The Black Cat Clan
Think of the phrase "family establishment" and the first picture that pops into your mind isn't likely to be the Black Cat Lounge nightclub on Sixth Street. Home over the years to crowds of skinheads, SHARPS (anti-racist skinheads), bikers, college students, tourists, and musicians, it wouldn't be too surprising if some group of congressmen's wives or other organization that declares itself representative of the American family were to specifically use the small, dank venue as a prime example of a place you shouldn't allow your kids to frequent. The Black Cat is, after all, the spot to go to see Satan's Cheerleaders, the gyrating seductresses who back up the Flametrick Subs wearing pep outfits emblazoned with the big, bad triple-six. This is the club that once boasted a long line of Harleys out front every night, the appropriately clad riders swilling brew inside. And most notably (or is that notoriously?), this is the establishment where what the Sessums say goes, from who gets let in or thrown out, all the way down to what screeds against the media, police, or whoever's on the Sessums' shit list are plastered as public decrees on the wall outside the club.
As it turns out, reality is a much different beast than image, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of a "mom and pop" -- not to mention "son and daughter" -- business in today's world of corporations and chains. Papa Paul Sessums started the original Black Cat a dozen years ago as an offshoot of what he calls "Austin's oldest Lebanese bar." Taking over evenings at the bar, Sessums brought in live music, nurtured the nightclub atmosphere, and was going full steam ahead by the time he opened the Black Cat proper six months later.
In those days, recalls Sessums, he didn't know too many musicians, so acquaintances like Michael Maye, Evan Johns, and others from that Washington-to-Austin import crowd shaped the early club's early bookings. Then came the likes of Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and after that any number of bands that proved successful locally and kept the musical style and audience of the club ever changing. These days, Sessums is proud to point out, "The second generation has taken over." Indeed, his involvement with the Cat now seems to involve little more than monthly visits from Palacios, Texas, a small coastal town that the Sessums family has basically taken over.
Twenty-seven years old, Sasha Sessums seems at first to be out of place in the dark, seamy Black Cat, with its walls lined with beer cases and adorned with graffiti. A diminutive, perky figure with Nancy Drew-ish features and sprightly eyes that are a dead giveaway to a mind that never stops thinking, her appearance could easily fool one into thinking she had walked into the wrong club. However, Nancy Drew never got hauled off to the clink by police who claimed that she had sassed them once too often (she denies their claims, stating that she went quietly with them when they came to arrest her for noise violations against the club).
Neither did Nancy Drew's dad ever proudly post on the wall of her clubhouse that while he was the only businessman on his block with "balls," he was tremendously proud of his daughter for having enough "clit" to follow in his footsteps. Sasha is in charge of the Cat now, "and she's running it real great -- doing all the right things," boasts dad. She's had time to learn her trade, there's no doubt about that; she's been with the club since its genesis, acting as a 15-year-old bouncer back in the "punk rock glory days" of the venue.
"[The kids] turned out just like their mom and dad," says Paul. "Except my daughter turned out like me, and my son turned out like my wife, [Roberta], except they wear different size dresses," he adds with a wink.
Despite his pop's joking, Paul Jr. -- aka Martian -- who counts his age as "on the cusp of 30," is unmistakably his father's son, sharing Paul Sr.'s fondness for noir clothing and the perpetual mischievous grin plastered across his face. Martian came aboard at the Black Cat a year after his sister, working as doorman, etc. To his sister's claims that their upbringing at the club was "perfect," he rejoinders with, "Especially since we had that free Buckhorn beer back then." Young Martian even designed the club's T-shirts a decade ago, and they're still in demand now; as this interview was conducted at the club early on a cold winter afternoon, we were interrupted a number of times by out-of-towners who were ecstatic to find the door open, but disappointed to hear that the T-shirts were out of stock.
Both siblings are at a loss trying to think of particular great moments that would remain so if dad had been an accountant or a podiatrist. Instead, Martian pipes up with, "I got to sing `Great Balls of Fire' in front of Jerry Lee Lewis with Evan Johns and the H-Bombs when I was 18!"
Sasha, too, casts no doubts as to the Black Cat having been pivotal to her happy rearing. "I wouldn't choose any other upbringing than what I had," she beams, "I'm the person I really want to be. The kind of person [Paul] is, he's always had his own businesses, since we were born. We've always met lots of different people -- not just musicians. We've been exposed to a good variety."
For his part, Paul Sr. obviously couldn't be prouder of his offspring, and the family couldn't be more open with each other (the kids' language in front of pop -- and vice versa -- proves that), adding that such relationships don't hearken back any farther in the family. "My dad's an electronics engineer," he explains, "a war veteran, real quiet, doesn't like people at all -- doesn't like any races." Not that he's disapointed with the way his grandkids turned out; "He loves us," says Sasha.
Currently, the elder Sessums are keeping busy with their establishments in the aforementioned Palacios, where mom Roberta, a quirky personality in her own right and an artist of some renown, was holding court while the other three assembled for this story. Sasha, as explained, is in charge of the Black Cat now, and Martian, who has been spending time as a bounty hunter among other things, is not about to leave the family fold any time soon. "We'll soon have a nightclub down there, the Black Cat Junior or something," says Paul.
"And Junior," pipes in Martian, "might be running it."
If living life in the path of the Black Cat has led to any sibling rivalry between Sasha and Martian, it's not obvious from seeing them together. Perhaps that's because they have so many other sisters and brothers -- of a sort. Paul claims spiritual fatherhood of quite a few children through the Black Cat, asserting that, "One of the most significant things I think we've done in the 12 years is we've probably raised about 5,000 children. From 14-year-old kids to those graduating from college. A lot of kids came in here real raw."
Martian, never one to give up the last word easily, chimes in yet again. "And they left burnt!"