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» Wind, Rain, Sleet, or Snow
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 1, 1999
I am about to enter one of the only places on earth where blizzards, lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and heat waves rage twenty-four hours a day. But what does one wear to a place like that? After a fair amount of pondering, I decide to blow off the goggles, waterproof GoreTex parka, and rubber boots and go with a brown jacket and khaki slacks.
The pilgrimage I am making is to a spot where torrential rains and gale-force winds are favored over sunny skies and calm seas any day. Of course, you have to be something of a weather nut to see this generic high-rise, in an office park on the northern fringes of Atlanta, as consecrated ground. But that’s what it looks like to me, knowing that beyond those glass doors is the headquarters of The Weather Channel, the cable TV empire built on the simple premise of broadcasting weather around the clock. And, over the course of a severe drought, a tropical storm, a flash flood, and all things El Ni–o, my favorite channel.
My great expectations admittedly lead to a letdown. The weather inside The Weather Channel is, of all things, climate-controlled. And its operations, spread out over six of the building’s eight floors, look pretty much like the offices of any other modern corporation. But my disappointment is short-lived, as I am soon escorted to the 8,500-square-foot studio and forecast center the proverbial eye of the storm. There, behind a huge brass globe, sits the very set I’ve viewed from the comfort of my armchair, and countless hotel rooms.
The stage strikes me as much smaller than it appears on TV, diminished by clusters of desks equipped with all sorts of computers. Which is only fitting, because it’s at those desks that the meteorologists compile and analyze data for the official TWC forecasts and prognostications. And therein lies The Weather Channel’s secret: Unlike other cable channels, it gets its programming from real scientists, with promos provided by Mother Nature herself, free of charge.
Two of TWC’s “programmers,” and part of its eighty-person staff of meteorologists, are Dave Houtz and Chris Samsury. Both belong to different teams that coordinate forecasts with the aid of a half-dozen computer models and various “products” from the National Weather Service, including balloon soundings, pressure readings, and satellite imagery. There are intangibles such as Tom Moore to factor in, too, explains Houtz, who predicts the amount of rain and snow due across the United States in the next twelve hours. “Tom grew up near Lake Erie, which gives him a real advantage in forecasting lake-effect storms,” says Houtz. “He knows the differences in water and air temperature that trigger major snow events, all the variables that computers aren’t always able to process.”
Samsury’s team focuses on quality control, monitoring the local forecasts carried by each of the 9,000 cable systems to ensure accuracy. It also provides immediate backup to those systems in case of lightning strikes, hurricanes, or other emergencies, which tend to occur wouldn’t you know it? during severe storms when updated weather is needed most. Tom Moore acts as liaison between the fifty-plus behind-the-scenes meteorologists and the twenty-six OCMs, or on-camera meteorologists, who participate in twice-daily weather briefings. The talent tends to improvise what they’re going to say, focusing on two or three basic themes and running down the necessary stats.
This same information is also utilized by the on-air voices of the radio version of The Weather Channel, which services more than 200 U.S. stations from a bank of booths around the corner, and by a separate staff in a studio down the hail, beneath a row of clocks marking la hora local in San Juan, Mexico City, S‹o Paulo, Lima, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. This is The Weather Channel Latin America, two years old and two million households strong, broadcasting in Spanish and Portuguese all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Upstairs, this vast data is being filtered onto www.weather.com, one of the ten most-visited Internet sites in the world.
Science, and the orderly process applied to an unorderly discipline, still doesn’t fully explain the quiet, workmanlike atmosphere and dearth of raised voices, ringing alarms, and flashing radars at TWC. But, then, it happens to be the weather equivalent of a slow news day: fair and unseasonably mild over most of the United States, with nothing much to report other than some showers in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s sort of benign,” shrugs Dave Houtz, an assessment reflected in the empty row of chairs on standby in case of severe storms and in the impassive faces of the technicians illuminated by a bank of monitors in Master Control. If violent weather was breaking out, the crew would be scrambling to roll out the live boxes, page turns, slab moves, and other video effects.
At least the pace never slacks for the afternoon OCMs, who work two ninety-minute on-camera shifts a day. While they don’t necessarily carry as much weight as the full-time meteorologists in calling a forecast, their task is no less complex, having to point at a blue screen, clicker in hand to call up the desired graphic, while watching themselves on a monitor, making sure they’re pointing to the right places, and glancing at the flashing lights counting down to the next station break.
It’s clear the folks at TWC love their work, because when they’re not actually doing the weather, they’re talking about it. Take Bill Keneely, a familiar face from the on-the-scene coverage of last year’s Hurricanes Bonnie, Hermine, Georges, and Earl. The occupational hazards of going on location are bad enough, he says, telling tales of killer debris and shocks from microphones (“You get pretty good amperage running through you”), but the small details can be a headache, too. Like local pronunciations. “As you go west, a lot of 0 sounds turn into I sounds,” he says. Seattle and Boston are particularly tricky, the former for its Native American names, the latter for its peculiar Yankee bent.
“Texas might be the toughest state,” says Keneely. “How do you say M-E-X-I-A?”
“Muh-hay-yuh,” I tell him.
Jill Brown wanders over to us during a break from her broadcast. Another of the more recognizable on-air faces, Brown achieved notoriety for doing forty-five minutes in the eye of Hurricane Fran back in 1996. “The best I ever did was the eye wall,” Keneely sighs.
Jim Cantore pops into Brown’s cubicle. Cantore’s the gonzo extremist, the cowboy 0CM always volunteering to cover the nastiest weather events. “The worst ones for me are the ones that don’t amount to much,” he says excitedly. Most haven’t disappointed. Some even surprise, like the second landfall of Hurricane Andrew on Baton Rouge in 1992. “We went to bed thinking it would wash through. I woke up when the air conditioner in my motel room blew in.”
Over in another cubicle, Mike Bono and Dennis Smith, two other OCMs, are talking with John Hope, TWC’s dean of hurricanes. Hope pauses to explain the appeal of his specialty. “Hurricanes are long-range phenomena that develop slowly,” he says, rating 1998 as an exceptional year. “We had thirteen hurricanes, and the average is nine. There were seven landfalling hurricanes. That’s the first time that’s happened this century.”
Hurricanes aren’t the only ratings booster. “Blizzards are just as popular,” says Hope, citing the big blast of 1996. “That was in the Northeast, where the largest concentrations of people are. It’s not the same when one blows through Utah.”
Ratings points during severe weather weren’t on the mind of John Coleman, the legendary Chicago weathercaster, when he thought up The Weather Channel almost twenty years ago. All he wanted was more than the one minute he was allotted to cover the entire country coast to coast during his daily appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a station that focused on weather without those time constraints? Coleman’s idea synced neatly with the advent of cable television all those new channels begging for programming and he found a willing partner in Landmark Communications, a Virginia-based media company.
“I was turned on by how cable was going to revolutionize how consumers would receive information,” admits Michael J. Eckert, who began at TWC on Day One as a sales manager and is now its CEO. But it wasn’t what Eckert or Coleman or Landmark thought as much as what viewers thought.
“We’ve learned some fascinating things,” says Eckert. “That consumers utilize weather information in different ways depending on the time of the day, week, month, season, and year. That business travelers look for certain information Sunday through Thursday. That consumers were ready for information on demand, which they weren’t getting elsewhere. The icing on the cake was that all these different segments had a common need local weather.”
The key to TWC’s success was a new technology called Weather Star (short for Satellite Transponder Addressable Receiver), a device that pulls data from a satellite and sorts out the information specifically intended for that receiver. That reality makes possible forecasts custom-made for each particular cable system, an edge that continues to separate The Weather Channel from its competitors.
Still, when it debuted in May of 1982, The Weather Channel was hardly a sure thing. The typical reaction was that it was a shining example of cable’s overreach. (What’s next, The Time Channel?) But within three years, TWC was turning a profit, an amazing feat for in untried programming concept. Today, TWC reaches more than seventy million households.
“It’s not the most glamorous of subjects,” Eckert admits. “It’s not music, were not sports, were not news or movies. But we do have an audience that is passionate about it.” I nodded in agreement and ;hook his hand. “See you on the 8’s,” I told him, referring to the time segment when The Weather Channel airs local forecasts. He nodded back, knowing exactly what I was talking about.
The Show Must Go On
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 15, 1999
Its stars may be senior citizens, but The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies rivals any spectacular in Vegas or on Broadway.
Mine was not an unusual male response to a bevy of showgirls strutting their stuff before my very eyes. But when those showgirls are between the ages of fifty-five and eighty-six, the reaction is, well, rather remarkable.
That’s the appeal, allure, and sheer wonder of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a full-tilt spectacular that pays homage to vaudeville, variety shows, and the vanishing specter of live performance. Playing to packed houses at the historic Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs, California, it is no sentimental journey for the geriatric set, despite the preponderance of gray hair in the audience and a fifty-year-old mandatory minimum for the performers. It is a glitzy extravaganza rivaling contemporary stage productions in Vegas or on Broadway.
Observe the line of long-legged lovelies who kick, flip, and sashay to “Hooray for Hollywood” in lavishly plumed costumes inspired by Busby Berkeley, and the equally adept company of male dancers and singers. Marvel at the deft banjo-plinking and ribald antics of the Mercer Brothers, Jim and Bud, eighty-three and eighty-six respectively, and honest-to-goodness veterans of the vaudeville stage and of the motion picture classic Tin Pan Alley. Behold the gymnastic gyrations of the Rios Brothers, who somersault through the air with the greatest of ease. Savor tributes to celebrated composer Irving Berlin. Double over from the droll quips spilling from the lips of the debonair Riff Markowitz, whose sloe eyes, wavy hair, and full mustache are the embodiment of the matinee idol.
Part nostalgia trip, part history lesson, the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular is pure entertainment, no doubt about it. But injected throughout are subtle commentaries, throwaway lines, and blatant remarks in a running commentary addressing the far more universal theme of facing mortality. Which is exactly what Riff Markowitz was contemplating back in 1990.
An acclaimed television producer (HBO’s The Hitchhiker, Tales From the Darkside, and specials starring George Burns, Raquel Welch, and Dionne Warwick, among others), Markowitz retired to the Palm Springs area in 1988 with his then-wife Mary Jardin, the beneficiary of a handsome corporate buyout that meant Markowitz need never work again, even though he had just seen the dark side of fifty.
But retirement, he quickly determined, was the last thing he wanted to do. He wasn’t interested in chasing little white balls around any of the area’s eighty-plus golf courses. Markowitz preferred putting his cumulative skills to work, and he quickly discovered other stage and screen veterans who shared that same desire to be in the spotlight once again, no matter how old they were, no matter how youth-obsessed their chosen business had become. That’s when Markowitz and Jardin came up with the Fabulous Follies concept. (Though now divorced, the two are still partners in the venture.)
The idea coincided neatly with the goal of Palm Springs civic leaders to revitalize their decaying downtown, the centerpiece of which was the recently renovated Plaza Theatre, a stunning example of Spanish mission-style architecture where comedian Jack Benny once broadcast weekly radio programs heard coast to coast. Some city fathers, however, including then-mayor Sonny Bono, thought the idea wasn’t “classy or artistic enough.” But Markowitz was undeterred, and eight months and three visits to the city council later, he was granted his wish. The Fabulous Follies revue made its debut in 1991, with none other than Markowitz as the master of ceremonies in addition to his duties as the show’s producer and the theater’s director.
Initially, he local newspaper critic panned the production, and neighboring merchants complained about all the congestion the new show had created. But as the crowds grew, and visitor spending in nearby shops sharply increased, the griping ceased. Within a year, it was the toughest ticket in town – the 806-seat venue sold out for weeks in advance. Now in its ninth season, the Follies has evolved into quite the enterprise, with annual attendance exceeding 180,000, making a $15 million impact on the community. In 1997, a documentary about the show, called Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, while “Time of Your Life,” a feature segment about the Follies made by KOMO-TV in Seattle, won an Emmy Award.
But fame and fortune aren’t what inspire these sprightly seniors. “It’s for us,” says Markowitz. “But in order to succeed, you have to impress other people. This isn’t a career move for Miss Evans [an eighty-six-year-old showgirl who amazes audiences by jumping out of a wheelchair and doing the splits]. You can’t threaten her by saying, ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’ It just doesn’t have much impact.”
Says legendary hoofer Donald O’Connor, who headlined last year’s show, “When you see something like this, it gives you a shot in the arm. People leave here different than when they come in.”
He’s right. I could almost see the cartoon bubbles floating above the audience’s heads as they shook hands and exchanged words with the cast in the lobby after the show.
“Why hang it up?”
“Why quit doing something you love to do, just because you’re supposed to?”
And in many ways as spiritually fulfilling as church, I think to myself as I leave the theater. That deep thought is interrupted by an observation no less profound. It’s those legs again. That line of lovely legs. Really and truly, they’re such nice legs.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
I SPENT SATURDAY NIGHT IN MID-APRII. Helping chaperone a dance in the cafetorium of Danforth Junior High, the school in Wimberley where my older son Jake attends eighth grade. My assignment was to guard the door at stage left, making sure no one left the building before the dance was over. I mistakenly let three boys leave after telling them they couldn’t return, only to find them back inside half an hour later, reeking of tobacco smoke. Other than that mild transgression, I had a splendid evening watching young teenagers, all brimming with adolescent energy and confusion, having fun, chatting in cliques and clusters, boys with boys and girls with girls, meeting together on the dance floor to embrace gawkily whenever a slow song was played.
Nine days later, I stood at the same spot in the Danforth cafetorium at a town meeting. We’d all gathered to ponder why, just three days after a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, four 14-year-olds were in the Hays County Juvenile Detention Center in San Marcos on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and other assorted acts of violence and mayhem, including blowing up their school. Instead of watching kids on the verge of what for many of them would he one of the most exciting times of their lives, I saw them sitting stone-faced next to their parents, hanging on to the words of the superintendent of the Wimberley Independent School District, the sheriff of Hays County, and an assistant district attorney. Standing between the speakers at the podium and the somber audience was a phalanx of men holding video cameras backlit by bright floodlights, and television reporters whose perfect hair, perfect teeth, and stylish outfits made them stand out from the more casually dressed local residents.
According to authorities, the evidence against the four boys included bomb-making instructions downloaded from the Internet, gunpowder, and crude bombs. And apparently the boys had given police the names of specific teachers and students they had told each other they’d like to get. Many people in the audience who stepped to the microphone praised the superintendent, the school administration, and the sheriff for acting swiftly on the heels of what had happened at Columbine High School. Some called for remedies such as metal detectors, school uniforms, and prayer to ensure the students’ safety. Numerous others wondered aloud how the boys, if they really did what they were accused of doing, managed to develop such anger and hate.
I had arrived back home that afternoon from a trip to Chicago on family business. While traveling, I’d seen footage of Jake’s school on television framed by words and voice-overs linking Danforth Junior High to the violence in Colorado. On television even the wooden sign at the edge of town identifying Wimberley as “A Little Bit of Heaven” appeared sinister. The whole world, it seemed, was watching my community.
