Chad Holt, Austin's Last Provocateur
The Total Badass left his mark on the city's underground
When an artist dies, those of us left behind reassure ourselves that the departed's spirit persists through the work of others that he or she has influenced. That's not the case with Chad Holt. No one wants to touch what he touched, and for that reason, he'll never be repeated.
So, with Chad, a part of Austin has died. It's perhaps not a zeitgeist of the city any of us would recognize anymore: voyeuristically honest, unapologetically hypersexual, personally reckless, and willing to make a joke at any expense – including his own human decency.
To be clear, Chad wasn't an artist in the traditional sense. The domains he inhabited are perplexingly varied: publisher, documentary film subject, humorist, sports commentator, sexual argonaut, nonprofit spokesman, criminal with 22 mugshots, paralegal, loving dad, daredevil band frontman, and prize-winning guinea pig breeder. All that considered, he lived his life like a very public piece of performance art.
"I remember there was a time in Austin when you could be a piece of shit and thrive," friend Justin Cook memorialized at the Roast of Chad Holt – something of a living wake held last June at the Lost Well. "There was a Rembrandt of being a piece of shit ... and that was Chad Holt."
Chad Holt's IMDb page notes that he'd been the student body president for Brazoswood High School in 1991. His younger sister, Ashley Cuellar, recalls that the budding man-of-the-people campaigned on the promise of students being allowed to wear shorts at school.
"He was a sweet kid, and he didn't give my parents many problems. He wasn't too extravagant," Cuellar reveals of her brother, who was born in Galveston and raised in La Marque before coming of age in Lake Jackson. "Though he did do some really provocative scavenger hunts in high school."
In filmmaker Bob Ray's 1999 16 mm dark comedy Rock Opera – a strikingly realistic snapshot of Austin when buying $25 quarters of shitty Mexican weed, playing weird rock & roll at Bates Motel, and planning ill-fated tours were the existential concerns of young artists – Chad played Tad, a funny pot dealer with an ankle monitor and a kink for masturbating into washing machines.
"Yeah, that role was a real stretch for him," cracks Ray, conceding that the scene where Tad rides past Trudy's on a bicycle, holding a three-pound bag of pot and taunting frat boys into chasing him, was something he actually witnessed Holt do.
His film credits also included a small role in the Richard Linklater homage Slacker 2011, but the paragon of Chad Holt onscreen is the 2010 documentary Total Badass.
A touching, disturbing, hilarious, and intimate character study, the doc begins with Holt living in a garage, selling marijuana, and trying to survive felony probation. At the time, he was in the system for his role in bootlegging generously discounted South by Southwest wristbands during the 2002 conference. The picture, directed by Ray, opens with a soliloquy:
"I've always felt like I've been endowed with the power to seriously change the world. It's not even that I have an idea of what I want to change it to, it's just the feeling of not living up to the potential that was given to me. I feel like I could do something with all this shit, and that I'm supposed to."
Total Badass stands as a fine representation of the longitudinal documentary – where a filmmaker embeds with a subject for a long period and allows evolving circumstances to shape the story. The well-paced film takes twists Ray could've never scripted: for one, Chad getting arrested on – and beating – a new felony charge for prescription pills. A more profound turn of events arrives when the mother of Chad's children loses her house and Holt has to take on a traditional parenting role ... or, as he puts it, be a "semi-responsible father."
The doc becomes strangely heartfelt with the entrance of his young son Shay Holt, now 21, and daughter Jessica Burnie, now 22. Holt moves into a nice house and becomes the father every kid deserves: imperfect, but truly loving. A key scene shows Chad and young Shay bonding at a wig store – right before the paterfamilias purchases dreadlocks to use in a video for his unconscionable rap group Blackface Entertainment.
"Chad is one of the most caring human beings that you'd ever meet," his friend Adam Reposa reflects. "He just had a great way of camouflaging that through very absurd and obscene humor."
