(originally published in Texas Super Lawyers Magazine 2014)
by Michael Corcoran
Tony Buzbee was a 22-year-old lieutenant just out of the ROTC at Texas A&M when he faced his Marine squad for the first time during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. If his men had any thoughts of testing the new “kid” commander in Kuwait, they were soon erased.
“There’s nothing you can beat me at,” Buzbee said to the group. “Not at boxing, or in one-on-one basketball, or in cards or a footrace. I’m stronger than you and I’m smarter than you. So don’t try me.” Any questions?
“That’s how you lead in the Marines,” Buzbee says two decades later in his large and sparse office that looks over downtown Houston from the 73rd floor. “You’ve gotta be fearless.”
Buzbee brings the same refuse-to-lose swagger to the law firm that bears his name—and he’s been able to back it up. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” Buzbee says when asked how he uses his military experience in the legal field. “Then execute.”
Juries eat up the Tony Buzbee Show, a mix of homespun charm and vitriolic turns when he spars with a hostile witness or opposing counsel.
His epic battles against British Petroleum, which, Buzbee estimates, yielded more than $300 million in personal injury judgments for his clients in Texas and Louisiana, landed the Houston attorney on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2010. He may be the closest the Southwest legal field has to an action hero, and there’s even been talk of making a movie based on his fights with BP. Asked who he sees in the lead role, Buzbee smiles. He’s thought of that before. “Gerard Butler,” he says. Butler, the handsome Scottish actor (“300”) who drank his way out of the legal profession and onto the big screen, would have to work on the slight East Texas accent that Buzbee turns up in court when it’s to his advantage.
Competitive? Michael Jordan is competitive. Tony Buzbee is a psycho. He’s obsessed with winning. And with his landmark victories including the $75 million he earned for offshore drilling workers in a wage fixing suit, Buzbee’s not only earned respect, but in his 14-year career, he’s pocketed as much money in the courtroom via jury awards as Jordan made on the court.
“Tony Buzbee is the biggest, baddest, meanest dog in the yard—that’s a fact,” says Houston attorney Chad Pinkerton, who worked at the Buzbee Law Firm from 2005 until starting his own office in 2007. “But he’s also generous and he cares a lot about his people and his clients. He taught me everything I know about practicing law.”
A fashionably-coiffed Buzbee, looking ready for cocktail hour with his trademark ice-blue handkerchief peaking out of the pocket of a tailored suit, says, “I’m not the lawyer people hire because I have a cool website or a nice ad placement in the Yellow Pages. They hire me to beat the other guy… They get so (angry) that they say, ‘I’m gonna call Tony Buzbee!’ If that doesn’t send shivers up the spine of some pompous corporate lawyer,” he says with a big smile, “well, it should.”
Buzbee hates losing so much that he hasn’t been present to hear a jury’s verdict read since 2001. “It’s just too nerve-wracking. Thank God it’s rare that I lose, because when it does happen, I just want to roll up in a ball like a baby. The next day it feels like I’ve been beaten by sticks. My feeling is that if you can handle losing, you’re a loser.”
Buzbee drills younger attorneys on what he calls “the architecture of the case.” It’s all in the foundation and blueprints. “You don’t win a case in your opening or closing arguments,” he says.
Buzbee shrugs off his big victories and dwells on the few setbacks, including a political defeat when he ran for Texas State Representative in 2001. (“My last foray into politics.”) Winning is profitable, but you always learn more when you lose. “The first case I lost was a young girl who’d been burned at Wal-mart,” he recalls, putting the year in the late ‘90s, soon after he’s expanded from his first office in Galveston to downtown Houston. “Oh, I gave the best arguments,” he says. “My opening statement? You could’ve put it in a book. Cross-examination? Brilliant. Closing argument? Of the eight jurors, there were seven crying.” Buzbee’s excited cadence is reminiscent of a Southern preacher. “In each of the discreet elements of the case, I shoulda won. But I got poured out. The jury note came back: “Can we give this little girl money and still find Wal-mart not liable?” Buzbee knew he’d lost the case.
“I hate to lose, but what I won’t say is that the jury sucked,” Buzbee says. “What I won’t say is that the judge screwed me. It all comes down to the architecture of the lawsuit. That’s what I drill into all our young attorneys. The case has been decided before you get into the courtroom.” Preparation and putting yourself in a place to win: the Marine instincts have only become deeper ingrained. “It still all boils down to this: Have you presented a story that the jury buys into?”
Houston attorney Frank Spagnoletti, who has worked on cases with Buzbee and against him, has known the younger lawyer since he was a clerk just out of law school. “Tony Buzbee is a different cat,” says Spagnoletti. “But he’s leading the next generation of top lawyers in Texas. I’ve known Joe Jamail and John O’Quinn and Tony is a throwback to that era. He has the legal abilities, the financial abilities and, most importantly, the huevos that most other lawyers don’t have.”
At age 45, with four children and his wife Zoe, whom he met at A&M, Buzbee says he’s looking for balance in his life. Where does it come from, the unbridled tenacity, the hardcore competitive streak? Buzbee asked himself that a few years ago and went in search of the answers on ancestry.com. Then he visited the towns in Alabama where his people settled. “I found that I come from a long line of Buzbees with chips on their shoulders,” he says, “and it continues to this day.” He traced his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Reeves Buzbee, who was in jail in Coosa County, Ala., in 1860 at age 70 for murder. Tony Buzbee visited the jail and stood in one of the tiny cells for a long time, thinking.
Actually, he didn’t have to go back too far to find evidence of the Buzbee flame. “My dad is a true character,” he says of butcher Glenn Buzbee, who now tends the cattle ranch his son bought outside Atlanta, Texas, where Tony Buzbee grew up. During courtroom breaks, Buzbee loves to tell stories about his old man, like the time he wrestled a bear to settle a barroom bet. “He would not only fight at the drop of a hat, he’d drop the hat himself.” Tony Buzbee recalls one altercation that started when his father called the parents of a boy who had thrown some of Tony’s things out the window of a moving school bus. “The kid’s mother answered and my dad gave her a good cussin’,” Buzbee recalls. When the boy’s father heard about that, he called Glenn Buzbee back and threatened to whup him next time he saw him. “Come over RIGHT NOW!” Glenn yelled into the phone. “We waited and waited, and the guy never showed up, so we went to bed,” Buzbee says. About midnight, the man rolled up to the Buzbees’ and got out of his car. “He’d had a few beers for courage, I guess.” Glenn Buzbee jumped out of bed, charged outside in his underwear and clocked the guy on the side of the head. But he slipped on the dew and fell down, which gave the other father an opportunity to jump in his car and hightail it on out of there. Buzbee laughs as he recalls the sight of his father “chasing the guy for six blocks in his tighty whities.”
Buzbee was just an average student in high school, but he desperately wanted out of his small town in the upper right corner of Texas. “Going to A&M was really the turning point in my life,” he says. “Being from a podunk town, I wasn’t sure I could be as good as everyone else.” He took hard to the Corps of Cadets and earned the rank of commander of Battalion K2. “Our motto was ‘The best in every way,’ and A&M gave me the confidence to believe it.” Buzbee was recently appointed to the Texas A&M Board of Regentsl; he donated the money to build the Buzbee Leadership Learning Center for cadets on campus.
Buzbee went straight into the Marines out of college, a newlywed deployed to the Middle East. “It was tough on my wife,” he says. “In four years, I was home four months. But she’s a strong person and we made it work.”
Buzbee says he “ate, slept, breathed the Corps. Except for the fact that you couldn’t make any money, I’d still be in the Marines.” He would have liked to stay in long enough to break Chesty Puller’s record as the most-decorated Marine in history.
After his military bid was up, Buzbee attended University of Houston Law Center and graduated in 1997, the same day his first child was born. While at law school, Buzbee’s hero was UH alum John O’Quinn, best known for winning a $1 billion verdict against Wyeth Laboratory for its diet pill fen-phen. Quinn was also known for a fleet of cars—more than 600 luxury and vintage models—that would make Jay Leno drool.
When Buzbee started winning million-dollar judgments for his clients (taking 40% as his fee), he also started accumulating expensive cars. Then, O’Quinn died in a single-car accident in 2009 and Buzbee had a shift in priorities. “John O’Quinn didn’t leave behind any children. He didn’t have a wife. He just had all those cars,” Buzbee says. “I was thinking that if John O’Quinn could come back to pass on one last bit of wisdom, he would say, ‘Cars are just a bunch of metal.’”
Around the same time, Buzbee was starting to worry that he and his family were being defined more by what they had than what they did: “My kids would ask me what car I was driving that day because that’s what the kids at school wanted to know.”
Buzbee decided to donate all his cars to be auctioned off for charity, raising $2 million for Jesse’s Tree, which helps homeless people turn their lives around. “I kept only one car,” he says, with a twinkle that cues a punch line. “But it was a Maybach,” List price: $550,000.
Buzbee is rich beyond his dreams. But in his heart he’s still the son of a butcher from East Texas. “You remember those notes you used to pass around in school to girls? It would say, ‘Do you like so and so, check yes or no.’ When I was in sixth grade there was this girl I liked a lot, and when I got the paper back, under ‘Do you like Tony Buzbee?’ she had checked no. I was crushed.”
“It feels the same way when you lose a case. It’s the ultimate rejection.”
As Buzbee excuses himself to polish an opening statement he’s been working on for three weeks, the attorney he’ll be facing might wish that little girl from Atlanta, Tex. had just checked yes.
Last week, I came out of the Trader Joe’s on Bee Cave Road and as I started to drive away, a man next to a car with the front door open was waving for me to stop. He had a story. His wife (in the front seat) had just gotten out of the hospital and he needed to drive her to her family in Waco, but his debit card (which he showed me) didn’t work and he didn’t have money for gas. Could I give him $20 and write my address down and he would… I didn’t even listen to the rest. Sorry, man. I know a con and more times than not it requires gas money. Usually, they’ll be holding a gas can. When they should be holding an empty crack pipe.
When I got home, I called my son, a kind-hearted, gullible kid, who is away at college. I realized that I hadn’t sufficiently drilled into him that most people who approach you on the street asking for money are scam artists. “Don’t even think about it,” I told him. “Just make it a personal rule to never, ever give money to panhandlers.” If you stop to hear their plea it’s much harder to get away, so don’t even slow down.
Well, the kid was hearing none of it. He’s given his last dollar to a hobo and felt good about it. “He needed that money more than I did.” At that point, I realized that all the scratch I’ve worked hard for, and scraped together, and put into accounts that would make his life easier should I fall before my time, would be given away to scruffy alcoholics or con artists with a good line.
That’s why I’m staying at the Waldorf Astoria while I’m in NYC this week. The inheritance is in serious jeopardy. Better I run through it than Son Theresa hands it out.
Just about an hour ago I was at Trader Joe’s on Broadway at 72nd Street. (We’re spoiled Austin and I didn’t know how much until I went grocery shopping by subway.) So, after the 25-minute wait to check out, I had my bag of stuff the hotel marks up 2000% ($7.50 for a bottled water!) and was headed for the station when I saw a young man with long hair, wearing too much jacket for July, sitting on the ground, drawing. He had an old dial phone as a paperweight, holding down a stack of what looked to be drawings and notes. Big stack. “Starving Artist” was written on a piece of cardboard. He didn’t look up as I watched him draw. He didn’t even look up when I put a $20 bill in his little wooden box. “Bless you,” he said softly.
