Welcome to the Jungle
Inside the Back Room's Hairistocracy, 1988-1995
Never in its 30-plus-year run was it Austin's classiest venue, but the Back Room definitely had balls; in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, it adopted a simple enough name: "The Rock Club." And it was, especially during the era celebrated in these pages, 1988 to 1995. It was the age of Dangerous Toys and Pariah, when Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots were openers and Steve Earle and Jane's Addiction played back-to-back shows the very same night. The game side isn't just where we first saw Dragon's Lair and Golden Tee, but where Bono, Tommy Lee, and Dimebag Darrell headed after sold-out shows across town. And it's where so many would suck down habañero-infused chili with Jim Ramsey, Mark Olivarez, and Jason McMaster every Super Bowl Sunday. This was a place built upon traditions, secret handshakes, and real loyalty not just a club, but a clubhouse. And although many of us stopped paying our dues years ago, many didn't. For the Back Room's loyal army of regulars, it's the center of a lifestyle. Year after year, generations of bands and fans continued to step right up, all the way to Saturday's last hurrah. Austin, say goodbye to "The Rock Club." Another one bites the dust. Andy Langer
It's Dec. 31, 1988, New Year's Eve at the Back Room, and the cock-rock cognoscenti are out in full force. The pagan princes of glam-sleaze outfit Gypsy Rogue have just finished their opening set, and the stage is a flurry of coming and going Marshall cabinets and Charvel guitars. In mere moments, Dangerous Toys will storm the stage. For now, the crowd buzzes and hums as the DJ blasts Guns n' Roses through the PA:
"Welcome to the jungle, we've got fun and games,
We've got everything you want, honey we know the names ...
The comers are dressed to the elevens. It's a sea of snakeskin and fishnet; skirts hiked high and bulging biceps exposed. This hodgepodge of beautiful people basks in black light refracted off the Day Glo-green chain-link fences and ceiling-high mirrors that are the Back Room's motif of the era.
Some are here to get laid. Some are here for the music. Some are here to get their loads on. I'm here for all three.
"We are the people that can find, whatever you may need,
If you got the money, honey, we've got your disease ...
Anticipation is off the charts. Tonight's headliner is Dangerous Toys, Austin's own entry into the building post-G'N'R rock derby. A publishing rep signed the Toys backstage here at SXSW in March. They've spent most of summer and fall in Los Angeles recording their debut for Columbia. Tonight is their first show in almost six months.
"You're a very sexy girl, very hard to please,
You can taste the bright lights but you won't get them for free ...
These are the halcyon days for the Back Room, the stuff of legend. Of spandex and strippers. Of cocaine and rattlesnake cowboy boots. Of backstage decadence and debauchery worthy of Behind the Music. Tales of 36-fret guitars, of really, really kickass hair. It was a time of booze-fueled, blues-fused hard rock, amplified Marshall, of course into a sound system so severe it made your testicles tingle.
"In the jungle, welcome to the Jungle
Watch it bring you to your ...
Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees, please.
The only Eighties metal cliché missing here is spandex, at least on the men. Then again, as the occasion signals, we're only 365 days from sticking a fork in the decade. Spandex is pretty much dead by now ("you're so 1983"), giving way to ripped, acid-washed 501s or that evergreen metal mainstay, leather.
The Back Room's new matching $5,000 (each) Intellibeams creep and crawl around the wall and ceilings and over the crowd, like a police helicopter searching for a fleeing fugitive, or perhaps the skylight at a red carpet soiree. It feels a lot like that tonight.
"Welcome to the Jungle, we take it day by day.
You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play ...
Stagehands continue to strike Rogue's gear, making way for the Toys' new stage setup purchased with some of that Columbia fat cash. A seemingly interminable row of Anvil-cased Marshall heads and cabinets line the back perimeter.
The club goes dark, the DJ silent, and all that's left is anticipation, hanging even thicker now. Anticipation of a new year. Anticipation of how high up the rock-star ladder this ragtag team of Texans can climb. On some level, it's much more primal and guttural: anticipation of the onslaught of sound and lights mere moments away, the audiovisual overload of the imminent Rock Show.
"And when you're high you never, ever wanna come down,
So down ... so down ... so down ... Yeah!"
Four-fifths of Dangerous Toys dart from the darkness and become visible onstage. Guitarist Scott Dalhover, bassist Mike Watson, drummer Mark Geary, and "new guy" Danny Aaron launch into signature opener "Start the Party."