The son of a high school English teacher, Chad possessed the attributes of a tremendous writer: stunning intellect, wicked cleverness, and a perspective that was flagrantly self-involved. Neither a reporter nor a critic, the work Holt issued – first as a back-page columnist in Rank & Revue and later in Whoopsy!, the annual spring zine he co-founded with Becky Hayes – qualifies him as an essayist and humorist. He was the king of making readers feel wrong for laughing.
Of all the things Chad wrote about – music, sports, drugs, movies, and generally audacious exploits – he specifically excelled at writing about sex. His tales and musings, often running in Whoopsy!'s Offsides section, amounted to a deranged version of Sex in the City.
"Regardless of all you may have heard," he wrote in a notorious article titled "The Best Night of My Life," "my dick probably isn't that much bigger than the biggest dick you've ever seen in your fucking life."
Chad's reputation for having a Rasputin-like member factors into that famed account, wherein his friend Corri Hubbard invites him to be the guest of honor at a bachelorette party. Chad reveled in being objectified, so when they asked him to strip and play with himself, he obliged. At the behest of the beautiful women, a candle was lit, and it was decided that the impromptu stripper would have to creatively extinguish it. The story ends with Holt putting out the flame with an "equine payload."
It isn't a sexy article to read, but it's funny and thrilling. Such was Holt's rare ability, because while he wasn't the only one on planet Earth with such escapades, he was the only one reporting them so amusingly.
Holt's penchant for onstage stunts – like whirling around a pantyhose-filled-with-raw-eggs headdress in his band DKB and diving headfirst into trash cans as the frontman for Frunttbutt – also came through in his writing. One of his most ridiculous achievements in that field came with a 2006 Whoopsy! cover story titled "R.I.P. Dave Sprauer: Austin mourns loss of legendary club owner."
He eulogized the brash businessman who'd owned the dive venue Trophy's – ground zero for Holt's Whoopsy! parties – then presented a "completely fictionalized interview" that happened to actually be a very real interview with a very drunk Sprauer, containing plentiful shit-talk, including this gem about booking live music at Trophy's:
"My philosophy on that is I don't give a damn how good they are if they're making me money. Like the old story of two dogs fucking versus the greatest band in Austin, Texas. If the two dogs fucking are bringing in more money, the bands are out and the dogs are staying."
Dave Sprauer actually died nine years later, in 2015.
Behind the Wheel
In 2012, Chad Holt founded and served as the spokesman for Drunk Drivers of Texas, a pro-drinking, anti-driving nonprofit providing free rides home for wasted people. Chad and Matt Meshbane – ever the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote – would show up to a bar in their custom D.D.T. tracksuits and offer inebriated patrons lifts in Chad's inherited Cadillac DeVille – by far the best car he ever owned.
If the nonprofit's name was confusing, the dozen PSAs that he and Ray made to promote it did little to elucidate D.D.T.'s mission. One of them featured a drunk Holt spinning in a wheelchair, lit fireworks in lap, inside a bar.
"He enjoyed watching people flail their arms over the name and the messaging," Ray reflects. "But the intent was solid."
Around the same time that Ray and Chad were making their ludicrous and entertaining drunk driving PSAs, which aired before films at the Alamo Drafthouse, the two also delved into the outlandish world of regional lawyer commercials. Chad had begun working as a legal assistant for his friend Adam Reposa – an attorney, twice jailed on contempt of court charges, known for giving such hell to prosecutors that they offered his clients lenient plea deals to avoid dealing with his wrathful cross-examinations.
The clip finds Reposa behind the wheel of a massive truck, screaming, "I am a lawyer!" as he repeatedly rams into a piece-of-crap sedan with Holt in the driver's seat. It quickly went viral, causing bloggers to alternatively recognize it as the best – or worst – lawyer commercial of all time.
From Housefly to Sloth
The March 2017 issue of Whoopsy! featured Chad's smiling mug edited over the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit photo on the cover. The headline read: "Chad Holt Has Cancer! (But he doesn't want to make a big deal about it.)"
"Today is the 7th of March, 2017, exactly a week before the Whoopsy! Party kicks off, and I just started chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I want to tell you people three things, right off the bat: First of all, I'm scared. Secondly, I don't want to do this shit. And third, I'm talking about the Whoopsy! Party."