For $20 you could eat really well at Gray’s Papaya hot dog stand across the street and still get a nice bag of food at Trader Joe’s. For $20 you could also get pretty wasted on booze or high on drugs. It didn’t matter. He needed the money more than I did, so I gave him some. And when I was walking down those steps to the train, I never felt more like an artist myself.
by Michael Corcoran 7/15/99 Austin American Statesman
IT’S ONLY A BUILDING, and an ugly one at that, with bathrooms that would’ve been an issue at the Geneva Convention and a hippy dippy mural dominated by a pouring coconut.
It’s just a building, yes, but for the last 20-plus years it’s been a structure where musicians and fans were at their best. Physically, Liberty Lunch is not a comfortable place. Chairs are rare and waitresses are non-existent. But emotionally, no other nightclub has made its patrons feel more at home.
Liberty Lunch was our Armadillo World Headquarters, and to think that we let another living landmark disappear only points to the fact that the times are changing. It’s the high-tech industry, not music, that wags the Austin of today. After one last night of revelry July 31, the Austin music scene will take a big step toward being like everywhere else. We’re losing something very special and all we can do is stand by and watch.
. . . And remember. The corners of our minds have been enriched by the music and comraderie of the bare bones club, so we asked the principals to help us tell the story of the Lunch. We also polled folks on their all-time favorite Liberty Lunch concert. “There were so many great shows,” Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes said, “but the thing that really sticks in my mind is the people who ran the club. They were always smiling, always wanting to help you. When you came to the Lunch you felt welcomed.” Owners J-Net Ward and Mark Pratz have never allowed their customers to be frisked and when heavy metal act King Diamond demanded that audience members be patted down one night in the ’80s, the Lunch let them keep the $4,000 deposit and canceled the show.
Let’s consider our loss and think of that gorgeous building that was more about the music than the money. In the impending roar of the bulldozers, only the memories will remain. But thanks to those who kept the doors open through three decades of change, those recollections are almost enough.
Last Chance Countdown
Tonight: Sleepwalkers, D-Rez, Playdoh Squad
Saturday: The Scabs, Funky London, Hayter’s Beach
Tuesday: The Samples
Wednesday: Missing Ingredient
July 22: Beto y los Fairlanes, Uranium Savages
July 23: ‘Gloria’-thon
July 24: Joe Ely, David Garza, Doctors Mob, the Brooders
July 30: Bob Mould
July 31: The Toadies
LIBERTY LUNCH: An Oral History
by Chris Riemenschneider & Michael Corcoran
From the Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 7 1978: “Liberty Lunch has thrived for the last three years in a little bit of building on West Second Street that once was a dilapidated wagonyard. It had two condemnations: One from the health department and one from the fire department. But that was before Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton took over. As founders of Liberty Lunch and then Esther’s Follies, the two have been part — if not a cause — of a minor social revolution in Austin.
“At first, Liberty was just a lunch spot catering to all downtown types. But as soon as they saw the place, Sedwick said, she and Shelton knew they would convert the Lunch’s vast outdoor area into a performing and eating area. As a result, Liberty has become a night spot with an open-ended range of entertainment. Groups such as Beto and the Fairlanes may play one night, Bobby Bridger the next. There are evening poetry readings, human rights benefits, theatrical and dance acts. Eclectic is the word.”
* MICHAEL SHELTON, Esther’s Follies founder and Liberty Lunch co-owner 1975-1979: We went around with Bill Smith, a local realtor, looking for a place and the (Liberty Lunch) site looked just bad enough that we might actually make a successful bid on it. Right before we got there, it was a flea market, and it wasn’t a very good flea market. Of course, it started out as part of the Calcasieu Lumber Co., the city’s first and biggest lumberyard. The company is still around, out on Burleson Road.
We opened on Dec. 6 in ’75. We were going to call it Progressive Grocery, but when we were scraping the paint off the front of the place we found the name Liberty Lunch underneath. That’s what it was called sometime after World War II, when the Texas Lighthouse for the Blind served lunches from there. . . . The whole “liberty” idea kind of fit during that first summer, ’76, the bicentennial. That’s when we started performing skits and having bands. We’d have burger cook-offs and gumbo cook-offs and all kinds of back-yard parties that celebrated Americanhood.
* JOE ELY, Austin music veteran: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lot of the clubs transformed and became something else. Places like the Chequered Flag and that club on San Jacinto and the One Knite, which is now Stubb’s, and of course Soap Creek. It was a special time. You know, you could go out and see the Thunderbirds or Stevie Ray or Townes on any given night.
Liberty Lunch is really the only place still around from back then, except for Antone’s, which of course isn’t where it used to be. I used to go out to Liberty Lunch when it was still a lumberyard. There’d be people playing among the 2×4’s. It was real cool, really a part of that old Austin feeling. I think in a lot of ways, Liberty Lunch became what the Armadillo started out as.
* SHANNON SEDWICK, Esther’s Follies/’75-’79 co-owner: That first summer was incredibly hot. A friend of ours who we did theatrical stuff with on campus, Doug Dyer, came back into town. Doug started “Stomp” (the “Hair”-like rock musical, not the current Broadway hit). It was so hot, we did a water ballet on land and told everyone to come in their swimsuits. Doug did this whole thing where it looked like he had wet his pants and water started spewing on everyone. We had Richard Halpin, too, who now runs the American Institute for Learning and is quite an upstanding citizen but was really just a crazy hippy like the rest of us back then. We’d have a band booked like Shiva’s Headband and we would do stuff like stand on the roof with light fixtures on our head and just walk around — you know, wow, performance art or whatever.
The restaurant part of it really took off. It was mostly Cajun/creole food, muffaletta, gumbo. Our chef at first was Emil Vogley, who quite fittingly made a performance out of the food, too. Texas Monthly had discovered us before we were ready, and things really got out of hand. The bands at night really started taking over, too, especially Beto y los Fairlanes and the Lotions.
* ROBERT ‘BETO’ SKILES, Beto y Los Fairlanes: I really think those early days at Liberty Lunch were the Big Bang of the Austin music scene. What went on there evolved into the various body parts of Austin music. For us (Beto y Los Fairlanes), it was building a bridge to the Latin music world, which was on the other side of the tracks at the time. The crowds were amazing, too. We’d play to half-dressed, sweaty people dancing barefoot on the ground, who were all eager to dance. That was it. It all had this tribal sort of feel.
* MAMBO JOHN TREANOR, percussionist for Beto y Los Fairlanes: The tropical-themed mural was inspired by the early Beto shows at the Lunch. Starting in the late ’70s, we played every Thursday and the people would come out in droves to dance to salsa music. The floor was pea gravel and when everyone was dancing there’d be a big cloud of dust. At the end of the night you could write your name on my drums — there was a layer of dirt.
There wasn’t a roof until the early ’80s, so if it rained, the gig would be canceled, which was a drag because we were making good money. We had a pretty big band and each member would make $150-$200 every Thursday. Four of us lived in a big house at Sixth and Oakland, where the rent was only $250 a month, so we could survive on the Lunch gig alone.
* MICHAEL SHELTON: By the time we sold it (’79), the money had really shifted from the lunch crowds to beer and bands at night. The look of the place was changing, too. They had brought in the roof from the Armadillo, and Doug Jaques painted the mural around that time. When we left, it wasn’t doing too well. I think they had some real lean years there for a while.
* SHANNON SEDWICK: The whole time we were there, the city wanted to shut us down. A month after we moved in there, the city took over the property and they would have run all over us then except we had a lawyer who helped us out and wound up talking the city into renting the building to us. Even then, they didn’t want us. It seems like ever since that first month, Liberty Lunch has always been a point of contention with the city.
CHARLES TESAR, lease holder/bar owner 1979-1993: I persuaded the City of Austin to renew a lapsed lease for the property in 1979, with Shannon and Michael. The lease was only for one year: a limited term condition that persisted throughout the 14 years I held the lease.
The first task was to dismantle the lumber stalls and build a stage. Opening night was St. Patrick’s Day, 1980, with the Uranium Savages. They, with Beto and the Fairlanes, the Lotions and Extreme Heat, kept us from going under in 1980. Since the Armadillo started outbidding us for our most productive bands in late 1980, I wasn’t too dismayed to hear that the owner had sold the property in 1981, and Pee Wee Franks had demolished the structure. A different plague was visited on us the same year. After the Memorial Day floods, it rained just about every night through that summer. By the fall, I was able to get a loan to buy the girders, trusses and beams from the Armadillo. With some advice from Pee Wee (a demolition expert) we dug the holes for the foundation, set the I beams and connected the trusses to support a new roof. City inspectors were appalled with the work, as was I, but it passed inspection nevertheless. Everybody I knew helped put the structure up, and it was met with round denunciation by most customers, particularly since the clear roof and huge crowds created temperatures well over a hundred.
* KIRK WATSON, mayor of Austin: My first six weeks in town, I saw Beto at Liberty Lunch at least four times. The one thing I remember, besides all the music and dancing, was that everyone was so proud of that dadgum roof. I kept thinking “What’s the big deal about a roof?” But since it came from the Armadillo, there was a sense that the torch had been passed to Liberty Lunch.
* MIKE MCGEARY, the Lotions: I remember a lot of our people weren’t happy about the roof. Part of the vibe of the place was that whole under-the-stars thing. The Lotions really were the first reggae band in Austin, so it made sense that we played outdoors. It didn’t matter too much to us, because I think we were the only band that had a rain guarantee. We got paid even if it rained. That was the kind of pull we had back then, because we brought in good money. We’d play every Tuesday night, and we’d pack the place. I mean, they’d have to stop letting people in. That went on for about three years.
* MARK PRATZ, booking/co-owner 1978-present: I started as a doorguy, and then a co-manager and manager. Eventually, we started bringing in road shows and I worked out a deal to get a cut of the door. The first road show was Michael Martin Murphey, who did great. Then it was the Ricky Nelson show, which was a trip to see because all these 50-year-old groupies showed up.
(By ’81 or ’82), things really changed. A lot of people were still pissed off that we put a roof on, and that just killed the open-air vibe for all the old hippies. They stopped coming. And around that time, emmajoe’s closed, so we started doing a lot of folk. We’d have Townes and Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. I remember seeing Lyle in the front corner of the little building, where the offices are now, and thinking, “There’s no way this guy’s going to make it.”
* LOUIS MEYERS, booking 1982-’88: Mark and I started Lunch Money Productions and tried for a little pre-Tim O’Connor empire. At one point, we were booking five places, including the Continental Club, Texas Money (where Emo’s is now) and a bad Mexican restaurant called Casablanca’s.
At Liberty Lunch, we hit this whole reggae/world-beat wave. We brought Burning Spear in on a Wednesday night with a $2,000 guarantee and it turned out to be a huge success. We really had a few magical years with it. All you had to do was put “direct from Africa” or “direct from Jamaica” on the marquee and at least 600 people showed up. We had King Sunny Ade, Sonny Okosun. There was just a whole swelling of support. Waterloo Records would help us promote them. Michael Point did a tremendous job covering the scene in the Statesman. It was a real communal era.
