Friday, September 18, 2009

You can go home again, home to the Armadillo. Whattya mean you don't remember where you parked the van?

The public radio station operated by the University of Texas at Austin is doing an oral history project about Armadillo World Headquarters, a live music venue housed in an old armory where a lot of concerts were held and a lot of people drank a lot of beer and smoked a lot of marijuana from 1970 until 1980.

Already, I can see one problem with the project.

Does anybody honestly remember that much?

Those who actually were at the Armadillo during its 10-year existence are now in their 60s and 70s, or pushing dangerously close to those marks, and like we said in the first sentence, there was a lot of self-medicating going on before, during and after the public spectacles that took place on the 'dillo stage.

Still, we don't wish to micturate on anyone's parade and we wish the oral project success.

The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the university, interviewed Jim Franklin, who apparently earned the nickname "The Michaelangelo of Armadillo Art" for the posters he created to promote Armadillo's acts.

He told the student reporter of his first piece: "“I drew a realistic armadillo that has just come across a matchbook full of joints, and it’s puffing on one."

It caught on.

We mean the armadillo caught on.

It became, via a vote of the Legislature, one of two official state mammals (the Longhorn is the official "large" mammal) and remains to this day connected to the great State of Texas, even though the armored reptile ranges as far east as South Carolina and Florida, as far west as Nebraska and as far north as Ilinois, it is said.
Go into one of those "Texas" stores in a mall or a gift shop at a Texas airport and you can buy all sorts of armadillo-related stuff -- key chains, ash trays, postcards, you name it.

But back to the Armadillo World Headquarters.

It went bankrupt, the building was torn down and the land on which it stood was sold so that a bank or some other kind of reputable business could commence.

When that happened, people were upset, sure, but if you really want to be honest, that's how icons and legends or whatever you want to call them get made, which eventually leads to, well, stuff like oral histories.

"“The rednecks…the hippies…I miss the gathering of the tribes. It was a powerful voice of the people," Bobtom Reed, guitarist for the band Shiva’s Headband, told KUT's oral history project.

See what I mean?

The peaceful gathering of "rednecks" and "hippies" is a powerful feeling or image, so that whole idea caught on and gathered steam over the years when people reminisce about old Austin days.

For our part, we don't remember any actual "rednecks" -- just a smattering of long-haired guys that sometimes wore cowboy hats and then, of course, an occasional covey of young, short-haired soldiers from Fort Hood who'd come to Austin on weekends to drink beer and smoke weed with the rest of the crowd, which, of course, incuded LOTS and LOTS of college students who are now either retired, approaching retirement, looking for work in the current recession or trying to figure out how to recoup the 401K losses they suffered at the hands of Wall Street.

But, OK, back then they were "tribes." Whatever. But maybe they were just a bunch of people who liked to party, though we couldn't be sure. We were just there. Know what I mean?

AWHQ still has its own Web site, which is sort of amazing.

On its first page is contained what might be called a mission statement that attempted to explain what it was all about:

"We're a beer hall where you can see a ballet and a honky-tonk that's wired for video. We're a hundred barkeeps and musicians, audio engineers and lighting specialists, cooks, waitresses, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, artists, bouncers, maintenance people, stage hands and even several folks whose functions have never been determined, but who are still considered indispensable.

"We are at the center of a community that has, however implausibly, embraced an ancient, hairy-footed mammal as the symbol of the harmony we all want to bring to our lives. We are something that has never happened before. We are Armadillo World Headquarters.

"To list our accomplishments would offend even our own sense of modesty. To detail our failures would be too Dickensesque.

"...The Armadillo is more than just a local symbol. It is the center of the music industry in Texas, the premiere showcase for the rest of the nation to look at Texas talent and the spot where Texas audiences get to see national acts at their best… In the vision of Texas we want to communicate, the nine-banded Armadillo is more important than John Connally or the oil industry. It's a vision the rest of the country hasn't seen yet."

That was written in 1976.

Now, more than 30 years later, the oral history project will take another whack at Armadillo World Quarters to figure out what it all mean.

The project budget is tight and volunteers are filling the breach to get it all together. But KUT has studios and recording equipment and lots of other bells and whistles, so the production quality should be high.

