The Dead Club Crawl
A Harrowing Night in Austin's Nightclub Burial Ground
This is no doubt the strangest story I've ever had to write. What makes it even more bizarre is that I'm not even penning it myself, rather I'm passing it along exactly as told to me.
See, a couple of weeks ago, a few of us jaded writer types were sitting at the Hole in the Wall bar. We were just about the only people in the place. One guy, who shall remain anonymous, mumbled something about the rotten state of live music in Austin these days.
"Don't say that!" a voice interjected sharply. "Don't even think that!"
I turned to see who had taken the comment so personally. It was a youngish fellow, probably just out of UT, and his eyes were full of fire -- like he'd just seen the Devil himself at the bottom of his highball glass.
"L-l-look, I know this sounds crazy," he stammered, "but believe me, you don't want to talk that way. That's how it all started for me."
Acknowledging our quizzical looks, the guy went on.
"I was sitting here at this very bar about a week ago, next to some old hippie wearing a faded, full-of-holes Armadillo World Headquarters T-shirt. I'd just come in for happy hour, y'know, just to grab a couple of drinks, and I kinda snorted at the guy's shirt -- told him I'd been here for six months and couldn't figure out why people make such a big deal about Austin music. I said it didn't seem like there was much to be proud of, as far as I was concerned.
"The guy didn't say a word, but he looked pissed. Real pissed. Muttered something under his breath. It got chilly in here -- quick -- so it was about then that I figured maybe it was time for me to finish my drink and head home. So I did -- or tried to, at least!
Our young raconteur took a deep breath.
"When I walked out the door, it wasn't the outside of the Hole in the Wall at all. I mean, it wasn't the inside of the Hole, but somehow, I don't know, I ended up somewhere completely different from where I should have been.
"Whoosh! All of a sudden, this monstrous, 1972 Impala blazes past me and I almost get sent to that big nightclub in the sky. I jumped back, grateful to be alive, and realized I'd almost walked straight into the street. A street that wasn't Guadalupe.
"Instead, I was suddenly standing on Red River at Eighth Street. I turned around, trying to figure out where I was, but where I expected to see Stubb's, there was a large, coffin-shaped door. I looked down at my hands. At this point I thought maybe the car had hit me and this was the closest I was getting to the Pearly Gates.
"Obviously, I was shaken, and after patting myself down, still alive. The sign above the door announced I was at some place called the One Knite. Since I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on, I thought I'd go inside and call my girlfriend.
"'Back so soon?' said the door guy as soon as I stepped inside.
"Back? I'd never seen the place before in my life! I was about to say something when it struck me that the version of 'Crosscut Saw' playing on the jukebox sure sounded live.
"'Say, you ever try the barbecue at Alexander's?' asked the doorman as he dug into a chunk of brisket sopped in sauce. 'Great stuff, but too damn far to drive all the way out to Brodie Lane for.'
"Brodie Lane? Hell, I wish my apartment was that close.
"'You mean people live further out of town?' he shot back. I didn't know if he was pulling my leg or what.
"'Yeah,' he continued, 'it's hot as hell in that place in the summer. Besides, I can see the Nightcrawlers and Storm here every week.'
"I'd never heard of either one myself (and it wasn't exactly frigid in this place either), but I was too confused to say anything. Looking for a phone, I worked my way through the largely unremarkable, L-shaped venue, and while passing the stage, looked up for the first time. Now I knew something wasn't right. I hurried over to the bar and asked this long-haired kid I saw a question I already knew the answer to.
"'Is that Stevie Ray Vaughan?'
"'Sure enough,'" he drawled, sizing me up. 'That's my little brother.'
"He looked puzzled, eyeing me a little closer.
"'Did you go to school with him?'
"I asked him why he thought that.
"'Just wondered how you knew his middle name is all. It's not like he uses it on stage or anything.'
"I don't recall exactly how I mumbled my way out of that, but it's safe to say the exchange and the unreality of the situation had left me reeling. I decided I needed some fresh air and headed out the back door.
