Sometimes the Bride
Lissa Hattersley greases her own wheel
Outside Mother's Cafe in Hyde Park on a soft May morning, Lissa Hattersley brushed a lock of hair from her eyes and gazed west across Duval Street.
"I've lived in this neighborhood a lot," she said, her thoughtful expression lost in the hazy recall of 1970s Austin, when she sang lead with Greezy Wheels. "I lived on Speedway twice. I lived on Avenue G, I lived on Avenue H, and, let me think ... Avenue D."
Greezy Wheels owned Austin back around 1974, the band a hugely popular fixture on the scene at hard-partying local bars like Soap Creek Saloon. Lumped into the cosmic cowboy gang, the Wheels were neither fish nor fowl, as capable of throwing off a jazzy cover as a 4/4 rocker, yet there they are, forever stamped progressive country. They were considered the Armadillo World Headquarters' house band and among the first in Austin to sign to a major label. They were as vibrant and creative a musical group as existed in Austin in those days.
Yet in a clichéd, old-Austin-hippie sort of way, Greezy Wheels was always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Their tenure with London Records fell apart just as musical trends shifted in the mid-1970s; studio sessions never captured the band's phenomenal live grease. By 1978, the Greezy Wheels were gone, not nearly as celebrated for the glory days they helped develop as, say, Doug Sahm or Willie Nelson, who played to his first hippie audience at a Greezy Armadillo show. The band decorates no walls with awards, nor does it reside in any halls of fame.
Even as lead singer in the band, Hattersley, tall and willowy, stood quietly on the edge of a spotlight that more often shone on Sweet Mary, the band's beloved fiddler, or her brother, Cleve Hattersley, the charismatic founder of the band. Roommates of the era would go out to the One Knite, but not her.
"I'd stay home and clean my room and play my guitar. They were in the center of things, but I was shy, and I didn't know how to blend in."
If she didn't know how to blend in, she certainly learned. Lissa Hattersley is a team player, the girl next door. She's Betty, not Veronica. Mary Ann, not Ginger. And at age 57, her lifetime of music has been realized on her first solo CD, How I Spent My Summer Vacation.
Cocaine, Country Music, and Lone Star Beer
"I was on my way down here, it was Easy Rider days, and I thought: 'Oh my God. My brother's been busted already, and I'm coming to Texas. What am I, crazy?'"
Lissa describes her tumultuous journey from New York to the Lone Star State just after Cleve was arrested for marijuana in a high-profile bust. Lissa joined Greezy Wheels playing mandolin and guitar and kept it rolling when her brother was sent to prison for 11 months. Much fanfare accompanied the release of Cleve, now a hero and a genuine rebel who'd done time for the cause. His first gig out of the pokey in 1974 was a star-studded affair with Billy Joe Shaver in tow. A record contract with London Records followed soon after.
"Part of it was the outlaw thing," recalls Lissa. "We played some country, but ours was like 'cocaine, country music, and good old Lone Star Beer,' as one of our sort-of local hits ['Country Music and Friends'] said. Lone Star loved that we were doing a song about them, but they couldn't really use it in a commercial, so they would support us in an underground kind of way.
"We were more of a psychedelic band than a country band."
"[London Records] took us up to New York and put us up at the Warwick, big label signing parties everywhere. We had producers that knew how to look at their watches, knew how to do the accounting, but knew nothing about actual music production. So in the studio, everybody had a hand on a knob: 'Oh, I want more of this; I want more of that.' The first record sounds like that."
1975's Juz Loves Dem Ol' Greezy Wheels was a charming debut, but it didn't capture their esprit de corps, a common situation for bands from the hinterlands going to the Big City. It did feature a crowd-pleasing collection of their popular tunes, including "Peace in the Valley" and Willie Nelson's "I Never Cared for You." Radio Radials came out on London the following year sporting more favorites on the order of "Feel Like the Devil," "Heartburn (I'm a Menace)," and "Sideman's Party," once again underscoring the band's eclecticism.
Greezy Wheels shifted gears again in the late 1970s. While the early, classic version starred up to 10 people onstage, including Tony Airoldi, Madrille Wilson, Tony Laier, and/or steel player Jimmy Day, the newer stripped-down model featured Chip Dill on bass and Chris Layton on drums, joining Cleve, Lissa, and Sweet Mary. Their mixed-gender format opened the screen door in Austin for bands such as the Damnations and the Belleville Outfit, and their rootsy-jazzy country-rock influence can be heard in the Gourds, Warren Hood & the Hoodlums, Reckless Kelly, and even White Ghost Shivers.
At the heart of Greezy Wheels has always been Cleve Hattersley – bandleader, singer, songwriter, raconteur. It's a family band, as Lissa unequivocally states, but Greezy Wheels is Cleve's band. He's the father figure.
"It's not a democratic society; it doesn't go to vote," she shrugs, understanding as many veteran musicians do when a band operates best in that way. "Cleve decides."
