(Not to be confused with the club at 2015 E. Riverside.)
It’s 1992 and the alternative rock world of hardened white kids is looking for a place to show off their tattoos and listen to loud music. They had no reason to go to Red River Street until Eric “Emo” Hartman opened with a bang. A “no cover” policy will make you popular in a hurry. Emo’s rush-opened with a catering license for SXSW 1992, then made it official in May. Before Emo’s, the only rock at Sixth and Red River cost about $20 a pebble. If you were walking down Sixth Street and you saw the Red River street sign it was time to head back.
There was stuff happening on Red River before Emo’s. There was the Chances lesbian bar that became Club DeVille. The Cavity Club was the only skeezy shithole that G.G. Allin couldn’t mess up. Brad First introduced industrial rock to Austin at the Cave Club with Skinny Puppy and Ministry. It was a gay bar before the Cave, around 1986, so for the first few months there was a long horizontal mirror above the urine trough so you could see everybody’s chode. That’s where Elysium is now. Before that it was the Atomic Café, Paul Sessums’ Split Rail, the Sanitarium, Kilimanjaro, Hip-Hop City, I’m forgetting one or two.
But mostly, Red River was dominated by junk shops like Snooper’s Paradise and Hurt’s Hunting Ground before Emo’s made it the place to be.
When Hartman and his manager David Thomson (who came from the original Emo’s in Houston) entered 601 Red River for the first time, the walls held stuffed animal heads and wagon wheels, décor left over from when the club was C&W with Raven’s and Poodie’s. When Emo’s hired Don Walser to
its first and only residency, it wasn’t as an homage to its past, but what its customers wanted. Henry’s on Burnet Road had been attracting punks and rockers to see Walser, Junior Brown, High Noon and other country acts.
Then there was the time Johnny Cash turned Emo’s into the Grand Ol’ Dump during SXSW ’94. “There was a knock on the back door that afternoon,” said Thomson, “and when I asked who it was, he said ‘John Cash.’ He said, ‘I’ll be working for you tonight, so I was wondering if I could come inside and see the place.” Thomson said it was the only time he was embarrassed by how Emo’s looked. Johnny Cash (followed by Beck) put Emo’s on the map and bookings got easier, though regulars were outraged when a cover charge of $1 for over 21, $2 for 18-21, was implemented. “Freemo’s” was no more.
Thomson laughed when he recalled overhearing Robin Zander of Cheap Trick walking into Emo’s for the first time, around ’95. “I can’t believe we’re playing this shithole!” he said. Neither could the 1,100 or so who packed the place.
“Emo’s was the home away from home for misfits,” said Thomson. “I think we brought a whole different crowd to Sixth Street.”
Emo’s closed in Dec. 2011 and opened a bigger, nicer version of the rock box at the former location of the Back Room on Riverside. Owner Frank Hendrix, who bought the club from Hartman in 2000, sold Emo’s East, as it had been called, to C3 Presents in Feb. 2013 and it is now part of the Live Nation empire.