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.”
Written on the 10th anniversary of Selena’s death in 2005.
CORPUS CHRISTI — Felix Madrigal recalls the solemn procession of cars after his neighbor, 23-year-old singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez, was shot and killed 10 years ago today. After the news hit with the numbing thud of disbelief, hundreds gathered outside the Quintanilla family’s three-house compound in the working-class Molina subdivision, lighting candles, leaving flowers and sticking messages in the chain-link fence.
“Everybody was in shock. It was eerie, so quiet,” Madrigal said of the day that would be known as “Black Friday” to many in the Hispanic community.
Where were you when you heard the news?
Stephanie Funes of Georgetown was only 3, dancing to her favorite song, Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” when her mother came over and clicked off the stereo. “She said Selena was dead, but I didn’t understand,” Funes said Tuesday as she stood with six family members over Selena’s grave at Seaside Memorial Park.
It still doesn’t make sense. The one who connected so deeply with her fans, shot to death by her fan club president. Selena was equally wholesome and sexy, seemingly unaffected by stardom even as she vigorously pursued it. She was on the verge of crossing over to the mainstream, and then she was gone.
It took a single gunshot wound to her right shoulder, which severed an artery. Shot at about 11:48 a.m. in Room 158 of the Days Inn on Navigation Boulevard, Selena was pronounced dead at Memorial Medical Center at 1:05 p.m.
As spontaneous expressions of grief broke out across the country, the singer’s killer, 34-year-old Yolanda Saldivar sat in a red pickup in the parking lot of the Days Inn with her .38-caliber revolver placed against her temple.
“She would be crying and yelling, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt her!’ and she looked very panicked,” said Capt. David Cook, the SWAT team supervisor that day. After a 10-hour standoff, Saldivar surrendered to police.
Selena woke up that dark day at 7:30 a.m., donned a sweat suit and headed to Saldivar’s room at the Days Inn with two purposes. First, she planned to take Saldivar — who had claimed she was raped in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, two days earlier — to the hospital for an exam. Then Selena planned to ask her former confidante, who had spent the previous three weeks dodging accusations of financial improprieties, about some missing bank statements.
At the hospital, nurses said evidence that Saldivar had been raped was inconclusive. Back at the motel, Selena angrily confronted Saldivar about the incomplete financial records, according to Saldivar’s statement to police. Saldivar pulled out a gun, she said, and put it to her own head. When Selena started to leave the room, Saldivar shot her.
The singer made it to the motel’s lobby, a distance of about 30 feet, then collapsed. “Help me, help me, I’ve been shot,” she told motel employees, who were trying to stanch the profuse bleeding as the manager called 911.
“Selena had wanted to believe Yolanda all along, even though her father said (Saldivar) was a liar and a thief,” said Austin writer Joe Nick Patoski, who researched the case for “Como la Flor,” his Selena biography. “She felt sorry for her, but I think that when she came to the conclusion that Yolanda had made up the rape in Mexico, that was the last straw. She was through with Yolanda, and it probably got ugly back at the Days Inn.”
Patoski’s book quoted sources who said that Selena kept Saldivar on longer than she wanted because Saldivar had several key fashion contacts in Mexico, where Selena planned to expand her clothing business.
Saldivar had begun her association with Selena as an exemplary employee, founding the fan club in 1991 and building it to more than 5,000 members in a matter of months. Two years later, Saldivar quit her nursing job and moved from San Antonio to Corpus Christi; working for Selena gave her life a fresh sense of purpose.
When the singer fulfilled a childhood dream by opening her clothing boutique in Corpus Christi in 1994, she tapped Saldivar to manage it.
But employees started noticing the books just weren’t right, and one told her father, Abraham, who ruled his daughter’s musical career with a steel grip, but generally kept out of her fashion business.
Selena, her father and sister Suzette confronted Saldivar on March 9, 1995, with accusations that she had been skimming from fan club receipts, as well as from the boutique. Saldivar was asked to produce a full accounting.
Two days later, Saldivar went to a San Antonio gun shop/firing range and bought a .38-caliber revolver, but soon returned it for a refund. On March 26, 1995, she went back to A Place To Shoot and repurchased the revolver.
“To tell you the truth, I had never heard of Selena when we got the call 10 years ago,” Cook said. “We were focused on a homicide suspect, making sure no one else got hurt. But the next day, I started seeing the news reports on TV and in the paper, and I realized what an icon, what a role model she was to so many.”
The initial shock was followed by rage and thoughts of revenge on the 4-foot-9-inch Saldivar, who reinforced the cruel reality that anyone can point at anyone else and make them dead. When Saldivar’s bond was originally set at $100,000, the word was that several street gangs were taking up collections to bail her out and kill her. The bail soon was raised to $500,000.
At her trial, which moved to Houston for safety concerns, Saldivar pleaded not guilty, claiming that the gun discharged accidentally. The jury deliberated just two hours before finding Saldivar guilty of murder.
She’s currently serving a life sentence in the Gatesville prison. The gun used to kill Selena was ordered destroyed by a judge, lest it one day become a grisly souvenir.
There is no longer a Room 158 at the Days Inn on Navigation. So many fans flocked to the site, many writing on the walls outside, that the motel changed the room numbers and posted signs saying that only registered guests are allowed on the property. (The room where the murder took place is now No. 150, a hotel employee confirmed when pointed out that it’s the only room number tag that is bolted down.)
The neighbors in Molina are more accepting of the curious. “The cars drive by all the time,” Madrigal said. “They ask, ‘Where did she live?’ and I show them. They come because they love Selena; they love her music. She’s still the star of our neighborhood.”
At the Selena memorial, in a Bayfront gazebo on Corpus Christi Bay, a sign says “Show Your Respect. Please No Markings” and yet the bricks on the ground are covered with Sharpie messages such as “Dreaming Of You,” which is the title of the posthumously-released album that debuted at No. 1 in July 1995.
A Hispanic girl, who looks no older than 6 or 7, kneels down and draws a crude heart on one of the bricks. Ten years after the senseless murder, it’s the closest the little girl can get to touching Selena.
En San Antonio
Asked to explain Selena’s enduring appeal, Ruben Castillos, who helped organize San Antonio’s tribute to the late singer last week, answered in an instant. “A star is born, baby,” he said as a family of six walked by in matching pink Selena T-shirts during the event at Rosedale Park. “It’s the oldest cliche in the music biz, but it really fits with Selena. The first time you saw her perform, it was like, ‘Wow, this kid is really something special.’ ”
Selena, murdered 10 years ago Thursday, was that rare artist who is played on Tejano, Mexican regional and international formats, said Lupe Contreras of Border Media Partners, which owns 34 radio stations, including Super Tejano 1560 AM in Austin.
“They love her in Miami. They love her in Los Angeles. And in Texas, there’s no one bigger, and I doubt there ever will be,” he said.
By its very name, Tejano is a mix of two cultures: Texan and Mexican. Sung in Spanish but adopting such cowboy motifs as Resistol hats and rodeo shirts, Tejano music has been packing ballrooms and neighborhood bars since the 1930s. But when Selena, whose first language was English, released such hits as “Fotos y Recuerdos” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” in the early ’90s, the music of South Texas was revealed to the entire Spanish-speaking world.
Selena was to Tejano what Bob Marley was to reggae, an ambassador whose megatalent created widespread interest in her genre. Like Marley, Selena was so far above her contemporaries in terms of popularity and talent that it was as if she was the campfire and all the other Tejano singers were crackling embers in the air.
Ten years after her death, Selena is still in heavy rotation on Hispanic hits radio. As a tie-in with the anniversary of “Black Friday,” as the day she was shot is known among her fans, the singer is represented by a slew of new packages and will be feted with an all-star tribute concert Thursday at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
“Selena Remembered” pairs a greatest hits CD with a documentary narrated by Edward James Olmos, who played Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, in “Selena,” the 1997 film that catapulted Jennifer Lopez to stardom in the title role.
“Selena Unforgettable: the Ultimate Collection” is a two-CD, two-DVD collection that traces her career from 10-year-old singer of Los Dinos to her lasting perch as a crossover sensation. Also on shelves is “Selena Live: The Last Concert,” which finds the singer entering the Houston Astrodome on Feb. 26, 1995, on a white carriage, then opening with a disco medley of “I Will Survive,” “On the Radio” and other ’70s hits that an artist of her stature might have felt above performing.
But nobody did Donna Summer with more conviction than Selena. As a working Mexican American musician, Selena grew up playing various styles, from traditional Mexican music for the old folks to the Valley pop favored by her parents’ generation to more beat-heavy concoctions such as “Techno Cumbia” for the hip-hop kids. Like Elvis Presley, she had the ability to elevate inferior material and turn the best songs into classics.
Her father used to tell Selena that being a Mexican American meant having to be the best of both worlds, and no one succeeded better at that than Selena.
“One thing we will never hear is people calling up our stations and saying, ‘You’re playing too much Selena,’ ” Contreras says. “There’s no burnout with her. The music is timeless. Selena will always be current.”