Four bars in, vocalist Jason McMaster emerges from the recesses of backstage in mirrored shades. He is the Back Room's own golden god, a general returning from the wars of the Western shore, wiser and stronger for the battles. The one, rightful ruler of the East Riverside Hairistocracy.
The Toys tear through a 75-minute set, pausing only for the briefest of chatter about their El-Lay adventures and to remind the crowd how much they are loved. And, of course, to ring in the New Year in a sea of confetti and flying corks and ham-handed, slobbery smooches. After midnight, they sprint to the finish with new songs from the forthcoming record, and old crowd favorites that are not, a proper sampling of this band on the cusp.
Next, presumably, comes the encore, as the crowd demands.
"DANGE ... russ ... TOYS!
DANGE ... russ ... TOYS!
DANGE ... russ ... TOYS!
DANGE ... russ ... TOYS!"
Toys' song selection for the encore is peculiar and entirely appropriate. Dalhover hits the instantly familiar, delay-rich riff that begins Appetite for Destruction, and "Jungle" springs to life, absent irony, wink, or nudge. McMaster's reddish hair and ample vocal talents are the spitting image of Axl. Dalhover reinvents Slash's rather simple 12-bar solo as sweeping arpeggios. The otherwise note-for-note rendering ends with a single, subtle personalization:
"In the jungle, welcome to the jungle ...
It's gonna bring you down, Back Room!"
The show ends two songs later, and anticipation gives way to afterglow. But even that is still rooted in a sense of what's next. Toys' eponymous debut LP drops in four months. By summer, breakthrough single "Scared" is No. 1 with a bullet on MTV's daily countdown, and Toys are touring the world with the Rock Elite. By Christmas 1989, Dangerous Toys will have sold 400,000 records.
But for now, it's Jan. 1, and when the sweaty, throbbing throng exits the Back Room between 1:30 and 2am, almost no one will pay heed to the 8-by-10-inch publicity photo of a relatively unknown band called Jane's Addiction. However, someone has Sharpied a menacing penis onto the Nothing's Shocking poster that hangs at the doorway.
People's memories of those Back Room glory days, the late Eighties and early Nineties, almost universally come down to two things: the scene of Dangerous Toys, Pariah, and the dozens of other local bands that called the club home; and the roadshows. The conversation here invariably shifts to Jim Ramsey, the notorious promoter who booked the club between 1986 and 1993. The refrain is always similar: "Whatever you thought of Ramsey, he made his mark there."
Ramsey made his mark on the Austin music scene long before setting foot in the Back Room. He opened Club Foot and put a bevy of talent, including U2, on its stage. He almost single-handedly willed South Park Meadows into existence alongside landowner Abel Theriot; the Police's landmark 1983 stop was but one of his shows. He was part of the legendary "Ivory Tower" consortium that ruled the scene from the One Texas Center high-rise at South First and Barton Springs, built on the very foundation of the Armadillo. This loose-knit group included promoter legends Tim O'Connor and French Smith, omnipresent band manager Marc Proct, ticket man Brad Meyer (Star Tickets), and Steve Hauser, the Pace Concerts prodigy who went on to become a vice-president at William Morris Nashville. Save Liberty Lunch and niche venues likes Antone's and the Cactus Cafe, they pretty much ran the town.
Ramsey was the Al Swearengen of the Back Room, not above pulling his (metaphorical) knife to get his way. Brash and cocky, Ramsey was capable of spewing venom and bile with the best/worst of them. To be sure, he was a forceful personality, but one who did seem to have a sense of the camp's bigger purpose, for which he probably didn't get enough credit. People remember Ramsey consistently placing in "Worst Thing to Happen to Austin Music" at the annual Austin Music Awards. They forget, or never knew, how many bands he helped along the way.
I went to work for Ramsey for the first time a week after that New Year's Eve Toys show, a week before the Jane's Addiction show of January 13, 1989. My speed-metal group Zero Tolerance was then playing the club, and bar manager Mark Olivarez would hire me to spin records on nights the harder bands were playing (my late-night KTSB metal show focused on bands like Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, et al, more marginal, less sexy fare for the club at the time). I told Ramsey he was crazy to bring Jane's Addiction to town without hanging fliers around campus. He saw the light, and we turned away 500 people that night.
