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What’s Goin’ On At 12th and Chicon? OTIS and LOLA

Posted by mcorcoran on October 1, 2018

Otis Bell in white at the Hideaway in East Austin circa 1971.

Otis Bell sat on the bed, while Wizard and Lil’ Sam took up chairs in the big room of the house at 12th and Chicon that used to be the Aristocrat Inn. The memories flowed between these three former ‘60s and ‘70s running buddies, who have all recently returned to East Austin after a collective 72 years in prison.

“The Harlem Theater was right next door to here,” said Edward “Wizard” McMillon, 62. “That’s where we’d go see movies like King Kong and The Magnificent Seven.”

After the movies there were so many nightlife options on E. 12th, which everyone called “the Ends” since 12th and Chicon was the last stop on the streetcar. It was also hopping on E. 11th, nicknamed “the Cuts” and anchored by “Chitlin Circuit” hotspots the Victory Grill and Charlie’s Playhouse. After hours, which was midnight back then, the party moved to Ernie’s Chicken Shack on Webberville Road, which stayed open all night, with lots of gambling in the back room.  Otis and the fellas rattled off more club names: White Swan, I.L. Club, the Hideaway, Good Daddy’s, Sam’s Showcase, T.C.’s Lounge, the Yellow Jacket, Untouchables Lounge, Alabama Club, the Oak Tree, Brown Derby and Shorty’s Bar. Missed a few- I couldn’t write that fast.

Barton’s Tavern was at the Northeast corner of 12th and Chicon and next to that was Blue-Eyed Liquor Store, nicknamed so because the proprietor was a black man with blues eyes. Old men from prison can tell you more about the old neighborhood than the Austin History Center, that’s for sure.

“This neighborhood was all black,” Otis said. “Black as far as you could see, and as long as we kept it to our side of the freeway, we was cool.” Drugs, gambling and prostitution went on without much concern from law enforcement, as long as nobody got killed.

“There were only two things a black man could do in East Austin,” says Selma “Lil’ Sam” McLennan, a notorious ex-pimp. “You either joined the military or you hustled in the street. I ain’t never had a job.”

Otis Bell. Photo by Otis Ike.

McLennan, 70, tells you straight up he went to prison for 28 years this last time because he murdered the owner of Martin’s Drive Inn on Weberville Road in 1986. “I killed someone there in 1971, too,” he says. “That was the roughest place in town, man. Everybody had a piece.”

McMillon was a heroin addict who robbed and stole to feed his habit. He told us all about that in part one of this series last week. But Otis, who’s been out of prison the shortest time, doesn’t want to talk about his criminal record. He just got out after 27 years, man. Let him be free, at least in his mind, a little while before you start bringing up the negative.

We’ll give him that, but since I did pay $7.95 for a copy of court papers pertaining to his case, you can read them at the end of the post if you’re interested. Basically, Otis received a life sentence in 1988 for shooting his cousin, who died a week later. The incident was March 2 and just two months later, Otis Bell was shipped off- he’d say railroaded- to the penitentiary. In those court papers, which used Bell’s nickname “Trouble” without protest from a court-appointed lawyer, you’ll read about a man of the same age and name, but that’s not the Otis Bell you’ll find waiting tables at Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Kitchen on Rosewood Avenue. It’s not the Otis I’ve been over to see four or five times in the past month.

It started when I ran into Lola Stephens on E. 12th one night. “I want you to meet my husband Otis,” she said. “He just got out of prison.” I was there checking out the transformation of the corner that once was as close as Austin got to The Wire. And now it’s got Dozen Street, a piano bar like none other, and Full Circle Bar, devoted to hardcore skeeball players. There’s also the blues-themed pizza joint King Bee Lounge and the rock box Badlands, plus an art gallery and a hip food court going in. They’ve all got great patios and everyone sits outside smoking, where they can hear the music just fine. All these new businesses have kept a little bit of the grit, even the makeover knights of the Full Circle, because 12th and Chicon ain’t gonna just wash away like that.

White kids riding around on bicycles?! Otis Bell couldn’t believe that shit when he came back to 12th and Chicon in July. The hoodrats are still there, but they’re outnumbered by a younger generation, not intimidated by street people. East Austin has become the Brooklyn of Texas, the dangerous/cool ‘hood, with gentrification causing real estate values- and taxes- to soar. Many of the area’s settlers are being priced out, including those whose parents and grandparents were, basically, forced to live in East Austin, “The Negro District” of  a 1928 city plan. Austin is the only big city in America to lose black residents, because they’re moving to the more affordable suburbs. Wealth rules the city.

McLennan lives over on E. 18th Street with his sister, who has no intention of moving, he said. “There have been some white folks trying to get my sister to sell the house to them, but she won’t do it. She’ll make a lot of money, but where’s she gonna go? All she knows is the East Side.”

There’s a Cajun restaurant, the Big Easy, on E. 12th and as I was wondering if Sister Lola was involved, there she was. She lives next door to the Big Easy, so, yeah I stopped in to meet Otis that night. “Did you go to Anderson?” I asked, which is always the greatest ice breaker in old school East Austin. Yeah, Otis said, graduated in 1965. Drafted into the Army in ’66.