It was on page two that he revealed a fairly recent prognosis, which confirmed what he'd been suspecting for a year: "The cancer is in my ass, as you may have guessed. Rectum, for any nerds who may be reading along," he divulged. "Apparently, I've got a tumor the size of a hamburger crammed up there."
Chad's writing had frequently aired intensely personal subjects, but this wasn't a tale of being accidentally shat on during sex. In that issue, he recounted the day he'd been diagnosed with rectal cancer: how he tried to keep it under wraps, but Ashley found out and summoned their parents, who descended on the scene; how he kicked them out of his hospital room because they wouldn't pipe down during his meeting with the oncologist. It was uncomfortable, vulnerable even.
"He just didn't want anybody to worry about him, and it was always Chad's way or the highway," Cuellar recalls of that day. "It was so overwhelming, because he was a giant force in our family."
"Yeah, even though my hair isn't going to fall out, it seems my butthole will," Chad wrote. "I've been assured that I'll be wearing a colostomy bag for at least five or six months at the end of all this, and probably for the rest of my life. Whoopsy!"
Losing his sphincter was an existential issue to Chad. He was uncomfortable with how it would impact his raging sex life – even if his doctors offered an "intimacy curtain" to obscure the device. He wrote: "I don't care if I live or die; I just want my butthole back." Then he encouraged readers to sing along:
"I want my butthole back, butthole back, butthole back, butthole back, butthole back, butthole back... ribs."
At several points in his writing career, Chad foreshadowed his death. In a 2004 issue of Rank & Revue, he wrote: "Anybody who has ever smelled my farts knows exactly how I'm going to die."
Another time, Chad penned: "Is it odd that I will write and publish content that can easily be construed as racist, sexist, or just shitty in general, not to mention brag about fucking married women and selling drugs for a living without caring what anyone thinks, yet I'm too embarrassed to buy the huge-ass roll of toilet paper at the grocery store, even though it's cheaper, because I don't want the checkout girl to think about me taking shits?"
Coincidentally, shitting is how Chad realized there was a tumor clogging his exit pipe.
"This all started with me having to shit all the time. Not big dumps though, but short, aggravating little microshits that would never let me rest. Back then, I was like a housefly, shitting every time I landed. Now I'm like a sloth, only shitting when it rains."
By 2016, Chad's southernmost orifice was screaming at him that something was wrong, but his attempt to obtain marketplace insurance was foiled by enrollment periods, making him wait until the new year to see a specialist.
In 2019, the cancer had returned and worsened. Holt knew he was a goner, so he scheduled the Roast of Chad Holt. Eastside venue the Lost Well has nary been fuller than on June 22 when admirers packed it inside and out. Chad sat kingly on stage, with a blow-up doll in his lap and a THC pen in his mouth, while roastmaster Reposa brought friends and lovers up to tell jokes and unbelievable-but-true Chad Holt stories.
Comedian JT Habersaat cracked: "Chad was the star of a documentary called Total Badass, which is funny because that's what his oncologist told him: You have a total bad ass."
Traditionally, a roast culminates with the subject taking the mic and ripping on all the roasters. Astonishingly, Chad didn't do that. He told everyone that he loved them.
"Thanks for coming to my funeral," he said.
It should've been sad, but instead it was inspiring. He'd always been great at stripping people, institutions, attitudes of their power by turning jokes toward them. Now, he was doing that to death. He faced his mortality like a Total Badass.
I'm w/ Liberty
In a 2016 issue of Whoopsy!, Bob Ray was interviewed by his muse.
Chad Holt: OK, so, where's the fucking movie?
Bob Ray: There is, right now, not a movie. A movie exists ... We just haven't reached that timeline in life.
Holt: I mean, should I stop even acting like there's a movie coming out?
Ray: No! Absolutely not. You should always act like there's a movie coming out, whether there's a movie coming out or not.
Holt: OK, because I'd hate to end up looking like a fool. I mean, if I die, you'll at least finish it, right? This isn't a cry for help or anything, I'm just saying eventually, as long as either I'm alive or I die, one way or another we'll be able to get it done, right? Unless you died, I guess. Then we really might be fucked, unfortunately.
