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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mirth, Sins & Fire: 40 years of throwing my life away

Posted by mcorcoran on April 13, 2017

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer my senior year of high school. She died at the end of freshman year of college and I never really went back, for a variety of reasons. But mainly I was using my license to go a little crazy.

In December 1974, an Islands sensation named Aerosmith- who were totally unknown on the Mainland except in Boston- opened for the Guess Who at the HIC Arena. The sold-out venue of 7,500 had about 1,000 left when Guess Who were done. Half the crowd left immediately after Aerosmith. Never seen an opening act blow a headliner off the stage like that, so I decided to write a review and send it in to Sunbums, Honolulu’s counterculture rag.

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Within days I got a nice letter from the new Sunbums editor Kathryn Hellenbrand, saying that they already had the Aerosmith review covered, but she liked the other piece I had sent in as a sample of my non-musical writing. It was a first-person account of getting my ear lobe needled called “Preparing For Piercehood.” She set up a meeting, and the rest, as they say…

I don’t know what I would’ve done in 1975 without Sunbums. My dad remarried horribly and I was set out into the world. Kathy became my mentor and 525 Cummins Street, in the hideous Kaka’ako neighborhood of Honolulu, became my new home. I was sleeping in the back room of my job at the Ford Island Gym in Pearl Harbor, but if I wasn’t there, I was at Sunbums or reviewing concerts or down on Hotel Street, where the transvestite prostitutes were better looking than the girls.

Better known today as “Shanghai Kate,” Hellenbrand was 31 at the time, living with the tattoo artist Mike Malone, and they had bought Sailor Jerry’s famous tattoo shop at 1033 Smith Street. Having come from New York City, Kate and Mike were streetwise as hell, something I decidedly was not. They took in strays and I was ready to follow anyone. Boy, did I hit the lowlife highlife lottery!

When I arrived on the masthead of Sunbums in January 1975, it was pretty full of rock critics. Or folks pretending to be, so I mainly wrote “humor” pieces at first, but I exhibited a real flair for concert reviews, so after a few months I was the lead guy.

Now, while my mother was alive I had never smoked a joint, never gotten drunk, never shoplifted, never did anything illegal. I even waited until my 18th birthday to go to the porno shops, when there was nobody checking IDs.

But I was on my own at 19, basically orphaned, so I made up for lost time. The first time I got stoned was driving over the Pali Highway with Kate and her prostitute friend/ Sunbums associate editor, going to see Blazing Saddles. The three of us were howling uncontrollably to the point that the usher came to ask us to please keep it down.

I had never purchased drugs until the day of the Earth, Wind & Fire concert I was to review at the Waikiki Shell in June 1975- 40 years ago this week! I split a gram of coke with Kate and she pulled over at McDonald’s and I ran in for some coffee stirrers, which looked like plastic coke spoons back then. Just having drugs in my pocket made me high.

When I got to the Shell that night and went to pick up my ticket, it came with a backstage pass. Since Sunbums was owned by mid-level promoter JFL Concerts, I knew that backstage passes had varying levels of access. One of my jobs at JFL shows, even the ones I reviewed, was as gofer for the VIP area, so I saw how most of the folks sporting those passes couldn’t get in there, with the free booze and nice food spreads. So when I slapped on the sticker at EW&F I didn’t expect much. But I thought I would just keep walking backstage until someone said “that’s far enough,” and to my astonishment I was waved through all the way to the VIP. Now I could do that coke! So I went into the men’s room and found a stall and started dipping in that McDonald’s spoon and, basically, blowing white powder all over the bathroom floor. After a few minutes there was this big rush of people into the bathroom and I could hear the door lock behind them. They were black guys yelling at each other about getting high before the show. They were Earth, Wind & Fire!

Moffatcolumn

They settled their deal in about 10 minutes and after they left, I remember sitting there on the commode with my clothes on thinking “this is the life I want to be part of.” And I’ve never looked back.

Been some lean years. Been an intervention or two. Been times when I wished I’d had a job pounding nails or digging ditches- anything but this writing that won’t come. But I have to say it’s been a great life overall. I’m good at it and it pays the bills.

Anyway, all this came up again like bad Chinese, when I read all those posts from Bonnaroo, where by most accounts Earth, Wind & Fire were the hits of day one. (They’re coming to Austin July 23 on a double bill with Chicago). I found a recent nostalgia column written by Hawaii’s legendary promoter Tom Moffatt (unfortunately named “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’”) that quoted from my June 1975 Earth Wind & Fire review and there seemed to be some juice in the 40th anniversary. Forty years of throwing my life away, the best way I know how.

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Austin’s ‘Street of Dreams’: From Pecan Street to Dirty Sixth

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2017

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“A big rat came out of one of the old buildings and scampered into an alley. A discarded newspaper fluttered against a parking meter in the early morning breeze. Keys grated in locks and doors opened and the smell of hot coffee came into The Street.
East Sixth Street was open for business.”

– Dan Grover, Austin American Statesman, July 1953

Austin’s most famous street has earned the nickname “Dirty Sixth” over the past few years, with a boozy, unruly Bourbon Street-like atmosphere and a YouTube driven reputation for violence. You almost forget the history of the street whose majority of buildings, even those housing tattoo parlors, frat bars and gawdy gift shops, were erected in the late 1800s.

The mob that mills between the barricades on weekends tripled during South by Southwest and became menacing, with street brawls and cops in riot formation. “SXSW has lost Sixth Street” was my shortest tweet of the week, as I gave up trying to see a band that was just two blocks away. The few, miserable-looking badge-wearing registrants I saw moved through the roving street gangs and drunken frats like they were navigating chest-high swampwater. This was not in the brochure!

The proximity of clubs on Sixth, many of which change to live music venues for a week to catch a whiff of the windfall, was a key to the appeal of SXSW in the early years. But during this past fest, two forays into the fray reminded me of that line from Apocalypse Now: “Don’t get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right. Why would I ever leave South Austin during the third week of March?

This Saturday will be another crazy time on Sixth, as the last night of the Texas Relays has become the traditional Black Party Night in Austin. Not only will there be the Urban Music Festival at Butler Park (starring Kool and the Gang), but Sixth will be packed from Brazos to Red River Streets with tens of thousands of African-American teenagers and young adults trying to hook up.

Stubb’s tried to capitalize on the crowd one year and held a big hip-hop show with national acts. But they sold fewer than 60 tickets to the 2,000-capacity venue. Two blocks was too far from the real action, called “parking lot pimpin’,” with the closed-off street creating a free venue.

Some Sixth Street merchants and club owners made news a few years ago when they closed the night of Black Saturday, some nailing plywood over their windows. Their venues didn’t cater to the crowd and none of their usual customers could get through the mob, they argued, but the moves smacked of racism.

History reminds us that Sixth Street, which turns 175 years old in May, was built on true diversity. While the rest of Austin abided by rules of Jim Crow segregation, East Sixth was always open to every race. Black businesses were next to white, Lebanese, Chinese and Hispanic storefronts. White businesses on Sixth, like Hyman Samuelson’s Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth, advertised on black radio shows, such as Lavada Durst’s “Dr. Hepcat” on KVET. “Now if you want to be draped in shape and hep on down, get your frantic fronts at Crown,” Durst would say.

Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth St. circa 1950. Left is master tailor Eli Gonzales. Right is owner Hyman Samuelson. (Courtesy Austin History Center).

Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth St. circa 1950. Left is master tailor Eli Gonzales. Right is owner Hyman Samuelson. (Courtesy Austin History Center).

Sixth Street is the closest Austin’s ever gotten to 14th St. in Manhattan. And yet today it’s become synonymous with hooligans and loud, stupid noise.

Sixth Street is at a crossroads, with most business owners and patrons pining for the more manageable past. Downtown streetscaping plans have been submitted to wash that “Dirty” right offa the street, making Sixth an “18 hours a day” family-friendly destination. Vote yes on the proposition, known as the Good Luck With That bond.

But when you consider the history of Sixth Street, it’s an avenue well worth saving. Sixth Street is actually the coolest thing about Austin.

I’ve been learning about Sixth in the 2010 book Images of America, Sixth Street, by Allen Childs, an Austin doctor who worked as a boy at his family’s shoe store on E. Sixth St. A lot of things I didn’t know, like Austin’s first HEB, then called H.E. Butts was at 600 E. Sixth Street. The Academy retail chain started as a military surplus shop on Sixth. Twin Liquors grew out of Jabour’s. And Austin’s first J.C. Penney’s was in the building at 204 E. Sixth St. where Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson once ran a boardinghouse on the second floor, while her husband made caskets on the ground floor.

E. Sixth has the greatest concentration of limestone Victorian commercial buildings west of the Mississippi. But even more impressive is the street’s human legacy. In a 1978 article in the Austin Sun about a fight between preservationists and developers over the 100 block, home then of Antone’s blues club and O.K. Records, Sixth Street was described as “breathing with a truly diverse urban life all its own.” But developers won that battle.

This 1872 Victorian building was erected by Austin's first black business owner Edward Carrington, who had a grocery store on the ground floor and lived upstairs.

This 1872 Victorian building was erected by Austin’s first black business owner Edward Carrington, who had a grocery store on the ground floor and lived upstairs.

