Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Space Opera story, music journalism at its best

As lousy, PR-sycophantic and hack-infested as most music writing is, every now and then you stumble upon a diamond in the rough.

That's my take of Frank Gutch, Jr.'s four-part history of the band Space Opera, a late sixties, early seventies progressive rock outfit from Fort Worth, Texas, my hometown. The saga is posted on . Gutch's research was motivated by his impression that Space Opera was from Canada, and that their sole major label release was a brilliant recorded work. He started asking questions and ended up writing what could just as well be a book. It is the complete telling, going back to earlier efforts of band members and going forward to update readers on Whatever Happened To....? all the band members.

I thought I knew the band, but Gutch digs deep and tells a fascinating tale of how they came together, and how active members, especially a young David Bullock, were players in Houston's developing folk music scene in the late 1960s that eventually produced Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and many more.
There's even some interesting Jerry Jeff Walker trivia. Check out this photo of SO precursor Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit, and Greenhill.

This album cover is pretty great for two reasons besides the music inside: Guy Clark designed the cover, and, with one band member missing, Guy graciously posed as part of the band.

What was most personally rewarding was Gutch's reporting on the teen recording scene at Sound City, the recording studio in the basement of KXOL Radio station on a bluff above the Trinity River right off 7th Street. It details the earliest recording work by the teenager who would become known as T-Bone Burnett (most of the kids at Paschal High knew him as Terry back then), the jive producer Major Bill Smith, and the pre-Daniel Johnston character dubbed the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Gutch makes a very persuasive case that Space Opera were as great as folks in Fort Worth and precious few other places believed, an especially timely analysis in light of the recent passing of band member Phil White.

Two of four parts are posted as of today (September 26). More to come.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hurricane Ike from the 19th Floor

For all the harrowing tales of destruction and disaster from Hurricane Ike, one of the best personal accounts comes from Josh Holstead, aka Rowdy Yates on KILT-FM in Houston and host of the nationally syndicated Country Gold. Here’s his report from the 19th floor, a place that I now know, I don’t want to be in a hurricane.

Josh’s email is

What I Did Last Week On My Vacation

by Josh Holstead

This morning I am going over my post hurricane wish list. Would you care to know what is at the top? Dramamine. In big block letters written with a bright orange highlighter on a large yellow notepad I scratched out two words:


I had no idea you could get motion sickness 19 stories up. I always thought that was for folks who did not take well to cruises, fishing off-shore or passengers on bumpy flights; like the lady that threw up in my lap on my last landing in Las Vegas. But you can get green-in-the-gills 19 stories up, and there was a lot more that 25 of us learned from Thursday to Sunday of last week as we rode out Hurricane Ike in our Greenway Plaza studios.

As if all of the pre-Ike coverage and his trek from the ocean to Houston were not enough to warn us, an 8 foot by 10 foot window bowing away from the frame of our building several hundred feet up was. That gave us our first indication it was going to be a very rough night. The time was 9pm and the eye of the storm would not visit us until around 2am the next morning. First noticed by our Chief Engineer Dan Woodard (who I have a whole new level of respect for) it would have been the smartest and simplest thing to shut the big, tall, three inch thick executive door, and let the window blow out and suck every last thing out of that office. But we are radio people. Brave people who volunteered to defend the CBS installation, protect the commercial inventory and relay vital information to the millions who were listening. So, half a dozen of us bravely entered the office of our Research Director Gina Messick and started hauling everything out. In hindsight, it was not all that bad. After all we ARE radio people, and many of us have had to move quickly, with NO notice, and at night. So, this wasn’t a stretch once we got past that whole fear of dying thing.

We all saw the footage of the storm rolling in. Many of us got a big kick out of Geraldo Rivera being swept off his feet and into a street full of Ike infused Galveston gumbo. But that was just a little taste of what would whip Galveston, The Bolivar Peninsula and the Southeast Texas coastline. CBS Radio Houston was there through it all.

