When Rock & Roll Was Dangerous
It used to be that obituaries were for old people: octogenarians read them to see which friends had died. But in what's being touted as the "New Austin," obits are more often documenting the death of a different kind of old friend -- local businesses, restaurants, and nightclubs. The causes of death are variations on a theme: the transformation of Austin into a city everyone wants to do business in has made Austin a city nearly everyone is finding harder to do business in. It's a time when music critics are too busy writing historic overviews to chase trends and where everyone with an opinion is a self-appointed city planner. It's a time when Mayor Kirk Watson and State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander get as much ink as bands such as Fastball or the Butthole Surfers, and who owns your favorite live music venues' property is as important as who's playing there next Friday night. And whether you chalk it up to pre-millennial tension, growth, or just plain ol' greed, Steamboat is clearly the latest victim. After 22 years, Steamboat closes this Sunday night. Unlike the Electric Lounge, the Sixth Street landmark isn't shutting its doors because the owners couldn't pay their bills; nor, like Liberty Lunch, has the city of Austin removed them from municipal property. By all accounts, Steamboat is closing because out-of-towners upped the ante, making the club's landlord an offer too good to refuse. In the months since the announcement of Steamboat's unceremonious eviction, phrases like "carpetbagger" have dominated the debate. As easy as it is to play the blame game, however, Steamboat's closing may just be one of those stories where the "why" is less important than the historical "who, what, and where." Are not the combination of a rare breed of club people (who), live local music (what), and a building on the heart of Sixth Street (where) the keys to Steamboat's legacy?
Steamboat was never Sixth Street's average live music venue. It relied on the musical talent, not the drink specials, and the club's policy of giving the bands full door receipts paid acts what they were worth. Better still, over the last decade the club regularly made $200 paydays to dozens of bands that drew only a handful of people. Manager Danny Crooks' out-of-pocket payments weren't so much charity, but rather investments; without a steady stream of roadshows, Steamboat has had to rely on nurturing local talent. In fact, all it takes is a glance at the club's "Eviction Concert Series" lineup to see a library full of the success stories: Pushmonkey, the Scabs, Chris Duarte, Vallejo, Sister 7, the Sexton Brothers, Soulhat, and David Garza are all so-called "Steamboat" acts and are easily among Austin's most consistent draws Add to this list Christopher Cross, Van Wilks, Joe King Carrasco, Dino Lee, Stephen Doster, Ian Moore, Eric Johnson, and Goudie, or any number of defunct local acts such as Timbuk 3, Johnny Law, the Arc Angels, Breedlove, Sunflower, or the Ugly Americans, and Steamboat's legacy is even more assured.
Over the years, Steamboat has been the home of all-star bands, late-night jams, and yes, even a few cover bands. It's where Stevie Ray Vaughan's In the Beginning was recorded, where Dino Lee took a shotglass to the head, where Gibby Haynes unknowingly relieved himself on an S.R.O. crowd, and where comedians Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison honed their timing. It's also where Joe Rockhead and the Billy White Trio will reunite Sunday night for the club's final show. As much as the music, what makes Steamboat's closing so significant, and its potential new home at the old Lakehills Theatre at South Lamar and Ben White such an inherently sketchy proposition, is the address: 403 E. 6th Street. The aesthetics of the massive limestone walls, hardwood floors, simple sightlines, balconies, and long bars made for more than just impressive architecture. If Liberty Lunch's closing brought with it the notion that live music venues are as much about people as buildings (i.e., the idea that the Lunch's legacy will survive in its new home because the management remains), Steamboat's passing seems to suggest that sometimes clubs are defined best by their physical location. It remains to be seen if Steamboat off Sixth Street, without the tall doors and high ceilings, is really Steamboat.
This obituary attempts to match familiar faces and their stories to the architecture of the only Steamboat Austin knows, documenting yet another venue taken from us before its time. As is said elsewhere in this, the Chronicle's annual Best of Austin issue: "It's tough to say goodbye to inanimate locations that once pulsed and breathed with life as surely as if they had hearts and lungs."
May this eulogy for another Austin live music venue be the last of 1999. Goodbye, old friend.