Why Sixth Street and not Fifth or Seventh? Sixth, originally called Pecan Street, became Austin’s east-west Main Street because it was the most level path from the east. And it was the closest street to the Colorado River that didn’t flood when the water would jump the banks in the years before a dam was built in the 1890’s. It was safe to build on well-traveled Sixth Street and so settlers and immigrants built dry goods stores and saloons and sporting houses and hotels. When the Houston and Texas Central Railroad came to Austin in 1871, the town’s population doubled to 10,000 in a year. Pecan Street was dubbed “The Street of Dreams.”

Austin’s red light district of gambling dens and houses of prostitution was called Guy Town and located between Lavaca and Colorado Streets south of Fifth until Mayor A.P. Wooldridge cleaned it up in 1913. But most legitimate business happened on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street.

Congress was segregated, so blacks couldn’t go to the Paramount Theatre. But they could watch movies at the Lyric Theater at 419 E. Sixth St., which was opened by prominent African-American dentist Everett Givens in the 1920s. Blacks were also welcome at the Ritz Theater, which opened in 1929, though they had to sit in the balcony. Austin’s first black business owner Ed Carrington bought an empty lot at 518 E. Sixth (Pecan) St. in 1872 and built a grocery store. Brother Albert opened a blacksmith shop behind the store. You don’t even notice that building at Sixth and Red River on weekends because there’s so much barking human traffic.

The 700 block of E. Sixth became mostly Hispanic at the turn of the 20th century, with Garza’s Meat Market and Austin’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, El Original, across the street from where Easy Tiger is now.

Sixth Street had various Chinese laundries in its early years and a Chinese Restaurant, Joe Lung’s, which opened in 1916 at the current location of Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside eatery. Lung had been recruited, along with thousands of other Chinese natives, from his home near Canton to help build the U.S. railroads and decided to stay.

Sixth Street looking east in 1875. The railroad brought prosperity to the street four years earlier.

Sixth Street looking east in 1875. The railroad brought prosperity to the street four years earlier.

Austin and Sixth Street were born the same day. Mirabeau B. Lamar, who succeeded Sam Houston as president of the Republic of Texas, discovered Waterloo, as Austin was originally called, while camping near the mouth of Shoal Creek while on a buffalo hunt. The town was home to two families at the time. Lamar suggested the location to the commission created to select a permanent site for the capital of Texas and they agreed, renaming Waterloo, Austin in April 1839. Lamar’s agent, Judge Edwin Waller, arrived the next month to lay out the town. In that original 15-block square, he named the north-south streets after Texas rivers and all the east-west streets after indigenous trees.

Sixth Street was Pecan Street until 1884, when the city had overgrown available tree names and decided to go numerical. Two years later, Sixth Street had its crown jewel when cattle baron, Col. Jessie Driskill built Austin’s first grand hotel at the corner of Sixth and Brazos. (Col. Driskill would lose his namesake hotel in a card game about 10 years later.)

Austin’s first financial center, the Littlefield Building, opened at the northeast corner of Sixth and Congress in 1911. For the first half of the 20th century, Sixth Street was bustling. As evidenced by the 1953 Statesman article which remarked that one could buy a reefer

Stevie Ray Vaughan standing in front of OK Records, next to the original Antone's on Sixth.

Stevie Ray Vaughan standing in front of OK Records, next to the original Antone’s on Sixth.

on any corner, Sixth Street started to fall on hard times after WWII, when Austin’s first shopping centers and suburban flight drew away customers. When I-35 was built in 1959, erasing the prosperous East Avenue melting pot, it created a barrier from East Austin.

The almighty Driskill closed in 1969 and was saved from demolition only through a campaign that raised $2 million. The next year the Ritz became a porno movie house. “The Street of Dreams” had become Skid Row.

But various Austinites wouldn’t give up on what was once Austin’s most vibrant thoroughfare. Architect David Graeber and wife Jean paid $13,000 for a condemned building at 410 E. Sixth St. in 1968 and turned it into an Architectural Digest-worthy home, with an indoor swimming pool.

Four years later, Ralph McElroy and Randy Baird opened the Old Pecan Street Café, Austin’s continental cuisine debut, in the former Zegub’s shoe repair store at 314 E. Sixth. It became such a sensation that they expanded next door to the former Big State used furniture location.

In 1974, Jim Franklin turned the abandoned Ritz Theater into a music venue. Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton kept the Ritz going, then gave Sixth an entertainment anchor with Esther’s Follies, at the same corner of Red River Street where Skinny Pryor once ran the Spanish-language moviehouse, the Cactus Theater.

History should be important to everyone, not just those born here, but the couple in a U-Haul asking directions to Oltorf. So much of our foundation as a city, as a people, is built on six blocks from Congress Avenue east to Waller Creek. Six blocks “with just enough danger to make it interesting,” as the Sun reported in ’78. Six blocks that have represented all of Austin for 175 years.

A little bit of danger and a whole lot of history makes Sixth Street worth revitalizing, no matter what the cost or inconvenience.

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

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

mike_flanigin

Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

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

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

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

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ORGAN PORN

Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton

 

 

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Mississippi 1963: Waking up to racism

Posted by mcorcoran on January 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Austin – Zeitgeist #1

Posted by mcorcoran on January 15, 2017

Complain all you want about the traffic, the rising cost of living, the rash of condos, the second weekend of ACL Fest and how this once-sleepy college town has gone to hell in a pedicab. But the luckiest residents of Austin are the ones who just moved here.

Huh? “You must also love those assholes who try to squeeze into a full elevator.”

Not love, envy. Those folks who arrived recently with those rolled-up copies of Forbes in their back pockets take a lot of organic crapola. With all those touts of Jobs! Culture! Livability! Austin’s waist size has expanded from 32 to 42 and all these new people make for some tight-ass jeans. All those “Don’t Move Here” t-shirts are about as effective a deterrent as yellow lights on South Lamar and capital punishment.

But imagine how cool it is to live in an Austin where everything’s new. You know how you hear somebody talking about how they just started watching The Wire and you get a little jealous because that’s something you’ll never get to do again for the first time? It’s like that.

I moved to Austin 30 years ago this March and it’s hard for me to get excited about, say, going to the honky tonk preservation scene at the Broken Spoke on a Thursday night when Jesse Dayton’s playing all those old country classics. But I went there recently for a story and I could tell who had never been to that 50-year-old club before. They were glowing. Ain’t got nothing like this in Silicon Valley, yeehaw!

Yes, it used to be so much better here, but those days are gone. Living in Austin is like sex in that what happened in the past has only sentimental value, which when it comes to sex is no value. Who would you rather be, the old guy hunched over his cereal who used to do Victoria Principal or the insufferable hipster in the trucker hat who goes home to that hot barista, the one without the tattoos?

One advantage that newcomers have is that they don’t know what Austin used to look like or how the people used to act. They can go to Torchy’s storefront on South First and not once think about Virginia’s, the beloved home cooking joint that used to be in that location. There’s no haunt to the jaunt.

The only Austin any of us know is the one we got. And I think right now we have to get something straight. If you were born and raised in Austin and still live here, you’re rare, but not special. So please stop bragging in Facebook comments. You’re annoying the 99% of us who moved here because where we lived before wasn’t so hot. Or, even worse, it was Lubbock.

Some moved here for jobs. They’re called Round Rock residents. But most of us moved here because we loved the party, you know, the vibe. It started as a room full of conversations on Goodwill couches and someone pulled out a guitar and everyone sang “Blister In the Sun.” But the bash now rages with a D.J. and drink tickets. Who invited all these bubblebutts?

But they have every right to be at this party gone out of bounds as you do. Legally, at least. You just got there early. And you’re free to leave.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about doing just that myself. Leaving Austin, my Austin. But then one evening I took a spin around town and forced myself to see this town through the eyes of a newcomer. The drive started near my first apartment on South First near Ben White and my mind went back to that time in ’84 when Austin was all new.

I crossed the river at Lavaca, then turned right at E. 7th. , one of my favorite streets in Austin because it’s the fastest way to get to the East Side. Outside the window on this 20-minute drive, I saw people on the streets, talking and laughing, hanging out at food trailers, popping out of nifty shops, sitting there drinking coffee. There was the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan I saw driving over the bridge and the one of Willie Nelson just on the other side. East Austin was all over the place, from taquerias to Qui and a rock and roll dive called Hotel Vegas, the same name as when it was a flop house.

What a cool fucking town.

Austin is such a safe city that “living on the edge” means going to the HEB on E. 7th instead of the one at Hancock Center, so infused with that lived-in-Bushwick-three-years swagger, I ended the away leg of my drive at the grocery store where people have been stabbed over 11 items in the express checkout. HEB has everything, bruh.

I drove back on E. Sixth to Congress and took a left back to South Austin. These are streets I’ve driven down thousands of times and so they had become merely routes. But on the night I looked at the surroundings as someone who’d been driving a U-Haul through Texarkana the day before, I realized that we need to make a major distinction when we’re talking about East Sixth Street.

There are two wildly different ones. There’s the one-way East Sixth of street hustlers and tourists and loud, stupid bars and heavy metal pizza. This is the Sixth Street out-of-town sports announcers are always referencing when they call games in town. “(Winning team) fans are going to be partying on Sixth Street tonight!” Then there’s the hip, two-way Sixth Street on the east side of I-35 that makes recent arrivals from Williamsburg miss home a little less.

Randy Quaid and Dennis Quaid share a last name because they have the same father. East Sixth and East Sixth are not similarly bound by law or tradition. Maybe we just need to call the hipper side “East East Sixth.” Or officially change the name of the Bourbon Street section to “Dirty Sixth.” Tag it to the street signs. And for crissakes put a surveillance camera on every corner. Selling clips to “World’s Craziest Streetfights” and other such TV shows will bring as much revenue to the city as the F1 racetrack.

