Her friends in Manhattan told her to be careful, the club was a hellhole and the clientele was pretty rough. Even the cab driver gave her a warning on the way to CBGB, the New York City club that spawned punk rock. When Rebecca Kohout looked around the graffiti-covered club full of black leather and ripped shirts that night in 1977, she had to laugh. “I thought, man this place isn’t scary at all. I mean, I hung out at the One Knite.”
CBGB was the Copa compared with Austin’s most notorious dive, located at 801 Red River St. where a much-expanded Stubb’s currently sits. From 1970, when a trio of pals bought the business for just under $2,000, until it closed on July 4, 1976, the One Knite was known for its hanging junkyard decor and its illegal after-hours parties that often raged until dawn. Carly Simon, Peter Fonda and Peter Boyle were among those visitors who were steered into the Austin version of a speakeasy.
But the most lasting legacy of the club is the musicians who started out there and went on to bigger things. Long before Clifford Antone opened his first namesake blues club on Sixth Street in 1975, the One Knite hosted the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Angela Strehli, Paul Ray and the Cobras, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely and many, many more. They all played for tips.
“There was never a cover at the One Knite, so bands didn’t make any money to speak of,” says Ball, who formed Freda and the Firedogs after sitting in with Bobby Earl Smith’s band at the club. “But it was a place where you could really cut your teeth.”
Cleve Hattersley of Greezy Wheels remembers the crowd being right on top of the stage. “They were in your face, and pretty rowdy sometimes, but they would be cheering you on. It was a great feeling.”
In the early ’70s, when Austin was first getting a national reputation as a music town, the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon got most of the attention, deservedly so. But the scruffy downtown joints like Split Rail, Chequered Flag, Alamo Lounge and the One Knite are where the Austin club scene, the one that lives on today, was being born.
It was a time of war protests and love-ins, when local scenesters had names like the Guacamole Queen, Red Fred and Summerdog. It was a time when there was no “Ray” between “Stevie” and “Vaughan.” Ray Hennig of the Heart Of Texas Music store on South Lamar Boulevard recalls driving Stevie Vaughan to the One Knite almost every night after Hennig closed up for the evening. “He’d play every guitar in the shop all day long, then go to the One Knite to jam all night,” Hennig says of a then-19-year-old Stevie, whose earliest bands Blackbyrd, the Nightcrawlers and the Cobras were One Knite mainstays. Jimmie Vaughan and Bramhall’s band Storm played every Monday night for five years.
But music wasn’t always the primary draw at the One Knite, which had a coffin-shaped front door and served dollar pitchers of beer. “People didn’t care who was playing,” says Ball. “They’d come to the One Knite just to hang out.”
“It was more of a clubhouse than a place of business,” recalls Wayne Nagel, a local booking agent and band manager. “It was just so wide open, with a real cast of characters.” “Anything goes” was anything but an empty cliche at the One Knite, whose pool table easily converted into a craps table.
The antithesis of the “cosmic cowboy” scene that was popular at the time, the One Knite’s interior was painted as black as bassist Keith Ferguson’s fingernails. And with a fleet of Harleys always parked out front, the One Knite’s aroma of danger was almost as strong as the stench of stale beer.
This counterculture Cheers was where the Banditos biker gang sat next to former President Lyndon Johnson’s Secret Service detail who sat next to joint-rolling flower children who sat next to East Side bluesmen and law students. They all sat under such objects as lawn mowers, tricycles, bed springs, shoulder pads and typewriters, which hung from the ceiling.
“The Secret Service guys were pretty laid back,” says co-owner Roger Collins, whom everybody still calls Roger One Knite. “They said as long as we weren’t counterfeiting money or plotting to kill the president, we were cool.”
Although the origins of the One Knite name, inherited from the previous owners, are unclear, the name fits this many years later because remembrances of the dive almost always begin with the words “One night . . .” One night a group of militant feminists from Lubbock tried to shout down Storm, claiming the blues lyrics were sexist. They were no match for Jimmie Vaughan’s Stratocaster, however, and the libbers soon left. One night the Banditos decided to have a little fun with the band Dirty Leg. In order to be admitted back into the club after a break, each band member had to allow a gnarly, teeth-missing, biker mama to give them a big wet kiss. One night a touring British band came in during a Storm set and asked if they could jam, but when they said they weren’t a blues band, the members of Pink Floyd were denied the stage.
Get a bunch of ex-One Knite regulars together, like at the One Knite Reunion at Stubb’s in May 2004, and you’ll hear so many stories about a time, quite frankly, the tellers are lucky to have lived through. But don’t expect the beer to flow as freely as in the old days. “I’d say that most of the old regulars have either passed away or gone through rehab,” says Kohout, who organized the reunion concert.
While clubs were ordered closed at midnight in the early ’70s, owners Collins, Roddy Howard and Gary Oliver merely padlocked the front door from the inside and let the revelry continue. We’re not talking about just sneaking a beer after closing time.
