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Austin, what did I do to deserve you?

Posted by mcorcoran on November 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin, what can I do to preserve you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Dayton, hard charger

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

Willie never showed, but it didn’t matter.

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

 

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

Posted by mcorcoran on November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Pug and Harvey Young at Guero’s 2014.

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

A taste for Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

A family’s deep, dark wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Michael Corcoran’s LAWN

Posted by mcorcoran on October 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t you start me cAARPing

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

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

NOTES FROM THE ROAD

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

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

BEFORE AUSTIN

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

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

Going through Manhattan to talk to a neighbor

I’m like the Cat Lady of pet peeves I’ve got so many running around. One of my big ones is when an Austin musician hires a high-powered NYC publicist that you have to go through to set up an interview. I’ve been emailing back and forth six times, like a negotiation, to talk to someone whose house I pass on the way to HEB. This is the kind of publicist I hate, the one who wants to make sure you focus on what they want, which, in this case, is a new album coming out in a couple months. (I should point out that I’m not trying to interview Beyonce, but someone who plays the Continental Club.) Normally, at this point I would say “forget it” and move on to the next story. But I’m having fun toying with this woman. She kept asking me how much of the article is going to be about the new album (how the fuck do I know?) and I either ignored her or was intentionally vague. She was persistent because, you see, it makes her day when the story comes out and she can harangue the writer about how it ended up different from how he or she “promised” it would be.
After the third email, in which she specified emphasis points on the LP release, I almost emailed back “what album?” but I caught myself.
I’m not going to tell you who the Austin artist is, but if you read a 2,000-word article that mentions an upcoming album, without naming it or giving the release date, you’ll know they have a pushy NYC publicist. God, I love my job!

 

Found out the hard way

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

HOW DO YOU KNOW A BIKER IS FROM AUSTIN?

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

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

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

The MAHU STATE

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

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

Ripper and Rex

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

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

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

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

The Accidental Plagiarist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Staci

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

“Raised” by ignorance

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

A NIGHT ON MARS

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

TEXT TO THE BISHOP: ‘WE DID IT!’

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

GOSSIP IS NOT FOR WIMPS!

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

 

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

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

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

The response was instant and often intense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WHAT’S WITH ME AND THE DIVAS?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I just write “absolutely fabulous”?

Dear Dad…

BILLY RAY CYRUS, I OWE YA ONE

I became a pretty decent obit writer because of my time at the Dallas Morning News (’92-’95), which didn’t really hold entertainment writers in high regard unless they consistently landed on 1A. And the easiest way to get a front page byline was writing a celebrity obit. The Morning News didn’t use a single AP obit for a musician in the three years I was there.

When Conway Twitty died, however, I was busy as hell and kinda hoping my bosses would let me outta that one. But I was the country music critic at the time and CW was a major dude, I guess, so I had to fit it in. The reason the day was so stressful was that I had a phoner with Billy Ray Cyrus that took me two weeks to set up. It was during that period, right after “Achy Breaky Heart” came out, when Cyrus was the biggest thing in all of music. His first LP “Some Gave All” debuted at #1 on Billboard and stayed there for 17 consecutive weeks, a maiden run that’s never been matched. He was a sensation who hardly did any interviews, but since the DMN stories were picked up on the wire, his handlers felt they could just do mine and that would cover the country. It was a major coup. But then Conway Twitty died and I was distracted.

I was finishing up my Twitty obit when Billy Joe called for the 15-minute phoner. He politely asked me how I was doing and I said I had been gutted by the news of Conway Twitty (not really) and then Cyrus, very poignantly, told me how listening to Twitty when he was a boy made him realize that country music could also be pop and rock n’ roll without losing its twang. Boom, there was my lead quote on the obit! The next day I got all kinds of congratulations from the big editors, who thought I’d moved mountains to get a quote from the biggest star in the music biz. Today, this would be like Patti Labelle dying and getting fresh quotes from Beyonce. Even the New York Times couldn’t get ahold of “the new Elvis of country.” My Cyrus story wasn’t scheduled to run for another two weeks so they were sixpence none the wiser.

 

GRAMMYS 2015 COMMENTS

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

 

BOO FOR ‘YE

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

A DATE WITH CAROL BURNETT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CONFESSIONS OF A HUNGRY, DRY DRUNK, BROKEDICK MUTHAFUCKA

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it made me drink a lot.

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

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

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

 

GRAMMY STORIES? YEAH, I GOT ONE

I’m not a great talker. I couldn’t sell earmuffs to an Eskimo. But I talked my way into the Grammys once. It was the night after I crashed Clive Davis’ A-list black tie party at the Beverly Hilton. Something was going on that year- 1995.

The Dallas Morning News sent me to L.A. for five days to cover the Grammys because this was back when big newspapers had a lot of money for shit like that. But I had to write different stories every day. I reviewed club shows by Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, did a party scene report and hung out in the lobby during Clive’s big bash, just taking note of all the celebs for my daily column. I knew the publicist for Arista, Clive’s label, who was at the entrance checking credentials, then she came over to me and said, “Carlos Santana is coming on next and his new album (Supernatural) is going to be HUGE (it was). Clive would want a critic to see this, so I’m gonna turn my head and you’re gonna walk right past me, OK?”

So I did just that. I scooted by her in my black t-shirt and ripped jeans and found myself in a huge ballroom, full of big stars. Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Tyson, Puff Daddy, Bobby DeNiro, Will Smith – they were all sitting 10 feet away from me. Whitney Houston was onstage singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and then she was off and Santana came on with Wyclef from the Fugees. As soon as their song was over, I was being led out of the room by security, but I was grinning. I’d be able to write about attending the most exclusive Grammy party of them all, as if I was invited. Also, I talked to Dallas native Erykah Badu for 10 seconds when she was walking through the lobby, so I had a quote from a big local. Shit, man, I was gold.

Which was a relief because I had kinda fucked up a couple weeks earlier. I sent in my request for press credentials to the Grammys a little late and there was no room for me. But I’d covered the Grammys before and spent most of the time in the press room watching the show on TV. They’d parade the winners by every minute or so, but the quotes were hardly ever any good, so I figured that I could just cover the show from my hotel room and no one would be the wiser. The Associated Press had a file of backstage quotes I could pull from. Just had to give them credit at the bottom.

So I was getting all set up in my room. Beer on ice, joints rolled, just had to find what channel the show was on. This was about an hour before the Grammys were to start. I went to the channel menu for 5 p.m., which was 7 p.m. Dallas time, and no Grammys. I scrolled to the right and it said that the show aired at 8 Pacific. FUCK! They delayed the broadcast on the West Coast. I wouldn’t be able to watch it on TV and make my deadline. WTF! I didn’t know what to do but throw on some clothes and run down to the lobby and get a cab to the Shrine Auditorium.

Here’s a detail I don’t really need, but I’m gonna throw it out there to show just how fucked my day was going. About three blocks down Hollywood Boulevard I saw Elvis Mitchell on the sidewalk. My friend who was a bigwig in L.A. “Pull over!” I told the cab driver and I went over to Elvis to see if he had any suction with Rogers and Cowan, the Grammys publicists. Only, it wasn’t Elvis Mitchell. It was a black guy with long dreads in expensive clothing and black horn-rimmed glasses, but it wasn’t fucking Elvis! I turned around to see my cab leaving, so I had to run back to the hotel lobby and get another cab. I’m dripping with sweat, heart palping, all the way to the Shrine.

Every road was blocked off for about a quarter mile except for limos, so I had to run the rest of the way to the Grammys. So, I finally got there. Now what? I couldn’t get credentials a couple weeks ago; how were they going to let me in, sweating like a dopesick junkie, 10 minutes before the show started? But I didn’t have any other choice.

Luck shined on me, however, when I saw my old friend Chris Morris of Billboard. “Chris, please, could you send someone from Rogers and Cowan out here?” I said from outside a chain-link fence. About five minutes later there was some guy in a suit, looking at me with the right amount of skepticism. I told him my story and how I would probably get fired if he didn’t let me in. “There’s no place for you,” he said. Just let me watch the show from a monitor somewhere, I said. I don’t care if it’s in the men’s room. The guy, whose name was neither Rogers nor Cowan, said, “OK, but you owe me, big time.” Brother Theresa led me to the press room, picked up a big bowl of lettuce on the catering table and said “sit here.” And I did, for the whole show. Press folks would come by with their plates and fill up with cold cuts and carrot sticks and the like and then they’d get to me and turn around.