* PAT MACDONALD, formerly of Timbuk3: The first time we played there was in the afternoon, and it was a totally different scene than it is now. There were a bunch of old hippies in there, and their dogs, too. It really felt like it had more to do with the Armadillo generation. I liked the sound better back then, before they put the roof on. You could turn the low-end way up.
Sound seemed to be an issue there for us. We were opening for Jonathan Richman, and he made us turn down the volume. He walked out to the sound board and did it, we had no idea, except that all of a sudden people stopped dancing. I met Jonathan years later and thought he was a real nice guy, but man, for a while there I had sort of a low opinion of him.
* CHARLES TESAR: Our only experience with Stevie Ray (’80 or ’81) was not a good one. I guaranteed Double Trouble $300 for a concert and we only made $150 at the door and had to give him the $125 out of beer sales, so we still owe him $25. Maybe we’ll pay up with some flowers for his statue some day.
* LOUIS MEYERS: The Neville Brothers were the act for us for a while. In ’85, we had them doing two sets a night. We probably were getting them a lot longer than we should have, but each time we would just bump up the price a dollar or so and everybody would show up and the vibe would be just magical — for the band, the fans everyone. Then we lost them one year to the Terrace, and it didn’t work for them over there. It just didn’t work.
* STEVE COLLIER, singer-guitarist in Doctors’ Mob: Mark Pratz ran the Continental Club, and he’d have bands like Poison 13, the True Believers and us play there. Well, when he left, that scene sort of moved over to Liberty Lunch. It set the stage for what the place would become (in the latter half of the ’80s), which was that whole college rock, indie band kind of scene.
We got to open for a lot of great bands. We opened for the Replacements the night of the fires. We opened for Husker Du a couple times. I remember when we opened for NRBQ, we did it as this sort of alter-ego band called Free Flyte that did all the bad ’70s covers that you could think of. Nobody there for NRBQ knew that we were kidding, though, so literally we had people throwing stuff at us and booing.
* SCOTT ANDERSON, Doctors’ Mob manager and bartender since ’93: The night of the fires was definitely the most fun thing I remember. It was the Replacements, Poison 13 and Doctors’ Mob, sometime in the winter (Jan. 19, 1985). They moved the stage back by to where the door is now because it was warmer, but it was still cold as hell. The roof was still open then. You had all these people huddled together watching these bands, and three metal trash cans that eventually had fires in them. What a fun night. The Replacements knew some of the guys in Poison 13, so they were all in good spirits. And they weren’t too drunk, you know. They were in that middle ground where they were always best.
* STEVE DEAN, owner of Under the Sun: I had this thing for a while where, for the people that I liked, I would hiss when they were on stage. I’d do it to Marcia Ball, you know, and she’d make some kind of comment toward me and laugh. One night the Tailgators were playing, with Keith Ferguson. My friends and I were drinking, but not too bad. I hissed, and Don Leady took offense to it. He jumped down from the stage and swung at me. I tried to explain, “Hey man, it’s just a joke,” but he came at me again, and we were down on the ground kicking and fighting. The bouncers broke it up pretty quick, but I’ll never forget it.
* GIBBY HAYNES, singer Butthole Surfers: Before they had the fenced-in patio off to the side, you could drive through it. I remember one night some crazy dude almost plowed his car through a bunch of people. He slammed on his brakes and stopped about a foot from the people and he started laughing. It really pissed me off that he thought almost killing someone was funny, so I went over and swung at him. I didn’t know that the window was rolled up, so my hand went right through the glass and sorta nicked his face. It didn’t hurt at all. My friend was going “Your hand’s broken, man” and I didn’t feel anything. I went back in the club and had a beer. Meanwhile, the idiot in the car peeled out and almost killed a couple more people. He turned the wrong way down Second Street and was never heard from again.
* HENRY ROLLINS, singer Black Flag: I swore I’d never come to Austin again. We were playing at Liberty Lunch (about ’86), and I got to watch the crowd, mostly white, single out one black guy and beat the (expletive) out of him. And when I said something, everyone got pissed, so we left. It was ugly. I couldn’t believe that would happen in Austin. I thought Austin was different from the rest of the Sieg Heil (stuff) in Texas.
* BYRON SCOTT, Do Dat guitarist: During the ’80s, there was a thriving funk-rap scene that was sorta based out of Liberty Lunch. Do Dat, was part of that, along with Bad Mutha Goose, Bouffant Jellyfish, Retarded Elf, Def M.F.’s, who am I forgetting? The first big concert that showed that rap could work at the Lunch was when Run-DMC played there in ’84 — at the height of their popularity. Do Dat opened that show and Eloise Burrell — a jazz singer who started doing hip-hop because it was the hot thing — played right before Run. It should have been us second, her first, but it was alright, the place was already packed when we came on. I mean, I haven’t seen the Lunch so crowded as it was that night. You couldn’t move in the audience. As it turned out, they couldn’t move onstage either. When Run and DMC hit the stage, they started their usual jumping around, getting all hyped, but the Lunch’s stage was kind of flimsy, not really reinforced, and the records kept skipping. They stopped the show and tried to move the turntables away from the middle, to see if that would be better, but every time the guys moved the records kept skipping. So finally, Run-DMC had to do their show standing in one place. You could see how frustrated they were, because they were accustomed to running back and forth, back and forth. But the crowd went nuts anyway. It was “big time rap comes to Austin” and they were eating it up.
* LOUIS MEYERS: We even had wrestling matches one night. It was the “Rock and Wrestling” show, and Will (Sexton) & the Kill and Dino Lee would get on stage in between the matches. One of the wrestlers was Shawn Michaels, who I guess is big in the wrestling world nowadays. Yeah, that’s one night that definitely stands out.
* MARK PRATZ: For a lot of the ’80s, it seemed like we were the babysitters of the Austin music scene. All along, we were one of the few all-ages clubs and town, and parents were always dropping their kids off and leaving them with us. I guess they thought it was a safe place or something like that.
* Correction in the Austin American-Statesman, Aug. 22, 1985: “Liberty Lunch, the popular nightspot on West Second Street, will not be closing in October, as was reported incorrectly in a story Tuesday. Although the land is owned by the City of Austin, and is expected to eventually become part of the new City Hall, the club will remain open at least through October 1985, and possibly longer.”
MARK PRATZ: They were first going to tear us down in ’85, but then the depression hit Austin and the economy went (down the tubes). We did alright, though. In ’88 or ’89 we got our first five-year lease. Of course, the leases always had the 188-day move-out stipulation if they wanted us out.
* JOE ELY, on his 1990 album “Live at Liberty Lunch”: I had been playing with (David) Grissom and Davis (McLarty) and Jimmy Pettit for about five years, and it got to that point where I felt like I needed to catch the energy. We had been touring so much, it seemed right to do it at a place that felt like home. I did it without any record company knowing about it. I just tore down my recording studio, packed it up in a truck and parked it out at Liberty Lunch with James Tuttle running the board. We did it over three nights, and sure enough, the first night was a disaster. I was screwing up lyrics. We all had that feeling like, “Oh, I gotta play this right.” It was a real nervous energy. The second night was a lot better, and so was the third, so that’s what you hear on the album. . . . I had just finished with my two albums for Hightone at the time, and they didn’t want to release a live album for whatever reason. In the end, that was the album that made (MCA Records president) Tony Brown want to sign me again. Those recordings really shaped the next decade or so in my career.
* DAVID GARZA, former Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom singer: Our first gig there was in March of ’90. It was sort of a rite of passage. It was where my big brothers had seen Burning Spear and Bad Brains, you know, it was very cool. And around the time that we started playing there, everybody like Shoulders, Ed Hall, the Wannabes, Poi Dog (Pondering) and Stick People were playing there. I guess in the early ’90s, there was really a happening local scene there. It was the Armadillo of our generation. I always thought of it as the Willie Nelson of Austin venues, that one infallible place.
It was also the very first place I played as me. Before Twang Twang broke up, we were filling the place up on weekends. It was great. Then I went and tried to play there all on my own, and maybe 100 people showed up. . . . Liberty Lunch don’t lie.
* KEVIN McKINNEY, singer-guitarist of Soulhat: Our good shows there were probably from like ’93-’94. We did some of those Summer Solstices with Joe Rockhead and others, probably the Ging’breadmen. Those were fun. For us, Liberty Lunch seemed to be mainly the place where all the good road shows were. Sonic Youth, Fugazi, the Flaming Lips — all the bands too small to play the Erwin Center played there. We even got to open for John Lee Hooker there, and Johnny Winter, which was exciting.
I guess (the road shows) made it more of a thing for local bands to get there. It was something to set your sights on, a step up the ladder, playing Liberty Lunch on a weekend night. My only wish is that they had a toilet in the backstage area, or at least more private facilities. I guess that was part of the duty, having to sit on the toilet in front of everybody (in the men’s room). “Are you going to play `Stinkpot?’ ” “Yeah, I’m playing it right now.”
* MARK PRATZ: Nirvana (Oct. 21, 1991) was when we really started getting into (capacity) problems. We were just trying to be polite and letting everybody in, and we wound up with about 1,400 people with what was then a much smaller room. I remember there were people coming through the ceiling. They were climbing up the pecan tree out front and dropping through the skylights. You’d look up, and there would be people sliding down our poles like fireman. Kurt didn’t do anything crazy, they just played a great show.
The Alanis Morissette show was crazy, too. We didn’t sell advance tickets just so we could (mess) with scalpers. That’s another ongoing Liberty Lunch tradition, battling scalpers. Well, we of course wound up with a long line of people waiting outside and this major monsoon hit. We were handing out cardboard boxes and anything for people to cover themselves, and they all waited. The same thing happened for Beck, too, it rained like that again. I remember rain pouring in from the roof where it was open and kids just dancing underneath the (skylights) like it was part of the show.
* MARTHA GUTHRIE, doorwoman since ’93: I think something probably only the employees know about are the rodents who have shared Liberty Lunch over the years. We had a white rat we’d always see. One night we watched him and a few other rats dance. It was during some bands soundcheck, they just ran out on the dance floor and started spinning around. There was a porcupine, too, that always came around. It would sleep in this fruit basket in the back by the bathrooms, and sometimes we’d walk by and it would hiss at us. We really just learned to co-exist with them all.
* ALAN TUCKER, bartender since 1989: We had pot plants growing in the parking lot once. I assume they just came from people flicking their buds onto the ground out back, and there were seeds in them. But yeah, here were these 2-foot pot plants, on city property, a block away from City Hall. Of course, we did our duty and destroyed them, for the sake of the city.
* MARK PRATZ: In ’93, there was a whole nasty lawsuit (by an injured fan) and problems with the city, and they weren’t going to renew our lease. So I wrote a proposal for our renovations. We tore down everything, added the new wall (by the front door), fixed the leaks, the bathrooms, worked on the stage. Finally we got everything up to code, and $100,000 later we thought we were sitting pretty.