He went into a box and pulled out an ornate, yellow and black, Anderson High Yellow Jackets belt he made while locked up. “There ain’t shit to do in prison, so around 1990 I started working in the craft shop with the leather men,” he said. Michael Lewis and Michael Heidt, a black man and a white man, were Bell’s mentors, but his grandfather William Henry Bell made custom cowboy boots on Congress Avenue, so maybe it’s in his blood, too. He also started attending church regularly and helped build the Chapel of Hope in the Hughes Unit of Gatesville Prison, near Fort Hood, in 1998.

Occasionally, there would be a cellblock shakedown, where guards would toss the cells while the inmates stayed out in the yard for a few hours. “You had to grab what you could or they’d throw it away, so I went through this stack of newspapers I had been saving to read. And there was a story about Lola, about this woman who feeds the homeless and raises other people’s children,” he recalled. He read the article out in the yard and when he got back to his cell he started writing a letter. “Lady,” it started, “you got a big heart.” He said that God told him to write her and offer any help he could give. He could send her leather goods that he and his crew made, assembly-line style with Otis as the designer, and she could sell them and use the money for her mission.

“I asked Otis to send me a sample of the work and he made me a money bag,” Lola said. “Just holding that bag I felt something. There was a connection.” She sold the first batch of leather bags, boots and belts easily and sent Otis $600 in cash, figuring he was as down on his luck as anyone. He sent it back for her to use for food. Lola works six days a week at her restaurant and then on Sunday feeds the homeless and hungry out her back door.

The youngest of 16 children of Rosie Robinson, Lola Stephens grew up in Lake Charles, La. and cooked with her mom growing up. She was raised strictly Pentecostal, but after graduating from Marion High in 1980, she took off on a bus to Hollywood. She visited a sister in Austin enroute to stardom and ended up staying. “I used to party in this house when it was the Aristocrat Inn,” she said one night recently. “But these days everything I do is for the Lord.” Lola starts more sentences with “God told me to…” than she does “I …”

In 2007, Otis got a letter from the City of Austin about his uninhabited house at 1804 E. 12th St. The house was passed to Otis after his father Willie, who owned a Gulf Station on E. 12th, died, and he’d been paying property taxes from prison. In the ’90s, the house was rented to someone who, without Otis’ knowlege, ran a drug-dealing operation and there was a danger of having the house torn down in a federal anti-drug program. But brother Joe was able to save the building, currently valued at just under $300,000. By 2007, the house had been vacant for almost 10 years, but the neighborhood was using Otis’ back yard as a dump. The city was threatening big fines and inflated removal fees if he didn’t clean it up. “I wrote to Lola and gave her the number of a relative who could maybe take care of that, but he never called her back,” Otis said. “So Lola hired a couple homeless guys to help her, then jumped the fence because she didn’t have a key, and cleaned the whole thing up herself. Ninety bags of garbage! And she didn’t know me from Adam.”

Lola asked if she could visit Otis in prison and he said sure, but made something clear: “I’ve already got a wife. And a girlfriend.” Otis was married to a former prison guard from the women’s unit in Gatesville. Didn’t faze Lola, who never missed a Saturday visit for a year. And the two wrote letters regularly. In one, Otis wrote “Are you afraid to fall in love with me?” Lola dashed off “Hell, no! Already in love.” They were married by proxy in 2008. Standing in for Otis was Mr. Lee, the white man who helped Lola get Nubian Queen off the ground in 2004 when she didn’t have a dime.

“I was done with men, but I’m not gay,” she said. “I prayed to God and told him that I wanted to marry his son, and he sent me Otis.”

Stop by and say ‘Hi.’ Nubian Queen Lola makes the best crawfish etoufee you’ve ever had. But you’ve gotta be patient, and relax. Good things take time, then Otis will bring it on out.

Otis Bell vs. the State of Texas:

0-otis-t-bell-v-state-texas-06-28-89

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

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

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.

“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.

Jimmy Smith

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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

Bobbie Nelson

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 »

Mississippi 1963: Waking up to racism

Posted by mcorcoran on January 15, 2017

martin-luther-king-jrOn an unseasonably breezy August afternoon in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. ready to give the speech of his life. But first there would be songs, untamed by social order, from a dignified, 260-pound African American queen who contorted her face, jerked her body and chomped on lyrics as if a legacy of suffering flowed through her. Mahalia Jackson. Could any name better fit the physical and spiritual embodiment of Mother Church? Ma- HAIL- Yeah. There’s a song in those syllables.

“How I got over,” she began, softly. “Well, how I got over,” her voice gained strength in the repetition. “Well, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Like most gospel performances, the song grew in intensity with each verse and the crowd’s response built from murmur to “Amen!” shouts. It took several minutes for the energized crowd of 250,000 to settle down, then Dr. King stepped up to the podium. “I have a dream,” the Civil Rights leader intoned, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

It was appropriate that the Civil Rights movement adopt as its soundtrack a style of music rooted in the African American struggle against oppression. The church has long provided a sanctuary for those who wish to express their blackness in all its glory.

