Con Safos

Keith Ferguson's Legacy

Keith Ferguson died with a monkey on his back. I'm not speaking figuratively; the man literally died with a picture of a monkey on his back. It was tattooed there, the head of a fang-toothed baboon permanently inked into his shoulder. That was Keith Ferguson's statement to the world.

So, when a friend called last week to tell me that Ferguson was in the hospital and probably wouldn't make it out alive, it didn't come as much of a surprise. Not to me, and probably not to Ferguson, either. The obituary in last week's Chronicle cited liver failure as the cause of death -- and that may indeed be what's on the death certificate -- but that's like jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and having the resultant death termed a swimming accident. Liver failure was the cause of death in name only, because for 30 of his 50 years, Ferguson shot heroin.

True, for much of that time, he subsided on an exclusive diet of cigarettes and alcohol (specifically beer, typically Busch), and whether it was his liver that eventually called it quits, or his heart, or a leg badly infected from shooting up (the usable veins in his arms having long since collapsed), is irrelevant: Ferguson killed himself. The surprising thing about his death was that it hadn't happened years earlier.

Junkies die every day without meriting a paragraph, let alone a feature article, in the local newspaper. The reason you're reading about this particular junkie is that he also happened to be one of most talented and original musicians Texas has ever produced. That his music career took a back seat to his drinking and drugging career, especially in recent years, is a senseless waste of a human life. The fact that behind the talent was an extremely intelligent and articulate person, one who could be generous, respectful, incredibly funny, and downright charming, makes that waste all the more colossal, not to mention inexcusable.

At one time, Ferguson and I were good friends. When I moved to Austin in 1987, I lived upstairs in the converted attic of his house on South Second Street, and we spent many a 24-hour day together. But it had been several years since we last spoke, and when we'd cross paths in public there was an uncomfortable tension -- sometimes accompanied by an expressionless nod, if one of us forgot for a moment who wasn't speaking to whom.

The most recent and last such time our paths crossed was at the Carousel Lounge last summer. "See that guy?" I asked my wife, pointing across the room at a man who had once been fairly tall, but now seemed tiny. His once-handsome face was now gaunt, his skin a translucent, pasty gray covered with a layer of greasy sweat. His cool swagger was replaced by quick, nervous, in-need-of-a-fix gestures. "That's Keith Ferguson."

It wouldn't suprise me in the least if anyone who hadn't seen the bassist in his prime -- glimpsing instead the cartoonish character who played with undistinguished and indistinguishable blues bands on Sixth Street from time to time in recent years -- were as shocked as my wife upon first seeing Ferguson. "That's who you've been talking about?" Typical reaction, probably. Yet when I first saw Ferguson with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Rome Inn in 1976, about a year after they'd formed, it was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.

Not quite 30, Ferguson was the oldest member of the band, yet he, like the rest of them, played the blues like a grown man -- and they sure as hell didn't sound like a bunch of "white kids." Still a decade away from commercial success (there were about 25 disinterested patrons at Rome Inn that night), Ferguson, Kim Wilson, Jimmie Vaughan, and the soon-to-join Mike Buck already showcased the indelible influence they would have on blues bands coast to coast and around the world. Collectively and individually, the original T-Birds sired cults and mini-cults, changing the way musicians played, dressed, stood, combed their hair.

At the center of all this was Ferguson, a unique, colorful, even charismatic persona, but that was just the icing on the mystique. At its core was one simple truth: He was as good a blues bass player as there was in the history of blues bass players. Even in capable hands, the subtle art of blues bass can be the musical equivalent of the witness protection program, yet Ferguson carved out a singular niche without ever saying "look at me" with his instrument.

"A roar in the right key" is how he described his unorthodox philosophy when I interviewed him for a 1986 Guitar Player magazine article on the Tailgators, the swamp-rock trio he joined after leaving the Thunderbirds. "I believe a bass player ought to be heard," he elaborated, "but not listened to. Unless you're into, `Man, did you hear that line?' You do that with a band that's playing Jimmy Reed and shuffles, and there's something seriously wrong with you. You can talk about virtuosity all you want, but what it comes down to is you're supposed to back up the other guys. They're not supposed to notice you until you stop."

