Notes on Mad Dogs
On Being Young, Talented, and Slightly Insane in Old Austin
Anyone who has tried to write about Mad Dog, a bizarre moment of this state's literary history, can lay claim to the same feelings Susan Sontag experienced when she wrote "Notes on 'Camp'" in 1964. "It's embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp," she declared right off the bat, and proceeded to sketch the sensibility of camp in the form of descriptive notes because "to snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble." The essay form is too definite, too knowing, perhaps, to snare a sensibility. Mad Dog is not a sensibility that is alive and powerful, but it was at one time. But the rules are the same for snaring lost or living sensibilities, and in the case of Mad Dog, for which there is not an abundance of recorded history, the effort of resuscitating its lost sensibility can be addressed most effectively by making notes about it.
These notes are for Bud Shrake.
"There were people who refused to join Mad Dog. ... I think they thought it was too elitist. So we decided it was: It was too elitist for them."
-- Bud Shrake being interviewed, Jan. 13, 2001
1. An attempt at definition: Mad Dog is the chosen name of a band of rebellious artists -- mainly writers and journalists but also musicians and painters -- who lived in Texas, mostly in Austin, in the late Sixties and early Seventies who partied and wrote in an identifiably Texan, outlaw manner. Members include Texas Monthly senior editor Gary Cartwright and his wife Phyllis; novelist and screenwriter Bud Shrake (Shrake and Cartwright were the founders); Dennis Hopper, who starred in Kid Blue (1973), a movie that Shrake wrote; Marvin Schwarz, who produced the movie; actors Peter Boyle and Warren Oates, also in Kid Blue; Willie Nelson; Jerry Jeff Walker (and later, his wife Susan); Peter and Jody Gent (Peter Gent is the author of the classic football satire North Dallas Forty and a former Dallas Cowyboys wide receiver); Bill Brammer, author of The Gay Place; painter and sculptor Fletcher Boone; labor lawyer David Richards and his wife Ann, who would become the governor of Texas; Larry L. King; and Threadgill's proprietor Eddie Wilson, among others. Once a Mad Dog always a Mad Dog, but the hotbed of Mad Dog activity has long since passed. The unofficial anthem of Mad Dog is said to be "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," by Ray Wylie Hubbard, but the Jerry Jeff Walker version.
Trying to define the sensibility of Mad Dog in one statement would betray the spirit of the group, since harboring anything as sophisticated as a "sensibility" is not what Mad Dogs were after. There was no purpose to Mad Dog (more on this later); its motto was "Doing Indefinable Services to Mankind" and its credo was "Everything that is not a mystery is guesswork." In 1970, Mad Dog did become incorporated as Mad Dog Inc. but it was not an active company. The article of incorporation says that the point of the company is "to make, produce, and distribute motion pictures and other entertainment." Shrake put $500 in a bank account that was used on film equipment, a camera, projector, etc. The "divisions" of Mad Dog include the Mad Doggeral Vanity Press, the Institute for Augmented Reality, the All-Night General Store, the Mad Dog Foundation for Depressed Greyhounds, and the Freak Nursery. It has also been suggested that there should be a Mad Dog Rest Home.
Mad Dogs did what young artists and intellectuals in a notably conservative environment tend to do: They fought with and changed the culture. Mad Dog behavior generally fits in with what one hears about the Sixties counterculture that was being waged on a national level, but Mad Dog and the counterculture are not the same thing. The anti-Texas fervor that existed in the nation after the JFK assassination, coupled with the transformation that was happening in Texas from a rural to urban society, made Mad Dog artists acutely aware of their status as creative people from a place that most observers thought was deeply uncreative. "And when we greeted each other, we said, 'Haw yew,' just like Bill[y] Lee's characters did," Jay Dunston Milner, a novelist, journalist, and professor, writes in Confessions of a Maddog: A High-flying Romp Through the Texas Music and Literary Era of the Fifties to the Seventies (1998). "We exaggerated the cadence and flatness of our Texas accents and articulations, especially when in the company of those we somewhat snidely regarded as being on the pompous side." An example of how to push the envelope (which can be attributed to Bud Shrake, who is 6'6"): If you are invited to a party thrown in honor of Abe Rosenthal, then the editor of The New York Times, dress up as a giant Tampax and greet him at the door. (Sure! Why not?) This was the party David and Ann Richards threw at their home in Westlake, a "Mad Dog sanctuary," according to Cartwright, and even today, this is a party that people will not stop talking about.