"This was before cancer," Ray says, reviewing the dialogue. "We joked when he got cancer, and even as he was dying: 'Oh, it'll be great for the movie!' I guess it became a coping mechanism."
In 2011, when Holt clocked in as Reposa's legal assistant, he told Ray, "This is interesting, you should film it." Ray replied, "I'm a fuckin' artist. I don't do sequels." The homegrown filmmaker, whose work includes the important roller derby doc Hell on Wheels, also remained skeptical about doing a movie focused on a "blustering lawyer."
"He's an interesting character, but he can suck the oxygen out of a room because he needs all that oxygen," Ray allows. "Adam's just intense."
Then, after the commercial that Ray shot for Reposa blew up and a Spike TV crew swooped in to produce a reality show called Reposa Justice, the director had a reason to turn his camera on. If anyone was going to film this shit-show, it was him. That was the genesis of Ray's next picture: I'm w/ Liberty.
Predictably, Reposa clashed with the Hollywood reality TV crew.
"They show up and, of course, the shit they want to talk about is boring and stale," Reposa recalls. "They tried to push me out there in a way I wasn't. So I just constantly got drunk, acted obnoxious, and just did everything I could to be an asshole. They made a pilot and it looked like total shit, so they passed on it."
Meanwhile, Ray continued filming material for his doc. Echoing the longitudinal filmmaking of Total Badass, I'm w/ Liberty began as the story of a freedom-crazed attorney but drastically changed with the lives of the subjects. The ensuing storylines of Reposa and Holt made for a saga that's much more human.
"Making a documentary, you discover things along the way and it takes you in different directions," Ray explains. "Chad's cancer came up in the middle of it. During the filming, Adam had a competency hearing where he's literally showing up to court with his clothes all mis-buttoned and making the stereotypical noises and movements of someone with mental retardation to show he's incompetent to stand trial."
During that 2017 self-requested competency hearing, a tactic Reposa was ostensibly employing to delay his trial for contempt of court, his counsel did the unthinkable: They subpoenaed Chad Holt to be a character witness for his employer.
"Chad loved having a captive audience," chuckles Ray, who filmed the proceedings from the jury box. "So he was asked these questions by Reposa's attorney and Chad used all of them as an opportunity to tell stories about Adam. He had the whole courtroom laughing. At one point, the judge tried to corral Chad, but Chad would keep talking as the judge yelled, 'Stop! Stop!' Chad had gone in there to fuck shit up. He's not above embarrassing himself or you for humor's sake."
Chad Holt spent his final months traveling.
"He was like, 'What am I gonna do, sit at home and be in pain?'" his sister Ashley recalls. "We went to California, Pittsburgh, an Astros game, six states total, and he took his kids. It was go, go, go."
Jessica recently got a tattoo memorializing her father. It's the art from Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree with his initials, C.J.H., on the trunk. The tattoo artist, a complete stranger, didn't charge her because he knew Chad. Shay is a fourth-year senior at the University of Texas, where his less-studious dad spent eight years earning an undergraduate degree. He's on a bowling team with Reposa.
"Shay is like a 3.7 student," Reposa reports. "In that way, the apple rolled away from the tree, but he's got the same indomitable spirit. The Holts are never ones to be told what to think or what to say."
Bob Ray is slowly beginning to edit I'm w/ Liberty.
Chad died on August 18. Six days later, friends packed every seat at his traditional Catholic funeral. Several attendees reported that they thought a large, ornate vessel on the altar looked a lot like Chad's penis.
Rock Opera on the Big Screen
AFS Cinema hosts a 20th anniversary screening of Rock Opera on Saturday, Oct. 19, 4pm. The film will be followed by a Q&A featuring writer/director Bob Ray, lead actor Jerry Don Clark, actor/musical director Kurtis Machler, and Austin Cinemaker Co-op founder Barnabus Kantor. The party continues at the Lost Well with performances from Pocket Fishrmen, Tia Carrera, and Sex Pümp, whose singer Russell Porter (of Fuckemos fame) played a strangely heroic role in the film.