Page Two: R.I.P.
Edwin 'Bud' Shrake and Stephen Bruton
Birth Is Real; Death Is Real
"My father told me that birth is real, death is real, and all between is a game. It is hard to quarrel with that."
– Edwin "Bud" Shrake, Blessed McGill
May 2009: Edwin "Bud" Shrake died on Friday, May 8, only to be followed a day later by Stephen Bruton. Bud and I were never tight, but if we were at social events together, we would always talk. I also knew Bruton in much the same way, though not even as well as I knew Bud. Still, these deaths hurt so much. They also bring home something truly worth considering.
There are a lot of people questioning whether present-day Austin holds a candle to the Austin of the past. It's not just the Keep Austin Weird folks who seem to be fighting a rearguard action but also the far less organized but more vocal "Austin Sucks!" contingent. More properly, that should be "Austin Sucks! Now," because this particular stance that the city "sucks" is not an independent, abstract judgment but is very much based on a comparison with Austin in the past.
There was a long time when I was at least sympathetic to the feeling. How could one who had been here then not miss the times when this city was remarkably easy to get around in, as well as famously inexpensive? The degree to which the past is now privileged, however, requires an absurd, romantic bias in which any consideration of the present is not about comparison but is made solely to illustrate the extent of what has been lost. Austin has always been great because of its people and its creative community, both of which have considerably expanded over the years.
Yes, low rents, cheap pot, no traffic, minimal club cover charges, and the Stallion restaurant are missed. Still, viewing those things as the complete building blocks of a utopian past requires a myopic vision far beyond even the most skilled optometrists' abilities to correct. Going into detail as to what the city has now that it didn't have then is pointless, as the "Austin Sucks!" champions are far more interested in conveying dismissive anger and expressing an extraordinary contempt, as though by those attitudes they both completely disenfranchise more recent residents while also clearly indicating their own unquestionable, patriotic citizenship.
It was the people and the community then; it is the people and the community now.
All You Sons of Bitches Underestimate Me!
– Songwriter, statement by Dino McLeish
Songwriter: McLeish (Rip Torn) finds his wife, Pattie (Sage Parker), in bed with Sam (Stephen Bruton), a musician. McLeish takes Sam out by the motel's swimming pool, where he makes him balance a glass of beer on his head. Then, as Doc Jenkins (Willie Nelson) and Blackie Buck (Kris Kristofferson) look on, he shoots it clean off Sam's head. Doc Jenkins says something along the lines of "Dino, we underestimated you." McLeish responds, "All you sons of bitches do."
They Did It for the Love but Were Not Above the Money
– From Songwriter's opening narration by Blackie Buck
Songwriter: "Doc's ace in the hole in this world full of wheelers and wackos and dealers and old obligations and too little time is a burning commitment to living by his wits without stooping to work. ... [S]o far he's semi-succeeded thanks to innocence, audacity, and a flat refusal to let himself be out-gangstered by some fat guy in a suit. You see, in the music business, just like in real life, it's a day to day war between the sorry and the soulful, and no rule says the righteous got to win. But I'm putting my money on a con man gypsy bad-ass true blue legendary bandit hero, and when it's all over they can say he did it for the love but he was not about the money."
Bud Shrake – a great storyteller, novelist, sportswriter, golfer, screenwriter, journalist, essayist, playwright, friend, "as told to" biographer, and "first gentlemen of Texas" as Ann Richards' escort when she was governor – died early last Friday in Austin, Texas. During the three-quarters of a century of his life, he was prolific in what he wrote as well as unrestrained by more traditional categories. Enormously influential and talented, both as a writer and a person, Shrake found both critical and commercial success throughout his career. Still, his body of work is grievously underappreciated by too many critics though championed by peers and enthusiasts.
A sportswriter, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, a Texas myth-shaper and tale-teller, Shrake was an all-around class act, making his mark as an extraordinarily gifted talent as well as a crucial player in a generation of Texas talents who forever changed the state's culture by eliminating the imitative and reclaiming the unique.
Centered on writing and living well, Shrake's life was defined by passion and by pleasure, dominated by his love of sports, history, and Texas as appreciated in the context of superior storytelling, good friends, great talk, and better women.
Who Do You Screw to Get Out of This Place?
– Songwriter, lyric from "One for the Money"
Shrake was born in Fort Worth on Sept. 6, 1931. When he was just 20, following fellow Paschal High School student Dan Jenkins, he joined the famed Fort Worth Press sports department. Run then by the endlessly legendary Blackie Sherrod, the department's reputation was already widely known, but over time, its purity, influence, and famous alumni have earned it a mythology to rival that of King Arthur's Round Table. Shrake's apprenticeship as a writer was served by working with this determined group who took sports as seriously as they took drinking but neither as seriously as they did writing.