Just as his playing had an incalculable impact on countless bassists, his look and personality spawned a legion of tattooed, leopard-shoed clones, who elevated him to a guru of sorts. (It might be years before some of these junior Fergusons can put on a shirt without wondering if it would pass the Keith test.) He sometimes got a kick out of seeing just how far these cult members would go to get his stamp of approval, like the time he urged Anson Funderburgh's bassist to paint his '58 Fender Precision aqua-marine metal-flake. "It was the same color as this house," he smiled sarcastically, "only metal-flake -- like a Mexican gang's dream."

There were three things things Ferguson rarely did: eat, sleep, or sit down. He paced constantly, and when he did nod off, it was often standing up. I'd sit there taking silent bets with myself on which would succumb to gravity first: his back, which could bend back farther than a limbo champion's, or the three-inch ash on his cigarette.

When I first moved in, Ferguson would close the door to the kitchen when he needed a fix. He knew that I knew he was a junkie, it just wasn't something we talked about. I could see the results; I had no morbid curiosity in viewing the process. But if you're around an addict 24 hours a day, at some point they're going to have to shoot up, so inevitably we'd be in the kitchen talking and Ferguson would feel (and fulfill) the need. There were no slow-motion, Pulp Fiction closeups of needle puncturing skin, and his eyes didn't roll back as he drifted off to dreamland; this was purely maintenance. It was about as romantic or glamorous as watching someone take a dump.

Over the course of any given all-nighter, he would go through every mood swing imaginable -- animated and energized one minute, dull and morose the next. And night after night, I was the one-man audience to a one-man show that rivalled anything you'd see on Broadway. Eric Bogosian on his best night had nothing on this kitchen monologist, as he documented and created characters, complete with dead-on voices, accents, and mannerisms. I half-seriously entertained the idea of wiring the kitchen so I could record him in action. The stories were fascinating, but it was Ferguson's "stage presence" that made you wonder if he'd missed his true calling.

Long after dawn, I'd pack it in and head upstairs, still hearing the bassist pacing downstairs. I'd wake up around commute time, head downstairs in my bathrobe, and find Ferguson sitting (finally) on the porch in his robe, sipping a Busch. I'd get one out of the refrigerator, and we'd watch the "squares," as he called them, drive to work. Ferguson especially got a laugh out of the days when we'd still be sitting there in our robes, beers in hand, when the same nine-to-fivers drove by in the opposite direction, heading home.

Ferguson was very knowledgeable and well-read, having no patience for ignorance, and yet he surrounded himself with parasites several evolutionary levels beneath him (otherwise known as drug dealers). He attached a lot of pride and sentiment to his friendships with famed musicians, but would pawn gifts they sent him for drug money: in Billy Gibbons' case, this included a custom-made, metallic red "gator" bass. He proudly displayed the hand-written letter Stevie Ray Vaughan had sent him from a rehab clinic in 1986 -- on the refrigerator, just a few feet from the kitchen table where he'd tie off and shoot up.

In his lifetime, Ferguson saw countless friends meet drug and/or alcohol-related deaths. He saw others clean up, but viewed them as wusses, as though they'd sold out to the squares, unable to tough it out or some such -- even though he was a grown man in his forties whose rent and phone were subsidized by his grandmother, his beer and cigarettes comped by friends.

Keith Ferguson was the most bitter man I ever met and had the least reason to be. Although he was gifted with talent, brains, looks, and some of the most loyal friends I've ever witnessed, he had a persecution complex the size of his drug habit and blamed the world for the life he had chosen. Nevertheless, in all the nights I stayed up listening to him curse the gods, I never saw anyone else tie off his arm with a dirty stocking. I never saw anyone else cook the dope and draw it into the syringe. I never saw anyone but him shoot heroin into his arm. He was solely responsible for squandering and ultimately ending the most precious of all gifts: a human life.

In the week since Keith's passing, I've alternately been torn between bitterness and sentiment, disgust and sadness. I've looked at pictures, listened to his music, played back tapes of interviews with him, and found an autograph he gave me nearly 20 years ago. Under his name he wrote "c/s." "That stands for con safos," he said, "like, `There to stay.'" That best describes my memories of Keith Ferguson. He's someone I'll remember for the rest of my life.

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