But I was in heaven. The adrenaline of just getting there had my fingers flying on the keyboard. I was sending all these great dispatches from backstage at the Grammys. Got a few short one-on-one interviews even (Chris from Soundgarden, Don Was, Booker T, Tony Bennett in the men’s room). Bruce Springsteen was winning everything for his “Streets of Philadelphia” song and so during the commercial break before Record of the Year, I finished my A1 recap. Just needed to hear the name “Bruce…” and I’d be sending before they got to “…steen.” I had really kicked ass.

“And the Record of the Year goes to…” My finger was ready. “Sheryl Crow for ‘All I Wanna Do’!” Are you fucking kidding me?!! Goddammit, man. Now I had to rewrite the whole first part of the article. And my final deadline was in 10 minutes. But I did it. And I was done. Shit, man, I even talked my way into the A&M Records party, just two blocks from the Roosevelt Hotel, where I was staying. What a motherfucking day!

That’s kinda like how every day is. I mean, not insanely hectic or heart-racing. But we just take things as they come- bring it on-  and do the best we can. But sometimes you look back and go “how did I pull that one off?”

THE GREAT GADFLY REVISITED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

MY DESERT ISLAND DISC (TODAY)

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

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

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

THE DAYBREAK YEARS

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

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

daybreakad

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

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

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

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

Clothes by Daybreak: Boardwalk Empire.

Clothes by Daybreak: Boardwalk Empire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET. Funny lady.

ET. Funny lady.

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

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

 

1986 postcard from cartoonist Peter Bagge says it all.

1986 postcard from cartoonist Peter Bagge says it all.

 

OCCUPY AUSTIN! MORE OF IT!

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

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

MY FAVORITE BANDS IN THE PLACES I’VE LIVED

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weirdo

Weirdo

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

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

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

The Squids (with Frank Orrall)

The Squids (with Frank Orrall)

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

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

Never Enuff

Never Enuff

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

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

Damnations

Damnations

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

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

lawnmower1

 

Whatever happened to story?

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

 

corkymaxineFrom my Austin Inside/ Out column May 16, 1998

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

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

brad-pitt-jennifer-aniston4-600x450

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

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

lawnmower1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DICKINSON ON THE MATS 1989

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

Suzee Champeny Brooks 1986.

Suzee Champeny Brooks 1986.

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

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

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

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

Jim Dickinson.

Jim Dickinson.

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

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

REPLACING CASEY

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Who are the narcissists?

THEY HAD ME AT RONNIE SPECTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Honolulu: The Dogg Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25,000 sets in 25 years: Saxon Pub sound man Richard Vannoy

Posted by mcorcoran on October 22, 2017

From 2015, Arts&Labor site, by Michael Corcoran

The Saxon Pub celebrates its 25th anniversary this month and for all but a few months in the beginning, Richard Vannoy has been the club’s sound man. For the first 13 years, the Abilene native worked seven nights a week, but after a run-in with the Monday night headliner in 2003, Vannoy has worked Tuesdays through Sundays. “I said something and Bob Schneider didn’t like it so he fired me,” Vannoy, 63, says with a laugh. “So now I play softball on  Mondays. I needed a night off anyway.”

Since the Saxon books three or four acts a night, and Vannoy has averaged 338 nights working per year, conservative math puts him in the sound booth for about 25,000 sets since 1990. That was the year Joe Ables and Craig Hillis opened the 150-capacity live music venue at 1320 S. Lamar Blvd. in the former home of neighborhood barfly incarnations the Boss’ Office, the Living Room and Madison’s.

Ables found the place when Madison’s was going out of business and hired the Angleton native, who had a small accounting practice, to audit their finances. “I knew Craig Hillis from Steamboat,” Ables said in 2010, “so I called him up and told him I’d found a club with some potential. He asked me ‘what do you see it as?’ and I said it could be a really good room for singer-songwriters. And he said ‘you mean like the old Saxon Pub?’ and the name just stuck.” The original Saxon Pub was an A-frame building on the Interstate 35 frontage road near 38 1/2 Street in the late ’60s/early ’70s.

In the beginning, the “new Saxon” continued the folksinging tradition, with such acts as Steve Fromholz and Shake Russell. The Bad Livers put the club on the map in the early ’90s with their Monday night bluegrass massacres, and then Rusty Wier and W.C. Clark were fave regulars.  It was the late Stephen Bruton’s endorsement that helped establish the Saxon as a place where world-class musicians could cut loose.

“Stephen came by one day, in ’96 I think, and he said ‘I can’t get a gig in town. Can I play here?’ And I said ‘I’ll not only book you, I’ll give you a key to the place,” said Ables, who had just bought out his partners. Not only did Bruton pack the club every Sunday with the Resentments (whose residency reaches 17 years on Sunday), but Bruton’s sets sometimes turned into superstar jam sessions, as he brought up former bosses Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt on occasion. Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominoes plays every week and you’ll catch Red Young when he’s not on tour with the Animals, plus Denny Freeman, who was Bob Dylan’s guitarist for so many years.

The walls of rough cedar provided great acoustics for loud rock, as well as folkies. There’s something else unique about the Saxon: to accomodate a working clientele, Ables put the headliner in the middle slot, which was originally met with protest, but now seems the natural way to go.

Vannoy (pronounced with a V in front of “annoy”) has been a sound man since following a bunch of Abilene musicians to Austin in the early ’70s. “I was in a band with (drummer) Bill Maddox and (bassist) Noel Kelton in junior high,” Vannoy recalls. “They were so good, even as 14-year-olds, so I asked ‘how much do you guys practice?’ When they said 4-6 hours every day, I knew I could never match that so I started thinking of other ways to make it in the music business.” Maddox, murdered by a deranged neighbor in 2011, played in his father’s jazz band at age 11.

Maddox and Kelton had a band in Austin with fellow Abilenians- singer/guitarist Keith Landers and keyboardist Stephen Barber- called Cadillac, which gave Vannoy his first sound man gig. “Steve and Billy wanted to play jazz-rock fusion, so they left to form the Electromagnets with Eric Johnson and Kyle Brock (the bassist, also from Abilene). Keith and Noel wanted to keep playing rock, so they started Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88’s.” Vannoy ended up working with the ‘magnets from ’72- ’74 and the Rockets from ’76- ’84 and learned a lot from both. “I set up the gear, drove the truck, I was the only roadie,” Vannoy says of his start in the sound biz.

“The Electromagnets were such incredible musicians, every night someone would come up to me and compliment me on my sound mix,” Vannoy says. “But I wasn’t really doing anything special. It was all the band.” That taught him to stay out of the way and do as little as neccessary. Johnny Dee, meanwhile, was a group that relied on great singing, so providing a clear vocal mix became Vannoy’s obsession to this day. “The number one complaint for sound engineers is ‘I can’t hear the vocals,'” says Vannoy. “If you’ve got the vocals right, the instruments will usually fall into place.” Vannoy says his favorite acts to work with, such as Guy Forsyth and Patrice Pike, are talented singers.

Ables says such an affinity is a key to Vannoy’s longevity. “He’s such a music fan,” says the club owner, who’s looking to open a bigger Saxon Pub at a new development on St. Elmo Street, though the 1320 S. Lamar St. locale will remain open for at least another five years. “I still get calls from him when he’s excited about a new band. He digs hearing live music night after night.”

In nearly 25 years, Vannoy has taken only one vacation. He says he has to keep working because “rock and roll doesn’t have retirement benefits.” He’ll stay on at the Saxon at least until Social Security kicks in at age 66, but, he said “I’m still keeping my other job.” After working until 2 a.m. most nights, Vannoy goes home to sleep for a few hours, then goes off to a parttime job with a rare book restorer.

