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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.

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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

 

 

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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)

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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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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.

pogueslpreview

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.

the-pogues-liberty-lunch-6-8-88

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.

 

sanjurjoletter

 

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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