Monday, June 28, 2010

Water, Comanche Springs, and the Rule of Capture

My cover story in the Texas Observer on Water, Comanche Springs, Clayton Williams, T Boone Pickens, and the Rule of Capture.

Click on the headline to go directly to or better yet, get a subscription to the TO. It's worth it.

Groundwater is covered by an archaic law that could leave us high and dry.
by Joe Nick Patoski

Published on: Thursday, June 24, 2010
Playing By The Rule

Water and where to get it has been an obsession ever since humans arrived in the American West. People have searched, begged, lied, stolen, cheated, killed and been killed for it. Land has been seized, plundered and rendered useless because of it. Riverbeds, lakes and communities have been drained and abused and trivialized into detritus, remnants left behind in the pursuit of progress.

The process is still playing out, nowhere as dramatically as in Texas, where 21st century water wars are breaking out across the state.

In West Texas and the Panhandle, water marketers such as millionaire farmer Clayton Williams Jr., developer Woody Hunt, Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz and Dallas corporate raider T. Boone Pickens have plotted ways to move the precious commodity from rural areas to thirsty cities, lining their pockets all the way while ending farming as a way of life in the remote Dell Valley of West Texas and in Roberts County in the eastern Panhandle.

North of San Antonio, golf course developments and booming bedroom communities compete with small towns over water in the Guadalupe River. Along the border, farmers squabble with their counterparts in Mexico for their fair share from the Rio Grande. In Kinney County, the heart of Texas’ artesian aquifer region, farmers are fighting each other over their rights to sell water. Caddo Lake—the only naturally formed lake in Texas, in the wettest corner of the state—has been the object of a historic tug-of-war between lake people and the nearby town of Marshall. Nueces Bay, and every other estuary on the Texas coast, is threatened by reduced freshwater in rivers because of increased withdrawals upstream.

Court dockets are backlogged with so many water-related suits, you might say they’re waterlogged. Candidates for high office speechify about the problem but offer no real solutions. Lobbyists stuff their pockets in anticipation of a legislative session in which water will be one of the most serious long-term issues facing Texas.

Much of this fussing and fighting comes courtesy of the Rule of Capture, an archaic piece of British common law carried to these shores. The Rule states that whoever owns a piece of property owns the water beneath it. The Texas precedent was set in 1843 in the case of Acton v. Blundell, when Texas was a republic and people were largely ignorant about the nature and movement of groundwater. The Rule of Capture was upheld in 1861, when Frazier v. Brown was decided, and again in 1904 when the Texas Supreme Court heard The Houston & Texas Central Railway Co. v. East case. The court upheld The Rule by reasoning water below the soil was too “mysterious, secret, and occult” to regulate.

On the other hand, surface water—water you can see, such as rivers, lakes, and bays—belongs to the people of Texas, a doctrine most Western states apply to both surface and groundwater (See “Who’s Water Is It Anyway?”).

No state politician of power and influence has since dared to propose eliminating The Rule, even though Texas is the only state in the arid half of the United States to embrace a principle other states regard as foolhardy. About the best the Texas Legislature could muster to address this unequal use of the earth’s most precious resource was the 1949 declaration that groundwater districts were the preferred method for local communities to “conserve, preserve, protect and recharge underground water reservoirs.” Although districts have the power to space wells to minimize drawdown, if it comes down to legal hairsplitting, The Rule still has precedence. If you are lucky enough to have groundwater, it is yours to sell for a handsome profit.

Water is the New Oil in Texas. The winners and losers are still to be determined.

My own curiosity about Texas’ quirky way of dealing with water began while wandering around a friend’s property a few miles northeast of Fort Stockton in that vague transition zone where the Permian Basin becomes the Chihuahuan Desert, and mesas turn into mountains. It began with a simple question about what appeared to be a sluice gate for a canal in a patch of overgrown desert. Fort Stockton, I quickly learned, was one of the early losers.

Fort Stockton is known largely as a major food-fuel-motel way-station along Interstate 10. But for most of its history, the reason for Fort Stockton’s being was Comanche Springs, once the most abundant spring complexes beyond the Balcones Fault. Native Americans relied on the springs for thousands of years during seasonal migrations. The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca passed through there in 1534. Comanche and Kiowa tribes used the springs as a rest stop on their way to and from raids into Mexico every fall. All kinds of adventurers, soldiers, railway workers, outlaws, tradesmen and thieves relied on the springs for their long treks between the civilized East and the wild West.

The springs were named, according to several accounts, for the Comanche who was shot dead for trying to steal horses from Anglo travelers headed to California during the Gold Rush. His body lay by the springs for several years, which inspired the name Place Where the Comanche Thief Was Killed, ultimately shortened to Comanche Springs.

It doesn’t take a military strategist to know that the best way to subjugate people is to take away their water. So Fort Stockton was founded in 1859 as a military camp with the dual purpose of disrupting traffic along the Great Comanche War Trail and protecting Anglo settlers. The fort was strategically located adjacent to the largest of several artesian springs. Guarding the springs hastened the demise of the Comanche, the Lipan, the Mesalero and every other band of nomads.

That allowed Anglo settlement, but not an end to fighting over water. When Pecos County was organized in 1875, its first legal case was a dispute over water rights. By that time, more than 6,000 acres in the desert were being cultivated thanks to irrigation water that flowed by gravity from the springs. Because of water, Fort Stockton thrived, becoming a major stop on the southern transcontinental railroad and a place to rest and refuel on major highway routes linking Florida to California and Mexico to Canada. Because of water, 108 families north and east of town lived on farms. They formed a water district so that the water could be dispersed equitably through an intricate network of canals and sluice gates. Grapes, apples, pecans and alfalfa flourished in this 9-square-mile Garden of Eden. People floated in inner tubes along the canals for up to 15 miles away from town. Visitors came to swim in the springs and picnic under giant cottonwoods along the Imperial Highway.

The town’s biggest social event was the Comanche Springs Water Carnival, established in 1936 to commemorate Texas’ centennial. Two years later, an elaborate, open-air pavilion was constructed around the pool to better showcase the pure, 72-degree water.

That was until 1951, when the Water Carnival was cancelled because there was not enough water. Earlier that year, 52 irrigation wells had been drilled 10 miles west of Fort Stockton on land owned by Clayton Williams Sr., his brother J.C. Williams, and several others. The wells were equipped with pumps powered by diesel engines to draw water from deep below the surface. They worked so efficiently that the flow of Comanche Springs slowed to a trickle within hours after the pumps started. The farmers east of town ran dry, but landowners west of town expressed no remorse. Under The Rule, they could have all the water they could pump because they owned the ground above it.

Geologists and hydrologists determined that Comanche Springs was fed by rainfall in the Glass Mountains, some 50 miles southwest of Fort Stockton. The rainfall drains through braided channels coursing through limestone deep below the surface before bubbling up as springs east of town. The wells drilled west of town intercepted that underground flow.

The Pecos County Water Control and Improvement District Number One filed suit in Texas courts on behalf of the 108 farming families it supplied with water, challenging the prodigious pumping by the new farmers.

On June 21, 1954, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals ruled in favor of Clayton Williams, et al. by upholding The Rule of Capture, agreeing with the landmark 1904 Texas Supreme Court decision that groundwater was too mysterious to regulate. The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

Sadly, a half century later, the courts and the legal system still embrace the mysterious, secret and occult. The Rule rules.