“It’s a 70-hour work week, but I’m loving it,” says Vannoy, who has his sound system so dialed-in that he can sometimes wander about or get a slice of pizza next door. But taped to the wall of his sound booth is a page with the names of acts handled by a certain manager who insists that Vannoy remain in the booth at all times during their sets. Vannoy shrugs that 95% of his job is in the setting up, but he abides. “They might want more monitor, but that’s about it,” he says of possible mid-set adjustments.

“Joe is the owner, but this is Richard’s club,” says bassist Bruce Hughes, who plays three residencies at the Saxon Pub each week- Monday with Schneider, Wednesdays with Johnny Nicholas and Sundays with the Resentments- as well as occasional gigs with his own band. “Almost all clubs are terrible places to just show up and try to get a sound. You never know what you’re gonna get. But you know with Richard it’s gonna be consistent. One of the reasons the Saxon Pub is one of my favorite places to play in the world.”

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Bassist/ Bookbinder: Glenn Fukunaga 2012

Posted by mcorcoran on August 7, 2017

Photo by Alberto Martinez AAS

Most people would feel lucky to master one art in their lifetime, but Austin’s Glenn Fukunaga is not only an in demand bass player (Robert Plant, Dixie Chicks), but he’s a noted restorer of rare books.

Playing bass and restoring books wouldn’t seem to have much in common, but Fukunaga says, “they both require an attention to detail and that you work well with your hands.” And the longer you do it, the better you get.

The Hawaii native, who’s been in Austin since 1974, has played in an estimated 300 recording sessions. But this year he released the first CD with his name on the front cover and not just in the liner notes. “Not a Word” is just that, an album of six jazz instrumentals, flavored by spooky exotica and sprawling rhythms. Moods range from somber and serene on “Song For Glenn,” written in homage to Glenn Fukunaga Jr., who lost a battle with cancer at age 39, to exuberantly experimental on “Drivin’ Into a Donut Hole.” The overall effect of this half hour of music is meditative, without being new age.

Fukunaga and his band of Joel Guzman on keyboards, Alex Coke on woodwinds, Kevin Flatt on brass and Dony Wynn on drums, celebrate the release of the CD this week with an in store appearance at Waterloo Records May 2 and a set at the Continental Club Gallery the next night. The May 3 event doubles as an art show opening for the album’s cover artist Dana Smith.

“After all these years of backing other people, I was getting a little frustrated with the rules of the session guy,” Fukunaga says from his book binding workshop behind the home in Barton Hills he shares with wife Sandy. “I wanted to make a record where no one was telling me to ‘walk to the four’ (a standard bassline),” he says.

Fukunaga says he didn’t give his seasoned bandmates any directions. “These are my favorite guys,” he says. “I just said ‘do what you do.’” Most tracks were recorded in three takes or less.

Wynn calls Fukunaga “the quintessential quiet storm,” who doesn’t need to say much because he’s fully able to express himself non-verbally. “His confidence in life, and thereby, on his instrument (shows) a master at work.”

Though he now specializes in standup bass, Fukunaga was not really a big jazz fan earlier in his career. His resume included blues (Lou Ann Barton), punk (Project Terror), folk (Terri Hendrix, Eliza Gilkyson), country (“Home” by the Dixie Chicks) and rock (James Burton), but almost no jazz.

“The big turning point was about 10 or 12 years ago. I was listening to KUT and they played a song by (jazz pianist) Bill Evans and it knocked me out,” he says. He started buying every Evans record he could find and studied up on the man and his bassist Scott LaFaro, perhaps Fukunaga’s biggest inluence besides Motown’s James Jamerson. “Bill Evans had this philosophy that everyone plays together, having a musical conversation, as opposed to one guy soloing and everyone else laying back.” This style of “collective improvisation” was the musical mindset of “Not a Word.”

Fukunaga grew up in Hilo on the island of Hawaii, which was not immune to Beatlemania. “Me and some friends all went from ukulele to guitar, but someone needed to play bass, so I volunteered under the condition that it would be for one year only,” Fukunaga says with a laugh. That was 1964. He overshot his limited period on bass by 47 years.

Last year Fukunaga was enlisted to play bass with one of his early rock heroes, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. “It was only one show in Marfa,” Fukunaga says of his time in Crown Vic, which also featured Patty Griffin, Michael Ramos, David Grissom and drummer Wynn (who played with Robert Palmer for two decades). “But it was a pretty amazing experience. There’s nothing like hitting the stage in front of a great crowd.”

Especially when you’ve spent all day rescuing tattered and crumbling books. “We used to have a storefront on South Lamar and we’d always get people coming in with their family Bibles falling apart,” Fukunaga recalls. “I’d look them over and say ‘that’s about 10 hours worth of work, so you’re looking at $650’ and they’d look at me horrified. ‘I thought it would be twenty dollars.’ Thank God we’re out of the Bible business.” Fukunaga sold the storefront six years ago and works from home mainly with longtime clients, including Austin-based Mark Twain collector Kevin MacDonnell. Recent tasks for Fukunaga included binding special books for Mark Twain Award for American Humor winners Tina Fey and Bill Cosby.

Fukunaga’s introduction to the world of rare books was entirely coincidental. Being a broke musician when he arrived in Austin in the mid-70s at the behest of booking agent Charlie Hatchet (who caught Fukunaga’s touring cover band Bamboo in Amarillo), Fukunaga hired on as a UT shuttle bus driver, then a chauffeur. One of his first limo clients was notorious rare book dealer and publisher John Holmes Jenkins, who kept the multi-million dollar Eberstadt Collection of books and papers in a vault in the corrugated metal building on South I-35 that currently has the seven-foot high letters “XXX” on the side.

“Mr. Jenkins was quite a character,” Fukunaga says of the high stakes poker player nicknamed “Austin Squatty” in Las Vegas for the way he sat at a card table with his legs crossed under him. Jenkins died in 1989 near Bastrop from a gunshot wound to the back of the head which was ruled a suicide, though the gun was never found.

Though Jenkins hired his driver Fukunaga as a book binder, it was a restoration expert from Switzerland called Mr. Brunner who taught him the tricks of the trade.

A born perfectionist, Fukunaga took to the craft right away. “There were three or four of us working on the books and after a few months, clients started asking for me,” he says. It’s a slow process that requires a deft touch and complete concentration. One mistake could knock thousands of dollars off a rare book’s value. Fukunaga has worked on million dollar projects, such as restoring a dozen first edition copies of the Book of Mormon, worth about $90,000 a copy.

“It’s funny. I could do this deaf,” he says, slowiy raising the spine of an old and tender book. “And I could do that blind,” gesturing to the standup bass he always keeps by his side in his workshop.

Sometimes he’ll think of a piece of music when he’s repairing a book and he’ll get behind the bass taller than him and work it out. But he’s got book deadlines, so he’s back at the big table before too long.

“I’ve definitely made more money with books than music in the past, but it’s getting to be 50/50,” says Fukunaga.

Hand in hand. Whether on stage, in the studio or in his workshop table piled with decaying literary classics, Fukunaga has enjoyed a life of exquisite balance.

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Patty Griffin 2002: Let Her Fly

Posted by mcorcoran on August 5, 2017

From the Austin-American Statesman, April 2002

by Michael Corcoran

She was raised in a small town in Maine, graduated to Boston, where she fell in with the rock crowd and then it was on to Nashville after a solo career blossomed. But for the past four years 38-year-old singer Patty Griffin, the eternal up-and-comer who’ll soon be released from major label limbo when her first album since ’98’s “Flaming Red” hits stores, has called Austin home. Practically invisible to the local music scene, where her concert appearances are rare, the nationally-prominent singer lives in a modest, charming Hyde Park duplex close to the constant roar of the 45th St. east-west thoroughfare.

Like Griffin’s songs, her living room is spare, tasteful, airy, detail driven. But it’s not comfortable. The chairs are straight-back with minimal padding, the couch a vinyl ’50s number. There’s no CD collection to peruse as a conversation starter, no place to curl up on a rainy night with a good book. What’s more, a small, black, dog named Bean, comes in and out of the house through a tear in the screen door, yipping and scurrying all the way, every minute or so. During the course of a 90-minute interview, Griffin never loses track of the Bean, who uses his barkette like sonar. At one point, she’s talking about how Austin feels right for her, but then stops in mid-sentence and pricks up her ears when the dog’s yip comes from the side of the house and is perhaps delivered in an unusual cadence. A few seconds later Bean is back in front and Griffin continues her thought. “I’m inspired by all the people in Austin who are working on their stuff. Not just music, but visual arts, theater, film- there’s a creative spirit here that I find very appealing.”