One thing strange about the east side of the freeway is seeing folks charge for parking. I recently had to pay $10 to park in a lot where I once bought a home theatre sound system for $10. But things change because paradise can never keep its trap shut.

About 150 people a day are moving to Austin, according to reports. That’s 150 people who’ve never slid into a booth at Curra’s for breakfast tacos and that cinnamon roasted Oaxacan coffee, who’ve never heard next year’s big band on the outdoor stage of the Mohawk, who’ve never been on one of the trails that hold sanity together like twine.

They’re the lucky ones, just starting season one.

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Fairytale of New Orleans: Me and the Pogues 1988

Posted by mcorcoran on April 29, 2015

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

Spin magazine, May 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

 

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

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

 

DA’S ADDENDUM

Jack, 15, Milwaukee

Jack, 16, Milwaukee. “Ya smoke.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

sanjurjoletter

 

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

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Shinyribs: Dancing with the Scars

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2015

shinyribssheep

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

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

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

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

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

Shinyribs 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Feels Like Rain

Words and music by Kevin Russell

Austin is the only place

I ever seen an angels face

Austin is the only town

I ever seen an angel drown

In a sea of pain and regret

I just now remembered

I swore I’d never forget

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

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

It don’t matter where the memory was gone

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

I can’t recall a face or a name

Like even when you can’t see it

You can still feel the rain

Oh lord I can feel it

And it feels like rain

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Corky at 30

Posted by mcorcoran on January 29, 2015

I never called myself Corky until I started writing the “Don’t You Start Me Talking” column for the Austin Chronicle in 1985. So Corky is 30 this year. I was trying to come up with a full-of-himself character I could hide behind as I savaged the scene one minute and cuddled with it the next. But everybody started calling me Corky and eventually I became him and had to move away for awhile. This column split me life right into two, so in my 60th year it seems the right time to revisit.
Nick Barbaro behind the wheel, coming back from Laredo.

Nick Barbaro behind the wheel, coming back from Laredo.

 

JIBS & JABS

Nanci Griffith, Nashville’s Miss Goody Two-Chords, is a subject of an investigative report in the Feb. 20 Washington Post. Reporter Digger Treadwell presents evidence that Griffith, who promotes a literary bent, has not actually read the books on her LP covers and the “novel” she’s said to have recently completed is just a series of letters asking her mother to ship her unicorn collection to Nashville. The Post has an unnamed source who overheard Griffith asking her art director to go out and get “some thick books by women authors or Southerners, you know, like that Flannery O’Connor guy… Zeitgeist has received cease-and-desist letters from an attorney representing a Minneapolis new age group which had the name longer. So they’re changing their name. A suggestion: Whitegeist… This year’s Woodshock has been canceled due to liability concerns. Here’s the insurance agent on the phone with landowner Mrs. Hurlbut: “OK, now let me make sure I’ve got this right. You want to know how much it will cost to insure an event where hundreds of punk rockers on mushrooms dive off cliffs, drink gallons of beer and slam into one another for the pure pleasure of contact? Let me put you in touch with Mr. Reynolds as soon as he gets off the phone with the Ku Klux Klan, which needs insurance for it’s midnight march through Brooklyn.”…

MUSICAL LIKE ME 1984

gerard05022015

musicallikeme2

photos by Martha Grenon

DOUBLE BILL BINGO

Biggest Mamou Steve Chaney took a gander at his upcoming slate the other day and, seeing pairings of the WayOuts and the Wigglies and the Shakers and the Tremors, wondered if booker JoRae Dimenno was putting together shows by how the band’s names sounded together. We realize that JoRae has her hands full, what with trying to pull boyfriend J.D. Foster out of the funk because Will Sexton didn’t ask him to play bass on the new Kill video, so we’ll give DiMenno some booking suggestions:

Bad Mutha Goose and Duck Soup
Bubble Puppy
and Water the Dog
Andy Van Dyke
and Two Nice Girls
Glass Eye
and Robert Earl Keen
Passenger
and Asleep At the Wheel
Spot
and Go Dog Go
Hank Sinatra
and Sonny Davis, Jr.
Rudi Dadd
and the Grandmothers
James Cotton
and Marcia Ball
Shoulders
and Child Bearing Hips
Tony Perez
and Nice Strong Arm
How To Kiss
and French Acers
Avenue D
and Ronnie Lane
Johnny Reno
and Speedy Sparks
Monte Warden and Huey P. Meaux
Tyrant Swing and Willie Khomeni
The Argyles and the Sweaters
Killer Bees and Trained Ants
Band From Hell and the Fortunetellers (band from Oklahoma)

THINGS CHANGE

Zeitgeist is currently on a Midwest excursion with a female guitar player who is not Kim Longacre. Don’t expect to read the replacement’s name. I don’t know it. The band, which was opening for Room City when I discovered them, would not tell me. I did find out that the new player is from Corpus Christi and is a friend of bassist Cindy Toth. The tight lips are the rule here because the current two-week swing will serve as an intensified tryout, and the band does not want to make an announcement now which may be incorrect in two weeks.

Zeigeist/Reivers with Kim, John, Cindy and Garrett.

Zeigeist/Reivers with Kim, John, Cindy and Garrett.

Longacre’s last scheduled gig with the group was at the South Bank, Nov. 8. The band had the audience dancing too much to acknowledge the sad passing at hand, but I savored every component of “Freight Train Rain,” “Things Don’t Change” and “Translate Slowly,” being all too aware that the charm of these songs in performance was nearly extinction. The remaining players are creative and efficient, John Croslin’s songs are first-rate, and there’s just too much here in the way of determination for any future Zeitgeist incarnation to be anything but good. From good to great, the intangible element is magic. It can’t be arranged, or planned or bought, even by Rupert Murdoch. It just happens. Like it did with Zeitgeist. Magic. It couldn’t be pointed out at the South Bank, but it was indelibly there, snaking around the formative four like invisible smoke. When they play, you forget that they seem to take this rock and roll stuff too seriously. Amnesia blacks out your vision of the grotesque climb, the gangly arms wanting so bad to hold the gaudy, bejeweled belt overhead. They’re a great band, you think. Who could blame them?

Nothing taints a perceived personality like success. Shyness comes off as snobbery. Confidence becomes conceit. Miss a hello and you’ve got a big head. Miss a goodbye and you’ve used somebody. When Regular Joe really ties one on and makes an ass of himself, the alcohol takes the rap. Not so with our chosen few. The stories circulate for months. The trick is to be bent for success, but to not be bent by it.

South Bank. I am standing back where the media stands, holding a Shiner Bock, which is what the media drinks. I am thinking media thoughts. Does Cindy Thoth even bother to put make-up on the eye her bangs always cover? Is Zeitgeist as good as True Believers? Why didn’t they tell me the new guitar player’s name when I asked them? There is something very comforting about watching a band from where the media stands Don’t know why I have my favorite observations there. When I stand where the media stands I am working. I want Zeitgeist to play “Translate Slowly.”

Croslin strums lightly, and gradually the decibels split into more decibels though Croslin is still strumming lightly. He takes the rhythm to the corner where Longacre awaits and their vocals collide in passion like first-month lovers meeting for lunch, too in love to eat, too happy to do anything but stroll in love. They never doubt that it will always be just like this.

When you don’t understand me
You need help for to see what you can’t see
In these times that we have
Translate slowly

The harmonies hold hands, fingers intertwined the junior high way, and they hope for this sensation to go on like an endless loop. Unabashed naivete is the foundation of love, true love, dumb love. Love is all these voices have in common. The shy, sincere, muscle-bound tone of the male, making no excuse for his imperfection, lays out the pinpoint of his heart. His beautiful lover doesn’t collect it, as the casual observer expects, but rather caresses it in the glow of her purity, inspiring it with her uncharitable loveliness. Apart they seem searching, together they’re fulfilled. Voices so in love. Never doubting that it’ll always be just like this.

A lullaby to myself might mean nothing
But it helps all the same

Years later I will recall Austin as it is now, and this is what I hope I remember best about the spirit of the times.

******

A "Talking" item that was reprinted in Weirdo magazine 1986.

A “Talking” item that was reprinted in Weirdo magazine 1986.

CORKY’S BOOKSHELF

There are seemingly only two subjects being covered in books these days- fitness and Elvis Presley- and that’s reflected by my current reading list:

* The Peter Fonda Work-Out Book. Sister Jane isn’t the only one making scratch off excercising. Peter shows you how to burn off calories with such unique methods as passing joints between your legs, dropping acid 10 miles from a Grateful Dead concert, smuggling marijuana by foot across the border one brick at a time and by being a really lousy actor so you have to do everything, like enter a room, about a thousand times during a film shoot.
* Elvis: I Can’t Hear You! Presley’s Army years as recalled by his boot camp instructor.
* Elvis: I Coulda Whipped Your Ass! This page-turner is by the karate sparring partner who was told to lose to Elvis or lose his job.
* Elvis: Minutes of Pleasure, Hours of Snoring. A Las Vegas cigarette girl recounts her one-night stand with the King.
* Elvis: Now What Did You Go and Do That For? Former Presley maid Juanita Douglass recalls her roller-coaster time at Graceland. From the first chapter, “I Don’t Do Windows,” to the last one “You Can’t Fire Me, Mr. Elvis, I Quit” it’s made quite apparent that Presley wasn’t nice to housekeepers. Douglass reported seeing evidence of the drug use that eventually caused the singer’s demise. “I picked up a lamp to dust under it and musta been a thousand pills jumped out the bottom,” Douglas related in her most powerful chapter, “Musta Been a Thousand Pills Jumped Out the Bottom.”