– Intro to my “History of Black Gospel Music” (2002)

mahalia-jackson
I went to grade school in Biloxi, Miss. from 1963-65. We lived on Keesler AFB, but attended Catholic school off-base. Every morning the bus would drop off the black kids at one Catholic school and then the white kids at another. Long after Brown vs. Board of Education 1954 made school segregation illegal, Mississippi schools were not integrated. Even Catholic schools. Even next to a military base, where blacks and whites lived side by side, preparing to fight side by side for freedom.

The bus route took us through the black shantytown and the first few times I had to look away, the poverty was so grim. I didn’t want to think about it. There was no electricity, so the front porches were lit by kerosene lanterns, which gave an eerie glow in the dawn darkness. The school janitor lived on the route and told me one day that he saw us kids on the bus go by every morning. After that, I looked for Old Joe.

His shoes were falling apart, so one day my dad brought him some old Army boots and his thankfulness was so genuine, I have never forgotten the look on his face. It was like the first time I heard the blues and knew I was a certain way.

We were Kennedy liberals and my mother sent Julian Bond $10 for some campaign after seeing him on TV, which put us on the Civil Rights mailing lists for several more years. Driving through Mississippi, we saw a billboard that said “MARTIN LUTHER KING IS A COMMUNIST!” I said something like ‘is a communist worst than a Negro?” and my mother lit into me, even though that’s not what I meant.

That time in Mississippi had a profound effect on me. Afterwards, I read every book I could find about growing up black in America. James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X. Later in the ‘60s, the two groups of people I could tell you every little thing about were the starting lineup of the New York Yankees and Civil Rights leaders. I was that kid. Motown and Stax were on the radio when I was a teenager and that’s what we danced to at the youth center.

I’ve said it before: the story of African Americans, to come up from when they were treated like animals, is the greatest history of all time. I wanted to be part of it, but I could only observe and be inspired. And question what I didn’t understand.

When I left my job at the Austin American Statesman in 2011, there were a lot of reasons. A big one was that I no longer had to worry about being fired over something I wrote. I could lose assignments or freelance avenues, but those were small stakes for this newfound freedom. I decided to write more about race, which for a white male is a no-win situation. Louis C.K. is the only white person who’s ever benefited from his candid views on race. And I’m no Louis C.K. But I am the kind of writer who just feels compelled to put out there what he’s thinking. I know where my heart is. But sometimes I smh at my own shit. My friends on Facebook are more aware of this than the rest of you.

But this is an era where race is again an issue as divisive as it was in 1963. What side are you on? That seems to be the question of the day. Are you for Trayvon or George Zimmerman? Michael Brown or Darren Wilson? The unarmed black men killed for resisting arrest or the cops who, in turns out, are just as scared shitless as the rest of us.

I’m on the side of the truth. Tell me what really happened. Don’t say a man died on his knees with his hands up, when eye witness testimony says he was fighting the police officer before being shot. That’s when you lose me. Don’t come into every issue with an agenda that twists to help your cause. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? We can handle the truth.

Whenever I post an opinion on Facebook that has a racial context, I close my laptop and walk away for at least a couple hours. I know I’ve done something unwise- opening up myself to charges and accusations and very strongly-worded disagreements. I know someone’s going to call me a racist. But Kris Kristofferson sure hit a home run when he wrote that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. I put myself in this position because it’s a rare one. I can write whatever I want with little consequences. Some would call my life pitiful, living in a broke-down trailer without hot water, but since 95% of my life takes place in my head, I feel like I’m living like a king.

This is a long, long way to say Happy Birthday to Martin Luther King Jr. You were my first hero who wasn’t white or wearing a sports uniform. You knew you were going to win in the long run, so the constant evil setbacks were endurable. There’s no greater power than knowing you’re right and they’re wrong.

The first big project I took on in my semi-retirement was a book/CD on Austin-educated blind gospel pioneer Arizona Dranes. The recordings she made in 1926, which, for the first time mixed juke joint R&B styles such as ragtime and boogie woogie with religious lyrics and speaking-in-tongues fury, set the template for rock n’ roll. The designer of the book He Is My Story: the Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes (Tompkins Square) was Atlanta artist Susan Archie. She was just great to work with and we were in constant communication during the design (and de-facto editing) process. She was good friends with James Bond, the brother of Julian Bond, and offered to give my mom’s hero a copy of the text. About a week later, I heard back from Susan. Former NAACP chairman Bond had a small problem with one part of the book. I had made an assumption, based on research about the male/female dynamic of slaves, that Mr. Bond said wasn’t quite accurate. “OK, change it to what he says is true,” I told Susan. Julian Bond knows more about that subject than I do, I was sure of that. I smiled for my mom, who was around for only my first 18 years.