By ’97, we signed a five-year lease. The very next day I opened the paper and saw a new plan for city hall and lots more on . . . guess where? We’ve always had a feeling that we were living with a terminal disease over here.
* Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 10 1998: “. . . Last week, the Austin City Council voted to move ahead with a plan to turn Liberty Lunch’s property at 405 W. Second St. into the headquarters of a high-tech company. The city owns the property, so there’s little (J’Net) Ward can do. Her lease gives the club at least six months leeway before it has to close, and all signs are suggesting that the city won’t allow much time beyond that. It’s a now-classic tale of old Austin vs. new. Computer Sciences Corp. is offering thousands of jobs, millions of dollars and the attraction of turning the area along West Second and Third streets into a bustling business/city hall center. Liberty Lunch, with its piecemeal roof taken from the old Armadillo World Headquarters and the fading, tropical mural that adorns its walls, can offer the city only a touch of character and a beer garden full of good times.”
* J’NET WARD, co-owner and primary operator ’97-present: It doesn’t fully sink in until I think about the building being demolished. I think, “Oh, God, what about the mural? What about the backstage area where Dale (Watkins, a late employee) gave Dolly Parton his jacket because she was cold, or the riser where Mark had to hold up the members of the Replacements because they were too drunk to stand?” There are so many memories, so many of them good. We’ll still have them, I guess, but they just won’t be the same without the building here.
* JOE ELY: Mark and J’Net are really what attract many of the performers to Liberty Lunch . They’re just good people. It’s easy to tell the good ones, especially in this business. I think if they’re still running the place, wherever it is, it will be Liberty Lunch.
* MARK PRATZ: The thing that has always touched me over the years is when the show is over and everyone’s leaving, they’re smiling and they say, “Thank you.” That happened a lot in the earlier days, and it still happens. I hope we get it at the new place, but I don’t know. I think that’s just what that old building does to people. I mean, what other club in the city or in the country do people say, “Thank you,” as they’re walking out the door?
Interviews by Chris Riemenschneider and Michael Corcoran
*KIRK WATSON: The Yellowman show in ’84 or ’85 really sticks out because it was the first time Liz and I had ever heard live reggae music. A fellow lawyer, Steve Selby, was a reggae fanatic — he’d even sent out a memo with a reggae glossary — so at his encouragement we saw Yellowman and we were just blown away. He wasn’t one of the biggest names in the biz, but everyone at the show seemed to know all his songs. We were part of this communal musical experience and it was intense.
* MICHAEL POINT: For me, Liberty Lunch will always mean The Spear, burning brightly into the early morning hours with an audience of dedicated dreadheads so perfectly attuned to the hypnotic reggae anthems booming out from the stage that it seemed more like a religious ritual than a concert. The Lunch transcended eclecticism — who else would book Bill Monroe, Run DMC, Count Basie, k.d. lang and King Sunny Ade, not to mention the litany of cutting-edge rock thrashers — but the reggae revolution of the mid-’80s consistently filled the club (and the street) with the fervent faithful and that’s what I remember best. There was an air of discovery, as well as a special aroma in the air, as acts previously known only through radio and recordings, both the famed, such as the dynamic double bill of Toots & the Maytals and Yellowman, and the esoteric, such as the Twinkle Brothers and Tenor Saw, appeared on a steady basis. The rapidly expanding local reggae fan base was still holding awestruck conversations about last week’s Michigan & Smiley or Mutabaruka show when Sugar Minott, Big Youth, Eek-A-Mouse or some other reggae sensation came to town. It was a relentless riddim assault and The Spear ruled supreme over it all .
* MICHAEL CORCORAN: I’ve seen more great shows at Liberty Lunch than at any other venue, including several magical Neville Brothers concerts, an incredible Ween show, NRBQ, Fugazi opening for Bad Mutha Goose and that great Foo Fighters/Spearhead double bill from ’95, but the one concert that was pure ecstasy from beginning to end was when D.C. go-go band Trouble Funk played in ’85. This was an era when most funk or soul bands were dressed like space men with these ridiculous, shiny costumes and Trouble Funk came out in cut-offs, jeans, tank-tops and just rocked the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire into oblivion. T. Funk had a big following in Austin, thanks to their show with the Big Boys at Club Foot — one of the all-time legendary nights of music in town — and they seemed genuinely turned on by the audience response. I’m usually too self-conscious to let go at concerts, but on this night you stood out if you weren’t dancing.
* JOHN T. DAVIS: There were several years, between 1987-’91, when the Neville Brothers made regular pilgrimages to Liberty Lunch. I’ve never seen the band play better, either before or since. There seemed to be a synergy between the Nevilles and the Lunch that defied easy explanation. They could play in January, they could play in June, and it didn’t matter. For the duration of that night, the entire universe was a swampy, polyrhythmic, propulsive, irresistably danceable World Under One Groove. Park your car up the block and walk down the street toward the Lunch, and you could hear that big walloping bass line, echoing through the sidewalk and up the bottom of your feet. Get closer, and the siren wail of Charles Neville’s saxophone began to cut through the funk. Walk in the door, and the interplay of percussion, keyboards, chicken-scratch guitar, Second Line rhythms and Aaron’s angelic solo just swept you away from this veil of tears and into a special cosmos, a New Orleans of the imagination. I wouldn’t trade anything for those nights.
* DON MCLEESE: My first was Poi Dog Pondering at my first SXSW (’87 or ’88, memory blurs), which I was covering for the Chicago Sun-Times. The club was as much a part of the dynamic as the crowd and the band, and that dynamic was much of the reason I wanted to move to Austin. The first show I reviewed for the Statesman after making that move a couple of years later, was a Liberty Lunch triple bill of the Highwaymen , the Kris McKay Band and David Halley, where I discovered how easy it was for Austin to take such inspired music for granted, as a couple dozen of us shivered through the January evening. Too many great shows to mention followed, though the supersonic warp of My Bloody Valentine is the one experience I will never forget (and the one from which it has taken Austin rock in the ’90s so many years to recover).
* MILES ZUNIGA (of Fastball): I’ve seen too many cool shows to count. Some highlights: The first-ever Fugazi appearance in Austin, opening for Bad Mutha Goose. Oasis’ first appearance in Austin. An amazing show by My Bloody Valentine along with Dinosaur Jr. and Babes in Toyland, which many people say started the whole space-rock scene (Flying Saucers, 16 Deluxe, etc). I have many fond memories: Paul Westerberg milling about by himself after an amazingly drunk performance by the Mats. Dino Lee ringing in the new drinking age (21) while all these 19 year olds eagerly gulped down their last free legal minutes. To me the Lunch was like a trade school. I really believe I learned a big part of my craft there.
* CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER: My first time was in an ice storm in ’88. Along with about 30 other people, I learned the hard way that Liberty Lunch wasn’t built for winter, nor for the Dead Milkmen. The great shows came in due time: Camper Van Beethoven two days before “Key Lime Pie” came out; Soul Asylum when they recorded some live tracks; Dave Pirner singing “It’s a shame we’re so lame,” to the opening act (the Lemonheads). And that Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine and Babes in Toyland show, when MBV literally played a single note for like five minutes straight. The best night, though, was during South by Southwest in 1990 when I didn’t know the SXSW acronym from WASP. I saw the Jayhawks, the Silos, the Reivers and an upstart named Kelly Willis. Nobody set the place on fire. It was just probably my first true Austin night.
Clubs by Michael Corcoran, Musicians by Chris Riemenschneider, Additional writing by Don McLeese
Published in Austin American-Statesman October 17, 1996
Sometimes it’s still like it was Friday night at Liberty Lunch. About 500 people have paid $7 to see two local bands and as the couples break off into little dance circles during 8 1/2 Souvenirs, then push up front to yell the words to all the old songs by Shoulders, owner Mark Pratz beams.“Five hundred people and they’re all adults — I’m in heaven!” he said. Bar sales would be brisk. Liberty Lunch would make money on a show it didn’t have to gamble on, for a change.
In recent months, though, the venerable and beloved Lunch has been having more of the other kind of night. This is the one where a slew of local bands play to crowds barely large enough to span the front of the stage, or even worse, when the same barren stretch greets a national act with a tour bus chugging in the alley and a clump of surly English roadies to pay.
On those nights when Pratz sits lonely by the cash register, he thinks about ways to get new Austinites to his club. He thinks about all the competition in town, with the high ticket shows at the Austin Music Hall, the Backyard and Southpark Meadows, and he wonders how he could afford to stay in business if his rent increases 33 percent again when his leaseis up in a few years. He daydreams about opening a 3,500-capacity venue so hecould offer more of the recognizable acts that draw the entertainment dollars from North and West Austin. Then he splits up the door and sends his local bands home with enough money for a late night lament at Taco Cabana.
Such is the plight, the blues in the night, of the fading tradition known as Austin music. It’s like your mother is Billie Holiday and your father is John Coltrane, but they’re both dead and they didn’t leave you anything. The Austin club scene has long been the lifeblood of local music, but as rents go up and the priorities of music fans shift, the carefree Austin shuffle has slowed to a dirge that muffles the economic boom’s echo.
“The people who grew up on Liberty Lunch and Antone’s have gotten married and settled down. And nobody’s taken their place,” said Louis Meyers, who books Antone’s and used to book the Lunch. “People aren’t moving to Austin for the music scene. They’re coming here for jobs.”
Meanwhile, those who do still live the club life have more choices than ever before. “We’re proud of our clubs here,” said Mike Mordecai,who books several nightspots, including La Zona Rosa, “but the truth may be that we have too many.”
Too many clubs? In Austin? That’s a little like the pope complaining about too many Catholics in Rome. But then, there’s only one pope and he never had to depend on Storyville to pay the electric bill.
Among those who don’t know how to pronounce “Roky” and who think Liberty Lunch is slang for a free meal, Austin is state politics, the Longhorns and the killer B’s — Barton Springs, barbecue and bock beer. For the world at large, however, music is Austin’s claim to fame. It’s the sound that makes the town.
But as the metropolis sprouts with more people, who have more money in their pockets, the local original music scene has been bypassed as if the new prosperity was zooming by on an overhead freeway. With higher-paying jobs pushing rents through the skylights and displacing the lower income bohemian types who thrive on local bands (and vice versa), musicians are either moving away or working harder than ever to live at the subsistence level. The new stock insult advice to musicians in Austin is “Don’t quit your two day jobs.”
One might think that a surging Austin economy would benefit the music scene. The flaw in the trickle down theory is that most of the upwardly mobile newcomers seem more interested in karaoke bars, meet markets, strip joints or ‘Net surfing than immersing themselves in the nightlife that is uniquely Austin’s. But then, with a few exceptions — from Christopher Cross and Eric Johnson to the alternative mainstreaming of the Butthole Surfers — local acts have generally been ignored by the masses.It’s just that the snubs were easier (and cheaper) to live with before the mainstream moved to town.
Jess Blackburn, a spokesperson for IBM, which recently transferred nearly 700 people to the area from Boca Raton, Fla., said his company does tout the Austin music scene as an incentive for moving to the area, just as it does area restaurants, theater and lakes.