Photographer Bill Leissner invented the selfie in 1985.

Photographer Bill Leissner invented the selfie in 1985.

JIBS & JABS

Rock family tree originator Pete Frame is in town to graph Bruce Hughes. Hughes is no longer in Skank and his hardcore band All White Jury has broken up, but the bassist says he’s glad for the extra time to concentrate on his seven other bands. He’s also working on a rock opera based on the book Sybil…Even with that super bill (Los Lobos, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dwight Yoakam, Nick Lowe, as well as hosting Fabulous Thunderbirds), Saturday’s T-Bird Riverfest was about as enjoyable as the first day of karate class. First off, the volume at Auditorium Shores was just too low, just slightly louder than a sitcom tantrum…It’s been said that if you have an infinite number of monkeys pecking away at a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, eventually one of them would write Hamlet. It would take 50 monkeys a couple years to write The Aesthetics of Rock... Had a nightmare last night that Antone’s was going to start paying bands according to how long they play “Stormy Monday”…Now that I think about it, Lou Ann Barton doing “Got a Rocket In My Pocket” night after night is like Julio Iglesias singing “Born In the U.S.A.” …The Fabulous Thunderbirds are already back from a “tour” of Europe and I don’t think it’s because they wanted to go home with the armadillo, though after some of the women I’ve seen Kim Wilson with, that would be a step up. Apparently, Pete Townshend scrapped his idea to make a blues album backed by the T-Birds…True Believers have the last laugh on everyone who said they’d never sign with a major label. The debut LP will be out on Zippo Records, the label that gave us Randy Vanwarmer’s hit remake of 1957’s “The Little Boy With Polio (Ain’t In God’s Portfoloio).”…Halloween is the Rip Taylor of nights. It’s not scary anymore, just goofy. But if I did go out I would’ve gone to the State Theater, where Zeitgeist’s John Croslin was dressed as Bruce Springsteen. He had the dance down, too, from what I heard, looking like Rocky Balboa at Studio 54…Wayne Nagel has done everything in the music biz from managing Charlie Sexton to managing Will Sexton, but he’s never been in a band until now. Nagel plays bass for Rolling Stones cover band MileStones Friday at the Continental…Keyboardist Glover Gill is opening the restaurant Glover’s on San Jacinto St. Used his first name instead of his last because it’s not a seafood joint… The T-BirdsTuff Enuff is finally out and selling well, despite an LP cover that looks like someone used the Beatles White Album as a shield during a food fight…

THE INFAMOUS CHARLIE SEXTON COLUMN

This was not my proudest moment and it’s the thing I wrote, next to “Why Dragworms Are Better Than Skinheads,” that came closest to me getting my ass kicked. The week after it ran, Joe Ely was onstage at the Austin Music Awards saying “I can’t agree with how the Austin Chronicle treats minors” and decades later, when I interviewed Sexton for a piece about his producing career, he told me how bad that jab from 1986 hurt and I apologized. The names of Zeitgeist and True Believers were inserted by the writer, when he was really talking about some of the bands who’d been backbiting him after he hired a new rhythm section. But it’s part of the history, so here goes.

sextonchron

“I figure I’m young an’ I’m gonna do it right the first time, not like all these other assholes.”
Zeitgeist, True Believers?
“Look, I don’t wish to be rude but those bands in Austin, they aren’t gonna do nuthin’ ’cause you gotta leave, you’re just stifled in Austin…Now I’m teachin’ those people in Austin a lesson, which is: forget what’s trendy, and all this ‘don’t make an album in L.A., make it in some studio in Austin bullshit. Because that’s the reason why all those bands that haven’t ‘betrayed’ Austin are gonna be playing those clubs, then breaking up and workin’ in burger stands while I’m still making records.” – Charlie Sexton NME Feb. ’86

CONFIDENTIAL TO CHARLIE SEXTON

Is your name Charlie Sexton? Do you know what “confidential” means? Then am-scray. Beat it. Go read the classifieds instead. This is between me and Charlie. Why, oh why, Prince Charlie, did you have to put down Austin in that NME interview? Why take shots at True Believers and Zeitgeist? Why couldn’t you have written off your bad local press as the work of homely career virgins taking their frustration out on the Boy Who Has It All? Words. Worthless. Words. When I was your age I saw disgusting, abusive words hurled at our President, and I wondered how any man could take such hatefulness, and not be thoroughly depressed. Why would any man want to be President? Now I’m older, as you will one day be, and I see the same sort of demonstrations against Reagan, and I understand how he lets it bounce right off him. He’s the President, one of less than 40 in the history of America and a handful of screaming malcontents are trivial in comparison to what he must engage in daily. What does he care that not all 200 million Americans like him. A lot more people like him. Just like more people like you than dislike you. As a Hollywood rock star you’re closer to being President than any other 17-year-old. Crissakes, man, you’re one of the Luckiest 200 Men on the Face of the Earth. And on top of that you want good reviews?! You’ve made it to the top of the hill without barely breaking a sweat, and what do you do from that esteemed and desirable vantage point? You throw rocks down at those who’ve got as much talent as you’ve had luck, and vice versa.

If you can find a band half as powerful as True Believers, it’ll no doubt be an improvement on what you’re lugging around these days in the way of a group. And Zeitgeist’s album, which cost about as much to make as you spent on bolo ties last year, got the kind of reviews MCA would love to buy for you.

We may have come down hard on you, the press and your old cronies. We figure that you had it all and could take a few jibes and sideswipes. Gossip has a way of balancing things out. But we didn’t desert you. The great percentage of Austinites, myself included, were pulling for you to make it big. We sat up and watched when your video came on MTV, turned up the car radio whenever your record came on and scanned the national press for your every mention. This was not because we liked you personally, or enjoyed your music. We wanted you to make it because you were one of us. From Austin. You were the home team, and entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

Now that you’ve loosened the territorial vicegrip, you’re on your own, Grasshopper, out there to be judged solely by the merits of your work.

Your album stinks.

The Little Charlie we all loved.

The Little Charlie we all loved. Mudkatt left and Alex Napier right.

A year earlier:

Charlie Sexton is parading his bone structure around Hollywood and turning heads in such a way that MCA is convinced they’ve got the next teen idol. Charlie’s been playing guitar in sessions with a singer/songwriter named Bob Dylan and hanging out with the Rolling Stones. Charlie let go the Eager Beaver Boys and has a new Hollywood band, but reports that he has fired his mother and replaced her with Dinah Shore are unfounded…

austinmusicsucks

Musicians. What a bunch of crybabies. It’s my fault nobody shows up at their gigs. How dare I favor an inferior band to theirs! Who do I think I am? I must be stupid if I can’t recognize their greatness. All they do is play goddamn music. In junior high, kids would be called sissies and beat up for such an activity. Nowadays we worship our instrument-players. And it really takes the carpool lane to their heads. Ever have a pretty good friend and then they join a band? After that they’ve only got one topic of conversation, and it’s not world hunger. They’ve all got Marshall egos, turned up to ten. And I’m not just talking about the Vaughans, Elys, Nelsons or Carrascos; this bug is city-wide. I recently sponsored a talent show of 21 new bands at the Continental, and some of them were pulling shit you’d expect from premenstrual Streisand. And every damn one of them thought they should have won. Everybody likes what they hold in their own stool cup, but musicians act like they just walked out of I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Yogurt with theirs.

Corky's Starsearch

Don’t you start me talking about these goddamn ingrates! Their voting me as Worst Thing to Happen to Austin Music is calling Mother Theresa a child molester. After all I’ve done for Austin. Then the Beach holds its “Not Cool Enough for the Chronicle” Awards and I win “Most Hated Critic.” The trophy was a toilet seat on which was written “Dumpy Corky.” That’s it! No more Mr. Not A Bad Guy Once You Get To Know Him!

I’ll mention my girlfriend as much as I damn well feel like. Nobody’s stopping you from going out and getting your own column and writing about your 19-year-old girlfriend. Or if you don’t have a 19-year-old girlfriend (tsk, tsk) you can write about your band, the Vertibeads. What do I care? I get paid the same. And I’ve got this job locked up. It’s mine as long as I want it. I can plug my friends if I want. But they all live out of town so it won’t do them any good. I can put girls’ names in bold print so they’ll like me. Lisa Gamache. See? This is my column and they’ll take it from me when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Let’s get it all out in the open. Let’s let it fly. Daniel Johnston: We don’t think you’re brilliant. We think you’re a squirrel. How did you like my Kim Fowley impression? … Will Sexton: Need a title for your upcoming album? How about Magic Coattail Ride?… Lou Ann Barton: Don’t feel bad just because one person thinks your new record is wimpy. And what does Richard Carpenter know?… Hickoids: Your drum problems have been solved by a drum machine that gets drunk and messes up….  Butthole Surfers: Malcolm McLaren’s trying to get ahold of you for a remake of The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle Pt. IIDino Lee: I found a daily schedule sheet that looks like it belongs to you. It reads: 7-8 a.m. Bullshit girlfriend on why I’m home so late. 8 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sleep. 2-5 p.m. Fix hair. 5- 5:30 p.m. Show hair to girlfriend. 5:30- 7 p.m. Redo hair. 7- 7:03 Work on new material….