There is no new music, but the image of Selena remains, frozen in perfection. She’s the best role model because she’ll never let her fans down. Shot to death in a Corpus Christi motel March 31, 1995, Selena is forever 23, eternally beautiful, with a voice that will lose none of its gorgeous shimmer.
She’s also remembered as one whose love for her fans was genuine.
“One time we were having lunch at Mi Tierra (Selena’s favorite restaurant in San Antonio), and somebody recognized Selena, so they came over for an autograph,” Contreras said. “Then someone else. The word got out, and suddenly there’s a line of people waiting to meet Selena, and she couldn’t have been more gracious. She signed autographs for an hour, then asked the waiter to box up her lunch. She took it to go.”
Selena loved chain restaurants, especially Pizza Hut for its thin crust pepperoni and, on special occasions, the Olive Garden. She loved to go to Wal-Mart, with no makeup on and her hair a mess.
Even as they threw worship her way in unbridled fashion, Selena’s fans considered her a member of the family.
Often, the most ineffective role models are ones who are just playing roles. Selena was so natural in her embodiment of the positive elements of Hispanic culture: the close families, religious faith, the teen dances and the birthday parties in the carports of little blue houses.
Since signing with Capitol EMI in 1989, Selena dominated the Billboard Latin charts and today is one of the top five best-selling Latin artists ever. But it was always her goal to be lumped in with Madonna and Janet Jackson, not just Tejano singers such as Laura Canales and Shelly Lares.
Selena wanted it all, and, sadly, in death came fulfillment. Selena’s English-language debut, “Dreaming Of You,” debuted at No. 1 four months after her death, selling more than 331,000 copies in the first week.
Just as the guitarists labeled “the next Stevie Ray Vaughan” are still playing blues shuffles in smoky bars, it appears there will never be another Selena. Besides unmatchable talent and charisma, Selena came at the right time, when South Texas needed a new hero to send out to the world.
Today, Selena is to her hometown of Corpus Christi what the Alamo is to San Antonio; her spirit has become a destination.
Her bizarre murder by her fan club president has heightened the legend, no doubt, and spiked album sales.
Before her passing, Selena’s best-selling album was “Amor Prohibido,” with sales of about 400,000; “Dreaming of You” is nearing the 3 million mark. But Selena was poised to be a huge pop star even before she was made a martyr.
What did she die for? To prove that life is precious? That true beauty lives forever?
Millions of fans are left wondering, as that splendid voice soothes the confusion. Sometimes the greats are just passing through, and we are lucky for whatever time they give us.
by Michael Corcoran www.artslaboraustin.com
Before SXSW there was NMS, Manhattan’s New Music Seminar. It got so big in the ‘80s that the New Yorkers decided to do a little spinoff in Austin, Texas, yee-haw! But they got cold feet in January 1987 and gave their blessing to an Austin group headed by Roland Swenson, supported by the Austin Chronicle and seeded with $5,000 from the city.
Being the biggest music conference in the world, NMS was every bit as powerful as SXSW is now. I went a couple years before SXSW started and one year after and you could feel the energy when hip hop became the dominant indie music genre at a conference that originally catered to dance, new wave and punk music. Rap blew up when all the early Def Jam stuff appealed to rock fans and NMS was where it became legitimate. One of the NMS founders owned Tommy Boy Records, home of Naughty By Nature, De La Soul and House of Pain. NMS became central station for hip hop hopefuls. Every artist of note showed up.
Problem was that the hotel lobby turned into Grand Central Station for fans seeking autographs or rappers trying to slide their demo to Chuck D or Russell Simmons or, really, anyone with a badge. Like the SXSW fringe of today, they didn’t register for the conference or buy wristbands. They just hung out in the lobby and rode the elevators up and down all day, stopping at every floor to see where the party was. There were literally thousands of kids roaming the hotel and it was not unusual to have to wait 30-45 minutes for an elevator to your room. The last year I went was during that East Coast/ West Coast thing and there was a fist fight outside one of the panels and somebody pulled a gun. I was coming off the escalator to see hundreds of people running straight at me and was lucky to duck behind a post.
There were so many non-registrants hanging around that some of the music businessmen who never missed an NMS opted out because the hassle wasn’t worth it. After a few years of this, co-founder Tommy Silverman said something in an interview about how the rap presence was really hurting the conference, so they were going to de-emphasize it and I remember thinking two things: 1) he’s got a point and 2) is he out of his everlovin’ mind? That’s something you think, but never say. So, of course, NMS was hit with charges of racism and acts, both black and white, had to think about crossing that invisible picket line. There were other reasons the decline continued until the almighty international music conference was no more in 1995. The next years are when SXSW started becoming a formidable industry force.
Swenson of SXSW could teach a course on Why NMS Failed. There could be stabbings at Pusha T shows, riots for Lil Wayne, but there will never be a statement from SXSW about rap shows, specifically, getting out of hand. From what I know, there have been no major incidents at hip hop shows, even the one starring Kanye with guest Jay Z where 8,000 people were invited to a venue that held 3,000. The crowds are rowdy, let’s be honest, but those weren’t hundreds of hip hop fans stampeding a full-capacity Strokes three years ago.
But now we have the headlines about the musician who came to SXSW to play a rap concert and ended up driving into a crowd and killing two.
Wednesday afternoon I walked all through downtown, from Lavaca down Sixth to the Convention Center and I marveled at the harmony of the very diverse crowd. There weren’t just blacks and whites together, but folks from Croatia and Brazil mingling with Pflugerville tourists. Everybody seemed so happy out in the sunshine with music in the air. I was thinking that this is what the world will be like in 20 years, when everybody realizes we have more in common than previous generations thought.
We have to all understand one thing. Rashad Owens, if he did what irrefutable evidence said that he did, is a sociopath. A hollow man with no regard for the lives of strangers, so long as he doesn’t have to spend the night in jail. That he’s African-American means something to a lot of people, but let’s remember that most serial killers are white males. I don’t want people lumping me in with John Wayne Gacy.
Accused of killing two, seriously injuring 8 and sending 15 more to the hospital when he gunned a stolen car through a crowd of fans, Owens is being presented as an aspiring rap artist who came to SXSW to perform. This is solely based on an article in the Austin American-Statesman that quotes his brother as saying Owens had a 1 a.m. slot at Club 1808, a venue without ties to SXSW. But the club’s manager said they had booked only rock bands that night. No hip hop. Perhaps the brother got the venue wrong and the show was actually next door, at an annex put together for this week. That makeshift venue did have hip-hop. But neither the Facebook page nor the Twitter account of Owens or his “K.A.B. 254” rap du plume had any mention of shows at SXSW. A hip hop artist not hyping their shows on social media?! The Statesman based their report on the sketchiest of information and that’s the part that all the big media- from the Washington Post to Gawker- are putting way up top, even in the headlines. Suspect came to SXSW to perform.
We’ll see what the trial tells us, but there’s no evidence now that Owens came to SXSW for any reason but to party, run some game about being a big hip-hop “padoosa” and maybe crash a hip-hop open mic at some Eastside dive.
Rashad Charjuan Owens took over my SXSW at around 1 a.m. Thursday morning. When his name was released at around noon, I spent hours researching, not the SXSW music schedule, but the life of this man who created so much sadness and confusion. Owens deeply violated something I didn’t know I loved so dearly, the sanctity of being around music. SXSW always makes me proud to be from Austin, no matter how my own experiences go.
The truth about Owens, 21, who was born in West Texas, grew up in South Carolina, went to Shoemaker High in Killeen and spent a couple years partying and getting into trouble in Alaska, is that he’s barely a dabbler in the rap game. He’s loosely connected with the dirty south crew Strictly Mafioso, but there’s no evidence of him ever performing at more than a house party. He’s got a couple tracks on Soundcloud, but so does every high school ukulele player.
According to his Facebook page (“Road To Riches Owens”), he works at Subway and is the father of a month-old son. The brother who gave the phony Club 1808 info says Owens has six children, but he’s got photos of only two or three on fb. It kinda make me ill to see this ice-veined villain’s photo in the paper this morning with the headline “Suspect in crash a Killeen musician.” He’s no more a musician than Troy Aikman is an actor.
I need to remember to breathe. There’s just evil in the world, but there are many, many more angels.
We greet a new day at SXSW as one of challenges. Be the best person you can be. Love all that you can. The way we felt when we heard the news about the despicable actions of a lone psychopath told us nothing if not that we’re all in this together.
Last week, I wrote this story about Charlie’s Playhouse. Which led to my discovery of photos by Neal Douglass of a female impersonators’ show at an unnamed East Austin bar. Today, I went to the Austin History Center and went through a city directory for 1957. Here are all the bars I could find in the black part of East Austin.
Blue Moon Bar 1902 E. 7th St.
Babalu Club 1618 ½ E. 6th St.
Barton’s Tavern 1900 E. 12th St.
Club Capree 1810 Chicon St.
Cobra Club 2321 E. 7th St.