“How big of a factor (music) plays in their decision to move here is questionable because it usually just comes down to economic reasons,” Blackburn said. He added that the IBM Club — sort of a social sign-up group at the company — frequently organizes trips to concerts. He conceded, though, they’re usually for touring shows at the Erwin Center or Southpark Meadows.
“I’m sure a lot of the younger, single employees who have relocated here — maybe a lot of the programmers — might go to places like (Antone’s) on their nights off,” he said.
Phil Brewer, executive director of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, said his organization also promotes Austin music to visitors and newcomers and he believes many of the residents up there are aware of its unique qualities. He just didn’t know how often Round Rock residents make the trek to downtown Austin for music. “It’s really not that long of a drive, but if you have to drive it in rush hour every day, then it is,” Brewer said.
Haven of creativity
Since the early ’70s, when Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker made Austin an outlaw outpost, the city has been a haven of creativity and civility in the middle of Texas, hospitable to cosmic cowboys, bluesbusters and punk rockers alike. Its musical dynamic has flourished through a confluence of conducive circumstances: cheap rents, supportive audiences, a healthy club circuit and an ever-expanding pool of talent. Austin has been seen as that special place that pumps with a backbeat heart and bends for the sake of the song.
Every March, Austin hosts South by Southwest, a musical Utopia attracting a growing number of annual conventioneers, who witness magical sets, stoked by a population of Austinites who know their music like they know their migas. Meanwhile, dozens of Austin-based touring acts serve as musical ambassadors across the globe, giving Austin an almost mythical reputation as the city where “real music,” the kind played for the sheer passion of it, reigns supreme. Where other cities have statues of generals and statesmen, Austin has Stevie Ray.
Little wonder, then, that musicians and fans from all over the country, and the world, have long considered Austin the promised land. At this pivotal period of Austin’s development, the question is whether that promise can grow as the city does, or whether the Austin boom spells its doom as a music mecca.
As the rents in Austin have skyrocketed almost 80 percent since 1988, so has the cost of living the musician’s life. Restaurant jobs are always available, but most offer night work, when musicians need to play gigs. While an estimated 137,000 new jobs have been created in Austin over the past five years, according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, a majority of them have been high-tech, and many of them have been taken by the more than 60,000 people who have moved into the city limits during that time.
The capital city may be enjoying prosperity as a vortex of the high-tech industry, after years of tax incentives and other seductions, but little of the fruits have reached the deli tray of a music scene that was previously one of the city’s major draws. For musicians, the cost of equipment, rehearsal space, sound technicians, recording and rent have all risen, while the money that most can make on the local club circuit is bottoming out.
“I certainly haven’t noticed any club paying more,” said Mandon Maloney, a member of the hard rock outfit Wookie, which has usually played three or four shows a month for about three years. “You’re lucky to even get a free beer these days.” Escalating Costs
It’s not that the clubs are necessarily enriching themselves at the musicians’ expense. According to recent bar receipts tabulated by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the swanky jazz hotspot Cedar Street is the only live music venue in the Top 10. Other success stories are the Continental Club, which has been selling upwards of $60,000 in alcohol per month partly because of wildly successful happy hour shows that appeal to the early-rising, straight-job crowd and Pearl’s Oyster Bar, one of the few live music venues north of Koenig Lane. Meanwhile, such noted nightclubs as Antone’s, the Back Room, the Hole in the Wall, Steamboat, Emo’s and the Electric Lounge don’t even crack Austin’s top 50.
Live music venues are generally still charging ’80’s prices because one thing we learned off the bat is that you don’t raise your beer prices in Austin,” said Jay Hughey, co-owner of the Electric Lounge. Eric Hartman of Emo’s said some of his customers are still grumbling over the $2 cover charge he implemented about 18 months ago. “It cost $18 to see Beck at the Music Hall and everyone went, but a lot of people don’t want to pay $2 to see a band that they don’t hear on the radio or see on MTV.”
Mike Crowley, manager for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Monte Warden and Dale Watson, said that many of the veteran musicians who have long been Austin standard-bearers are getting hit hard by the changes. “It’s like you’re old furniture and everybody wants to look over you to see who’s coming to town next,” Crowley said.
While competition keeps cover charges low and spreads a finite number of live music fans across dozens of venues all over town, rising costs put the squeeze on clubs’ precarious profit margins. “This is the worst shape I’ve seen the local music scene in since I started in the club business in the ’70s,” Steamboat owner Danny Crooks said. “Steamboat grosses $40,000 a month. It always has. But beer prices keep going up. Shiner Bock just raised their price to $17.50 a case, and it was only $7 acase a few years ago. Advertising costs go up. The cost of doing business keeps going up.” Crooks said that whatever the club takes in is eaten up by expenses.
Another escalating cost is the money paid to touring acts. Said Cactus Cafe manager Griff Luneburg, “We used to have our own niche, singer-songwriters, but now you’ve got clubs like Stubb’s, La Zona Rosa and Saxon Pub booking some of the same acts. Usually, the acts go to the highest bidder, which drives costs up all the way around. It used to be that you could fill your club three or four nights a week with local talent, but these days you live and die by the roadshow.”
Meanwhile, many club owners report that their customers are spending less money at the bar. “Storyville always packs the place,” Meyers said, “but where their average bar business was about $6,000 a year ago, it’s dropped down to about $4,000 a night.”
Another big concern among longtime clubowners, is the recent 3,000-capacity additions of the Austin Music Hall and the Backyard, both owned and operated by Direct Events. These venues typically host touring headliners who draw hugeaudiences (and their entertainment budgets) away from clubs that book local or lesser-known national acts.
“What’s happened is that because of its growth Austin has become an `A’ market, and we’re getting more national acts through than everbefore,” said Tim Neece, who manages the Music Hall and the Backyard. But after a near-disastrous summer season at Southpark Meadows, where only the H.O.R.D.E. festival and Jimmy Buffett topped 18,000 ticketholders, the big name caravan is expected to approach cautiously next year.
“Austin has gotten closer to the threshold of what it can support,” Neece said. Such underattended shows as Hootie and the Blowfish, Def Leppard and Sting not only caused Houston-based Pace Concerts (which books Southpark) to lose tons of money, but they sucked away dollars that might’ve been disposed at the doors and bars of Austin clubs.
“The problem is the concert business is hurting all over the country, and the agents and the managers are all looking at Austin now as a major market opening up,” Crowley said. “(Austin artists) have to compete with Jimmy Buffett and Neil Diamond now, and not each other.”
Luneberg said the influx of more touring shows has hurt the club scene, but he also attributes the current club slump to what he terms “a vicious cycle.”
“Some local bands play too often,” he said. “It’s out of necessity, because they’ve gotta pay the rent, but the more you play, the less you make.”
Meyers agrees. “The local acts that do draw spend most of their time on the road,” he said. As for the ones who can make a living on the hometown circuit: “It’s the same as it always was: 10 percent of the bands make 90 percent of the money.”
Clubs have to fill their stages with someone every night, which means that they either book the same bands over and over or hand their mikes to green groups who should be woodshedding instead of showcasing. Either scenario makes for a lackluster scene.
“People aren’t going to the clubs like they used to, and that’s partly because the music’s getting stale,” Crooks said. “There’s nothing new out there that’s grabbin’ me.”
Ironically, in a town renowned for its support of original artistry, some musicians have been paying their bills by forming Neil Diamond or Jimmy Buffett cover bands or working up Beatles tunes to play at deb parties. Even Superego frontman Paul Minor, organizer of the Hole in the Wall’s weekly Rock ‘n’ Roll Free-for-All, a cutting edge showcase of new, original talent in town, makes most of his money in a longtime cover band called the Argyles. The group plays everything from “Pretty Woman” to “Girl From Ipanema” at everywhere from country clubs to Christmas parties for the president of the State Bar of Texas.
“I make more money (in the Argyles) than I do at my full-time state job,” said Minor, who also works 40 hours a week at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He said that all this side activity is just part of the dues you have to pay for the privilege of playing original music in Austin.
“Anybody who doesn’t have a fulltime job shouldn’t be in a band,“ he continued.
“I work hard,” said Guy Forsyth, who makes a fulltime living at his music, fronting both the Asylum Street Spankers and his own blues band. “I’ve poured concrete, I’ve been a stuntman, I’ve done a lot of hard jobs, but none is as hard as being a musician. Of course, I enjoy it, so that makes it easier, and I’ve been lucky enough to have two bands that people seem to like to hear. But I worked hard to try to put on a good show and have people come out and hear those bands.” Signs say ‘Keep Away’
Austin’s rising costs and diminishing returns aren’t just hurting musicians who live here, they’re stifling the scene by keeping away musicians who have considered moving to Austin or who had a brief foray here, but left after seeing how expensive and low-paying this music community can be.
Venerable country-folk singer Lucinda Williams, for instance, was an Austin resident through the late ’80s and early ’90s before moving to Nashville about two years ago to work on a still-uncompleted album. Just this year, she thought about moving back permanently and began looking for a house in Austin. Her acting manager (and bass player) Dr. John Ciambotti said when she added up the math and the hassles, though, Williams figured it would just be easier and more economical to stay in Nashville.
Mary Cutrufello, until recently Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s guitarist and a solo artist who just released her debut CD, lived in Austin for about a year before moving back to Houston two years ago. While she said many other reasons factored into her choice to leave Austin, money was one of them.
“I don’t work in just Austin or Houston; I work the triangle between here, there and Dallas, so I could live anywhere, it’s the same distance to work,” Cutrufello said. “But it’s impossible to make a living at it and live in Austin. I guess some people can do it, but there aren’t many. The problem is, there’s too many trying to do it, and too many not trying hard enough.”
Another group Austin lost to cost is Ed Hall, whose bassist Larry Strub cited high rents in Austin for his decision to take a teaching job in Taiwan. While musicians in Austin have always had to work straight jobs until they joined the select few who can make it on music alone, these days the “select few” is even fewer. Even local musicians with major-label deals punch the clock: A member of Fastball manages a bagel shop, one of Sixteen Deluxe’s founders works at Wheatsville Co-op and top local producer John Croslin clerks at Half Price Books.
Wookie’s Maloney has a job at Emerald Point Marina on Lake Travis, and the rest of his bandmates have fulltime jobs — at a state agency and a nursery to name two. While he said they are among the lucky to not have suffered dramatic rent increases, just keeping up with the cost of living in Austin — which has become the highest in the state, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association — is difficult enough.
“We’re all working 40 hours a week and still having a hard time,” he said. “It’s hard just to find time to practice, when we can all get together.” Hostile Housing
The ideal way for bands to practice as much as possible and to cultivate the all-for-one camaraderie is to live together in a big house, which is what three of the four members of AMANSET (American Analog Set) have been doing since this summer, when they moved from Arlington into a three-bedroom house near Burnet Road and Koenig. It was supposed to be the place where they created music, a haven for spur-of-the-moment songwriting and inspired jams. AMANSET bassist Lee Gillespie worked and savedfor several months to afford the rent and to finally move down to Austin to join the rest of the band.
“I was really excited,” Gillespie said. “The house was something we really wanted. We really thought it was the perfect place for the band to play and move ahead, you know, in Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World. … We kind of got let down hard.”
