Pop Culture Press issue #: ?
original publish date: ?
by Greg Beets
If you’re a music fan who has only seen Austin during SXSW, you might think it resembles Valhalla in spring. Ten thousand hopeful siren songs compete for your ears while barbecue and beer flow freely to anyone anointed with a laminate. The old Steamboat on Sixth Street used to welcome SXSW with a marquee reading “Welcome to Heaven,” and on a good night when you catch the right shows, this is only a slight exaggeration.
But what about the other 51 weeks of the year when most of the SXSW venues on Sixth Street get back to the business of selling Jell-O shots to the Bush twins? Beneath the veneer of easygoing bohemia and Lone Star collegiality rests a baker’s dozen dark events that cannot be reconciled with Austin’s reputation as a great music town. These are the sad, tragic and/or downright stupid junctures in Austin’s musical past that the Chamber of Commerce wishes would just go away. Here are 13 ignominious moments in Austin music history you should know about.
- Carlos Santana Weed-Whacked By Beer Magnate (1991)
To celebrate the nation’s birthday and our fine showing in Desert Storm, Budwiser sponsored a free July 4th concert in Zilker Park featuring Joe Walsh, Roger McGuinn and Santana. But on June 28th, Carlos Santana was busted at Houston Intercontinental Airport for possession of five grams of marijuana. In order to ensure a lawful, family-friendly environment for their patriotic beer bash, Anheuser-Busch dropped Santana from the show, replacing him with perennial county fair fave REO Speedwagon. Thanks to clear-minded corporate stewardship, the morals of Austin were spared. Wish we could say the same for the 108,838 Americans who died of alcohol-related causes in 1991.
- Greg Dulli’s War on Austin (1990, 1998)
What was Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli’s problem with Austin? The Cincinnati quartet first arrived in town on July 21, 1990 for a show at the Cannibal Club to promote Up In It. The Whigs’ self-effacing post-punk was solid if not revelatory that night until Dulli decided to hurl a beer pitcher into the audience, clocking some unfortunate bystander in the head and prompting a lawsuit against both band and club. Eight years later, on December 11, 1998, the group had just completed a show at Liberty Lunch when Dulli unwisely decided to settle a score with bouncer Teitur “Taiter” Gentry. Dulli claimed the bouncer blindsided him, knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the head, while the club claimed Dulli only got hit after coming toward Taiter with a two-by-four. Whatever happened, Dulli wound up in the hospital with a fractured skull, causing the Whigs to miss several tour dates. Dulli filed a lawsuit against Liberty Lunch, but it faded away in the wake of the venerable club’s closing in 1999. The Afghan Whigs never returned to Austin.
- ZZ Top’s First (and Last) Annual Rompin’ Stompin’ Barndance and (Imaginary) Barbecue (1974)
Taking a cue from Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnics, ZZ Top staked its claim on Labor Day weekend by making only one Texas appearance in 1974. An estimated 80,000 people packed UT’s Memorial Stadium on September 1 to hear the Top, Santana, Joe Cocker and Bad Company, who made their U.S. debut with special guest Jimmy Page. It remains the largest concert in Austin history to this day. Unfortunately, organizers underestimated just how many Texans wanted to see ZZ Top, and there was little (if any) barbecue to be found. Beneath the stands, concertgoers in search of food and drink were packed so closely that some fainted. Eventually, they began scavenging surrounding neighborhoods for provisions, leaving mounds of trash in their wake. Worst of all in this football-mad state, the newly installed Astroturf was damaged. UT vice president of business affairs James Colvin called the stadium “an abominable mess” and said chances of future concerts there were “slim to nope.” The only concert held at Memorial Stadium since then was the 1995 Eagles reunion.
- Willie Nelson Gets A Visit from the Taxman (1990)
If you were playing 300 nights a year, you might also wind up owing $16.7 million in back taxes. It was a sad day when the IRS seized most of Willie Nelson’s assets, including his 44-acre ranch and house west of Austin, to help pay the bill. Nelson even recorded an album, 1992’s The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, to further retire the debt. After raising about $3.6 million through sales of the album and other assets, Nelson reportedly agreed to pay the IRS $9 million over five years to settle his debt. One of the highlights of the 2003 Super Bowl was seeing Nelson poke fun at the debacle by becoming a spokesman for H&R Block.
- G.G. Allin Show Panned By APD (1992)
Responding to a disturbance call at the Cavity (located in the building now occupied by velvet-roped nightspot Spiro’s) on the night of February 18, 1992, Austin police officer Charles Smith unwittingly entered the world of G.G. Allin. According to Smith’s arrest report, published verbatim in the following week’s Austin Chronicle reviews section, someone in the crowd sprayed Mace, forcing audience members to flee for fresh air. Allin was onstage nude, covered in shit and bleeding from the forehead. Taken to Brackenridge Hospital, Allin told the officer that “blood adds to the performance of the show” and that “throwing faces (sic) was part of his act.” The officer informed Allin of a warrant to revoke his probation and took him from the hospital to jail. Allin was later extradited to Michigan’s Jackson State Penitentiary. After threatening to commit suicide onstage for years, Allin succumbed to a heroin overdose on June 28, 1993. Smith, to our knowledge, never followed up on what could’ve been a rewarding career in music journalism.
