Jr. It was there that, while polishing for her father, a love for ancient objects rubbed off on Theresa. But even as the eager 6-year-old wanted the merchandise to sparkle, her father was telling her to leave it alone. McPhaul says her grandfather always believed that a little bit of dust added atmosphere to the shop.
“Ilethia (Theresa’s real name) was definitely Daddy’s girl,” says McPhaul. While the rest of the brood, which would reach 13 kids, loved to climb trees and watch the cattle being driven up East Avenue (now I-35), Theresa jumped at every chance to accompany her father on buying trips out in the country. Theresa began a lifelong passion for old photographs and tintypes when, at age 11, she took care of an elderly white woman whose son was a photographer. “I cut her toenails, combed her hair, played with her. She was my baby,” Theresa said in the book “African American Photography In Texas,” which devoted a chapter to her. “I always loved old folks a lot.”
Sidle often used games to teach his daughter the finer parts of the trade, covering his eyes and telling certain materials apart using only the sense of touch. It was a skill Theresa soon picked up, identifying woods by their grain. As he turned the corner on 70 , Simon’s eyesight started failing and his fingers guided him through his transactions. Unable to drive, he sold his second shop, at 1302 Red River, and opened a place closer to home, at Chicon and 12th streets. “Papa always said that when he left Red River he would pass away,” says McPhaul. “That street was his life.”
In January ’54, a year after moving, Simon Sidle died in his sleep at 74.
The patriarch of Austin’s first family of antiques lived on in the street that had become a reflection of his passion. Today the strip is one of trendy clubs, restaurants and Symphony Square, but in the ’60s there were more than a dozen antique stores and junk shops on Red River from Sixth to 13th, with such colorful names as Snooper’s Paradise, Fairyland Antiques and William’s Do-Rite Shop.
But no shop had quite the personality or merchandise of Tannie and Theresa’s Antiques. “Her hands were undoubtedly Theresa’s greatest assets,” says former Huston-Tillotson administrator Margaret McCracken, a friend for 50 years. “She handled objects as if she possessed magical sensitivity.”
Theresa and Tannie, who never had children together, opened their first storefront at 1204 Red River in 1946. The place was a veritable shack, with no electricity, no water, no gas. But it did have a rat that the couple named Tweety. Tannie and Theresa, who collected racist knicknacks as a reminder of their roots, also set up at antique shows all over the country. Among hundreds of exhibitors they were often the only African Americans.
After inheriting her father’s antiques, Theresa and Tannie found a bigger shop at 1122 Red River and remained there for 19 years. In 1963, after losing her leg in an automobile accident, older sister Ilesta had to quit her job as a domestic for the H.R. Northroup family and find a new line of work. The family business beckoned, so she opened Johnnie’s Swap Shop with with her husband Johnnie Alexander, next door to Tannie and Theresa’s.
The buildings, which sat on the edge of what is now Waterloo Park, were condemned and torn down in 1973 as part of the urban renewal campaign that accompanied the building of Brackenridge Hospital. It was a rough time for Theresa, who a year earlier had lost her beloved Tannie to tetanus poisoning after he stepped on a rusty nail. After a period of grieving those two losses, Theresa dug into a project she’d dreamed about for years. In 1974 she married longtime family friend George Hardeman and with material she and Tannie had been collecting, including railroad ties for the beams and signed bricks for the floor, they went to work building a house like none other. The patchwork architecture, which included woodwork from the old Scarbrough House and a pressed tin ceiling from the old Lampassas Court House rated a two-page feature (“In the House That Theresa Built”) in a 1980 issue of Antiques USA.
“Everything in her house was antique, right down to the kitchen utensils and the wood stove,” says Dorothy, who plans to put the house in far East Austin on the market next month.
Theresa Mays Hardeman became wheelchair bound in 1993, but she rarely missed a Citywide Garage Sale or any other antique show. Against doctor’s orders, Theresa set up at a show one week before her death at age 81. “It was just in her blood,” says McPhaul. “Antiques and the Lord, that was her life.”
It takes a certain drive, a voracious appetite for the old and authentic, to make a living in the antiques business. “The hunt is a bigger thrill than the sale,” says Attal summing up the allure. That’s why Ole Simon liked his precious items to sleep in the dust. That’s why his daughters loved to watch their customers squeal after pushing aside a crate to find that missing item for their collection.
As a little girl putting pieces of wood in the hand of a blindfolded man, Theresa Sidle understood just how important the sense of touch is in all this. After all, what are antiques if not history you can hold?
Michael Corcoran at email@example.com or 445-3652
Three generations in the antique business
Simon Sidle opened his first shop, Simon’s, at 807 Red River in 1920. Nine years later he moved to 1302 Red River, where he remained for 23 years. In late ’52, he moved Simon’s Antiques to the corner of 12th and Chicon streets. He died in January 1954.
