We struggle with the obscenity of a special legislative session aimed at redistricting, and we mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Al Ragle, an almost unsung hero of the Austin music scene.
My day usually begins with a quick skim of the Statesman. Last Wednesday, I left home with the paper unread, so I missed Al Ragle's obituary. He had died on June 8.
I had heard Al was very sick. Later, when I ran into him, he seemed to be doing OK, though the quiet intensity was dissipated. What I missed most was the humor. There was a time when it seemed as though Al was in on some huge joke that the rest of us were stumbling around the edges of, that he knew to laugh was to love and to live. He had a huge appetite for life, for experience, which, as with so many others, led him down some rather torturous alleys. He often stumbled, sometimes fell, but always got up to keep going.
I met Al when he was working at Inner Sanctum Records. For an improbably long time, it was not just the hippest record store in town but the music scene headquarters. Musicians, music writers, collectors, club bookers, fanzine creators, and general riffraff hung out there. If you wanted to know what was happening, who was coming, who would be sitting in with whom, you hit Inner Sanctum. The store, owned by Joe Bryson (check out Condo Joe in the Classifieds), came into its own during the great progressive-country scare of the mid-Seventies (as Steven Fromholz references it), when it was managed by Cowboy James Cooper. Amazingly, it maintained its cutting-edge status through the punk and New Wave scenes, all paralleled by Austin blues. This may seem like some serious mileage, but it was no transition at all in Austin, where you'd catch Mohawked kids at blues show and wizened cowboys listening to the Clash. The folks you saw early in the evening at Raul's, you ran into later at Soap Creek Saloon, finishing the evening with them at Antone's.
Richard Dorsett, who worked at the store, was among the first people I met when I moved here in the summer of '76. If he couldn't get a date, he'd call me at the last minute and see if I wanted to join him for Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the Dictators, or the Ramones sharing a bill with the Runaways at the Armadillo World Headquarters. He also made me listen to music, lots of music. I was resistant to punk at first. The breakthrough was the Modern Lovers album, which after listening to a number of times I "got" one day in one of those professor Henry Higgins moments that found Steve Swartz and me dancing around the house to "Roadrunner." The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, and so many others soon followed (I'm bound to be screwing up some chronology here). I remember the day I walked in as they were listening to this new guy, Elvis Costello. As always, at first I thought they had to be kidding. "Elvis?!"
Everyone who worked there had far-ranging, eclectic tastes and encyclopedic knowledge. Not only would they force records on you, but they would sometimes pull one out of your stack, saying, "You're not buying that!"
Al usually had a wry smile, as though he couldn't quite believe the lunatics got to run the asylum. He sure knew music, though. He had worked in the record business in San Francisco, had managed Billy Joe Shaver (which at that time was like herding wild, dangerous, rabid cats). Over the years, he worked at any number of clubs and quite a few record stores. Sanctum employee Neil Ruttenberg -- musician (F-Systems, Radio Fre Europe), deejay (the Rev. Neil X on KUT-FM), and filmmaker -- became one of my best friends, and Steve Goodwin was also close. Al and I would talk and compare notes, and he'd recommend music, but we were never really that tight.
Neil decided to make a movie and asked if I would produce it. The experience cemented our friendship. Neil wrote and directed "Mask of Sarnath," a 20-minute horror film that was a finalist in the Student Academy Awards. Al was his roommate at this time. Typically, he seemed bemused at our goings-on. His room was strewn with clothes, record-company swag, and Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes. Often, half-full, they would stay in the same place for weeks. I'd cook spaghetti for the crew, their kitchen being a really scary place. The first time I cooked, I was stunned to learn they didn't have any salt.
Student productions were shot over many weeks. As with most productions at the time, stopping by Raul's each night was how you found out if and where the shoot would be the next day. Getting everybody together was never easy, and the UT equipment broke as often as it worked. Neil screwed up a day's shooting because of his previous night's amorous activities, so I told him no more sex the evening before we worked. Al loved this. We'd sit around, and he'd play me jazz, blues, and obscure New Orleans cuts while I babysat Neil's desires.
Throughout the shoot, Al was in and out. He seemed entertained but was rarely there. Off working with bands or at clubs, he came in very late and left shortly after he woke, which was usually late afternoon. After Neil moved to L.A., I ran into Al a lot. Regularly going out to the clubs, I was visiting the world where he lived and thrived. Over the last years I ran into him less and less.
As an old boheme and always a blowhard, I'm talking more about my memories than about Al. For as much time as we spent together, we didn't know each other all that well. Al was one of those almost unsung heroes who helped craft the Austin music scene into what it was and what it is. No lofty, hands-off pronouncements of what was good or not good for the scene, of what would affect it and what wouldn't. Instead, a real passion for an astonishing range of music accompanied by a deep knowledge and discerning taste. Al wasn't that unique in his generation; early on, no one was getting rich, and the city didn't notice the scene, much less make the embarrassing assertion that we were the "Live Music Capital of the World." If there wasn't any money to be made in music, these guys worked day jobs just to get by and stay involved.
Al's lifeblood was music; he ate, drank, slept, knew, and breathed it. No overly suburban tidiness, no homogenized, sanitized, Martinized packaging. Al nurtured and supported the music every way he could. Some he learned from, many he taught -- certainly he turned me on to more than my share.
Al Ragle is best remembered in the swirling, smoky club air, grinning, hanging with his friends, soaking in the music through every pore and every sense. This is the statue of the folks who homesteaded this scene, there being nary a white-shirted real estate speculator or career-driven politician among them. Sure, some of those folks attended the clubs and bragged on Austin music, but they were simply witnessing the results of the passion, taste, love, and knowledge of those who committed their lives to music. Maybe they could have done something else, but almost none of them tried; they couldn't imagine anything more absorbing, life-affirming, and renewing. Hats off, then, and more than a few moments of silence for the passing of Al Ragle. His life benefited us all, and even those who don't know it should be grateful.
Texas redistricting, Texas legislature, Rick Perry, Texas special session, Tom DeLay, gerrymandering, Al Ragle, Inner Sanctum Records, Austin music scene, Austin 1970s, Austin 1980s, Joe Bryson, Condo Joe, cosmic cowboy, Steven Fromholz, Cowboy James Cooper, Austin punk, Austin new wave, Austin blues, Clash