"Only as soon I stepped outside, I wasn't outside. I was in another dark, enclosed space. 'What the hell is going on!?' yelled the voice in my head. Trying not to panic, I looked around and found some stairs, making my way up to a narrow balcony. It was another club. Forgetting my predicament for moment, I realized what a sweet setup they had. Ducked past one of the huge box fans hanging from the ceiling, I found myself looking down at a sea of skinheads moshing in front of a band that was screaming about how much they hated themselves.
"From a flier on the wall, I deduced I was at Club Foot, and the year was 1984.
"'I thought Brad First had banned punk rockers from this place!' shouted the guy next to me. I opened my mouth to say something.
"'There was something in the Chronicle where First said he thought they were all vandals and water drinkers,' the guy continued. 'I mean, I came here to see the Damned tonight, but I don't really call them punk since the Black Album came out. But these Offenders guys are really fucking insane!'
"They were, too, and so was the crowd they attracted. From my high vantage point, the sea of hairless heads looked like a snooker tournament on fast-forward. For the moment, my disorientation had been replaced by my bladder instructing me to go downstairs and find a toilet. On my way down, I noticed that despite what appeared to be complete anarchy on the 'dance floor,' a trash can located dead center had so far survived the night's thrashing without knocking it over. 'That's weird,' I thought.
"Downstairs, much to my chagrin -- but at this point, not to my surprise -- the door didn't lead to the restroom. Instead, I came out in a tiny, homespun honky-tonk. In one corner (there was no stage) stood Junior Brown, who I recognized from a CD my roommate had. The place had the comfortable, worn-in feel of a neighborhood bar, where good ol' boys mingled alongside alterna-rockers.
"Since I was starting to come to grips with my predicament, I thought I might relax a while, try to sort things out, and casually asked one of the regulars how long Junior had been on.
"'About three and a half hours,' he answered. Before I could ask him if I'd heard right, a yell came from behind the bar.
"'Hey Junior, you wanna take a break?'
"'Don't need one,' Brown announced from the stage. 'At Henry's, we play all night long.'
"I started looking around for an empty seat so I could enjoy the fireworks when my bladder reminded me how I'd ended up here in the first place. Realizing the odds weren't good on actually ending up in a bathroom, I went ahead and passed through the door marked 'Men' anyway.
"Oof! There I was, tumbling headlong into a thrashing, maniacal crowd of kids in full-on punk rock apparel -- spiked hair, leather jackets, safety pins, and torn T-shirts. As disoriented as I was, however, something seemed familiar. Regaining my footing, I ducked behind the venue's PA, and in doing so, I identified the source of my déjô vu: Turns out I was only a couple feet from where I'd been playing pinball a few nights before!
"Now, instead of pinball, though, a sneering singer with nasal voice was belting out what sounded like an extremely hard, fast version of the theme from Rawhide. From my vantage point, it took a minute for me to realize I had landed on Sixth Street -- in the Ritz.
"The club looked huge, especially with the throng of punks crammed inside. More, I realized, were upstairs, peering down from a balcony they should never have walled shut. A movement at my elbow clued me into the fact I wasn't alone in this little corner of the room. A pretty young girl who couldn't have been more than 15 was cringing next to me, looking less than happy.
"'Who the hell is this?' I yelled.
"'The Dead Kennedys,' she yelled back.
"Shouting in my ear, she told me that she and some friends from high school had driven down from Round Rock to see the Motels at Club Foot. Problem was, it wasn't an all-ages show. We took in the chaos unfolding before us for a moment. Funny. Martha Davis' melodic New Wave band was off-limits thanks to TABC rules, but any kid could attend this display of subversive, politically charged hardcore punk.
"Shaking my head, I turned to say something to my companion just as a wayward slam-dancer flew head over heels out of the mosh pit and crashed into me. Stumbling backwards, I flew right through the door.
"This time, outside truly was outside, and I landed butt-first in a large, fenced-in patio area with picnic tables and a sign announcing this as the beer garden of the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters. Thinking ruefully about that old hippie's T-shirt at the Hole in the Wall, I looked around and noticed another sign nearby declaring 'Private Parking: Trespassers Will Be Violated.' Dusting myself off and trying to blend in, I found an entrance and nonchalantly entered this huge hall. I was starting to get the hang of whatever it was that was happening to me.
