They Lost My Grandmother's Brain
Holy Happy Hour Charlie
Charlie Ribble likes to to tell stories. He also likes drinking and hanging out, and he rarely does any of those three things in moderation. "Let's not make this whole thing about my alcoholism," he warns, "but it's okay if some of it is about my alcoholism."
Yes, Ribble is his real last name, but since he rarely uses it, we won't mention it again. As for Charlie's request, that's also easily taken care of; to say Charlie is just a drunk would be to belittle an odd fellow of the best kind, a man who, even as he closes in on 40, is still the kind of crazy young buck that defines the energy of a music scene. He's a musician (of sorts) himself, but more importantly, he's one of those people who seems to be at every show you attend in every club in town that specializes in rock music -- the louder and rowdier the band, the better.
My initial search for Charlie began at Waterloo Brewing Company, where he is gainfully employed as a cook.
"Oh, he's gotta be at the Flamingo Cantina," reported another food-preparation guru behind the counter. "Hobble are playing, so he should be there by now."
When I arrive at said Sixth Street destination, however, the door person reports that fickle Charlie had already moved on -- reportedly to the 710 Club. At the new Red River nightspot, I'm told I've missed him again.
"Did you try Casino el Camino? Otherwise, he's probably at the Squat Thrust show at Stubb's."
Deciding that following others' instructions is getting me nowhere, I opt instead to try heading him off at the pass via a quick duck into the Red Eyed Fly. No luck, though the doorman says he saw Charlie talking to a bum outside mere moments before. I try Stubb's.
"Um, I don't think anyone's down there," says my Stubb's guide, "but you can check."
None of the six Squat Thrust fans inside are Charlie, but on my way back toward Casino, the Fly guy yells.
"The bum just came back this way without Charlie, so I think you're headed in the right direction!"
The folks at Casino suggest Lovejoy's and by the time I get there, it's last call and I've got more important things to think about than some drunk scenester who sings about losing his Grandma's brains. In fact, it won't be until several days later that I actually find Charlie, aka "Crazy" Charlie, aka "Holy" Charlie, the latter name stemming from the fact that he's been hosting (and usually being the sole performer at) a series of "Holy Happy Hours" most every Thursday for the last few years, at whatever club will take him.
First, he held court at the late, lamented Bates Motel on Sixth Street, but once that venue shut down he began roaming the stages in the area, including Casino el Camino (which is where he recorded a CD that's expected to finally come out sometime in August), the Flamingo Cantina, Black Cat, Red Eyed Fly, and currently, at the new club at 710 Red River. The "holy" tag also comes from the fact that he's indeed the son of a preacher man, hailing from the uncomfortably named Bunger, Texas.
"I'm born and bred in Texas," explains Charlie. "My father was and is a preacher. My grandfather was a preacher before him, in East Texas. I preached sermons when I was eight and nine years old. I stood on a milk crate to see over the pulpit.
"The first sermon I preached was about the crucifixion of Christ, and it was a very morbid sermon. I left the church a long time ago, but I've still got the preacher in me, and that's why I have the need to be around people."
Born in Amarillo, his family moved to San Angelo in 1968, when he was seven years old.
"When I was growing up in San Angelo, the first album I bought was Led Zeppelin [IV], with 'Black Dog' on it," he remembers. "When I heard that song on the radio, I knew I had to play rock & roll."
In San Angelo, it took a while for punk rock to find Charlie, but it finally did via a copy of the Vibrators' "Pure Mania." His love for the music didn't extend to the town's other residents, however, and he often found his musical tastes at odds with those of his friends.
"I got thrown out of a party once for playing [the B-52s'] Wild Planet on 8-track!" he exclaims.
Finally, like generations of other small town Texas cast-outs, Charlie came to Austin in 1991.
"I started writing songs in San Angelo, and there was not a receptive audience. Unless you know ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd covers, they won't listen to you. People told me I should move to Austin."
Coming off a divorce, Charlie says he hit town and immediately immersed himself in the local scene.
"The first band I saw at the Cavity was the Pocket FishRmen -- they just blew me away. Pork was playing at the Cavity a lot, Vampire Bondage club was playing there a lot. God, I saw the G.G. Allin show there!"
Charlie is very defensive of his favorite bands, especially when it comes to Pork.
"If someone told me they were sloppy back then, I would've fought 'em!" he snarls.
There is one band above all others in Charlie's heart, however, and it's unlikely that they'll ever be replaced.
"When I first saw the Motards, I didn't know what the fuck had hit me," he declares. "I saw them at the Blue Flamingo, and I fell in love. It's like falling in love with a girl except you fall in love with a whole band."
The image of Charlie showing up at the home of Johnny Motard and company clutching a bouquet of roses and shyly asking if they want to go spooning is a frightening one, so we'll leave it at that. Charlie insists he's still never seen a better act live. Of the local punk band's reputation as troublemakers during the latter half of last decade, Charlie defends them furiously.
"It was the people who came to see them who broke things and caused trouble. The band just played rock & roll."
He pauses for a minute.
"Of course, John Motard did encourage those people. But it wasn't on purpose! It was just by being John Motard."
Thanks in part to the now-deceased Motards, eventually it wasn't enough for Charlie to just be in front of the stage -- he had to get on it. And other than jumping onstage while a band is playing, setting your hair on fire, and letting people smear cake all over your nearly naked body -- which Charlie has been known to do, most recently at a Honky show at the Hole in the Wall -- there's only one way to earn a spot on stage: You have to put together an act of your own.
