The Right Snuff
Who is Artly Snuff, and why does he matter?
On December 30, 2010, with less than 48 hours in the year, Artly Snuff slowed to make a U-turn while driving his car near the Arboretum. A pickup truck loaded with golf carts slammed into the back of his Toyota, spun it around, and smacked it again. The machine known as the "jaws of life" extracted Snuff, screaming.
He sustained intense skeletal damage that left him in the ICU, on life support part of that time. Punctured lungs, 12 broken ribs, and a fractured left scapula – injuries notoriously painful and hard to treat because the bones cannot be set. Snuff spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, then moved to Texas NeuroRehab Center, where his rather miraculous recovery began. His initial prognosis had been 60/40; when he came home, he didn't remember his house.
Accidents happen. Nothing makes Snuff's injuries any more or less tragic than the next fatal accident or the countless ones that have come before. And like so many accident victims, he's been forced out of work. Money from the upcoming fundraiser at Threadgill's on Saturday, July 9, will be the first income he's seen in a year. To suggest the hospital bills are high is to invite laughter. To hint that the crash changed his life is to grossly understate the truth.
Sitting on the living room couch of a cozy and arty home in far South Austin which he shares with his wife of nearly 30 years, Theresa Fox, Artly Snuff isn't comfortable. The situation won't improve during the conversation. Pain, quelled by medication, remains constant, managed through dedicated physical therapy. He's perpetually shifting, the discomfort etched in thin lines on his forehead and a long flesh-colored bandage in place on his left shoulder blade to keep the fractured scapula aligned.
Until the accident, Snuff's life was mostly gratifying artistically. A high-profile participant in the Austin counterculture, neither stage, screen, nor microphone defined his face in the crowd. He doesn't have much in the way of professional bylines because he isn't a writer by trade. His isn't the sort of work collected, either, but Snuff collects, all right. His collections are legion: posters, primarily, but also T-shirts, toothpick dispensers, small metal buildings, and – famously – items with a corn theme.
At 62, Snuff comes from the strata of 1960s-originated Old Austin, where friendships are counted in decades. Historic venues including the Vulcan, then the Armadillo and Soap Creek Saloon, were paramount to the town's youthful social axis, along with life along the Drag, Oat Willie's, softball, and swimming at the lake. Histories from this generation are intertwined to almost incestuous degrees and star a cast of characters, musical and otherwise, so rich and colorful that they spawned their own Austintatious comic book in the heady days of comix. Many are still remembered by such names as the Guacamole Queen or the Hot Knives gang – a reference to a preferred method of smoking hashish. Snuff shared a house with bandmates from the Uranium Savages that was known as the Corn Palace and celebrated an annual Corn Festival. The in-jokes are so inbred and rife that describing Snuff's wife, Theresa, in the kitchen slicing cabbage could be cause for snickers in select quarters of Old Austin.
In his own way, the man born John Fox but known as Artly Snuff is as iconic in Austin as John Aielli's Eklektikos on spring mornings, free-tailed bats at summer dusk, the UT Tower blazing orange on autumn nights, and those three or four days of real winter allotted in January. His love for the uniqueness of Austin art drove his education – two degrees in architecture from the University of Texas – and manifested in projects like a show at Laguna Gloria on Austin's ornamental ironwork and an exhibit of Charlie Dunn's cowboy boots. And since their maiden performance in 1974, Artly Snuff's been a founding member of the Uranium Savages' security and performance faction known as the Shrovinovers.
"The Savages have always been commentators upon the culture, I think," says Snuff. "We made fun of politics and religion. Our songs always used a lot of innuendo. We were accused of being homophobic. I thought we were just casting a glare of light on the lack of gay rights.
"When the Houston police killed Joe Torres and threw him in the East Canal, we did the Hank Williams song 'Jambalaya' as 'Come on, Joe, we gotta go/To the bayou/I can tell by your shoes you are Chicano.' We dressed a dummy in a serape and a sombrero, and we would toss him onstage during our performances.