I just had time to pick up Jake and take him to the town meeting. I asked him a few questions about school and the students’ reactions. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it, so I asked him how his television appearances had gone. Jake was the newly elected president of next year’s freshman class, and while I’d been out of town, several reporters had contacted him. Since I’ve earned a living most of my adult life as a reporter, I didn’t want Jake to be afraid of the media. At the same time, I fully understood why many parents were telling their children not to speak to anyone from the press.
“They edited me down to ten seconds,” Jake said.
“Welcome to the world of soundbites,” I replied cynically.
After the meeting, we came home and watched Jake and my wife, Kris, on NBC’s Dateline. Kris talked about the fear of Wimberley being another Littleton and voiced concern for the boys who’d been detained. Jake admitted he had once downloaded instructions on how to make a smoke bomb from the Internet a year ago. The interviewer asked him why he did it. “I was curious,” Jake said, acknowledging our concern when we had learned about it.
I was relieved that Jake had said “smoke bomb” instead of “bomb.” I thought that by appearing on the program maybe Jake and Kris brought a little reason into what I feared was a state of hysteria being whipped up by the media. But as we continued to talk, Kris and I started wondering if we’d done the right thing. By being forthright, had we set ourselves up?
Should we have just told the reporters no and spared our son the glare of scrutiny? Jake played Doom and Quake, and we had gunpowder in the house, in the form of Black Cat firecrackers left over from New Year’s Eve. Would the authorities be paying us a visit next, confiscating computers and fireworks? Kris worried that she’d betrayed Jake’s trust by telling the Dateline producers about our own downloading incident. I was so rattled I couldn’t tell Jake about the item I’d read in the newspaper about the father in Port Aransas who had turned in his son for downloading bomb-making instructions from the Internet–one of numerous similar incidents across the state and the nation that week. Instead I had to advise Jake that if investigators approached him at school, as they had other students, he wasn’t to say a word until we were present, along with an attorney. The four boys who’d been detained had only the count) precinct constable present to explain their rights during their initial interrogation; they weren’t allowed to see their parents for more than 24 hours.
It wasn’t just us. Everyone in town was uncomfortable until the end of the week, when the cameras and reporters finally left. That’s when my community really got busy. Parents, students, and teachers held formal and informal meetings to discuss how to keep kids engaged, identify problems, and seek solutions. Two buildings at the Emily Ann Theatre, an outdoor theater built for high school theater productions with volunteer help last year, have been secured to organize after-school and summer activities. The programs, to he run by volunteers, are the only such alternative to a school system still facing budget cuts after eliminating programs such as art and music from the elementary school. The end-of-the-day advisory period eliminated at Danforth this year is scheduled to be reinstated next fall. Gary Weeks, a craftsman who makes rocking chairs and serves as the president of Wimberley Teens, Inc., the nonprofit parent and student organization that sponsored the dance I had chaperoned, called a meeting to try to anticipate what ninth graders in high school are going to need next year. Nathalie Harris, a parent of another eighth grader and the owner of a Christian bookstore, has organized a campaign to write letters to the boys in detention, noting that they were her daughter’s friends and that instead of seeing them, her daughter sees only empty desks in her classes now. Mike Crowley, a neighbor who manages singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, is organizing concerts in August and October to benefit the Emily Ann and further involve the community. Churches are stepping up their youth programs, and Jake has signed up to go on a mission trip to Nuevo Laredo with the Wimberley Presbyterian Church this summer. Wimberley’s like that.
At this writing, the boys are still in the Hays County Juvenile Detention Center. Something in the back of my mind tells me that in the full light of day the incident will fade away, that the evidence was factually correct but that the consequences implied by that evidence were blown out of proportion, an understandable overreaction on the side of caution in response to the events at Columbine High. Besides the shame of spending time in the juvenile detention center and being shown on television in prison orange, the four boys will in all likelihood have to attend another high school, which at this time in their tender lives is severe punishment indeed.
The sheriff and school authorities were right to act swiftly. If it could happen in suburban Colorado, it could happen anywhere, even in Wimberley. But I think the parents and friends of the boys detained were right as well. Those boys are our problem too. What prompted them to do what they did, if their intentions were in fact malicious, as has been claimed? Another eighth grader told me that one of the boys detained, who came to Wimberley from Hawaii, disliked a teacher for referring to him as “Kamikaze,” reminding me of the comment of one parent at the town meeting: “If we have zero tolerance for students, shouldn’t we have zero tolerance for teachers and administrators too?” The incident has prompted both Kris and me to reassess our roles as parents, with the full understanding that no matter how good a job we might do, it will never be good enough. We’ve tried to keep the dialogue going at our house, and there have been some bumps along the way, as there always will he. We’re trying harder to listen with open minds. I still worry that in our rush to feel safe and secure we don’t violate the trust that has been built up with our children over the years. If the rules and restrictions we impose on teens become too onerous, will they still feel comfortable enough to confide in us? Will they be able to make mistakes, part of the process of growing up?
On the next to last page of the same edition of the Wimberley View that ran the headline “Wimberley Shocked By Arrests of Four Junior High Boys” was a picture of the eighth-grade boys’ track team. The photograph included three of the four boys detained. They looked like good kids to me, just like my kid, just like your kid. We may be relieved it wasn’t our child who was detained and accused, but those four boys who are being held belong to us too, at least in a village like Wimberley. We didn’t need the whole world watching our little town to understand that.
extra Team Player How George W. Bush ran the Texas Rangers and became, finally, a successful businessman. [Texas Monthly, June 1999]
The Mid-Nineties: George W. Bush greeting fans and signing balls at the ballpark in Arlington.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How he ran the Texas Rangers and became, finally, a successful businessman.
HE MAY BE IN THE MIDDLE OF A LEGISLATIVE session and at the start of a run for president, but priorities being what they are, George W Bush spent the first Monday in April at the Ballpark in Arlington, where his career as an organization man took shape. It was a glorious spring afternoon, with clear blue skies providing a brilliant contrast to the emerald green of the outfield grass. Over the course of nine innings at the Texas Rangers’ home opener against the Detroit Tigers, Bush sat in a box seat behind the first-base dugout next to his wife, Laura, team owner Tom Hicks, and then team president Tom Schieffer; signed autographs in the stands; strolled into the clubhouse to chat up players and personnel; and fielded questions in the press box. He even popped into the booth where Rangers games are broadcast in Spanish and called the play when Juan Gonzalez broke up a no-hitter: “Un hit de Juan! El primer hit de Texas del juego!”
The Ballpark is the legacy of Bush’s five-year stint as managing general partner of the Rangers, a time in which he built U both the franchise’s bottom line and his own, along the way honing many of the skills he draws upon in politics. Fundraiser Bush shook out $46 million from various investors during the depths of Texas’ last economic bust in the run-up to busing the team. Consensus-builder Bush got the Ballpark referendum passed in Arlington when similar measures were being nixed by voters elsewhere. Manager Bush ran a business efficiently in the glare of the public eye. People-person Bush nourished the egos of the famous and the anonymous, from Juan Gonzalez to the groundskeepers, always addressing them k name.
After all that, running the free world might seem like T-ball.
PRIVILEGE, PEDIGREE, AND PERSONAL relationships were the reasons Bush hooked up with the Rangers in the first place. His name surfaced as a possible major league owner in the weeks after his father was elected president. “George had spent most of 1988 campaigning and then on the transition team, but he decided he didn’t want to he in Washington-he wanted to go back to Texas,” says one of his fraternity brothers, Roland W. Betts, a movie financier who’d been looking for a pro sports team to buy. “In December he called me and said the Rangers were in play. The Macks [a venerable baseball family] wanted to buy the team from Eddie Chiles, but there was growing concern that they wanted to move the team to Florida.”
Chiles, the Fort Worth oilman who achieved notoriety with his ‘I’m Mad” radio spots, had known George W. as a kid. A friend of the Bush family, he flew George’s sister Robin to hospitals in his private plane when she was diagnosed with leukemia. He’d bought the Rangers in 1980, but at age 78 he was ready to call it quits-a fact Bush was made aware of by William DeWitt, Jr., his oil-business partner in Midland in the eighties. DeWitt, whose father had owned the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Reds, wanted a piece of a team himself.
Bush got cash commitments from several sources. Betts signed on, but only after receiving assurances that his friend wasn’t going to run for office anytime soon. Also ponying up were Connecticut real estate whiz Craig Stapleton, Bush’s cousin through marriage; former Marriott Corporation executive Fred Malek, who had been a member of Richard Nixon’s inner circle; and three Cincinnati investors: produce wholesaler Bob Castellini, oilman Mercer Reynolds, and broadcasting executive Dudley Taft. Chiles was so impressed that he signed a letter of agreement with the Bush group.
But baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth wasn’t satisfied. Although he wanted Chiles to find a buyer who would keep the Rangers in Texas, a top ten media market, he thought Bush’s investors didn’t have enough local ties. At Ueberroth’s urging, Bush went to see Fort Worth financier
Richard Rainwater, the money man behind the Bass family. Subsequently Rainwater met with Bush, Betts, and Stapleton at the Highland Park home of Edward “Rusty” Rose, a financier known as the Mortician for his ability to squeeze profits from failing companies acquired through leveraged buyouts. “We talked about the possibility of owning the team together,” Betts recalls.
At the end of the day Rainwater said if he was going to do it, he wanted Rose as general partner because he liked and trusted him. I said the same thing about George. Rose and George met, and after a few lunches they agreed to run the team together.” The publicity-shy Rose made one stipulation: Bush would be the managing general partner, meaning he’d deal with the media and the public, while Rose would serve as chairman of the board.
Rose threw in $3.2 million and raised another $9 million from other investors, including Rainwater and cable television mogul Jeff Marcus. Bush rounded up $14 million, contributing $606,000 of his own-the smallest amount of any major investor. All told, seventy investors representing 39 limited partnerships bought a piece of the team. Betts and fellow film financier Tom Bernstein paid the most money ($7 million) and received the largest share (18 percent).
Once those initial arrangements were hammered out, Bush approached several other investors. Among them were Schieffer, a former state representative from Fort Worth, and Comer Cottrell, the CEO of a Dallas hair products firm. Edward Gaylord, the Oklahoma City media magnate, reduced the one-third piece of the team he’d bought from Chiles in 1986 to 10 percent. Other small shareholders from the Chiles era, including Arlington realtor Mike Reilly, held on to a total of 4 percent.
The Bush-Rose group was formally incorporated as BR Rangers. No decision would be made without the approval of the two general partners. “Neither of us has the responsibility to make any decision without consulting with the other,” Bush would later explain. “On a certain task, he may lead on it or I may take the lead. The buck stops on our desks.” For his efforts, Bush was paid an annual salary of $200,000; Rose’s company would reportedly receive a retainer of $120,000. In addition, once all the investors were repaid with accrued interest, both Bush and Rose were to be compensated for putting the deal together with a bonus, or promote fee, of 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
The $86 million deal was officially approved by baseball’s executive committee in April 1989. But the real work had only just begun.
T0 PUT IT KINDLY, THE RANGERS WERE a beaten-down franchise. Since relocating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area from Washington, D.C., in 1972, they had consistently performed poorly on the field and at the ticket office. They were finally drawing fans (they passed the 1.5 million mark in attendance in 1986, 1987, and 1988) and cultivating talent (pitcher Nolan Ryan, a bona fide star; Ruben Sierra, an outfielder with Hall of Fame potential) but they were playing in a jerry-built stadium that was originally intended for minor league competition. “The first time I went down there, I was just shocked,” says Betts, and he wasn’t alone in his assessment. “At our first meeting, that was the mantra: To turn this thing around and add value to our investment, we were going to build a new stadium.”
Most of the 1989 season was devoted to learning the business of baseball. Quickly adapting to his role as the public face of the owners’ consortium, Bush was as much of a fixture at the old Arlington Stadium as John “Zonk” Lanzillo, Jr., the drum-beating superfan. He was always in his seat next to the dugout, boots up on the railing, munching peanuts, watching the game, signing more autographs than most of the players. His parents got involved too. In 1989 their springer spaniel Millie gave birth to Spot Fletcher, who was named in honor of Rangers shortstop Scott Fletcher. Two years later the president broke tradition and threw out the first pitch of the season in Arlington instead of Baltimore, the closest city to Washington with a major league club.
Behind the scenes, George W. set to mending fences, improving the team’s image, and winning over critics like Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who covered the sale of the Rangers and had few kind words for the Bush group. “I had an early built-in grudge against George in particular,” says Reeves. “I thought he was a failed politician and obviously a guy who was playing off his dad’s name because he wasn’t putting much money in.” Bush went out of his way to win over Reeves, even inviting him to play a round of golf, and the reporter gradually came around. “I found him to be a very personable, direct, very informed general partner. The more we were around him, the better the team’s relationship with the press would be. You could believe what he told you.”
He was good at other things as well: He was instrumental in neutralizing the agendas of various personnel, marketing Ryan aggressively, and broadening the team’s appeal by instituting Spanish-language broadcasts. Baseball details, however, were left to the baseball people. “They went out of their way to let us know they weren’t going to be hands-on owners,” said Tom Grieve, then the Rangers’ general manager. “They made it clear from the start they did not buy the team because they wanted to brag to their friends that they owned a baseball team. They told me, ‘We’re business people and expect to be profitable, and we expect our baseball people to be accountable.’ But never did they come in and say, ‘When are you gonna get rid of this guy?'”
By the end of the first year the initial plan that had been in the back of everyone’s mind was formalized. If the Rangers were going to make the transition from a have-not franchise to one of the haves and maximize their value, they would have to play in a new stadium-ideally, a state-of-the-art facility that looked old and traditional but had all the requisite sky boxes and other modern bells and whistles. The partners looked around for someone who could manage a large public project, considering both Tom Luce and Bush himself at one point before designating Schieffer the stadium czar in July 1990. He was charged with selecting a site, developing a strategy, and getting the project under way despite a seemingly impossible obstacle: The partners didn’t want to have to pay for the new park themselves.
Schieffer looked around the Metroplex for a few months before concluding that Arlington was the best site and that a half-cent local sales tax was the best way to pay for it. He then got busy winning over voters to raise the $135 million in bonds it would take to build a new home for the home team. Tarrant County judge Tom Vandergriff, who was instrumental in luring the
Rangers from Washington, and Arlington mayor Richard Greene were enlisted to spearhead the three-month effort. Both Schieffer and Bush were actively involved. At one point both men spoke from the pulpit of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Arlington, with Bush declaring, “A vote for the tax would be a vote for contracts for African American businesses.”
With minimal opposition–Arlington’s economy is based on tourism and entertainment, and a large percentage of its sales taxes are paid by out-of-towners–the bond issue passed in January 1991 by a two-to-one margin. Nearly 34,000 voters went to the ballot box-more than in any election in Arlington’s history. Under their agreement with the city, the Rangers would chip in $30 million from revenues of ticket sales, surcharges, and luxury-box leases, and pay for any additional costs, which added up to an another $26 million. The team would assume full ownership of the stadium when the bonds were paid off. “This eventually will give us the ability to compete on a payroll level that will put us with a whole new echelon of ballclubs,” Bush said after the referendum passed. “We’ll be able to pay the market price to keep our talent and, at the same time, keep ticket prices down.” Following the vote, Schieffer shifted his focus to the Texas Legislature, which passed a bill that would ratify the arrangement, then he took the lead in getting the park built, soliciting designs from architects-nineteen submitted bids-before hiring David Schwartz of Washington, D.C., a Bass family favorite.