Mad Dog could not have flourished in any other city in Texas than Austin, even though the genesis of Mad Dog is reported to have taken place on the set of Kid Blue, which was filmed in the village of Chupaderas, Mexico. (In HeartWiseGuy: How to Live the Good Life After a Heart Attack , Cartwright notes that Chupaderas is the Indian name for "the witches who suck blood and brains from deformed and disabled children," which is an appropriately macabre and loony setting in which to begin Mad Dog.)
Mad Dogs seem to be the first generation of Texas writers who poked fun at the state in their writings, and the first generation of Texas writers who struggled, often with great difficulty, to make a living as writers, as freelancers. They were not averse to writing about themselves and their cohorts, unlike Texas historians J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb, who mostly wrote about their predecessors. (In an interview for this article, Shrake said that when he read The Gay Place , "that was the first time I'd ever realized that you could write about us, and what we were doing, and modern-day Texas, and have anybody in New York publish it. ... Billy Lee, I think, showed a whole generation of us that our lives were actually publishable. I was about to say 'worth publishing,' and they may not have been worth publishing but they were publishable.")
It's important to mention that the Mad Dog writers were not rebelling against the old-guard generation of Texas writers (Dobie-Bedichek-Webb) as much as they were modeling themselves after older, inherited ideas of what the writer's life could be like. Shrake says that "the literary influences when we were growing up were people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and the beautiful, glamorous story of the couple who flew too near the flame and burned themselves up. The artists in those days, if you weren't some kind of a sot or an obsessive pervert, you weren't really a writer. All writers had this deep, dark secrecy, and we used that as an excuse after hours of writing, that writers really needed to get drunk because it relieved all these tensions."
Mad Dog consists largely of men, and in fact is something of a hyper-masculine organization. Mad Dog may have been founded in Mexico, and flourished in Austin, but its roots can be traced all the way back to Dallas, 1963, when Shrake and Cartwright were noted young sportswriters for The Dallas Morning News who didn't think that sports were the most important thing in the universe. "Our apartment had become a late-night hangout for musicians, strippers, and other nocturnal creatures," Cartwright recalls in "1963: My Most Unforgettable Year," an essay in his recently published collection of articles, Turn Out the Lights: Chronicles of Texas During the 80s and 90s. "One of our regular drop-bys was George Owen, manager of the University Club, a former SMU basketball player who had dated the fabulous Candy Barr before the Dallas power structure sent her away on a phony marijuana charge. Two other regular visitors were Jack Ruby, the cheesy little hood who owned the Carousel Club, and Jada, an exotic stripper. ... Her act consisted mainly of hunching a tiger skin rug while making wildly orgasmic sounds with her throat."
If no one had thought of calling the group "Mad Dog," the spirit would have been the same. Mad Dog grew out of the partying, not the other way around. There are artists of this generation who have contributed to the state's creative life who intersected with Mad Dogs but are not Mad Dogs. Larry McMurtry seems to have some disdain for Mad Dog writers. In "Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature," a contentious essay published in The Texas Observer on Oct. 23, 1981, McMurtry wrote, "Shrake has always been an intriguing talent, far superior to his drinking buddies." The argument can be made that Texas writers entirely divorced from Mad Dog proceedings were doing work that is just as important, if not more important than, what was being done by Mad Dogs (Shelby Hearon, for example).