Before long, I was hanging fliers for most roadshows around campus in exchange for tickets. Over the ensuing months, that parlay grew exponentially. I DJed at the club, not just on metal nights, but eventually every night. I laid out the weekly Chronicle ad. I set up flea markets, battles of the bands, listening parties, and the like.
Soon enough I was more or less booking the local talent at the Back Room, as Ramsey refocused his attention on bigger fish at City Coliseum, the Opry House, and the whopper of them all, Spring Break on South Padre Island. He started cutting me in on profits from his bigger shows. Between my weekly KUT gig covering City Council and all these rock & roll money streams, I was making pretty good money for a guy who drank too much, partied too much, and woke up around whenever. By summer 1990, when we finally made our stand at Padre, I had dropped out of UT and was pretty much living in Ramsey's spare bedroom. Who needs a degree, I thought, when you can make such good coin without actually working?
Ever the gunslinger, Ramsey was the perfect henchman for owner Ronnie Roark's perfect-storm business model. We could overpay for talent, undercharge for tickets even lose money at the door as long as we sold enough at the bar, which in turn ended up with liquored-up patrons pounding their quarters into the pool tables. The Door. The Bar. The Games. Three distinct yet intertwined revenue streams. And as long as two were profitable, we were golden.
That's why we had so many roadshows at the Back Room, and it's the reason why people have so many "way back when" stories that feature the likes of Maynard Keenan (Tool), Tom Morello, Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone), Perry Farrell, Joey Ramone, Chris Cornell, and Layne Staley. Depending on who you ask, the stories tend to take on their own personality, due to both embellishment and the general, ahem, fuzziness of memories around that time.
Take the October 1991 Pearl Jam show, the third date of the Ten tour. Eddie Vedder did his first "monkey man" kick, climbing onto one of the sprinkler-system pipes, got his hair caught in one of the sprayers, and eventually freed himself to finish the show. Andy Langer and I stood next to each other start to finish, sure at that moment we'd be doused by the sprinklers. We still agree it's interesting how the confirmed paid attendance was less than 50, but today hundreds of people swear they were there.
What I remember with this show, as with most, is the little stuff. Here, it's the introverted Vedder sitting in a backstage corner after the show, obviously uncomfortable with well-wishers' comings and goings, staring at his feet while engaged in an hourlong conversation with Langer.
My favorite star-fucker story was back in 1988, interviewing Mother Love Bone, including future Pearl Jammers Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who had just opened for Dogs D'Amour. I relaxed with band members backstage as vocalist Andrew Wood bounced in and out of the room at will, seemingly on an ADHD bender. The rest of the band remained (relatively) thoughtful and focused, even as three "band-aids" in pastel cotton sundresses and not much else bathed themselves around a 5-gallon watercooler as they passed around a huge Ziploc Baggie of magic mushrooms. Every time I've run into Jeff and/or Stone in the last 18 years, they always remember that night. How couldn't they?
Many of my most vivid memories don't have anything to do with metal, like the night Bill Clinton was elected in Nov. 1992, when Mary's Danish played a free show for 1,000 people. We left the big-screen projector TV on during the show to watch the election returns.
Or the night I booked Glass Eye goof project Monniker to open for Porcelain Grind. I loved these little experiments. Most failed, like the time I put on the fledgling Hollywood Indians, fronted by a doe-eyed kid named Ethan Azarian, to open a 24-7 Spyz show. I hoped to exploit the feud the Indians had fueled via West Campus posters with the "Chornicle."
No one cared. Truthfully, these examples aren't all that germane to the era. They are personal indulgences. Afterthoughts. Asterisks.
In that day and age, it really was about the metal. It was Pantera's Phil Anselmo allegedly pistol-whipping a stripper with his penis, for seemingly no good reason talk about a vulgar display of power or paunchy Quiet Riot singer Kevin DuBrow, beset by pattern baldness, berating the crew during soundcheck: "While we're young!" Funny for so many reasons.
People can tell you what drugs were purchased and from whom, though not on the record by Layne Staley, Dave Navarro, and Scott Weiland. The list goes on and on and on.
Pariah was the right band at the wrong time. When they busted out on the Back Room scene in 1988, they quickly established themselves as the Dangerous Toys' heir apparent. They could sell out the club on their own. They looked good, sounded great, and were the Back Room's undisputed "next big thing." But by the time their Geffen debut finally came out in 1993, it was a whole new world.