When someone pulled out a couple of machetes and a bag of marijuana, the cheers would go up for a Hot Knife Party. “The knives were heated red hot on the kitchen stove,” recalls T.J. McFarland, who played drums with D.K. Little at the time. “Then a handful of pot was spread along the length of one knife. The other hot machete was laid on top of the first and the knives screamed and spewed smoke like a rocket. The room would fill up with pot smoke and people got so stoned so fast . . .”
There had to be rules amid such chaos. “After midnight, we’d unlock the door only once an hour,” says Collins, who slept in a broom closet in the ladies’ room. “We’d pick up all the beer and clean up all the evidence, then let out whoever wanted to go.”
The men in blue often were waiting to corral the OK gang, once hauling 14 employees and customers off to jail in a paddy wagon. “They were trying to run us out of business,” says Collins. Sometimes the cops, headquartered just a block away, would barge in two or three times a night, checking IDs and looking for drugs. Collins kept a log in 1973 that showed his club was raided 150 times over a three-month period.
It would be the IRS that finally put the joint out. “We spent all our money on partying,” Collins says. Well behind on back taxes, the club held a benefit in late ’75 starring a red hot Willie Nelson. Tickets were $2.50 each. Even though the club was jammed almost four times over the legal capacity of 150 people, the event barely broke even because nobody could get to the bar.
Was Lou Reed there?
As one could imagine, given the ability of Hot Knife Parties to slice and dice memory cells, there are several versions of how the One Knite was transformed from a hangout for University of Texas law students to a musical launching pad.
The most tantalizing story has the seed for future seediness planted when members of the Velvet Underground and a ragtag entourage of Austin fans took over the club after a VU show at the Vulcan Gas Co. in 1969. As “Joey,” which is how Joe Ely was billed at the time, played a solo acoustic set from a stage that was four tabletops nailed together, Lou Reed was messing around with a young woman and she tumbled from table to stage mid-song.That’s one story.
“I remember the girl falling down on the stage,” Ely says, “but I don’t remember Lou Reed.”
Gary Oliver was told about that crazy night in a weird bar and he ended up frequenting the place and got a job as a part-time bartender. Eventually he bought out one of the three owners, who was graduating from UT and moving away.
Oliver, currently an editorial cartoonist for the Marfa Sentinel, still has the $600 receipt for his share of the business. His friend Roddy Howard soon bought out another partner for $600. Eight months later, Roger Collins bought out the last law student owner for $750 and the One Knite was ready to rock.
“In the beginning we had only acoustic acts, like Jimmie Gilmore, Blind George, Little & Crow, Cody Hubach,” says Oliver. “Then one night in 1971, the guys in Storm came in and said, ‘This is the best blues dive we’ve ever seen. When can we play?’ We didn’t have a real stage, especially for a band with drums, so they just set up on the floor and played. They were incredible and the place was packed.”
The next day, a proper stage was built and the One Knite became a blues bar.
“The One Knite had an across-the-highway feel,” says Hattersley. “No club west of I-35 had such a funky East Austin feel like the One Knite.” W.C. Clark liked playing the room so much that he quit the Joe Tex band to play the One Knite with Southern Feeling (featuring Angela Strehli).
“After Storm, even the folk acts were turning up with full bands,” Oliver says. One of those was the Flatlanders, featuring Ely, Gilmore and Butch Hancock, backed by such Lubbock cohorts as drummer McFarland and guitarist John Reed.
“We really felt in our element at the One Knite,” Ely recalls. “Those were some of our best shows.” Ely and company thought those nights were resigned to hazy recall until they heard, just a few months ago, that two of their One Knite sets, one in 1972, the other in ’74, were recorded on Oliver’s reel-to-reel. “We had no idea we were being recorded. We were stunned, and thrilled, when we found out that those tapes exist,” Ely says.
And now a CD, available at the reunion show, then at Waterloo Records, captures the crazy, magical scene. “When we played the One Knite, it never felt like a real gig,” Ely says.
An exuberant ‘Bash’
Besides running the club, the One Knite owners hosted outdoor concerts, the most notorious of which was the 1973 “Last Bash On the Hill” off City Park Road. Roky Erickson had just gotten out of Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, so the 13th Floor Elevators reunited for the free show. An unannounced Willie Nelson also played a set.
Organizers expected 3,000 people; 15,000 showed up. The One Knite crew lost money and angered local authorities as fans ditched their cars from miles around when the traffic stopped moving. But, oh, what a party! During this time of Vietnam, the hippies of Austin knew how to forget.
But being numb for so long just gets old, not to mention life-threatening. You cherish the memories that survive and move on. Or, you know, the other thing happens.
Like many of the ex-One Kniters, Roger Collins went through rehab and got sober. Today he lives in San Angelo with his son and daughter and is employed as a clinical social worker at a psychiatric hospital. “I got my early training running the One Knite,” he jokes.
Collins was on hand for the reunion, but his former partner Gary Oliver skipped the proceedings on principle. His beef? They charged a cover.