Corky and Suzee 1985.

Girlfriend Suzee was a constant presence in the column. Revenge of the nerd.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS AT LIBERTY LUNCH 12/12/85

Freaky Styley is Sugar Frosted Flakes in a granola world. It’s Playboy insignia chic in Izod Klein Country. It’s scared of dogs. It’s not knowing the price of gas within 25 cents, but knowing that 20 cents each is a good price for iron-on letters. It’s Rocky IV, not Rocky I, because he won, so who cares which movie was better? It’s sitting every other seat in the theatre and then riding home with three in the front seat. It’s sitting with your knees as high as possible.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers finally hit the Lunch stage that freezing cold Thursday at 1:30 a.m. wild and shirtless. Freaky Styley is watching your breath in the cold. The audience had hung on in the tundra through good but overlong hour-long sets from Skank and Camper Van Beethoven, never doubting that their asses would be thoroughly kicked by the baddest white boys ever to rumble with black music, the real 125th Street junk, and strut out of the alley wearing wounds like medals. Most of the 600 or so who paid $5 to get in dropped anchor as close to the stage, where temperatures were about 20 degrees warmer, as safe navigation would permit. It took about half a song for the Red Hot pyro beat and Chili Pepper physical graffiti to transform the dancefloor into a bingo machine of wool and down-covered balls. By the second song the throng was thrashing which, thanks to the Big Boys’ foray into funk, is not as odd a reaction here as it must be in other places. The band’s fire seemed fanned by the abandon they had caused up front. It was an audience I didn’t mind being part of, for a change, and a band I was happy to see, for a change. But I had to tear myself away at 2:15 a.m.. The members of Skank and Camper Van Beethoven may not have had to work the next day, but I did.

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TRACI, I’M PULLING FOR YA, HONEY

An important part of my life has been taken away. Traci Lords, the face that launched a billion sperm cells- in my apartment alone- no longer exists. We had a date last week and, when I went by the Video Barn to pick her up, they said she didn’t live there anymore. It turns out that Traci just had her 18th birthday and suddenly the 50- 60 hardcore porno movies she made the past three years are highly illegal. So I guess I’ll have to go back to having sex with people. Once you’ve seen Traci Lords in action, Seka might as well be Aunt Bea. Traci was Secretariat, Willie Mays and Itzhak Perlman. She was the best and when Don McLean sang “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you” about Vincent Van Gogh, he could’ve just as easily been singing about dear Traci.

Traci Lords was 16 when she posed for this cover.

Traci Lords was 16 when she posed for this cover.

CRIT CLIQUE INITIATION EXCERCISES

1. You must take Ed Ward’s feisty dog, Pete, to the Kerrville Folk Festival.
2. You must go on a date with Brent Grulke as the third wheel.
3. You have to ask Chris Walters to buy you a beer.
4. You have to go up to Kim Wilson and introduce yourself as Michael Corcoran.
5. You have to buy drugs from a punk rocker and then sell them at the same price to a good friend of yours.
6. You have to take a dump at the Continental Club during a Doctors Mob set.
7. You have to turn in a three-page record review, written in pencil, to Kathleen Maher for typesetting. (This is our first excercise if the number of prospects needs to be quickly reduced.

THE ROAD

“Everybody does what they do because they can’t play guitar.” –Rollo Banks

The Road is that Oriental girl you’ve seen for the first time, on that street where the speed limit is seven. She glistens while the regulars merely reflect. She motions to you and pouts seductively and for an instant you forget that she wants the bulge in the back of your pants and not the one in front. Reality hits hard in the fantasy district… The Road is stringed discomfort, the sort usually restricted to 89-lb Colonels or portable poor white trash chasing down job rumors in a ’67 Rambler… The Road is America. It’s Raleigh and Cleveland and Louisville and Topeka. It’s Route 66 no matter what the road sign reads… It’s Kerouac and Steinbeck. It’s discovery. It’s possibility… The Road’s mystique flattens with the shag carpet in the van… A musician who doesn’t take it out on the road is a boxer who ducks a bout with a contender with a lethal left hook. Like a marathon to someone who doesn’t jog, the Road’s reward is foreign without subtitles to the casual observer… The Road takes more money than it gives back. It turns bandmembers into drivers, roadies, booking agents and managers. It’s getting a great send-off at the farewell gig in Austin and then going to towns where nobody knows you and nobody cares and the directions are always wrong… The Road is shaving your head for the first time. Features are magnified and unhidden and very few can wear it well, but when the hair grows back, it grows back thicker.

Glass Eye, the LeRoi Brothers, Doctors’ Mob, Texas Instruments, Scratch Acid, Wild Seeds, Butthole Surfers (whose residence is determined by which town they leave their dog in), Omar and the Howlers, True Believers, Dharma Bums, Zeitgeist, Not For Sale, the Offenders, Poison 13, the Tailgators and others have all taken the Road Test recently with varying success. Some traveled better than others. Some were appreciated more. Some made more money. But every last one of the bands consciously or not went out and represented Austin Music to the rest of the country. So what if this civic representation was often only for the benefit of the clubs’ soundmen. Noise navigators usually spend their days visiting all their friends who might have marijuana. They’ll talk about the music the previous night. “We had this band from Austin (inhale) Texas last night. They were really good. (Still holding it in). Can you sell me a joint?” It all helps. So with this in mind, we should all show a little understanding by putting up with all the road stories that have been dominating conversation recently. I’ll admit that road stories are the verbal cousin of vacation slides. They’re often self-serving, modified with each re-telling and rarely of interest to those not directly involved. But what’s a couple hours of your time to listen to what is in many cases the only thing brought back by the bands that wasn’t with them when they left. You’re probably a good listener when these people play (unless you’re reviewing the show for the American-Statesman); why not pay attention when they talk? To thine own conscience be true, but this redhead is all ears.

HE WHO LIVES BY THE SWORD…

Justice has prevailed. John “Johnny Wadd” Holmes has AIDS! Finally, the guy whose member looked like the whole goddamn club has paid his debt to a society of guys whose sexual satisfaction came mainly from tossing off in sweaty stag closets while Big John eyed Miss Utah runners-up and went about filling them softly with his schlong, which looked like it took four “D” cell batteries. How I hated the guy with the Marty Allen haircut and the state of Florida between his legs. There he was, flickering in the dark, beckoning a procession of love slaves to “lay some skull on me, bitch,” and there I’d be, pitifully fueling his libido with quarters I’d stolen from my uncle’s coin collection, until 40 pieces of silver later I’d200px-John_Holmes2 make like a clumsy parrot and spill my seed.  I’d watch Johnny play the meat in a variety of sandwiches, shining his flashlight into countless caverns and then walk away from the money shot like he’d just played a few hands of gin rummy.  Then I’d go home and repeatedly dial the first six digits of the phone number of the girl who stuck the ends of her hair up her nostrils in social studies. I swore than if I ever had, like one month to live, the first thing I’d do is hunt down and kill Johnny Wadd and then I’d tell the girl from social studies to lay some skull on me. If I had only a day or two to live, I’d tell her to lay some skull on me, bitch.

Those years of sexual frustration are long gone for me; I’ve had skull laid on me in eight states and Nuevo Laredo, and still the news about Johnny Wadd read like the headlines on V-J Day. I was fairly ecstatic when he was sent to prison for a few years for refusing to identify the killers of some coke dealers, but knowing that he was bisexual and had made a few gay films it became sort of a good news/ bad news deal. But now… I’m walking on air.”

You can bet there was no joy in Smutville when it was announced that the Great White Hope, the Larry Bird of penis size, the guy who made the man with the Golden Arm feel shortchanged, is now packing a deadly weapon in his BVDs. Heck, Seka probably can’t give it away these days. Since J.W. worked both sides of the street and did a deuce in the joint with guys who get hot when they see pictures of the Grand Canyon, the odds that he got the deadly dose from heterosexual intercourse are about what you’d expect a horse with Jimmy Breslin in the saddle to go off at. Still, he probably nailed a few hundred bleachpits since contracting AIDS, and I can’t recall Johnny Wadd ever rolling out the latex carpet while the farmers’ daughters stripped down to their neck scarves. There probably hasn’t been this much panic in the jizz biz since ’86 when a studio guard yelled out, “Here comes Traci Lords’ father and does he look mad!” Serves ‘em right, the lucky stiffs.

If there is a God, and I’m beginning to feel like there is, he won’t send Johnny Wadd to either heaven or hell, but banish him to an eternity in a porno booth watching a loop of lonely guys with small thingies having sex with wayward starlets, while Roy Cohn looks through the glory hole and whispers “Need any help in there?”

THUNDERS’ ROAD LEADS TO AUSTIN

Johnny Thunders is poster boy for the evils of rock and roll. His incoherent live shows of recent years document his suicide-in-progress for the ambulance chasing populace, while others in attendance wonder about calling the Better Business Bureau first thing in the morning. Johnny Thunders is heroin. He’s black leather and scarves, hellish decibels and mascara, blowjobs and broken beer bottles. In JT’s world the line between vomit and orgasm is erased. There is tension and there is release.

Never before has an affected stage name fit so well. Johnny the all-American name. Thunders – nature gone berserk. William Burroughs wrote that junkies look like they’re wearing borrowed flesh, but even face-down on tile, Thunders’ skin looks tailor made. Johnny Thunders is the most beautiful man since Elvis Presley.