In October 1992, I traveled to L.A.'s Conway Studios with Pariah to document the festivities for a Chronicle music feature. During my two days with the band, I met legendary A&R rep Tom Zutaut (who signed Guns n' Roses and Tesla) and producer Tom Werman (Metallica, Mötley Crüe).
The handling of Pariah was problematic all along. Throughout 1988, 1989, and 1990, the group built a relentless following among the Texas underground. Once Dangerous Toys got signed, everyone wondered when Pariah would follow suit. Some feared that lightning wouldn't strike twice for Austin, but it did in summer 1991, even as Geffen prepared for the release of Nirvana's Nevermind. The Seattle trio's album came out that September, and everything changed.
"Things were changing, and we were going with the flow," recalls Pariah singer David Derrick. "We were playing whatever we thought was cool and weren't afraid to jump whatever bandwagon. We were young and wanted to impress the label types. But, yeah, the scene was definitely swaying off from the hair bands as they called 'em. Called us."
But Pariah weren't hacks. They had boatloads of songwriting talent. But taking their new songs with the old, their repertoire was all over the road. By the time Pariah made it into the studio, there was no clear consensus about what to do with them. The band had grown musically and had written great songs but had been shelved to avoid competing with the Gunners' Use Your Illusion double-dip.
Nobody could even seem to agree if Pariah was a hair band or not. One thing that stands out more than anything is Zutaut in the studio, decreeing from on high, "You are not a Lollapalooza band."
By the time the time was right, it was all wrong, and To Mock a Killingbird arrived much too late, more or less stillborn in summer 1993.
One year after Killingbird finally did see the light of day, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was the most talked-about film on the big screen. Watching onetime Law & Order guest star Samuel L. Jackson opine how the TV business worked, you couldn't help but think of Pariah.
Paraphrasing, Jackson noted that some pilots become TV series while others become nothing. Through no fault of its own, To Mock A Killingbird was a pilot that became nothing.
Hellbent for Flannel
A lot of people remember Kurt Cobain as the assassin of All Things Metal, and there is a sliver (pardon the pun) of truth there. Nirvana certainly captured the cultural zeitgeist when Nevermind dropped in late 1991, though not really until "Smells Like Teen Spirit" went Top 10 in early 1992. Kurt became the Anti-Axl, rejecting all the notions of rock-star excess and extravagance G'N'R came to symbolize.
But the truth is that hard rock and metal were being "Seattle-ized" long before Nevermind. First came the aforementioned Jane's Addiction show in January 1989. Later that year was a Voivod, Soundgarden, and Faith No More triple-header. In 1990, it was Alice in Chains busting on the scene with Facelift. Even in early 1991, Smashing Pumpkins' Gish arrived months before Nirvana or Pearl Jam started to break big.
Accordingly, a lot of the Back Room's next wave of local headliners Near Dark, Porcelain Grind, and Hush Scarlett among them demonstrated decidedly alt-rock leanings. In the past, you might have heard a Montrose or Thin Lizzy cover to close out a Friday-night set. By then it was more common to hear "Mountain Song" or "Pigs in Zen." And in 1992, right on schedule, the Back Room had its first bona fide local "grunge" headliner in Dig, who would eventually change their name to Seed and go on to release a record on Giant. In 1994, they enjoyed a respectable 15 minutes on MTV's Alternative Nation.
Reflecting on the turn of that decade, there was no longer a single "metal" sound than there was a single "Seattle" sound that killed it. Wasn't, for instance, Queensrÿche from Seattle?
When Alice in Chains played the Back Room in 1990, they opened for Extreme. Perhaps Guns n' Roses themselves took the first steps toward making things less posed and fake. Watch the difference in the way Guns n' Roses carries itself between first video "Welcome to the Jungle" (spandex, poofy hair) and true breakthrough "Sweet Child o' Mine" (not so much). By then, links to the glam-metal era of Poison and Cinderella were fading fast; even the mighty Crüe had ditched the make-up.
And what about Pantera? They were without peer among the poofy-hair set. But with a new singer and harder sound, they reinvented themselves and prospered among the first tier of Nineties aggro-metal bands.
If there was a single vibe that resonated with these disparate bands on the rise, it was a rejection of the self-importance that came to typify Eighties metal. Rock-star indulgences except, of course, drugs became contrived and were kicked to the curb by the so-called "Generation X."
