The Lizards of Aus
'Never an Adult Moment' With Austin's Veteran Bluegrass Pranksters
There're a lot worse things a group of middle-aged men could be doing than sitting around singing funny songs. Doing just that has kept the members of the Austin Lounge Lizards from having to resort to petty larceny, racketeering, or even investment banking, much to the the relief of those near and dear to them. Instead, these crazy bluegrass musicians have managed to stay sane for just over 20 years now by peddling their musical wares -- of a kind otherwise almost nonexistent today -- to a surprisingly eager public.
What differentiates the "Austin" Lounge Lizards from John Lurie's distinctly less funny New York jazz ensemble -- among other things -- is a sense of humor. 'Twasn't always that way. Co-founders and main songwriters Hank Card and Conrad Deisler knew each other in college, where they first played together in a band whose brand of country music was then described as progressive.
"Which means we played songs off of Jerry Jeff albums," cracks Diesler.
If they were still doing the same thing now, the band points out, it would be regressive, so they started writing their own songs. Turns out that was a good idea, because after losing track of each other and then both separately ending up in Austin together, it gave them a head start on what they'd soon become.
"At first," explains Deisler, "Tom Pittman and I played in a country band called the Family Traditions, playing dance music, the obligatory 'Cotton Eyed Joe.' That was our 'Saturday night money.' We'd find ourselves sitting on Hank's porch on other nights, sitting and singing songs we liked, and when we added Tom Ellis on bass, it seemed natural to start playing out where the beer would be free."
That was way back in January 1980, at the tail end of Austin's "Cosmic Cowboy" phase, well before the ways of the big city began creeping in. Porches were still places where you played music (rather than a good spot for your landlord to set his "For Sale" sign), and driving around with your car window down was always sure to lead you to the scene of some picking and grinning in short order. Bassist Ellis was the first to leave the act, starting a band tradition in an otherwise steady lineup. The Lizards collapse into argument over the details of his departure.
"Tom was the smartest of the bunch, so he quit after like a year," snaps Card.
"No, he fired us!" Deisler shoots back.
"Laid us off, I prefer to think," offers Pittman.
"At least he let us take the name!" Card intones.
"So, like a headless chicken," Pittman concludes, "we lumbered on with our career."
Guitar builder Michael Stevens took over the bass role for the next few years, as the band got rolling. In 1982, they entered the vaunted Kerrville Bluegrass Band Competition and "failed miserably." The following year, they took it upon themselves to add a mandolin player by the name of Paul Sweeney.
"And we won," smiles Pittman. "We took that as an omen we needed a mandolin player."
At this point, they were already irreverent enough to cause a few gasps among the bluegrass purists in their audience, though the band had still not found their true identity as the class clowns of Austin. Their winning performance at Kerrville had consisted of a cover of Sheb Wooley's novelty hit "Purple People Eater," an instrumental number, and most notably, the Card/Deisler original, "The War Between the States." That last was a mock-sober, highly anachronistic look at the Civil War from the point of view of a Southern gentleman named Buford Julep who lost everything in the conflagration. After that performance, the serious stuff started disappearing.
"It's pretty hard when you're a brand-new band to play originals all night," says Pittman. "Originally, we added a few country and bluegrass chestnuts, Johnny Horton songs. But as we moved along, we got a regular Tuesday night residency at Maggie Mae's, which at the time was trying to have a regular Irish pub atmosphere, or English pub -- a pub of some sort. With a regular gig, we started getting a regular clientele, and they were responding better to our originals."
The band had already completed an album's worth of material before Kerrville, which they re-recorded and released as their debut in 1984 on Workshop Records, then home to Robert Earl Keen. Creatures From the Black Saloon has remained in print ever since on various labels, and holds up today as a mix of band classics like the bittersweet country tunes "Hot Tubs of Tears" and "The Car Hank Died In" (the album's back cover featuring a picture of the car Junior Brown was living in at the time!), and dated novelties like the Devo takeoff "Kool Whip" and not one but two songs about Texas towns with funny names, "Pflugerville" and "Anahuac." The latter song is recommended to fans of regressive country artists singing about sniffing airplane glue.