Clayton Williams’ son, Clayton Jr., may have learned to swim in Comanche Springs, but when it came to pumping water, business was business. He followed in his father’s footsteps by continuing to pump groundwater to irrigate crops on the high Chihuahuan Desert. When Williams unsuccessfully ran for governor of Texas in 1990, Jan Jarboe of Texas Monthly asked if he thought Comanche Springs could flow again if he stopped pumping 41 million gallons of groundwater daily. “They might,” he reckoned. “But I’m not going to do it. It’s my land, and I have the right to use the water....I’m a businessman. I’m a cow man. I’m a conservationist. I didn’t dry up those springs. I bought the land. It’s mine, and if I didn’t pump water, it wouldn’t be worth anything.”

Now Williams wants to repurpose his rights from farming to municipal use in order to pipe water to Midland, though the city hasn't shown any interest. He also wants to pump it to the proposed NowGen experimental “clean” coal power plant in Penwell, in which Williams is an investor. A 100-mile pipeline would be constructed by Williams’ Fort Stockton Land Holdings through private property seized through the use of eminent domain.

The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District has scheduled two hearings for Williams’ application for late September and early October. Williams believes the pipeline is a win-win deal, as he related to the Midland Reporter-Telegram in March: “I went to Fort Stockton and told them I’d build a reverse-osmosis plant, process their water at cost, and pay $2.35 million in property taxes to the school and $1.45 million to the county. I’m only paying $20,000 now, so that’s a big bump. It would be more economic benefits and high-paying jobs. To me, it’s not complicated. We live in the box of law.”

Former Speaker of the House Tom Craddick tried to help Williams by introducing House Bill 4805 in April 2009 to create the West Texas Water Supply District on 20 acres near the Midland International Airport. The district was designed to give Williams his own private government agency to capture and sell his water.
The bill was greeted with loud howls of disapproval in Fort Stockton.

“This is not in the best interest of Pecos County,” County Judge Joe Shuster testified to the House Natural Resource Committee. “There’s not been an independent study of groundwater in Pecos County. It’s disingenuous to say that this amount of water [extraction] would be safe for all parties.” The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Laredo’s mayor, and the eight-county Rio Grande Regional Water Planning Group have called for a moratorium on Williams’ permit request until studies on groundwater flows, including water from the Pecos River watershed, and their impact on the Rio Grande are complete.

House Bill 4805 died in committee, but the fight is not over.

“It will be back before the Legislature in 2011, probably in a timelier manner and with more organized support,” says state Sen. Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat whose district includes West Texas. “Those of us who are committed to protecting the water must be vigilant during the interim, during the next session of the Legislature and the sessions after that.”

We've learned a lot over the past 150 years, and what happens to groundwater is no longer mysterious or occult. In the Panhandle, scientists have studied the drawdown of the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast reservoir of groundwater that extends from Texas up the spine of the Midwest into Canada. The Ogallala provided abundant sustenance for farm crops in the region for more than 150 years. But so much water has been pumped out that no amount of rain can refill the aquifer to levels of 150 years ago.

Less than half of the aquifer’s capacity remains, and what’s left costs more to pump, making irrigated farming in the Great Plains a risky proposition. That didn’t stop T. Boone Pickens from trying to exploit the Ogallala. In the early 2000s, he made deals with neighboring landowners around Roberts County to form Mesa Water Inc., which would pump Ogallala water and ship it via pipeline to Dallas, or wherever the highest bidder happened to be. He couldn’t have done it without The Rule.

Pickens has not yet found a buyer willing to pay his price for water, or built a pipeline to deliver the water, but he nonetheless felt compelled to accuse three northwest Texas groundwater districts of trying to ruin his business. The three are among the 98 groundwater districts in Texas, which by law must have plans to assure a water supply that will last 50 years. Groundwater districts were reaffirmed as the preferred means of local control with the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 1997. The districts are among the few entities that can limit what the Rule of Capture allows.

One district, Hemphill County Underground Water Conservation District, located in the arid northeastern part of the Panhandle, and including some of Pickens’ property, has established some of the most stringent limits on the Ogallala by planning to leave 80 percent of what remains in the ground for 50 years. A healthy aquifer would ensure flows in the county’s creeks and rivers, including the Canadian River and the headwaters of the Washita River. George Arrington, a Hemphill County rancher who sold a percentage of his rights to Mesa Water, joined Pickens in a lawsuit in March against the Texas Water Development Board. Arrington and Pickens complain that the Hemphill district’s plan is unreasonable and that Mesa Water would be denied as much as 18,000 acre-feet of water annually (an acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons), hindering Mesa’s ability to turn a buck. They want the conservation plan thrown out.

Privately owned groundwater’s connection to state-owned surface water, such as the vanishing Rio Grande, is clear. The Rio Grande has been running dry below El Paso since the mid-20th century from intensive agricultural and municipal use in Texas, the Mexican state of Chihuahua, New Mexico and Colorado, and the damming of the river at Elephant Butte in southern New Mexico. Over the past 10 years, the Rio Grande has frequently run dry before reaching the Gulf of Mexico east of Brownsville.

Historically, the Rio Grande has been replenished with inflow from the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua, which joins the Rio Grande above Presidio in Southwest Texas, and by the Pecos River above Del Rio. Several dams were constructed in the Conchos watershed over the past 25 years, rendering that river’s flow less dependable. This is where Clayton Williams’ plan to export water runs into trouble, because his groundwater in the Pecos watershed feeds the Rio Grande, an international waterway.

“The idea to export water from a desert is just so insane that you would laugh if you were not so afraid that it will actually happen,” says Kirby Warnock, whose relatives farmed the now-arid land east of Fort Stockton. “I mean, on the face of it, any proposal to export water from a county that only gets 13 inches annual rainfall should be shut down immediately, except for the ‘flat earth’ groundwater laws we have in Texas. I am hopeful that Mr. Williams’ proposal will finally spark some legislation to implement strong groundwater laws in Texas, and recognize that water is a shared resource.”

Neither the lakes constructed over the past century in Texas, nor the reservoirs below the ground that took thousands of years to fill, are satisfying the thirst of Texas’ growing population. Otherwise, Kinney County landowners wouldn’t be suing the local groundwater district for restricting the amount of groundwater they’d like to export. There wouldn’t have been the unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the San Antonio Water System against the Lower Colorado River Authority for canceling a $1 billion dollar deal to sell Colorado River water to San Antonio. And there wouldn’t be water marketers such as End-Op making deals with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to move groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer southeast of San Antonio to nearby cities and suburbs. It’s also why almost every creek, spring, and river in Texas is showing signs of stress.

Those realities make the fence and cage surrounding Big Chief Spring adjacent to the pool in Fort Stockton all the more curious. The cage was put in place decades ago to protect swimmers from the powerful force of the spring flow, a force that is now gone. Since the springs went dry, the cage has become just a memento of what once was. Even if springs have no legal rights in Texas, maybe, just maybe, Clayton Williams Jr. will do the right thing, and pure water will once again gush out from this once-sacred ground.

We shouldn’t hold our breath.