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Johnny Thunders showed the world how cool Keith Richards would be if he were Italian and from Brooklyn. The albums he made as a sainted New York Doll will not be held in their current high esteem for too many more years. But until the last person who ever saw the Dolls live is dead, they will still draw witness as the best rock and roll band ever. In their heyday they completely owned New York City. They were charming scumbags in an era when you were either one or the other, and the critics and fans heaped hosannas usually reserved for dearly departed rock legends. Every show was an EVENT. Still, the Dolls remain the New York media machine’s biggest no-sale to the rest of the country. They were The Great Gatsby in drag, stiffing in Sheyboygan and cutout bin-bound in Boise. They broke up, moved out and moved on, but never far from New York City where they could always make a few bucks as “former NY Dolls.” Thunders took up semi-permanent residency at Max’s Kansas City. He was always there, always loaded as you’ve ever seen anybody and when JT would knock on the office door so he could go in and do his thing, they’d let him in like they were letting in the dog. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Thunders recorded an album which shall serve as a most fitting elegy. So Alone had to have been recorded in the afternoon to be made at all, yet it’s the best “5 a.m. in New York City” LP ever. Crashing manic chord-slashers are followed by ballads so tender you just want to rock that junkie in your arms and tell him everything’s OK.

The Johnny Thunders who recorded So Alone is not the same Johnny Thunders I’ve seen four or five times over the years. It’s not yet certain which Johnny Thunders will show up at the Continental Club Mar. 14, but take a chance. It could be incredible. And True Believers are opening the show in a labor of love, so at least it won’t be a total loss if JT is a mess…

OMIGOD! DINO’S BLEEDING

“I haven’t played the bass in six fuckin’ years, but Ronnie Lane inspired me to play the fuckin’ bass tonight!” –  Dino Lee at Steamboat for the Ronnie Lane benefit, 5/25/86

I don’t need to see the videotape. I was there. Dino was drunk. Everyone was drunk. The show started at around 8 p.m., and the drinking started before that. Even before Dino hit the stage moments before Last Call, I felt the alcohol-induced hostility flutter through the club. Stephen Doster was onstage sounding great, and I’d never seen him before so I moved closer. I brushed past one guy and got an elbow. I turned around expecting to see a familiar face, but it was some stranger biting his bottom lip blue and hoping I’d say something. I wasn’t about to go ahead and make his day so I just moved on. Though a good writer of nifty pop songs, Stephen Doster is not worth fighting for. Later I found prime wallspace in the celeb-heavy area behind the stage that resembled a Small Pond for its inundation of Big Fish, and no fewer than three people came up to me to tell me what a piece of shit writer I am. Most readers of this column think this must be a regular occurrence. People were shocked to see me out after my “Austin Music Sucks” column, thinking I would definitely get my ass kicked, but actually, after a year as “The Merchant of Venom,” I’ve only had one or two confrontations.

dinolee

Something weird was in the air that night at the ‘Boat. Dino Lee hit the stage as very few have ever seen him. His massive pompadour was combed down Shemp-style, and a few hecklers took issue with that. He was not in some outlandish costume, just his kick-around pinstripe suit. And he wasn’t a wild, prop-waving frontman, but a bass-playing vocalist. Longtime Lee-watchers loved this rare look at Dino without the pomp in that circumstance, but a few unpleasables continued to razz the lack of dildos, buxomy females and flagrant festoonery. Twenty minutes into the set one ringsider yelled “You can’t play the bass!” and Dino launched into a ten-minute tirade freckled with obscenities. It started with his acknowledgement of Lane’s four-stringed inspiration and made its way through well-intended but cloudy telethonese about multiple sclerosis.

The catcalls persisted and Dino baited the hecklers with pornographic suggestions. A few guys moved angrily to the front and hoping to avoid further trouble, the club cut the P.A. Without the weapon of volume, Dino lost control and kicked an offending detractor. He grabbed for his mike stand and the fellow wearing Dino’s footprint on his chest reared back and fired a cocktail glass at Dino’s head, connecting. A couple of bystanders were also cut by the exploding glass, while the thrower ducked back into the center of the crowd. As the blood poured down his face like he was a cover subject for Wrestling Monthly, a blindly-incensed Dino raised the mike stand over his head, ready to swing wildly, as if the entire audience was the culprit. Bandmembers and Steamboat personnel quickly wrapped themselves around Dino and escorted him from the club as blood soaked through the towel he held in front of his face. We stood on the sidewalk outside Steamboat for almost an hour, those of us who know Dino, reeling from the ugliness of the episode we had just witnessed. In the fantasy-filled, fun-seeking circle we run in, not much is real. But violence is real.

A couple of Dino’s bandmembers expressed embarrassment. Guitarist Mike English was formulating the lead to the letter of resignation he would type up the next day. Some club regulars wondered if Dino was finished in Austin. Others said that he’s like a spoiled brat who needs to learn to take responsibility for his actions. Meanwhile Dino Lee was at St. David’s taking 24 stitches of responsibility.

How prevalent in the assessment of personal qualities is it to find that someone is so good in some categories, yet so lacking in others? It’s as universal as perfection is not. The thing we love about Dino Lee is his bravery. We all could be Dino Lee if we only had the guts. Dino Lee can get up in front of 2,000 people in a three-piece plaid suit with a Cutting Edge microphone between him and Peter Zaremba and explain the New Las Vegans concept like a visionary wino. Can you? Dino Lee can steal the show at a $60-a-ticket awards show in Dallas looking like a bad Elvis impersonator flashing rings he bought on the sidewalk in Nuevo Laredo. Can you? At the Austin Music Awards show of ’85, the stilted introductions and shy, nervous acceptances were almost ready to bore people out of the Opera House even before Van Wilks played. Then Dino Lee came out and made a spectacle of himself, and suddenly the night became special. Dino Lee does what has to be done, with no fear of embarrassment, failure or physical harm.

The flipside to this great quality of bravery is what happened at Steamboat. That’s not the first time Dino has displayed a lack of control that led to an ugly scene. But I’ll still take the total Dino Lee package. I hate violence. It makes me sick. But even more stomach-turning at times is the lack of violence. I’ve been victimized by drunken, obnoxious assholes, and so have you. And I have to grind my teeth when I think of some of the things they’ve gotten away with. I’ve seen assholes at the nightclubs terrorizing girls and shouting Southern Rock requests to intimidated bands. They steal your movie enjoyment by talking at the screen and laughing at serious films they don’t understand. They get coarse, boisterous and rude at restaurants to rob you of a nice meal and pleasant conversation. They get away with it every day because it’s not against the law to be an asshole, and most people are afraid that confrontation will lead to violence. In the case of the Steamboat incident, it did, and it got bloody. Dino Lee refused to be the victim of assholes. He challenged them, then lost control and instigated the violence. And he’s wear a scar for it. That’s that.

 

 

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Heaven is Backstage at Hell

Every once in a while I’ll be at a concert and run into someone I used to know before I became a famous columnist. After the 30 or 40 seconds it takes me to remember their name, fingers a’snappin’, they invariably eye the backstage pass taking up residence on my right front pocket, always the right one, and ask, “What’s it like backstage?”

Ah, backstage. There are blond girls with skirts slit up to the tan line circulating with trays of champagne backstage. The food is scrumptious, but you do have to serve yourself. The members of the headlining act are usually backstage making the rounds and they love to talk about whatever town they’re privileged to be in and really are impressed when someone tells them they saw them in a small club many years ago. Conversation is usually fulfilling backstage. Everyone seems more interested in listening than talking and when they do speak up it sounds like something you might hear on the Dick Cavett Show. I learned about Camus backstage. Just about the only rule you must heed backstage is to be careful where you put your drink down in the Cocaine Room. Chances are you might put it on a mound of pure cocaine, which is clear. The white color of street cocaine comes from the shit they cut it with. There’ll be none of that backstage. If you are lucky enough to get backstage try not to look like it’s your first time back there; don’t stick your pass on your pants, right above the knee. Also, know your lingo. The most prestigious backstage pass, the one that gives all access is called a “hard pass” because most security guards think “laminated” is something you do with meat.

Alone at a party 1985.

Alone at a party 1985.

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Happy 100th Birthday Alan Lomax, Austin’s Gift To the Music World

Posted by mcorcoran on January 22, 2015

John Lomax’s oldest daughter Shirley writes about Alan’s boyhood in Austin.
This letter from Shirley Lomax was sent to Nat Hentoff of the New Yorker for a 1959 article which, it turned out, was never published. Hentoff had asked Shirley to describe Alan’s upbringing in Austin. I found it at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT.

 

Lomaxcover

“You can’t kill off a culture until you kill the last person who cares about it” – Alan Lomax.

On March 31, 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and Ruby Terrill, the dean of women students at UT, announced their engagement to be married. But just two days later, John and his 19-year-old son Alan Lomax were on the road from Austin, collecting songs at the Clemmons Prison Farm outside Brazoria and the state penitentiaries at Huntsville and Richmond, according to John Szwed’s biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (2010). “My father figured that the sinners were probably in prison, so that’s where we went to find their stories,” Alan Lomax said in 1991. Domestic bliss could wait.