The album ended up finding its way to some interesting places, like Santa Cruz, California, where a local proto-Americana radio station played it heavily. When the band played the Strawberry Festival there in 1987, they were astonished to find people wearing their T-shirts and singing along.
"We were wondering, 'Should we do a song like "Pflugerville" in California?'" muses Pittman. "We thought, 'Naaahhh!' and then people were requesting it!"
Though the Lizards say they've rarely had trouble moving forward even though the gist of their act is a humorous one, they admit that back in the late Eighties they were tempted to have a separate repertoire that might be more traditional in order to keep a sort of dual identity. That was voted down as it became apparent the band really had no need to be anything other than what it was.
One event that underscored the band's resistance in tempering their sense of humor came when the Lizards were invited to do a showcase for the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual convention in Kentucky in 1991 -- where everyone who was anyone in the bluegrass biz was in attendance. The band considered holding back on the funny stuff, then ended up performing what is arguably their most popular tune to date, "Jesus Loves Me (But He Can't Stand You)," as well as a version of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon classic, "Brain Damage."
"Somebody told us they saw Doyle Lawson, the famous bluegrass gospel singer, get up and leave," laughs Card. "On the other hand, there were a lot of guys saying, 'I wish I could do that! We're so defined by what we're told to play!'"
"We weren't the instant hit of the gathering," chuckles Deisler, "but there were those who sought us out, and that led to great things for our career."
The Lizards' second album, Highway Cafe of the Damned, found the band signed to rising young Austin indie Watermelon Records, which also re-released Black Saloon. Though today most people associate Watermelon with tales of bankruptcy and lawsuits, in those days, the label was a well-respected local endeavor noted for its impeccable taste in country, folk, and roots acts.
Watermelon proved a good home for the band, and after several years, the group took a step up and recorded two albums -- Lizard Vision and Paint Me on Velvet -- for the even more well-respected Flying Fish label. Unfortunately, label founder Bruce Kaplin died after the first album's release, at which point Flying Fish, according to the band, became a rudderless ship.
"We were trying to establish to the world that we were not just a local Austin act," explains Pittman, "and getting on a major label seemed like a good way to go about that. Then they basically passed out of existence for our purposes, and Watermelon was on the way up at that time."
As the Nineties progressed, doors continued opening for the group. There were a few more bassist/mandolin changes, but things kept rolling along, with the band reaching its peak of some 150 gigs in 1994.
"We have a couple of rules," observes current bassist Boo Resnick. "One is to never play a place called Juanita's -- we played two and they were both disasters. The second is never play a place with a number in the name. Like if you see a place called 'Ed's 666,' don't take the gig!"
In fact, the Lounge Lizards have learned a number of such lessons over their hard-touring two decades in existence, largely from the gigs they call "The Bottom 10." Take for instance the one at Ten Years After in Hickory, North Carolina, where people still take tobacco as a religious act. The Lizards refer to that one as the 'You Suck!' gig, after a drunk repeated said phrase for a set and a half before he was thrown out.
"To be fair to him," admits Card, "everyone else in the crowd thought we sucked too."
Even worse was a show in front of the Cattle Breeders Association Union.
"We played five or six songs and got no reaction at all," recalls Pittman. "Not applause, not booing, not any recognition we were even there. Finally, we realized we'd forgotten to turn the main speakers on! So we turned on the main speakers -- and still got the same thing!"
"There have been a lot more good gigs than bad ones," says Resnick, "but those don't make for good stories. What're you gonna say? 'People liked us, nobody got hurt'?"
People do like them, though, more and more. And nobody's been getting hurt, either, as the band's résumé keeps improving; the Lizards recently played the Kennedy Center, and now they typically play higher-end venues like concert halls, civic programs, and such.