2. From the way that people talk about Mad Dog, one would conclude that writing about Mad Dog is writing about writers who weren't writing. Mad Dogs did have creative output during the Mad Dog period (Shrake's Strange Peaches , for example, is one of the best novels about the JFK assassination), but when someone says "Mad Dog," the association in the mind is immediately the party, not the writing that was going on. The idea is more accurately "work hard, play hard." In his successful 1971 application for the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which allows Texas writers to live at J. Frank Dobie's ranch outside of Austin for six months of undisturbed writing time, Cartwright wrote, "I have published one novel (copy enclosed), one screen play and numerous magazine articles, and my shelves sag with other manuscripts -- including a finished novel -- which haven't been published because they are not good enough. I have known some success and a lot of failure, and I am blithely ignorant of other forms of work. I am at the moment embarrassingly destitute, in great need of the physical and spiritual benefits of this fellowship. I need to lean against Dobie's rock." Cartwright wanted to work on a "Villains of the Southwest" book, a series of character studies done in the New Journalism style. "Maybe I will discover something about the nature of villainy, maybe not," Cartwright wrote. "But I ask you to consider my case. Otherwise, I may have to rob a bank, thus becoming the subject rather than the author of this concept."
3. There are at least two books that are "confessions" by Mad Dogs, Confessions of a Maddog by Jay Dunston Milner and part of Gary Cartwright's HeartWiseGuy. But confession seems to be beside the point if you are a Mad Dog. Mad Dogs commit their sins out in the open; that's the whole point. Why work so hard at being an outlaw if no one can see you?
4. There was absolutely no purpose to Mad Dog. "It is difficult today to describe just what Mad Dog was all about -- to think of Mad as having a purpose is to comprehend the perfect oxymoron -- but you might think of it as a metaphor of its time," Gary Cartwright observes in HeartWiseGuy. Even given the neutralizing effect that time has on once-scandalous activities (and thus the participants' willingness to speak about them), one can only conclude that the point was to indulge in excess and to do inexplicable things.
Austin Chronicle: Do you remember trying to buy the town of Shafter?
Bud Shrake: I remember it very well. ... Shafter was on sale ... but [the sale] didn't go through, I don't remember why. And then we tried to buy a town for ... it was Sisterdale, it was out in the Hill Country. And we went out there one day to look at it, $60,000 for it, I think it was.
AC: For the whole town.
BS: For the whole town.
AC: You just go to the mayor and ...
BS: I think this was advertised in the paper, it seems to me like it was advertised in the paper. Anyway, so we drove out there one day to look at it, it was David Richards and Ann Richards and this guy from New York who was an owner of Elaine's, Donald Ward, and Cartwright, the Gents. Anyway, we went up there to look at it and it's a really neat place and it had a dancing slab and it had a little public library, a library that connected to the post office, that's what it was, and a couple of stores, a couple of houses. So we went in to close the deal on it and all of a sudden, this real estate guy (this guy from New York with us [Donald Ward] was wearing this dress like D'Artagnan, he didn't have a sword but he had everything else that looked like D'Artagnan, the hat, the boots that went up to his knees) and so anyway, the guy who was showing the town didn't like us very much. He was also some sort of, he was probably the city father. Anyway, when it came time for us to write him the check, all of a sudden it was $600,000 and we said, "Wait a minute! You said 60!" And he said, "Well, ole Molly in the office never was good with them zeros." So we didn't buy Sisterdale.
AC: So did it get to the point where you had plans about what you might do with the town?
BS: Oh yeah, a lot of ideas. We went up later and tried to buy a town called Theon, on the other side of Georgetown, up in that area, off to the east. And we spent the day with a real estate agent, and we went looking around Theon. I don't remember how much it cost and we were talking about the deal at the Squirrel Inn and so I picked up this ... I was drinking scotch in this big iced tea glass. ... The barmaid wasn't there and it's not really a luxurious place, and there was a refrigerator and I took out what I thought was a pitcher of ice water and I poured this much scotch in there and then I filled the rest of it up with ice water. I was quite thirsty and I just slugged it down and the ice water ... do you know this story?