Back home, two flaps surfaced around the construction of the stadium. The first involved the condemnation of thirteen acres of land owned by the Curtis Mathes family, for which the city offered $1.375 million and the Matheses wanted $2.1 million. A state district court eventually declared the condemnation illegal and ordered that the Mathes group be paid the full amount they asked for, plus damages, which ultimately came to more than $11 a square foot, far higher than the $2.67 per square foot maximum that the city paid for any other single parcel during the land acquisition. The Rangers eventually worked out a payment plan to pay off the difference. The second snag was the awarding of minority contracts. The Rangers were criticized by the Arlington chapters of the NAACP and LULAC, the Arlington Hispanic Advisory Council, and even one of their own partners, Comer Cotrell, for not throwing enough business to black and Hispanic firms.
In the end, of course, the problems got resolved and the Ballpark got built. Much of the credit went-correctly-to Schieffer, who demonstrated he could orchestrate and delegate and was rewarded by being named the team’s president. But Bush’s behind-the-scenes involvement-in managing Schieffer, troubleshooting, and going public when necessary-was crucial, people familiar with the situation say. “The bond election, the ballpark, the financing technique, that was all George’s deal,” says Mike Reilly. “He quarterbacked the whole thing, but he never took the credit.”
BUSH TOOK A LEAVE OF ABSENCE FROM the team before the 1994 season to run for governor, missing much of the Ballpark’s inaugural season. The venues, classic lines and distinctively Texan look-from the native granite and red brick to the Longhorns iii the facade-were an instant hit, drawing almost 3 million fans. A museum, sports bar and restaurant, luxury boxes, and a four-story office building outside the outfield fence bumped up the final cost to $191 million, but those additional revenue streams led Financial World magazine to rate it as the most profitable facility in baseball.
During the election, Ann Richards tried to make the public-private arrangement for financing the stadium an issue in the governor’s race, a means of showing Bush as a beneficiary of corporate welfare, but it didn’t take. After he won, Bush put his assets-including his share of the Rangers-in a blind trust and resigned as managing general partner. (His timing couldn’t have been better: A players’ strike cut short the 1994 season, caused the World Series to be canceled, and alienated many fans.)
Bush’s official parting with the team came four years later, in June 1998, when buyout king Tom Hicks snapped it up for $250 million. By the time of sale, Bush’s 1.8 percent share of the ownership had ballooned to 11.3 percent, and he pocketed almost $15 million: $2.7 million as a return on his investment and a $12.2 million “general partner interest”–his 10 percent “promote fee” for putting the ownership group together back in 1989. Not surprisingly, he was widely criticized by the usual suspects–the Texas Observer among them-for earning so much while seemingly doing so little, but his fellow owners sprang to his defense. “To me and to everyone in the partnership,” Schieffer says, “it was not unusual to get a percentage on the hack end like that for putting the deal together.”
In any case, what Bush really got out of the deal was something more important than money: After years as Junior, he finally became his own man. “Before the Rangers, I told him he needed to do something to step out of his father’s shadow,” says Roland Betts. “Baseball was it. He became our local celebrity. He knew every usher. He signed autographs. He talked to fans. His presence meant everything. His eyes were on politics the whole time, but even when he was speaking at Republican functions, he was always talking about the Rangers.”
extra My Wimberley Why Wimberley is not Columbine. [Texas Monthly, Behind the Lines, Texas Feature, June 1999]
Natalie Maines and Lloyd Maines. (Photo by Danny Turner)
Ya’ll in the Family
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
What Natalie Maines Learned From Her Father. What Lloyd Maines Learns From His Daughter. A Tale Of Kinship And Country Music.
“Stand straight. Keep your chin down. Relax. Quit worrying you’ll look like you’re a goober.”
For most of Natalie Maines’s life, her father, Lloyd, the potential goober, was her major influence. He was the one with the music career the revered producer of records by everyone from Jerry Jeff Walker to Wayne Hancock, and a wicked-good steel guitar player to boot and she obviously learned from him well, though his teachings were so low-key and subtle that she realizes today she learned most everything by osmosis. And it was he who facilitated the deal that landed her in the Dixie Chicks, her ticket to the big time. But in this East Austin photographer’s studio, before lights and cameras that are completely foreign to a behind-the-scenes player like Lloyd, she’s the one who calls the shots. She has even loaned him the makeup artist she had flown in from Nashville (standard operating procedure when you’re a chart-topping country star) and taken the time to give him a few tips on applying foundation. Natalie’s on a much-deserved break from the road right now, she has told me, turning down all requests for interviews and media ops. But since her dad is involved, she has made an exception. She’d do anything for him.
And he for her. Reflecting his laid-back approach to life, 48-year-old Lloyd patiently waits for his daughter to strike a pose before he straightens up and places his hands on her shoulders. His idea of mischief is to make devil’s horns with his fingers behind her head. For her part, 25-year-old Natalie whose public image is that of a bubbly spitfire hardly able to contain her energy and always looking as if she’s about to burst into song handles the session like a seasoned pro, cool, calm, and quiet, until she turns on the perky charisma and flashes a radiant smile in anticipation of the whirs and clicks.
Posing is business as usual for her. She’s used to having all eyes on her in this case, makeup artists, publicists, photographers, and photographer’s assistants, who do what they do so she can do what she’s supposed to do. But with her mother, Tina, looking on, the superstar seems abnormally normal. For a few moments, she’s the sweet gal from Lubbock all over again, joshing with her daddy. He’s hugging her. She’s hugging a guitar. They’re the unsung first family of Texas music, playing themselves.LLOYD HAS NEVER BEEN ANYTHING BUT normal. An exceptionally decent fellow, particularly for someone in his line of work, he’s as earthy today as he was 25 years ago, when he made his name as a member of the Joe Ely Band, a crack ensemble way too raucous for Nashville tastes but with too much High Plains red dirt in their boots to pass as rockers. His steel guitar was their secret weapon. He played it like it was a nitro-fueled dragster, which certainly went against the grain of how steels were supposed to sound in those days: all weepy and morose, as a counterpoint to the melody. It was while he was working with Ely that Lloyd developed a side interest in producing. His first project, Terry Allen’s Lubbock (On Everything), was a rather auspicious debut. Recorded at Don Caldwell’s studio in 1977, the album still holds up as the most succinct commentary on the West Texas condition ever captured on audiotape. The session cemented Lloyd’s reputation as something of an efficiency expert too. The band he put together featuring his brother Kenny on bass and a drummer named Curtis McBride jumped in behind Allen and his leather briefcase full of songs to complete 22 tracks in two days. Lubbock (On Everything) also put on view Lloyd’s particular knack for bringing out the best in people. “Terry had recorded before for Capitol, and when he did, the producer gave him grief for stomping his foot as he sang,” he says. “Instead of trying to hide that, we kept it in. His foot became the kick drum.”
The work that followed was mostly of a more mundane variety, meaning whoever and whatever walked in the doors of Caldwell’s studio. There were aspiring country stars, of course, and rock and rollers, along with Christian contemporary and gospel groups, heavy metal bands, conjuntos and other Tex-Mexers, and local commercial clients that needed audio for radio and TV spots. He also took the lead in producing the eight albums recorded by the Maines Brothers Band, the country and country-pop combine that dominated the South Plains live music circuit after Ely moved to Austin in 1981.
Ely had wanted him to come along, but Lloyd decided to stay in Lubbock so that he and Tina could raise their two daughters, Kim and Natalie, where they themselves had come of age. He got off the road altogether following an extended international tour on which the Ely band opened for the English punk band the Clash. “My kids were old enough for me to realize that they needed a dad at home,” he says. “And I liked the idea of producing, of recording something that’s going to be around a long time for people to criticize and analyze, as opposed to playing live, which was for the moment. It didn’t matter what I produced. I just enjoyed the process, and it allowed me to pay the bills.”
Neither he nor Tina had made a big deal of what he did for a living. He had made flying all over the world with Ely and rubbing elbows with Linda Ronstadt seem like another day at the office. But it sure rubbed off. “I remember Terry and Joe and the Tornado Jams and Stubb’s,” Natalie says. “But I didn’t grasp how great they were. The person I really remember is Jo Harvey [Allen, Terry’s wife, an accomplished playwright and actress]. I adored her. I always wanted to hang out with her. I was sort of a little brat. And her term of endearment for me was ‘little shit,’ as in, ‘You know, you’re a real little shit.’ I loved it.”
No one remembers exactly when Natalie’s destiny became obvious. She hadn’t taken a single singing lesson, but she had quite a voice and an attitude to back it up. It might have been when the precocious three-year-old continued banging on the piano, willfully ignoring her dad’s demands that she stop even though she knew she was making him mad. Or a year later, when she tap-danced to Cecil Caldwell’s music and sang “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” backed by the Maines Brothers Band at the West Texas Opry.
“Dad was putting me onstage whenever I wanted,” she says. “I’d go to rehearsal and work up a song for the show with the band. He was just so proud.” Tina thinks it might have been the time Natalie’s second-grade teacher called her at home after Natalie refused to answer a particular math question “because I’m going to be a star.” Standing in line one day at the Baskin-Robbins, Tina became certain that her daughter was headed for some kind of career: “All of a sudden I heard ‘Greased Lightnin” being belted out behind me and I cringed. She knew every lyric and every line of dialogue from both Grease and West Side Story and could recite them in several different dialects. She had Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ down cold.”
Lloyd was pragmatic about accommodating his little girl, but he wasn’t pushy. If he needed someone to sing backing vocals for a commercial, he knew Natalie would be only too happy to help. “One time he needed a vampire’s laugh for a spook house, and he let me do it,” she recalls. “The guy designing the spook house said I was excellent.” And whenever Natalie asked, Lloyd passed on the sort of deep knowledge that isn’t taught in school, like the value of doing your own songs and keeping your publishing rights, or how if someone called you “baby” in L.A., it was the same as someone in Nashville calling you “hoss.”
After graduating from Lubbock High School a year early, Natalie spent a semester at Canyon’s West Texas A&M University before transferring to South Plains College in Levelland, which was closer to home. There, her musical inclinations became her studies, and she began performing on her own more. With Lloyd backing her up on acoustic guitar and manning the console, she made a demo tape and earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Again, one semester far from home was enough. She moved back to Lubbock in 1995 and had enrolled at Texas Tech University when she got the call that changed her life.
Daddy had already given his blessing in advance. His production credits on albums by Jimmie Dale Gilmore (his self-titled second recording for the HighTone label), Butch Hancock (The Wind’s Dominion and Diamond Hill), and Jerry Jeff Walker (Navajo Rug) had raised his profile enough that he had great word-of-mouth within the community of Texas country players. It was this reputation that led to, among other things, a stint playing on two albums by a fringe-wearing girl group talented enough to play their own banjos, guitars, and fiddles. They called themselves the Dixie Chicks.
After Robin Lynn Macy and then Laura Lynch had left the Chicks, founding sisters Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel sought Lloyd’s advice for a replacement. He gave them a copy of the demo tape Natalie had made for Berklee. Could his daughter have the right stuff for them? He was apprehensive: She was only twenty his baby girl. He knew the road was treacherous. But he also knew she was a go-getter who absorbed things fast.
Natalie accepted an invitation to try out with one caveat. “I won’t wear those cowgirl clothes,” she told Emily and Martie. A week later, she was performing onstage as the third Chick. The band’s sound and look changed dramatically. So did its financial outlook.
Especially after Lloyd brought a certain tune to the Chicks. He’d gotten a call from a woman in Amarillo named Susan Gibson, who asked if he’d be interested in producing a record by the band she played in, the Groobees. He sat down to listen to their audition tape and was floored by the first song, about a child leaving home. He played it nine times. “The dad even says, ‘Check your oil,'” Lloyd marvels. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that.” After producing the Groobees, he persuaded the Chicks to cover the song, “Wide Open Spaces.” He says that when he sits in with the Chicks on the road, “you think you’re at a Beatles concert. These girls and these guys have tears in their eyes. It’s like an anthem.”
Having her father play with her band has made Natalie aware of how much they are in sync with each other. “We actually hear things the same way what to hear, how a song is structured,” she says. “Some of it’s telepathic. He’ll just stop the tape and I’ll know what he’s going to say.” Sometimes she even knows what he’s supposed to say. “When we played ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ on The Tonight Show, we all told him during rehearsal that he was doing one little lick different from what was on the record, and he’s the one playing on the recording. We had to teach him the lick again.”
The best trick that Lloyd picked up in the studio and passed on to Natalie has been how to use and not use reverb, the echo effect that was cultivated by Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico, and became Buddy Holly’s signature. “Norman had the most calming effect in the studio,” Lloyd says. “One thing he taught me was that when you’re overdubbing, it’s best not to let yourself hear reverb, because you’ll sound better than you really are. He said, ‘I like to hear a voice as dry as possible.'”
Natalie shares that opinion: “No reverb in the studio, on tape, in the headphones. Why use it if you don’t need it?”
What else did Dad teach her? Stick to your guns, a lesson all the Chicks have taken to heart. “Emily played banjo when she first went to Nashville,” Lloyd remembers, “and she was told she shouldn’t play banjo. She said, ‘Yes, I can, because that’s what I do.’ Guess what’s the hot studio instrument of the moment in Nashville?” Lloyd smiles wickedly. “Those three girls are nice and they’re sweet,” he continues, “but the people around them know they have to get the job done, because if someone on the team hasn’t been doing so, they’ll tell them, ‘You’re outta here’ in a heartbeat.”
Despite his daughter’s rapid rise to platinum-selling status, Lloyd has been resolute about staying in the trenches, focusing on producing up-and-comers like the Robison brothers, Pat Green, and his latest protegee, Terri Hendrix, who’s taking the do-it-yourself route, starting her own label and racking up sales of 10,000 units on her second album, Wilory Farm, and 6,000 on her follow-up, Terri Hendrix Live. He’s also taking the opportunity to work with old-timers he admires, most recently Johnny Bush and Hank Thompson. And he still sits in with Joe, Jerry Jeff, and Robert Earl Keen, but only as his time and interest allow. Robert Earl regularly sends him his touring schedule just in case.
The biggest change in his life hasn’t been nurturing a Dixie Chick; it was finally leaving Lubbock. He spent so much time recording bands in Austin 219 days in one year by his calculation that he and Tina relocated there in 1998, reasoning that the kids were out of the house and the work was where the work was. They miss their friends and family, Tina says, but they don’t miss other things. “I heard that it rained mud the other day,” she says. “That I don’t miss.”