The Armadillo Project, as it's called, is "being structured in accordance with guidelines from The Library of Congress and the public radio StoryCorps project. It is our intent to preserve these recordings in their entirety and in perpetuity for the primary use of researchers and the general public. KUT Austin will retain an archive at the University of Texas, and it is our hope that the recordings will serve as the foundation for educational projects, radio documentaries, museum exhibits, municipal landmark efforts, and other not-for-profit endeavors in the arts and humanities."


Alright, alright, I get it. Here's what I remember. Let's see, I definitely saw The Grateful Dead there. Only time I ever saw them live. They were OK, but I recall some of their songs were so interminably long that at one point I walked back to the end of darkened hall, where some rugs and shit were piled up in rolls, and just had to sit down. The room was sort of spinning and there were several other people there who were clearly zonked out, including some young GIs from Fort Hood with burr haircuts.

Who else? Oh, yeah, I saw Michael Murphy play there several times. He now goes by Michael Martin Murphy and dresses in authentic western attire while performing "lone cowboy concerts." His "Geronimo's Cadillac" is a fine LP, but that a long time ago. His big hit, "Wildfire," came long after his Austin days, but this "lone cowboy" business he uses for his concerts is not just a marketing line cause he's a real gawdamm rancher.

And then there was, oh sure, I saw Jerry Jeff Walker at Armadillo. Always loved his voice, but I wasn't at there the night he allegedly took an on-stage piss into a pitcher of beer.

Doug Kershaw I saw for sure. How can you forget that face and those crazy bug-eyes he flashes when he leans out from the stage playing that fiddle?

And Greezy Wheels, a local act that was big in Austin at the time, pretty sure I saw them, and then there was, oh yeah, I saw ... well, let me get back to you on that ... but I know I saw a bunch of other great musician there and it was a lot of fun. And so, for now, that's my contribution to The Armadillo Project. I've gotta hit the rack. What day is it? Drive home safely and be sure to tip your waitress ...


bob said...

Useful and interesting post, sir.

And thanks for the vocabulary update. "Micturate," huh? Not to urinate, but to *desire* to urinate. Subtle. I may just have to borrow that one if it's OK with you.


well thank you, bob. i hold no rights to the word, so use at will.

hank alrich said...

Armadillo World Headquarters did not close due to bankruptcy. It closed because our landlord, M.K. Hage, reneged on his promise to allow us to make a matching offer if/when anyone came along wanting to buy the property. We successfully negotiated a Chapter 11 Proceeding (allows a business to continue operating while paying off its debts) in 1977, and over the next few years we put that business in the black. We lost the grand ol' joint because the landlord terminated our lease.

Randy Kirchhof said...

Ah, I see Hank's already been here. What He Said: AWHQ was turning a nice profit when it had the rug pulled out from under it. He should know; he was Jefe Grande of the place, and the guy who originally hired me to work stage crew.

Interesting (and amusing) article here, but you miss some of the substance of the joint while getting the caricature spot-on.

The fact of the matter is that the rednecks/gearheads of Austin and the hippies of Austin were blood enemies in 1970. Five years later it wasn't an issue at all, and it's because all of those longhairs loved *music*, and booked people like Waylon Jennings, Willie, Bill Monroe, and many other purveyors of the finest traditional American music -- folks that couldn't get a gig outside of the Ryman and Midwest county fairs in those days.

Waylon especially, was completely bewildered the first time he played the place. A room full of beer-drinking pot-smoking longhairs cheering his music like he was Mick Jagger or something. He came back again, and again, and brought in his friends.

Another thing that you miss is the behind-the-scenes talent of the joint. The staff of AWHQ probably had a median IQ of about 140, and had world-class craftsmen and -women of virtually every discipline, available on site.

AWHQ can probably be put up there as one of the great collections of creative genius ever put together in the same room -- and that's why it keeps popping up, almost 40 years later, as something special.

It's long, long gone now -- but most of us are still in touch, and if you could see the current resumes of all of those "tribes," you'd be astounded at how much the denizens of that place have intertwined with virtually every corner of the best of American culture.

It was a neat place for a scrawny little 18 year old proto-hippie to get trained as an audio engineer, anyway.


Hank and Randy, thanks for the comments. It was a good time back then.