"The way you're perceived has a lot to do with the venues you play, and vice versa," Resnick points out.
Back on the recording front, the band returned to Watermelon for one album, 1995's Small Minds, and the Live Bait EP in 1996. Live Bait marked the band's tentative step in a more political direction, opening with an expanded version of Lee Goland's "Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs," followed by their own "Gingrich the Newt." Not only did this maneuver downplay the Lizards' unique qualities, lumping them in with interchangeable lefty folkie acts like the Foremen, it was also somewhat of an uncomfortable move in that it's difficult to picture these guys hating anyone -- even Newt Gingrich.
Keep in mind, the band's most venomous attack up to this point was from Paint Me on Velvet, "Put the Oak Ridge Boys in the Slammer," which accused the basso-if-not-particularly-profundo band of being "musi-criminals on the loose, like Kenny, Bocephus, and Lee [Greenwood]." Pittman reveals that yes, the Live Bait EP was intended as a jester's hat in the political ring, at the request of Watermelon since it was an election year.
In the meantime, because of their experiences with Workshop Records, the Lizards learned that they couldn't afford to save money on lawyers, so they had an "ironclad" contract with Watermelon, including a reversion clause.
"It's not enough to say, 'You need to pay royalties and keep things in print,'" explains Pittman. "You've got to define what paying royalties means and at what point you can say they weren't paid. All of that was defined, it was really ironbound, and they still dragged their feet for 10 months trying to deny they had violated the contract."
"The whole thing's a shame," sighs Resnick, "because Watermelon was a good label [before its financial problems]. However, we have very active sales at every show, and it's essential that we have our product on demand, and we weren't getting it. We were losing a lot of money because we didn't have product to sell -- the royalties were just gravy."
Watermelon never admitted guilt in the matter, but through their contract, the band was able to show their biggest label yet, the Lawrence Welk family-owned Sugar Hill Records, that they were in the clear to move on. It's been smooth sailing since, with the band releasing Employee of the Month for the North Carolina label in 1998, and in keeping with their schedule of an album more or less every two years, the current being Never an Adult Moment. Last year, Sugar Hill reissued the Lizards' entire catalog (see "Pickin' and Chucklin'," below): seven LPs and one EP.
"My grandfather would be so happy!" proclaims Card.
"We're pretty much a low-maintenance, sure-fire moneymaker," says Pittman of the easygoing relationship between the Lizards and Sugar Hill. "We always make our advance back in the first period, and we produce ourselves. We pretty much just send them a tape and they trust us -- or maybe we're just so late getting the tapes in they don't have time to complain."
The year 2000 and Never an Adult Moment find the band in peak form, with originals ranging from "The Me I Used to Be" (a ringer for Homer & Jethro's "Oh, That's Miserable!") to possibly their most bizarre and most defining moment yet, "The Illusion Travels by Stock Car," a what-if tale of surrealist Luis Buñuel directing the life story of NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
The band has also expanded on its habit of using their shows and albums to show off the music of like-minded folks, making them a sort of comedy-bluegrass Three Dog Night. Along with Goland's "Teenage Welfare Mothers," their albums have showcased Emily Kaitz' "Shallow End of the Gene Pool" and Terry Allen's "Truckload of Art," and Never an Adult Moment introduces Lizard fans to tunes from Austin piano man Dick Price ("Hillbillies in a Haunted House"), Lex Brown ("Big Ol' Bone"), and comedy troupe the Vestibules ("Grunge Song").
From here on, it's all "just gravy" according to the band. The Lizards even claim to have fans beyond planet Earth, believe it or not! Astronaut Pam Melroy has not only declared herself a fan, but, in 1999, invited the band to attend the launch of her debut flight on the space shuttle.
They couldn't make it, but Melroy plans to prove their music as truly "out of this world" by taking six Lizards CDs on her next flight, scheduled for Oct. 4. Playing funny songs, traveling the world, even having your music literally orbiting the globe. Yep, there's definitely worse things a group of middle-aged guys could be doing.