"Then we did a show at the Lutheran church on 24th Street, a benefit for the free clinic, and a couple of very large guys from La Raza showed up. We had a discussion about the very thin line between contemporary satire and bad taste. I think the Savages always tried to cross that line. I like the edge, and we always strove for that."
The Happy Clown
Artly Snuff's friends agree that his personality is shaped by humor, satire, and corny American kitsch.
"Artly loves to entertain people," explains Austin American-Statesman columnist and longtime friend John Kelso. "Not for attention, but to entertain himself at the same time. He couldn't just have a Super Bowl party; he had to have one with eight TV sets stacked on top of each other. While everyone else was analyzing the Gulf War, he made up anagrams for Saddam Hussein. You never see Artly get mad. He's the happy clown and extremely intelligent."
Savages frontman and Austin iconographer Kerry Fitzgerald, aka Kerry Awn, echoes that. "Artly brings to the Savages the very essence of what we are: a larger-than-life, make-believe Texas character who purposely entertains through shock, confusion, and humor. He is the man who makes laugh the men who make the people laugh. He truly is a performer in the purest sense. He's a mime, a dancer, an interpreter, and a puppet. He's like our own music video. In other words, WTF?"
The two men have played on- and offstage together for more than 35 years, and few know Snuff's wicked sense of humor as well as Awn. Which isn't to say that all was peace and love with the Savages.
"Rick Turner and I both went to see the Sex Pistols at Randy's Rodeo," affirms Snuff. "That turned us around. I thought that the punk movement was as valid as the hippie movement. Not all of the hippies embraced punk rock because it wasn't peace and love. But it, too, was a counterculture that believed in a sense of community. Anyone that listened to the radio in the late Seventies knew that we needed new music. There was a lot of Journey and Aerosmith, and we needed the Ramones. We needed the Sex Pistols."
If it appears that Snuff has led an enjoyable existence until the accident, that's largely true. Before December 2010, his life moseyed along with the benefit of his active and close-knit community of friends. Many of them even knew the terrible memory he carried within, the mute caption in a grainy photograph of a horrible day.
"I was in the middle of a mass murder when I was 17."
Standing in the Crosshairs
"I was going to the University of Texas that summer  to get freshman English out of the way," he begins. "I was with a friend, James Love, at the Stag Co-op at 21st and Rio Grande. The building is still there, but I don't know what it is now. We were playing chess between classes before noon, and it came on KNOW radio, the Top 40 radio station in Austin in the mid-Sixties.
"They said somebody with an air rifle was on top of the UT Tower.
"We just ran onto campus. I remember seeing fresh blood on the sidewalk. The policeman that [Charles] Whitman killed they had just carried away in the ambulance. From where we were standing, under the statue of Jefferson Davis, we could see down to the main mall and there were people lying there, alive.
"It was 100 degrees that day, August first, Texas summer. Just sitting there, I had a minor heat stroke. I had to sit under a hedge and drink water and recover. For an hour and a half he was up there and nobody could get those people. There was a lady laying in the sun, and somebody had to do something, so we did."
His gaze drops, lingering on the coffee table, chin quivering as he chokes out a deep sob.
"It was the worst day of my life."
Theresa Fox brings her husband a box of Kleenex, sliding beside him on the couch. He plucks a tissue and wipes his eyes.
"James and I picked up the first person who had been shot. She was a pregnant woman who had walked across the main mall with her boyfriend and been shot in the fetus. Then he had been hit in the neck and bled out. They laid out there for about an hour on the hot pavement, and she was moving. I remember seeing him as he was carried off. He was as pale as alabaster. [In the photo], that's me and James Love picking up Claire Wilson. You can see the other person being picked up is not alive.