The exchange with Julian Bond made me think of all that mail we used to get in the ‘60s, asking for contributions for various organizations dedicated to the Civil Rights movement. As far as I know, one folding dime was all we sent it. We were poor, or at least we thought we were. “What was the mail?” would come a call from the kitchen after I got back from the mailbox. “Just some Julian Bond mail,” I’d say. That’s what we called the Civil Right circulars. But I read it all. It wasn’t junk mail to me.

Those two years in Mississippi, when I would lie in bed wondering how people could treat other people that way, provided the foundation to everything I know about race in America. That’s the truth. Seen it with my own eyes. I know it’s not the same experience as being black, which is a place I’ve put myself in my mind since second grade. A writer goes with a feeling. If he or she is true. I can’t help what I feel and I don’t want to, even if it sometimes gets me in trouble with readers. Those feelings. On some days, they’re all I’ve got. And all I need.

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Waco’s Tom Wilson: A Record Producer Is a Psychoanalyst with Rhythm

Posted by mcorcoran on May 19, 2015

Bob Neuwirth and Tom Wilson, with Dylan from “Don’t Look Back.”

Rick Rubin is known as a producer who gets the best from his artists, from Adele to Jay-Z, from Petty (Tom) to Cash (Johnny), by being the consummate head-nodder with Olympic-sized ears. First making his name producing hip hop by LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and more, Rubin was the white kid who conquerered the black music world in New York City.
Flip the races and go back five decades to meet Tom Wilson, the tall, laid-back, black man from Waco, who produced three early classic Bob Dylan albums, plus “Like a Rolling Stone” as a parting gift. During his time at Columbia (’63-’65), Wilson also helmed Simon & Garfunkel’s debut LP Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., which hit the snooze button on airplay until Wilson, without the artists’ knowledge, put a backing band to “The Sound of Silence” and pioneered folk rock with that smash in 1965.

As monumental as were those Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel albums, Wilson’s most challenging work in the recording booth came after Columbia, when he became a staff producer at MGM/Verve in 1966 and helmed the debut albums by both Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground within a two-month period (March- May 1966). You couldn’t get too weird for Wilson, who released cosmic freejazz philosopher Sun Ra’s first album in 1956. Jazz By Sun Ra came out on Transition, the label Wilson started in 1955, right after he graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics.

After you’ve worked with an “Arkestra” leader who claimed to be from Saturn, Andy Warhol’s junkies aren’t going to freak you out. Wilson looked beyond the edgy content and heard great songs in the VU demo that got them signed to Verve after all the other labels passed. Wilson flew the band to Hollywood in May ’66 and re-recorded “Waiting For the Man,” “Heroin,” “Venus In Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Since the album (banana cover) was billed The Velvet Underground and Nico, Wilson wanted one song for the radio featuring the avant-garde kitten and got the VU together for one last session in New York. Lou Reed and John Cale wrote “Sunday Morning” with Nico in mind, but Reed ended up singing it as the opener on the album Rolling Stone ranked #13 on its 100 all-time most influential albums list.

“The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson,” Cale said in the 1983 book Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. “Andy Warhol didn’t do anything.” By the time of the White Light/ White Heat followup, however, Wilson was becoming known as “a swinger par excellence,” John Cale told Creem magazine in 1987. He wasn’t talking about tempo, but a “constant parade of women. He was inspired, though, and used to joke around to keep everybody in the band light.”

Like Rubin, Wilson’s career is not defined by a distinctive sound, but by its wide-reaching legacy. The cerebral Texan could feel music in all its forms, which is a rare and special talent.

Wilson and Quincy Jones, Lesley Gore’s knobsmith over at Mercury, were the first blacks to produce white acts on major labels in 1963. But where Jones went funky in L.A., with the Brothers Johnson leading into Michael Jackson, Wilson stayed mainly in the rock and folk fields. Some of his other credits include Eric Burdon and the Animals (check out Wilson’s production on “Cheating” to hear where Tom Petty got the idea for “Breakdown”), Blues Project and the Clancy Brothers. Although he drew breath just 47 years, dying of a heart attack in 1978, Wilson amassed the credits of a long life.

Wilson started off as a jazzman. Shown here with Wynton Kelly and Eddie Harris. Photo by Don Hunstein 1964.

He grew up in the ‘30s and ‘40s in the embrace of two black Waco institutions- A.J. Moore School and New Hope Baptist Church. His father, Thomas Blanchard Wilson Sr., was a former principal at Moore, who left, just as Tom Jr. started school, to open an insurance office. Grandfather Bertrus T. Wilson was also a former Moore headmaster, though he made his money with a rug laundry business.

Tom Jr. played some trombone, but his interest turned to recording while in college, first at Fisk University in Nashville and then Harvard, where he had a radio show on WHRB, spinning everything from jazz to folk. Playing the records only made him hungry to put out his own.

A natural entrepreneur, Wilson was president of the Young Republicans Club in Harvard, which may seem weird for a young black man in the 1950s, but Wilson lived by his own creed and not racial expectations. He found it counterproductive for blacks to use race as an excuse, but being in a mixed marriage, there were constant reminders of prejudice. In a 1968 cover story in the New York Times magazine entitled “A Record Producer Is a Psychoanalyst with Rhythm,” Wilson said “I only think in terms of race when I come out of a big meeting and some guy making $30 a week in the stock room gets the cab that won’t stop for me.”