Working at the paper full time, Shrake earned degrees in English and philosophy from Texas Christian University. The Dallas Times Herald hired him away as a sportswriter in 1958. Just a couple of years later, The Dallas Morning News got him by giving him his own sports column.
In 1964, Shrake left Dallas for New York City, again following his high school pal Jenkins, this time to Sports Illustrated. There, continuing the tradition of both excellence and ignoring tradition, as taught to them by Sherrod, they joined the amazing generation of Sports Illustrated writers who brought literature to sportswriting but never forgot that, after all, what they were writing about were games.
In New York City, Shrake and Jenkins ran with a number of other Texas writers, including Larry L. King, Willie Morris, and Billy Lee Brammer, as well as some of the nation's other brightest literary stars, including James Dickey, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and George Plimpton. Shrake, hanging out at Elaine's as part of this crowd and drinking too much everywhere, added to his résumé by contributing to such publications as Harper's while also beginning to write novels.
Do You Deliberately Make It Harder Just So You Can Stay Interested?
– Songwriter, Blackie Buck to Doc Jenkins
Although he continued to write for Sports Illustrated until 1979, Shrake missed Texas, so in 1968 he moved to Austin. Blood Reckoning, his first novel, had been published in 1962, with But Not for Love following in 1964. Blessed McGill, easily one of the most outstanding of his novels, was published the year he returned to Texas. As a reporter in Dallas, he had covered the Kennedy motorcade, which helped provide background for his 1972 novel, Strange Peaches.
Six more novels would follow, including Limo (1976, co-written with Dan Jenkins) and such later efforts as The Borderland: A Novel of Texas (2000) and Billy Boy (2001).
After seeing the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Shrake was inspired to try writing a screenplay, because he had both really enjoyed the movie and also thought, "How hard could it be to write one?" The first script he began working on would eventually evolve into Kid Blue. Before the script was even finished, however, Shrake and Gary Cartwright were hired to write the screenplay for J.W. Coop (1972), to be produced by and star Cliff Robertson.
J.W. Coop was finished and released first, so that Kid Blue (1973), his first script, became his second movie.
I Never Hated Anybody
– Songwriter, Doc Jenkins
Kid Blue: During the spring of 1985, director Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense) was in town visiting. During dinner one night, between Italian serenades and subsequent vengeance-swearing, we were talking intensely about films. After I spent quite a bit of time raving about Songwriter, a neon jukebox American fable directed by Alan Rudolph and written by his friend Bud Shrake, Demme asked if I had ever seen the quasi-legendary Kid Blue: A cult film still in search of its cult, it starred Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, and Peter Boyle. I hadn't, as the film had rarely been shown anywhere. Demme, as much a closet film programmer/promoter as a filmmaker, quickly suggested that the logical thing under the circumstances would be to set up a screening of the film, with Shrake there to introduce it. Kid Blue was introduced by Jonathan Demme and Bud Shrake at a screening on Oct. 24, 1985, at 9pm in UT's Academic Center Auditorium, sponsored by CinemaTexas and The Austin Chronicle.
Goddamn You, Rimbaldi, You Made Our Bats Too Big!
– Comment by Nightwing producer
Shrake worked on several other screenplays. On Nightwing, the producer and Shrake did not get along. While Shrake was at home, on Christmas Eve, the producer had his assistant call Shrake to fire him.
Shrake also worked on the script for Tom Horn and wrote Songwriter. A Pancho Villa project he worked on with writer/director/actor Dennis Hopper never found funding. Shrake recrafted it into Pancho Villa's Wedding Day, a stage play.
The Only Reason I Drink Is So People Don't Think I'm a Dope Fiend
– Songwriter, Blackie Buck to Dino McLeish
October 1985: During a roughly three-week period, a number of things happened, ranging from the sublime to the tragic, from the life-changing to the culture-altering.
Toward the beginning of the month, Chronicle co-founder Ed Lowry, then teaching at Southern Methodist University, was diagnosed with AIDS. He was the first person any one of us knew personally to contract AIDS.
On Oct. 4 and 5 at midnight and on Oct. 6 at 1pm, Sexuality and Blasphemy in the Avant Garde, a program of short films, including Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising" and "Un Chien Andalou" by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, was screened at the Dobie Theatre. Co-sponsored by the Dobie and the Chronicle, this was the first public screening ever by a group, one that included Rick Linklater and Lee Daniel, that would evolve into the Austin Film Society.
Oct. 13, 1985, Ed Lowry died.