Joe Nick Patoski is working on two upcoming books, one about the Dallas Cowboys and the other on Texas' best stewards of the environment. This story is adapted from a project about water in Texas.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Space Opera, the final chapter

Frank Gutch has finished the final chapter of his epic saga of the Fort Worth band Space Opera.

Click on the headline for a direct link to where Frank's story is parked.

Or just read it here:

CHAPTER SEVEN: I Ain't Going to Swim Here Anymore...

While the band members basically went their own directions, they were never far apart. They kept in touch, if only by phone for certain periods. They had been together for too long and had been through too much together to not feel that thread of brotherhood.

“The decade from 1985 to 1995 seemed to go by really fast,” said Bullock. “Three of the four Space Opera members were raising families and working---- myself in video, Scott as a music instructor, and Brett as an accountant and business manager. Phil, of course, was still out there, pounding away in the clubs.

“The four of us somehow managed to get together now and again in our favorite haunt, the recording studio. Whenever and however we could get free time, we continued to record our songs. Then, in '94, Scott and I revived the chamber folk concept and started playing coffeehouses and the like around North Texas.”

“Grand Saline was what they called this coffeehouse acoustic act they had for a short while,” according to Scott's wife, Mary. “It was Scott, David and a few other players, including the cellist Mary Maneikis, who later taught my daughter to play the cello.”

“That was the final incarnation of our chamber folk concept,” Bullock said. “We reformed Space Opera in '95 and began rehearsing on weekends at Eagle Audio, a 24-Track studio in Fort Worth. That eventually led to a concert at The Caravan of Dreams, a really fantastic and, sadly, now defunct concert club.”

That concert created a buzz in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Dave Ferman of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram got wind of it as rehearsals kicked into high gear. Citing the TV presentation of the Beatles' Anthology as incentive, Fraser gave Ferman a preview interview.

“Fraser and Bullock don't want this to be a one-off gig.” Ferman wrote after talking with Fraser, “or to be seen as a time machine for aging hippies and HOP patrons. Space Opera, they say, is going to be a working, living band.”

The band had plans--- to restructure their lives around the working band, to record the show and possibly release it, if only to create interest in further shows.

“'To re-form for one show is a waste of time,' Fraser went on. 'It would be a nostalgia event. We see more to it. We want to get a product out internationally and play regularly, and once we get to rehearsing on a regular basis, it won't take long.'”

“We want to play,” Fraser said in the interview. “We've got a year's worth of working on this material and we need this show to work to give us a strong anchor to do other things. If anybody really liked the band, it was because we always did new things. We're sprinkling the set with older material, five cuts from the (Epic) album, but most of the set is entirely new, or if you have heard it before, it was in a different format.”

To complement the band at The Caravan, they added Jeff Ward, owner and engineer of Eagle Audio (where Space Opera was to record their second album), on keyboards. William Jackson rounded out the lineup, playing multiple instruments including clarinet, oboe, accordion, English horn and Viola de Gamba, an instrument popular during the Renaissance.

One of the odder tracks played that night was a complete surprise to the audience. They recreated the idea which gave The Mods instant credibility when they covered Lennon and McCartney's It's For You back in the sixties. This time, they covered another obscure Beatles track titled L.S. Bumblebee, or so the guys thought. They found out later that it wasn't The Beatles at all.

“We found this song on a Beatles bootleg tape,” Bullock explained, “but it turned out to be not by the Beatles at all but a really great 'parody' song by Dudley Moore. It was one of the coolest songs The Beatles never wrote.”

The response to the show was enthusiastic and the guys were somewhat elated, but Claudia Wilson saw the other side. Even at the Caravan, decades after the Epic album, the band put enormous pressure on themselves.

“I think Brett was just happy that they'd gotten through it,” she said. “They wanted to be perfect. They didn't want anything screwed up. I don't know that it was obsessive or to that point, but they had very high standards for themselves and when you have those standards and you want to do it live, it takes a lot of work. They always recorded their live gigs and went back and listened and said, okay, what do we need to change. What do we need to do to make it better. When they played Caravan of Dreams, it was like, wow, they still have the chops. Their live sound was as close to studio as they could get it.”

“It's the closest thing to time travel I can imagine,” Phil White told Ferman. “We started in Scott's garage and I remember every nook and cranny and the smell of it. The word 'reunion' is really thrown around these days, but our fans bring their grandchildren. That's a reunion.”

In '98, Space Opera played Dallas at the Sons of Hermann Hall. Before the show, Fraser let the cat out of the bag regarding the playlist.

“This time around,” he told the Star-Telegram, “it's a leaner and edgier sound, just for this gig. We have different material--- a song we played years ago by Tracy Nelson, and one of our favorite Bob Dylan songs, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.”

Bullock compared the two shows.

“About 600 audience members was the main difference,” he said. “We were a cult item in Fort Worth, but forty miles away in Dallas, no one remembered us and the audience was depressingly sparse.

“As far as presentation, it was less formally structured than the show at The Caravan, more like a straight-ahead club gig, even though many of the songs were the same.”

The various rehearsals for the gigs convinced the guys they needed to give it another go. Not only was it fun, the music was still growing. And, as important as anything, the pressure was off. It made a world of difference.

“You reach a point where you're not seeking fame and fortune,” said Bullock, “and when that's gone, you go back to what you began doing it for, which is to play with these guys. You have a sense of freedom when you realize the big things aren't going to happen.”

The idea of doing another studio album had been tossed around over the years, but the stars never aligned. This time, the four got together and talked it over seriously. Schedules were rearranged and arrangements made. Of course, this was to be no marathon Manta session like it was in '72. The world was different and so were the guys.

“It wasn't like they all could just go spend a week in the studio,” Claudia explained. “They had to do it on weekends when everybody could get loose. Everybody had lives and families, except Phil, and it took time to get to where it could all happen. It was a struggle to co-ordinate four lives. And when you don't have a roadie...”

Five lives, actually, for Space Opera had never really taken a step toward recording without Cass Edwards, who was essentially the band's executive producer. And six, if you include 'added band member' Jeff Ward, who in addition to playing on the album owns and operates Eagle Audio where the album was eventually recorded.

Brett Owen Wilson was chosen to be producer, an honor extended to him by the band, and specifically Scott Fraser.

“Brett appreciated the quality of the music,” Claudia Wilson explained. “ The other guys were just so good and he didn't have all of the ego invested in it because he was just there to play drums and be part of the group. He really appreciated the guys' musicianship in the way they composed and how they put a song together. I mean, some of their poetry blows me away even today.

“Plus I think they needed to have someone in charge. There were always things going on and they said, well, let's make Brett the producer. Brett was a very modest person. He would always get angry when the mix didn't have the guitars loud enough because he said this is a guitar band. He knew he was part of the foundation upon which it was laid, but their creativity and the music they'd written--- I think they knew it was partly due to Brett's ability to play drums differently.”


The working title of the project was “My Father's Bongos”.

“The recording engineer, Jeff Ward, had a box of percussion instruments that we would rummage through and use for recording,” explained Bullock, “tambourines, shakers and whatnot. Several times when the bongos would come out, Jeff would say, 'you know, those were my father's bongos.' I think it was Scott who latched onto that reference as an album title, and it seemed suitably random.”

Dave Ferman, once again, was privy to the album talk.