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The Lomaxes hit the trail and kept going. In June 1934, father and son would make their first foray to the Cajun and Creole regions of south central Louisiana. Aside from some records made in the 1920s by Leo Soileau and Amede Ardoin, the French-speaking black and white people of rural Louisiana were barely known outside the state. Alan knew a little French and father John was busy writing his memoirs, so this was really Alan’s project and he hooked up with an LSU grad student whose masters thesis was on Louisiana French folk songs for guidance and introductions. The Lomaxes wandered through New Iberia (where they stayed with the owner of McIlhenny’s Tabasco), Kaplan, Indian Bayou, Morse, Crowley, Delcambre and other French-speaking towns, recording old songs by both black and white singers. Alan Lomax was most-excited by the jure’ style they found in Jennings, which sounded African in origin. The polyrhythms of Jure’ would evolve into the infectious zydeco beat which emerged in the 1950s.

1935 Austin city directory.

1935 Austin city directory.

The summer of ’34 in Louisiana was a major juncture in Alan Lomax’s life, as he wrote that he “had my first glass of wine, my first shrimp creole, my first full-blown love affair and made my first independent field recordings.” For part of the sojourn he was joined by his girlfriend Becky Machanofsky, a Russian-born Jewish social worker- and avowed Communist- he met in Austin. Becky urged Alan to break free from his father, “an old man who wants to make money to marry and intellectualized old maid” and move with her to Brooklyn. They soon split up.

An incredible cache of French Creole and Cajun music, collected by the Lomaxes in 1934, can be found here. The jure’ music is from Jefferson Davis Parish.

ALAN LOMAX SITS BLIND WILLIE NEXT TO BEETHOVEN ON A WONDROUS VOYAGE

In 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan was chosen by NASA to head a team to select contents of a record to be placed on the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft, which was designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but now, nearly 38 years later, has traveled further from Earth than any other man-made object. The idea behind the two-hour disc, to be played back at 16 2/3 RPM with a stylus and cartridge provided, was to preserve “presents from a small, distant world” to any extraterrestrials who could conceivably happen upon the spaceship. And you thought Dark Side of the Moon was trippy.

President Jimmy Carter provided an introduction to the record as, “A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” This two-hour, multimedia presentation of life on Earth was encoded onto a disc coated with copper and gold for protection, which gave it the nickname The Golden Record.

Cover of The Golden Record, currently scuttling through empty space.

Cover of The Golden Record, currently hurtling through empty space.

The selections from Sagan’s team were initially drawn solely from Western classical music, so Sagan enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had just compiled an anthology of world music, consisting of 700 pieces that illustrated the full gamut of human musical expression. Lomax and his team of folklorists operated under the banner of “cultural equity,” the idea that music made on a Texas chain gang or a Spanish fishing village is as valid as that of the world’s great symphonies. “Our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world,” Lomax told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991. “We give an avenue for those people to tell their side of the story.” Alan Lomax, inspired by his father John, spent six decades trying to restore the balance that wealth and privilege had taken away.

There was a bit of head-butting when Lomax was brought aboard and chucked DeBussy in favor of Peruvians and their panpipes and Chuck Berry playing rock n’ roll. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager project, Sagan wrote that Lomax was “a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible.” In the end, Lomax was responsible for 15 of the 27 musical recordings on Voyager 1, including Blind Willie Johnson’s moaning “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which accomplishes the rare feat of being eerie and emotional at the same time. Lomax said he included that guitar-sliding Crucifixion song as the best embodiment of loneliness. Space aliens from the future will no doubt relate better to the blind, guitar evangelist from Marlin, Texas than to Beethoven, who follows Blind Willie to close out The Golden Record.

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Lomax selections on The Golden Record:

* Senegal percussion
* Pygmy girls initiation song from Zaire
* Aborigine songs “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird”
* “El Cascabel” by Mariachi Mexico
* “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
* A men’s house song from New Guinea
* “Tchakrulo” from the Soviet Union
* Peruvian panpipes and drums
* Azerbaijan bagpipes recorded by Radio Moscow
* “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven
* Bulgarian folk song “Iziel je Delyo Hagdutin” by Vulya Balkanska
* Navajo Indians night chant
* Solomon Islands panpipes
* Peruvian wedding song
* “Dark Was the Night” by Blind Willie Johnson

The Voyager moved past Pluto in 1990, but will be on the move at least another 40,000 years before it reaches another planetary system. “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space,” Sagan wrote. “But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

We’re counting down to the centennial birthday of Austin musicologist Alan Lomax on Jan. 31. “I’ve always been with the Woodys, in whatever language it was,” he told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991, in reference to Woody Guthrie. “I’ve always been with those people who were exploring and pushing the edge of their own culture and making something happen…They have a sense of form and innovate inside of it.”

Further Reading: Here’s my story on Blind Willie Johnson from 2003.

 

STIRRING THE SOUL OF GOSPEL 1936

The Soul Stirrers are best known today as the Chicago gospel group that launched the career of Sam Cooke from 1951 until he crossed over to pop with “You Send Me” in 1957. But the group is actually from Trinity, Texas, by way of Houston. The Stirrers revolutionized gospel quartets by adding a fifth member- a second lead singer- which upped the intensity when the two leads traded verses while keeping the four-part harmony intact. Before the Soul Stirrers, gospel quartets were like religious barbershop quartets or jubilee groups doing old spirituals like “Down By the Riverside.” But the Stirrers came out to “wreck a house” with their hard gospel style and, in the process, influenced every quartet to follow.

Only Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the model for the Beatles, and T-Bone Walker of Oak Cliff, who invented the language of electric blues guitar, are more influential Texas acts than the Soul Stirrers.

Gospel historians sometimes credit the Golden Gate Quartet as the precursors to the heightened emotionalism of quartets, but the Soul Stirrers actually recorded a year before those Norfolk heavyweights. And they made their recording debut in Austin, with John A. and his son Alan Lomax running the sessions for the Library of Congress. Billed The Five Soul Stirrers of Houston, the group recorded four songs on Feb. 12, 1936: “Lordy Lordy,” “John the Revelator,” “Standing At the Bedside of a Neighbor” and “How Did You Feel When You Came Out of the Wilderness.” These were all songs previously recorded by others, but no one did them with the thrust of the Stirrers, whose performance Alan Lomax called “the most incredible polyrhythmic music you’ve ever heard.”

Those Library of Congress recordings have been preserved in D.C., but never commercially released. But as a representation of what the five singers- E.R. Rundless, W.L. LeBeau, A.L. Johnson, S.R. Crain and O.W. Thomas- were doing onstage 200 nights a year, the recordings track a transformative moment in the evolution of spiritual sound. “No other recordings from that era are anywhere close in style,” wrote gospel historian Ray Funk, who pinpoints a Stirrers innovation as the harmony based around a higher tonal center- with “piercing falsetto” and a lighter bass- than the popular quartets from Birmingham Alabama.

soulstirrersloc

If I was to rank the 25 Most Significant Recordings in Austin History, the Soul Stirrers’ 1936 rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” would rival Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for the top spot. It’s unknown where the Soul Stirrers sang for the Lomax’s recording machine, but John Wheat of the Briscoe Center for American History says the likely location was the big house at 400 W. 34th Street where John Lomax lived with second wife Ruby Terrill and kept his recording equipment. That’s also the residence, torn down in the early ‘70s, where Leadbelly stayed for a spell after his release from Louisiana’s Angola State Peniteniary in 1934.

A name missing from the 1936 Stirrer credits is Cooke’s mentor R.H. Harris, whom many consider the most influential male gospel singer of all time. There has been conflicting information about when Harris joined the Stirrers, with the singer claiming he was recruited from the glee club of Mary Allen College in Crockett in 1933. But historian Funk puts the year he became a Soul Stirrer at 1937, which is backed up by the session notes in 1936. Before his death in 2000 at age 84, Harris took credit for introducing the falsetto to gospel quartets, but Rundless was already using that high-pitched technique when the Lomaxes got it down on record. Harris has also been credited for introducing the dual (and “duel”) lead vocals to the quartet style, but the Stirrers were already doing that before he joined.

Harris replaced group leader Walter LeBeau, who dropped out of the hard-touring group to become a minister at the New Pleasant Baptist Church in Houston. There’s no question that Harris was an amazing singer, who took the gospel quartet to new soulful heights. And he did teach Sam Cooke how to slur and flip and stretch into a new way of singing. But a piece of gospel history has to be rewritten with this newfound information. The original Five Soul Stirrrs of Houston were the originators, but R.H. Harris was Jesus’ favorite singer and he made them better.

FURTHER READING: Here’s my Sept. 2000 obit on Rebert H. Harris for the Dallas Observer.

 

The Lomax family were Austin’s greatest gift to the music world. Here’s the first part of a series that leads up to Alan Lomax’s 100th birthday on Jan. 31.

 

 

The Gant Family Singers 1936. Mother Maggie at left, Ether on guitar. Standing Foy, Glida and Ella.

The Gant Family Singers 1936. Mother Maggie at left, Ether on guitar. Standing Foy, Glida and Ella.

It sure seemed quiet for 10 a.m. on a weekday, when John A. Lomax, who recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress, knocked on the front door of a six-room shanty on the northern bank of the Colorado River, not far from Deep Eddy Pool. Maggie Gant answered, in her bedclothes. The children were still asleep, the mother of eight whispered.

“Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” she told Lomax, which he recalled in Our Singing Country, his 1941 book with son Alan that contained four songs collected from the Gants.

“The singing kept us so happy,” Maggie Gant told Lomax, “we couldn’t go to sleep.”

It was 1934, during the depths of the Depression, but the Gant family of dispossessed sharecroppers was rich in music.