Griffin’s gorgeous new “1000 Kisses,” which comes out Tuesday on Dave Matthews’ ATO label, is an album without distractions. At first all you hear is that voice, so dominating is its pure, breathy magnificence, singing words to hang on to for dear life. “It’s hard to know when to give up the fight/ The things you want that will never be right” she sings on “Rain,” the album’s first single to radio. “Ain’t nothing left at all in the end of being proud” she sings as a wife standing over the casket of her husband of 40 years in “Long Ride Home.” When Griffin and her ensemble played its first show in more than a year March 7 at the Mercury, the club had a poster made that showed a heart surrounded by snippets of Griffin lyrics. She liked that.

But getting Griffin to talk about her lyrics is like asking Gary Condit to characterize his relationship with Chandra Levy. She’ll say that “Tony,” the tragic character who “got a gun and blew himself away” on “Flaming Red” was a real person, but she’ll leave it at that. Ask for parallels and she’ll move laterally, explaining that the new LP’s “Chief” is “a guy from Maine who came back from the war and used to march night and day.” But what’s it all mean?

“My songs aren’t poems,” she says on a recent morning, slightly overinsulated in her living room in a thrift store coat. “They’re lyrics meant to be sung. I write words that will feel special coming out of me when I sing them.”

There’s no denying, however, that Griffin, like her songwriting heroes Springsteen and Waits, has the ability to explore grand themes with her little stories of everyday people. “Making Pies” is a plum example as Griffin uses the hard, lonely life of an early morning bakery worker to reflect on the dignity of moving forward and living life when there’s seemingly nothing to live for. “You could cry, or die, or just make pies all day/ I’m making pies,” she sings in a voice that’s anything but mundane.

“1000 Kisses” is cathartic, soothing and a direct reaction to the kind of radio-driven music her former major label wanted Griffin to record. Just by tacking on “Mil Besos,” a traditional Spanish song she first heard by Little Joe y la Familia, attests that this one was made completely without label input.

“As far as record story horror stories go, mine was pretty mild,” Griffin says with a laugh. The plot went this way: About a month after A&M released “Flaming Red,” the rocking counterpart to the ’96 solo acoustic debut “Living With Ghosts,” the label was swallowed whole by Universal Music. Griffin was shipped off to Interscope, which had been built on hard rock and gangsta rap.”The timing couldn’t have been worse,” says manager Ken Levitan. “We were able to finally convince them to work one more single to radio, but then they let it drop.” Many of those who did hear “One Big Love” on the radio probably went out and bought a Sheryl Crowe record instead – it sounds that much like Patty’s A&M labelmate who was getting a big push.

More bad timing came when Griffin delivered her next album “Silver Bell” in the spring of 2000, just weeks after the huge international Vivendi conglomerate bought Universal. “When these corporations acquire other corporations they end up owing billions and billions of dollars,” Griffin says. “They’re not gonna make that kind of money back with records by folks like me. “Silver Bell,” which included Griffin’s French Canadian mother on guest vocals, was returned to a heartbroken Griffin with a terse instruction: write ten new songs that could be played on the radio.

“That was pretty suffocating because that’s not how I like to write songs,” Griffin says. In the meantime, Griffin had a financial windfall when the Dixie Chicks recorded her song “Let Him Fly” on their 10-million selling 1999 album “Fly.” Touting Griffin as their favorite songwriter, the Chicks took the red-haired songbird on tour. “It was a lot of fun hanging out with the Chicks, but not very musically satisfying playing in hockey arenas,” Griffin says. Back home after the three-month stint, she got back to writing new songs, but when she sent the demos to Jimmy Iovine, the Interscope honcho still didn’t hear a million-seller. In March of 2001, a year after “Silver Bell” had been finished, Levitan had a meeting with Iovine and other label brass that he says “just didn’t feel right” and soon he was negotiating a way out of Griffin’s contract. As part of the agreement to let her go, Griffin would have to buy back the masters if she wanted to shop “Silver Bell” to another label. Also, she could re-record only five songs from “Bell” without payment to the label.

“The thing that no one would say, but I’d bet they were all thinking it was that I’m 38 years old,” Griffin says. “It’s a kids game now and the feeling is that if I hadn’t made it by now, I wasn’t going to make it.” But seeing the likes of Britney Spears at #1 only inspired Griffin to make the sort of dark and introspective (i.e. uncommercial) record that was inside her.

Griffin decided to start again from scratch and make a completely different album than the one which had led to such an aggravating time in her life. Where “Silver Bell” had 15 tracks, from all over the musical spectrum, “1000 Kisses” would have only nine , and they would flow seamlessly together like sweet dreams. Songs would be stripped to their essence and the backing tracks would create an atmosphere of warmth. What’s more, this would be a record that no one in the music industry would hear until it was completely finished.

“We were all so completely into this project,” Ramos says of the musicians on “1000 Kisses.” “When we played our first show after making the record (Mar 7 at the Mercury) we were all so nervous, but it was a good kind of nervous. We knew we were about to go on this emotional musical adventure and when the new songs went over with the crowd we all got chills.” Ramos says the band was so drained after the show, which followed weeks of hardcore rehearsals, that they all suffered flu-like symptoms.

The youngest of seven children of an Irish father and French Canadian mother, both schoolteachers, Griffin grew up singing. “My mother was a great singer, still is. My grandmother could really sing, too,” she says. “I didn’t think my voice was anything special when I was young because everybody around me could sing, except for a couple of siblings who are tone deaf.” As a teenager, Griffin sang in a new wave cover band Patty and the Executives. “It was all that stuff on MTV in the early days- Blondie, Pat Benatar. The band was a bunch of teenaged guys in business suits,” she says, laughing. Although Griffin had been writing songs since age 16 when she got her first guitar, she was too shy to sing in front of anybody until she started taking guitar lessons and had to. Her teacher, John Curtis, was astonished at his charge’s immaculate vocals and asked her if she wanted to start a duet.

Even though she’d broken the ice as a singer-songwriter, Griffin did not see that as a serious pursuit for several more years. She moved to Boston, was married briefly and, from ’86- ’91 waited tables at the Cambridge franchise of Pizzeria Uno.

“Have you seen ‘Office Space’ where there’s this big, stupid discussion about how much flair the waitress is wearing? Well, it was like that at Uno. We had to wear two watches- one with the time and the other with the time 20 minutes later so we could tell customers when their pizza would be ready. Like we couldn’t add 20 to whatever the time was.” Griffin says that when Jennifer Aniston’s character gave her boss the finger in the movie, she let out a big “YEAH!” That finger, she says, was for former waitresses everywhere.

“That job didn’t really support the dignity that I needed to get up in front of people and sing,” she says. So she quit and, after a short stint as a Harvard telephone operator, decided to concentrate on a career in music. The timing was perfect.

“In 1994, Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crowe had big hits, so the labels were all of a sudden signing all these women,” Griffin says, “and I caught that wave.” Based on a group of solo acoustic demos recorded in a basement studio, Griffin was signed to A&M in early ’95 and went to Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio in New Orleans to record her debut. “I was uncomfortable with the whole situation,” she says. “The hype machine was in overdrive and people were talking about conquering the marketplace and I just wanted to make a good record so I could tour and make a living.”

A&M hated the Malcolm Burn-produced, full-band treatment of Griffin’s demo songs, so they asked her to start over on another record. “I was too depressed to get back in the studio, so I said, ‘You loved the demos so much, why not just put them out?'” The resulting “Living With Ghosts” received critical raves and made great strides with Americana radio stations like Austin’s KGSR.

But although she considered herself a rocker- and “Ghosts” was simply her “Nebraska” – Griffin was lumped in with the touchy-feely chick folksinger crowd. “I hate the perception of female acoustic artists, that we belong in the fields with the daisies or baking tollhouse cookies. There are real hard and heavy issues that women have to deal with, like rape and domestic abuse and everyday sexism. These are not la-la fantasies.”