“The band went into the studio in 1999,” he wrote, “and finally, just a few weeks ago, signed off on a new 12 track CD. In November 1970, the band astounded a hometown audience by playing an opening set for the Airplane that featured no breaks between songs--- instrumental themes and Bullock's vocals provided the links as band members switched instruments. One of the linking themes, an old Scottish ballad called Awake, resurfaces on the new CD.”

Gene Triplett of the Oklahoman wrote in a review, “What I'm hearing on the new CD, self-released by the band, is a 2002 technology version of the same group, with denser production and much more accomplished musicianship (which is something to say since they were already amazing in their early twenties) and remarkably original (and intelligent) songwriting.”

The critics may have loved it, but marketing was nonexistent. A Space Opera website promoted the CD and a few copies made their way into a couple of Dallas/Fort Worth music stores, but outside of that, even finding out about the CD was a crap shoot.

“I don't know if anybody had a clue as to where to put word,” said Claudia. “I mean, when you bring out a second album after 30 years, try to find those fans. A whole lot of it was that back in the day, the world of music was a different universe. When they started playing here locally, it was the dawn of FM radio and airplay was how you got known. It's not the same anymore.”

“We haven't tried to market that second album widely because we are totally clueless at that sort of thing,” agreed Bullock. “I was pretty happy with a lot of the album. It was recorded at a time after we had pretty much given up on our thousandth reunion and the thought was that we should create a representation of the music we had been performing during that period (1996-99). We were busy with other things and just came together on weekends to record, and there was never a concept that everyone agreed on.”

An agreement has since been reached with Dean Sciarra of The two Space Opera CDs plus the Whistler, Chaucer CD are now available there.


The re-emergence of Space Opera was not lost on John Reagan, who had lived on the Epic album for three decades. A fan in every sense of the word, Reagan considered the album a lost classic and took every opportunity to promote it as such. It is, therefore, no surprise that he was a key player in its reissue as a CD.

“I heard Space Opera early in '73,” Reagan explained, “when Holy River came on my car radio one evening while driving from Austin to San Antonio. That was back in the good ol' days when FM radio played nothing but album cuts from many different bands, known and unknown. I was utterly blown away by the instrumental intro to Holy River. I thought that The Byrds were back together and better than ever. I bought the album the next day and have not been the same since.

“(When CDs became the new format) and many old records began to be reissued on CD, I thought about it and wondered why Space Opera had not yet been issued. Early in 2000, my frustration took over and I resolved to see what could be done about it.

“At the time, I only knew that it was an Epic release and knew nothing regarding ownership or control of the master. I located Scott in Fort Worth by way of the Space Opera website and he pointed me to David in Dallas. I soon learned that Epic, now Sony, owned the master and that the band would love to see a reissue. They confirmed that it had not yet been reissued as a CD.

“When I first contacted Sony regarding possible reissue, I had no success (of course, as they themselves only reissue titles they believe will succeed, according to their own economics). I next approached Sundazed. They indicated they would do it, then dragged their feet. I gave up on them after about a year. Next, I tried One Way, who agreed to reissue but wanted us to buy a certain number of CDs to help cover their minimum order under their Sony licensing deal, more copies than we could afford.

“I finally settled on Collector's Choice Music, having been impressed with their esissue titles, great catalog and website. Since I was interested in getting not only the reissue but also maximum exposure and distribution, CCM seemed ideal. After several conversations with Gordon Anderson of CCM, he agreed to the reissue and to list it in the CCM catalog and on their website. On our part, we agreed to purchase a certain number of copies to help cover their minimum, this time at an affordable price. We were lucky to get backers in Fort Worth and Oklahoma City to help.

“Other things made the CCM deal advantageous. Instead of a plain four-page booklet, Gordon put together an eight-pager and reproduced all of the original album graphics (I personally believe that he did that because he, too, was a fan).

“Upon receiving the master from Sony, the band was not really satisfied. Gordon allowed us to tweak it to the band's liking, using the same studio in which Space Opera had recorded their recent second album. In a way, we remastered Sony's remaster.

“The CD booklet lists me as manager, but that was only the band's nod to me for the help.”

“The CD provided by Sony Music,” elaborated Bullock, “was a digital copy of the stereo master. In other words, the original mix of the album. We were each given copies of the disc for review. I didn't need an A/B comparison with the vinyl to know that I could hear detail buried in the record; i.e., guitar parts that I remembered playing that couldn't really be heard on the LP.

“All four members of Space Opera were involved in the remastering process, discussing and ultimately approving changes made to the original master. Since we didn't have the multi-track tapes, we were basically altering the mixes to emphasize different aspects of the music. We had to go song by song and decide which changes were appropriate. In the end, I think we improved the bass response and overall crispness of the album.

“You see, the pressing somehow took some of the punch out of the album and in remastering, we sought to restore the crispness and clarity. A definitive remaster would have involved going back to the multi-track master tapes, but it is doubtful that that will ever happen. Overall, though, I am much happier with the digital version, and delighted that the album is once again available.”

So is Reagan. The experience was one he would not trade for anything.

“It's still my favorite record,” he said. “After all, for me, Space Opera was the American Beatles.”


Space Opera may have taken a few chops on the chin on the music side, but real life had a way of evening things out. While the band considered themselves such the entire run, there were long periods of group stagnation. While it didn't stop music on an individual level, the band gatherings were fewer and farther between outside the few years which produced the second album and the reunion gigs.


Brett Owen Wilson passed away on Jan. 26th of 2005 of cardiac arrest, leaving behind wife Claudia and son Colin Alexander Trout Wilson and other family members as well as his extended Space Opera family, although leaving behind seems hardly the proper term. His death, sudden and totally unexpected, was a blow to the hearts and very souls of the people who knew him best.

Life after New York was good to Wilson. Upon returning to Fort Worth after Space Opera's last major label attempt, Brett took a back door journey into accounting and made it his business, though he always kept one eye toward the band.

“He worked at the HOP as the daytime bartender for quite some time,” said Claudia, “and then started as a waiter at a French restaurant, Le Chardonnay. At the time, it was an extremely popular restaurant here in Fort Worth and Brett knew all of the wait staff, so when they went (from the HOP) over to Le Chardonnay, they took Brett with them. It was a white cloth restaurant opened by a dashing young French guy, Michel Baudouin, who had been very popular in his previous venues, so Brett waited tables and became a close friend of Michel's. He had been doing a little bookkeeping for Craig at the HOP, so Michel thought that was something he should do for him so that he, Michel, could be out front greeting people with his little Texas French accent. So Brett started keeping the books. That is how he got into accounting.”

Accounting treated him well, allowing him a certain amount of freedom in his personal life as well as providing for the family. According to Claudia, he was very content in his life and comfortable with his situation. For Brett, having the family and friends close was essential, and he had that.

In talking with the various people interviewed for this project, you get a feeling that Brett is still with us, ready to pick up the sticks at the drop of a hat. For a long time after Brett's death, Claudia kept his voice message on the answering machine. Phil White jokingly swore that Brett wasn't gone. “I swear, I talk to him all the time. One of these days, he's going to walk through a door and be back.”

“Phil would leave messages for Brett to tell me,” Claudia explained. “And he's not the only one. Another friend who lives out of town leaves messages with Brett to pass on to me, also. I got a new answering machine and our son came down to help me bury a very old cat and I said, okay, you make the recording. Just do a normal answering machine recording and he inadvertently probably said what was on it when Dad's voice was on it.