Like Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina, there are buzz words that radio and TV types toss around all too frequently. “Cone of Uncertainty”, “Shelter in Place” and “Hunker Down” have been said so much in the past three years I wish they would retire the phrases, like they retire the hurricane names after they beat the hell out of some place.

The new buzz word in our place was “compromised.”

Let’s all say it together: [kom-pruh-mahyzd]–from the combined and abridged book of Commercial Building Inspection and Meteorology 101, the word “compromised” (in our case) can mean some or all of the following things:

1 The roof has been ripped off of your building.

2 Water from hurricane rains is now flooding the elevator shafts, and half of your emergency escape stairwells.

3 Chunks of concrete from the roof are flying down the stairwell, powered by 120 mile per hour winds.

4 No need to close the door that leads to the roof. The door, the doorjamb around it and four inches of concrete that encased it are now lying horizontal on what was left of the roof.

5 Re aiming the STL dishes could be problematic as they are now in the 5th floor parking garage.

6 Those rapid succession “BOOM” noises you are hearing are not transformers. They are just the windows blowing out of the building. But we still have power, and thankfully the toilets were only temporarily compromised.

But with the building swaying, glass crashing, lightning flashing and winds blowing, we were providing calming voices, life saving information, news updates and hundreds of stories from people riding out the storm with us. In the back of our minds, every one of us wondering what we would see when the sun rose? What we would come home to, or even worse; if we even had anything or anyone to go home to.

I do want to recognize the services of the three brave men who were in our twisting AM 650 interior studios when the storm was the worst. News Director and Texas Radio Hall of Famer Robert B. McEntire, Galveston County resident and 7p-12midnight KILT-FM personality Tom Fontaine, and Captain Mickey from SportsRadio 610’s fishing show. Having now covered three big storms, I am certain I would rather have a fishing guide as my radio wing man than the head of the National Hurricane Forecast Center. Captain Mickey and Captain Wayne before him knew the coast, the people and the places-as well as the honey holes for big mouth bass and speckled trout.

These men and their producer Malana Nall had to physically brace themselves to keep chairs from rolling away from microphones and consoles. Tommy had to stand up and brace his legs a few feet apart was he was developing sea legs and a sour stomach. Even Captain Mickey himself, the Salty Sea Dog who makes his living fishing in rough Gulf waters was bracing for his own unexpected evacuation.

Once it was clear that all of our personnel had weathered the storm (though we could not say the same about the roof or parts of the building) it was time to take a deep breath. While the winds were still gusting at up to 50mph, the sun was rising on a battered City of Houston, and millions of tired eyes and weary faces staggered out of their safe houses with a sigh of relief that they too had made it through.

It was when most of us began picking up the pieces that our heart rates revved back up to full throttle. Why? A fire alarm. A fire alarm was going off on our floor and our floor only. Normally, this would not be a big deal as we have all been instructed on where to go and what to do in case of a fire. The real problem (as reported on our own airwaves) was that first responders could not and would not come and rescue us. Much like we saw with the first big fire down on Galveston Island-if the place was on fire, it would go up, and go up with us in it, and there was not a damn thing we or they could do about it. So, again, we wait it out. A number of us fan out to various parts of the building, reaching for the bloodhound within trying to sniff out anything that might have caught fire, generated smoke or otherwise fried to the point it set off the fire alarm.

While I did not get the *official* reason why it triggered, I have my own theory, and it was a dead ringer for right according to my buddy Steve Beers who sells fire systems for a living. When the roof door blew off, and the water started rushing in, it made the temperature and the humidity on our floor rise greatly in a very short amount of time. To add insult to injury, water and electricity do not mix, and some of the wiring in the building and the fire system may too have been compromised. So, a “fail safe” feature activated the alarm, and that was a good thing. Better to be safe than sorry-and then burn to death. The fact that a few people (with our complete understanding and support) chose to bend the buildings’ no smoking policy, in NO WAY had anything to do with that alarm going off-really.