BS: It was kerosene. Coal oil, she called it.
AC: She called it what?
BS: Coal oil. Kerosene. And she kept it -- I don't know why it was in there -- but all of a sudden I was dying, this was it for me. And this barmaid, she ran outside and she came back in with a pitcher of fresh goat's milk. She said, 'Drink this, this is the antidote!' So I drank, oh I drank the whole damn thing, and then I got out of there and we were in my van and I was lying in the back seat pretty sure I was dying and we got arrested, we got stopped by the highway patrol. And Cartwright got into a scuffle with a highway patrolman, and I thought, 'We're all dead now, I'm going to die and they're going to kill him.' And so we all wound up spending the night in the Williamson County Jail and I still thought I was dying. So we called Austin and a doctor friend drove up to the Williamson County Jail and he said, 'Here, I've got just what you need.' We talked the sheriff into letting him give me some medicine because we told him what had happened. And so they said, 'You don't want him to die in your jail,' and so the doctor gave me a handful of pills and I took them and it was speed.
AC: Why did he give you speed?
BS: Well, because he thought that would make me feel a lot better. And I guess it must have. My heart exploded about 25 times and I bounced around the walls of the cell for a while.
AC: So did you go to the doctor once you got out of jail?
BS: Well, I didn't go back to that doctor -- well, I did, but not for being ill. In a day or two I was over it.
AC: So that's three towns you tried to buy.
BS: Three towns. That's all we tried. After Theon, I lost my desire.
4. Mad Dog did not have a purpose, even though Steve Davis, assistant curator at the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University, is working on a book that will be a literary history of this generation of Texas writers that will include coverage of Mad Dog. This may be the final irony of Mad Dog, that a group of like-minded people who banded together and wasted time in the best way they knew how has become something that is worth putting in a book. Davis speaks of them as "cultural avatars." "My own feeling is that their literary legacy certainly is that they carved out new paths in Texas literature," he says, "and created new opportunities that other writers have followed. And before this generation of writers came about, the idea of a Texas writer who could make a living as a writer was almost unheard of."
5. Mad Dogs have an ability to recognize Mad Dogs-in-waiting, people referred to within the organization as "uncarded" members. (The initiation ritual involved passing around a bottle of tequila, then the new member would receive a Mad Dog membership card, two pesos, and a kiss on the cheek.) From Confessions of a Maddog: "Usually, it is considered proper for a Maddog who believes he has discovered an uncarded Maddog to seek confirmation from another card-carrying member, if it is convenient. For instance, at an Austin gathering in the seventies, I pointed out to Shrake and Cartwright that singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver was an uncarded Maddog, and Cartwright decided to check him out. Shrake and I watched as Jap [Cartwright's nickname] approached Billy Joe and engaged him in conversation we couldn't hear from where we stood. Soon, Jap returned to our huddle and nodded. 'He's one all right,' he said. We asked what had convinced him and he said Billy Joe had drawn a happy face on the stump of a finger he'd lost in a rodeo accident and showed it to Jap proudly, saying, 'Some folks will do anything for morphine.'"
6. In order to be a good Mad Dog, you need to be the sort of person who, years later, would not be woefully embarrassed by the things you did when you were an active member of Mad Dog. It is appropriate, however, to reflect on the Mad Dog period with a slight wince.
7. Adopting the style of a Susan Sontag essay, even if it's famous (especially if it's famous?), is not something that Mad Dogs do.
Gary Cartwright and Bud Shrake will participate in a panel discussion, "Dallas 1963, My Most Unforgettable Year: The JFK Assassination and Its Impact on Texas Writers" hosted by the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State, on Thursday, Jan. 25, from 7-9pm. For directions or more information call 512/245-2313 or see www.library.swt.edu/swwc.