Lloyd’s style of working remains the same. “I like to keep it moving,” he says. “I don’t like to waste time. Once you’ve got the machine rolling, it’s best to keep it there until you hit a wall, then you take a break. The reason I crank out so many records is that most of them are low-budget; we can’t spend a lot of days making it. An act might come in with $10,000 to do the whole master. That’s what major labels spend on catering!”
Natalie thinks he undersells himself. “I just did a session in Los Angeles with the Pretenders and Stevie Nicks,” she reports, “and they didn’t know who he is! And they should! He’s almost too fair. Not only does he tell you when it’s sharp or flat, he arranges songs. He ought to get a songwriting credit on every track he produces. He has never gotten credit for being as creative as he is.” Spoken like a doting, fiercely protective daughter.
“I’ve been a little scared of this business in some ways, just because it’s so volatile,” Lloyd explains. “Being self-employed, you wake up hoping the phone will ring. She dove right into it, head-on. I’ve observed her fearless approach. Maybe some of that has rubbed off on me.”
Just as his take on Texas music that it’s okay to be imperfect as long as you put your soul into it has rubbed off on the young pro at the top of her game. “Follow your heart, do what you want to do, and don’t do anything you don’t want to do; that’s what he taught me,” Natalie says. “There’s always give and take, but stick to your guns. We’re a band. Our passion is not to be stars, but to play music and reach our audience. “I didn’t realize until recently how naturally it all came to me,” she says, packing her bags when the shoot is over. She’ll spend the night at her parents’ house before hitting the road. “We both recognize we’ve got a good thing going on,” she says emphatically, leaving no room for more questions. “We know it.”
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble EPIC/LEGACY [Box Set]
SRV breaks out of the gate with Little Stevie Vaughan before he was Stevie Ray. A member of Paul Ray and the Cobras, the kid’s doing “Thunderbird”the upbeat, swinging standard by the Nightcaps, Texas’ first great white-boy blues banda song that every Dallas kid with an electric guitar and an attitude knew by heart. The voice is already full-formed, deep and bluesy. The instrumental prowess, in terms of tone, technique, and attack, is already over the heads of his bandmates. And so begins a long evolution, detailed by the low-down and dirty reading of “I’m Crying,” from Vaughan’s first recording session with Double Trouble, followed by a full-throttle shuffle, “You’re Gonna Miss Me Baby” and 51 other tracks. Most of the songs on this three-CD set are unissued alternate studio takes or live performances. Rarer gems like “Rude Mood/Pipeline” performed with brother Jimmie for MTV and three songs from Vaughan’s last gig, at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley, are worth the price of admission alone. Taken as a whole, it is even bettera remarkable body of work. So if earlier recordings Vaughan made as half of Blackbird with Christian-Charles de Plique or as part of the Nightcrawlers with Doyle Bramhall and Marc Benno in the early seventies are missing (or even “Let’s Dance,” the song and guitar break that made David Bowie’s career), it’s a minor complaint. What’s important is that the box set captures Stevie Ray Vaughan in full blazing glory, locked into that sweet spot where he could soak up roots, tradition, and soul the way he did so well and then take all that to the next level. Ten years after he died, it’s clearer than ever: SRV was in a different zone. Texas guitar will never sound the same.
Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Summer 2000, Issue No. 42
It begins with the discovery of a black-and-white photograph dated 1961. The setting is Walker’s Auditorium, a chitlin’ circuit showcase for touring black musicians in Waco, Texas, the same city where a black man named Washington Jess had been lynched 45 years earlier. In the center of the shot is the performing artist Jimmy Reed, dressed to the nines in a shiny cream-colored suit with black lapels and a black low tie, strumming a guitar and looking back at the photographer beaming a wide-open smile, a pure expression of some kind of ecstasy, wiggling a hip, the fingers of his left hand contorting to make a chord on the fret board while his right hand works the strings below, stroking.
In the foreground are the head and shoulders of another black man in a dark suit, looking off to the side, a guy in the band you can’t see well enough to identify. Over Reed’s left shoulder in the background is a second black man, in a white short-sleeved shirt, holding what appears to be another guitar. It may or may not be Eddie Taylor or A.C. Reed, two of Jimmy Reed’s sidemen, but it really doesn’t matter.
It’s the scene beyond the two microphones set up on the lip of the small stage that counts: a sea of young white faces, most of them clustered around the stage watching, others dancing, all eyes fixed on Jimmy Reed. Most all of them are males, though you can see a couple of young women among them brazenly walking the wild side. One college-aged gentleman clutches a can of Lone Star beer, his brow furrowed, concentrating hard, really hard, as if trying to understand what it all means, working at getting into the groove. The burr-headed man next to him is bent down low towards the ground, face relaxed, lost in a dream. He already knows.
Across the stage are two boys in matching white shirts and dark ties, both resting left arms on left knees propped up on the stage, paying very close attention. The image leaves the impression that it’s still early, but by midnight, no more three hours after the moment was captured by the photograph, everyone in the picture will be foaming-at-the-mouth, stark-raving mad, flat-on-their-ass shit-faced drunk, Jimmy Reed included.
But the more I look at the photograph, the more I see Jimmy Reed the liberator, as well as Jimmy Reed the showman. I’m not certain, but I’m almost absolutely positive that without Jimmy Reed, the integration of the South would have been even far more contentious and difficult fight. By attracting and emancipating white southern youth in the late fifties and early sixties through music and alcohol and the fine art of having a good time, he set the stage for Martin Luther King. Laws legislating change in the wake of the societal crossover that was in play at the time within the realm of entertainment, thanks to Jimmy Reed and his peers. The message may have been one of pure pleasure with a subtext of celebrating being yourself (Jimmy Reed couldn’t have put on an act if he wanted to). The effect was far more reaching.
I sought out five white musicians who were my elders when it came to learning about blues in the first place, to find out whether that’s was the way it really was.
THE FIRST TIME
“Lemme tell you, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard a Jimmy Reed song. I was in Fort Worth, over on the south side, I can’t remember what intersection, when “Honest I Do” came on the radio. I was in the car with about three other guys and I just went apeshit –especially at the big cymbal crash. It wasn’t but a few weeks later we were playing Blue Monday out at the Skyliner Ballroom [on the infamous Jacksboro Highway, the sin strip of Texas], Jimmy Levens [the star black disc jockey on KNOK-AM] always booked us out there. He booked all those shows. Blue Monday was when blacks had the Skyliner [the rest of the week the only blacks in the house were the performers and the hired help] and Jimmy would always put shows on out there.
On this particular night, Red Prysock was out there playing, and I don’t know who all. We played out there a lot, a lot of times played with Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, you know, in fact I think they were there that night. But we were out there, we played on our own [with his band, the Straitjackets], so we got to stay and watch the whole show, sat right on the side of the stage, and I hear somebody playing harp [his voice takes on this faraway wistful tone]. Do you remember the old Skyliner Ballroom? The stage was built for an orchestra, so they would hang this sheer from across the back half of the stage, so it wouldn’t look like such a huge stage. And Jimmy Reed comes walking out behind there playing the harmonica. And I just about shit.
I had been playing harmonica all my life but I was playing stuff like “Dixie” and little Irish jigs, and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”, shit like that. The next day, I went over to T.H.Conn music store–that’s back when harmonicas cost seventy five cents a piece–and I got a few harps. I have been playing harp regularly since that day.”
“My momma used to get mad at me. They used to play him on the radio and I’d be working at my mother’s store, and when Joe Anthony [the disc jockey who hosted the Harlem Hit Parade on KONO in San Antonio] would come on, I’d go in the back room and listen to him. She’d know where I was, and she’d find me and say, ‘Junior, get back over there!’
It was between him or Slim Harpo. They both had that almost nasal kind of voice.
First time I saw Jimmy Reed was at a theater on Telephone Road in Houston. I went there on my motor scooter, drove 200 miles from San Antonio, 35 miles an hour. There wasn’t the Interstate back then. I had an Allstate, cost me forty five cents in gas to get there and cost me $4 to get in. It was mostly all-black [crowd]. If the white people were there, they were Cajuns.”
“When I first encountered Jimmy Reed, it must have been on the radio from Dewey Phillips. Around here [Memphis, where Dickinson grew up] in the mid to late fifties, that’s what was going on. I didn’t understand til I got to Texas that the music I was hearing was not universal music. Dewey Phillips used to say ‘It’s a hit!’ and play a record, and I thought it was a hit.
I first heard Jimmy Reed on the radio, then I spent a long time trying to do it. Seeing the picture of him with the harmonica rack, wow, Bob Dylan must have seen a picture of Woody Guthrie. I didn’t see a picture of Woody Guthrie until way later. But I saw this picture of Jimmy Reed with this rack around his neck, I thought, Damn, lookit that. And I made me a rack out of coat hangers, like every other white boy who would tell you this story, of which there are plenty. Steve Cropper can tell you the same story. Steve Cropper used to have a Jimmy Reed amp, like me. I did 10 or 12 Jimmy Reed songs at my peak, and I did pretty good. I never did figure out crossharp until later. I was blowing, I was playing folk harp. I didn’t know you were supposed to suck, although the second night I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh, I saw him play in at least five keys, using a capo on the double neck. Never changed the harmonica. I have no idea how he did that.
The first time I saw him live was at the auditorium downtown where I saw Elvis in ’56. This was a package show. James Brown was the headliner, must have been ’59, Bo Diddley was on it. Everybody was doing two songs tops, a big band backing them up. Jimmy Reed came out soused. He introduced ‘Goin’ To New York’ and played ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ then kept playing. The band played an ending and he went “Take out some insurance….Jimmy Reed, baby…” introducing himself. They pulled him offstage, he came back onstage, it went on and on. It was a memorable thing.
Albert King was backing him up, and Jimmy would say onstage, ÔTurn me around in G, Albert.’ He’d play some 5-4-1s and he miss it, and sing, ÔTurn me around again.’ I went there with my cousin. Fats Domino was supposed to be on the show. I’ve never known why. You could see him in the wings, we were way in the back, and they said he was sick and he didn’t play. James Brown was the star. They didn’t turn on half the PA until James Brown. The kids in this mostly college crowd kept screaming, ÔBring on the Bullet, bring on the Bullet.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. After the intermission, the announcer said, ÔNow we’re going to bring on the Bullet and the crowd goes crazy.’ And they bring on this black quadriplegic. And they put a stool in the middle of the stage, and a pillow on the stool, and a microphone in front, and they brought him on and put him on the pillow and he screamed into the microphone. That was it. WAAHHHHHHHHHH!
The audience went nuts. Then they came on and got him.
That was the first time I saw Jimmy, and he was….disappointing.”
“When I eleven, I got my first guitar and that’s when I started finding Jimmy Reed records. I said, ‘Oh man, this is for me, I love this.’ Dad took me down to Montgomery Wards there on Seventh Street [in Fort Worth], bought me a Silvertone guitar, a black one that had the gold glitter thrown into the paint, had that little piece of white plastic around the edges, the case was the amplifier, you opened it up and it was painted the same way: glossy black with gold glitter thrown on it, and up in the right-hand corner this little-bitty ol’ eight inch speaker in the case. You took the guitar out and opened the case and stood it up. And that was the amp. Of course I learned every damn Jimmy Reed song that ever was, then I got into Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, anything that had serious rock and roll in it. ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’–it had to have that kind of feel, that kind of emotion. The song was real. You felt like you were living it. Those guys were pulling it off, where they actually made you believe. It was too much for me.”
“I started listening to Jimmy Reed when I was eleven years old. I was just absolutely sucked in. It was before radio became unified. You know, Little Walter had hit records, so did Tommy Tucker [‘High-Heeled Sneakers’] and Bill Doggett with ‘Honky Tonk’. I was walking around telling everybody about Jimmy Reed, and went over to the record store and got his album and would listen to his record over and over and over, every night when I’d go to sleep. Jimmy Reed was so different than all of those people, he was like so real, to me, it just moved me more than anything. He was my most favorite guy.
The tunes were really cool, the playing was so loose, it was perfect to dance to, it was different. He’s the only guy who did that stuff, really. Nobody else played like that, I don’t really know why. I don’t know why I loved it more than all other stuff, but it was my favorite thing. Jim Lowe and Kats Karavan [a nightly rhythm n blues show on WRR-AM in Dallas in the fifties and sixties] had a lot to do with that. That was the radio station we listened to every night and, what’s the one in Tennessee? WLAC. John R. Those guys, we’d listen to that too. Everybody was into that stuff and if you couldn’t play that stuff, you couldn’t get the gig.
“Until he got drunk, he was just a regular guy, although no way he was just a regular guy. But he wasn’t outrageous. He’d get drunk. Have you got the CD that’s got a bunch of outtakes of him on it? I’ve got it here somewhere. You need to get it because there’s no better example of what he was like when he got drunk. On this CD, they keep trying to start the song and he keeps fucking it up. [adopts voice] Ohohohoh. Ah’m sorry. Ah’m sorry. I should be in the key of C, me n you both are on the wild side of the count.
The voice that’d come out, it just don’t get no lower down. If you could put your hand on the truth and pick it up, his voice is the closest thing to everything there is….I just hung on every word he had to say. He was thrilled to death with his popularity, but all he wanted to do was drink whiskey and go out with women.
I’ve got a microphone I’m looking at right now, big ol Shure 550, the kind they like to use today in videos, big ol mic, and I bought that one weekend when Jimmy was gonna work with us and I went so far as to rent a little Bogan PA system–which if you know what that is, well, two speakers clipped together with the amp in the middle. I rented a Bogan PA system and bought this microphone when Jimmy Reed was coming to play.
For the second set, he’d usually come up just drunk out of his mind, in fact he’d usually have two or three women helping him up there, and he got up there and started to sing a song and puked right on this microphone, the very first night I got it. I’ve got in a little showcase here, it’s one of the only things out of my past. Fortunately it’s something with a story attached to it. I’ve worked on that son of a bitch forever with a toothbrush, I’m still not satisfied it’s cleaned. It wasn’t a full-blown blowing beets, it was just one of them little ol’ liquid pukes that just shoot out of your throat, you know what I’m talking about? I watched it happen, I went Shit! What are you gonna say, man? It’s Jimmy Reed. And he’s my hero.”
“He was drunk. He was always drunk. I seen him three times–once in Houston, once in New Orleans, and in Houston again. The third time, I was onstage with him. You know, he’d walk out, sit down, set that microphone out there. I wasn’t there one night, I don’t know where it was, but Jimmy Reed was sitting up there, saying ‘I’m gonna play for ya’ll, all right.’ Turned around and just passed out. ”
“The thing that sounded so great to me as a kid was, this music sounded drunk. Which, they probably were. Later, Albert King told me he was hired to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t know if was true or not, but Albert King told me he was playing drums, that he had been Jimmy Reed’s driver, that is was his job was to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t think he did a very good job, the few times I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh.