“Brett was the primary caregiver,” she continued. “He brought our son up. I think a lot of women thought he was a single parent. I had my business when Colin was born and Brett was keeping books for only one restaurant, so he adjusted his schedule so I could work full time at the ad agency I worked for at the time. He took care of Colin all day long and I think, quite literally, Colin lost his best friend when his dad died.

“Brett had the most wonderful father there ever was. I think so much of the man. He was a great example of a gentle soul... and strong. I think that was the model Brett had put on him (by his own father). Of course, I think he had the Ward Cleaver model put on him too, so that was the kind of parent he was. He had a marvelous capacity to love his kid. I think, looking back, what an advantage that kid had to be around his father so much growing up. Because that is all he had. It was over when he was 22. That is an experience some people never have with their fathers.”


As stated by Bullock, Scott Fraser never gave up his music. Through the return to Fort Worth from New York until the end, Scott was a respected music instructor. He passed away at home on the 19th of September of 2006.

Sometimes in writing, timing is everything, and I came too late for Brett and almost too late for Scott. He was reluctant, but allowed himself to be persuaded by the others to communicate.

“Scott may have not been as forthcoming as he could have been,” explained Mary, “considering all of the other times he had been approached about the band's history or the their history as Fort Worth musicians. Some (writers) didn't even ask and published so much misinformation that he couldn't, or wouldn't, or didn't want to try to set it straight anymore.

“Scott lived a very private life,” she continued, “but his life was rich with friends. It is funny to hear people talk about the guys at this late date and say that Space Opera thought they were better than everyone else. Clannish, true, but there was never anything but admiration and credit given where due to other musicians in Fort Worth and Texas from Scott's lips. Scott and Brett were not gregarious (the exact opposite of our Phil-anderer White). Scott got a bad rap on that. He played not as an excuse for a party, but to play his music--- sober.”

Unbeknownst to many, Fraser designed two buildings, but he was mostly about the music. Even during Space Opera's major label run, he was composing. Numerous pieces came from his pen, many of which made it to fruition. “The Angelic Suite”, for instance.

“The Angelic Suite is a short piece for chamber orchestra which Scott composed in '77 or '78. Rex Farr had a connection with the Falco Dance Company and Scott wrote the piece with that in mind. It was a spec piece never used by Falco.”

And there was The Mystery of St. Anthony.

“That was commissioned by a member of the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra,” Mary remembered, “but they never performed it. It actually scared the heck out of me, and I told Scott so, and that I really didn't like it when he played it for me. That was the only time I said that about anything Scott did. He thought my being frightened was funny. It is on Arcadia. The Rubaiyat, Omar Kayyam's poetry that Scott had set to music, is on Tree Tales.

“Scott recorded Still Life With Cheese in memory of Brett Wilson, who always appreciated the 'cheese' Scott would come up with for Brett to hear during his weekly visits. I can still hear them giggling--- or outright belly-laughing—- at some of the stuff Scott came up with. Scott and Brett were the best of friends and Brett was like a brother to me. For all of her young life, Brett was our daughter Maggie's very favorite adult person..”

Scott Fraser was a musician and composer, true, but probably as well known to the people he came into contact with as a teacher.

“Scott taught many people, both old fans or those who had never heard of him. They all came to love and respect him and thought he was a great teacher. They let Maggie and I know just how much after Scott died.

“Sometimes I would not hear music coming out of his office during lessons and would later learn that the lesson had turned into conversation. Scott would let them talk and would assign homework (to make up for lost time). Because he was self-educated and retained so much, he was conversant on many subjects and people respected his opinions.

“He became a mentor to some kids who were from broken families or who were dealing with loss--- even to some who were dealing with mental illness. Those children's parents were amazed that Scott could get them to willingly work with him and could keep their attention when no one else could.

“He wanted to start a music school for underprivileged children, a place where they would be provided instruments and given proper instruction.”

It was the one dream Scott Fraser could not make happen. There were so many he did.

“The day Scott died, I was playing CDs of the music that he loved,” wrote Mary. “His favorite was Firebird by Stravinsky. I later told David that Scott stopped breathing on the last note of Firebird. He told me that that last, magnificent passage of that piece was French for 'lullaby'. I am so glad it happened that way. It was so right and just for him.”


To help you gain a better understanding of Phil White, let me share a segment of an interview I did with Phil and friend Noel Ice a few years ago:

NOEL: I'm trying to make a CD (of Phil's demos) so we can hand out a few of them. We thought we'd send you one, if that's something you're interested in.

ME: I have absolutely no interest in it. What? Are you nuts? I'd give my left testicle for something like that! You want my address?

PHIL: No. I want a testicle.

Such was the wit that John Carrick said could have given White a second and lucrative career, that of a standup comic.

White himself was a self-professed black sheep. While the other members of Space Opera were making families and struggling to survive, White spent his time in the dives and honky tonks. He wanted to play and play, he did. He played around Texas when Space Opera awaited their equipment. He played his way to Los Angeles before the New York phase of that band. He played whenever and wherever he could, especially when there were friends or money involved.

He blazed through life, motors churning. He described his life in various ways in the interviews conducted for this article, but no description could make you understand. This gives you a little insight, though:

“I loved being on the road,” he told me. “I loved the motels and the traveling. I loved the moving. I liked room service and colored TV and trashing out the rooms--- just the whole thing. It was the whole thing for me. When we signed the contract at Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, everybody got front money. It was right around Christmas and the other guys were so homesick it wasn't funny and they flew home to have their Christmases with their families. I just said give me the cash and I stayed in New York City and I won't even begin to tell you what I did. Times Square and 42nd Street, that was my kind of place. It stayed open all night and you could buy anything you wanted there. I stayed there until the money was gone.”

Phil White, though, was more complicated than he would ever admit. While promoting the black sheep aspect, he was wildly loyal to friends and family and was both supporter and protector to a fault. The people who really knew him understood this and returned in kind.

“Phil's a rogue and he's proud of it,” Bullock said. “Two of his best songs are autobiographical: You're No Good and Love Brings Out the Worst in Me. He set out to live a life without responsibilities and he's done a good job of it. He wasn't above borrowing someone's guitar amp, using it for a gig, and then making a little extra money by pawning it. Many times he did not have his own place and probably overstayed his welcome on more than one couch. Phil has survived on his charm, wit and talent.

“Then there was the time, back when we first got Space Opera going. Phil had a nice MGB. He loved that car but decided he should sell it and use the money to buy a truck for the band. That was a mistake because the truck he bought was a lemon and ended up abandoned on the road, but the point is that he gave all he had for the rest of us. When we were teenagers, he once used his lifeguard skills to help me out of a strong undertow in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm pretty sure he saved me from drowning. These are things you don't forget.”

The years of hard living and breathing second-hand smoke in the myriad of bars took its toll. His health began to fail and he headed to Colorado in his later years to cope with breathing-related problems. It finally got so bad that he visited a doctor. The news was not good.