Theresa Sidle Mays Hardeman and her first husband Tannie Mays opened their maiden storefront at 1204 Red River in 1946. After eight years in the shack without lights or heat, they relocated to 1122 Red River. That shop was torn down in 1973, and Theresa and her sister Ilesta operated out of the storefront at 911 E. Sixth St. until their deaths. Theresa passed away in December 1999.
Ilesta Sidle Alexander was a relative latecomer to the antiques trade, opening Johnnie’s Swap Shop with husband Johnnie Alexander next door to Tannie and Theresa’s in 1964. Looking for a new location in ’73, Ilesta moved into the 911 E. Sixth St. shop discovered by her daughter Dorothy. Ilesta died in 1997; husband Johnnie died in ’99.
Dorothy Alexander McPhaul, who was a coach and teacher in the La Grange ISD for 38 years, worked weekends in her mother’s shop on Red River and then East Sixth. When she retired from teaching in ’92, she devoted herself to the antique business full time and is currently training her son Tanny (named after his great-uncle Tannie, though opting for a different spelling) to take over the store.
by Michael Corcoran
originally published in Jan. 1996
Most people who were alive at the time remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or when they heard that Mike Tyson had been knocked out by Buster Douglas, but for me an equally indelible time and place was that warm, sunny day in 1977 when I first heard a record by AC/DC. I was at home, my sister/roommate had been at work, and when she came through the front door a few hours after I had first put the needle down on Let There Be Rock, the poor girl was convinced that I had become possessed.
And she was right. “Listen to this,” I said in greeting, then played the sofa cushion along to the adrenalized tempo of “Whole Lotta Rosie.” My sister got just close enough to look at my pupils, shrugged and gave her purse a hard day’s plop on the table. “Have you ever heard anything like it?” I shouted as the power chords bit hard, but she just went to her room and closed the door. Good answer. Not since Mick Jagger yelled “Watch it!” into the gargantuan riff on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” had my world been rocked so hard. This was urgent, primal, chord-bashing rebellion and it spoke to me like the serpent to Eve. AC/DC grabbed me within 10 seconds of the first track and it’s never let go. The next day I went out and bought the first AC/DC album and the day after that my sis gave me money for headphones.
The appreciation gap concerning AC/DC has never closed, as the group is worshipped by everyone from author Stephen King (who can somehow write with AC/DC cranked) to MTV’s Butt-head. Yet they’re also reviled by a wide range of musical moderates, who couldn’t tell the difference between singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, which is a little like failing a taste test between vodka and Clorox.
The other night I dreamed that I’d had sex with Madonna and my primary concern was that she would let me live afterwards so I could tell everybody. It was a little like that when I first experienced AC/DC. As much as the music was tippin’ my canoe, I just couldn’t wait to play Let There Be Rock for the gang.
In my early 20s I ran with a group of kids who liked to chatter on about music, as they “jammed to some tunes,” occasionally taking on such hot topics as whether the guitar solo from “Green Grass and High Tides” by the Outlaws rocked harder than the end of “Free Bird.” We’d jam to Montrose, Zeppelin, Nugent and UFO and when it was time to come down it was either Caravanserai by Santana or Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. That was the thing: In our group, bands were allotted only one word, which was usually preceeded by “the.” Hence, Cheap Trick was “the Trick” and R.E.O. Speedwagon was “the ‘Wagon.” Anyway, at that age, you’re looking to fit in and so you talk like everyone else, even if it’s that horrible stoner talk, and you live to turn your friends on to new music.
Back in those days I was kind of a know- it-all, so the gang usually gave my discoveries the cold shoulder. When punk came around, a couple years late in Hawaii, I brought by records by the Ramones, Blondie and Television and everybody hated them. Punk just didn’t rock, not like Foghat.
I knew it would be different with AC/DC and you can believe it was. Right away they were everyone’s favorite band. There was nothing like them and Bon Scott was the best rock ‘n’ roll singer any of us had ever heard. One thing we’d do while listening to records was keep building intensity until reaching the apex of “rocking out” and the last album in the chain was always by AC/DC. You couldn’t rock any harder than that and anybody who’s thinking Zeppelin or Metallica or Sabbath can leave now.
When I told this story almost 18 years later to AC/DC‘s Angus Young, the human tomahawk chop in short pants, he had little reaction except to absently say “Is that right?” But then, you’ve gotta figure that Young has heard variations on that story for his entire adult life. AC/DC is not the kind of band that’ll change your life, but it can make it infinitely more bearable. I told Angus that I still listen to my old AC/DC records and he seemed to like that.“Our intention has always been to make records that didn’t tap into any trend,” Young said. “Our music comes from the blues, which has always transcended any flavor of the month. In fact, if you look at the bands who have remained vital the longest, like the Stonesand the Who, they’ve got strong elements of the blues.”