Griffin’s next album opened with a blaze of kick drums and caterwauling guitars. An update on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes,” the title track of “Flaming Red” was a vitriolic spit in the face of attitudes that murdered prostitues or raped party girls deserved their fate. Where the fable, in which a girl puts on a pair of red dancing shoes, to the chagrin of pious townspeople, is a cautionary tale that ends in tragedy, Griffin’s take is that the defiant twirl of individuality is worth it. “So many women are working so hard to be everything to everyone, but in the end they find just how ineffective that is.”

Her dog Bean has finally settled in her lap and Griffin has somehow managed to slink down in the stiff chair. Ramos says that in the eight years he’s known Griffin she’s never been as centered, as content with her place in the world as she is now.

“That whole ordeal with Universal seemed really frustrating at the time,” she says, “but looking back I’m glad it all happened. I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s the lesson I learned from all that- in the end you get what you need.”

She decided to call her album, the one she made all on her own with a small circle of friends, “1000 Kisses” when Ramos told her what “Mil Besos” means. Produced by Ramos in the style of a 40’s cabaret song from Madrid, the tune grew in significance when Griffin, who doesn’t speak Spanish, asked Ramos what she was singing. “I lost my heart on the thousand kisses that I left on your lips,” Ramos translated. “I have to keep loving you until my heart comes back.”

“That just blew me away,” says Griffin. The Bean suddenly springs from her lap and hits the hardwood floor with a skid. “I think what the song is saying is that pain doesn’t go away. Life doesn’t get easier, but you just have to keep living it.”

“I don’t think you can ever get comfortable in this world,” she says, “but you can get dignity.”

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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

It’s fashionable to bitch about newcomers in Austin, even though we all came from somewhere else. But some transplants are more like reinforcements, letting us know through their unbridled enthusiasm that we live in a special place.

Ross Shoemaker, who everyone here called Roscoe, came down with the great Oklahoma migration of the ‘80s. At first he was known as “the guy who recorded The Shit Hits the Fans,” the legendarily awful/perfect, drunken Replacements set at the Bowery, where he worked in Oklahoma City. God, how Roscoe loved the ‘Mats! But after you ran into him a few times and hung out at a couple 3 a.m. living room parties, you knew him as the guy who loved ALL his music deeply and sincerely. He was the pure fan, not a snob. I would tell him the Replacements were way overrated and he would laugh and rattle off 26 song titles that told me it didn’t matter what I thought.

Roscoe, who got jobs at Waterloo Records and Liberty Lunch so he could be around music fulltime, died last night in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He’d moved back to his home state at least 20 years ago. Got married, had a daughter, stayed in touch. At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Ross was driving his Ford Focus when a Cadillac Escalade crossed into his lane and hit him head on. Cause of the accident is being investigated.

The word spread through Facebook Thursday morning like a Roscoe whoop at a True Believers show. The first things folks who knew him mentioned was that he was a great friend of music and a devoted father to teenaged daughter Sadie. To me he represented Austin in the ‘80s, when you toyed with excesses daily because that party was too good to end. All the bands we were getting tired of- Doctors’ Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Poison 13, etc.- almost became new again in Roscoe’s pure and devout worship. “His love of music was contagious,” Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering posted on Facebook. Words that should be engraved somewhere meaningful.

Following Ross on Facebook was a human roller coaster ride. His bad days were painful, especially after he lost his job a couple years ago, but then he’d see a great band or run into an old friend and it would be the Roscoe of old. “Awesome” was his favorite word and it meant something when he said it.

I enjoyed a perfect day with Roscoe in June 2014 when I was sent to Tulsa for a story about the lawyer who represented the wife in a divorce that was settled for $1 billion. I couldn’t wait for the interview to be over because I was meeting Ross for lunch at Goldie’s, a hamburger joint recommended by former Tulsa musician Ron Flynt. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about the highs and lows of being a single parent. We both married dumb, but conceived wisely. Roscoe’s ex was a newlywed or about to be, so she was always calling him to modify the custody situation, he said. “I always say ‘sure,’” Roscoe told me. “I’ll take every minute I can get with my daughter.” We had a lot in common, but not all of it good. I think Roscoe was 9 months sober at the time and went to meetings.

The best part of the day was when Roscoe proudly showed me around Tulsa, with its rich musical history. We went inside the famous Cain’s Ballroom, which would probably be a CVS right now if it was located in Austin, then drove to Leon Russell’s old church studio where so much great Leon, Tom Petty, Freddie King and J.J. Cale stuff was recorded. He took me to the Woody Guthrie Museum, which is worth a long drive in itself, then showed me Guthrie Green, a fantastic free live music venue bankrolled by a billionaire music lover. He showed me the small club where Alejandro Escovedo had played just a few days earlier and where Roscoe got to catch up with his old friend. He moved away, but never really left. Last stop was the intersection of Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets, from where Tulsa’s GAP Band got their name. It was a great day to talk about the music we love, where some of it was made.

About two weeks ago, Roscoe proudly posted the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Greatest Live Records of All Time,” which ranked The Shit at No. 50. M’man produced one of the 50 greatest live records of all time! Then gave the tape to the band because that’s the kind of fan, the kind of man, he was.

If you can live a life like Ross Shoemaker did, so full of love and enthusiasm, you will have a great one. It will be a real life of ups and downs, deep sorrows and bursts of euphoria. A life that touches many.

“Alex Chilton” is a song about being a fan. I’m playing it for Roscoe now and it’s never sounded sadder. This is gonna take some time.

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Pulling Out All the Stops: Mike Flanigin’s B3 Shot

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin was a guitar player, a real good one. In 1992, the Denton native toured the country with the Red Devils, the L.A.-based blues band whose debut King King was produced by Rick Rubin. After the Devils broke up in ’94, he moved to Austin because this is where guitar players go to chase work and tail and, maybe in the process, get a real education.

And then one night at Antone’s, in the corner of his eye, he saw the Hammond B3. Flanigin was playing an organ song- Big John Patton’s “Let ‘Em Roll”- on a steel guitar and he asked himself why wasn’t he playing it on that B3? Which was all it took. The first time Flanigin pressed his fingers down on the B3, he was no longer a guitar player. “Even when I didn’t know how to play, I knew this was the instrument I was meant for,” he said from the 1960’s house he rents in Rollingwood. “The B3 required all my attention, so I didn’t have time for the guitar anymore.” You don’t dabble with that four-legged cabinet that holds an empire of sound- it takes over your life.

Flanigin’s debut solo LP The Drifter, which comes out August 21 with special guests Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Jimmie Vaughan, Rev. Gean West and Alejandro Escovedo, is the culmination of two decades of learning how to lock it down on the B3. But it also tells the story of his life in lyrics that this son of an Air Force pilot has been accumulating through his travels in the wild blues yonder. The title track of The Drifter is a Gatemouth Brown cover sang by Gibbons, but the other nine songs are Flanigin originals.

When he was still quite green, with his only organ experience in Doyle Bramhall Sr.’s band for a few months, Flanigin opened for B3 kingpin Jimmy Smith at the Mercury. Considering that Smith had recorded nearly 40 classic soul-jazz records for the Blue Note and Verve labels beginning in 1956, this would be like opening for Richard Pryor with knock-knock jokes. But Flanigin, then 32, got the gig because the club needed to provide a B3 and Flanigin had one. Luckily, this was the ground-floor version of the Mercury, not the one upstairs that’s now called the Parish, because hauling a 425-lb B3 and a Leslie speaker almost as heavy up a flight of stairs has caused many a roadie to consider another line of work.

mike_flanigin

Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

“I hoped and prayed that Jimmy Smith would show up right before he went on and miss my set,” said Flanigin, feeling insecure about his pairing with the absolute genius of grit n’ soul. “At one point I looked over and there he was. JIMMY SMITH WAS WATCHING ME PLAY THE ORGAN! I just froze up, man. I stopped playing,” Flanigin was able to compose himself after a long minute and finished the set.