“I visited a doctor when I was in Colorado,” he said. “As a matter of fact, some people finally dragged me to a doctor. I got some news that was less than encouraging, so I decided it was time for me to return to Fort Worth and gather my stuff together because I'd lost it all over the years. The people who care about me and love me and in fact admire my music have kept it and when I came back to town, they started coming out of the woodworks saying here, here's this cassette tape you left over at my house, you know, sixteen years ago or something. And the numbers started piling up. None of these were songs that were in the catalogue that I carry along with me. I write them. I record them, They're unforgettable in my mind and I can play them anytime, so I wasn't careful about making sure they were recorded and copyrighted and all.”

The months left were spent gathering and collating those songs. They helped make his last days tolerable. Besides the songs and his good friends, White was desolate--- no money, no strength. He made a deal with friends Michael Mann and Rex Farr for future publishing rights and relied on others to help him make it through.

His run came to an end on September 6, 2008. It was a very good run. A very good run.


David Bullock, like Scott, was reluctant at first to talk. We traded many emails before he decided to give it a try and I am sure that his participation was what convinced Scott to communicate as well. Of the four, Bullock and Fraser held Space Opera closest to the vest. There were moments neither wanted to revisit for fear that they would be misrepresented or misunderstood. There were things that happened, though public, they considered more private. You can give lip service to such an attitude, but unless you understand that to these four guys, and especially to Bullock and Fraser, Space Opera was a living thing, you won't understand at all.

Without Bullock, this history would not have been written. He, in fact, wrote most of it. He edited, set and reset timelines, made corrections and, in the places he remembered things differently, refused to make corrections. Every written word passed through his hands before it was posted. In a way, this is the story of Space Opera as told to... In a very big way. So rather than try to fill in the blanks as regards to him, I will print what he sent to me to fill holes and update his situation verbatim:

“While my wife and I were living in New York, I studied film and video production. I needed the proverbial day job and I'd always been interested in the visual arts. The parallels to music production were there: television studios, recording studios, editing/sound mixing, and both are basically electronic media. Over the years, I have found many musicians who have found their ways into this field.

“The best part of my life has been my marriage and the joy of raising two wonderful daughters. All three of my girls are music lovers. My family has always been very supportive of the musical side of my life--- they are my most enthusiastic fans and they always enjoy coming to hear me play. So in this phase of my life, I've had the best of both worlds.

“Once the band members were all back in North Texas, I thought we would have played together more often, but it just seemed hard to get everyone on the same page at the same time. But I am truly grateful for the opportunities to make music with those three men. We often found ourselves in a zone of floating interconnected consciousness. And on a good night, we were actually a much better band in 'retirement' than we had been in our 'prime.'

“With Brett's passing, Scott, Phil and I were back as a trio. We played together one last time at Brett's memorial service--- the three of us and one empty chair.

“I began playing solo acoustic gigs several years ago. It is not the same as being onstage with Space Opera--- nothing will ever match that--- but I find myself back where I started as a teenager, standing onstage armed only with my voice and an acoustic guitar, and it is enjoyable. To this date, I am still writing and recording songs and instrumental music.

“Cass Edwards and I have begun the process of transferring Space Opera tape archives to digital files. The music goes all the way back to our beginnings and includes studio and live recordings, most of which have never been heard by our audience. I hope we will be able to release the first batch this year. I want people to hear what the band sounded like in all its phases, even in its most raw form. When this project is finished, the book on Space Opera will be closed.”


While fans await the fruits of Bullock and Edwards' labors, there is music available.

Scott Fraser's music is available through his own website, now operated by his wife, Mary. Four CDs are available:

SS-433 (Copyright 1983, Remastered 2005)

Arcadia (2005)

Still-Life with Cheese (2006)

Tree Tales (2006)

The Space Opera CDs, as stated before, are available from


Over the years, a handful of people have supported Space Opera through thick and thin, but noone outside the extended family more than Don Swancy, a KFAD disc jockey who promoted the band in the early years. After reading what had been posted, Don sent an email and after reading it I asked if I could use parts of it. He graciously said yes and after reading it a few more times, I decided that parts weren't enough. Don caught the essence of what it was to be young and in love with the music scene at the beginning of Space Opera's run and how much it means to look back. Here is what he wrote:

“I was directed to your Space Opera piece and as I told David the last time we talked, it has been nothing but a joy and pleasure carrying their banner in whatever small way I could. I remember them from their weeklys at the HOP. I remember one of their nights there the only two people in the audience were my date and I. They played two and a half hours directly to us.

“After leaving KFAD, I moved to Las Vegas and worked overnight weekends for the #1 FM rocker, then moved to Lubbock TX as the music director of the #1 FM KSEL. At that point, the first Space Opera album was out and I told my DJs to listen to it and play anything they wanted from it. Of course, I hammered it every night on my shift. At one point I called my Epic rep and had him send me 25 of the LPs. I reported to the old Walrus Radio Newsletter and hyped Space Opera to them all the time. At one time, Country Max was our most requested song and I wrote an article about the band for Walrus. That resulted in them getting airplay in different markets all over the country. I left radio in the early eighties and in 1988 moved back to Las Vegas.

“When I heard that they were to do a reunion show at the Caravan of Dreams, I contacted Scott and Cass and offered my services as emcee. I flew in from Las Vegas and considered it a great honor to take the stage with them and, although it had been many years since I had been on the air in DFW, many of the hometown Space Opera fans realized the significance.

“In 1996, through a crazy chain of events, I was recruited to teach a course for the University of Nevada Las Vegas. It was their moneymaker course, History of Rock & Roll. I also taught the same course for the Community College District of Southern Nevada, CCSN. I taught fifteen semesters and in the last week of each semester, after covering 50 years of history and nearing present day, I would play tracks from the Space Opera album. I told my students, 'If you are highly skilled, live and breathe music and happen to be incredibly gifted, you produce music like this. This is as good as the art form gets.' I would usually end my semesters with the Byrds' live version of Lover of the Bayou and Space Opera's Country Max. The last ringing chord of Country Max closed the course. Scott was aware that I was using their music in my classes and was never anything but supportive and gracious. A true gentleman.

“I remember the Beard Brothers. My brother and I had a band and we played for them too. We were all part of that scene. I remember the first night Linda Waring replaced Doyle Breshears at the Cellar. I saw Space Opera at the Lewisville Pop Festival, on both the free and the main stages. I saw the Scott Theater show in those swell suits. I saw their two song, 55-minute set warming up for the Airplane at Daniel-Meyer. I saw them at Panther Hall the night of Richard Nixon's State of the Union address when David changed the lyrics (of Country Max) from 'if my friends say I'm stoned it's because' to 'if my friends say I'm doomed it's because.' Nice touch, David.

“I saw them in a little bar out on Camp Bowie one night. It may sat 75 people. Phil in the middle, and they started that swaying thing they did and before we knew it, the audience was swaying in sync with the band. Singers and Sailors never sounded better. And of course, I was there at Trinity Park for their shows as well.

“The phrase 'the Beatles of Fort Worth' has been used many times for those boys, but I think they were rather the Space Opera of Fort Worth.”

That pretty much says it, Don. And very nicely.