You’ve gotta think of the music scene, circa 1976, to understand just how remarkable was AC/DC‘s upgrade of the standard five-man, two-guitar, blues- based combo.The band played its first U.S. show in Austin at the Armadillo in 1976 opening for some Canadian band everyone’s forgotten.
When AC/DC‘s first LP came out in the U.S., rock was becoming as shiny and reflective as Spandex pants and as layered as Justin Hayward’s hair. Such rock perennials as the Stones and David Bowie were dabbling in disco and the unicorn magic sounds of James Taylor, the Eagles, Billy Joel and John Denver were giving a teen-age Garth Brooks songs to learn on the guitar.Then AC/DC hit the scene like a sack of cement through the roof of a greenhouse. It took a while for the masses to notice and when they finally did come around, Scott had already drunk himself to death, but the band just kept sustaining its popularity — becoming, in effect, the Grateful Dead of metal because its members refuse to update their sound. “Instead of going into every album wondering where the music’s heading, we’re always going back to what we do best,” Young said. Like Jerry Garcia before him, Angus Young wears the same thing every night.
Because of his schoolboy attire and flashy, headbanging leads, Angus Young is the star of AC/DC, but you can’t give enough credit to older brother Malcolm Young, who plays rhythm guitar like Pete Sampras serves.“If AC/DC was a ship, Malcolm would be the engine room,” Angus said. “Malcolm likes to play in the background. When we first started playing, he’d kick me up front and that’s how it’s been ever since, so it feels like a privilege when I get to play in the back every once in a while.” There’s no way to underestimate Malcolm Young’s contribution to AC/DC.
George Young, seven years older than Malcolm and nine older than Angus, is another brother who figured heavily in the early AC/DC sound. A member of the Easybeats, who had a big hit in 1967 with “Friday on My Mind,” George Young co-produced the first few AC/DC records with Harry Vanda and the two were also recording artists as Flash and the Pan. “George came from a pop background so the sort of music we were playing was a big departure and he pretty much gave us free reign,” Angus said. “If we were adamant about something, he’d say, `OK, do it your way.”’The Young brothers met Bon Scott when he was dispatched by a nightclub in Sydney to pick them and their first incarnation of AC/DC up at the airport. “Bon was a rough sort and he used to watch out for me and Malcolm,” Angus said. “After he joined up he told me, `Whatever I do, you do the opposite.”’In order to comply, Angus stayed relatively sober most of the time. Not that Scott was uncontrollable. In fact, Angus said Bon worked hard when it was time to work, but he also cut loose when it was time to party. “We’d get off a six-month tour and Bon would say, `It’s time for a wing-ding’ and you wouldn’t see him for a while. But he also used to say that no matter what he did, he always got eight hours of sleep.”
Often that meant waking up in the early evening, but there was one time that Bon Scott didn’t wake up, and it only takes one. He’d been out drinking all night in London and a friend drove him home, but Scott had passed out so the friend let him sleep it off in the car. The next morning, Scott was found dead in the car. He had drunk himself to death and AC/DC would never be the same.With the Young brothers on guitar, they’re still a great band, and Johnson really has made the best of the situation, but Bon Scott just can’t be replaced. The guitars still conjure massive swells, but the surfer is gone, replaced by a buoy that bobs at all the right times.
So even as Johnson logged three decades as “the new singer,” Angus Young still has to say that the very best AC/DC album was 1977′s Let There Be Rock. Angus was 22 years old when that hard-rock classic was recorded and now he’s 40 and very well-adjusted about reaching that milestone. “The media would have us all disposed at age 25, but I don’t really even think in terms of age. When you think about it, I’m pretty lucky,” he said. “After all, how many 40-year-olds get to work in schoolboy outfits?”
Besides you and me, Angus, not many.
TEN REASONS WHY AC/DC, NOT THE ROLLING STONES, IS THE GREATEST ROCK BAND OF ALL TIME
1. AC/DC‘s drummer wouldn’t rather be playing jazz.
2. As bad as “Fly on the Wall” was, it’s still better than “Emotional Rescue.”
3. Ron Wood wouldn’t last 10 minutes at an AC/DC audition.
4. The Beastie Boys never sampled the Stones.
5. AC/DC has never had to rely on horns or back-up singers.
6. When you wear an AC/DC T-shirt, it says more about you than when you wear a Stones T-shirt.
7. AC/DC has never recorded a disco song.
8. Original AC/DC singer Bon Scott died from drinking too much alcohol; charter Stone Brian Jones died from too much water.
9. The members of AC/DC have no other interests besides rock ‘n’ roll, while the Stones are always acting in movies or having art openings.
10. “Whole Lotta Rosie.”