"Inside, as out, there were lots of longhairs milling about, mostly college-age, but with a number of older counterculture types and even a few of what I figure would be called 'straights' peppered throughout as well. Enormous paintings and murals adorned the walls. It was a sight to behold.
"Lo and behold, there was none other than Mr. Frank Zappa himself looking down from the stage, intoning a dirty story about pumpkins. His band followed that with a lengthy instrumental, and held the huge crowd enthralled. As everywhere, of course, toward the back there were a few people ignoring the performance and loudly talking amongst themselves.
"'Why'd you even buy a ticket?' I thought, deciding that I'd held my bladder and it was time to try yet another trip to the bathroom.
"Sure enough, as soon as I swung the door open, I found myself in a dark alley, stumbling over garbage and careening into a chain-link fence. Seeing as there was no one around, I did what comes naturally to thousands of fratheads every weekend around the Sixth Street area. Greatly relieved, I started to move on when I caught my foot on the bottom of a filthy old sheet of rotting plywood with dinosaurs on it. Cursing and dancing around on one foot, I was just about to give it a swift kick with my good foot when I heard a voice behind me.
"'It's from the old El Carnivore restaurant,' blurted a scruffy teenager just before doubling over and leaving his liquid dinner on the alley floor. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with 'Cops Suck -- Fuck 'Em' (accompanied by a pornographic drawing of a policeman being 'taken from both ends'), he was too drunk to really register that he'd just gotten sick.
"'I dunno how it got all the way over here,' he slurred, then pulled a can of Lone Star out of the 12-pack nestled under his arm. He offered, so I took one.
"As I took a pull from the can, I almost choked when this horrid screeching started coming from inside the club we were apparently behind. Running inside, I found a fellow named Eugene Chadbourne playing a contraption he called the 'electric rake' -- which is exactly what it seemed to be. Certainly sounded like one, if it's possible for something to sound like a rake.
"As if that weren't enough, he was accompanied by a little 8-year-old girl, and the two alternated between shrill protest anthems and theme songs from Saturday morning cartoons. Now, I was really beginning to wonder whether this whole thing wasn't all some nasty freak-out acid trip (had that old hippie at the Hole dosed me?), at which point ol' Frank Zappa appeared once again. Actually, this time it turned out to be a Zappa look-alike who owned the club.
"The club was called the Cavity, and the owner said that yes, his name was Frank, but I have no idea if he was just fucking with me or what. From what he was saying, I guess the club was around after the drinking age had gone up, 'cause he said they didn't serve liquor. Not the quickest way of making a buck, I figured, but then it didn't look like anyone interested in getting rich would come within 20 miles of this dive anyhow.
"There was no shortage of weirdness in this hole; other kids as young as the girl onstage wandered around with older punk rock types. Some of the punks carried private beer stashes under their arms like the guy out back. Others had already passed out on the floor, but most of the terminal cases had made it into a big room full of old mattresses and other junk that formed the back quarter of the building.
"One nearly stain-free twin-size was starting to look awfully inviting when I heard another horrible scream from the stage. I ran up front to see Chadbourne panicking about his daughter having gotten some shrapnel in her eye after he jammed his rake into the ceiling fan above him. Real smart, I thought, but upon closer inspection, the foreign object revealed itself as dust. I musta gotten some in my eyes, too, because when I stopped rubbing them, I was standing in another room altogether.
"I'd heard the term 'Cosmic Cowboy' before, you know, like referring to Austin music in the Seventies, and now I knew where it came from. I was in a barn-looking sort of place where you could see the stage from just about anywhere (I never realized what a luxury that was before). A field of bumper stickers for places like Jay's Cockpit and Lounge covered the mirror behind the bar; the place turned out to be the Soap Creek Saloon. A cowboy-hatted Billy Bob at the door -- that was actually his name -- kept a vigil over things inside with one eye while watching the cops making a coke bust in the street with the other.
"The place looked and felt like pure unadulterated country, with the requisite Lone Star signs and such effluvia scattered randomly about the untreated wooden walls and railings. The band, however, was anything but country. Drunken men sporting enormous foam penises and calling themselves the 'Uranium Savages' performed a host of R-rated anthems with titles like 'Tit Bars' and 'Massage Parlor Blues.'