After the band had practiced a couple of times, the neighbors complained. Looking for a more soundproof spot, they moved all their equipment from the living room to singer Andrew Kenny’s bedroom, where things became so crowded the only way to get from one side to another was to crawl over the bed. The neighbors complained again, this time prompting the landlord to threaten eviction.
Sure, no one wants to go to bed hearing the sounds of someone tuning a Les Paul at 2,000 watts down the street. But when bands like Ed Hall or Agony Column were happily blaring music at home seven or eight years ago, they were known — often glorified — as the loudest bands in town. These days, American Analog Set is known as the quietest in town, a band that (like Bedhead or Low) thrives on stillness. They don’t even play live very often because the bar noise drowns them out.
“It’s definitely a sign of the times,” said Josh Robertson of Trance Syndicate, the Austin-based label that has released albums by AMANSET and Ed Hall. “(AMANSET) had a hard time finding a house, a hard time paying for it. And now, they can’t even play music in it — their music.”
Gillespie has had trouble even finding a job since moving to town. He got so desperate, he said, he signed on at 7-Eleven, only to lose the job after a week and a half because he had to leave town for a couple of days because of a personal emergency. You can be sure that no touring musicians have jobs at 7-Eleven.
“I obviously wasn’t too upset about losing a job at 7-Eleven, but now I’m so in debt, I’m panicking,” Gillespie said, noting Blockbuster Video has since turned him down, too. An estimated 40 percent of Austin’s workers are underemployed (stuck in jobs considered below their education level), according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and you can be sure that many are musicians.
Ken Miller, a supervisor at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where dozens of musicians are working now or have in the past, said the school has a dilemma when it hires a musician who may have to take a day off for band practice or a week or two off to tour.
“They bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm in, and that’s especially vital when you’re working with kids with special needs,” Miller said. “But no employer wants their employees to have to take a lot of time off, and we certainly don’t, because anything that upsets the routine can upset the children. … We’re usually real supportive when someone’s band has some big show coming up, or we really root them on when their record comes out. But that usually means they’re not working for us anymore.” Not Worth It Anymore
Robert Harrison, singer for the once commercially promising pop group Cotton Mather, has adapted a practical attitude after pushing his band for almost 10 years: He’s more or less given up on regularly performing live. “For us, its like this big debacle to get on stage, and it’s just not worth it anymore,” Harrison said. “We go out, and we see the same 30 faces we saw at the last show, the same 30 faces we always play to, and we’re happy they’re there, of course, but it loses its charm.”
Harrison, whose job at Ginny’s Copies helps feed his vintage guitar habit, can see the current slump in a positive light, however. “Good musicians don’t run when things get tough. Musicians are at their best when they’re being challenged. Maybe it will force some of us to be more resourceful.”
Amid the current disparity between Austin’s economic boom and the financial hardships facing the local music scene, some clubowners also are pondering how best to face the future.
“Eddie Wilson did it the right way with his Threadgill’s World Headquarters (a restaurant soon to open on Barton Springs Road),” said Liberty Lunch’s Pratz. “First he went out and lined up the investors, then he started building. That’s the way you’ve gotta do it today: Get the money first, because you can’t assume that it’ll come later.”
Luneberg sees the future of Austin music heading north. If Austin’s new citizens with good jobs aren’t coming to see local music, bring the music to them. “If I was going to open a new club,” he said, as the sounds of touted Trish Murphy rang out through a near-empty Cactus on a recent Wednesday night, “I’d open it out by the Arboretum.”
Top-selling bars for July 1996
Topless bars fill four slots on the TABC’s July rankings of the Top 10 selling bars in Austin. After Cedar Street (No. 4), the highest-ranking club that hosts live original music is Tejano Ranch at No. 35.
2.|Chuy’s Hula Hut^$210,127
6.|Joy of Austin^$147,203
7.|The Oasis Cantina^$145,283
10.|Oil Can Harry’s^$130,135
Live original music clubs:
53.|Pearl’s Oyster Bar^$58,888
69.|The Back Room^$51,095)
94.|Hole In the Wall^$42,059
117.|La Zona Rosa^$35,164
“This is Tony Von, T.V. on the radio, in living color.” The mellow, mesmerizing voice rolled out of the 1260 slot on the AM dial at 4 p.m. every weekday and at 2 p.m. Saturdays from 1954 until tragedy was a sad silencer in 1979. His real name was Tony Von Walls, and his radio nickname was “the Master Blaster,” but most everyone knew the irrepressible KTAE disc jockey and soul concert promoter as T.V. When the wild sax of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Von’s opening theme, came skronking out of the speakers, a community gathered together, if only spiritually.
He played gospel and blues side-by-side, just as nightclubs and churches were often next door to one another in East Austin. But more significantly, at a time before cell phones and pagers, Von was how Austin’s black community knew what was going on. He’d plug shows, give birthday greetings and announce events, often in free-form rhyme. “Tony was black radio back in the day,” says local blues artist Major Lee Burkes, whose hit song “Break These Chains” got its earliest airplay on Von’s show. “Communication was sometimes quite difficult back then so I’d listen to T.V. to see where I’d be playing that night.”
Austin’s reputation as a town where live music is a way of life, was built not just by the players and singers, but club owners, disc jockeys, journalists and record store owners. Tony Von performed all those duties. Radio was his calling, plus he opened the Show Bar and a record shop on “the Cuts” (popular slang for East 11th Street) in the early ’50s. After selling the club to Charlie Guildon, who later changed the name to Charlie’s Playhouse, in 1955, Von moved full time to Taylor, where he opened another record shop that he could plug on the air. He also brought such acts as James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner to Doris Miller Auditorium, and occasionally wrote for the Capital Argus, a black publication. Von put a lot of miles on his car driving back and forth from East Austin to Taylor.
“Tony yielded a lot of power,” Burkes recalls. “He had all the connections.” He didn’t make much money on KTAE, but used those airwaves to his advantage in business. Many of the biggest names in black music played at Von-promoted shows for free (which translated into tons of airplay), while Von provided the backing band, which was usually Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets. If you liked a song Tony played, you knew it was in stock at Von’s record shop. He always seemed to be working three angles at once.
On the air, however, he was the personification of laid-back. “Be cool, be back and remember one fact: We love you,” is how T.V. signed off each day.”Austin truly was ‘the live music capital of the world’ back in the ’60s,” Burkes says. “These days, it’s not even close to how much music was going on in East Austin, and Tony Von had a lot to do with it.”
A native of Dallas, Von moved to Austin to attend Sam Huston College. Back in Dallas after graduation, Von got his start in radio at KLIF, but it didn’t work out because Von wouldn’t embrace the corny “Jackson the Jiver” persona radio legend Gordon McClendon had devised for him. Von made a better impression on KTAE owner Gillis Conoley who was looking for a replacement for Jukebox Jackson in the afternoon. KTAE specialized in country and rockabilly, but the station also made time for R&B and Spanish music (Chicano DJ George Martinez followed Von’s show for 10 years).
In a 1977 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Von laid out the inclusive philosophy that made his show a forerunner of community radio. “I have always believed in playing anything by everybody, anybody and nobody,” he told writer Ronald Powell.
Two years after the Statesman story was published, Von met his tragic fate in the form of ex-con James Earl Pullins. Von was working in his record shop on East Walnut Street the evening of June 20, 1979, when an intoxicated Pullins stood in the middle of the street and fired a shotgun in the air. Von got his pistol and told Pullins to put the shotgun away and Pullins moved on down the street. He returned a couple hours later, however, and found Von in the Soul-Ful Club across the street from his record shop. One blast from the shotgun killed the black music entrepeneur. He was 54.
Having served two prison terms for armed robbery, this third strike against Pullins ensured a life sentence, so prosecutors didn’t try him for murder, thinking his guilty plea on an aggravated assault charge would put him away for good.
But after only 10 years in the joint, Pullins was paroled in 1990 because of prison overcrowding. Three years later, he was found shooting a stolen gun in the air in San Antonio and sent back to prison.
This many years later, Tony Von is not quite as big a local black radio icon as Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst or the great gospel announcer Elmer Aikens, who both worked for KVET. The Brooklyn band TV on the Radio doesn’t even know about the original, having taken their name from British DJ Tommy Vance, who calls himself “TV on the radio.” The catchphrase was born on the second floor of a building in downtown Taylor 53 years ago. The man who called himself that was one of the most important voices in Austin’s African American community for 25 years.
originally published in 2004, with quotes added following the death of Tommy Ramone.
The singer was an Olympic-sized geek with obsessive-compulsive disorder who found his escape in grandiose pop songs. The guitarist was a sullen, right-wing former street tough turned control freak. The bassist was a bottom-feeding junkie who used to rent his body on street corners for heroin. The drummer, a Hungarian immigrant with a love for all things American, was the sensible one, and the other three resented him for it. No four guys from the same neighborhood were more different from each other. And yet, when Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Doug Colvin and Tommy Erdelyi donned their uniform of black leather jackets and ripped jeans and spit out 90-second songs, which would’ve run into each other if not for the shout of “1-2-3-4!,” they became brothers: Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy. The Ramones! Presenting themselves as much as a street gang as a band, they were the group every outcast dreamed he was in; thus many went out and started their own versions. No band has ever moved more pawnshop guitars.
The Ramones, who never had a top 40 album and yet were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible, had barely touched their instruments until the first band practice. They were the GED of musical training, making up years in hours. Suddenly, you didn’t need to know how to play to be in a band. You just had to have guts and two chords memorized. This was a revolutionary idea in 1974, one that reverberates 30 years later, even as many new punk bands think it’s Green Day they’re copying.
The beloved quartet from Forest Hills, Queens is the subject of End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, which touches on all the important facets of their career, including their 1976 ignition of a British punk scene that almost swallowed them up, and their continual attempts to break into the mainstream.
But the fascinating documentary, more reality show than concert film, is also the story of what it’s like to be in a band, the ultimate dysfunctional family.
“I thought the movie was pretty accurate,” drummer Erdelyi, the last surviving original member, said ten years ago. Tommy Ramone passed away from bile duct cancer Friday at age 65. “But you’d really have to have a six-hour movie to get it all in. We were all very intense guys, with a lot of big egos floating around, so there was a lot of inner band conflict.” The Ramones are what happens when a quartet of losers stumbles upon a musical invention and saves rock ‘n’ roll. But they’re still the same misfits.
“We couldn’t play anyone else’s songs, which turned out to be a blessing,” Tommy said in 2004. “We were writing songs like nobody else was writing. And Joey had this great pop voice.”
Musically, the Ramones presented a unified front — they all knew their distinct roles. But offstage these four parts of a puzzle didn’t always fit together like “Gabba Gabba” and “Hey!” Joey and Johnny didn’t speak to each other for the last 16 years of the band’s existence after Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and married her (reportedly the inspiration for Joey’s song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”). Dee Dee and his girlfriend Connie, meanwhile, were Sid and Nancy with better luck, self-destructive co-dependents prone to stabbing and punching each other. They all fought like brothers but didn’t always make up like they were of the same blood.
“Johnny was a controlling monster,” recalled Tommy. “He was a master of the divide and conquer mentality. It could get brutal in the band. It was three against one when we went out on the road. I wasn’t treated well by the other guys so I just said ‘I’ll continue to help you guys make records, but life’s too short for this crap.'”