Ellen’s Tavern 1626 Rosewood Ave.
Flamingo Club (Charlie’s Playhouse) 1201 Chicon St.
Harlem Novelty Bar 1010 Lydia St.
Harvey’s Place 1710 E. 1st. St.
The Hub 2200 E. 7th St.
J.C. Bar 1906 E. 7th St.
J.R. Club 2006 E. 7th St.
James Tavern 1133 E. 11th St.
Lecol Club 2136 E. 7th St.
Lo Jo’s 1407 E. 6th St.
M&B Club 2206 Webberville Rd.
Mackey’s Tavern 1618 Rosewood Ave.
Pearl’s Bar 1512 E. 6th St.
Raven Club 2148 E. 7th St.
Scoot Inn 1308 E. 4th St.
Senate Tavern 1811 E. 6th St.
Shallow Box Club 2310 Webberville Rd.
Silver Slipper 1627 Rosewood Ave.
Sport Bar 1200 E. 6th St.
Tasby’s Tavern 1922 E. 6th St.
V&V Club 1112 E. 11th St.
White Swan 1906 E. 12th St.
Wide Awake Club 1518 Rosewood Ave.
Your Place 1400 E. 12th St.
I found a few new interesting details about Charlie’s Playhouse. Owner Charlie Gildon, as he was known, was actually named Ernest Gildon. Perhaps Charlie’s sounded cooler for a nightclub. Now it makes sense why he named his afterhours joint Ernie’s Chicken Shack.
Also, Charlie’s Playhouse was originally located at 1201 Chicon St. After Gildon bought the Sho Bar from Tony Von in ’57, he moved the Playhouse there. The Flamingo Club moved into the old Charlie’s location.
On Feb. 9, the media will turn enmasse to acknowlege the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ culture-changing first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. But let’s also mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man who stayed true to his musical vision and brought hardcore Texas country music to the masses without sweetening it for easier consumption.
A song like “Walking the Floor Over You,” which “The Texas Troubadour” recorded in Dallas in 1941, is so simple in message, so basic in structure. Yet, you not only hear that song, you can practically see it as well. Many of Tubb’s songs, including “Thanks a Lot,” “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” and “Soldier’s Last Letter” set a time and place as if there are visual dimensions to those nasal tones.
You’ve been to that place that he’s singing about, but it’s either been modernized beyond recognition or it went out of business a few years ago. It’s good to go back, though, even for as long as it takes Ernest Tubb to sing “I Love You Because.”
E.T., they used to call him, and many of his diehard fans still do. It’ll take more than a billion-dollar Spielberg movie to make longtime country fans think of calling anyone or anything else E.T.
In 1947, he became the first country artist to headline at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, but he played every roadhouse in Texas that year, too. Tubb and the Texas Troubadours played dance music, pure and simple. But when they started drawing rowdy crowds, especially in the oil towns of East Texas, they had to turn up the guitars and beat on the drums so the music could be heard over the chattering crowd. Amplification is at the core of the honky-tonk style and Tubb and his Troubadours were one of the first country bands to feature an electric guitar.
Another change credited to Tubb was replacing the term “hillbilly music” with “country and western.” “Hillbilly” was considered a derogatory term at the time, especially if, like Tubb, you came from the flatlands of Texas (born in Crisp, he grew up with a succession of relatives in West Texas after his parents divorced).
“If you call me a hillbilly,’ you’d better say it with a smile,” Ernest would say. He was never seen in public without wearing a tailored suit and a ten-gallon hat.
By brushing a layer of Texas grit on country music, Tubb expanded the range of what was heard on the Grand Ole Opry, which he joined in 1943. Tubb was the great ambassador of honky tonk.
“The thing I always liked about E.T.’s style is that he brought a lot of blues to country music,” says Austin musician Junior Brown, who wrote and recorded “My Baby Don’t Dance To Nothin’ But Ernest Tubb,” perhaps the most heartfelt tribute song since the Buddy Holly ode “American Pie.”
Ernest Tubb was inspired to play music by the blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, so it was only natural that he would keep the Delta influence in his country. Plus, Tubb featured guitarists like Billy Byrd and Leon Rhodes, who were always interested in what T-Bone Walker was up to on the other side of town.
Tubb never did meet “The Singing Brakeman,” though they both lived in San Antonio in 1933, the year of Rodgers’ death. Soon after, Ernest impressed Rodgers’ widow, Carrie, with his dedication to the Rodgers style and she not only gave the upstart her husband’s old guitar, she helped him obtain a recording contract with Victor Records in 1936. After he had his tonsils removed in 1939, Tubb couldn’t yodel very well so he switched to making hard-edged country dance music.
Junior Brown was lucky enough to meet his idol several times through the years, first at the Hitching Post in Albuquerque in 1969. “He brought a lot of dignity to country music, and you can truly say that Ernest Tubb never sold out,” Brown says. “He stuck to his style, no matter what else was hip at the time, and whenever we’d talk, he’d emphasize how important it is for the younger players to keep country music going.” And Junior Brown has been carrying out that mission with his guit-steel contraption.
“E.T. is not the only influence in my music, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of another musician who’s had such a profound effect on me,” Brown says. “Even more than whatever I learned from him musically, Ernest Tubb taught me a lot about taking pride in country music, the real country music.”
Brown’s sense of authenticity was tested when Marty Stuart, then a Nashville star, asked Brown if he wanted to come on board Tubb’s old tour bus, which Stuart had just bought. “Nah,” Brown answered. “The last time I was on that bus, so was Ernest Tubb.”
Tubb, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965, owned a landmark record store in downtown Nashville, just a couple blocks from the Ryman Auditorium. An unknown Loretta Lynn performed at the store, a scene recreated in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with Tubb playing himself.
Perhaps the most fitting vignette about Ernest Tubb comes from John Morthland’s book “The Best of Country Music.” Morthland last saw Tubb in December 1981. At the time, E.T. had found an audience with roots-crazy punk rockers, and he was playing in a Manhattan club full of kids in mohawks and leather jackets. According to Morthland, he was “singing to the trendies with more vigor and enthusiasm than you’d dream possible from a man pushing 70, and not altering his show a bit for this audience, either. They had to take Ernest Tubb the way everyone else did or not take him at all.”
So let’s flip the guitar, as E.T. did thousands of times at the end of a performance and give a hearty “THANKS” to the honky tonk pioneer who helped preserve a style that continues to define his home state to fans the world over..
It’s one of the most notorious bookings in Austin music history, the weekend in 1968 that Muddy Waters and his band played the Vulcan Gas Company, with an albino blues guitarist from Beaumont named Johnny Winter opening the show. On the Friday night, the Waters band didn’t arrive until after the Winter trio finished.
“They did a standard 45 minute set,” Vulcan owner Don Hyde recalls of Muddy’s Friday show. As you can see from the photo, they weren’t even wearing their customary suits. “It was only 10:45, so I asked Johnny if he would play for a couple of more hours. He said sure.” Waters did hear that set, when JW came out and blew the doors off the place.
There was a pay phone on a wall backstage and Muddy made a collect call to Memphis and got King Curtis on the line. Hyde was standing next to him. “He said, ‘King, you won’t believe this!’ and held the phone out into the air for a half minute, while Johnny played,” Hyde recalled. “Then he took the phone back and said ‘He WHITE, I mean he is really WHITE! Do you believe this shit!?’”
“The next night, Muddy’s band came back dressed to the nines and played for over two hours,” Hyde says. “They blew Johnny off the stage, then they did a couple of tunes together.” Winter went on to produce and play on some of Muddy’s great ’70s albums.
Asked about that weekend, his first visit to Austin, Muddy’s harmonica player Paul Oscher says he doesn’t remember any time Winter cut Muddy’s band. “It wasn’t possible,” said Oscher, who now lives in far South Austin. “I think maybe we’d been driving all day Friday and we were tired. And then we were well-rested on Saturday and got down to business.”
In the New York Times obit for Bobby Blue Bland, who passed away in June 2013, it says that Bland discovered, not too long before his death, that he and James Cotton were half-brothers. Born in 1930, Bland was fathered by I.J. Brooks, who then abandoned the family. Cotton was born five years later in Tunica, Miss. Apparently, Bland found out that Cotton’s father was also I.J. Brooks, who also soon left that family. Cotton was taken in as a kid by Sonny Boy Williamson II, the good one. The story was always that Cotton had been orphaned but later he admitted that story wasn’t true.
No denying that there’s some resemblance.
By Michael Corcoran
(originally published in 2003)
When Jack White of the red-hot White Stripes announced “It’s good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson,” at Stubb’s in June 2003, most in the soldout crowd likely had never heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin, who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock. We have become used to being saluted as the home of T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. But who is this Blind Willie Johnson?
The first songs he recorded, on a single day in 1927, are more familiar. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children,” Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut LP and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.
Johnson’s haunting masterpiece “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” was chosen for an album placed aboard the Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Foreseeing an extraterrestrial intercept, astronomer Carl Sagan and his staff put together “Sounds of Earth” – including ancient chants, the falling rain, a beating heart, Beethoven, Bach and Blind Willie.
Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know almost as much about the mysterious Blind Willie Johnson as we do.
Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks, the singer remains a biographical question mark. Only one picture of him, seated at a piano holding a guitar with a tin cup on its neck, has ever been found. A search on the Internet or a browse of libraries and bookstores reveals the slightest information on this musical pioneer, and almost all of it is wrong.
Months on the trail of the man, whose music rang with an intensity previously unrecorded, turns up a living daughter and a death certificate – and little else. Finding witnesses who knew Johnson is about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Many are dead or too old to remember.
Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie and his backup singer Willie B. Harris, they’re too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. “I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible,” said Kelly, 72. “But I was just a little girl when he went away.”
And while the death certificate corrects some previously accepted misinformation (he was born in 1897 near Brenham, not 1902 in Marlin, and died in 1945, not 1949, in Beaumont), the document doesn’t tell you how he lived from 1930, when his recording career ended, until his death. It doesn’t tell you how many times he was married and how many kids he fathered. It doesn’t tell you how he learned to play such a wicked bottleneck guitar or which Pentecostal preachers he modeled his singing voice after. It doesn’t verify the widespread legend that Willie was blinded when a stepmother threw lye in his face at age 7 to avenge a beating from his father. Refuting the myth that Johnson died of pneumonia, from sleeping on a wet mattress after a fire, the certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor. But when it also lists blindness as a contributor, the coroner’s thoroughness becomes suspect.
Unquestioned is the opinion that Johnson is one of the most influential guitarists in music history. “Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James. “He’s the apogee.”
An instinctive virtuoso, Johnson made his guitar moan, slur and sing, often finishing lyrics for him, and throughout the years, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder and many more have expressed a debt to the sightless visionary.
And yet, the 1993 double-disc “Complete Blind Willie Johnson” has sold only about 15,000 copies on Sony/Legacy. No doubt, more than half of those sales were to guitarists.
1930s Mississippi Delta blues man Robert Johnson grew into a full-blown rock icon in part because of the mysteries of his life and death, but Willie Johnson has not benefited from his enigmatic existence. Even though his guitar-playing inspired a host of Delta blues men, from Johnson and Son House to Muddy Waters, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of pre-war music preferred by collectors and historians. He sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His gruff evangelical bellow and otherworldly guitar were designed to draw in milling mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.
When word got out late last year through the community of music historians and record collectors that Blind Willie had a daughter, who was still living in Marlin, 28 miles southeast of Waco, there was a collective gasp of hope that new information would surface. Maybe there was a box with pictures, letters or gospel programs that would fill in the huge gaps. Maybe Willie B. Harris had told her daughter details about her father, like how he lost his sight and where he learned his songs.
The discovery of an heir also stirred the interest of musical estate managers, such as Steve LaVere of Mississippi’s Delta Haze company, who visited Kelly in November 2002. In his role managing the estate of Robert Johnson, LaVere has aggressively collected back royalties from Columbia Records and such performers as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
“It’s all about getting the pennies to roll in your direction – we’re talking about eight cents a record (in songwriter royalties),” LaVere said. “Eventually, the pennies turn into dollars.”
But when LaVere left Marlin to return to his offices in Greenwood, Miss., he didn’t have a signed contract that would give him the right to represent the estate of Blind Willie Johnson. “I was a little miffed,” he said. “I thought we had laid out the groundwork on the phone and would be able to sign a deal, but some people just don’t know what they have, what it’s worth, and they’d rather do nothing than feel like they might get cheated.”
Kelly said she just didn’t want to rush into anything. “You know, old people don’t like to sign stuff right away,” she said as she maneuvered her wheelchair through the cramped quarters of 817 Hunter St., where Blind Willie lived with Kelly’s mother in the early ’30s. It’s a four-room box with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat.
Kelly said that she’s never received a penny from her father’s music.
But first she has to fly the flag, said lawyer William Krasilovsky, who wrote “This Business of Music,” the industry bible. “You say, ‘Here we are. We represent the heirs of Blind Willie Johnson.’ ” Until an estate is established, there’s no place to send royalties that may be due.
“I guess I should hire someone to see about getting some money for the family,” Kelly said. “I need to make a move here.”
But just how much money might she be due?
First off, forget about lucrative songwriting royalties. Almost all of Johnson’s material was derived from such public domain sources as religious hymns and old “Negro spirituals.”
But Krasilovsky said the Blind Willie estate could earn money by copyrighting his arrangements. “Does the work have distinctive fingerprints of originality that qualify for a new derivative copyright of public domain material?” he asked, reading from a copyright law book.
“Distinctive fingerprints” fits Blind Willie’s truly original style like the steel cylinder he used to slide over his pinky. ASCAP and BMI, organizations that collect songwriting royalties for artists and publishers, pay about half as much for to copyrighted arrangements as they do for original compositions.
Blind Willie Johnson’s recordings were probably made under the “work for hire” agreement prevalent at the time, which mean that Sony can claim ownership of the masters. But that’s a contention that makes music historian Mack McCormick bristle. “They can’t produce a contract, they can’t produce the masters,” he said. “Look at the source material for the Blind Willie set. They had to borrow 78s from collectors. Sony claims they own the music and they don’t even have copies of the fuckin’ records!”
California-based estate manager Nancy Meyer, whose Bates Meyer company represents the heirs of T-Bone Walker and many other vintage blues and jazz players, said if she were hired by Kelly, she’d form a publishing company and file copyrights for all Blind Willie’s recordings. “Since the material was never copyrighted, the clock hasn’t started,” she said, referring to amount of time that passes before the material is deemed “public domain” and therefore free for anyone to use. Copyrights are protected for a 28-year term from the date the copyright was originally secured, with a 28-year renewal period, followed by a 19-year term of renewal, for a total of 75 years.
Still, Krasilovsky said, record labels and artists’ management could claim “abandonment,” as several did when LaVere hired Krasilovsky in 1974 to collect royalties for the Robert Johnson estate. But several others, including Eric Clapton, handed over money without protest. “He was a gentleman,” Krasilovsky said of Clapton, who had a huge hit with Johnson’s “Crossroads” while a member of Cream. “He said, ‘I don’t rip off music.’ ” The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, meanwhile, were taken to court and ended up settling with the Johnson estate. LaVere estimates that in the 13 years since the release of the Robert Johnson boxed set on Columbia, Johnson’s catalogue has earned well over $10 million, with LaVere taking a 50 percent commission.
One act intent on doing right by their influences was Peter, Paul & Mary, who insisted that the Rev. Gary Davis receive royalties for their version of “Samson and Delilah” (a slight variation of “If I Had My Way”), which they learned from his recording. “He wouldn’t sign the paper to declare that he was the sole writer,” said Krasilovsky, who represented Davis. “Here he was, playing on the streets with a tin cup, and he refused to sign. I asked him who did write the song and he said ‘God’ and I said, ‘That’s allowed.’ ” Davis eventually received a check for $90,000.
“Z’rontre!” Kelly called out to her great-grandson, her voice cutting through the loud cartoons watched in the living room by two kids lying on the floor. “Come here and get Mama that box of papers.” A little boy bounded in from the bedroom and climbed up on a chair to reach a rectangular plastic box. “This boy’s only three years old and he can do everything for me, even fetch me some water,” said Kelly, who’s stricken with arthritis and other ailments. “He’s my legs.”
She pulled out a few fragile documents, including a birth certificate which says that she was born June 23, 1931, to Willie Johnson, occupation listed as “musician,” and a mother whose maiden name was Willie B. Hays.
Kelly said she remembers her father staying with her mother until she was about seven or eight years old. That would put him in Marlin until at least 1938. But two years after Kelly’s birth, her mother had a daughter, Dorothy, with a man named Joe Henry, according to Kelly. Six years later came Earline, from another father. Kelly recalls that her parents had remained married even as Willie B. Harris was having kids with other men and Blind Willie was drifting from street corner to church to train station for months at a time.
“We was working people, see,” said Kelly. “My mother understood that my father had to leave Marlin to make money. She worked seven days a week as a nurse. I’d say, ‘Mama, please stay home today’ and she’d say, ‘But I gotta work’ and I’d understand.”
During the era in which Blind Willie recorded, artists didn’t expect royalties. They took whatever the labels paid them, usually around $25 to $50 per record, and the labels claimed all rights. “They had just made a record,” Columbia field recorder Frank Walker, who helmed Johnson’s remarkably fruitful 1927 session, said in an interview in the ’60s. “To them that was the next best thing to being president of the United States.”
Johnson’s first 78 rpm – “If I Had My Way” backed with “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” (titled “Motherless Children” by Clapton) – sold a remarkable 15,000 copies, even more than Bessie Smith’s recordings of the day. By 1930, however, the Depression dried up demand for gritty country blues/gospel, and Blind Willie’s recording career was history. But as was his nature, Johnson kept on the move, playing “from Maine to the Mobile Bay,” according to what his touring mate Blind Willie McTell told John Lomax in a 1940s interview.