- The Huns Riot (1978)
For a punk band that could barely play, it’s hard to imagine a better first gig. On Tuesday, September 19, 1978, the Huns debuted at Raul’s, a UT-area club that harbored the nascent Austin punk/new wave scene. Five songs into their set, Austin police officer Steve Bridgewater entered Raul’s in response to a noise complaint. Upon seeing Bridgewater, police said Huns’ vocalist Phil Tolstead screamed, “I hate your fucking guts, pig!” When Bridgewater approached the stage, Tolstead tried to kiss him on the lips. As Bridgewater attempted to subdue the singer, two plainclothes officers in the crowd (evidently attracted by show flyers advocating killing the police) jumped onstage to assist. This set off a small-scale riot resulting in the arrest of Tolstead and five others. This was front-page news in Austin, and the Huns got mentioned in Rolling Stone and New Musical Express. Unfortunately, the group’s music never equaled its mayhem, and they broke up in 1980. In court, Tolstead was found guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The convictions were still on appeal in 1983 when Tolstead abandoned the appeals process and became a born-again Christian, bringing the saga to a perfect storybook conclusion.
- Janis Joplin: Ugliest Man on Campus (1962)
During the 1960s, Texas responded to the emergence of counter-culture by viciously trying to stamp it out by any means necessary. Musicians officially celebrated by the state today were routinely hassled by lawmen and good ol’ boys alike back then. It’s no accident that folks like Doug Sahm, Steve Miller and Janis Joplin all fled to San Francisco. Austin likes to claim Joplin as its own, but in reality, she only lived here for about a year. In the summer of 1962, she enrolled at UT to study art. Neglecting her classes, she played gigs at Threadgill’s, then a gas station cum beer joint on North Lamar owned by legendary country singer Kenneth Threadgill. UT was big enough to support a small counter-cultural enclave, but she ultimately found the social climate lacking. If Joplin needed a last straw to send her packing, she got it when a bunch of frat boys nominated her for the annual “Ugliest Man on Campus” contest. Although she laughed the prank off and moved on, her resentment of the abuse she endured for growing up unconventional in Texas never really went away. Because Joplin died before it could be properly reconciled, the score remains forever unsettled.
- Clifford Antone Sent to Prison (2000)
The 25th anniversary of Antone’s in the summer of 2000 should’ve been a pinnacle for the club’s founder and namesake. After all, this was the man who brought blues legends like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters to town while helping to cultivate formidable local talents like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But something happened on the way to heaven – something that was leafy, green and weighed about 9,400 pounds. In 1997, Clifford Antone was indicted on federal charges of intent to distribute more than four tons of marijuana and laundering about $1 million in resulting profits. Had he stood trial and lost, Antone could’ve faced life in prison with a minimum 20-year sentence. Instead, Antone plead guilty to one count of marijuana distribution and one count of racketeering in 1999, which gave U.S. District Judge James Nowlin sentencing discretion. In June 2000, local notables such as Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona and former Austin mayor Lee Cooke vouched for Antone at his sentencing hearing. Even Nowlin deemed Antone a “good guy” before sentencing him to a four-year prison term, 750 hours of community service, and a $25,000 fine. Antone began serving his sentence later that month at the federal prison in Bastrop. In December 2002, he was moved to an Austin halfway house and was early-released on probation in June 2003. Ironically, the whole spectacle served to increase Antone’s stature as a much-loved pillar of the community.
- The “Rap Murder” Trial (1993)
On April 11, 1992, 18-year-old Ronald Ray Howard shot and killed Texas state trooper Bill Davidson after being pulled over in a stolen vehicle for a broken headlight near Edna, TX. Because of local publicity surrounding the shooting, the trial was moved to Austin, where a Travis County jury found Howard guilty of capital murder. Just before the shooting, Howard was allegedly listening to 2Pac’s 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, so defense attorney Allen Tanner seized on gangsta rap as a mitigating factor in hopes of saving Howard from death row. Meanwhile, Davidson’s widow filed a product liability suit against Tupac Shakur, Interscope and Time Warner claiming the anti-police sentiments on 2Pacalypse Now contributed to her husband’s death. During the punishment phase of the trial in July 1993, Tanner introduced several rap songs as evidence, and the Travis County Courthouse halls echoed with N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” and the Geto Boys’ “City Under Siege.” The tactic failed and Howard was sentenced to die by lethal injection. The fact that a jury deemed rap’s role inconsequential helped undermine the basis for the civil suit, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Shakur was killed in a still-unsolved Las Vegas drive-by shooting in 1996. Howard remains on death row, awaiting execution.