The second time I saw him was more reassuring, which was about ’63 or ’64 at Clear Pool, which was the roller skating rink that Elvis used to rent, out on Lamar. It was an upstairs-downstairs teenage hoodlum venue for fraternity parties, that kind of stuff, and this was a fraternity party. I was playing in the opening band with Don Nix from the Mar-Keys (sp), this might have been a Mar-Key gig, I don’t remember. This was about the time I was playing phony Mar-Key gigs–when the Mar-Keys broke up, they all would book gigs and everybody would be a Mar-Keys, anybody of a certain age group in Memphis who had an instrument was a potential Mar-Key.
I played in the opening band, and I was such a purist, that I missed my chance to play with Jimmy Reed. I could’ve easily stayed on the stage and played, but I thought to myself, Jimmy Reed doesn’t have a piano player, there’s no piano on the records, so I’m not going to play. So I didn’t play. I got drunk instead.
The piano was still on the stage, he propped himself against it, between the piano and the microphone, giving himself as little room to fall over as possible. He was wearing a custom made suit that looked like cutaway tails, but it was made out of awning material, like canvas, bright green canvas that had snaps like a high school letter jacket and a stripe going down his pants, a plastic bow tie, and black plastic cowboy boots. He was beautiful. He was like three or four days gone, just soused, they put the guitar on him, put the harmonica rack on him and he just stood that way backstage. Nix and I were talking to him before he went on.
And he didn’t have his wife with him. ‘Course, part of the mythology is his wife whispered in his ear, and all those stories. Nix would say anything to anybody and we were jiving with Jimmy and he says, ‘Jimmy, where is your wife?’
Jimmy says, [Dickinson speaks slowly] ‘She’s back at the hotel. She can make more money there than I can here.'”
“My job was to make sure he had everything he needed. I brought him towels and whisky, Jimmy was doing a little heroin, you don’t have to mention that one, I guarded the door.”
“Jimmy was just drunk all the time. That was his problem. That gig I played with him was like that. He was about to pass out. That’s where he was at.”
TRANSITIONAL JIMMY REED MOMENT
“We worked with Jimmy a lot, backing him up a lot at Jack’s Place [on the Mansfield Highway in southeast Fort Worth, where the neon sign of a kicking mule was hard to miss–“If the mule was kicking, everything was cool,” Delbert said. “If it wasn’t kicking, it meant there was gonna be a raid that night.”] back in the late fifties and early sixties. Lot of times, he and Sonny Boy [Williamson] both, we would play with them in Fort Worth or Dallas on Friday and Saturday night, and then go up to Oklahoma with ’em to play a black club on Sunday night. One place I remember, in Lawton, was Mother’s Place. Beer and barbecue and blues. That’s the real deal. Jimmy used to bring this guy with him sometimes, this one-eyed bass player, Hal somebody, he was kind of his manager–who knows what he was–he was with him, he was a bass player, relatively no reason for him to be there, I guess they were good buddies, or he, I don’t know, he waddn’t much on watching out for anybody.
Anyway, we took a station wagon up to Oklahoma. Some other black guy was with us, it might have been someone in Sonny Boy’s band. There were two carloads of us, mixed pretty evenly. There were probably ten people, half-black, half-white. I was sitting in the car with Jimmy, you know, and this one-eyed bass player. This guy was wanting to light a cigarette and he didn’t have a match. He reached over the front seat, tapping this black guy sleeping, wanting to get a light from him, and Jimmy reached over and knocked his hand away:
‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’
And I like to have fuckin’ died. I think I was the only one that laughed.
That was the way the talk went. ‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’
I guess he didn’t like people smoking ’cause I’ve seen him more than once slap a cigarette out of people’s hands. No smoking on the fuckin’ bandstand.”
“He would sit in the hotel room, and he’d start playing and make up words. We were at a place called the White House Motel out on Main Avenue, a long time ago. We were sitting around talking, and I said something about having to take my son to the doctor. He had his guitar with him all the time, and whatever you were talking about, he’d start singing, that knack or ability, so he sang, ‘I had to take my boy to the doctor….’
I played a two-night stand with him at Liberty Hall in Houston in 1975 [shortly before Reed’s death]. We’d sit there on my bus and tell stories. He told me this one story, he said, ‘Man, I’d got off a gig, got in my car to go to the hotel, got about $5,000, got a bottle of whiskey, got a woman. Wake up in the morning, my car is gone, my $5,000 is gone, the woman’s gone, and the whiskey’s all gone.’
I asked him, ‘How many times that’d happened, Jimmy?’.
He looked at me and smiled.
‘Too many,’ he said.”
“Of my generation of kids who grew up in the fifties, most of us got a guitar and learned to play ‘Honky Tonk’, which is what it is: it is Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk’. We called the actual riff ‘shifting’ around here. And it became ‘The Twist’, also dada dada dada dada. It’s the same musical notes. It’s part of the interrupted left hand boogie-woogie pattern played on the top two or three strings of the guitar. In both cases, that’s what Chuck Berry does, and that’s what Jimmy Reed does. Or that’s what they appear to do, if you’re a stupid white boy from the suburbs and you can figure out how to do that too.
Soon you realize that they must be doing something else, because when you do it, it doesn’t sound like what they’re doing when they do it. And sure enough, there is a mystery to it. I did finally crack the mystery with the help, the shameful help of a teabag, but sometimes it takes our brothers from across the water to open our eyes to the truth.
The first Jimmy Reed record was an obscure one. It’s one of the early ones, which we referred to around here as ‘Backed Up to the Window’ which is just a line from the second verse. That’s what everybody called it. The actual name of the song is “Can’t Stand to See You Go”. There’s a mistake in the intro, one of the rare cases where he uses a guitar intro. Usually he uses the harmonica. There’s this guitar figure for the intro and whoever’s playing guitar screws it up and you hear Jimmy Reed laugh. I loved it because of that. You hear this riff, riff, then ‘hahahahaha’ and the next start and finally he starts to sing.
You can’t understand maybe three words out of ten, and it’s a wonderful song. And as a stupid white kid in the suburbs of Memphis back in the fifties, I sat there with the record until I figured out what this guy was saying and it still didn’t make any sense. You can’t tell whether the song is about suicide or what. Great song. Harmonica sounds broken. That was when I started to debate what was the difference between those Jimmy Reed records and other records that represented the same genre. And I didn’t find that out until the seventies: the difference was the engineer, a white guy.
It’s like with Robert Johnson and Don Law. There always has to be the white guy, like Leonard Chess was to Muddy Waters. Like Miss McBurney was to Elmore James in Jackson. There has to be that guy. In this case, it was an audio designer named Bill Putnam who receives label credit. He built Universal Studios in Chicago where they made this stuff. He is the explanation for why Jimmy Reed sounds like it does. It’s primitive music, of course, with no bass. The best recordings on Veejay were made with no bass guitar at all. It sounds like the drums are maybe boxes and the guy’s hitting it with his shoe–BUT, the sound is real good, the audio quality of this lo-fi sound has been recorded in hi-fi by this weird guy Bill Putnam who built studios. He built the studio that is now Ocean Way in Hollywood, probably the highest dollar studio in America. Allen Sides (sp.) the current owner, one of his big selling points is that when he bought the studio, he ripped all the seventies and eighties treatment off the wall and went back to the original Bill Putnam room. That’s why the Rolling Stones are recording there.
I’m sure Bill Putnam would have been more comfortable recording a string quartet. In a way, it’s like George Martin with the Beatles and those guys in lab jackets that you see in early recording pictures. They couldn’t have possibly liked the music. I doubt very seriously Bill Putnam enjoyed the experience in recording Jimmy Reed, but he recorded the crap out of him.
Used to be at the fraternity party, we’d do the third set blues, to make people leave. Bout ’59, ’60, they started staying. Kids coming back from college would actually request Jimmy Reed songs. Because they wanted to do this specific dance, which in Texas was the Push. Around here, it was a little bit different. It was called the UT, and it’s the same basic thing, but a pre-Twist. I remember the night onstage when the third or fourth person asked me to play a Jimmy Reed song. I thought, Something has shifted here. Something has changed. We became known for doing Jimmy Reed stuff. At the same time, Steve Cropper was in a band called the Royal Spades, that became the Mar-Keys, with a rack around his neck would stand at microphone and try to sing Jimmy Reed songs.
“The North Texas Push was the fuckin’ dance. Everybody loved it. It was the coolest dance I’ve ever seen, to this day. It was originally called the North Texas Push, and Jimmy Leavens at the Skyliner touted it as the greatest dance floor in Texas, this was before Gilley’s or any of that shit. It was half the size of Fort Worth. My job was to keep it slick, so he gave me a big box of Ivory Snow detergent that looked like snowflakes and I’d go out and sprinkle that on the dance floor. Boy, you could slide across that sumbitch like it was an ice pond. And I’d help him pick up the beer bottles at night, and that’s how I got the gig. He’d had one bad leg, Jimmy did, God bless him, and all the waitresses were a bunch of idiots and they’d leave the place a mess. This club seats 500 people, big place. And Jimmy’s out there, dragging that one bad leg out there trying to pick up all these beer bottles and carry them out to the bar. I says, ‘Jimmy, you put them away. I’ll go get em.’
That’s how I got the job warming up acts like Ray Sharpe with my band. He’s losing business to the Rocket Club, so he says, ‘Jerry, what am I gonna do? Nobody’s coming to the club anymore.’
I said, ‘Jimmy, you need to book these black artists. The big dance now is the North Texas Push’, and it started up in Denton at the college, and these college kids are flipping out about this dance.’ He says, ‘Who do you have to book to get them to do that dance?’
I says, ‘They love Jimmy Reed–Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike and Tina Turner.’
He says, ‘Can you book these acts?’
Before I could even think about it, my mouth went ‘Yeah.’ So I went home and got out all the albums that everybody loved to dance to, and called the record label, and found out there managers, and called them up. Ike and Tina were about Eight Grand, Bobby Blue Bland Seven, and Jimmy Reed Six. All of them you had to send half the money up front.
Jimmy said, ‘All right, let’s book ’em up. But who should we book first?’
I said, ‘Jimmy Reed. He is the God of North Texas Push, this is what everybody dances to.’
He gave me the money, I got him booked in.”
“Our house was very integrated. My dad was a doctor in Dallas and he had black lab technicians. He actually got arrested for having a race party, a Christmas party for everybody who worked in the pathology lab. It was like 4:30 in the afternoon, and cops came down and handcuffed him and everybody else, threw him in jail. In my family there were a lot of black people coming and going. T-Bone Walker used to come over to the house all the time, was a good friend of my father’s.
My dad listened to all kinds of music, he was into recording music. He’d go into black Baptist churches and record Sister [Rosetta] Tharpe and people like that, he was recording those people for himself, just for his own collection. Anyone who was a good musician, my dad would end up knowing them. We had all of that music going on in our house all the time, but it seemed there was black music going on in everybody’s house. In a lot of ways the South was a lot hipper than the north, and in a lot of ways, it was a lot worse. The segregation part was terrible, but the two cultures crossed a lot.
I started playing fraternity gigs when I was twelve years old. You had to play Bobby Blue Bland, you had to do Ray Charles, you had to do Little Walter, a little Muddy Waters, some Chuck Berry. Black music was all anybody was interested in. Even the white bands were playing black music. We were way ahead of the curve.
When I was fourteen, my band backed up Jimmy Reed at Lou Ann’s
It was amazing. It’s hard to believe. There weren’t any rock n roll bands. I think we were the second rock and roll band in Dallas, Mario Daboub and the Nightcaps and the Marksmen combo [Miller’s band] were the only two bands in Dallas for a really long time.
We played Jimmy Reed tunes, so getting to play with him was interesting. We did this gig out at Lou Ann’s. It was Ben E. King and Jimmy Reed. We backed up Jimmy Reed, and he was sooooo drunk. I never really get to talk to him. I didn’t even think he was even going to be able to play. He was almost unconscious before he hit the stage. He had this black guy with him, who was sort of his roadie who ran the band, and we were just little kids wearing seersucker suits and Ray Charles sunglasses trying to be cool.”
“Jimmy Reed is a phenomenal lyricist. ‘Course you got to be able to understand what he’s saying. I took it real, real serious to try to understand that. I can’t think of one other person–Jimmy Reed is as unique as Bob Wills. Like with Bob Wills, you hear Bob Wills, you know it’s Bob Wills. It ain’t somebody else. Jimmy Reed, there’s just nobody sounds remotely like him.”
“He had muscles. You ever see his arms? He’d take his shirt off. He was built.”
“Jimmy Reed, like Howlin’ Wolf, is a mystery. Because, A–what is he singing? –and B–what does it mean? The simplicity of what he appears to be doing musically, is again, another mystery. Like Chuck Berry, it appears to be this very simple musical thing that every white boy of a certain generation learned how to do. And it’s not. If you watch his hands, again like Chuck Berry, watch his hands, they’re basically the same riff. Chuck Berry played it in eighth notes and it became rock and roll. The same exact pattern, Jimmy Reed had been playing since God knows when. Which is a pattern. That’s why it became so accessible to a generation of white people. Chuck Berry plays it with all the eighth notes having the same value, like Billy Gibbons does. But Jimmy Reed plays it in a shuffle pattern, where the two eighth notes are divided. He also plays it slower.
I went to Texas in 1960, assuming that music was over for me, that I was going to do something else. But in Texas, I found all these people who loved Jimmy Reed, so at the cast party–I was in theatre–wherever we were, we lived in this apartment on campus in Waco called the Catacombs. We had this unofficial group, the Catacombs Coon Hunters, which was me and this guy John Logan who later wrote ‘Jack Ruby, All-American Boy’, the musical that they did in Dallas, and this girl who later did dinner theater in Dallas named Sharon Bunn, used to read about her, we had a Jimmy Reed in Life pact that we’d do at various social functions. It seemed odd to me to be transplanted into this group of people who all loved Jimmy Reed. But then I did see the West Texas Push, the dance that everybody did to that particular rhythm in Texas.
The feel for the music, the subtle laziness, the swing factor, whatever the drummer would tell you it was in that shuffle, and the tonality of his voice. There was a back of the throat, top of the head sub-nasal tonality. He sounded drunk. He sounded loose. He sounded funky. All those things that I liked.
The thing about the lick, OK, it’s obviously ‘Honky Tonk’, until you get to the five chord, which would be B7 if you’re playing the lead, the turnaround, the blues pattern. Then, Jimmy Reed does something. He plays this thing, this riff, instead of the five chord, that eluded me for twenty years, I guess, until Keith Richard showed me backstage at the Astrodome. ‘This is the way you do it.’ And it is.
That takes it across the fuckin’ ocean to another bunch of white boys, another place, hearing his mysterious drunken sound. Mystery is a real important part of it too because it was, and is, remains mysterious, that music pattern. In a way a lot of other blues singers don’t get to. Howlin’ Wolf, certainly, is a more drastic example, but that same sense of mystery is attached to Jimmy Reed. He’s from somewhere else.
And it is ensemble playing. He has a band and they are in the pocket, a way few other bands ever get to. And it sounds like morons playing on boxes, but it is in this unbelievable groove. The bass is being played by a guitar, and they’re all out of tune. The harmonica by nature of its existence. They’re at least drunk, if not more, and yet somehow, it comes together in this pulse that talked to a generation of white kids in a way nobody white was doing. As a musician, it gives you a workable pattern, cause if you can’t play it right, at least you can play it wrong and get by. They were playing on Silvertones and Kays. There weren’t any Les Pauls or Stratocasters.”