"He shot three people I graduated high school with, one of them was one of my best friends. I didn't know that at the time. Paul Bolton Sonntag. Whitman was so accurate he hit almost everyone in the head or chest. Paul was looking up to the tower from behind a construction barrier, and Whitman shot him through the mouth; the bullet exited the back of his neck. His fiancée, Claudia – they had just bought rings – ran to help him, and he got her in the chest. His grandfather Paul Bolton was the newscaster on air reading the list of the dead and came to his grandson's name and handed it over, saying, 'I can't read this; I think it's my grandson.' Paul was 18.
"Later, they figured out that they had Brinks armored cars on campus and used them to pick up people that had been shot. That's why SWAT teams were started. I think about it every time I see the tower and on August first. I'd never seen death, except the death of my parents."
He chokes up again.
"I think it was this damn wreck. I'm a lot more emotional now. I guess it's a mortality thing. It'll be 45 years this August."
Theresa pats her mate's knee and murmurs sympathetically. He looks into her eyes, new and old pain etched in his face.
"I wasn't a hero. The guy that went up there and got Whitman was a hero."
Keep Austin Eccentric
In more ways than one, Austin's collective memory resides with Artly Snuff, the ultimate culture fan.
"You never think about it when you start to collect, but then you have to take care of things for 30 years," he chuckles. "I still have all of my paper goods. I've got 15 or 20 crates in storage full of T-shirts. I did three shows at Wiley's on Austin T-shirt art. I wrote a paper for the North American Print Conference on the Austin T-shirt scene.
"T-shirts, records, and posters are produced in the thousands. The rarest image of all is the T-shirt image. It is usually only printed in dozens. You have to grab them. They are very fragile. They fade. People wear them and throw them away. In the late Sixties, in one of the protest movements when UT expanded Memorial Stadium, they moved San Jacinto Street and tore down a bunch of trees in Waller Creek to make a concrete ditch. In the architecture department, we organized to not tear down those trees. We printed up a silk screen T-shirt of a fist holding a branch. That was in the late Sixties, the first T-shirt I remember seeing printed.
"All the T-shirts I knew and loved were water-based ink done with silkscreen. I still value those. I look at the art guys in the Seventies doing the T-shirts and posters as being akin to Paris in the 1890s, a salon culture that produced something never seen before in history and really turned out to be very unique as time moved on and things changed."
Were you tempted to suggest that Artly Snuff is what keeps Austin weird, he'd prefer to keep Austin eccentric, thank you. Among the anti-traditions Snuff upholds with the Savages is the ubiquitous, near-reverential use of the number 709 as a subcultural reference introduced to Austin by Kerry Awn in the early 1970s (see "Too Dumb To Die," Dec. 10, 1999).
"The number 709 has always been important to the band. We brought it to the world through Armadillo artists spreading 709, exhibits at the South Austin Popular Culture Center starting at 7:09. To me, that is apt. The Austin Music Awards starts at 7:09. If any number sums up the Austin cultural zeitgeist that we have, it's the number 709. If you're against women's rights, you're a sexist. If you are against 709, you are a numerist."
Yeah, but what about numbers 708 or 710?
Austin's most obscure holiday, International Eddy Day (7/09), presents a benefit, silent auction, fundraiser, and party for Artly Snuff:
Saturday, July 9, 3-10pm, Threadgill's World Headquarters
3pm Extreme Heat
4pm Freddie Steady 5
5pm Cornell Hurd
6pm Rick Broussard's Two Hoots & a Holler
7pm Uranium Savages
8pm Larry Lange & His Lonely Knights
ON THE COVER:When the Shrovinovers' Rick Turner and Artly Snuff debuted their latest penis props at a 1977 show, no one knew porn star Serena was in the audience until she jumped onstage to join them. The photo landed the Savages in Oui magazine.
Author's conflict-of-interest statement: The Uranium Savages' annual Groupie of the Year Eddy Award is named for Margaret Moser. She has won it on numerous occasions.