Friday, May 17, 2024

Heaven is Backstage at Hell: the Austin Chronicle ’80s

True Believers at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC 1986. Tim Swingle of Doctors Mob on bass because Denny D. got popped in a drug sweep in the park. Photo by Theresa DiMenno.


Watch Out for the Clear Cocaine!

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 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 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 Peruvian, 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.

Things Change

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, Nov. ’85. A pregnant Kim Longacre’s “last show” as a member of Zeitgeist. 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 Toth even bother to put make-up on the eye her bangs always cover? Is Zeitgeist as good as True Believers?

There is something very comforting about watching a band from where the media stands. I am working, but I’m also waiting for “Translate Slowly,” a song the Troobs could never write.

John 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. 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.

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.


Everybody’s Got Opinions: Too Bad They Don’t Count Unless They’re Typeset

In the Soviet Union, if a person dances in an expressive way by themselves in a clubhov with no one else dancing, they are thrown in jail. I have no problem with that. Any man who will get up and dance modernly at a nightclub is capable of grave offenses. I used to live in Honolulu and I’d always see Mark David Chapman monopolizing a dance floor with an ill-executed medley of misdemeanor movements, and if that wasn’t enough, the creep also wore taps. Solo dancers are in the higher risk category for skyjacking, multiple murder, kiddie porn and skipping out on the phone bill.

At Margaret Moser’s latest slumber party Lou Ann Barton and Amy Bullwinkle unfalteringly defended a couple of solodancers they knew to be swell people. But can you really “know” someone who combines bad mime with showoff dancing for an audience that is 99% uncharmed? Their presence makes every act sound like Pat Metheny.

Trouble is, like herpes, there is no cure for solo dancing. You can’t just ignore them, but what we can do is make them big stars. Real Big. A feature in Texas Monthly (“A Confederacy of Dances”) The Cutting Edge could re-edit their footage so the audience is cut out and replaced with our expressive ones dancing solo to each band. If they were big stars, they wouldn’t be able to go out without being mobbed. They’d self destruct like all big stars. Remember The Rose?

But when all the solodancers have turned the despair of unearned success into drugs, death or dianetics, you still may have a deal with this scenario: You have a friend. You’re not close or anything. You never told them about the time you took two quaaludes and drank Southern Comfort and when you regained consciousness the next morning a Rod McKuen poem was taped to your buttocks. But you do enjoy being with this person. You can talk to them and be yourself. OK, so you go with them to a concert or club – it doesn’t matter which – and your friend goes completely bonkers when the music starts. They flail their arms like a Navy signalman loosening up, accentuate the beat with percussive head-nodding, and maneuver their torso in a way which has not been socially acceptable since Woodstock. You had no idea they were this uncomfortably self-expressive. But one thing about accompanying a music overappreciater to a show is that you are guaranteed to run into several people you have not seen since high school.

Musical Like Me (blurb)

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to start picking up more girls in bars. This was New Years ’73. Up until three months ago, however, it was pretty much business as usual; me not talking to girls until I was too drunk to make sense and then walking the three miles home. Walking because my ride left an hour ago when I told it I’d probably get a ride home (wink, wink) with the girl in the red who would, a scant 15 minutes later, tell me to “go hump a cactus.” And I thought she liked me because she offered her wrist when I asked the time instead of just telling me. Body language whips my ass again.

But then, as I may have said, three months ago I found the secret to success in getting women out of smoke-filled nightclubs and into my plant-filled furnished apartment. I became a musician. I still can’t even play “Louie, Louie,” but these days I’m too busy having sex to have time to learn.

Mark Twain said, “Whenever in doubt, tell the truth,” to which I paraphrase “Whenever in heat, lie your ass off.” It really works.


The Road

The Road is that Asian girl you’ve just seen for the first time, on that street where the speed limit is 5. 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 damn sign says… It’s Kerouac and Steinbeck. It’s discovery. It’s possibility. It’s mixing skag and crank.  We all have to try it once…

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), 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 travelled better than others. Some were appreciated. 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 all 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.


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. He 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. The Dolls’ two-guitar, showboatin’ singer raunch came when the Stones had already ended their exile from Main Street. 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 New York media machine’s biggest no-sale to the rest of the country.

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, always ready to sucker the tourists into subsidizing this self-destruction. His “Farewell Gigs” became an inside joke amongst the regulars. 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. It all came together on that one and they got it down quickly before it pulled apart.

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…


Austin Music Sucks!

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.

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.


The Dino Lee Incident

“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

“Omigod! Dino’s bleeding!” – Girl at stage left ten minutes later

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 like a moth in search of a flame. 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, 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 definintely get my ass kicked, but actually, after a year as “The Merchant of Venom,” I’ve only had one or two confrontations. Something weird was in the air that night at the ‘Boat.

Dino 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 bassplaying 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 dildoes, 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.

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