“There aren’t a lot of people who know Jimmy Reed cold. Everybody thinks they do, but they don’t even have a clue. All my rhythm guitar playing comes from Jimmy Reed records. Taj Mahal taught me the final ultissimo licks and put it all together for me.
The simplicity of Jimmy Reed stuff and his band and what they did is just so natural, it’s great.”
“One thing, Jimmy worked a lot, he was on the road. He worked a lot, and I can only assume that everywhere else was like Texas. The college kids just fuckin’ loved him. I think it was because he was so unique. I know what an impact he made on me.
My parents didn’t give me shit [for liking Reed], they just didn’t understand it. ‘Course I was way far gone into it before knew what I was doing. My parents never did try to stop me. They worried the hell a lot about me. You can imagine my parents coming from where they came from [Lubbock] and all of sudden rock and roll comes along and then their little boy’s listening to mmmrrruhhuhwuhwuhwuh [making a guttural sound somewhere between a Reed vocal and a mouth harp], just low-down shit.
I played a lot of black clubs back in the late fifties and early sixties, and never ever one time did we catch any shit. ‘Course we were there with the fuckin’ star, too, and we were playing the music pretty damn good. And at this point, everybody in the world wasn’t doing it. There weren’t that many good bands that could supply, and do it well.
All the white folks–I mean, let’s define which white folks we’re talking about. The white folks that came out to the club, they were all into it. And at that time, it was a real novelty for a lot of people to hang out with black people. So, a lot of times, people would try to come through me or other guys in the band to get close to these guys. You know, we’d be their window into hanging with them, because we were backing them up.
I remember another night, at Jack’s Place, Jimmy Reed and Buster Brown. This is right when I started getting into these guys. I had harmonicas in hand, and I was determined to take every opportunity to learn something from these guys. So, before the show ever even started, I’m in the dressing room with Buster Brown and Jimmy Reed, and they’re passing a fifth of Old Granddad whisky back and forth between ’em. And I’m like twenty, twenty one, couldn’t drink [legally], but I’m getting that bottle double, I’m in the middle so I’m getting it twice for every time they’re getting it once. Never saw the show. Never even made it to the opening fuckin’ note, man. I was drunk and passed out in the office at Jack’s Place.
I know that Jimmy Reed music was the most popular thing that we got requests for, because people could do the Push to it. And anytime he was in town, all the Push people, which during a particular few years there was like a religion, as is now the Shag in North Carolina, which is very, very similar, whole lot of the same steps. Hell, I worked down there and people have got gold chains around their neck with SHAG written in gold, I mean they live it, you know. That’s how my popularity grew in the Carolinas, because I was doing all that old music there, this guys comes from Texas, and I’m doing all this music. Hell, there was a period of years back when I didn’t have anything going, North and South Carolina kept me alive. And I’m still a big item down there. I’ve got fans down there that’d take a bullet for me, because like they shag to this music.
The Push, in my opinion, is a much classier, more interesting dance than the Shag, but basically it’s the same thing.
Between him and Sonny Boy, that’s how I learned to play. I’d say how’d you do that? Course you couldn’t see anything they were doing. It’s hard to say how he taught me. I wanted to know, and I had multiple opportunities to be sitting knee to knee with him and listen to him play. By doing that, I’d try to copy him. ‘Course at the same time, I also developed my own style, so it was a good thing. I knew I was in a good place at the time.
He was always gracious. He didn’t give me too much shit. Any time you ask him something, he was available, unless he was stoned out of his mind or he was chasing women. He did whine a lot. I think that’s why he liked to have that one-eyed bass player with him. He was a pure artist.”
“The only guy I know who can sing like Jimmy Reed today is Rocky Morales.”
“When I was writing for music for Ry Cooder doing movie soundtracks, we did ‘Streets of Fire’, it was all futuristic fifties music like Link Wray stuff. He wanted some kind of Jimmy Reed thing. Cooder, the way we used to do things, he’d cut a band track, then he gave it to me to write words to. It was pretty good for where we were and what we were doing, it was pretty Jimmy Reed-esque. It was Cooder and Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. I sitting in the Miramar hotel in Santa Monica, trying to write words to this thing. I had a couple of verses, I had an idea going. But Jimmy Reed, there was always that one line hook that had any number of vague meanings, specific and universal and all that literary stuff, and I had to have one of those lines. The way I worked with Cooder. I was in the hotel room and had on headphones and a small tape recorder, I’d just play the band track over and over and write words.
I’ve heard other people talk about hearing voices in their head, but never happened to me before or since .but I swear to you as I’m sitting here now, I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed in my head, sing the entire hook line and I just wrote it down.
Which is ‘You got what you wanted but I got what you need tonight.’
I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed sing it into my ear. I promise you.
Jimmy Reed paid the price for being Jimmy Reed. He obviously drank himself to death and he didn’t and couldn’t take care of business. But the thing to remember, it’s hard to keep in context now with the commercialization of rock and roll, is that it was not popular music. It is now. But it wasn’t then. The blues never was popular, it’s a complaint, it’s a bitch, it’s a gripe. Robert Johnson never played for more than fifty people at one time in his career, but the music of Robert Johnson, inexplicably it will not go away. And so it is with Jimmy Reed. He’s singing about the human condition. He was obviously not an establishment figure. He was talking back to the boss man: ‘You’re just tall, that’s all.’ Read his lyrics and tell me it’s not poetry. ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, which if you write it out appears to make sense on two or three different levels, if you closely analyze it really doesn’t make any sense at all. Everybody thinks they know what it’s about and it’s not about anything. ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ is the same thing, it’s such a simple one line idea it means anything: ‘Bright lights, big city went to my baby’s head’ fucking says it! That’s the whole story.”
” I got Jimmy to teach me how to play guitar.”
” See, Jimmy sold a lot of records. He probably sold more records than Muddy Waters and Little Walter or those guys in Chicago. In my world, Jimmy Reed had hits. ‘Big Boss Man’ was a big hit. ‘Goin’ To New York’, ‘Honest I Do’. Just one after another. Those were hits that were played on the radio. The radio back then did play a lot of black music. Then about 1960 it got all screwed up. When WLS and Dick Biondi and those guys in Chicago and those guys in the East Coast, we used to laugh our asses off at Fabian and people like that, they were junk. That was manufactured bullshit. Jimmy Reed was real.
When I was thirteen, I spent one summer in Florida and played in a band. The same thing was going on. Bands were integrating stuff and it was touch and go. Sometimes there’d be trouble, most of the time there wasn’t. I grew up in an integrated world, so to me, it seemed weird when people were trying to segregate things. At the same time, I didn’t know any black people as equals until I went to college, and I went up to the University of Wisconsin. They were the first guys I met that were as smart as me, who weren’t yard men or something, like it was in the South, especially in Texas.
I think the music really broke down those barriers. You talk about Martin Luther King, I was a freedom rider, and I was in SNCC [The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee]. I was very involved in civil rights after I got out of Texas because I that felt segregation was really bullshit.
It was Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker and Martin Luther King for me, really and truly. The music definitely broke down the barriers way before the law did or before Martin Luther King did. Guys like Jimmy Reed were making people think. A lot of people weren’t thinking of it in terms of race and segregation, they weren’t thinking about it at all, except they liked the music and danced to it and they got down to it.”
[Blues Access magazine]
The Wild Coast
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Headed for the beach this summer? Escape the crowds at these five out-of-the-way places where the coast is always clear.
The long, languid coastline of Texas takes its own sweet time seducing the senses. The Texas coast is the simple essence of the seashore experience: sun, sand, surf, breezes, dunes, wetlands, waterfowl, and vast, tranquil bays, along with its most compelling assets, the thin, elegant islands and peninsulas that barricade the Texas mainland from a stormy sea.
Finding that wild coast can be done with just a little bit of effort. You can discover hidden places as remote as far West Texas, but tempered by the constant calming roar of the surf rolling over sandbars in harmony with the squawks of shorebirds, unspoiled by the buzz of Jet Skis and the beat of boom boxes. You don’t have to be an athlete or an outdoorsman to get the most out of the adventure. These five easy places–the marshes of Sea Rim State Park, the bird sanctuaries of High Island, Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Area, lower Padre Island National Seashore, and Boca Chica beach–are there for anyone who wants to indulge the primal urge to be at land’s end, where the wilderness overwhelms the civilized and the coast is always clear.
As Wild as Big Bend
SEA RIM STATE PARK
| The Scoop: Sea Rim
Getting there. From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then Texas Highway 73 east to Port Arthur. Follow the signs to Sabine Pass and Texas Highway 87. From Galveston take the Bolivar ferry to Highway 87, turn left at High Island on Texas Highway 124 to Winnie, and follow directions above. The distance to Sea Rim on both routes is around one hundred miles. Park info: Entry fee $2 per person for everyone 13 and older. No beach lifeguard. Amenities The park headquarters (409-971-2559) has rest rooms, showers, and picnic tables; ice and bug spray for sale; and beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, as well as a small interpretive display. Camping: Twenty spaces are available for RVs in a paved campground east of the headquarters, with electricity, running water, and a dump station, $10 per night, ten tent sites are located in an adjacent area with running water, grills, picnic tables, and a rinse shower, $7. Weekend reservations should be made at least three weeks in advance. Primitive camping is available on four raised wooden platforms in the marsh, accessible only by boat, with attached privy, $5 per night. Beach camping is allowed. Activities, Airboat tours: $13.50 adults, $8.50 for children ages 6 to 11. Canoe rentals: $15 full day, $10 half day. Side trip: Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park. The strategic importance of the pass, now surrounded by oil platforms and heavy industries, is underscored by the presence of concrete bunkers built during World War Il. The Civil War battle is reenacted every September.
“People who’ve lived around here for years and see it for the first time, they can’t believe it exists,” said Danny Magouirk, looking out over the tall grasses that rise out of the wetlands all the way to the horizon. “You can look for miles and miles and see nothing but marsh. No power lines, no poles, totally natural. It’s as wild as Big Bend.”
Magouirk is the superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, which begins ten miles after the Texas coast emerges from the Louisiana muck at Sabine Pass. The park has five miles of beachfront, but the area of greatest interest is the wide swath of wetlands that incorporates two wildlife refuges, totaling almost 75,000 acres. Magouirk was about to fire up the automobile engine that powers his airboat to take me on a ride through the marsh unit of the park. I put on the earmuffs he’d given me, and we sped into the rich wetlands, winding along watery alleys through the cordgrass. The passages were so tight I felt as if I were in a tunnel. Occasionally the grasses would part and we would find ourselves crossing wide-open flats, placid lakes, or small ponds, and then we would plunge into the dense vegetation again. Less than a minute after departing the Myers Point dock one mile east of the park headquarters, we were being shadowed by an indigo bunting, an iridescent neotropical bird on its way north for the summer. Our boat flushed herons, egrets, and ducks out of the grasses, sent fish jumping, and forced alligators, sunk deep in the mud, to scurry for safety. It occurred to me that Sea Rim is an aquatic version of a drive-through wildlife park.
This is one of the least-trafficked parts of the coastline, due in no small part to the impassable condition of Texas Highway 87, the storm-battered road that once hugged the beach from Sabine pass to the Port Bolivar ferry landing on Galveston Bay. The highway was closed in 1989 when hurricanes Chantal and Jerry washed out the roadway. From a few miles east of High Island to a few miles west of Sea Rim, the road no longer exists in many places. Even four-wheel drive won’t help. Nature has reasserted its claim to the land, which is once again beach, low dunes, and tideland.
The beach at Sea Rim is practically an afterthought. Its hard-packed sand, made bronze by silt from the Mississippi River, slopes gradually into tepid water. The minimal wave action discourages surfing but is close to ideal for casting for redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sand sharks and for launching sailboards, sailboats, and catamarans. The beach draws a more sedate crowd than the rowdy bunch that frequents the county’s McFaddin Beach, about two miles to the west.
At Sea Rim, the other side of the dunes is where the action is. If a boat trip into the marsh sounds too adventurous, take a stroll along the three-quarter-mile Gambusia Trail, an elevated boardwalk that begins just east of the visitors center. Who needs a zoo amid ducks splashing, birds perching, and alligators marinating themselves, all within an arm’s reach, seemingly oblivious to human presence? They were so close that I had to remind myself of the sign that addressed my erroneous impression: “This park is not a zoo. The animals here are wild.”
For The Birds
| The Scoop: High Island
Getting there: From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then turn right on Texas Highway 124; it’s 18 miles to High Island. From Galveston, take the Bolivar ferry to Texas Highway 187, then continue 28 miles to High Island. Activities: Birdwatching. There are two primary in-town sanctuaries, including Smith Oaks, around one hundred acres next to Birder’s Haven (admission $5 a day or $20 a year). Other popular spots are the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, near the Bolivar ferry landing, each less than half an hour away. Side trips: George E. Kahla’s Fresh Junk (pronounced KAYluh), on the west side of Highway 124 in High Island. This is my choice for the most imaginative Junk shop on the Texas coast. The free ferry from Bolivar to Galveston provides a twenty-minute ride across Galveston Bay to Galveston.
Everywhere you look in the little Birder’s Haven shop tucked away on Winnie Street in High Island, you see birds: T-shirts on the wall with warblers and buntings silk-screened on the front, bird maps, bird books about the upper Texas Coast, cassettes of bird calls, bird videos, bird gimme caps, “I Brake for Birds” bumper stickers, and all sorts of avian accessories, from jewelry to binocular straps.
High Island is for the birds. The small town of fewer than five hundred residents, named for an unusual coastal hill (which turned out to be an oil-rich salt dome), has become one of the great birdwatching centers of North America. This is largely because of its strategic place in the annual trans-Gulf migration of birds moving north in the spring. When a cold front blows in from the north, birds fall out of the sky into trees. In 1991 Jon and Glendaweena Llast, two avid birdwatchers from Dallas, opened a one-stop bed-and-breakfast, birders’ shop, and gateway to Smith Oaks, a sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon Society. Although Jon and Glendaweena are both dead now, owner Kenneth Ferguson operates the store and Birder’s Haven B&B in the house across the courtyard. Testifying to High Island’s world renown was a group from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who occupied the sitting area underneath the spreading shade of thirty-foot oaks, cottonwoods, and fig trees. Feeders hung from the branches, which seemed to be a Grand Central Station of the avian world. Gurgling fountains served as birdbaths. “Last year we went to Arizona and wound up here,” one woman told me. “This year we’d planned a trip to Florida, but here we are.”
