Playback: Red River Optimist John Wickham

Red River poker king John Wickham remains optimistic, Nazis stab concertgoers at Trailer Space, and Fun Fun Fun Fest gets its acre at Auditorium Shores

John Wickham
John Wickham (Photo by John Anderson)

On Saturday night, Elysium is exquisitely kinky. A chanteuse wearing a green monster hat and thong – nipples obscured by eyeball pasties – sings "Fuck you very much" to the large audience gathered for a Queerlesque event.

Owner John Wickham sits on the patio where our interview's constantly interrupted with hugs and handshakes from regulars whom he greets by name. One refers to him as "Saint John." For Elysium's hands-on paterfamilias, you can't spell "involved" without "love."

From our perch, we can see three establishments Wickham owns: Elysium, Valhalla, and Red Eyed Fly. The latter's slated to become Sidewinder once neighboring club Red 7 closes at the end of September and the two ownership entities merge. Such holdings might make Wickham a Red River kingpin, but he's merely a businessman investing everything – money, sweat, heart – into that singular strip.

When Wickham and a couple of friends combined their savings to purchase his favorite hangout, Atomic Cafe, from the parents of deceased buddy Randall Goodwin in 2001, Red River wasn't the entertainment district it is today.

"It was a lot dicier, not as well-lit, well-traveled, or well-attended," he recalls.

A UT grad, educated in classical civilizations with a concentration on ancient religion, Wickham named the bar for the hereafter of mythical Greek heroes. Elysium grooved on dance music, but after nine months, inspired by neighboring Beerland, began incorporating live bands. In 2003, Wickham worked with South by Southwest to land M.I.A.'s first U.S. gig and LCD Soundsystem's first performance outside New York.

Over 14 years, Wickham's witnessed Red River's evolution from an iffy area into esteemed cultural territory. That gradual shift began with Room 710, Red Eyed Fly, and Beerland, followed by Mohawk, Red 7, Side Bar, Creekside, and Beauty Bar, and continued with Holy Mountain and Empire.

"One of the things that makes Red River unique and important is the synergy of all the bars together. You can see multiple shows in one night," he says before adding about his flagship venue: "My personal philosophy, as far as bars go, is you should meet and interact with people who you would not talk to in your day-to-day life."

Since Elysium hosts drag shows regularly in addition to themed DJ nights and bands, he's effectively magnetized such clientele. Across the street at Valhalla, he's planning a kitchen that will sell sandwiches to Red River's hoagie-starved patrons. Given the timing of his "in" at Red Eyed Fly and Red 7's "out," Wickham must have known that a merger was in the cards.

"No, the partnership happened much later," he states. "I didn't even have an inkling at the time of anything going on with Red 7's lease. But once we had Red Eyed Fly and it became apparent that they might not have a home, it just made sense.

"Also, I'm not going to lie: Transmission [Events] is a lot better at booking than me."

Even so, Wickham's mission statement remains the same as when he first bought into the area.

"I believe in live music so much that I wanted to keep a venue there," he says. "I really feel like an incredibly crucial part of Austin's identity is the vitality that live music venues bring. What we do on Red River has a lot more value than a shot bar on Sixth Street or some bro hang."

When asked if he's optimistic about the future of Red River – survival against the challenges of rising rents and exhausting development – Wickham speaks hopefully about the Waller Creek projects and points out that he's got understanding landlords at all his bars.

Yeah, but are you optimistic?

"Look," he sighs. "I've got three venues on one block. I've got to be optimistic. You play poker? I'm all in."

Nazis Clash with Concertgoers at Trailer Space

Baylor (r) and his unidentified companion outside Trailer Space on the night of the stabbing.
Baylor (r) and his unidentified companion outside Trailer Space on the night of the stabbing. (Courtesy of Daniel Swenson)

"I'm a World War II memorabilia collector – I've got Nazi, American, and Japanese stuff," says Jay Garrison, a 19-year-old African-American motorcycle mechanic. "Many cultures had a swastika and his tattoo looks Tibetan."