But Wilson’s race may have put him at an advantage at Columbia in 1963, when Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman bickered with label exec John Hammond over contract issues and threatened to sue to have Dylan freed from Columbia. Hammond produced Dylan’s 1962 debut LP and was midway through the Freewheelin’ followup when he replaced himself with a hip African-American that the protest singer couldn’t refuse. Grossman liked what Wilson had told him about his prized artist: “If you put some background (music) to this, you might have a white Ray Charles with a message.”

Wilson’s first day of work as Bob Dylan’s producer, on April 24, 1963, yielded “Girl of the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Talking World War III Blues.” Dylan was in charge, make no mistake, but he seemed to thrive on the new energy in the studio.

In the middle of recording Dylan’s third album The Times They Are ‘a Changing in August 1963, the singer from Hibbing, Minn. became a national sensation at the Newport Folk Festival. But the songwriter’s fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan, made in one day, didn’t really move the career along much. The big breakthrough came with Bringing It All Back Home, recorded in NYC on three days in January 1965. The sessions opened in Columbia’s Studio A with Wilson recording Dylan doing solo acoustic numbers “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” all future classics. The next day, they moved to Studio B where they were joined by a band (including Spike Lee’s father William E. Lee on bass) and hammered out such rockers as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm.”

When Bringing It brang it in March ’65, the sequence was exchanged so the LP’s electric side one opened defiantly with “Subterranean” and side two closed with the taunting “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Dylan declared himself no longer the contemporary of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, but the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and not everyone was happy about that. Dylan had sold out his folk roots, was the thinking behind the boos he heard and felt at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Wilson produced leadoff track “Like a Rolling Stone” on Dylan’s next LP Highway 61 Revisited, but that would end their professional relationship, as Wilson was replaced for the rest of the LP by Nashville’s Bob Johnston. It’s not known if Dylan (through Grossman, no doubt) ever gave Wilson a reason, but one exchange during the recording of “Rolling Stone” seems telling. As chronicled in Al Kooper’s Backstage Pass memoir, Wilson had asked Kooper to come by the studio to maybe add some guitar. But the guitars were all covered, so Kooper sat at the organ and improvised a riff. “Turn up the organ,” Dylan ordered Wilson during playback. “But he’s not an organ player,” Wilson replied. In Kooper’s memory, Dylan shot back “turn it up anyway,” but according to Dylan biographer Michael Gray, who heard the tape, Dylan lit into Wilson. “Don’t tell me who’s an organ player and who’s not. Just turn the organ up.”

Like when a player calls out his coach, one of them is usually on the way out, and it sure wasn’t going to be Dylan. After getting rerouted from Highway 61, Wilson hit the road for Los Angeles, where he hooked up with MGM. According to the 1968 New York Times story, Wilson produced eight Top 100 albums in the previous 12 months, ranging from South African trumpeter/ bandleader Hugh Masekela to the Fraternity of Man, whose “Don’t Bogart Me” became a cult classic thanks to its inclusion on the Easy Rider soundtrack.

In later years, Wilson went independent and, giving you an idea of his self-effacing sense of humor, ran a publishing company named Terrible Tunes and Maudlin Melodies, as well as Reluctant Management and Rasputin Productions. The ‘70s were not as good to him as were the ‘60s, but who else has had a decade like that in the studio?

Somehow Wilson, who also co-founded the legendary Record Plant studio in Manhattan, is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But if Waco has its own piece of music immortality, it’s at the Doris Miller Memorial Park, named after the World War II hero who also attended A.J. Moore. Thomas Blanchard Wilson Jr. is buried there next to his parents.

The laidback are often overlooked in the short run, but there’s no way that posterity can look at the career of a man who produced Cecil Taylor then Bob Dylan then Simon & Garfunkel then Frank Zappa and the Mothers then the Velvet Underground and not proclaim him to be one of the greatest record producers of all time.

Tom Wilson was not bound by race, nor genre. He liked to sit alone with the universal language of music and wonder what he could do to make it connect deeper.

 

by Michael Corcoran, from “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT Press)

 

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Fairytale of New Orleans: Me and the Pogues 1988

Posted by mcorcoran on April 29, 2015

The Drunken Irish Bastard is back. He smiles through rotten teeth, dressed to swill in a baggy black suit. He’s standing there where the dreams end, trying to put his soul into words that match the tempo of his heart. He’s the man who knows too much about something he can’t name and it drives him crazy until the liquor finally rescues him and the ghosts take him home and put him to bed.

Spin magazine, May 1988

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It’s the rock critic’s fantasy- go on tour with your favorite band- and mine came true in June 1988, when Spin magazine called me and said get your shit packed yer going on the road with the Pogues! This was my seat on Led Zeppelin’s private jet, my booty call from Madonna. I think you’d have to go back to 1970 and the Jackson 5 to find me as crazy about a group as I was with the Pogues in 1988.