“People recalled hearing him at times over KTEM in Temple and on a Sunday-morning church service broadcast by KPLC in Lake Charles,” said McCormick. “He left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably ‘God Moves on the Water’ about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God.’ ”
Blind Willie’s music was revealed to a new generation of country blues enthusiasts (including Bob Dylan) with the 1952 release of the Harry Smith anthology “American Folk Music,” which included Johnson’s “John the Revelator.” The “Blind Willie Johnson” album came out on Folkways in 1957, with a key detail wrong. Second wife Angeline Johnson, who was tracked down by music historian Samuel Charters in 1953, was credited with the backing vocals performed by first wife, Willie B. Harris.
This error was uncorrected until the mid-’70s, when a Dallas music collector named Dan Williams drove down to Marlin to see if he could find anyone who knew Blind Willie. “I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie’s ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson,” Williams recalls. “Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris.”
After hearing Harris sing along to the Blind Willie records and talk about details of the recording sessions that only those present would know, Williams ascertained that she was, indeed, the background singer.
“She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell at the last session in Atlanta (April 20, 1930) and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same studio the same day.”
Charters made the correction, crediting Harris, in his notes to the 1993 boxed set, but repeated Angeline Johnson’s contention that she married Blind Willie in Dallas in 1927. There is no record of such a marriage in Dallas County, or in the county clerks offices of Falls, McLennan, Bell, Milam, Jefferson or Robertson counties. But then,
neither is there evidence, besides Kelly’s birth certificate listing her as legitimate, that Blind Willie and Willie B. were ever married.
Researching history about long dead blues men is fueled by random payoffs, much like slot machines and singles bars. You run your fingers down the pages of big, dusty books for hours and then you find a bit of information, a bit of new evidence, and it all becomes worth it.
But dozens of hours in search of details on the life of Blind Willie Johnson resulted in almost zero positive reinforcements. A five-hour drive to Beaumont yielded the slightest new info; a city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest St. That’s the address listed on Blind Willie’s death certificate as his last residence.
Besides the entry on the death certificate, there is no evidence that Blind Willie Johnson is buried in Beaumont’s “colored” Blanchette Cemetery, a seemingly untended field littered with broken tombstones and overrun with weeds. If Johnson had a headstone, it’s gone now. When the cemetery floods, a man who lives across the street said, sometimes wooden coffins can be seen floating away amongst the debris. There is no peaceful rest, no solitude for the ages, for the migrant musician.
His music, meanwhile, continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard.
Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to “Paris, Texas” on “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground),” described it as “The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.” On that Voyager 1 disc is hard evidence that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.
by Michael Corcoran
For most people who’ve even bothered to consider it, Austin music is Stevie Ray Vaughan, PBS’s Austin City Limits, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Willie Nelson, Joe “King” Carrasco, Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely. But then most people think New York City is only Manhattan.
If Thomas Wolfe were an Austinite now, he might write “only the dead know Poison 13.” Austin’s “other” musical boroughs may not attract huddles with Sly Stallone and Sam Shepard, as Stevie Ray has, and they’ll never co-headline with Frank Sinatra in Vegas, like Willie, but in the hot-and-cold world of day-to-day life they supply the best reasons to venture out into what literary homeboy O. Henry designated “the live music capital of the world.” Well, that was later. First he called Austin “the city with the violet crown.”
Unfortunately, no one except O. Henry has ever seen that violet crown. He must’ve had some good shit. Another thing nobody’s ever seen is Willie Nelson. We see his property — all sighted Austinites do, but never his own folky self, except onstage. It must be hard for Willie to go out in public even in his home town. He can’t put on a disguise; he already seems to be wearing one.
The rest of us eat, drink, sleep, and look for kicks in The Little Town With the Big Guest List, walking around in circles as if playing a big game of musical chairs. We know we’re OK so long as the music doesn’t stop.
Living in Austin and not enjoying music is like Klansman who sells large portable radios for a living. Music is everywhere. Original music, cover bands, acoustic, electric, grass roots, or Republican. Folks sing out loud while walking the streets. Hear unfamiliar music in a cab: it’s most likely the driver’s demo.
Blues is still happening and country is still kicking, though now it’s a mere shadow of the late-‘70s monster it was when Austin was headquarters of the “progressive country movement,” a term that suggests Chick Corea in a cowboy hat. Also skateboarding downhill of late is the hardcore crowd, which lost considerable steam with the closings of first Raul’s and then Club Foot. The subsequent breakup of the beloved Big Boys really gave the sheep in wolves’ clothing something to whine about.
You’ll still find top-named third-world music at Liberty Lunch, trendy dancing at the many gay discos, and an incredibly popular Sixth Street of fern bars, glitzy clubs, and piano bars that entertain the gentry like a funkless Bourbon Street.
Amid this incredible overlay of music we have yet to note what is so quaintly referred to as “the scene.” The most noteworthy new development in Austin music is what former Skunk Jesse Sublett has dubbed “the New Sincerity.” Seeded by such influences as the Byrds, former Austin residents Rank and File, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, the Velvet Underground, and hometown hero Roky Erickson, and incubated at the Beach Cabaret with its open booking “policy,” this scene has the jaded, over-musicked townies and college students once again excited about going out. They return home only when the last glistening drop of activity has been squeezed from the night — speed is the drug of choice, as it is in most happening scenes — and music is merely the sound track to the action, which contains equal parts promiscuity, incest, alcohol, gossip, spirit, pettiness, conceit, and after-gig parties.
* * * *
Veronica loves True Believers, Wild Seeds, and Doctors’ Mob; likes Dharma Bums, and Glass Eye; hates Zeitgeist. Lesa loves Zeitgeist and Dharma Bums, likes Wild Seeds and Texas Instruments, thinks True Believers are so-so. Patrice loves True Believers, Zeitgeist, and Glass Eye and likes everyone else except Poison 13. Lorelei loves Stevie Ray Vaughan and thinks the scene her three roommates are into is “much to-do about nothing.” Veronica, Lesa, and Patrice hate Lorelei.
Home is a big, white, four-bedroom house on Rio Grande Street. Veronica and Lesa found it in the classifieds and rented it for its hardwood floors, fireplace, high ceilings, and big yard. Lesa knew Patrice, who was ready to move from her parents’ house after too many lectures after too many nights ended at 5 AM. Veronica found Lorelei scanning the “Roommates Wanted” board on campus and told her the deal: $187.50 a month, plus one-quarter of the utilities. She moved in the next day. That was four months ago, before the house was nicknamed “the Hilton.”
Lesa and Veronica knew a couple of guys from R.E.M. — the smart money’s on “in the biblical sense” — and when “the only band that mutters” was scheduled to play the City Coliseum, the girls decided to throw a post-concert party.
The word spread through the hangar-like 3,800-seat concert venue like the map opening credits of “Bonanza.” “Party at the Hilton. R.E.M.’s Supposed to show.” Despite a great set, the band was barely brought back out by a smattering of applause. Frequently, what appears to be an atypically laid-back Austin audience simply consists of restless scenesters waiting for the show to conclude and the party to commence. Even an encore sing-along which Austin usually takes to like a Kennedy to politics, fell flat. R.E.M. finally closed with a version of “Wild Thing,” which must have beat out “Louie, Louie” in a coin flip, and traffic was bumper all the way to Rio Grande Street. Music is fine, but a party? Now that’s something to celebrate.
Nobody brings anything to parties in Austin. If someone invites you to a barbecue, you might bring a 12-pack of Busch (or Budweiser, if you want to make a good impression), but at the big, no-invitation-needed, after-gig parties, everyone immediately heads for the keg and remains within a 10-foot radius until it foams empty.
It seemed that people from every faction, from every band, from every perch on the generous fringe were at “the Hilton” after R.E.M.’s show. But what else is new? The girls were in a great mood, except Lorelei, who watched the crowd get ugly when she followed Scratch Acid on the turntable with Joe “King” Carrasco. Lorelei retreated to her room, where she smoked a solo joint and played as much Joe “King” as she wanted, which turned out to be a song and a half. She heard voices in the hallway calling to “Dino” and suddenly perked up. Finally. The only guy she wanted to sleep with from this whole “crazy punk scene” had arrived. She licked her lips in the mirror, gave a curiously EST-like smile, and rejoined the party.
Lorelei was drawn to her first Dino Lee show after hearing her roommates talk about how gross he was. They described the strap-on dildo he called General Lee, the leather zipper mask he wore to sing love songs such as “Everybody Get Some (But Don’t Get Any on Ya),” his fat female backup singers, and the way he made girls in the audience eat raw meat.
Lorelei talked Spoons into taking her to the next Dino show. Spoons looked like a biker and fancied himself a modern Viking, but he’d never really make it. He drove a Toyota and looked both ways and dropped his voice a decibel when he called blacks “niggers.”
