Fast Times at Liberty Lunch
By Margaret Moser, Fri., July 23, 1999
We come to praise Liberty Lunch, not to bury it. The gathering of tribes happens too often after something has died, that familiar groundswell of emotion unleashed. We mourn the passing of our bands and our clubs as we would our heroes, our friends, our family, our sons of beloved presidents. And why not? You spend enough time at a club and it becomes a second home; maybe the staff begins to recognize you, a warm hello from the doorperson, a smile from the bartender. Twenty-four years equals a lot of beers to be passed over the bar.
Much of Liberty Lunch is wrapped up in where it is and who played there when, of course, but just as much of it is about the people who worked there, past and present. That's why there's a picture right up front of some individuals you may or may not recognize, depending on your tenure in Austin clubs. Four of those faces worked at Liberty Lunch, which is pulling up stakes and moving from its original location at 405 W. Second Street to 815 Red River, the lot adjoining Stubb's; the fifth is George Frayne, aka Commander Cody. Left to right are Mike O'Hara, Michael Guthrie, Dale Watkins, Frayne, and J-Net Ward -- Lunch vets, every one of them. But look again at the guy in the middle. That's Dale Watkins.
It would be fair to say that if you went to Liberty Lunch any time over the last 10 years or so, you probably saw him ruling the Kingdom of Dale backstage, his bright red hair as long as it had been for decades. I knew Watkins well, because I'd usually make my way backstage to get a better look at the band. Joyous as most nights were, Liberty Lunch could sometimes be the kind of place where the minute you got a good spot to watch the band from, a person with too much hair would hop in front of you and start to "boogie." I sought refuge from the boogie people on countless nights. Part stage manager, part security, part doorman, Watkins only demanded a friendly hug and kiss from me for admittance into the Kingdom of Dale.
Often as not, he ruled backstage just standing there, flashlight in hand, arms folded. He'd mutter grumpily at whatever young band was onstage spitting out the hit du jour or beam happily because said group had attracted a number of scantily-clad female fans busy shaking their groove thangs. Like many of his peers, Watkins had experienced the halcyon days of Austin music in the Seventies and didn't much cotton to the alternative bands or "that shit," as he referred to it a lot of the time while pointing to his earplugs.
Watkins, like the trusses that were installed to put a roof on Liberty Lunch in 1981, was a legacy of the Armadillo World Headquarters and a pro in the world of local nightclubs by the time he arrived at the Second Street live music venue in the late Eighties. By then, he'd seen it all during his tenure as bar manager for the Armadillo, and trends didn't faze him. He was always a cantankerous sort, given to swinging open the back gate to arriving tour buses and vans and announcing, "Hi, I'm Dale! Who the hell are you?"
This approach got varied reactions, the funniest of which would be when the offended musician's management sidled up to Ward or Mark Pratz to inform them all was fine except for the rude dude in the vest and Buffalo Bill mustache. Not that Dale Watkins cared. He even threw me out of backstage a couple of times, albeit very apologetically. He had a job to do and he did it.
There were seldom more than a few trash cans to divide the crowd from the Kingdom of Dale, but Watkins had a second sense about the invisible barrier. Cross it, and you'd get a flashlight beam between the eyes, or maybe he'd just stride over to you shaking his head firmly. "Stand out there. Cain't stand here." The Kingdom of Dale, you see, was the only thing that lay between the audience and the band.
Dale Watkins didn't live to see Liberty Lunch's Big Transition, though he knew it was inevitable. You see, Watkins died exactly one year ago July 31, the scheduled last night of music at the original Liberty Lunch location. And everyone from J-Net Ward and Mark Pratz to the local musicians who played the club will tell you that when Watkins died, the lights over Liberty Lunch never shone quite as brightly again. Moving from the Second Street doesn't just mean a new location, it means leaving certain memories behind in the Kingdom of Dale.
Liberty Lunch opened in December 1975, but I don't remember being aware of it until I started working at the Austin Sun in May 1976. I was cleaning the weekly's 15th Street offices and talking to a staff artist named Jose Carlos Campos, who was working late. He was languidly watercoloring a logo that featured a longhaired man playing flute as big nursery-rhyme stars twinkled in the sky above him. "Liberty Lunch -- Music Under the Stars" read the slogan. Campos was using brilliant jewel tones for his illustration, so I requested a particularly passionate purple that he agreeably incorporated into the piece. That night we went to the Armadillo and saw Balcones Fault play. Dale Watkins was working the bar. When the show was over, we waved to him as we left.
The next day, I followed Campos to Liberty Lunch so he could show his artwork to its proprietors, Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton (see sidebar). A large, colorfully painted board announced the various menu offerings; Liberty Lunch actually served lunch in those days. The muffaleta looked good, but having grown up in New Orleans as well as Texas, I was as doubtful about good muffaletas in Texas as I was about good Mexican food in New Orleans.
Sedwick was not around, but Shelton was, so he and Campos began talking business. I wandered around the fledgling venue, doubtful about its rudimentary decor. I remember a small stage and the garage-sale look of the tables and chairs that would always remain a part of the club's ambiance. A flyer for Beto y los Fairlanes was taped to a wall. There was no mural. Nothing about Liberty Lunch suggested the dynamic place it would assume in Austin's musical history. Campos and I left soon after and went swimming at Hippie Hollow.