Growing up in an Irish-Catholic household, where the Clancy Brothers, “The Unicorn” by the Irish Rovers and “Danny Boy” by everyone topped the airplay chart, I had an aversion to Irish music. Like a hip hop kid whose parents played the blues. That was the shit I was rebelling against when I went all in on soul music and rock n’ roll. But then, when I was in my late twenties I started hearing about this band of former punk rockers, produced by my hero Elvis Costello, who lit a fire under traditional Irish music. Originally called Pogue Mahone (“Kiss my arse” in Gaelic), the Pogues were led by Shane MacGowan, a songwriting genius who suggested that Tom Waits grew up in Kilkenny, where there were neither gruff, black winos nor dentists.

Their second album was my first. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash didn’t do all that much for me, really, until deep into side two and its tale of Gallipolli, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” MacGowan didn’t write it- Australian Eric Bogle did- but Shane’s telling was like Richard Burton’s Hamlet. The song was his! “And the Band Played…” hit the switch for me on the Pogues. Suddenly, all their songs were better. I went and bought the first LP Red Roses For Me and then the EP that had “The Body of an American” (later used in The Wire Irish burial scene). If you came into China Sea Tattoo on the Drag in ’86, you heard the Pogues blaring from the t-shirt shop in the back. A whole new old world opened up for me. My people!

That was around the time I started freelancing for Spin magazine, which was trying to be Rolling Stone’s hip rival. I mainly did the humor pieces on the back page at first, but then the editors started giving me album assignments and a couple front-of-the-book profiles. I let it be known that I was highly available to review the next Pogues LP and one day I got a copy of If I Should Fall From Grace With God in the mail, with a quick deadline. They wanted it as the lead review of the May 1988 issue, so I had some space. Now I just needed some “talent,” which was the code word for methamphetamine in my circle.

Okay, the usual album review takes two or three hours to write. I started writing my Pogues review as soon as I got off work- 6 p.m.- and didn’t stop for 15 hours. Two lines of speed to start, one more at about midnight and the last one at 4 a.m. Always for work, never in excess- that was my rule with the white stuff that was sometimes brown.

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I used to worry that I drank too much, that my gambling was out of hand, that my language was offensive, that I spent too much time daydreaming, that my outlook on life was fatalistic, that I was incapable of sustaining a long relationship, that I would never understand money and that eventually I would go to prison for a crime I did not commit. Then I listened to the Pogues and stopped worrying. Today I stand before you and proudly declare, “Hey, world, I’m a Drunken Irish Bastard and if you don’t like it, well, here, I got something your wife might like.”

That lead graf took about an hour, though it would be retyped at least a dozen times through the night. I went on:

Drunken Irish Bastards used to be hot tuna, man, with guys like Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Damon Runyon, John Huston, Ring Lardner, John McGraw, Stephen Foster and all the rest of them fightin’ and fuckin’ and fallin’ down all the way to the top. Then, I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden it was no longer cool to stagger around, slurring epithets and peeing into the potted palms at the El Morocco while horrified autograph seekers looked on. Christ, look what happened to Declan MacManus (slave name: Elvis Costello) when he tried to revive Drunken Irish Bastardry in the late Seventies. Poor guy got his glasses knocked off by Bonnie Bramlett just for mouthing off. You should’ve heard what Fitzgerald used to say about Ray Charles.

That night was the most fun I’ve ever had with my fingers. As my girlfriend, a British actress, slept on the other side of the room, I banged that Smith-Corona til the sun came up.

Shane MacGowan is the new savior of Drunken Irish Bastards. Unstable, boozed-up visionaries of Irish descent are turning up on more and more “What’s Hot” lists, thanks to the songs and brave vocals of MacGowan and the play of his Pogues. I expect this album to do for the proliferation of the DIB what Farrah Fawcett did for the curling iron… The Pogues realize that the key to being Drunken Irish Bastards is to be absolutely white. Their music is virtually devoid of Negroid influence. This is white boy funk music, the stuff of our ancestors created when they were as oppressed as blacks are now. It’s got guts and soul, and will make poor people dance until 4 a.m., even if they have to be at work at 7.

I didn’t even stop for bathroom breaks, draining into an empty coffee can. I think I used up a year’s supply of dopamine that night!

The dream dies every day and, as at an Irish wake, the mourners toast their dead and sit around the coffin getting drunk until the pain is acceptable. Drunken Irish Bastards go through that ritual every night as penance for the sin of not finding the answer to the big question. If you can swing it, like the Pogues, you put your Hail Marys and Our Fathers on albums and release your Act of Contrition as a 12-inch single.

After Spin published the review, I was pretty much the hot new critic in the country, no shit, with editors tracking me down at the t-shirt shop and offering gigs. I had been writing for Texas Monthly, too, and even had an agent at ICM wanting to talk to me about representation. At age 32, I was finally becoming the writer I always knew I was going to be. I played myself as having overblown self esteem, when actually the opposite was true. But with some success I started thinking quite highly of myself.