John Lomax, a former University of Texas administrator, and his 19-year-old son Alan made more than 40 primitive recordings of the Gant family, whose vast repertoire ranged from jailhouse ballads and play ditties to cowboy songs and minstrel tunes.

The most prominent of those, in retrospect, was “When First Unto This Country a Stranger I Came,” which Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang live and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded in 1993. They all learned it from the 1960s folkies the New Lost City Ramblers, who heard it from the Gants.

Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) of the Ramblers and his sister Peggy knew the song growing up, as their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, transcribed and archived the songs the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.

If Maggie Gant and her 17-year-old daughter, Foy, hadn’t sung the tragic song about a jilted lover-turned-horse thief into the Lomaxes’ acetate phonograph disk recorder, it almost certainly would’ve been lost forever.

“Folk songs can be easily preserved,” Alan Lomax wrote in The American Girl magazine (October 1940).  “You, and all Americans can find them right in your own back yards. Somewhere in your neighborhood there may be an old man, or woman- or perhaps a young one- who can sing you hundreds of love ballads and work songs. Your own grandmother may remember some.”

“I grew up in Austin, Texas knowing many of these tunes, for my father, John A. Lomax, is what is called a ‘folk song specialist,’ a rather frightening title which masks a job which is pure adventure.”

Alan Lomax, who lived the first 10 years of his life at the family home at 910 W. 26th St. (torn down for a fraternity house years ago), wrote that he didn’t take to his father’s folk song obsession until the summer of 1933, when he was preparing to transfer from Harvard back to the University of Texas. An 18-year-old Alan accompanied his father on a song collecting trip that changed his life forever. Father and son traveled the U.S., from the fishing villages of New England to the California coast, lugging 300 pounds of portable recording equipment and cutting records by prisoners on chain gangs, cowboys of West Texas, Kentucky coalminers, Vermont woodsmen, auto factory workers and the like.

“My father and I don’t burst in like college professors in search of quaintness,” Alan Lomax wrote in 1940. “We make friends. We live in the neighborhood. And before we even go to a place, we find out about the kind of work in that section so we can talk about it. Only then do we go out and ask for songs.”

They had an easy job getting acquainted with the Gants, whom they met through Alan’s UT classmate John Henry Faulk, who had been doing song collecting on his own. But young Faulk didn’t have the clout of the Library of Congress, which had hired John Lomax in ’33 as head curator of its Archive of American Folk Songs.

1935 Austin city directory. 3203 Riverside View was near Lake Austin Blvd., behind where Brackenridge Apts are now.

1935 Austin city directory. 3203 Riverside View was near Lake Austin Blvd., behind where Brackenridge Apts are now.

With the Gant family of singers, led by mother Maggie (father George wasn’t very musical), the Lomaxes found a treasure that didn’t require more than a 10-minute drive. By 1934, a widowed John Lomax married UT’s Dean of Women Students Ruby Terrill and the family lived at her big house at 400 E. 34th St.

In a note in the Lomax family papers, archived at UT’s Center for American History, John Lomax wrote, “The Gant family in Austin, Texas has a repertoire of about two hundred genuine folk-songs. We only had just begun the job of recording these tunes when we left town.”

The Lomaxes recorded only a fraction of the Gants’ material before they took off to manage and tour with their great discovery Leadbelly, yet it’s a body of work that puts the Gants as “among the most important informants on traditional music that no one’s ever heard of,” said Minnesota musician/folklorist Lyle Lofgren.

The family’s list of songs passed down was “astoundingly broad,” Lofgren said. “It included many rare versions of archaic British ballads, the sort you might expect to find, if you were lucky, in some remote holler of the Appalachians, but probably not in Austin.”

The Gants were Mormons and, according to a family genealogy which Foy Gant Kent registered with the Mormon church before she died in Houston in 2008 at age 90, Maggie Gant’s maternal grandmother, Lavinia “Lucy” Brown, was born in Wales. “The Land of Song” has a rich ballad tradition.

Maggie’s mother, Sarah Reeves, was born and raised in the Tennessee mountains but moved to Texas before Maggie was born in the East Texas town of Lone Oak in 1893. Lavinia Brown, the Welsh wellspring from which the songs most likely came, died in Grayson County, about 60 miles north of Dallas, in 1899.

The Gant family’s path to Austin can be charted according to where the children were born, starting with oldest son Nephi in the Northeast Texas town of Mineola in 1913. The next four — Ether, Foy, Adoniron and Ella — were born just a few miles south of Mineola, when the family lived in Kelsey, the largest Mormon colony in the state. Georgia came next in Altus, Okla., in 1925, and the youngest, Trovesta Mae, was born in 1929 in the Texas Panhandle town of Shamrock, from which the family moved to Austin after a severe drought dried up farm work.

George, Maggie and the kids arrived in Austin in 1933 looking for work and, according to John Lomax, went on relief at times.

Nephi and half-sister Glida Koch started families and lived together in a house at 1115 E. Third St. The rest of the family lived in the riverside shack where the Library of Congress recordings were made, about a half-mile west of Deep Eddy Pool.

In her 2008 memoir Sing It Pretty, Alan’s younger sister Bess Lomax Hawes, who was 12 when she met the Gants, recalled that the family’s house on the river was constantly being flooded. “But that old river never could stop the flow of their extraordinary repertory of Anglo-American balladry and folksong.”

Foy Gant, far right, sang lead on several songs. She kept her family’s genealogy and submitted it to the Mormon church records.

The Lomax family background — patriarch John got his master’s degree in the arts from Harvard University — was different from the Gants’, but they had the Great Depression in common.

Although he made his mark as a folklorist with his 1910 anthology Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, John Lomax had moved on to other pursuits and was working for a bank in Dallas during the 1929 stock market crash, which left him unemployed. Even worse, his wife Bess died in 1931, leaving him with two school-age children to raise.

Oldest son John Jr. encouraged his father, then 65, to get back into “ballad hunting,” a passion born from the cowboy songs Lomax heard growing up on a ranch in Bosque County, about 40 miles northwest of Waco. The Library of Congress, created in 1928, agreed to foot the bill for the “second act” Lomax expeditions. With Alan, a polished writer with a scholarly approach, at his side, the father and son proved to be quite formidable, with an unquenchable passion for discovery.

The LoC provided the Lomaxes with a bulky recording machine, which fit into the family’s Ford after the back seats were removed. Superior to the old wax cylinder recorders, the new machine cut grooves onto a disk as the songs were sung, giving the singers all the reward they wanted when Lomax played back the record they’d just made. On one session Alan wrote about later, the Lomaxes recorded a 75-year-old black prison preacher named “Sin Killer” Griffin. When they played the record back, tears welled up in Griffin’s eyes. “People have been telling me I was a good preacher for nigh onto 60 years,” he said. “But I didn’t know I was that good.” In some prisons, the execution chambers were converted into recording studios because of the sound-proof walls.

It was in one of those prisons the Lomaxes discovered Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, who taught the world “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special.” But Leadbelly’s most important composition was the one he wrote about Louisiana governor O.K. Allen, which the Lomaxes recorded and delivered to the state capitol building. “If I had you, Guv’ner Allen/ Like you got me/ I’d wake up in the mornin’/ Let you out on reprieve,” Leadbelly sang. The Governor was so charmed he released Ledbetter from the penitentiary and the singer joined John and Alan on the road. The Lomaxes set Leadbelly up with some high-falutin’ gigs on the East Coast and he became a sensation and settled in New York City. When he brought up his girl Martha from Louisiana to marry, John A. Lomax gave the bride away and Alan was best man.

Leadbelly

Leadbelly

The Gants recorded only for the Lomaxes, in four sessions from 1934-36. When World War II hit, acetate previously used for field recordings was restricted to the war effort, and the Gant family split time between Houston, where there were jobs in the Ship Channel, and San Angelo, where the parents moved with their three youngest. Maggie and the kids never recorded together again after 1936. The Gants’ last public performance is believed to have at the State’s Centennial Celebration in Dallas that same year.

The family just may have lost the joy in performing after tragedy struck on Feb. 1, 1936. Oldest boy Nephi, 22, was murdered after a fight at Ollie’s Place at the corner of East Fourth and Waller streets.

(Read Alan Lomax’s never-before-published story on the incident here. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.)

Lomax wrote that Nephi, who had two hungry babies at home, had gone to the beer joint to try to borrow money from a bartender friend or “maybe he could pick up a few nickels singing … because he was the best singer in the family.”

At Ollie’s, Nephi was challenged to fight by a man who’d just gotten out of prison 24 hours earlier and was “already crazy drunk and looking for trouble.” Nephi got the best of 21-year-old Howard Armstrong, who went out to his car, got a gun and shot Nephi in the head through the glass door. Sporting a black eye, Armstrong turned himself in to police the next day and claimed self-defense. But the jury deliberated less than an hour before convicting Armstrong and sentencing him to 30 years in prison.

At Nephi’s funeral, Alan Lomax noted that the family “cried so much that their eyes and cheeks were red with salt burn.” Calling the Gants “a lovin’ bunch of poor people,” Lomax wrote of the incredible pain they surely felt at losing a brother, a son.

“They knew what it was like to be hungry and cold and not have a place to call home; but they’d been strong under all this suffering and sorrow because they loved each other so much.”

FURTHER READING: Austin couple the Lebermanns help John Lomax save “Home On the Range”

This series commemorates the incredible cultural contributions of the Lomax family, leading up to the 100th birthday of Alan Lomax (who passed away in 2002) on Jan. 31. Portions of the Gant family story were originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2010.

 

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