Joey Ramone got his revenge when the band went into the studio with Phil Spector to record End of the Century in 1980. “Johnny liked the hard, fast stuff and Joey liked pop music,” Erdelyi recalled in 2004. “Working with Phil Spector was a dream come true for Joey, but a nightmare for Johnny. Spector’s got a fetish with tall people. He had pictures of Wilt Chamberlain on the wall.”
As much as they despised each other, the Ramones had to stay together because they knew it was the only band any of them could be in. In the end, they didn’t even go to each other’s funerals.
Joey was the first to go, dying of cancer at age 49 in 2001. Dee Dee, 50, died of a heroin overdose in 2002. Johnny passed away from prostate cancer in 2004 at age 55. Tommy was 65 when he passed last week.
“It’s just so bizarre the way they went — one right after the other,” Erdelyi back in 2004. For the past 10 years he WAS the Ramones in the flesh and his passing was an obituary on the band that started punk. “I feel like my contributions to the band have been overlooked through the years. Then, after Johnny passed away, everybody’s going ‘Tommy Ramone is the last one left.’ All of a sudden, everybody remembered that I helped start this band, that I produced those early albums. In my heart I’ve always been a Ramone. It’s just bizarre that I’m getting all this attention now.”
Erdelyi had one quibble with the End of the Century doc, which takes its name from the Spector album. “That part where Johnny and Dee Dee say that I had nothing to do with the Ramones sound — that’s (bull) and they knew it. Those guys never wanted to give me any credit because they were afraid that I’d get all the credit,” Erdelyi said. “The truth is that the Ramones was my concept. I saw the New York Dolls and they weren’t great musicians, but they were the funnest band to go see… We were also big Stooges fans- we were really the only ones in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t hard to figure out who would be the Ramones.”
In the beginning, Tommy was the band’s manager and adviser. But when original drummer Joey showed he could sing the tunes the guys were writing, he was moved to lead vocals. Unable to find a suitable drummer — after all, what self-respecting musician would play with these lunky bashers? — Tommy sat at the kit out of necessity.
At first they tried to play songs by their favorite bands, the Stooges, the Dolls, the MC5, but they weren’t good enough, so they made up their own songs. “Judy Is a Punk” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” were in the earliest batch. Incompetence was the mother of invention. Each musician just did what came naturally — Johnny playing fast aggressive chords, Joey singing like Ronnie Spector, with Dee Dee and Tommy just going where the adrenaline took them. Nobody had ever sounded like the Ramones before they debuted at CBGB in August ’74, a gig recalled in the film with great amusement by a handful of witnesses.
Some thought they were a joke band, but the Ramones were totally serious.
“I knew, even before the first gig at CBGB, that we had something totally innovative,” Erdelyi said.
Soon they were packing CBGB, which was becoming a graffiti-covered incubator of such anti-Pink Floyd acts as Blondie, Television and Talking Heads. As the band’s success became more tangible — all that press had translated into a record deal and larger live gates — Johnny stepped in and took control of the band’s finances, often orchestrating power plays within the band. “Johnny saw the Ramones as a once-in-a-lifetime thing and he was going to push that thing for all it was worth,” Erdelyi recalled.
All the personal conflict shown in “End of the Century” doesn’t diminish the legacy of the Ramones; it actually enhances it. Onstage, they were brothers, liberated from humdrum, hopeless lives, beating the odds with a baseball bat, oh, yeah. They chanted “Hey ho! Let’s go!” and we followed them. We had no idea there was all this turmoil within the band, and we didn’t care.
They were the Ramones. They were us. And when they played “Rockaway Beach” or “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” or “Commando,” we all forgot about our problems.
He gave Kenny Rogers a gig in 1959 and replaced David Clayton-Thomas in Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972, but piano player Bobby Doyle made the most impact locally by establishing Ego’s, a dark apartment complex lounge on South Congress Avenue, as a live music venue in the early ’90s. A musician’s musician, Doyle succumbed to lung cancer in 2006 at age 66.
Able to handle requests for songs by everyone from George Gershwin and Nat King Cole to Jerry Lee Lewis and Stevie Wonder, Doyle, who was blind, was a brilliant, self-taught piano thumper who possessed a raspy, soulful voice.
“There aren’t too many white guys that can do Ray Charles, but Bobby Doyle was one of them,” said keyboardist Riley Osbourn.
“He had such a broad range,” Osbourn said. “He could play blues, R&B, gospel, jazz. . . . He had his own style by combining all those things.”
He was “the main cat,” said former Asleep At the Wheel pianist Danny Levin. “If you were thinking about doing a solo piano thing, Bobby Doyle was the guy you looked up to.”
A Houston native, Doyle moved to Austin at age 7 to attend the Texas School for the Blind. While at McCallum High, where he was the first blind student to graduate, he played on KVET-AM on Saturday mornings.
“Bobby always had a transistor radio in his pocket,” said Eddie Wilson, who would later book his former classmate at Threadgill’s. “He’d be bopping to the radio in class. He’d keep it just loud enough for him to hear, but not the teacher.” Bassist Jon Blondell, who played in a trio with Doyle in the ’90s, said the pianist “had the ears of a bat.”
After high school, Doyle started the Bobby Doyle Three, a popular local jazz outfit, with a University of Texas student named Kenny Rogers on standup bass. Rogers soon dropped out of college to play full time with Doyle, singing high harmony and playing bass on the 1962 album “In a Most Unusual Way.”
The trio disbanded in 1965, and Rogers went on to become a country-pop sensation.
“Bobby told me that he used to write checks for Kenny Rogers for five years, then Kenny went on to make $200 million and ain’t written Bobby a check once,” Wilson said.
But the Gambler never forgot Doyle; about 10 years ago, David Letterman asked Rogers to name the best musician he’d ever played with, and “Bobby Doyle” came out instantly.
Doyle also impressed producer Phil Spector, who used him on several sessions in the late ’60s, when Doyle lived in Los Angeles.
When Clayton-Thomas left BS&T in ’72, Doyle was tapped as a replacement, but the piano player didn’t last long with the horn-driven pop band, appearing on only two tracks on 1972’s “New Blood.”
Doyle moved back to Austin in the late ’70s and performed five nights a week at an East Riverside Drive lounge. But he was soon back on the road, ending up with steady work in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe during the ’80s.
He moved back to Austin for good in 1990, performing every Thursday and Friday at Ego’s, a dive he’d enjoyed playing during visits to Austin.
The word got out that there was an incredibly soulful singer and piano player at Ego’s, and Doyle’s sets soon were frequented by musicians and hipsters. Two nights a week, the dank, hidden joint on South Congress was cooler than any basement jazz club in Greenwich Village.
Because of Doyle’s draw, the club started booking other acts, even rock bands, and the dive was transformed into a scrappy stop on the live original music circuit.
Doyle also played regularly at the Driskill Lounge and Eddie V’s. Doyle played regularly until two months ago, when he became too ill. Wilson said playing music was one of Doyle’s few pleasures after his wife, Mary, died in August 2004. They had been married for 17 years.
“They were quite a team,” Wilson said. “I’ve never seen a couple have so much fun together. He was ready to go the day after Mary died.”
Footage of Doyle singing “Blowin’ In the Wind” at the Playboy Mansion in the Hugh Hefner documentary has led to more interest in Doyle’s career.
The boogie woogie was born in East Texas, pioneered by George and Hersal Thomas (the older brothers of blues singer Sippie Wallace), who heard music in the choogle of steam locomotives. On such pre-1920 Thomas brother numbers as “The Fives” and “The Rocks,” the percussive left hand aped the rhythm of trains carrying lumber from the Piney Woods, while the right hand created a whistle of movement with dazzling, improvised trips up and down the ivories.
Among the most proficient of their keyboard disciples was Robert “Fud” Shaw, who grew up on his father’s farm in Stafford, near Houston. Shaw was a favorite on the barrelhouse circuit – named for the barrels of booze at speakeasies during Prohibition – but he retired from performing in the 1930s to open a grocery store/barbecue joint in Austin.
Before it was called boogie woogie after Alabama piano thumper Pine Top Smith’s 1928 recording “Pine Top Boogie Woogie,” the style was known as “Fast Texas.” But in Houston they called it “that Santa Fe thing,” in reference to the Santa Fe Railroad that shot through Fourth Ward as free passage to points beyond.
Houston-based music historian Mack McCormick was so intrigued by the piano tradition of that one neighborhood that he took a job there as a 1960 census taker. Besides the usual questions, McCormick would ask about the hot piano players. Many of the greats had passed on, but McCormick heard that Fud Shaw was living in Austin. Shaw moved here in 1935, playing piano and running numbers. A nudge from a judge and a 1939 marriage to second wife Martha got Shaw into more legitimate pursuits. His first market was at 1000 West Lynn St. in Clarksville. In the ’50s he moved to the building at 1917 Manor Road that now houses Salty Sow.
Shaw kept an old upright piano at his grocery store and practiced every day. But he had been retired from the music biz for almost 30 years when McCormick tracked him down in 1963, which wasn’t hard to do. Shaw’s store was not only a hub of the black community, but also a favorite of collegians and politicos.
“When my grandfather would drive around, he’d know every single person on the street,” said Lea Walker-Clark.
Folks knew Shaw played piano, but they didn’t know that he was keeping alive an African American musical tradition, if only in the back room at Shaw’s Food Market, which everyone called the Stop ‘n’ Swat. When McCormick produced Shaw’s “Texas Barrelhouse Piano” album (later retitled “The Ma Grinder” and reissued by the Arhoolie label), he marveled at how the 55-year-old’s playing was as crisp as the white dress shirts he favored. Because Shaw hadn’t burnt out in clubs, where there’s pressure to chase the trends, his original barrelhouse style, which mixed elements of ragtime and jazz and slow blues with boogie woogie, was wonderfully preserved.
He could still play “The Cows”, “The Fives” and “The Clinton,” signature Santa Fe tunes, as if the old gang were still playing hot piano in the sportin’ houses in the Fourth Ward and in the Brazos bottoms towns.
Newly rediscovered, Shaw performed with Janis Joplin at a blues concert on the University of Texas campus in April 1966. The great blues singer Victoria Spivey sang Fud’s praises in Record Research magazine that same year, calling the pianist a “true representative of the wonderful Texas blues tradition.” Rod Kennedy booked the piano pioneer at the Kerrville Folk Festival for 14 straight years.
The folkies and the hippies embraced the original blues musicians, but unlike most of the others, the description “itinerant bluesman” didn’t apply to Shaw. The player got his entrepreneurial gene from a father who not only raised cattle and hogs, but owned a barbecue joint and market.
The family owned a Steinway baby grand piano that Shaw, a skilled calf roper and bronco tamer, had to play on the sly because his father didn’t want him to get any notions about becoming a musician. But the kid discovered talent early on and paid for his own lessons. “I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything,” Shaw said in the liner notes of his 1963 recording debut. “I told ‘em when to shake it and when to hold back. That’s what this music is for.”
When they laid Robert Shaw to rest at Capital Memorial Gardens in May 1985, a heart attack victim at age 76, they buried the man, but not the tradition he helped keep alive.