So, the lack of smoke clears, and it is then that we begin to prioritize what we need to do to return to normal business operations, and more importantly assist our clients that would be calling with cancellations, additions, and even new business that would be brought on by Ike’s destruction.

But before we could get to that, our buildings’ management prepared us for a few things we were prepared to hear, but hoped we would not. The elevators were shot. While we still had power, we would need to switch to our emergency generators as they would need to cut the power to the building to assess damage, and we might need to prepare to cease operations in our suite for possibly four weeks!

Thankfully, our sister stations in Dallas were ready to take us in, and like a Minute Man I was already packed and ready to roll. But there was another route we could take. If we stayed in simulcast, and we needed studio space, we would just go to my house. I have a home studio, and a very nice one. This is where we produce my Westwood One show. We had power, phones, AC and bathrooms. My place was well equipped with what we needed to gather news , record interviews, and conduct a broadcast. I even had a Marti unit that had been assigned to me after the terrorist attacks. For seven years I had “George Junior” with a two foot whip in a box just waiting to be fired up. I live so close to the transmitter site it would be a chip shot to hit it. So, with a single audio cable out of my distribution amplifier and an antenna out the window, our “Aux-Aux” site was ready to go if we needed it.

The next obstacle we faced was our news operation. It was not compromised, but the route to it was. Hiking 19 flights of stairs is no picnic for anybody. It most certainly was not going to be something we would insist our News Director endure. He is a strong man, and a man we needed, but an injury that led to a hip replacement was not something he or we were willing to test. I knew he had the gear to go mobile from his place too. The only problem was he had no power. He was running minimum necessities from his residence on a generator, but we needed something more reliable as gas was in short supply.

Until last week you would have never convinced me that we would turn to batteries and wireless technology to get information back to the radio station after a catastrophe, but we did-and it worked wonderfully.

Years ago, I asked permission, and the company granted me the opportunity to stream some local high school football games on the internet. We’ve been doing it for five years now, and do it more for the fun and community good will. But I had the stream available, a laptop computer, and a Verizon Wireless air card. So, bypassing all traditional backups, we hooked a microphone into a PC, fired up the Live stream and we were in business-and with rich, stereo broadband digital quality too.

This would be the right time to express how important wireless devices, delivery and communication has become. When the phones went dead and the power went out, the cell towers stood, and millions of people communicated via text messaging. For every phone call we received at the studio, I bet we received 50 text messages. I was also blown away by the thousands of people who were following our coverage on-line. Those who were fascinated by our broadcasts and AOL’s promotion of it, and most importantly, the people who had evacuated. We were their only link to what was happening in their home town. I cannot stress enough how important this platform is, and cannot wait until it is standardized and made easily available everywhere and to everyone.

Never in my career have I had to be so conscious of what we were saying . Millions were depending on RADIO to inform them-and deliver vital information. Not TV stations broadcast on the radio, but live and local radio coverage. The all news station KTRH was giving news and our stations were giving information. It was information I know saved lives. Potentially thousands. We continue that service today. A lot of other stations went back to their old routines and programming. That was a mistake. How can you inform your audience about a FEMA food and water distribution center changing locations when you recorded your show the night before? That kind of radio can never be voice tracked. Still today people are suffering. Still today we are helping them.

One of the many valuable lessons I learned is how training is so important. Experience I have, upbringing I have, radio is in my blood. I grew up in the best radio news operations in Texas, and without question the best people. But during the hurricane, what came back into my mind was my first disc jockey shift on a Saturday night at KDNT in Denton, Texas when I was 16 years old. The wind was howling, the tower was swaying, balls of static electricity were rolling off the guy wires and the News Director rips off what looked like 18 feet of UPI weather copy and says “read all of that” and I did. So thank you to Joe Short, Scott Sommer and Bill Van Ness, who held my hand through my first on air weather event. I have been on the air for a hundred or more since then, but it was the first one I ever did that helped me through the biggest one I have done so far.