Those nights of "Music Under the Stars" were mostly folk and country-folk in 1976 and 1977. There was a smattering of artsy happenings -- poetry reading, plays, and bazaars -- but it wasn't until Beto y los Fairlanes began their Tuesday night residency with their infectious salsa rhythms in the late Seventies that Liberty Lunch emerged as a regular stop on Austin's club scene. Slowly, they began booking reggae and funk, thanks to a partnership with booking agent Louis Jay Meyers. When the club started featuring punk and new wave acts in the early Eighties after Raul's and Duke's had gone and Club Foot was taking its final steps, Liberty Lunch got new life. By that point, the mantle of reggae inherited from the Armadillo was firmly in place. Today, when I think of Liberty Lunch, I remember the nights on which the Lotions, Pressure, and the Killer Bees played and the roof was still open. Back then, the music was truly still under the stars.
When the roof came in the early Eighties, so did the next wave of music, "New Sincerity," so dubbed by musician/writer Jesse Sublett with no particular affection for the sound. As Pratz and Ward developed an even broader booking policy toward the growing alternative and grunge scenes, Liberty Lunch became a mid-level, stepping-stone club. It was never much of a blues venue, but like Antone's, it was all ages whenever possible.
Everyone has their favorite moment at the Liberty Lunch; I can conjure literally hundreds of evenings of magic and occasionally mayhem. In my unillustrious career as a performer, I played with Dino Lee as one of the Jam & Jelly Girls at least three times at Liberty Lunch, and once with the Steinbergs (led by Mr. Smarty Pants). I thought nothing of standing in front of the Wild Seeds and screaming for "Mikey," though it could have been Joey, Bo, or Paul, and was a ring girl for the famous rock & wrestling match with Shawn Michaels and Golden Boy. I threw two Raul's reunions there, and Ministry showed up for one of them. I met the man I married at Liberty Lunch.
I remember the rush of seeing Bush at their absolute pinnacle during South by Southwest, as well as a luminous Magnapop, incandescent Flaming Lips with their Christmas lights, the Butthole Surfers transcendent, Cowboy Mouth exuberant, and Hole in their rebellious glory the night Courtney Love complained someone tried to finger her when she stagedove. Owner Mark Pratz devilishly wiggled his fingers and winked, "It was me." Later that night, I was the only 40-year-old trying to get Love's autograph. The singer eyed me suspiciously and pointedly ignored me as I asked for one. She grabbed a pen from a young girl sporting a new Hole T-shirt and started signing.
"Goddammit!" she brayed. "This pen doesn't work. Anyone got a Sharpie?"
"I do," I said, holding up a red Sharpie tauntingly as Love stared at me -- the old lady of the crowd. "And you can keep it if you will sign this for my 15-year-old friend first."
She snatched the Sharpie and the pad from me. "What's the name?"
"It's for Brooke," I said. "She got bad grades and her mom wouldn't let her come."
Love scrawled her name and I moved on to the equally mobbed Eric Erlander. The next time I saw Courtney Love was at Emo's. That night, Brooke was with me.
Amazing nights to remember: Oasis, Alanis Morissette, Run DMC, GWAR, King Sunny Ade, John Cale, Burning Spear, Poi Dog Pondering -- a wider variety of acts than there are Afghan Whig jokes. Watching the Dick Nixons fry sausage onstage as my nephew stared on in disbelief. Cracker's David Lowery spewing, "What the world needs now is a new folk hero like I need a hole in the head." Soul Asylum exuberant on a very cold December night. Doug Sahm whispering in my ear at a Son Volt show, "These guys love me!" Watching the Neville Brothers with my new husband asking to my dismay, "Who are these nigger pirates you brought me to see?" The Blasters singing "Common Man" and the Beat Farmers double-billed with Dash Rip Rock. Garbage drenched in pink lights and electrifying. The Liberty Lunch show I most regret missing: Nirvana. I decided not to go at the last minute. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
The night I figured out what Liberty Lunch meant was during SXSW '89. I had been living in Hawaii for all of six months and was back for the conference and Austin Music Awards show. I was standing on the side of the stage next to then KLBJ DJ Jody Denberg, and when the Wild Seeds capped their showcase with "I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long," I starting crying.
"What's wrong?" he asked with a worried look. "They sound great!"
"I know," I sniveled, pointing down at the uneven planks of the old stage. "This is where I belong. Right here."
I was still weepy when the song was over. Denberg led me down the wooden plank which at that time served as the entrance onstage and to the gate where Dale Watkins was standing. He passed me to Watkins, who looked very concerned.
"What's wrong with her?" he asked.
"She's homesick," Denberg explained.
Amid the din of SXSW, Watkins nodded sympathetically and sat me on the crummy-looking stool that served as his throne in the Kingdom of Dale there in the back of Liberty Lunch. With the old-fashioned finesse of a true Texas gentleman, he unfolded a big white hanky from his pocket and gently wiped my eyes.
"There, there, darlin'. Don't cry," he comforted me. "You are home."
Dale Watkins is the reason why there's a picture of people you don't know to illustrate what Liberty Lunch is about and what it means to Austin instead of some hip band caught in their moment. If you're old enough to recognize Commander Cody, you probably don't even pretend to be hip anymore; you just go out to Liberty Lunch because the music is always good there. If you don't know who Commander Cody is, you need to go to the Lunch for a few more years.
The story of Liberty Lunch is the story of Watkins, Frayne, Mikes O'Hara and Guthrie, and J-Net Ward. It's also the tale of Mark, Jane, Steve, Mike, Jason, Martha, Erin -- we don't need no last names! Like being at a family reunion, you're just part of the Lunch bunch. Lucky for us, we get to see them again.