"Apparently inspired by the song titles, a guy next to me lamented the fact that he'd missed a Cobras show there a few weeks before. A cute hippie girl had supposedly been taken by the rhythms and stripped down to her socks, writhing around the dance floor to the obvious pleasure of the males present. Instead, this fellow bitched, here he was being entertained by a bunch of big rubbery dicks. Yeah, buddy, life ain't fair. I was starting to develop a real hatred for complainers. From an overheard conversation, I deduced I was out on Bee Caves Road, so, curious to see if there was anything else whatsoever out that far in the Seventies, I stuck my head out the doorway without thinking.
"Naturally, I found myself having yet another 'back door' incident -- what else? -- but this time I didn't disrupt the bluesy, ratty-looking outfit onstage; the Rhythm Rats, from what one audience member was yelling, who were somewhat distracted by an ugly brawl among the mostly biker-dude crowd in the tiny room adorned with license plates.
"From what I gathered, the place was called the Austin Outhouse, and they only served beer -- cheap beer. No frills in this cramped little place, that was for sure. I was beginning to marvel at some of the shortcuts that these club owners came up with to keep their doors open.
"As the ugliness in the audience started approaching true crisis level, one of the Rats had the idea of starting into the old chestnut 'Come on people now, smile on your brother,' and the fight just plain stopped. I'm serious, in seconds everyone was just hugging each other and bonding like crazy. I heard one band member quip something about the 'power of music.' It was right about then that I made my break for the front door -- before the lovefest went sour again, I figured.
"Well, I'm glad I wasn't any drunker than I was when I hit the next place. It looked vaguely Italian -- I later learned it had previously been a pizza parlor -- and took the prize for the most complicated layout I'd attempted to navigate. Stumbling in from the front, I made my way first to the bandstand, in front of which was a floor that had several levels, depending on where you hoped to stand.
"I figured, after some exploring, that the bathrooms were down a set of stairs. The game room lay past a winding path to the back, and another set of stairs led up to what apparently were private quarters. There was a party going full blast up there when I stumbled in; 'Oops, sorry. Just looking for the toilet!'
"The intrigue surrounding the place was as dizzying as roaming around inside. Apparently this was the Rome Inn, and the owners, a Canadian couple, just up and left town one day, leaving the club's cook and dishwasher, C-Boy Parks, to take over the venue's proprietorship! It wasn't hard to come by the Rome's backstory, as the bulk of the patrons were wiping their noses and talking loudly -- it was hard to tell which was flowing faster, whiskey or cocaine.
"Old fliers told me the place once featured people like Rusty Wier, but I recognized the band onstage as the Fabulous Thunderbirds from an ad for this Goin' South CD I saw on Comedy Central. Apparently Stevie Ray hung out here too, and in fact, I was starting to recognize a few patrons from club to club now, despite their changing looks and ages. After a couple of shots -- thank God most of my cash was in old-fashioned bills, not the stupid new 'big-head' ones -- and about 20 minutes of T-Bird rockin', I thought I'd take another whack at finding the doorway home.
"Locating a men's room at last, I opened the door and stepped into a rather large room. I guessed immediately that I was in the legendary Liberty Lunch, even before I turned to see the huge mural on the wall. The first thing I heard from the band onstage was a vituperative declaration from the black singer, who seemed to be calling the mostly white audience everything short of murderers. Great, I thought, I've gone from a biker brawl to a race riot, but the party-happy audience cheered blindly in approval of the band's sentiments, and the singer proceeded into a beat-heavy reggae tune.
"There was a calendar at the front of the packed club, and I saw that the band was the Mighty Diamonds. The bar was beer-only again, but I was sure thirsty! The dudes in line with me said Peter Tosh had been murdered the day before, inspiring the band's rather sour mood. The crowd, however, continued to dance on, oblivious to anything but the beat. I think the thick fog of skunky pot smoke hovering above them may have had something to do with that. The weather in the little beer garden was fair, but inside everyone was sweating profusely -- although without much apparent discomfort.