Late in the day of Oct. 16, 1985, as soon as the issue to be dated Oct. 18, 1985 was finished and sent to the printer, more than half of the Chronicle staff got into cars to drive to Dallas to attend Lowry's funeral the next morning. The issue contained short pieces on Jonathan Demme (by Nick Barbaro) and John Sayles (by Chris Walters), the two featured guest directors who would be in Austin in conjunction with Independent Images, a filmmaking conference co-sponsored by Laguna Gloria Art Museum and the Southwest Alternative Media Project. Bud Shrake's Kid Blue was also going to be screened as part of the event's programming.
At the very last possible moment, I had finished working on a long piece about Bud Shrake, hooked to that screening, for the issue. I finished writing, walked out of the building, got into a car heading to Dallas. Once there, though there were quite a number of us, we rented only two motel rooms; bodies were everywhere. In a terrible mood, as I almost always was then, I was sleeping on the very crowded floor, off in a corner. Hardly able to sleep at all, several hours into the ordeal I bolted up, horrified and wide awake.
During my very long, wide-ranging interview with Shrake for the Chronicle piece, he had talked frankly and openly on any topic. Given that he was a brilliant storyteller, much of the interview was hilarious. The only piece of information that was off the record had to do with a lawsuit over a film. Shrake made it very clear that this information was not to be used and should not even be vaguely referenced. There on that floor, exhausted from writing that article and from four years of The Austin Chronicle, as well as devastated by Lowry's death, I realized that I had included the whole section in the piece. It was too late to do anything about it.
Oct. 25-27, the Independent Images conference promoting the art and business of feature filmmaking in the Southwest took place. The featured directors were Jonathan Demme, screening Citizens Band aka Handle With Care, and John Sayles, screening The Brother From Another Planet.
Already friends with Demme and his then-girlfriend, Sandy McLeod, I met John Sayles and his producer and partner, Maggie Renzi, for the first time. After burgers at Dirty Martin's Kum-Bak Place, we took the whole group down the street to introduce them to Rollo Banks at his tattoo parlor. Since we hadn't bothered to explain where we were going or why we were going there, to this day Renzi can vividly recall her confusion upon entering the parlor.
What has now proven to be a lifelong and intense friendship with Renzi and Sayles began that day, though I had no idea at the time.
That was October 1985.
I Wish the Vision of How Beautiful You Are Could Be Painted on the Great Wall of China
– Songwriter, said by Dino McLeish to his wife and child
Ironically, although Shrake had been a successful sportswriter from a young age, as well as a critically highly regarded novelist, his biggest commercial hits came late in his career. Shrake wrote bestselling as-told-to biographies with Willie Nelson and Oklahoma University football coach Barry Switzer. Still, in typical, true-maverick Shrake fashion, he probably had his biggest commercial success when he tried to help out his beloved and aging golf teacher. Getting Harvey Penick to give him his golfing wisdom, Shrake fashioned it into Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, which proved to be the bestselling sports book ever, spawning three subsequent books as well.
Note from Demme upon hearing of Shrake's death: "such very sad news, it's true. one beautiful, hulking, gentle, poetic, kinda jocky dude. bud and anne richards. now that's a power couple. bud ended his brilliant never-produced-but-we-tried-like-hell screenplay 'the big mamoo' with an on-screen quote from little richard's 'good golly miss molly' after the detonation of the first atom bomb."
April 2009: A few weeks back, my friend Maggie Renzi and I took a car trip in California, heading south from San Francisco, dipping far down into Big Sur, then running down to Santa Barbara for one night because Maggie used to live there and to visit friends (Haskell Wexler among them). At one point, I was talking to actress and acting teacher Sage Parker (married to Perry Lang, an actor and director). Somehow, Songwriter came up. I hadn't realized that she played Pattie, Rip Torn's character Dino's wife. I told her it was one of my all-time favorite movies. I'm not sure she believed me until I recited almost all of her dialogue from the movie.
Thinking about it later, I realized that I avoid exercises like making a list of my favorite movies or year-end movie lists or any way of organizing films along those lines, because I love too many.
Songwriter, however, has only grown in my affection over the years as a truly great movie – one which has still never found the huge audience it deserves.
May 2009: Okay, so aside from the very beginning, this piece discusses the brilliant, gifted Stephen Bruton not at all. The plan, in the beginning, was to write about both him and Shrake. But since just getting at Bruton's career, importance, and music would require this much space again, he is shortchanged above. Neither of these two terrific and already much missed talents should be slighted, nor should either be defined by his credits. In their talent, creativity, soul, humor, and human essence, both were so much more than the sum of their parts, as impressive as those were.