He loved Lorelei because she looked like Debra Winger playing a biker chick, and she made him feel like Hell’s Angel material when they were together. The Dino show was at the Doll House, a “titty bar” that makes it a suitable venue for “The King of White Trash.”
After a wait that would make a POW fidget, the six-foot-six-inch “Grandmaster Trash” materialized through a smoke screen with four strippers holding his leopard-print cape. To call Dino Lee “tacky” is to call David Berkowitz “moody.” Tacky is wearing a suit Lucy might’ve seen in her worst Ricky Ricardo nightmare, but what do you call a guy who garnishes it with a Skeletor mask and a grass skirt? To dress as Adolph Hitler is tacky, but when one masquerades as Der Führer in a bathrobe at a show celebrating one’s candidacy for mayor, that’s pushing things to the limit. Dino Lee is the Chuck Yeager of bad taste.
While Lorelei wandered off to discuss lava lamps, velvet paintings, Elvis’s Vegas years and methods of birth control with Dino Lee, Patrice’s room had become the scene of a hootenanny. Brian, a friend from Houston who wasn’t in a band but played like he should be, was coaxing blessed accompaniment out of an old Martin, joining five others in songs by Hank Williams, Violent Fernmes, the Mamas and the Papas, and improv blues numbers, which aren’t too tough because they’re slow and you get to use the first line twice. Nancy, with eyes transfixed on Brian’s knees, which peeked out from jeans that shoulda had Joey Ramone’s name on the label, remarked, “At least this beats Daniel Johnston.” Brian aborted the song in mid-strum. Lonesome Dave shot her a look that maimed. Patrice laughed, “God. Daniel Johnston. Doesn’t that poor guy know we’re all making fun of him?” Dave promised he wouldn’t get into this argument again. You can’t debate musical taste, but the all-knowingness in Patrice’s voice made him say, “I’m not making fun of him. I think he’s a great songwriter.” The quiet-until-now girl next to Nancy spoke up. “That’s not talent,” she said. “That’s a freak show.”
Girls just don’t understand Daniel Johnston. You almost have to be one of the last guys in P.E. to get hair on your balls to really appreciate his broken songs. He plays dork music and has acquired a covey of followers who appreciate his teetering Neil Young/ Mr. Rogers voice and nervous demeanor. He walks on-and-offstage briskly and usually plays only three or four songs that are normally greeted with wild applause — some genuine, some sarcastic, like cheering for the biggest spaz on the B-team when he finally scores a basket. Daniel doesn’t do encores under any circumstances; if you don’t believe it, ask the fellow backstage at the Beach who held open the window while Daniel crawled through it rather than face a crowd yelling for more.
Such adulation is a far cry from selling corndogs for a touring carnival, which brought Johnston to the Austin area from his home state of West Virginia in 1985. Appreciate him or not, he’s still the only person to perform on MTV (as part of “The Cutting Edge”‘s recent Austin special) while still working at McDonald’s. Much of his minimum wage goes to making copies of his cassettes, “Hi, How Are You” and “Keep Punching Joe,” which he hands out like business cards, refusing to take money for them.
In a town where everyone works hard to stand out, Daniel Johnston does it effortlessly. He’s uncalculatedly Warhol flat in a place where virtuosos are a nickle a half-dozen.
While Austin’s favorite controversy — Daniel Johnston, genius or gerbil — raged on in the designated folksinging nook, members of Doctors’ Mob had snuck their new album, “Headache Machine,” on the record player in the main room. When you go over to the group’s house, they play their record. As the Mob drummed their knees and strummed their pockets in time to the record they’ve heard a thousand times, one fellow musician remarked, “God wasn’t that pleased with himself when he created the world.”
“He had six days, we only had three,” was the typical Mob response. A good band of the Replacements/Hüsker Dü “play-‘em-all-and-let-the-soundman-sort-‘em-out” philosophy, the Mob endears itself to the scene through its unapologetic affinity for bad ’70s bands like Kiss and Ted Nugent, and by having created a new language based on such moronic teen flicks as “Hot Dog: The Movie” and “Porky’s Revenge.” They’ve made “I think he’s trying to back-door you, man” Austin’s “Where’s the beef?”
IRS Records’ recent foray into The Little Town With the Big Empty Dotted Line to film “The Cutting Edge” gave the Mob a chance to brush up on their Los Angelese. Posing as an A&R type at the post-filming party at the Beach, Mob singer Steve Collier went up to Brian Beattie of Glass Eye and said with mock sincerity, “I like what you guys are trying to do.”
Guests were circulating, getting drunk, and having a good time when a whisper with an exclamation point soared across the room: “They’re here.” Suddenly the flier near the front door, trumpeting a two-week-old gig that nobody went to, became of interest to six or seven people. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was outside, looking around as well-wishers reminded him of gigs they were at five years ago, and he couldn’t remember where R.E.M. was the day before.
Stipe was in the living room with a beer, letting Lesa feel his grown Kojak cut, when Steve Collier approached and handed him the Doctors’ Mob album. “We’re big fans of yours and we’d really be honored if you’d take this,” Collier said while bystanders waited for the joke; but there was none. Collier was sincere. Not wanting to carry the album around with him but not wanting to hurt Collier’s feelings either, Stipe thanked him for it and said, “Why don’t you put It on?” The groan was heard on the front lawn.
* * * *
Derelicts. Winos. Hobos. Bums. They call them “dragworms” in Austin because they hang Out on “the Drag,” Guadalupe Street, which separates the University of Texas from the real world. One of them walked into Salads and Subs wearing the official dragworm arm band, a strip of tape around the arm at the elbow, which showed he had money on him but was about a quart low on plasma. He ordered a #7 sandwich- turkey and cheese- and since this was his only meal of the day and nobody liked him no matter how he acted, he was real demanding. “Is that all the meat you’re gonna give me? He gave me a lot more yesterday. Put mayonnaise on both sides. More cheese.” A real pain in the ass. But Allan Cox remained polite. He was getting off in a few minutes and didn’t want to end his work day in some hassle with a dragworm.
At six o’clock Cox took off his apron and thanked the manager for letting him leave a couple hours early. Bob didn’t mind; lie was kind of tickled to have a rock star working for him. “You looked good on TV, Allan. It must’ve been the lights,” he joked about Dharma Bums’ recent appearance on “The Cutting Edge.” Allan just smiled and left to run a few errands before getting ready for the show he had that night with the True Believers.
“They let anyone on TV these says,” said the dragworm said with his mouth full.
* * * *
Not wanting to pull up to a crowd, Lesa parked her car 100 yards from the entrance to the Continental Club. As she walked to the entrance, Lesa hoped that no one would come up to her and talk about their project. Everybody in town is working on a project — a record or a video or an art show or an article or a goddam poetry reading or something — is all great but Lesa didn’t always like to hear about it. She had no projects to talk about. She was a geology major who loved her family and would give everything she had, which is quite a lot even if you don’t count what’s in storage, to be able to write or draw or play music. She takes good pictures with her Nikon every now and then, but doesn’t claim to be a photographer. She already has her place on the fringe: she throws good parties.
There were a lot of scrubbed and decorated new faces at the True Believers/ Dharma Bums show, which happens to the scene twice a year when a new semester starts at UT. Only a couple girls were wearing the Madonna bow, though several others tried to hide the summer-long dent in their hair with teasing and side parts.
After the show, Patrice leaned against the bar talking to Alejandro Escovedo, the former Nun and Rank-and-Filer who heads True Believers. Veronica wondered what Al would think if he knew Kodak paper bearing his toothy, dimpled, and married smile was bound to Patrice’s chest with an adhesive of sweat. Patrice had such a crush on Alejandro. All the other girls gawked at his brother Javier, whose long, black, wavy hair, soft looks, and uniform black-leather vest over longsleeve white shirt is computer-date material for girls who outgrew David Lee Roth last week. But Patrice only looked at Javier when he intersected her vision of Alejandro.
Patrice, Veronica and Lesa sat on the couch at somebody’s house later that night. Much later. The bands had already come and gone from this party. It was 6:30 AM, the party was winding up, and the girls were winding down from the lines of speed they’d done in Johnny’s car. The only other leftovers were four guys who were, thank God, engrossed in Bullwinkle videotapes. None were prospects.
“It was full tonight,” Veronica said as she threw back another throatful of gin. “Love those True Believers. I wonder if I still think Zeitgeist is better?”
“I thought Dharma Bums were hot tonight,” Patrice said emptily. “I love that horn section. It reminds me of the horns on the Rolling Stones album that ‘Bitch’ is on. ” She was beat. “Jon Dee Graham told me — actually he didn’t tell me, he told Ed Ward, but I was in the same conversation — that from the Skunks to the Lift to True Believers he’s always been in ‘the best band in town,’ and he said that it means absolutely nothing.”
“Who the hell is the Lift?” Veronica asked.
“The scene just doesn’t seem real,” Patrice said.
“MTV is real,” Lesa interjected.
“It isn’t. That’s what I mean. Daniel Johnston couldn’t even watch himself on MTV. He had to clean the deep fryers. Money is real, but nobody’s making it except trendy discos like Club Iguana and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Patrice said.