"All the beer I'd drunk over the evening was not mixing well with the contact high I was getting from the pot smoke, so I decided to move on, and made my way to the Lunch's primitive bathroom. Once inside, I found I had emerged into a rather trashy-looking place with a mural of a huge rat staring down at me from right by the ladies room. Two women came out, and the more diminutive one groused something about, 'No, I am not the Margaret who loves John Cale, and I am going to strangle the next person who asks me about that graffiti! I fucking hate John Cale!'
"There was a lot of fierce slamming going on around the tiny stage area. A young man coated in what looked like spray paint screamed that his band (the Huns, I think) were about to play another song, while the people around me in the back gritted their teeth frantically -- apparently speed was the drug of choice here. It hit me then what made these places seem so much more lively and energetic than places I've been to in modern Austin: Youth. Most of the clubs I'd been reeling through all night existed before Texas raised the drinking age to 21. I think that was sometime in the mid-Eighties.
"And the difference was like night and day. There were wide-eyed students, fresh into their first days away from their parents, exploring new worlds of music, dreaming of starting their own bands, and inquiring if the club needed a good artist to make fliers. Just generally being young and having a great time. The places I'd passed through from more recent times didn't have that same spark, because they just plain couldn't, and I admit I got a little angry knowing that I'd missed all these wonderful experiences. I mean, by the time I was 18, all those clubs were long gone.
"My momentary funk passed after a few minutes, and I noticed one of the bartenders had a Raul's T-shirt on. Of course, I recognized the building as the Texas Showdown. Since I knew I was on the Drag, I thought maybe I could make it back to the Hole in the Wall by heading out the front door.
"No such luck. I burst in through yet another back door, awkwardly located dead in the center of the back of a stage. A fellow with shockingly white hair stared me down as I quickly and made my way off the platform and into an audience full of hippies. For such a potentially trippy place, I thought, the stage area sure was bland -- just a blank white wall with a huge, ugly pipe running across the full length of it. By this point, however, I was really beginning to appreciate the 'make do with what you have' ethic of these places.
"That's when the light show hit. Psychedelic blues were pumping from this guy, Johnny Winter according to some wild-eyed reveler next to me, as weird, floating shapes and bubbling goo were projected across the formerly blank expanse above them, and everybody was tripping and swaying. I knew exactly how they felt. I thought I recognized one of Stevie Ray's backing guys in Winter's band, so I was obviously going over the edge. I grabbed a really far-out Steve Miller Band poster off the wall, telling me I was at the Vulcan Gas Company, and stuffed it in my pocket as I ran for the nearest exit.
"After that, I just bounced from one door to the other. All I remember is a batch of names: Chances, emmajoe's, Steamboat, Split Rail, another Steamboat, two or three places with Clifford Antone onstage, another Soap Creek (or maybe two), Electric Lounge, Texas Tavern, Club Cairo, Blue Flamingo, Chicago House, Sanitarium, Buffalo Gap, Kilimanjaro, Sittin' Bull ... way too many to keep track.
"And then the next thing I knew, I woke up in my own bed. Just like that. But wait?! Had it all been some crazy dream? God knows that's probably what I would have written the whole episode off to had I not crawled out of bed and seen that old Steve Miller poster lying there all crumpled up on my bed. But it couldn't be. The more I thought about it, the more my head hurt -- you can just imagine my hangover -- but I will tell you this: That morning I had a whole new appreciation for live music in Austin."
We stared numbly at the fellow, not knowing quite how to respond. Everything he had said checked out; between the members of our little group, we had been to almost all the venues in his story, and this young dude's descriptions had nailed them all. But things like his night's strange trip didn't really happen, did they? He sighed with the conviction of someone rapidly becoming used to not being believed.
Assuming that somehow this unbelievable tale was in any way true, one guy whispered that if nothing else, this person had at least learned his lesson about whining. It was a safe bet he'd now appreciate whatever form of live musical entertainment was put in front of him.
At that moment, the lights came up and Debbie announced she was throwing everyone out for the night. As usual, we all lingered for a good little while before heading out. I don't know about the others, but this time it wasn't laziness or alcohol that kept me from getting a move on. I just wanted someone else to go out the door first. n