In fact, some who work at 1917 still feel the spirit. Citygram Magazine tells this eery ghost story of the boogie woogie man:
“Long before it was Salty Sow – or Red House Pizzeria, El Gringo, or J Mueller’s BBQ – the space on Manor Road was a grocery store and barbecue restaurant named the Stop n Swat. The business was owned by Robert Shaw, a successful blues musician who pioneered a style of barrelhouse piano which he used to play for his customers. The back house, now a bar area called The Trough area, was where he lived, right next to his store.
Late one night when Salty Sow’s manager Peter Van Etten was closing, he saw a man in a vintage fedora lingering in the back corner of the restaurant. When he stepped inside to tell the man they were closed, he had vanished. When he described the man to another employee, they looked up a picture of Robert Shaw and found that he matched the description quite exactly. Bartender Jonathan Pacheco walked to the back house one day and heard a voice very distinctly introduce themselves as Robert. He walked back up to the front, slightly confused, inquiring about the “new guy.”
Other employees have reported a cold draft by the very same window, even in the middle of the summer, and a door that will occasionally slam, despite the fact that it doesn’t even pull closed very easily…another fun fact: Salty Sow serendipitously opened on May 16, 2012, the 27th anniversary of Shaw’s death.”
Her friends in Manhattan told her to be careful, the club was a hellhole and the clientele was pretty rough. Even the cab driver gave her a warning on the way to CBGB, the New York City club that spawned punk rock. When Rebecca Kohout looked around the graffiti-covered club full of black leather and ripped shirts that night in 1977, she had to laugh. “I thought, man this place isn’t scary at all. I mean, I hung out at the One Knite.”
CBGB was the Copa compared with Austin’s most notorious dive, located at 801 Red River St. where a much-expanded Stubb’s currently sits. From 1970, when a trio of pals bought the business for just under $2,000, until it closed on July 4, 1976, the One Knite was known for its hanging junkyard decor and its illegal after-hours parties that often raged until dawn. Carly Simon, Peter Fonda and Peter Boyle were among those visitors who were steered into the Austin version of a speakeasy.
But the most lasting legacy of the club is the musicians who started out there and went on to bigger things. Long before Clifford Antone opened his first namesake blues club on Sixth Street in 1975, the One Knite hosted the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Angela Strehli, Paul Ray and the Cobras, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely and many, many more. They all played for tips.
“There was never a cover at the One Knite, so bands didn’t make any money to speak of,” says Ball, who formed Freda and the Firedogs after sitting in with Bobby Earl Smith’s band at the club. “But it was a place where you could really cut your teeth.”
Cleve Hattersley of Greezy Wheels remembers the crowd being right on top of the stage. “They were in your face, and pretty rowdy sometimes, but they would be cheering you on. It was a great feeling.”
In the early ’70s, when Austin was first getting a national reputation as a music town, the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon got most of the attention, deservedly so. But the scruffy downtown joints like Split Rail, Chequered Flag, Alamo Lounge and the One Knite are where the Austin club scene, the one that lives on today, was being born.
It was a time of war protests and love-ins, when local scenesters had names like the Guacamole Queen, Red Fred and Summerdog. It was a time when there was no “Ray” between “Stevie” and “Vaughan.” Ray Hennig of the Heart Of Texas Music store on South Lamar Boulevard recalls driving Stevie Vaughan to the One Knite almost every night after Hennig closed up for the evening. “He’d play every guitar in the shop all day long, then go to the One Knite to jam all night,” Hennig says of a then-19-year-old Stevie, whose earliest bands Blackbyrd, the Nightcrawlers and the Cobras were One Knite mainstays. Jimmie Vaughan and Bramhall’s band Storm played every Monday night for five years.
But music wasn’t always the primary draw at the One Knite, which had a coffin-shaped front door and served dollar pitchers of beer. “People didn’t care who was playing,” says Ball. “They’d come to the One Knite just to hang out.”
“It was more of a clubhouse than a place of business,” recalls Wayne Nagel, a local booking agent and band manager. “It was just so wide open, with a real cast of characters.” “Anything goes” was anything but an empty cliche at the One Knite, whose pool table easily converted into a craps table.
The antithesis of the “cosmic cowboy” scene that was popular at the time, the One Knite’s interior was painted as black as bassist Keith Ferguson’s fingernails. And with a fleet of Harleys always parked out front, the One Knite’s aroma of danger was almost as strong as the stench of stale beer.
This counterculture Cheers was where the Banditos biker gang sat next to former President Lyndon Johnson’s Secret Service detail who sat next to joint-rolling flower children who sat next to East Side bluesmen and law students. They all sat under such objects as lawn mowers, tricycles, bed springs, shoulder pads and typewriters, which hung from the ceiling.
“The Secret Service guys were pretty laid back,” says co-owner Roger Collins, whom everybody called Roger One Knite. “They said as long as we weren’t counterfeiting money or plotting to kill the president, we were cool.”
Although the origins of the One Knite name, inherited from the previous owners, are unclear, the name fits this many years later because remembrances of the dive almost always begin with the words “One night . . .” One night a group of militant feminists from Lubbock tried to shout down Storm, claiming the blues lyrics were sexist. They were no match for Jimmie Vaughan’s Stratocaster, however, and the libbers soon left. One night the Banditos decided to have a little fun with the band Dirty Leg. In order to be admitted back into the club after a break, each band member had to allow a gnarly, teeth-missing, biker mama to give them a big wet kiss. One night a touring British band came in during a Storm set and asked if they could jam, but when they said they weren’t a blues band, the members of Pink Floyd were denied the stage.
Get a bunch of ex-One Knite regulars together, like at the One Knite Reunion at Stubb’s in May 2004, and you’ll hear so many stories about a time, quite frankly, the tellers are lucky to have lived through. But don’t expect the beer to flow as freely as in the old days. “I’d say that most of the old regulars have either passed away or gone through rehab,” says Kohout, who organized the reunion concert.
While clubs were ordered closed at midnight in the early ’70s, owners Collins, Roddy Howard and Gary Oliver merely padlocked the front door from the inside and let the revelry continue. We’re not talking about just sneaking a beer after closing time.
When someone pulled out a couple of machetes and a bag of marijuana, the cheers would go up for a Hot Knife Party. “The knives were heated red hot on the kitchen stove,” recalls T.J. McFarland, who played drums with D.K. Little at the time. “Then a handful of pot was spread along the length of one knife. The other hot machete was laid on top of the first and the knives screamed and spewed smoke like a rocket. The room would fill up with pot smoke and people got so stoned so fast . . .”
There had to be rules amid such chaos. “After midnight, we’d unlock the door only once an hour,” says Collins, who slept in a broom closet in the ladies’ room. “We’d pick up all the beer and clean up all the evidence, then let out whoever wanted to go.”
The men in blue often were waiting to corral the OK gang, once hauling 14 employees and customers off to jail in a paddy wagon. “They were trying to run us out of business,” says Collins. Sometimes the cops, headquartered just a block away, would barge in two or three times a night, checking IDs and looking for drugs. Collins kept a log in 1973 that showed his club was raided 150 times over a three-month period.
It would be the IRS that finally put the joint out. “We spent all our money on partying,” Collins says. Well behind on back taxes, the club held a benefit in late ’75 starring a red hot Willie Nelson. Tickets were $2.50 each. Even though the club was jammed almost four times over the legal capacity of 150 people, the event barely broke even because nobody could get to the bar.
Was Lou Reed there?
As one could imagine, given the ability of Hot Knife Parties to slice and dice memory cells, there are several versions of how the One Knite was transformed from a hangout for University of Texas law students to a musical launching pad.
The most tantalizing story has the seed for future seediness planted when members of the Velvet Underground and a ragtag entourage of Austin fans took over the club after a VU show at the Vulcan Gas Co. in 1969. As “Joey,” which is how Joe Ely was billed at the time, played a solo acoustic set from a stage that was four tabletops nailed together, Lou Reed was messing around with a young woman and she tumbled from table to stage mid-song.That’s one story.
“I remember the girl falling down on the stage,” Ely says, “but I don’t remember Lou Reed.”
Gary Oliver was told about that crazy night in a weird bar and he ended up frequenting the place and got a job as a part-time bartender. Eventually he bought out one of the three owners, who was graduating from UT and moving away.
Oliver, currently an editorial cartoonist for the Marfa Sentinel, still has the $600 receipt for his share of the business. His friend Roddy Howard soon bought out another partner for $600. Eight months later, Roger Collins bought out the last law student owner for $750 and the One Knite was ready to rock.
“In the beginning we had only acoustic acts, like Jimmie Gilmore, Blind George, Little & Crow, Cody Hubach,” says Oliver. “Then one night in 1971, the guys in Storm came in and said, ‘This is the best blues dive we’ve ever seen. When can we play?’ We didn’t have a real stage, especially for a band with drums, so they just set up on the floor and played. They were incredible and the place was packed.”
The next day, a proper stage was built and the One Knite became a blues bar.
“The One Knite had an across-the-highway feel,” says Hattersley. “No club west of I-35 had such a funky East Austin feel like the One Knite.” W.C. Clark liked playing the room so much that he quit the Joe Tex band to play the One Knite with Southern Feeling (featuring Angela Strehli).
“After Storm, even the folk acts were turning up with full bands,” Oliver says. One of those was the Flatlanders, featuring Ely, Gilmore and Butch Hancock, backed by such Lubbock cohorts as drummer McFarland and guitarist John Reed.
“We really felt in our element at the One Knite,” Ely recalls. “Those were some of our best shows.” Ely and company thought those nights were resigned to hazy recall until they heard, just a few months ago, that two of their One Knite sets, one in 1972, the other in ’74, were recorded on Oliver’s reel-to-reel. “We had no idea we were being recorded. We were stunned, and thrilled, when we found out that those tapes exist,” Ely says.
And now a CD, available at the reunion show, then at Waterloo Records, captures the crazy, magical scene. “When we played the One Knite, it never felt like a real gig,” Ely says.
An exuberant ‘Bash’
Besides running the club, the One Knite owners hosted outdoor concerts, the most notorious of which was the 1973 “Last Bash On the Hill” off City Park Road. Roky Erickson had just gotten out of Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, so the 13th Floor Elevators reunited for the free show. An unannounced Willie Nelson also played a set.
Organizers expected 3,000 people; 15,000 showed up. The One Knite crew lost money and angered local authorities as fans ditched their cars from miles around when the traffic stopped moving. But, oh, what a party! During this time of Vietnam, the hippies of Austin knew how to forget.
But being numb for so long just gets old, not to mention life-threatening. You cherish the memories that survive and move on. Or, you know, the other thing happens.
Like many of the ex-One Kniters, Roger Collins went through rehab and got sober. Today he lives in San Angelo with his son and daughter and is employed as a clinical social worker at a psychiatric hospital. “I got my early training running the One Knite,” he jokes.
Collins was on hand for the reunion, but his former partner Gary Oliver skipped the proceedings on principle. His beef? They charged a cover.
Hey, that’s no way to remember a wide-open joint where fans got in free, bands passed the hat, and the ’60s met the ’70s with the sizzle of hot machetes.