One Two Three Faw!

A brief history of Texas garage rock

Red Krayola
Red Krayola (Photo By Les Blank)

The Other Sixties Garage Gods: Red Krayola

Garage rock is a hard elephant to describe, in the light or in the dark. In some ways, almost everything qualifies. In others, nothing quite fits the bill. During the Sixties, most novice rock & roll groups rehearsed in their parents' dens, leaving the garage for the regulation two-cars-and-a-deep-freeze equipment of the suburbs. With one big exception, one I was lucky enough to witness with my own bulging eyeballs: Red Krayola, the mother of all garage bands.

Their knocked-out take on psychedelic rock felt like it belonged in a place where lawnmowers, gardening utensils, and woodworking tools got stored. This was industrial music before there was such a thing, and the Krayola defined itself with a holy cacophony. One point of pride within the band was that they had never been invited to play the same place twice. This was a group that took audience assault to its demanding extreme. Gleefully.

Even the origins of the aggregation seem surreal. On a beautiful tree-lined street near Rice University in Houston, the Cunningham family had a huge brick home, complete with a two-story garage. Downstairs, an impressive clutter of instruments was scattered everywhere: drums, horns, a vibraphone, guitars, microphones, metal sheets, motorcycles (great for sound effects), and enough amplifiers to fill the nearby Astrodome with sound.

The musicians, bassist Steve Cunningham, guitarist Mayo Thompson, and drummer Rick Barthelme, lived in the upstairs apartment in art school/boho mayhem. Still, this was upper-class Houston; Cunningham's dad was a dentist, his mom a happy homemaker, and being good Catholics, they had a ton of kids. Letting their eldest son express his musical talents out in the garage must have seemed like the proper supportive parental move. Wrong.

The band was heavily invested in the acid-taking, artist-loving community at the liberal University of St. Thomas and attacked rock & roll like a big blank canvas. To have their own garage to do it in -- sort of a mini version of the Velvet Underground in Warhol's Factory -- made all the sense in the world. It was a world they controlled, coming and going and playing whenever the mood struck. It was the outside world that was the problem.

This point was irrevocably driven home when the band needed to make a U-Tote-Em run, and two out of three of them stuck pistols in their waistbands before venturing outdoors. Wow, I thought, these guys aren't kidding.

Boy, was I right.

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