The B3 actually belonged to Mike Judge, who Flanigin knew from Dallas, when the Silicon Valley creator played bass for Anson Funderburgh. Since Hammond stopped producing B3s in 1975, the organ had to be over 20 years old, but it had never been played in public when Judge bought it. Smith, who’d been playing every beat-up piece of shit organ the clubs provided on his tour, loved the pristine instrument.

After the crowd had cleared out, Smith went back onstage and sat at the organ. Flanigin was up there to get the B3 ready to move, but Smith motioned for him to sit next to him on the bench. And for the next 30 minutes, the master showed the novice a few things on the B3.

“I had heard that Jimmy Smith could be difficult and moody- that was his reputation,” said Flanigin, “but he was nothing but nice to me that night.” Flanigin would, a few years later, see the temperamental side of Smith, when the icon refused to go back onstage at Antone’s after the club’s B3 temporarily died on him. But that night at the Mercury was a magical experience that will stay with Flanigin forever.

“It’s all the blues, man,” Smith told the kid after one adventurous run. “I was thinking ‘that’s not like any blues I’ve ever heard,’” Flanigin said with a chuckle. The legend’s impromptu tutorial showed Flanigin just how much he had to learn.

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

James Oscar Smith of Philadelphia started off as a piano player, but switched in 1953 when he heard Wild Bill Davis play the Hammond organ in Milt Larkin’s Houston-based big band. A key selling point for music school graduate Smith was that the organ never went out of tune. The first great electric organ player of note was piano legend Fats Waller, who grew up playing church organ at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Waller taught Count Basie, who made the organ swing in the ‘30s. Chicago’s Les Strand earned the nickname “the Art Tatum of the organ” in the ‘40s and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and there was also Smith’s Philadelphia neighbor Bill Doggett, who played a Hammond in Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five before forming his own band and having a smash with sax man Clifford Scott on “Honky Tonk (Pts. 1 and 2)” in 1956. But improvisational virtuoso Smith created much of the language of the Hammond B3 organ and anybody who’s played it after, even the rock and R&B players like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Greg Rolie of Santana, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston, have got some Jimmy Smith in their heads. He is the Source, like T-Bone Walker on the electric blues guitar.

The B3 came out in 1954, just when Smith was starting out, and he pioneered the walking bass lines with his left hand and fleet-fingered single note runs on his right that emulated Charlie Parker. Smith’s hands clasped the relationship between the upper and lower keyboards, while his feet on the pedals colored the undertones like a mournful string bass. The 1956 LP, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, changed everything.

The Philadelphia area was as fertile for B3 players as Chicago was for electric blues guitarists, with Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Don Patterson and more coming from Philly and New Jersey. The Garden State is where Flanigin tracked down one of his favorite organists Big John Patton, in 1999. “As a blues guitarist coming up, almost all your heroes had passed away,” Flanigin said. “But when I really started getting into the B3, I found out that most of the greats who played on my favorite records were still alive.” He knew that if he was going to get better he had to apprentice with a total pro.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Flanigin relocated to Boston at the turn of the 21st century when his wife at the time had a job there. Checking the New York City papers one day he saw an upcoming gig by Big John Patton at the Jazz Standard, so he took the train from Boston for the show. “He was a pretty dark cat, not really very approachable,” said Flanigin, but when it turned out that the older woman he’d struck up a conversation with was Patton’s wife Thelma, she introduced Flanigin to his hero. “I said, ‘I’d sure like to come to your house some day and learn a few things,'” Flanigin recalled, “and he said ‘sure, how ’bout tomorrow?'” Flanigin took the bus to Montclair, NJ, expecting to knock on the door of a mansion. After all, Patton, guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon made some of the greatest jazz organ trio records ever at Blue Note in the ’60s. This man was musical royalty, so Flanigin was surprised to see the Pattons living in a one-bedroom apartment. Flanigin slept on the couch and every morning for a week, he woke up to Big John’s B3 sounds while Thelma cooked breakfast. “All John ever wanted to do was play,” said Flanigin. For ten hours every day, the jazz great would show the student some things, then watch him try them on his own. You can’t get training like that at music school.

Flanigin visited the Pattons regularly over the next two years, usually staying over for about a week at a time, before heading back to Boston. Some nights Patton took Flanigin to organ-centric jazz clubs in Harlem. “He’d say, ‘This is my man, Mike. He’s a great organ player,'” and I’d feel like a million bucks.”

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Patton died in 2002 at age 66 from complications due to diabetes. His Hammond B3, which he bought in 1963 at Macy’s, sits in Flanigin’s living room. “We tried to get the Smithsonian to take it, but they wouldn’t, so Thelma gave it to me,” said Flanigin, who paid about $1,000 to have it shipped to him in Austin.

On a recent afternoon, Flanigin sat at Big John’s “desk,” which is what a lot of players call their B3s, and showed its features. Besides two 61-note keyboards, the organ has 24 foot bars, a volume pedal and 38 drawbars, also called “stops,” which a player can customize for his own sound. The term “pulling out all the stops” refers to an organ player who’s opened all the drawbars for crescendos. “It looks really complicated,” Flanigin said of the setup before him, “but it’s like driving a car. There are all those knobs and pedals, but after a while it becomes second nature.”

****

The electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond of Evanston, IL in 1934 and advertised as an economical alternative to the massive pipe organs of churches, theaters and baseball stadiums. In that way, it was the first synthesizer. A non-musician, Hammond held 110 patents and had earlier invented an electric clock, which gave him his fortune, plus 3D movies and a card-shuffling contraption. Needing a new money-maker after the Hammond Electric Bridge Table ran its course, selling 14,000 units in two years, Hammond based the organ on the synchronized motor he used for his clock. He realized that it could produce tones that would never go out of tune. That was the gimmick, but Hammond’s accountant, a church organist, persuaded Hammond to go further and invent a new kind of electric organ. The sound on a Hammond is produced by 91 tone wheels, which revolve around a magnetic coil. Much of the appeal was that the keyboard action could be fast, like a piano, but it had the ability to sustain notes.

The B3's AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

The B3’s AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

In 1935, the first year of production, Hammond sold 1,750 organs to churches, but also drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which looked into a complaint by pipe organ manufacturers that Hammond was using deceptive advertising when it claimed that the $2,600 Model A could duplicate the sounds of a $75,000 pipe organ. A blind listening test was held and about 1/3 of the participants guessed that the Hammond was the pipe organ, which ended up being great publicity for Hammond.

Chicago-based Hammond introduced the BC model in 1936, the C model in ’39, the B-2 and C-2 in ’49 and the B-3 and C-3 in 1954. Besides churches, radio soap operas were early Hammond organ customers. Then, when Ethel Smith of Pittsburgh had a huge hit with “Tico Tico,” from the 1944 Red Skelton film Bathing Beauty, the home market exploded for Hammond, which produced the spinet organ in 1949.

Bobbie Nelson, who plays with her brother Willie’s band, got a job demonstrating Hammond organs in Fort Worth and paid the bills for years that way. Also up in Fort Worth in the late ’60s was Austin B3 favorite Red Young, “the Organizer,” who played organ on Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, toured with Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading, recorded on sessions with Nelson Riddle and now plays all those great organ parts for Eric Burdon and the Animals. And we can’t forget Austin’s first great B3 player Dr. James Polk, who plays most Monday nights at the Continental Gallery with sax player Elias Haslanger.

During the ’70’s, jazz moved into a rock fusion sound that ditched the B3 in favor of clavinets, synthesizers and electric pianos. And the home market was taken over by cheaper digital keyboards. Hammond discontinued the B3 in 1975 and filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. But the B3 has gotten even hipper, especially after such acts as Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic introduced organ jams to festival crowds.

Hammond was bought by Suzuki Music of Japan, which produced a new B3 in 2009, but no self-respecting soul-jazz player would go for that digital model. Everybody wants to play what Jimmy Smith played. You’ve gotta have that attitude if you’re going to give your life to the B3. And this is the many-faceted instrument which is known to inspire such desire.