The surest indication (to me) that local, state and government officials had things handled was when I left RB’s place. I headed back to Sugar Land to take a shower and hopefully dine on something that did not require a can opener to eat, and I saw something in the sky that did not look like it belonged there. It sure as hell did not just take off from our Sugar Land municipal airport. It was an Army refueling plane, and in mid air it was gassing up two Blackhawk helicopters. A once in a lifetime sight for me. It made me proud.

What was most inspiring to us in the days following were the power crews. 10,000 men and 7,500 trucks. They are fearless men and women who came from 25 states to help reverse the largest power blackout in Texas history. As I write this, there are still over 1 million without it, but millions more that have it thanks to them. They are the true heroes. Due to our extended coverage, we preempted my syndicated “Country Gold” show and we did a live and local version of it instead. Late in the evening as we are taking calls from people with power and without power, a suggestion comes in that we play Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” for all the guys who are working 16 hour days, and sleeping in or under their trucks. It really caught on. What is even stranger is that Glen Campbell also sang the song “Galveston” and both songs were written by the great Jimmy Webb. What you may not know is that the first staging area for most of those electrical workers is Sam Houston Race Park-which has a beautiful new concert venue and has hosted Glen in the past. I think there are too many stars aligned for something special not to happen. I called a few folks, and there is something big already in the works.

I am considering changing my name from Rowdy Yates to “Hurricane Holstead.” After last weekend I am pretty sure I earned it.

After my first shift on all four stations, but before the storm really rolled in, my General manager Laura Morris delivered me a message from the President of the CBS Radio group, Dan Mason. His interests are more than professional. Houston used to be his home. He was monitoring the broadcast, and according to her, was very impressed at my performance. “Tell Rowdy I want to buy him a drink” was the message, and I must admit I was pretty puffed up about the call. But after going through what we did, I say the whole crew deserves a round. –and Dan, please pay the tab in person.

*Josh Holstead is the afternoon personality on KILT/100.3fm in Houston, Texas. Using the handle “Rowdy Yates” he is also heard nationwide every weekend on the #1 country request show “Country Gold” which is distributed by The Westwood One Radio Networks.

Bill Mack, World's Greatest Disc Jockey and the Truckers' Friend

I am a loyal listener of Bill Mack on the Open Road channel on XM 171.

No one in radio has the loyal audience like Bill does, which is why Willie Nelson calls in every Wednesday to take calls from truckers.

Bill has really championed the Willie book since it's come out. I visited with Bill and Cindy, his sidekick and life partner, on Monday and got to hear Cindy do her Marilyn Monroe version of Happy Birthday but couldn't watch her as I listened. It was so sultry, my ear wax melted.

Listen in and check them out.

Texas' Other Disaster

While all the attention has been focused on the Gulf Coast where Hurricane Ike trashed Galveston, swept away the Bolivar peninsula and wrecked Galveston, there's been historic flooding on the other side of Texas where the Rio Grande flooded out the small city of Ojinaga, closed the bridge to Mexico,

threatened the levees protecting the town of Presidio,

and closed River Road.

The local golf course was underwater.

It's the highest water since 1978, maybe worse. Heavy rains in Chihuahua state and Copper Canyon especially have forced dams along the Rio Concho, which provides the Rio Grande with most of its flow, to continue releasing water for the past two weeks. Now the there is real fear the levees will crumble from being saturated for so long.

The town of Redford has been virtually inaccessible for the last week and a half, although supplies for the community have been helicoptered in.

And it's been so wet in Far West Texas that Balmorhea pool had to close due to turbidity. Check with the park to determine if it's opened.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Fall Harvest Out West

Or, a few snapshots of a week out West in early September.

Tourists snapping pics of the Golden Gate in SF

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy and author at The Booksmith on Haight Street in San Fran

Lonche at La Taqueria in the Mission with Kitchen Sister Davia Nelson and SF Chronicle writer Joel Selvin

Harvesting grapes in Lodi

No wine before its time

Melons in the field in Utah

Buffalo in the field in Wyoming

Sage grouse pecking their way through the grass

Big country, Wyoming