And, don't forget, there was another strain of metal with an even bigger Nineties influence. Metallica's self-titled fifth record, known ever after as the Black Album, was released two weeks before Nevermind. The Bay area band had enjoyed decent success with 1986's Master of Puppets and 1988's ...And Justice for All, but with "Enter Sandman" all over MTV's pre-TRL countdown before "Smells Like Teen Spirit," we should note Metallica redefined metal and took it into the mainstream in ways even Judas Priest and Iron Maiden hadn't.
The highly stylized stripe of metal rooted in partying and getting laid and looking good was on its way out. Ugly and loud as hell, Metallica had been battling those pretty-boy notions for a decade, finally and ironically becoming a multiplatinum phenomenon Metallica has now sold more than 20 million copies worldwide just as Nirvana did.
In the end, what gets lost in hindsight is this overlapping period where metal was on the decline and alt-rock was on the upswing. But the two certainly co-existed, co-mingled, cross-pollinated, and overlapped, for a time anyway, at the Back Room.
The Song Remains the Same
What's interesting about the Back Room's heyday, roughly from Toys' 1988 signing to Ramsey's 1993 ouster, is that everyone who ran the show thereafter was around back in the day. Mark Olivarez was already running the bar when he took on the booking. Eventually, as general manager, he ceded those duties to Mike "Truth" Boudreaux, former head of security. Phil Nitch, the guy with the pirate fetish who succeeded Boudreaux as booking agent, ran sound back then. And when Olivarez moved up through the Roark organization, he promoted yet another long-hauler, Sean McCarthy, to GM.
My own exit from the Back Room was rather inauspicious. When Olivarez left the club and briefly moved to Houston, he was replaced by Red Rose manager "R.T.," who let me know my services were no longer "requested." Ramsey said I could keep working for his other shows. It was personal by then, so I just took my toys and left the sandbox, focusing on my K-NACK radio gig and heading back to school to finish my degree.
When Olivarez came back to Austin, he and I mended fences, and I did a little DJing where I worked alongside onetime Big Boy/Junkyarder Chris Gates, then running sound and some advertising layout, although Photoshop's arrival rendered my skills obsolete. I only re-entered the club for a month, but at least we ended on a positive note.
One of the last shows I booked into the Back Room was, oddly, Spoon. Olivarez was back running the club, and my K-NACK radio show Homegroan had spawned a weekly live-music showcase, bouncing from West Campus pizza dive Zeppoli's to Antone's on Guadalupe, Babe's on Sixth, Liberty Lunch, Electric Lounge, and the Back Room.
I did five weeks there, including that Spoon show featuring original bassist Andie Maguire. While I doubt anyone regards that show as any kind of high point in Spoon's career, ever, the Back Room appears twice as often in the Britt Daniel lyrical canon ("The Minor Tough," "Anything You Want") as the Electric Lounge ("Waiting for the Kid to Come Out").
I'm not sure how history will remember the Back Room. As a hard-rock proving ground, the club produced seven major-label contenders in 14 years. Besides the Toys and Pariah, Johnny Law and Lance Keltner were signed around the same time. Dig/Seed followed in 1994, Unloco in 1999, and Ritalin/Riddlin' Kids in 2000. The tally grows to eight if you count Junkyard, who played the Back Room and had Austin ties (Gates) but didn't exactly come up there. Hard to imagine any other local clubs with such a solid batting average over the last 30 years.
Even "getting signed" ain't what it used to be. Nowadays, it's nothing to record and release your own stuff, promote it on the Internet, and build your own world, but back then, it was the silver chalice. Like so much of the dust kicked up today, the rush of a major-label deal is another arcane notion that requires a lot of explaining to dispel the anachronism.
Here's the thing. For a place filled with so many cool people, which on any given night had the coolest show in town, the Back Room was never cool. Not really. It was always the seedy club on the wrong side of I-35 with the wrong kind of music. In reality, the club had to try thrice as hard to overcome those preconceptions; we hired extra security so that unescorted females never had to walk to their cars alone. Forget that it was an oasis where you could see so many of the day's up-and-comers for a ridiculously cheap ticket, and that, for this brief moment, it ran neck-and-neck with Liberty Lunch for the coolest shows in town.
In a world where perception equals reality, I suppose, that's how history will remember the Back Room. Not quite larger than life, not quite getting its due, just that marginalized metal club over in the barrio. That will hereafter be the Back Room's eternal albatross, but those of us who were there know different.