“Get ready to win another award,” I said to my editor at Texas Monthly when I plopped 28 typewritten pages about Vidor, “the home of the Texas Ku Klux Klan,” on his desk in the spring of ’88. Corky, the self-important one, wasn’t an act anymore.

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And then I got the dream assignment to write a feature about the Pogues’ Summer ‘88 tour of the American South. The plan was to meet the band in Austin, before the show at Liberty Lunch, then fly to New Orleans, where they had a gig at Tipitina’s. Then I would board the tour bus with the Pogues to shows in Birmingham, AL and Memphis, and somehow get back to New Orleans for my return flight to Austin. I’d stay in the hotels where the band stayed and have total access for three days. All expenses paid by the label. There was no doubt in my mind that this finished piece would be my first cover story for Spin. I was reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor for inspiration.

But I forgot about the personal side of the work. Talking to the band, gaining their trust, being the nail in the wall, recording everything. I saw this being my Hunter S. Thompson moment- lessons on human nature while trying to drink the drunkest band in existence under the table. I wouldn’t say I was delusional, because all this shit was suddenly happening in my life after a 10-year struggle, but inflated self-appraisal? Oh, yeah.

When I came backstage before the Liberty Lunch show, I saw one of the bandmembers throwing up outside the window, which was so tall someone had to hold up his ankles. I had, quite literally, gotten in over my head. The show was sloppy, uninspired, with MacGowan so drunk his singing was a constant slur, but the crowd was going nuts. The aftershow party was at a suite at the Omni, but it wasn’t fun because every Irish drunk in town was in the hallway, trying to get in, and the band seemed a bit out of sorts. I didn’t help the mood by chiding them about the disappointing Liberty Lunch show. “I know five Mexicans, Los Lobos, who could outplay the seven Irish guys I heard tonight!” I said. Is there a malady called Groupie Tourette’s?

This is the thing I could never figure out about myself. Why am I so compulsively argumentative? It’s almost like I have a verbal masochistic fetish. You would think that, when I meet my heroes, I would tone down the adversarial attitude, but sometimes it even gets worse. It’s like I’m overcompensating for being starstruck. Here are some actual things I’ve said to people I admire:

To Rosanne Cash: “Your father’s voice isn’t really anything special.”

To Elvis Costello: “When you stole some of those riffs from Donovan and Booker T. and the MGs, that was done as an homage, right?”

To Bruce Springsteen: “I’m so glad you didn’t do ‘Highway Patrolman’ tonight. That’s my song. I couldn’t stand having to listen to it with 2,000 other people.”

But that was all small stuff compared to my time with the Pogues, in the band’s classic lineup, except Cait O’Riordan had just left to be Mrs. Elvis Costello and was replaced by a young, good-looking guy.

Let me describe my 24 hours in New Orleans, where I met the fellas and crew at the hotel, and chatted for a bit on the bus with Phillip Chevron, whose “Thousands Are Sailing” was one of the band’s best new songs. Off to a good start. Then I rode with them to the soundcheck and got some good MacGowan color. Shane was the last one on the bus, already shitfaced and carrying a bottle of port. He sat at the back booth and let the bottle slide off the table on the bus’ first turn. He picked it up and slapped it down and the same thing happened on the next turn. Nobody in the band seemed to notice. Port wine drenched the carpet.

Shane was the gravy train and he was a mess. “We know we’ve got a problem,” the accordion player James Fearnley said to me, not caring who heard. “It’s a fucking drag. But at this point there’s nothing we can do.”

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Pogues at Liberty Lunch 6/8/88. Photo by Laurie Greenwell.

A couple of the crew members took me aside at sound check and gave me some mushrooms, which I took about an hour before the show. I was drinking on the record label tab, high on psychedelics, and, guess what, the Tip’s show was much better than the Austin one. The band was in a really good mood afterwards and we all went to a bar called the Dungeon, which served eight-ounce beers and played shitty hair metal music. In his own world, Shane was taken away by the two most beautiful women on the planet.

Somewhere between the end of the show and leaving the Dungeon, there was some cocaine, but I don’t really remember the details. I only know that coke “turns me into” an abrasive motormouth know-it-all. We’re all lucky I could never afford the shit, but when it was offered…

The guys I ended up drinking with until the sun came up were tinwhistle player Spider Stacy and drummer Andrew Ranken. Spider was as nice as could be, but Ranken and I butted heads early and often. He was kinda like me. And high as fuck. I was trying to tell them about Vidor, Texas, how it had remained an all-white town, even though it was six miles from Beaumont, which had a large black population. And I guess in my fucked-up state I trampled the nuances and came off like a supporter of the Klan. That’s what I found out, horrified, about 25 years later, when I had coffee with the Pogues manager Frank Murray and asked him why I got thrown off the tour before it really started.

I had actually come by the next day to tell the tour manager that I didn’t think I could ride on the bus with the guys, my heroes, who had told me “you’re a loudmouthed cunt and we want you to leave!” at the bar at 7 a.m. My plan was to meet the band in Memphis for one more round of interviews, then catch the bus back to New Orleans. But the roadie said, “the band decided they don’t want you around.”

