[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
I was just in Texas for a show. Since 1981 I've done a lot of shows in Texas.
Whenever I am there, many memories of previous shows and visits come back to me. It is one hell of a place.
Back in the early 1980s, on one of my first visits to the great state, I learned a lesson that has stuck with me all these years later: Texas is a hotbed of insanely good bands and musicians.
Back then, I didn't know that Texas was the birthplace of Lightnin' Hopkins, Ornette Coleman and Roy Orbison, to name but a diverse few. In those days, I could have told you that ZZ Top was from there and that's about it. My first up-close dose was the Big Boys, the Dicks and the Butthole Surfers. They were all original and quite great onstage. If a band can't play well live, its records are no longer all that interesting to me. These bands could play.
We're talking about Austin, Texas, though. This is a relatively unique section of this state, which became part of America in 1845. (Not all of the other 27 states were exactly jumping for joy about this; Abraham Lincoln wasn't, either.)
The rest of Texas is wide open, extremely beautiful and contains millions of people. Many of them have some intense ideas about how things should go. It was from some of these people that I learned some of my early lessons in Americana 101.
One event that says a lot happened to me in 1982, I believe. Black Flag had just finished a show in Houston at the Lawndale Art Annex. That was always a tough show. Oven-hot inside, the air never seemed to contain enough oxygen, and getting through the set was always a grim proposition.
We had finished the show in front of 300 people (or less) and I was walking alone across the venue. I heard a voice behind me. “Fag.” I kept walking. I heard the voice again. “Fag.” There was no heat behind this utterance, just a monosyllable, flatly stated. I turned and saw a guy about my age, perhaps a little older, following me. It was almost an absurdist episode. I asked him, almost politely, “Did you call me a fag?” He said matter-of-factly, “Yeah.”
I forget how I put him on the ground but soon I was holding his head and hitting it against the floor when all of a sudden, I was in the air and being slammed to my feet. Two very large Texas policemen had pulled me off the man. They had my arms yoked up behind me and one of them asked me what was going on. “He called me a fag. Twice,” I said. My arms were immediately released, I was apologized to and the man on the ground was picked up, yelled at and tossed out of the venue by the two policemen. “Take 'er easy. Have a good night, now.” Well, OK. That's justice, Texas style.
As much as I am a fan of the bands and artists I previously mentioned, for me, the greatest thing to come out of the state of Texas is the one and only Roky Erickson. Don't get me started. Actually, let's do that. His early work in the 13th Floor Elevators is groundbreaking, psychedelic music of the highest order. But it's his solo material that comprises some of the best albums I own.
Roky's genius is of the rare and somewhat frightening type. His music is some of the most beautiful and haunting you will ever hear. His voice is like no one else's. Roky's life for many years was full of pain, paranoia and psychosis.
The first time I ever went to visit him, at his home in Austin in the '90s, is a day I will never forget. Roky was living alone in a small house. I walked in with King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers and was stopped in my tracks by the caterwaul of multiple radios and television sets on at full volume. The sound was fairly deafening. Roky cheerfully yelled over the din that these were his “electric friends” (I think he called them). They helped drown out the voices in his head. I went back to my hotel room that night and broke down in tears.
Years later, Roky is much, much better and touring all over the world. He's one of the nicer people you will ever meet and his music is among the great creations of all time. If you find yourself made curious by this, I suggest you check out I Have Always Been Here Before, a fantastic anthology of Roky. If that one grabs you, The Evil One is your next stop. No kidding, this is about as good as music gets.
Texas is as odd as it is vast. Texans can be a real piece of work. By turns some of the most generous, charismatic and can-do people in this great country. On the other hand, they execute people like there's free pizza with every lethal injection, and Gov. Rick Perry is low on my list ever since he joked around about Texas seceding from the union of the states. I had visions of a wall being built around Austin and airlifts bringing in books and other supplies.
One of my favorite Texas moments didn't happen in Texas. We were on tour somewhere. We pulled into some massive truck stop. I went inside to use the men's room. I came out and was walking down the hallway toward the parking lot, and there was Stevie Ray Vaughan using a pay phone. We gave each other the nod.
I'll be back in Austin later in the year. Looking forward to it. Oh yeah, check out True Widow, yet another amazing band from Texas.