Leaving The World Behind
MATAGORDA ISLAND STATE PARK AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
| The Scoop: Matagorda
Getting there: The Texas Parks and Wildlife ferry departs from Port 0’Conner. From the south, take Texas Highway 35 to Green Lake, then torn right onto Texas Highway 85 to Seadrift and continue to Port O’Connor. From the north or west, pick up Highway 185 in Victoria and proceed as before. Port 0’Conner is approximately 50 miles from Victoria. Park info: For ferry service information call 361-983-221 5. Camping: Two campgrounds-Army Hole near the beat dock and the Beach Campground two miles away. The latter has two covered picnic tables. Fees: None. Reservations: Not needed. Fires: Permitted only in designated fire rings or in the tidal zone of the beach where there is no vegetation. Activities: Hiking, biking, fishing, and birdwatching are the main activities here. The visitors center display includes three aquarium tanks with silversides, hermit crabs, sand minnows, and Atlantic drills, and a collection of flotsam and jetsam that washed onto the beach, including driftwood from Braze and a whale vertebra the size of a truck tire. Side trip: The ruins of Indianola–one of Texas major nineteenth-century ports, wiped out by two hurricanes. From Seadrift, go north on Texas Highway 238 toward Port Lavaca, then east on Texas Highway 316 to Indianola.
The mainland gradually disappeared in the humid haze as the ferry headed south on the eleven-mile trip across Espiritu Santo Bay toward Matagorda Island. First the 110-foot cast-iron lighthouse came into view, then several outbuildings on the bay side of the island near the ferry landing, remnants of an abandoned Air Force base. After a trip of almost an hour, we arrived at the 38-mile-long barrier island, which was inaccessible except by private boat until ferry service began in 1995. Today Matagorda remains as close to a wilderness as you can get on the Texas coast–a 58,000-acre park and preserve that is off-limits to private motor vehicles. Only bicycles and park vehicles (including two open-bed shuttle trucks and an old school bus that carry visitors around the island) are allowed on the roads left behind by the Air Force.
“People call this place pristine,” Runny Gallagher, a former park superintendent, told me during a tour of the park, which is surrounded by a much larger national wildlife refuge. “This is nowhere close to pristine. Cattle ranching went on here for more than one hundred and fifty years, and the Air Force tried to bomb it back into the ocean.”
Gallagher suddenly stopped the truck. “Horny toad!” he shouted. It was a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy. I picked it up, and a childhood memory told me to turn it over on its back and tickle its belly. Sure enough, its eyes closed. A few hundred yards up the road we stopped at an elevated observation platform that provided a view of a marsh, where red-winged blackbirds chittered and chattered and a couple of black-headed coots loitered in the tall grass. An eastern meadowlark and two cedar waxwings glided by, and a whistling tree duck emerged from the water. For such an isolated spot, Matagorda has a rich history. La Salle, Cabeza de Vaca, and Jean Lafitte all passed this way. The antebellum lighthouse, now shuttered and lightless but majestic nonetheless, was originally located two and a half miles northeast of its present site, then moved in 1878. It marks the entrance to Matagorda Bay at Cavallo Pass.
Gallagher zipped past the old airbase runway, where the cracks between the slabs of concrete were filling in with native grasses, Mexican hat in bloom, and prickly pear. The runway has become a nesting area for the endangered least tern, just as the poles that once carried electricity to the island have been claimed by great blue herons. Mother Nature is slowly taking back the island. We got out of the truck again at the beach, which was wide and white. Gallagher examined a dug-up area around ghost crab holes, which he blamed on feral hogs. “They root the devil out of everything,” he snarled. The hogs are the scourge of the island, an invader whose presence threatens the balance of a fragile ecosystem that shelters 325 species of birds, 20 of them protected or endangered species, including whooping cranes and peregrine falcons, and a herd of around nine hundred white-tailed deer. More bird species have been recorded here than anywhere in Texas.
Currents bring the trash here–most of it dumped from ships and offshore platforms–and little can be done about it. The twice-a-year cleanups organized by the General Land Office keep the situation somewhat under control. “We don’t rake the beach or clean it,” Gallagher said. “Leaving it alone protects the salt cap on the sand, prevents wind erosion, and lets the beach grow.” But he still tries to do his part. “You know about the message in the bottle?” he asked me. “When I find one of them, I write a letter hack to say, "You’re polluting my beach.”
The Longest Drive
PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE
| The Scoop:
Padre Island National Seashore
Getting there: Padre Island National Seashore is 30 miles from downtown Corpus Christi via Texas Highway 358 and Park Road 22 and 36 miles from Port Aransas via Texas Highway 361 to the park road. Park info: A seven-day pass is $10 per auto or $5 per individual hiker or bicyclist. Seniors may obtain a lifetime pass for $10. Disabled visitors are admitted free. Camping: Malaquite Beach has 50 sites for tent and RV camping, first come, first served. Primitive camping is permitted on the beach and at two locations on the Laguna Madre: Bird Island Basin, just east of the entrance gate, and Yarborough Pass, at milepost 15. Most campers are limited to 14 consecutive days, but at Malaquite campgrounds, campers can stay 30 days. Activities: Malaquite Beach is Texas’ best. Umbrellas and Boogie Boards are for rent. The Grasslands Nature Trail is a three-quarter-mile self-guided walk through dunes and grasses. The trailhead is just south of the entrance gate to the park. Bird Island Basin is a popular site for windsurfing. Launch fee: $5. No rentals. The visitors center has exhibits on the geology, wildlife, and history of Padre Island.
The road from Corpus Christi to Padre Island National Seashore foretold what lay ahead: First the convenience stores disappeared from the roadside landscape, followed by subdivisions, motels, shell shops, and condos, leaving only telephone poles to mar the view. Then even the poles and the shoulders of the pavement vanished, leaving only a narrow ribbon of asphalt to split the dunes and tidal flats on the longest barrier island in the world. And we hadn’t even gotten to the park visitors center yet. It was the perfect introduction to driving to the Mansfield Cut, a 120-mile round-trip on the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the United States.
I had rented a Jeep Cherokee, summoned my buddy Red, and risen with the sun. The chalkboard at the entry gate to the park warned that beach driving conditions were poor. But the other statistics that are important to the down-island traveler–wind, weather, water temperature, beach debris, and presence of jellyfish–were agreeable for a full days adventure. A mile after the visitors center, the pavement veered straight toward the beach. By a few minutes after eight we were rolling along the firm sand. Perhaps fifty vans and pickups were parked along the first five miles, most of them rigged for overnight camping. The next milepost warned that motor traffic for the next 55 miles was restricted to vehicles with four-wheel drive. Another sign raised the speed limit from 15 miles per hour to 25.
Around twenty miles into the four-wheel-drive zone, we passed what would be the last of the vehicles parked on the beach. We were alone except for the occasional all-terrain vehicle driven by a ranger or a volunteer looking out for the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, whose nesting season had just begun.
Driving anywhere on this beach required nimble steering, quick reflexes, and constant vigilance–exactly what makes it one of the great driving experiences in Texas.
The Tip of Texas
| The Scoop: Boca Chica
Getting there: Boca Chica beach is 22, miles east of Brownsville on Texas Highway 4. Park info: No entry fee. No lifeguard. No showers, no phone, no rest rooms or privies. No staying behind the beach. Activities: The beach is one of the best in the state, as nice as South Padre except for more trash. Side trip: Boca Chica is a side trip.
Easter weekend at South Padre: No Vacancy signs, long lines in the restaurants and stores, long lines on he road, the beach packed with people. Easter weekend on Boca Chica, a peninsula just across Brazos Santiago Pass from the towers of South Padre: around 75 cars cruising up and down the beach, with perhaps 10 more vehicles clustered at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Boca Chica is a narrow finger of land between the Rio Grande and South Bay, the bottom of the Laguna Madre. When it reaches the sea, the peninsula makes a sharp left turn to form an eight-mile-long beach. Behind it is a harsh landscape that, compared with the marshes of Sea Rim, is almost a desert–a yucca-spiked prairie studded with tall grasses, mangrove, mesquite, and big thickets of prickly pear. The drive out is a boulevard of broken dreams: a roadside marker commemorating the last battle of the Civil War, a scattering of homes in a ailed subdivision (Kopernik Shores, marketed to Polish immigrants from Chicago), the crumbling gates of mother development that never got under way, and the most recent failure, Playa Del Rio, envisioned as a mega-resort of hotels and golf courses when it was announced in 1986. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of Boca Chica, as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to South Padre, the beach at Boca Chica is practically untamed. There are no shelters, no services, nothing but beach and sea and a few cars. I took my two sons there on a day trip from South Padre. It’s only a few hundred yards as the crow flies, but to get there you have to drive eighteen miles hack to Brownsville, then toward Boca Chica on a shoulderless road. We turned right at the beach and followed it three miles to an impassable point where a lighthouse was positioned across an inlet. The lighthouse marked Playa Bagdad, the beach of Matamoros. The small inlet was the once-mighty Rio Grande, now less than 75 yards wide, a gentle stream running clear and cool enough to attract swimmers from both sides. The Spanish name Boca Chica was perfect; it means “little mouth.”
We found a spot at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest car. The beach was almost a hundred yards wide and bordered by a continuous row of dunes. The older boy went straight in with a Boogie Board in hand, while the younger boy squawked and hollered with pure joy, splashing around in the surf. I showed him how to body surf, diving with a breaking wave, arms extended forward, legs kicking. He picked it up right away.
For me, the respite from the crowds offered a chance to reconnect. I watched the younger one’s fascination with a dead man-of-war that had washed up on the beach and observed the older one studying the waves intently, waiting for just the rights sets and perhaps the perfect swell in the hope of making the most of what it is, at best, a three-second thrill. After drying off, I wandered back into the dunes, hoping to scale one of the hills that looked taller and sturdier than those on South Padre. I was immediately besieged by a swarm of hungry deerflies, an experience that gave me a better understanding of the Karankawas, the fierce coastal tribe that smeared stinky alligator grease and dirt on their bodies to cultivate a foul and offensive body odor. Now I knew why.
Meanwhile, the older boy had retreated to the water’s edge. “He’s not a kid anymore,” I thought to myself, as he busied himself in the sand, constructing a moat for a handful of tiny coquinas he’d dug out of the mud–only to have an errant wave sneak up and wash the whole thing away. I recognized his cry of disappointment as a mock one. He knew as well as I did that the ocean always takes back what it has given. At the beach you’re never too old to play in the sand.
What Would Donald Judd Do?
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photos by Laura Wilson and Jason Schmidt
Each page is shown with the original layout (text is below each image for ease in reading).
Seven years after Donald Judd’s death, the residents of a cow town in far west Texas-caught in the middle of an estate war between the renowned artist’s former lover and his children-are plastering this question on every store window and car bumper they can find.
“It is my hope that my works of art will be preserved where they are installed.” – Donald Judd
Images: “It’s his version of cathedrals.” Judd’s permanent installations at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. And: Donald Judd, 1994.
"It’s not a healthy thing, to inherit someone’s life,” Laments Rainer Judd, the 30-year-old daughter of artist Donald Judd, after settling into a folding chair in the conference room of her father’s Print Building, formerly the old Crews Hotel in Marfa, Texas. A long rifle in a hand-tooled leather rifle holder with the initials DJ is propped in the corner, within arm’s reach.
A small town in the high Chihuahua Desert, Marfa is smack-dab in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, 200 miles from the nearest airport with scheduled service. It’s so isolated and lightly settled (population 2,121) that the vistas go on forever-mountains 80 miles distant are clearly visible on most days-and the nighttime skies are among the darkest in North America.
It’s an unlikely setting for a bitter, soap opera-like dispute over a renowned artist’s multimillion-dollar empire, a dispute that began as a tug-of-war between Judd’s two grown children and Marianne Stockebrand, the striking German woman with whom Judd, who died in 1994, spent the last seven years of his life, and that has escalated into an epic battle engaging the whole community. Should Marfa be frozen in time as a monument to what Judd accomplished there, or should it evolve into a creative mecca with galleries and shops? Indeed, what should art be: a thing in itself-pure and inviolable, static and unchanging, as Judd posited in his writings – or a cultural catalyst, as the town’s most recent newcomers would have it?
Image: A bedroom at the Marfa compound.
It’s not necessarily a healthy thing for a town to try to sort out Donald Judd’s legacy, either. But that’s what Maria has been doing, especially since last October, when art pilgrims began finding their way to this remote place in growing numbers to behold the Dan Flavin “Marfa Project,” an untitled permanent installation of 360 fluorescent tubes in the barracks of an army camp that Judd turned into the Chinati Foundation (named for the mountain range between the site and the Rio Grande, with Mexico beyond).
After the pilgrims see the Flavin, and after they see Judd’s 100 aluminum cubes housed in two airplane hangar-size artillery sheds, Judd’s giant concrete cubes scattered across half a mile of grassland, the Claes Oldenburg horseshoe that perfectly frames Cathedral Mountain, Ilya Kabakov’s too-close-for-comfort recreation of a Russian schoolhouse abandoned upon the fall of the Soviet Union, and the works of Roni Horn, Carl Andre, and John Wesley, they eventually find their way into town, where no matter where they go they’re confronted with a cryptic question, posited on the rear bumpers of SUVs and crew cabs, across the fronts of T-shirts, and in the windows of stores: WWDJD? (What Would Donald Judd Do?, a takeoff of the teen Christian slogan What Would Jesus Do?).
The question goes a long way toward explaining the unusual connection between a cow town and a prominent artist who hated galleries and museums so much that he created his own art universe in far west Texas. It also speaks of the shadow Judd continues to cast, seven years after his death at the age of 65, and the endless rounds of second-guessing over what he had in mind when he stipulated in his will that a trust be created to protect his private holdings and collections, and then in a deathbed codicil named Marianne Stockebrand (whom he tapped before his death to succeed him as director of the Chinati Foundation) as an additional executor of his estate-along with his daughter Rainer, his now 33-year-old son Flavin, and his longtime attorney John J. Jerome and declared that Stockebrand “shall be in charge of the operation of any museum facility conducted by the trust.”
Images clockwise from top left: Flavin and Rainer Judd, April 2001; the Ayala de Chinati ranch; Dan Flavin’s "Marfa Project"; Marianne Stockebrand, April 2001.
These latter instructions, which led to Stockebrand’s appointment as director of the trust, called the Judd Foundation, in addition to her duties at the Chinati, are what ignited the debate over his legacy.
Jerome declined his executorship, and Stockebrand gave hers up in 1996 in exchange for certain Judd artworks and payment of legal fees she incurred. But Rainer and Flavin Judd are now feuding with Stockebrand over what portions of Judd’s estate qualify as museums and thus fall under Stockebrand’s jurisdiction, even as the estate is in the process of transferring Judd’s assets to the Judd Foundation.
Unlike Rainer, Marianne Stockebrand has no problem inheriting someone’s life, since it’s Donald Judd’s. She feels it’s her professional responsibility. Indeed, she seems to have been practically predestined for the job. Stockebrand came from an upper-class family in Cologne and earned a Ph.D. in art history from Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich. She had a successful career as a curator at the Krefelder Kunstmuseen and as director of the Westf’Šlischer Kunstverein in MŸnster and the Kšlnischer Kunstverein in Cologne, where she met Judd, who was a high-profile celebrity in Germany.
In the years before he died Stockebrand was his Boswell-helping him write catalogs and prepare exhibitions-as well as his lover. Since his passing there’s been no other man in the 55-year-old Stockebrand’s life. The Chinati is her convent.