Learning some songs on a beat-up old acoustic guitar, he did just that. Charlie loves to talk, and his songs, it could be argued, are basically just an excuse to tell stories. His life experiences include the surrealistically comic, like the time back in Bunger when he watched as his father slipped while trying to baptize a 350-pound woman and got trapped underneath her.
"He got stuck in the Bunghole!" yells a barfly as Charlie tells his tale.
Charley has also had his share of tragedy, like finding out soon after he divorced and moved to Austin that his daughter had been horribly injured in a car accident on the way to school.
"She's the apple of my eye," he declares. "I want you to put that in the article. Her name is Marilyn."
Another somber note, "Servant Girl Annihilator," which though the title sounds like one of those strange old Budgie/Blue Oyster Cult songs with weird titles just for comic relief, is actually based on a true, local horror story, about an Austin fellow in the 1800s who, as the name implies, murdered servant girls.
"The thing about this," explains Charlie, "is that it happened about four years before Jack the Ripper. The Ripper is known and world famous for being the first serial killer, but this Austin case -- this Servant Girl Annihilator -- is undisputably the first serial killer, maybe in the world."
And natural fodder for a song by an exuberant crazy man with an acoustic guitar, it would seem. Regardless, many of Charlie's experiences end up more like the tale of how "They Lost My Grandma's Brain."
"My Grandma had Alzheimer's," says Charlie, reciting the lyrics. "There is no cure at all. She never smoked, never took drugs, never drank alcohol."
When she died, her heirs decided that Grandma's brain could do some good if they could fly it to the people who do medical research. Suffice to say that in the tale of Grandma's brain, there's a shipping mix-up, and medical science loses out in the end.
"So, have you seen Charlie play before?" I ask a smiling spectator at one of Charlie's happy hour sets.
"Oh, yeah, lots of times," comes the reply.
"You're a Holy Happy Hour regular, then?"
"Nope," says the fan. "Actually, I've never come to one of his shows before, I just see him playing on the streets a lot when I'm walking around."
That, in a nutshell, is the sort of feel Charlie brings to the stage -- a Holy Happy Hour show is always a freewheeling affair, Charlie oblivious to any sort of showbiz convention or etiquette. He's particularly comfortable at this Happy Hour; though he plays for tips and even has to pay for most of his own drinks, someone has brought him a pair of shoes after having seen the shape of his old footwear. He tosses out the old pair and slips into the new, after showing off the sole in one of the old shoes, which he fashioned out of one of the city's warning signs at the Second Street /Liberty Lunch wreckage pile.
Besides his passion for music, Charlie does indeed have a love for what some of us euphemistically call "the grape." He learned about the joys of booze early on, from his preacher father. There was a neighborhood bar the two would often pass, and one day young Charlie asked why people liked to drink liquor.
"He told me, 'It makes them feel invulnerable. It makes them feel 10-foot tall and bulletproof,'" remembers Charlie. "Well, I thought, 'That sounds nice.'"
Most people you ask about Charlie will tell you he just may be bulletproof. In fact, he's far less known for his music than he is for his often bizarre and sometimes dangerous antics. Friends from Casino el Camino inform me that at the club's annual party in Llano, Charlie is always the center of attention. For instance, there's the time he decided he wanted to play a song using a large rock in the middle of a stream as his stage.
"He's crossing the river," recalls one witness, "and all of a sudden the current starts taking him away. He manages to make it to the rock, and he starts playing a song. Sure enough, halfway through the song, he falls off the rock and gets dragged down the river -- but he managed to keep the guitar up out of the water!"
Another who was there says that once wasn't enough for Charlie that day.
"I woke up at 5am, and he had waded out there like Jesus Christ, and was singing so loud that they could hear it in Austin, I'm sure.
"Then, at this last year's party, there were a bunch of Jim Beam bottles lying around, and we had to watch him because he kept throwing them in the fire! They were empty of course. Charlie would never throw good booze into a fire."
Today, Charlie jokes that due to his job and advancing age, he doesn't get out much any more. The truth is, of course, that at 38 he still sees more rock shows than most any dozen twentysomethings combined.
"I feel like there's a huge plethora of bands these days," he says, sighing immediately afterward. "Course there's no one who rules in the way the Motards did in their time."
Still, there's plenty of loud, raw music being played on stages in town, mostly on or near Red River, starting a mere six blocks up from Charlie's dump of a home at Red River and Cesar Chavez. Charlie likes a number of them, but it's still his buddies from the old guard that he remains most fiercely devoted to.
"Any band that Jimmy Bradshaw has something to do with, I give a shit about. Squat Thrust and Voltage, both of them."
He also secretly likes Mike Belyea's band Egypt, though he jokes that they only have one fan and it's not him.
"Right now," proclaims Charlie, "Brown Whörnet are the best band in the fucking world. I like Bircho's band Rock Band. Who else? Ignorance Park, Those Peabodys ...
"One more thing I have to show you," says Charlie as the night winds down.
He drags me down the street to the Black Cat, where owner Sasha Sessums testifies to Charlie's "holy" attributes by pouring him a cupful of beer from a 40-ounce Mickey's -- Charlie's Black Cat usual. The lovely Miss Sessums points into the plastic receptacle.
"See how the foam separates into 12 circles? It always does that for Charlie -- only for Charlie."
"Pour me one," I suggest.
She does and eventually -- albeit much slower -- the foam in my beer cup splits into 12 circles as well.
"That's because it came from Charlie's bottle," she announces triumphantly.
Now, that's holiness.
Holy Happy Hour Charlie testifies every Thursday at the 710 Club, 8pm.