Rock & Reprise thanks Kipp Baker for the use of the pictures of Space Opera in this chapter. The pictures were taken during rehearsals in 1997. Kipp is a professional photographer and has his own website at

CHAPTER ONE: The Beginning...
CHAPTER TWO: Houston, We Have a Party (and later, a problem...)
CHAPTER THREE: We're Singers and We're Sailors...
CHAPTER FOUR: The Gospel According to Bullock, Fraser, White & Wilson
CHAPTER FIVE: The Best Laid Plans of Singers and Sailors...
CHAPTER SIX: When the Mountain Won't Come to You...

Supporting the Indies Since 1969

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"It's Just Different Here"

My story on the organic preservation of South Congress Avenue in Austin. Just click on the headline to go to the original link to Preservation magazine.

"It's Just Different Here"
Austin's once-forlorn South Congress neighborhood is flourishing again—with all of its quirks intact

By Joe Nick Patoski | From Preservation | July/August 2010

To experience Austin, Texas, you could take a walk up Congress Avenue, starting at the Ann W. Richards Bridge that spans Lady Bird Lake, the dammed-up part of the Colorado River that runs through the heart of this city. Heading north, you'd pass the city's leading banks, tallest condos, finest law firms, and most influential lobbying firms, as well as an art museum, a jazz club, and fine-dining restaurants. In about 15 minutes, you'd reach the Renaissance Revival Texas State Capitol, the best-known landmark in the Lone Star State, with a dome that stands 15 feet higher than the one in Washington, D.C.

But to immerse yourself in this city's quirky personality, turn around and go the other way. Head south from the bridge, past the bat statue, and up the hill along South Congress Avenue to the intersection with Academy Drive.

The landmark to look for is the Austin Motel, a spiffed-up classic of the American West. A message at the bottom of the red neon sign out front reads, "So close yet so far out," and the other side says, "No additives, no preservatives, corporate free since 1938."

That pretty much sums up the funk and cool that is South Congress and announces that you're not in normal Austin anymore: This is the Other Austin, the Austin whose peculiarities separate it from everywhere else in Texas. Creative enterprises here have attracted the kind of bustling street life that makes urban planners drool. Only no one planned, envisioned, or designed this. A series of serendipitous accidents involving some uniquely Austin characters are responsible. In other words, no planning has been the most effective planning of all.
Austin in October

The National Preservation Conference will take place in Austin on Oct. 27-30, 2010.

Locals refer to the idiosyncratic retail and entertainment district either as South Congress or SoCo. (Abe Zimmerman dubbed a cluster of restored shops here the SoCo Center in 1999, trying to make use of an old sign that was missing a few letters.) But no matter what it's called or how you pronounce it, you've got to admit South Congress is a testament to the power of creative restoration and reinvention.

Take the Hotel San José, one block up from the Austin Motel. A lavishly tiled "ultramodern motor court" when it opened in 1936, the Spanish Colonial Revival structure gradually fell into disrepair, functioning as a brothel for legislators for a period, then a Bible school, then a flophouse. In 1995, Liz Lambert, an attorney with West Texas roots who'd worked for the New York district attorney before she became homesick, bought the hotel for $500,000. She thought she would redo the 24 rooms one by one—until Lake/Flato Architects convinced her otherwise. The motor court was instead reimagined as an understated, almost minimalist space—ultramodern once again—with a zen-like courtyard, a pool area, and the inviting open-air Jo's Hot Coffee café across the parking lot. The hotel and coffee shop were immediate hits and have become the major alt community gathering spot on the avenue, so compelling that singer Raul Malo wrote and recorded an ode to the hotel.

The Continental Club, across the street from the San José, is one of the longest-thriving and most popular music clubs in an admittedly music-obsessed town. The modernist Continental opened as a private cocktail lounge in 1957 and later featured touring burlesque dancers Candy Barr and Bubbles Cash. In the 1970s, it was revived as a rock and blues club. Then Steve Wertheimer quit his job as a comptroller for a real estate firm to restore the club's Eisenhower-era splendor, and he reopened the venue as a roots rock and alt country showcase.

"I'm a preservationist by nature," Wertheimer says, about his restoration efforts. "I'm stuck in that period of the '50s, from the clothing and the music to the cars and the architecture. Those glass blocks at the entrance had been covered up. They needed to be brought back."

One block south and across the avenue from the Continental, in a century-old building that formerly housed Central Feed and Seed, is Güero's Taco Bar, which owners Rob and Cathy Lippincott opened in 1995 after moving their restaurant from its original location a couple of miles away. Six months after opening, President Bill Clinton stopped in for dinner ("He cleaned his plate"), business shot up 40 percent, and it's been busy ever since.

South Congress is just as distinctive for what isn't there: national clone restaurants, large chain retailers, and retail clusters amid a sea of asphalt. No master plan was sketched out to make it happen. No tax breaks were requested for improvements (in marked contrast to The Domain, a planned mall and residential development on Austin's northwestern fringe that is the beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements from the city). South Congress merchants just want to be left alone.

Austin was always different from the rest of Texas. It was established in 1839, not because of the area's strategic location but rather for its aesthetic beauty. The second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, killed a buffalo near the present capitol building and noted that the area's hills, waterways, and pleasing surroundings would make a fine place to locate Texas' government.

South Congress Avenue was South Austin's main street from the very beginning and, with the advent of the automobile, the main highway south to San Antonio. Increased traffic inspired the construction of one- and two-story storefronts in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by motels and cafés. But after the Interregional Highway, now Interstate 35, opened in the early 1960s, the road-oriented businesses declined and much of South Congress emptied out.

That was the state of the avenue in 1988, when Kent Cole and Diana Prechter fixed a beat-up wood-frame building that had operated as Flossie's bar and the Austex Lounge, and reopened it as Magnolia Cafe South, a second location for their homegrown eatery famous for gingerbread pancakes and comfort food. Why South Congress? Mainly because the rent was cheap, they say. "The only pedestrians on the sidewalks were hookers and drug dealers," Cole remembers. "Normal people did not walk South Congress."

It was so dicey the first year and a half that Prechter kept her day job while Cole started looking for other employment. A last-ditch decision to expand operations to 24 hours changed everything. The café tapped into the city's sizable late-night crowd, and the staff stepped up their game so that Cole and Prechter could make enough money to begin buying nearby properties, some of them historic. "In Austin, parking is everything," he says—a constant danger to the historic fabric of older neighborhoods. "So we would buy adjacent businesses and rent them to tenants who were sympathetic with Magnolia Cafe South, allowing our customers to use the spaces in front of their storefronts."

Memories of drug dealers and prostitutes began to fade in the 1990s. Austin, a relatively small city for most of its history, suddenly enjoyed a tremendous economic boom that attracted new residents and drove an increased demand for older housing stock in the Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek neighborhoods. That in turn spurred massive renovation along South Congress and throughout old South Austin.

A $4 million bond issue passed by the city council in 1998 for sidewalk, bicycle, and pedestrian enhancements improved the avenue's curb appeal. But when city planners followed with a long-term plan for South Congress that included light rail on the avenue, the merchants allied with the neighborhoods to stop the project.

Six months to a year of construction would be fatal to the many small businesses whose profits were marginal, merchants argued. "That's an awful long time to take a high-traffic street and close it," says Gail ­Armstrong, owner of Off the Wall antiques. "No one here could survive that. And if we did survive, most of us couldn't afford the spike in real estate prices that comes with rail."