Garrison's referring to the white separatist who stabbed him outside Eastside record store Trailer Space during a violent brawl last week. Five days after the fight, Garrison remains hospitalized, his chest a railroad of staples. There's the stab wound – directly over his heart – and a 10-inch incision where surgeons cut his sternum to repair the membrane around his heart and a slashed artery.

On Thursday evening, during an in-store concert featuring Jugurtha, Broodwitch, and Ashtaroth, 23-year-old Jimmy Baylor peeled off his T-shirt to reveal an Adolf Hitler tattoo and the aforementioned swastika. Garrison confronted him about the askew symbol.

"I didn't approach him with any anger. I pulled him to the side and asked, 'Do you actually know what you support with that symbol?' His answer was 'Ultimate Race.'"

Garrison says an angered Baylor targeted him in the mosh pit before TSR owner Spot Long told them to take it outside.

"This isn't fucking Roadhouse," Long told "Playback." "You can't fight inside our record store."

According to one witness, most of the crowd followed the altercation into the parking lot where Baylor was visibly incensed.

"He was there to fight and ready to take on the whole crowd," the witness recounted. "But the crowd was ready to take him on too."

"Outside, I gave him the opportunity. I said, 'You need to get the fuck out of here, you're obviously not welcome,'" recalls Garrison. "I pushed him on the ground. He got up and his little friend said, 'Y'all need to back off. We'll take you all on.'

"Somebody jumped on his neck and from there it escalated in the blink of an eye. [Baylor] brought out a knife from his pocket. People were running and punching. I didn't know I got stabbed until I threw a punch and my arm didn't extend fully."

Garrison jumped on a motorcycle and rode to a 12th Street gas station, requesting medical services.

"I was talking to my body and my heart was saying, 'It's not okay,' and I said, 'Just give me some more time.' I lost four pints of blood. If I'd lost a half-pint more, I could have died."

At least three other concertgoers were hurt, Ashtaroth's Joe Osteen was stabbed in the shoulder, Benjamin Beyer through the hand, and Elijah Red was also injured, according to Austin Police. Witnesses say that Baylor and his unidentified companion, both beaten up, fled the scene.

Baylor was arrested four blocks away and has been charged with aggravated assault. APD isn't pursuing hate crime charges because no specific race was targeted. Garrison says he'll continue to be a regular at Trailer Space and that the experience just reinforced an open-minded worldview.

"I'm going to continue to not judge people – even people with Nazi tattoos. Just like Jimmy, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and have a conversation," he reflects. "You have to judge everyone as individuals. People need to drop their pride and be magnanimous to their brothers. Stop acting like apes and band together like ants."

Half Notes

County Commissioners Court ruled on Tuesday that music festivals in greater Travis County will be subject to earlier curfews – 11pm Sunday-Thursday and 1am Friday-Saturday – and lower volumes: 70dB from adjacent residences. Their approval of stingy mass gathering statutes has one upside: a streamlined permitting process allowing organizers to get approval in reasonable advance of the event. Nevertheless, the early music cutoff could adversely affect Carson Creek Ranch, which hosts Levitation and Euphoria Fest.

Fun Fun Fun Fest's grounds widened on Thursday when City Council unanimously approved an amended resolution granting them use of an acre of Auditorium Shores' dog park. The remainder of the pooch section will be available for those wishing to take Mr. Cuddles to play fetch while Venom and NOFX perform this year. Council placed the onus on the Parkland Events Task Force to balance canine vs. festival interests in the future.

Transmission Events will take over booking for prominent Houston venue Fitzgerald's when promoters Pegstar relinquish the reins in late August, according to the Houston Chronicle. That means touring bands can now play Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin while working with the local promoter.

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John Wickham, Elysium, Valhalla, Red 7, Red Eyed Fly, Beerland, Transmission Events, Trailer Space, Spot Long

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