Rainer and Elavin Judd are the supplicants in this passion play, ostracized by much of Marfa for adhering strictly to the tenets laid down by their father, at least as they understood them. After leaving each child $300,000, Donald Judd requested that they oversee disposition of his estate, worth somewhere between $30 million and $60 million but saddled with more than $5.5 million in debt when lymphoma finally took him down. The still unresolved settlement has run up legal and accounting bills exceeding $2 million and has been so time-consuming that both of Judd’s offspring had to put their budding film careers on hold. Aspiring actress /screenwriter Rainer lives in Los Angeles, while aspiring director Flavin still lives in Marfa, having used his inheritance to buy the Porter House, one of Judd’s residences.
What Would Donald Judd Do? continued
Rainer and Flavin contend that Judd’s extensive holdings should be preserved as they are-a testament to the vision of one of the art giants of the 20th century-and they have Judd’s own words to back them up: “Too often, I believe, the meaning of a work of art is lost as a result of a thoughtless or unsuitable placement of the work for display,” his will reads. “The installation of my own work, for example, as well as that of others, is contemporary with its creation, and the space surrounding the work is crucial to it. Frequently as much thought has gone into the placement of a piece as into the piece itself. It is my hope that such of my works of art which I own at the time of my death will be preserved where they are installed.”
Rainer echoes her father’s sentiments: “The art and architecture are related just as much as frescoes in cathedrals are. It’s his version of cathedrals. It’s about creating something more sacred than museums.” The Chinati Foundation has advanced Judd’s concept of the permanent installation to a point where other institutions are using it as a blueprint. But the foundation differs with the Judd kids when it comes to determining what to keep and what to sell. Stockebrand is willing to consider disposing of some of Judd’s property-in particular the Print Building in Marfa and, in the heart of New York’s Soho neighborhood, 10 1 Spring Street (the five-story building Judd purchased in 1968 where the seeds of this new art movement first bore fruit)to advance his better-known public works. The kids say this is tantamount to blasphemy.
Newcomers to Marfa-painters, printmakers, potters, gallery people also have a stake in the dispute, since it speaks so directly to what Marfa will become. They’re championing the community as a rising colony of creativity, not to mention a pleasant weekend getaway-if you have a private jet. Many even say it’s the next Santa Fe-not too far-fetched a comparison, since Marfa has the same dry climate, the same sharp light, and the same blend of desert and mountains. But a large percentage of Marfa residents think Santa Fe is horrible and that the kinds of people it attracts would reduce Marfa to a pop imitation of its former self Which moves the old guard, which remembers it as a ranching town landlocked by cattle kingdoms the size of small states, to wonder what the hell is going on.
"I’m the optimist in the family,” maintains Rainer Judd, who offers her early recollections of Marfa-which were formed by a contentious custody fight-as evidence that she has a different perspective from most of the art crowd. Donald Judd and Rainer’s mother, Julie Finch, a dancer, were still married when he rented a summer house here in 197 1. They divorced in 1976, shortly after Judd took up permanent residence. Then, in May 1977, he practically kidnapped his children, picking them up at school in New York City as if they were going on a weekend outing and flying them to Marfa. Rainer was six; Flavin was nine. The legal battle ultimately wound up at the Presidio County Court House. Judd was awarded custody. “I knew he’d won,” Rainer says, “by the way he was driving his pickup so fast up the road.
“We had a house on a hill with a windmill, and we all had horses,” she remembers fondly. “It was very western. I dressed like a cowboy until a sweet little lady showed me cowgirl clothes.” Rainer and Flavin attended Marfa schools through the end of junior high, but their lives were hardly typical of small-town kids. Judd pulled them out of school a month early so they could spend summers traveling in Europe. “We were one-fourth European, really” Rainer says. Weekends during the rest of the year were reserved for the Ayala de Chinati ranch, the property Judd valued most of all his holdings. “I’d always want to take a friend, because there was no electricity, no hot water,” says Rainer. “We read by candlelight.” And Judd treated her and her friends like adults. “We’d sit by the fire and talk. It developed in me a wondering type of thinking, free to ask questions. Some parents take their kids hunting or to Disneyland. Driving to the land, making fires, and talking was his gift.
“That seems so long ago,” Rainer says,sighing, as she returns to reality What this 5 all about now is numbers. It’s not the kids wanting to have a good time.”
DEAR MOM. VAN HORN TEXAS. 1260 POPULATION. NICE TOWN. BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY. MOUNTAINS. LOVE DON.
Donald Judd first laid eyes on these bare mountains in 1946, an Army soldier on the way to Korea via Fort McClellan, Alabama, and Los Angeles. The scenery inspired him to send a telegram to his mother back home in Missouri.
Twenty-five years later-after helping to usher in the cool school of minimalism in the early 1960s, scoring a retrospective at the Whitney when he was still under 40, and creating an art presence in Soho before it became Soho-Judd ran out of patience with what he described as “the harsh and glib situation within art in New York” and decided to move west.
He honed in on Marfa, an Anglo-Mexican community that had lost about half its population over the previous 30 years, where property was cheap and abundant. Judd began buying land (three ranches totaling more than 40,000 acres) and restoring vacant houses and buildings, including a bank, a supermarket, and a locker plant, which he turned into, among other things, a writing house, a library, an architect’s office, and a studio. He employed as many as 60 people more workers than any other single company in Marfa-to create what would amount to Juddville. He even bought the Kingston Hot Springs near the Rio Grande, which had been used by locals for more than 200 years, and closed it to the public.
In the mid-’70s the Dia Foundation, underwritten by Houston oil heiress Philippa de Menil Friedrich and her husband Heiner Friedrich, a former art dealer from Germany, began funding artists working outside conventional gallery settings (Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field near Pie Town, New Mexico, is one of their better-known projects) and purchased the 340-acre Fort D.A. Russell, which is south of town, to permanently exhibit works by Judd and his friends. But in the mid-’80s Dia cut off funding due to slumping oil prices. Judd threatened to sue for breach of contract, eventually settling out of court. He got the fort and the artwork, and reorganized them as the Chinati Foundation, which officially opened in 1986.
Marianne Stockebrand too was struck by the landscapes and all the space when she first laid eyes on Marfa, in 1989; she was in the company of Donald Judd. “Coming from Europe, I was surprised by how far you could drive without seeing another car. The distances were startling.” She was putting together a show of Judd’s furniture and architecture projects for the Kšlnischer Kunstverein and was editing previously published essays for a book on his architecture when their relationship became more than professional. Judd was as drawn to the brown-eyed woman with the prominent, finely sculpted cheekbones as she was to him.
“He had a place in Cologne and opened a studio there,” recalls Stockebrand. “And he asked me to come here and work at Chinati. When he was diagnosed, that didn’t happen. “The two did, however, talk of marriage as Judd lay dying in a New York hospital.
When Stockebrand became its director, the Chinati Foundation had less than $500 in the bank. Since then, she has built a $2 million endowment, with a long-term target of $14 million to finish what Judd intended: preparing his concrete buildings to exhibit a large amount of his artwork currently in storage, creating a permanent installation for John Wesley’s paintings, and documenting the site’s military history.
But Stockebrand didn’t just have to learn how to run a struggling foundation; she had to learn Marfa. “When she first came here, English was clearly her second language,” one acquaintance recalls. “She was frosty in a Germanic way-very, very rigid. You’d never see her out in the community But the years have softened her. She shows up at parties. She attends events. She’s much more integrated. Don Judd was a daunting figure. She can be that too. I wouldn’t want to cross her.”
Stockebrand lives in the heart of Juddville, between the old bank and old Safeway buildings Judd bought, and across the street from the Marfa Wool and Mohair building, where John Chamberlain’s car wreck metal sculptures are exhibited. “She’s the only person I’ve encountered who can live that minimalist lifestyle,” a friend says, describing the small, Spartan residence, a block from the main drag, that Stockebrand shares with her two cats. No art or sentimental photographs adorn the walls, and furnishings are sparse, dominated by a Donald Judd desk.
She’s a regular at the bookstore, she lunches at the coffee shop, and sometimes she shows up at art functions, but otherwise Stockebrand sticks to Chinati affairs, in Marfa and around the world. She clearly enjoys living in a place where she can be left alone. And yet she’s also palpably happy about the way the Chinati has revitalized the community: “I wouldn’t want to see this as an artists’ colony in a kitschy sort of way-one souvenir shop next to another-but I think it’s very nice to be able to buy olive oil here and have it on a salad with lettuce that wasn’t wilted last week, as it used to be.”
But while she has acclimated herself to Marfa, and the financial situation at the Chinati has improved, Stockebrand remains embroiled in the wrapping up of the estate, which has pitted her against the Judd kids. She believes the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation should be managed as a single entity. “From the artistic point of view, they should be done together,” she contends. “It’s all Judd’s work. It’s this tiny town in Texas. Cohesion in planning and fund-raising makes sense.” Such a merger, of course, would also bolster the Chinati’s financial footing by eliminating competition for funding and allowing the combined foundation to sell off portions of the Judd estate when and if the public works project is threatened.
“Everything doesn’t have to merge together like some great corporation,” counters Rainer Judd. “Marianne doesn’t want this [print] building here to exist. She believes it’s not a permanent installation, and therefore isn’t valid. It’s a permanent exhibit. What’s wrong with that? That’s what he wanted. They’ve tried to get us to sell Spring Street before it’s transferred to the Judd Foundation. But we can’t bend [on that]. We’re Judd’s kids. We’re the spine.”
Richard Schlagman, owner of the art book publishing company Phaidon Press and president of the Judd Foundation, backs the kids up. “We absolutely don’t want to sell Spring Street,” Schlagman says. “Not at all. Ever. In my view it wasn’t an actual desire to sell it on Marianne’s part but a lack of seeing that it could be saved. I’m sure we can have both Maria and Spring Street.”
Flavin Judd lays his cards on the table over breakfast burritos and green chile huevos rancheros at Carmen’s Cafe (TIE YOUR HORSE AND COME ON IN, reads the sign out front), while his wife Michele nurses and fusses with their one-year-old son, Pascal. Flavin makes it clear that neither he nor his sister asked for the job of executor, and they sure as hell didn’t know they’d have all the debt to clear up. “It’s a lousy situation: all these vultures hovering, all these people pretending to care about the art and about Don.”
Flavin has put the Porter House up for sale again. He’s tired of Maria and Marfa art and Maria art politics, of the pressure to either settle the estate or resign as executor. “They’ve used figures of authority to scare us,” he says. “They want us out. But we’re not going anywhere. They don’t understand. We didn’t grow up with authority figures. We were always told that figures of authority don’t know a fucking thing about art. Turns out it was true.”
While the foundations duke it out and the Texas attorney general’s office attempts to stop the continued bleeding of the estate and make sure Judd’s assets are properly dispersed in accordance with the state’s charitable trust laws, the town-art synergy has shifted to Lynn and Tim Crowley, the post-Judd “Judds” in Maria. Lynn ran Lynn Goode Gallery in Houston, one of that city’s finer contemporary spaces; Tim is an attorney and sits on the Chinati board. Five years ago, after Lynn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they bought a place in Marfa as a retreat. Now it’s almost a full-time residence. Their Marfa Book Co. has become the social center for the art crowd and much of the rest of the community. And they’ve gone on a buying spree-snatching up property in town and surrounding ranchland-that has inspired comparisons to Judd. With one major difference: Judd closed his houses and buildings to the public; the Crowleys want to open the spaces up, fill them with artists and art, and make them accessible.
Already Marfa is hopping in a way it hasn’t since the movie production of Edna Ferber’s Giant came to town, in 1955. El Paisano Hotel, the Spanish Baroque inn where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and the rest of the cast hung out, is coming back to life as a luxury lodge. Tourists can buy art to take home at Hecho en Marfa, a shop of locally made arts and handicrafts run by the nonprofit Marfa Studio of Arts. And one of the Crowleys’ former bookstore employees has opened up a health food store.
But Tim Crowley says it’s too early to call Marfa the next Santa Fe. ‘Most of our friends from Houston are bewildered,” he says, laughing. “They say, ‘We heard about art, but all we saw were these huge blocks of concrete.’ There’s not much going on. The logistics are daunting. Marfa lacks health care, goods, and services. We don’t have a drug store. We just got an ATM-I don’t think anyone’s used it yet. It’s a tough-love, challenging type place. You have to want to be here. We just got a restaurant to stay open on Sunday. Before then, all you had was microwave chicken nuggets at the convenience store.”
So what would Donald Judd have made of the new Marfa?
Rainer and Flavin Judd think he wouldn’t have embraced it. “He didn’t come here for Marfa,” Flavin says. “He came for the mountains south of here, where the ranches were. If not for my sister and me going to school, he wouldn’t have had much to do with Marfa. He was fed up with the town in 1993. He wanted to move his library down to the ranch.”
By then Judd had achieved a degree of notoriety from some very public run-ins over noise from the local feed mill and ice plant. And odds are he wouldn’t have liked the WWDJD? bumper sticker any more than his daughter does.
“That sticker was created by people who probably never met him,” Rainer notes shortly before leaving town again. “People who think he must have been a megalomaniac to create all this.”
Not a megalomaniac, perhaps, but a serious collector with very specific ideas about the way things should be. Both Stockebrand and the Judd kids are guided by what they think Donald Judd wanted, but getting an honest assessment from anyone else about who is or isn’t on the right track is almost impossible, since so much is riding on what will be done with Judd’s properties and extensive collections. The Crowleys, for example, have offered to buy the Print Building in Marfa; Tim Crowley says that the old Crews Hotel could be a nice hotel once again and that soon-to-be Marfa resident Liz Lambert, who owns the Hotel San Jose in Austin, a vintage motor court made over into a hip boutique lodging, could be the hotelier to do it. And John Vinson, an assistant attorney general involved in the case, has a residence in Marfa, too.
Ayala De Chinati, where Judd is buried, is on a south-facing promontory between the Chinati and Sierra Vieja mountain ranges, overlooking the valley of the Rio Grande a majestic landscape of canyons, peaks, and cliffs wholly devoid of humanity. To see it requires numerous formal requests, several telephone calls to landowners to secure permission to drive across their property without being shot at, signatures on forms on which one promises not to stray from the path, an all-terrain vehicle, and a pair of bolt cutters, since some “asshole landowner,” as an estate employee puts it, has been putting new locks on gates, cutting off access to the place.
It’s 60 miles of bad road from the rim of the Chinatis into Pinto Canyon and down onto the vast slope draining into the Rio Grande-three hours minimum. But when a thunderstorm parks over the Chinatis as darkness falls, dropping buckets of rain (the first rain in almost a year), and the road disappears altogether into a swift-moving stream, it’s flat impossible. So I back up and turn around. Near Marfa there are car lights. (I haven’t seen a car or person since I left town seven hours ago.) It’s the US. Border Patrol. Motion sensors planted in the pavement must have tipped them off. They tail me all the way back into town.
WWDJD? I think he’d say it was worth every bit of the effort.