“And Willie Nelson. He’s making money,” Veronica said, getting up with a slight sway.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Patrice said, also getting up, “whether our scene is really great, and the bands are really special, or if we’re just lonely people trying to create continuous company.”
Veronica looked at her and started to reply, then stopped, and fished into her pocket. “You drive,” she said, and gave Patrice her car keys.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” – W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.”
NEW YORK CITY — It’s a long Tuesday, this 21st of April, which begins for Fastball with a 9 a.m. live acoustic appearance on some stupid radio station on Long Island. In the afternoon are phone interviews seemingly on the half-hour, as writers from Alaska to Florida want to know what “The Way” is about. “It could be about anything,” says guitarist Miles Zuniga, of the utterly catchy song written by bassist Tony Scalzo. “To me, that lyric about `Where were they going without ever knowing the way?’ is about being in a band,” Zuniga tells the critic from the New York Daily News. “With most jobs you can plan your trajectory, but in a band, you either go over or you don’t.” That he says this from the green room of the “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” show, while Scalzo banters with another scribe on the other phone and drummer Joey Shuffield is in makeup, underlines that Fastball is going over well indeed. “The Way” has been the No. 1 song on the Billboard
modern rock radio chart for more than a month now, giving the Disney-owned Hollywood Records its first bona fide hit. The album “All the Pain Money Can Buy” is moving more than 20,000 units a week, which is 10 times more than the 2,000 total sales of the band’s first Hollywood LP “Make Your Mama Proud.”
“I’ve never had things go right before,” Zuniga says to the oft-asked question about how the band is reacting to the sudden success. “The last album was selling about 40 copies a week, and I remember one week it sold 65 and we were all going, `It’s starting to explode!’ ”
David Garza: Sell the artist first
David Garza, whose new Atlantic release “This Euphoria” completes a remarkable “Boy II Man” transformation, is another Austin artist who’s starting to make some noise nationally. Rather than give the hard push to a single from the album, Atlantic sees the 27-year-old Garza as an organically grown product whose fans don’t respond well to hype. The label sees him as someone with a great Ani DiFranco-like story of finding success on his own terms, and so they pushed him onto a tour as DiFranco’s opening act. Sell the artist first, and the songs will sell themselves: That seems to be the strategy. But Garza is restless. He wants to rock. “I miss my band,” he says by phone from a Cincinnati hotel room. “To me that’s what it’s all about: getting up there with your electric guitars wailing while thousands of people go nuts. Meanwhile, here I am, night after night, playing an acoustic guitar for a group of people that can’t wait to see Ani DiFranco.”
Garza can’t wait to fall down again. He did it in the first minute on the very first show on a tour opening for multiplatinum labelmates Matchbox 20. “It was at an arena in Detroit Rock City, with about 7,000 people ready to rock, and the band
had started playing `Kinder,’ with all that wild guitar,” Garza says. “It was all so perfect that when I stepped up to the mike to sing I just became overwhelmed by the moment of rock. My knees gave out and I was on the floor. I’ve never known anything as powerful as that moment, my first time playing in an arena. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Spoon: Fans make the best music
Also taking a let-the-music-do-the-talking approach is Elektra Records, regarding the major label debut of Spoon, the Austin trio that has released a previous LP and EP on NYC’s Matador Records. Although “A Series of Sneaks” has at least five songs that would sound great on the radio, the label wants to let the entire album create a relationship with listeners. At a beer garden picnic table at the Dog and Duck, 27-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist Britt Daniel talks about one of those can’t-miss numbers. It’s the last song on the record and it’s especially noteworthy because of the richly melodic and passionately sung chorus: “Don’t tell me I’ve lost you/ I’ll feel so sad alone/ I just can’t believe it.” It sounds a little like Pavement doing “MacArthur Park.”
“That song was originally going to be a breakup song,” Daniel says of “Advance Cassette,” “but when I thought about having to sing it every night for the next year, I decided to change it to be about losing a great recording that you might not be able to find again.” When he requires inspiration, all he needs to think about is his collection of “everything by Julian Cope that I can get my hands on.”
Fans make the best music (i.e. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, etc.) because their understanding of what great songs can do is deepened by example and experience. They want to make listeners feel the way their favorite songs make them feel. Fans like Daniel, who grew up with the hippest record collection in Temple, Texas, are willing to make the sacrifices. “We used to make our own T-shirts,” he said of his group of high school friends. “It’s not like you could walk into a store in Temple and find a Spacemen 3 T-shirt, so we did our own.”
When he went off to college it was to the “cool town” of Austin, where he got an RTF degree (the slacker diploma) from the University of Texas and a Band 101 education with such groups as Skellington (named after a Julian Cope album), the Alien Beats and, soon after graduating in 1993, Spoon. Influenced by British pop and psychedelia, Daniel asked his mother for a distortion pedal for his 21st birthday. He figured his mom would get a midline model for about $50. Instead she asked the music store clerk for the best distortion pedal and came home with The Metal Zone, the accessory that has saved many a hair band. “You can tell by the name that it’s pretty uncool. `The Metal Zone’ is definitely not punk,” Daniel says. “But it sounds great.” Combined with Daniel’s electrified acoustic guitar and transistor amp, The Metal Zone makes for one of the most unique guitar sounds that you’ll soon be hearing on MTV and on modern rock stations all over the country.
Breaking the Austin cycle
There is something different going on in Austin music right now. For all its repute as a song’s favorite town, Austin has never made much of a dent on MTV-fed America or the Billboard charts. The home of Willie Nelson has always been a blues town and a honky-tonk country mecca and a place where the Butthole Surfers, Poison 13 and Scratch Acid spliced punk and metal to send a shock felt all the way to Seattle. But Austin has had limited success in the field of pop (as in “popular”) music. We like it bluesy and simple, with guitars all around. We like to gape at amazing (or merely long) solos, and we like to dance when we’ve got a few in us. Then, if we like the band live, we just might buy their record.
With acutely accessible acts like Fastball, Spoon and David Garza, however, the studio is becoming as important as the stage. We’ve generally had to listen to Austin recordings with a pre-fond heart and critics have had to grade this homegrown product on a curve, but with such fresh tracks as “Metal Detektor” and “No You’re Not” by Spoon, “Discoball World” and “Float Away” by David Garza and “The Way,” “Better Than Before” and “Slow Drag” by
Fastball, Austinites have, for once, created music with a universal appeal. The lack of an “Austin Sound” helps these acts hoist themselves out of the Velvet Rut that has lulled so many local acts into making music that accepts Austin as a final destination. There have been Austin-based hits in the past: “Tuff Enuff” by the Fabulous Thunderbirds made it to No. 10 in 1986, Charlie Sexton’s “Beat’s So Lonely” was No. 17 and Timbuk 3′s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” hit No. 19 the same year. Just two years ago, “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers was a No. 1 modern rock smash, and such Austinites as Dangerous Toys, Eric Johnson and Jimmie Vaughan have gold albums on their walls. (Shawn Colvin isn’t an Austin musician: she just lives here.) But these successes are far overwhelmed by the list of Austin acts who’ve sold poorly for major labels: Poi Dog Pondering, LeRoi Brothers, Lou Ann Barton, Year Zero, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Kelly Willis, Will and the Kill, Will T. Massey, True Believers — the list goes on and on. Too often, Austin acts have gone into the studio in an attempt to capture the live set, but what the best newer bands are doing is creating something that’s not an accessory to the live act, but work that stands on its own. It’s Austin music that can be thoroughly enjoyed without holding a $3 bottle of beer, and it’s speaking to fans far beyond the rootsy sweathogs of Scandinavia.
Backstage with Conan
The members of Fastball seem understandably nervous as they wait to make their national network debut on the Conan O’Brien show. Road manager Brad First, who’ll be driving the band’s equipment to South Carolina the next day, is trying to find out which guitars Scalzo and Zuniga need for their “MTV Live” performance, but Scalzo just puts his hand on his forehead and says, “I . . . just . . . can’t think right now.” Meanwhile, Zuniga takes his seventh or eighth stroll down the hall to see if fellow guest Gwyneth Paltrow has arrived. “I don’t know why Miles has been drinking so much cappuccino,” First says. “He’s going to pee his pants up there.”
The band relaxes during sound check, when Conan O’Brien gets up from his monologue-polishing and bobs his head enthusiastically to “The Way,” which he would later describe as the kind of song you can’t get out of your head so you hum it for two or three weeks until your friends beat you up. A fledgling guitarist, who goes through the day’s rehearsal cradling and noodling on a big hollow-body electric, O’Brien asks Zuniga and Scalzo to show him the chords to “The Way.” “Just get Guitar World next month,” Scalzo says, and it almost seems flippant, but the no-nonsense Scalzo was being serious: The song is to be structurally analyzed in the next G.W.
“The first time I heard this song on the radio, I was with my girlfriend late at night,” O’Brien says, “and I started to get my guitar out, but then I realized: I’m with my girlfriend late at night. Just book the band on the show and let them show you the chords.”