- Failed Drummer Finds Success as Mass Murderer (1991)
You don’t have to spend much time around musicians to garner a bevy of “moody drummer” stories, but you’d be pressed to find a more foul-tempered skin-beater than George Hennard. Although he lived in Belton, the unemployed Hennard’s drumming aspirations occasionally brought him to Austin. He was briefly in a band called the Missing Links, but it didn’t amount to much. Local musicians who played with Hennard described him as a raging misogynist who was quick to anger. He referred to women as “vipers” and one of his favorite songs was Steely Dan’s “Don’t Take Me Alive.” While many drummers have bad luck with women and an unhealthy Dan fetish, only Hennard crashed his blue pickup through the plate glass window at a Killeen Luby’s Cafeteria during lunch rush on October 16, 1991 and began shooting people with two handguns. By the time the carnage ended 10 minutes later with Hennard’s suicide, 23 people were dead and more than 20 others lay wounded (one of whom would later die), which made this the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at the time.
- Cajun Fiddler Harry Choates Dies in Travis County Jail (1951)
Born in Louisiana and raised in Port Arthur, fiddler Harry Choates was a key figure in Cajun music’s increasing popularity in the 1940s. Combining Cajun influences with Western Swing, Choates barnstormed throughout Texas and Louisiana with his Melody Boys, wooing audiences with a dynamic stage show. “Jole Blon,” Choates’ 1946 reworking of a traditional Cajun waltz, became a regional dance hall standard. Unfortunately, Choates also suffered from alcoholism. He wound up selling “Jole Blon” for $100 and a bottle of whiskey. By 1951, Choates was in Austin, playing shows at Dessau Hall and appearing with Jessie James and His Gang on KTBC-AM (now KLBJ). On July 14, 1951, he was jailed on a Jefferson County warrant and charged with contempt of court for failing to pay child support to his estranged wife. Three days later, delirious from alcohol withdrawal, Choates beat his head against the cell bars until he fell into a coma and died. An ambulance was summoned, but it arrived too late. While Travis County health officer Dr. H.M. Williams attributed the death to kidney and liver problems, some still assert the jailers may have played a role in Choates’ death. Almost 50 years later, another of Louisiana’s greatest musicians, Zydeco accordion king Boozoo Chavis, also died in Austin of congestive heart failure.
- Hank Williams’ and Johnny Horton’s Skyline Club Swan Songs (1952, 1960)
Throughout the 1950s, the Skyline Club on Dallas Highway (now North Lamar) was Austin’s premiere mid-sized venue for touring acts. On December 19, 1952, the club hosted Hank Williams, who by then had been fired from the Grand Ole Opry for showing up drunk, doped up or just not showing up at all. He’d also married 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones, his second wife. Despite Williams’ growing self-destructive tendencies, he packed the Skyline for two sets. It turned out to be his last public performance. Williams died in the back of a Cadillac while being driven to Canton, OH for a January 1, 1953 concert that never happened. Flash-forward to November 4, 1960, where Johnny Horton, who’d recently topped the charts with historical ballads like “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck,” was playing at the Skyline. Horton lived in Shreveport with Hank Williams’ widow Billie Jean, whom he’d married in 1953, and he headed home right after the show in the wee hours of November 5. While driving east on U.S. Highway 79 in Milano, TX, Horton was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, widowing Billie Jean a second time. The Skyline Club stood until 1989. An Eckerd Drug now occupies the spot, and there’s no way in hell I’d get a prescription filled there.
- “Stonehenge” (1982)
In 1982, Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove tour came to town, and in an effort to reenergize their flagging shows, the dinosaur rockers revived their elaborate “Stonehenge” opus from 1975’s The Sun Never Sweats. Tap manager Ian Faith hired artist Polly Deutsch in Austin to create a Stonehenge facsimile based on specifications outlined by guitarist Nigel Tufnel on a napkin. Regrettably, Tufnel’s napkin specified the height as 18 inches when he really meant 18 feet. As the diminutive prop descended from the rafters that night, the band looked on in horror as its audience guffawed at the sight of two dwarfs dancing incoherently around a tiny Stonehenge, threatening to crush it. A row erupted between Faith and guitarist David St. Hubbins after the concert that ended in Faith’s (temporary) resignation and replacement by longtime St. Hubbins paramour Jeanine Pettibone. Although no one wound up dead or in jail, the fact that the entire sequence was captured on film in Marty DiBergi’s 1984 “rockumentary” about the band makes it unlikely that Austin will ever live this moment of ignominy down.