It wasn’t unexpected- I was a contrarian asshole- but still crushing. Besides hurt feelings, what was I going to tell Spin? And what was I going to do in New Orleans- on my own dime- for three days until my plane left with me on it? This was before ATMs, I think, and I didn’t have a credit card. Luck had my back, though, and I ended up going on the road with Dash Rip Rock, a rock trio from New Orleans who I’d met at the first SXSW a year earlier. By the end of their jaunt to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, we had decided that I would move to New Orleans and manage the band. They were fucking fantastic and lots of fun.

The whole Pogues fiasco was the alarm going off on my idyllic existence in Austin. After four years writing for the Austin Chronicle, I’d become so full of myself that even I didn’t want to read what I had to say. I was getting into a pretty big substance abuse problem, so what better job than to sign up with a rock n’ roll party band that brought Nawlins craziness to whatever Midwestern shithole they were playing that night?

I was working out the details with the Dash guys, thinking I’d need a month to get out of Austin, when a couple of my friends came by my hovel on the Drag behind a shoe repair shop. “Why don’t you move to San Francisco with us?” they said. Both Brent and Scott had managed or worked closely with bands and they said I wasn’t cut out for management. The exhausting daily scenario they described boiled down to “none of the credit, all of the blame” and so I called the Dash guys (who seemed relieved) and headed in the opposite direction.

I could afford the move only because a couple days earlier I had unexpectedly received a check for $2,000 from Texas Monthly, the full fee for my Vidor piece. The story never ran and it didn’t win any awards. But it got me out of Austin, where I was becoming the Corky caricature in real life. The Pogues were still my favorite band, but I couldn’t listen to their music for a few months after New Orleans. I blew that one, or maybe it was doomed from the start.

****

From the upcoming memoir The Worst Thing To Happen To Austin Music.

 

Pogues setlist at Tipitina’s 6/9/88: 1. The Broad Majestic Shannon 2. Medley / The Rocky Road to Dublin / The Galway Races 3. Repeal 4. Kitty 5. If I Should Fall From Grace With God 6. Boat Train 7. Metropolis 8. Rainy Night in Soho 9. Thousands Are Sailing 10. N.W.3 11. Bottle Of Smoke 12. Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six 13. Lullaby Of London 14. Johnny Come Lately 15. Dirty Old Town 16. Turkish Song Of The Damned 17. Sketches of Spain 18. Fiesta 19. Sickbed 20. Sally MacLennane 21. A Pair Of Brown Eyes 22. Dog

Here’s that Vidor story I wrote for Texas Monthly.

 

DA’S ADDENDUM

Jack, 15, Milwaukee

Jack, 16, Milwaukee. “Ya smoke.”

I have a son his name is Jack. Growing up, he didn’t really go for my music much and I didn’t force anything on him. He loved the Beatles and the Sex Pistols and whatever was on “Guitar Hero.” But he didn’t go much for Springsteen or Dylan or the Staple Singers.

One day I was playing Rum, Sodomy and during “Waltzing Matilda” he came from the other room and asked “who’s this?” That was a first. And that was all it took. During his sophomore year of high school all he played was the Pogues, as well as their Green Days- Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, etc. He had found his identity. He was the Celtic kid with red hair.

I heard that Milwaukee had one of the best Irish music festivals in the country and during the summer before his junior year I took Jack. I had met the band Gaelic Storm, whose guitarist lives in Austin, and they set me up with all the best credentials, so when the skies opened up and the torrential downpour scattered Paddys, I made a beeline for backstage. I looked back and Jack stayed in the middle of the storm, listening to an Irish folksinger onstage.

The old man was Francis McPeake and the song Jack couldn’t leave was “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?” also known as “Wild Mountain Thyme” or “Purple Heather.” It’s a classic Irish folk tune which McPeake first recorded in 1957. We ended up in a tight room with the Belfast singer, who told a great story about teaching John Lennon how to play the bagpipes. “Do you have a cigarette, lad?” he asked Jack, who said he didn’t smoke. Jack told me later that when I turned away, McPeake eyed him and whispered, knowingly,  “ya smoke.” That cracked us up.

OK, it’s three years later and Jack has started playing the ukulele. We’re at a big family reunion in Oregon and my father, a Mick from the South Bronx, is hitting the sauce and he wants to hear some Irish songs. All the other cousins are ignoring him, but Jack gets his uke and sits at the table with the old man. He plays “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?” and he’s really belting it. I’m wondering where did this confidence come from?  He’s singing it just like Mr. McPeake did in the rain in Milwaukee. My dad is just beside himself: the kid stays in the will! Then Jack sings a couple of Pogues songs- “The Leaving of Liverpool” and “Dirty Old Town.” He even does “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and I see him as a young man.

 

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And what became of my deal with ICM? In March 1987, just five months after he sent me the letter, Mr. Sanjurjo succumbed to cancer. A native of Puerto Rico, Luis Sanjurjo graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a Civil Rights attorney before he became a literary agent. His clients included Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Of course I kept this letter.

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