Can we get a picture, too?
There in the wings, seconds before Fastball was to take its place on the Conan O’Brien stage, Miles Zuniga sees it. A bottle of Jack Daniels. How did they know? Is this a cool show or what? Taking this vision as some sort of divine rock ‘n’ roll providence, Zuniga decides to knock back a belt before going onstage. It is iced tea. “I should’ve known it was too good to be true,” Zuniga says. It turns out he didn’t need that shot of courage. The band is great on “Late Night,” with Scalzo hitting every vocal peak and Zuniga turning in a couple of short but adventurous solos. A charmed O’Brien seeks Fastball after the show and jokes about their Buffalo Springfield sideburns look. “You oughtta grow your sideburns so they meet at the chin, give you that monoburns look like Elvis had for awhile,” O’Brien says. When the band asks if they could take a picture together, Conan says, “We can’t have that,” feigning a superior air. As they finally take a picture together, O’Brien a full head taller than the three diminutive ‘ballers, the talk host says, “Hey, whose hand is on my ass?” then he adds, “No, don’t move it. Keep it there, ah.”
As the band leaves the NBC studio to get in the black Range Rover that will take them back to the hotel, Zuniga says, “Wouldn’t you think they’d at least send a stretch limo?” When the band gets inside, a Puerto Rican couple from the Conan audience comes over to the car and asks for autographs. “Can we get a picture, too?” the guy asks. “You guys were great.”
“All right,” Scalzo announces, “everybody out.” The driver takes the photo of the band and their newest fans, standing and smiling like it’ll always be like this.
Meet Miles Zuniga
Miles gets his real drink after the Conan taping at a funky yet charming restaurant/bar on Eighth and 45th called Smith’s. After the O’Brien triumph, Zuniga is wound up and wants to do some celebrating, but neither Shuffield nor Scalzo drink, so he hits the joint across the street from the hotel. “I’ve never been in the cool band in Austin,” says Miles, whose resume includes stints in Go Dog Go (a band whose ex-membership includes Joey Shuffield), the Neptunes, Band From Hell, Chinese Cowboys and Big Car. “I’ve been pushing for success for 10 years solid, but I wasn’t ready for it earlier,” he says as he sips a Cape Cod (or vodka and cranberry juice to the Irish-accented bartender who had never heard of a Cape Cod). “During the Big Car period (early ’90s), I was so full of myself. If I’d ‘a had a hit then I’m pretty sure I would’ve self-destructed.”
You’re not supposed to crave success over the pleasure of playing in Austin, but from the very start Zuniga was pegged a hustler, a self-promoter, a rock ‘n’ roll kid into all the trappings — fame, groupies, parties. Even as his songwriting improved steadily, from the Neptunes standout “Johnny Speaks Spanish (and He Carries a Gun)” to the more introspective numbers he’d sing in acoustic solo sets, Zuniga was hard to take too seriously. Partly, that’s because he’s a real funny guy, able to do a wide range of impressions, from Ronald Reagan to MTV’s Matt Pinfield. But also, Zuniga just wanted it too bad. If it
hadn’t been rock ‘n’ roll, it would’ve been stand-up comedy, acting or as a presidential assassin, but Miles Zuniga was going to be famous somehow.
Hollywood Rec publicist Sharrin Summers likes to tell the story about how, two years ago at SXSW, Zuniga spent more than an hour bonding with some little guy at a party, and when it was time to leave and the guy gave his card, it was Neil Strauss of the New York Times. Well, Golly Geewiz. Anybody who knows Miles sees another scenario: Zuniga arrived at the party and quickly cased the crowd for the person who could best further his career.
Miles Zuniga has dreams that you can’t take away, and the main one is of him singing a song he wrote late at night in front of a predominantly female audience on a nationally televised program. That the Fastball moment finds Scalzo in the spotlight must be such a double-edged sword in Zuniga’s gut that you can’t really ask him about it. The song’s a great piece of ear candy, sung splendidly by Scalzo, and it’s taken Zuniga as far in his career as he’s ever been. But, if he were a basketball player and the score were tied with three seconds to go, Zuniga would want the ball. “I think this band has a lot more than one hit in us,” he says, sensing the unasked question. “The label’s looking at one of my songs for the next single.” The inside word is that the radio promo people at the label have suggested Zuniga’s “Fire Escape” as the followup, though the guitarist thinks either “Slow Drag” or “Sooner or Later” has a better chance of clicking. What no one will tell Zuniga is that “Better Than Before,” the stirringly sung Scalzo number, is the song on “All the Pain” that could best follow-up “The Way.” Zuniga has talent, to be sure, but Scalzo is a world-class pop singer and constructor of melodies. It seems clear that Hollywood wants to promote Fastball as a band with two front men, but what happens when Zuniga’s single stiffs?
‘I’m glad it was my song that became the hit,” Scalzo says the next day in his Times Square hotel room. He’s got MTV on and he’s eating soup from one of the many gourmet soup kitchens that have sprung up in NYC since “Seinfeld.” “You go through so much rejection in this business that you become this ball of self-doubt,” he says. “Hearing your song on the radio or playing it on TV just validates what you’ve been doing for half your life.”
As if on cue, the video for “The Way” comes on MTV and Scalzo straightens up at attention. “Whenever I hear them mention Fastball on MTV, it’s as if sparks are flying from their voices,” Scalzo says. Don’t let his holdin’-on-to-the-day-job attitude and constant pining to be back in Austin, where his wife Nanette is seven months’ pregnant, fool you: Scalzo is digging every minute of his band’s success. But he does think that the band’s expense account is getting out of hand. “The wine was flowing at dinner last night,” he said. “At $130 a bottle, I might have to start drinking again, as long as I’m paying for it.” Most of the band’s expenses, including the $1,500 suit Zuniga bought to wear on “Late Night” (before deciding to slum it in a $300 shirt), are recoupable, which means the money is taken out of future royalties. In other words, Scalzo is paying for it.
But the 33-year-old, who looks like “Mean Streets” era Robert DeNiro’s kid brother, has been around the block enough to know he’s lucky to be in this position. The son of a career Marine, Scalzo moved around a lot as a kid before settling down in Orange County, Calif. He started drinking at age 13 and then moved onto the hard stuff for teen-age years that he was lucky to live through. Scalzo gave up alcohol 10 years ago, with the drugs soon to follow. It was a promise of a job as a working musician that moved Scalzo, his then-girlfriend and daughter Scarlet to Austin in 1992. Light Storm Records, owned by “Titanic” director James Cameron, had signed an Austin singer-songwriter named Beaver Nelson; Scalzo and drummer Jamie Riedling had been hired as the rhythm section. When Riedling moved back to L.A., cursing Austin’s lack of surfing, ex-Wild Seeds drummer Shuffield was brought aboard. Guitarists Paul Minor and Nelson rounded out the band. “I was promised $1,000 to move to Austin, but, of course, when I got here there was no money. Paul and Beaver were out of town, so there was no place to stay for a couple days. Here I was, virtually broke and homeless, with a baby to take care of — Welcome to Austin!”
To make matters worse, Scalzo and Shuffield were fired from the band after recording an album that was never released. Seeing this crack rhythm section suddenly available, Zuniga decided to lick his wounds from the demise of Big Car and start another rockin’ pop trio, which he would call Magneto. When it was discovered that there was a popular band in Mexico called Magneto, the Austin trio added USA to its name. When they signed to Hollywood, the band decided to go for a whole new name, first choosing Starchy, but then settling on Fastball after Spoon’s Britt Daniel told them from the stage of the Hole In the Wall: “I like you guys too much to allow you to call yourselves Starchy.” When the NY Daily News writer asks Zuniga why the name change from Magneto USA, Zuniga says, “I don’t know if they even have the ‘Rock In Rio’ festival anymore, but all I could see was us getting the chance to play, but then losing the gig because the Mexican band Magneto was popular in South America and there would be confusion over the name.”
Miles Zuniga has always thought big.
This one’s for the Howards
It all boils down to a song that people can’t get enough of. When you hear “The Way” on the radio or see it performed in a pop culture context like the Conan O’Brien show, it just seems so perfectly placed. The lyrics appear to be as uplifting as the melody, so people are always asking what inspired the song, but Scalzo has become more evasive about what it means in recent weeks. “It wasn’t written as a tragic song. It was written before they found the bodies,” he says.
The bodies belonged to Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly Salado couple who went out for a cup of coffee and ended up driving all the way to Arkansas. “I read the first story in the Statesman, that they’d disappeared, and the first thing that hit me was that this older couple could have just decided to chuck the straight life and headed out on an adventure. I got caught up in the romantic notion.”
The Howards were found two weeks later in their car, which had tumbled over a 25-foot cliff in Northwestern Arkansas. Asked what he tells interviewers who press on the fate of the couple, Scalzo says, “Sometimes I tell them that they were found, that everything was cool. Everybody loves a happy ending.”