 

ORGAN PORN

Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton

 

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Featured, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Shinyribs: Dancing with the Scars

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2015

shinyribssheep

Tuesday’s long-awaited release of Okra Candy, the third album by Austin band Shinyribs, comes without much fanfare. Singer-songwriter-choreographer Kevin Russell and his band aren’t playing a record release party this week and there’s not an autograph session at Waterloo. “We just wanted to get this thing out,” Russell said of the album, co-produced by Russell and George Reiff like the two previous. “We finished this thing a year and a half ago.” Before they plan any hoopla, they just want to hold the damn CD in their hands.

Eighteen months in the can must feel like a jail sentence to the prolific Russell, who recorded the first two Shinyribs LPs Well After Awhile (2010) and Gulf Coast Museum (2013) while a lead member of roots powerhouse the Gourds. The holdup came when respected Nashville label/ distributor 30 Tigers became interested in putting out Okra, which has a bigger sound, with more horns and violins, than the first two Shinyribs LPs. Russell and company were shooting for a summer release, but 30 Tigers wanted to push it back to January 2015, to get a full marketing campaign in place.

In November 2014, however, Russell had a change of heart. He decided that he didn’t want his band to be on a label. He didn’t want to be a national act, trying to break into new markets through constant touring. He knew there’d be expectations and demands and he’s played that game and it wore him down. With three kids in school – Guthrie 17, Lily 14, Harlan 9- Russell doesn’t want to get too far away for too long. Ain’t worth it.

So Shinyribs took their record back and is putting it out themselves. “If I was really career conscious I would’ve moved to L.A. or Nashville years ago,” said Russell, 48. “But I like where I’m at, being a regional act.” Shinyribs is big in New Orleans and that’s enough for Russell. But even more importantly, Shinyribs has gotten big in Russell’s hometown of Beaumont. He was raised in the Golden Triangle, where his dad was in the oil equipment business, but grew up in Shreveport. That’s where music became his obsession, his life.

Okra Candy, named after a sign Russell imagined next to a freeze-dried snack at Whole Foods, sounds rooted in East Texas, with a lyrical soul yearning for Austin and the beat in love with the Bigger Easy. It’s a small town/ big dreams record, vibing off Little Feat and Flannery OC. If Okra Candy was a racehorse, it would run too wide to win the race, but, wow, wasn’t that a nice run.

Shinyribs 2015

Shinyribs 2015: L-R Winfield Cheeks (keyboards), Tiger Anaya (trumpet), Mark Wilson (sax), roadie Trey Worth, Jeff Brown (bass), Russell, Keith Langford (drums).

Okra lacks a song like “Who Built the Moon” and “Sweeter Than the Scars,” the first two LPs’ leadoff tracks, that you’ll play over again after the first time. It’s a little more of a groove record; a little less KGSR candy. But Russell’s lyrics raise all boats, as you can see on “Walt Disney,” which is about a couple living in different emotional states: “No don’t try to kiss me with that alcohol on your breath/ You actin’ so sweet and so fresh/ It’s the final act of MacBeth/ You actin’ like it’s Walt Disney.”

It’s a song that could’ve been inspired, in part, by Russell’s time with the Gourds, which might be the first successful band that broke up because of dancing. Russell’s hoofin,’ not the audience’s. You see, in the past few years, Kev has become as much Twyla Tharpe as Sister Rosetta, with his interpretive dancing becoming a focal point of the performance. Sometimes it’s goofy, but sometimes, as when Russell seems to lift himself from his knees to the sky on “Sweet Potato,” the movements are downright inspirational.

When the Gourds started in Austin in 1994, Russell used to stand there and play guitar and mandolin and sing. Then in the band’s last few years, he started hamming it up and his expressive romps (“my main man was Rerun from What’s Happening”) became a crowd-pleasing distraction. Which didn’t help an already-tense situation of having two frontmen who didn’t really get along.

The Gourds were the Texas version of Uncle Tupelo- good sex/ bad marriage- and after they split, Shinyribs became the Wilco. Which would make the Hard Pans of Jimmy Smith and Claude Bernard, the Son Volt.

Russell says he now dances the way he does, often affecting an effeminate pantomime like Daffy Duck in drag, because he feels completely free onstage. And because the crowds, which have doubled for the ‘ribs in the past two years, seem to enjoy all that movement. Many of them even stop talking.

The career turning-point show was probably the twice-postponed KGSR “Blues On the Green” event with Tameca Jones in August. Shinyribs, which has added the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns to the core of Langford, bassist Jeff Brown and keyboardist Winfield Cheek, drew 10,000 fans to Zilker Park. Making full use of the big stage, the band proved to be large enough for the crowd, which hailed them as rock stars. “We haven’t really played many small clubs in town since then,” said Russell, who led 5,000 fans in a conga line when Shinyribs headlined the Statesman’s “Rock the Lot” concert in March.shinyribssky1_7032575399721819320_n

Shiny’s draw will be similarly heavy at the Old Settler’s Music Festival (April 16-19), when they take over the Gourds’ old Saturday night closing slot at the Bluebonnet Stage, then play the loose campgrounds jam on Sunday.

The band has come quite a ways since 2007, when Russell started Shinyribs as a Gourds side project, earmarking the $500 a month he got from a gig at Houston bar Under the Volcano for a new family car. Boy, did he love that freedom. Just jump in the car with a guitar and ukulele and plenty of time to think about songs. New ones, old ones, mine and your’n. Nobody bickering about band bullshit. Democracy may be an OK way to run a country, but it will fuck up a setlist like you wouldn’t believe.

At around the time Russell was closing in on the first Shinyribs LP in 2010, the Gourds were going gangbusters. The adventurous five-piece recorded the album Old Mad Joy at Levon Helms’ studio in Woodstock, NY, toured to a growing cult audience across the country and became the subject of the terrific documentary All the Labor. But Russell wasn’t as happy in the Gourds as he was in Shinyribs, who were lucky to draw 50 people to the Saxon Pub. He describes his time with the more popular band, founded on a deal that he and Smith would split lead vocal and songwriting duties 50/50, as “a constant tug of war.”

Russell let go of the rope in 2013 and took his brother-in-law, Gourds drummer Langford, with him. The Gourds played their last show in October 2013 in Austin and Russell said he very seriously doubts that the band will ever play together again. “Jimmy still hasn’t talked to me,” Russell said of the post- breakup situation. “I’ve tried to talk to him, but he wants nothing to do with me.”

Russell and Smith go back 25 years, having first played together in Shreveport-to-Dallas band Picket Line Coyotes.  When the original Coyotes bassist got married and settled down, Smith, a kid from Plano, auditioned for the job and got it. “It was actually George Reiff who sent him our way,” said Russell. Smith tried out as guitarist for Reiff’s band Big Loud Dog, but when he admitted he was really a bass player, but desperately wanted to be in a band on the Deep Ellum scene, Reiff told him the Coyotes were looking for a bassist. “Jimmie was the fresh blood we needed,” Russell said. “He was this really great bass player with tons of enthusiasm. We would’ve broken up if it wasn’t for him.”

The band moved down to Austin in 1991 and did, eventually, break up. But Russell and Smith kept writing and regrouped first as the Grackles and then the Gourds. Regardless of what they were called, there was a stark new direction in the songs that Russell was writing. He became infatuated with “the Bristol Sessions” of 1927, as well as with the work of John Lomax, the Austin-based musicologist who hunted indigenous music all over the world with his son Alan. Lomax discovery Leadbelly was from Shreveport. And the interest in “old-timey” music had been branching out from there for years.

In concert, Shinyribs almost never plays Gourds songs, and when they do it’ll be a number which started with Shinyribs, but then  the Gourds liked it and recorded it. Many more of the tunes are songs Russell pitched to the rest of the Gourds, who went “meh.” Okra Candy’s strangest tune, the psychedelic ska number “Upsetter” is a Gourds reject (“It’s a tip of the hat to our sax player Mark Wilson, who played with Burning Spear for years”), as is “Dead Batteries,” which sounds inspired by Russell’s favorite Elvis Costello album King of America.artworks-000111474593-wqoenm-t500x500

“Some Shinyribs songs, like ‘Country Love,’ became Gourds songs, but most of them I’d just keep on the side,” Russell said. “They were for something else.”