Greezy Wheels didn't spin out of control as much as simply grind to a halt. Not long before the decision to break up in 1978, Layton gave notice. His other band was getting good notices and about to go out on the road. He wanted to go full time.
"You're going to regret this," intones Lissa, recalling her brother's reaction to the drummer. Layton departed and joined Stevie Ray Vaughan's Triple Threat Revue just before it turned into Double Trouble.
"One day, Cleve came in and said, 'We can't do this anymore; let's break up the band.' Shortly thereafter, he and Mary moved to New York because my dad needed help. My dad was a very creative artist, but he was also a little manic depressive, and when my stepmother died, he fell, literally, off the deep end. Cleve and Mary went to New York and started working for the Lone Star Cafe.
"Then I moved to New York."
Passing the Torch
"We were all living in Brooklyn in a four-story brownstone," giggles Lissa. "Nancy – Cleve's ex-wife – was living there with their two kids, so was Cleve and Mary and their daughter, and my manic-depressive father. It should have been a sitcom.
"Mort Cooperman, one of the co-owners of the Lone Star Cafe, hired me on to do their ads for The Village Voice. He wanted it hand-drawn, not card-cut stuff. So I drew the ads, but I also put a band together. I had this great band. I don't know how I managed to get these guys to play with me. I think it's because I could get gigs at the Lone Star."
Lissa's music in New York City continued beyond the jazzier R&B path she'd explored in Texas. Sweet Liss & the Swells landed gigs opening at the Lone Star Cafe for the likes of Dr. John and James Blood Ulmer, "because we were the resident noncountry band."
Cleve and Mary migrated back to the Lone Star State after his career turned even more notorious when Kinky Friedman made Cleve a character in his books. Once in Austin, the couple reformed a version of the old band, calling it St. Greezy's Wheel, and from the Southwest, a tugging began in Lissa's heart.
"I wanted a yard and a car again, so it took me awhile to figure out how to get back to Texas. I'd been in New York from 1981 to 1993. And I missed out on the 1980s here.
"But I'd started working at the School of Visual Arts in New York. If I could have stayed at the School of Visual Arts and lived here, it would have been ideal. I had to give one of them up, so I gave up the school and came back to Austin."
Returning to River City around 1992 was a wholly different experience for Lissa than her first move here. Back then, she'd left behind a childhood in New York State split between divorced parents. She'd grown up singing "in folk groups, madrigal groups, choruses, anything that would have me in high school." The first time she arrived in Austin, she jokes, Greezy Wheels was "one of three bands here." Now, she faced a different Austin with no Greezy.
"We didn't play for a while as a band. I actually put together with Mary three different configurations of little combos, and we held down Wednesdays at the Hole in the Wall for four years. That was fun, but the Hole got sold and became the next version of the Hole in the Wall, and we were out.
"There's a lot of good music in Austin and a lot of competition," she observes. "Kids are younger and have more energy. They have low overheads and can have roommates and do all the stuff we did when we were 20."
Greezy Wheels were rolling at their own quirky pace by 2000, releasing three fine albums since, Millennium Greezy, HipPop, and most recently String Theory. The output allowed Lissa the luxury of making her own record.
"I read Anna Quindlen's last column recently for Newsweek, about passing the torch. None of us want to pass it. It's like, 'No, you can't have it!' But you can share the torch, share the light. I work at a publishing company doing book design and layout. I support my habit.
"And the music can be a fun thing rather than trying to make a living at it.
"I hate the music business. Someone wants to give me a regular night, great! I'll put it together, but I hate the business. The promoting, booking ... I'm not good at it. I'd rather go to the dentist. It has nothing to do with the creation of music! Some people are good at it. I'm not one of them."
Lissa spent 18 months cultivating the songs that became How I Spent My Summer Vacation. In culling them, she paints her own portrait in music, coloring it with songs by the late Dan Del Santo, former bandmate Tony Airoldi, the unheralded Tex Thomas, and writer-musician Ned Sublette. She also re-recorded two songs from the Greezy catalog, "Peace in the Valley" and "Love Is a Crime Scene," both written by brother Cleve, natch.
She expresses satisfaction with Summer Vacation, as well as amazement. One factor in its lengthy gestation was that she could "only afford to record two songs at a time." In the end, friends quite literally took up a collection and presented the funds to her at a party. Like a true friend – the girl next door – she lists them by name inside the CD.
"Music keeps me young, keeps me informed, keeps me happy. My parents passed away without a pot to piss in, either of them. When you have parents like that, you don't want to be like that, destitute. That's why I took a job, so I would be responsible for myself and not have to lean on anybody. For this CD, I wanted to do something for myself, and I wanted to be in charge.
"I'm the 'best friend' girl, and that's okay," smiles Lissa. "That's kind of the way I am in life, and it allows me also to be 'the funny one.' I consider myself an interpreter and observer. I'm okay with sitting and watching what's going on, but sometimes I'm happy being the one doing the talking."