They were for Shinyribs, a band every bit as satisfying as the Gourds if singing and songwriting are your things. The arrangements are more direct, the lyrics more linear. Songs such as “Poor People’s Store” and “Country Cool” from Well After Awhile have become tiny anthems for understanding that we see the same Texas from the windows of our moving vehicles. We see “Donut Taco Palace” on the way to Oak Hill and it becomes a funny chant in our minds. Another song from the new LP, “Feels Like Rain,” hopes to similarly connect. It seems to be about Austin nostalgia, but it’s also about forging ahead in the midst of great changes. “You might lose your mind, but you can’t lose your soul” he sings, like a modern touch on Doug Sahm. The “you” he’s referring to is Austin.

With acts like Shinyribs and the Hard Pans and the Gourds before them, Austin won’t completely lose what has made it such a special place. There’s extra beauty in the holding on.

 

Feels Like Rain

Words and music by Kevin Russell

Austin is the only place

I ever seen an angels face

Austin is the only town

I ever seen an angel drown

In a sea of pain and regret

I just now remembered

I swore I’d never forget

But ain’t that the way it goes when we get old

You might lose yer mind but you can’t lose yer soul

It don’t matter where the memory was gone

It’s still like lighting yerself on fire in yer Own home

I can’t recall a face or a name

Like even when you can’t see it

You can still feel the rain

Oh lord I can feel it

And it feels like rain

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Weirdest Austin songster ever? Check out this ’80s guitar evangelist

Posted by mcorcoran on December 15, 2014

bishmcdonaldThe Butthole Surfers were the kings of drug-fried musical insanity in Austin in the ‘80s, but an even more off-the-wall act was playing twice a week in East Austin at the time, to fanfare barely contained inside the walls of a dingy storefront church.

Bishop Ray McDonald Jr. strapped on an electric guitar at the Guiding Angel Church of God In Christ at 1916 E. 10th St. and raged his hardcore gospel blues to the beat of a drum machine and at the urging of a clump of Pentecostal parishioners. Luckily, some of those frenzied services are preserved on McDonald’s Big Tex label, which put out a couple albums in the 1980s.

All that crazy tongue-people music would be forgotten today if “Rock Daniels,” McDonald’s almost unidentifiable cover of a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, wasn’t included on the collection Fire In My Bones: Rare + Raw + Otherworldly African-American Gospel, which came out on Tompkins Square in 2011. Curator Mike McGonigal was hipped to McDonald by Friends of Sound Records in South Austin, where he searched for obscure gospel sides whenever he was in Austin from Portland, Ore.

Listen to McDonald’s 1985 recording of “Rock Daniels”

httpa://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGRQqGIRQYc

 

McDonald sold his albums Electrifying Gospel and The Rain Done Fell On Me (a double LP), as well as those of other regional and national gospel acts, at his Big Tex record shop on E. 12th St. A traveling COGIC evangelist based in Houston, McDonald settled in Austin in the early ’80s to help take care of his aging parents and founded the Guiding Angel church. The McDonald family came from Bellville, about an hour west of Houston, then moved to Brenham before the kids grew up and scattered.

McDonald’s primitive music sounds like he’s been dead for years, like it was recorded in the ‘50s, but the good Reverend is still living in Austin’s far eastern “Hogpen” neighborhood, named so because many residents raised livestock on their large lots until fairly recently. He says his age is 68, but he seems to be at least 10 years older. (His older brother Norris died in 2012 at age 84.) But even frail and near-blind, Ray Jr. still has the musical set-up in his collage-wrapped living room: a cheap Roland synth for drums, an electric Epiphone guitar and a little Fender amp. “I mess around with my music every now and then,” he says. “But I don’t got it like I useta.”

McDonald says he started making collages, most with an African-American history theme, in the ’60s to commemorate his travels as a “fire-rock” preacher. “I took a little bit from every place I been, every magazine or newspaper.” McDonald put all his collected words and images together in the pamphlet The USA Montage Treasure of Black Song Legends Plus!, which, like all McDonald’s works is right with intention and passion, but short on a professional polish.

One of McDonald’s 12 x 15-inch collages is titled “Austin Texas History” and it covers such local notables as longtime Ebenezer Baptist Church music director Virgie mcdonaldgapicDeWitty, World War II hero Doris Miller, pioneer gospel announcer Elmer Akins, the Bells of Joy hitmakers and Austin’s 1940s mother and sons gospel act, the Famous Humphries Singers. The upper right hand corner commemorates COGIC pioneer Luvenia Taylor, who established 18 missions in Central Texas before she passed away in 1929. Google is entirely unaware of Ms. Taylor or her assistant Sister Brown, but if there’s anything Rev. McDonald knows, it’s COGIC history. One of his finest works of cut-and-glue-and-type is a 27 x 40 inch sheet filled with cut-out heads of Church of God In Christ leaders. Nascent COGIC musicians included the Austin-educated Arizona Dranes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson, Ernestine Washington, Utah “Two Wings” Smith and the Angelic Gospel Singers. Also coming up in the COGIC tradition are Texas’ two top gospel groups- the Relatives from Dallas and the Jones Family Singers from Houston.

“I was always Church of God In Christ,” says McDonald, who lives alone, but has a nurse check up on him. “That’s all I ever knew.” His father was a laborer, a house-party blues guitarist, who wasn’t religious, McDonald says. But his mother Elizabeth (maiden name: Bynum) was a true believer and took her nine children to church with her.

Pentecostals, derided as “holy rollers,” were the first to play instruments in church and their belief in unbridled spiritual release is the foundation of rock n’ roll. “I would say my music resembles everyone’s music that came before, like boogie woogie and blues,” McDonald says. “But I still have my own style.”

bish3uitarMcDonald said he tried concentrating on music as a career when he moved to Dallas in the ’70s, but “everybody kept telling me ‘that’s rock n’ roll. That’s not gospel.’ But I make it about the Lord.”

Usually starting off with a sermon, in McDonald’s calm, descriptive style of  overwrought vocabularizing, he kicks into drive when he starts flailing on his electric guitar and screaming barely intelligible lyrics, while the congregation sings them back to him tenfold. It’s all so raw, going back to the birth of “Holy Ghost baptism” at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Sanctified churches had been around before then, but when  Houston preacher William Seymour added a third act of grace- the speaking of tongues- as the purest connection to God, he created a sensation that inspired Azusa participant Charles H. Mason to form the Church of God In Christ in Memphis. Rather than assimilate to the staid, white style of church services, which is what mainstream black Baptist and Methodist churches were doing in the years after the end of slavery, COGIC’s philosophy was to celebrate blackness in all its emotive glory. That attitude instantly found followers and 100 years after Azusa, COGIC can count a flock of nearly 8 million worldwide.

McGonigal says “Rock Daniels,” which begins with a Bible recitation from McDonald’s then-wife Lucinda (who did taxes for hire at the record shop), was a favorite of many listeners of Fire In My Bones. “I love how his guitar playing was just the same riff over and over again, but you still want to listen to it multiple times in a row,” says McGonigal, who has plans to one day release a full album of Bishop Ray McDonald’s rudimentary, yet passionate, gospel music. “I love how you can see the process in his work- in the pasteups for his cover art, and in the tape splices on his recordings.” McDonald is the pure outsider artist, the visionary with limited means and education.

The former bishop, whose legal blindness and lack of a ride keeps him away from church most Sundays, said he found out that his version of “Rock Daniels” was on the Fire In My Bones compilation when his neighbor across the street informed him. McDonald had been telling the hipster kid he was a gospel singer, but even the old man was shocked when he heard his record from 1985 on an international release.

When I visited him at his rundown mobile home on Friday afternoon, I played the track from my iPhone and McDonald had an incredulous look, like he’d just seen a magic trick. He’s a humble man, a lone wolf, a living link to the Pentecostal pioneers who found the best way to praise the Lord through music is to lose themselves in the spirit. He can’t do it like he useta, but Ray McDonald Jr. is mighty tickled to see that newer generations are discovering his “electrifying, but not shocking” Wednesday night and Sunday morning wailing sessions from 30 years ago.

bigtexshop                                                                      Photo by Alan Govenar 1985

 

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