"It's a complicated area," admits George Adams, assistant director in the planning and development review department for the City of Austin. "Its development has been more organic, or market-driven, which complicates any attempt to do things. You start out with certain attitudes: 'What's wrong with these people? Don't they know we're trying to help them?' Over time, we've come to understand the benefit of doing things incrementally, how to make changes and accommodate the needs of the small businesses and of the residents. South Congress has taught us a lot."

Preservationists agree. Dealey Herndon, who is overseeing restoration of the Governor's Mansion, sees the avenue as part of Austin's historic fabric: "The vibrant evolution of South Congress is a great example of bringing older neighborhood business areas to life by celebrating the eclectic character of the architecture, the simpler life of a city in an earlier era, and the creativity of new one-of-a-kind businesses. Every business is unique, every building has a personality, and all of this comes together to create a part of Austin that is universally appealing."

Today the avenue remains extraordinarily popular and largely "corporate free." When a Starbucks opened on South Congress as part of a new apartment complex built closer to downtown, merchants held their collective breath. Two years ago they exhaled when the franchise shut down.

Zoning restrictions that limit commercial businesses to no more than a half-block off South Congress, the small footprints of existing buildings, the high bar the city sets for teardowns, and the lack of parking are some of the reasons why the chains and big-box stores haven't gained much of a foothold. A bigger factor is the transition of pioneers like the Lippincotts, Cole and Prechter, and Wertheimer from renters to owner-operators and landlords.

Wertheimer misses the days when his hotrod buddies had the avenue all to themselves, when there was a liquor store on his block, and Just Guns occupied the space where American Apparel, one of very few national chain stores on the avenue, stands now. "We don't own it like we used to," he laments. But as an investor in the San José, Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar, and Home Slice Pizza, and as a property owner who has increased his holdings over the years, he realizes he can influence future growth in his own small way, as he did three years ago when he bought and restored the Avenue Barber Shop, one of the oldest businesses on South Congress. "It's one of those things I didn't want to go away," he says. "That's where I get my hair cut. It still smells like it's 1933 in there."

Whatever happens, Wertheimer and his neighbors hope some degree of funk and cool continues oozing through. If places like the barber shop and people like Wertheimer go away, it won't be South Congress anymore. And without South Congress, Austin wouldn't be quite as different from everywhere else.

(Joe Nick Patoski has been writing about Texas and Texans for 35 years. He is the author of three biographies of Texas musicians and books about the state's mountains, coast, and Big Bend National Park.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Roky Erickson, 1975

from Not Fade Away, Vol 1, No. 1, Fall 1975

Douglas Hanners the brains behind the Austin Record Convention, started up a music fanzine back it in the mid 1970s for record collectors. His debut issue featured an interview with Roky Erickson that was conducted by Doug, Kirby McDaniel, Deron Bissett, and me over two sessions. It was Roky's first post-Rusk interview and as you might glean he was lucid and insightful. I had the good fortune to sit in on some of the recording sessions that Doug Sahm "produced" on Roky and Bleib Alien and was underwritten by Doug Breeding. The single from that session "Two Headed Dog" b/w "Starry Eyes" was proof Roky was more than a one-hit wonder and that electroshock therapy did not destroy him. Special thanks for Nathan Hanners for transcribing the text.

This interview was taped at my house with Joe Nick Patoski, ace writer, and Kirby McDaniel, superb music director at KUT [University of Texas]. Roky and his wife Dana were present for along evening of talk, and a later interview was done at Roky’s house with Deron Bissett and myself.
Doug Hanners

KIRBY: When did you first start playing anything? Guitar.

ROKY: I guess when I was about thirteen...very nice number...I wanted to play guitar, and I’d been messing around with guitar, and I’d play things like "Aura Lee" and "Love Me Tender" and then I got into Bo Diddley a lot. And Little Richard was good; I enjoyed him. He thing he’d say -‘You know what I like, I like to hear my voice. Now listen to it.(sings) I like the way that sounds." And you could get into that. It’s like Shelley Berman says, "Have you ever watched someone drink buttermilk? You feel like you shouldn’t be watching. It’s like they’re making love with the buttermilk.” That was thawed with Little Richard...he’d say, "Oh God." It’d seem like he’d get all alone, and he’d say "Oh God," and you’d say, "Should I be watching thing?" But he’s had so much influence on me, his singing. I really learned from Little Richard.

Actually my favorite performer is James Brown. He just really blows my mind. James Brown, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger. And I like this thing called “Changes" by David Bowie. I think that somebody—either he wrote a song that was perfect for him or somebody said, "Hey man, this has your name written all over it, do it"...and he did.

In other words, there are a lot of breaks out there, but they don’t get broken. It’s like words—they have many levels of understanding. Maybe you may have many fantastic ideas, but because of a lack of communication, you can't get them across; and they don’t come across. It reminds me of Superman. They wouldn’t let him play anything but Superman, so he jumped out of a window. [note: George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV, committed suicide]

DERON: Of the certain types of music, like psychedelic music, who did you listen to as a teenager before you started playing yourself, and what kind of guitar player did you respect before you became one yourself?

ROKY: I liked Eric Clapton a lot, and I liked Keith Richards, and I liked B.B. King and I liked the Bluesbreakers a lot—that’s Eric Clapton, but I like his band.

DERON: So you were into the British revival of the American blues, actually.

ROKY: Right. I liked Elmore James, Blind Willie McTell, people like that.

DOUG: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into music?

ROKY: I was playing with a group called the Spades at a place called the Jade Room, and all of a sudden these four cats came in, and it was like they had auras around their heads. Cause you noticed them, like they came in and sat down and I said, I wonder who they are, and then they came up and said, “Listen man, we’re with a group called the Lingsmen, and what we want to do is put together a big group called the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and be kind of a superband. Like they would have this image of big shadows playing this big hard rock and roll music. It would be Superband. So they came in and said, "We want you to be our singer, and we’ll do all the music,” and then they played for me a little bit over at their house, and it blew my mind. And so I had to quit the Spades, which was a hard thing to do. You have personal involvement, and you don't want to hurt anybody, and you don’t wanna mess anything up with your friends; you don’t wanna be cruel: "Listen man, forget you; I’ve got another band out here." So I joined the Elevators, and we just at first wanted to keep it real quiet, and then surprise them. Let people be hearing about us, They wanted to put us on television, but we said no. We wanted to do a couple gigs.

DOUG: When you formed the Spades, wasn't that right after the Beatles hit big? In trying to figure out a date on when you started the Spades.

ROKY: John Camay had a band (Spades) and Gnarly, I was able to get in it with him, and then the Elevators came and found me with him, playing, and said, "John, can we steal him from you?" and so we talked it over with John. ‘Cause it was a real emotional thing. ‘Cause John was a real good friend. [It was] like leaving home.

DOUG: Did you put out a local single as the Spades?

ROKY: We came out with a thing called "You`re Gonna Miss
Me” b/w "We Sell Soul," and it wan`t very good.

DOUG: So then Stacey and Benny and John Ike were in the

ROKY: Yeah. John Ike and Benny and Stacy and a guy named Max Rainey were in the Lingsmen, and Max was more of an easier singer than I was. They wanted more of a harder...not necessarily better or anything. Just for whatever kind of music they wanted to do. So they came and got me.

DERON: What was their sound like?

ROKY: They had a big crowd. Their records were all a little heavy. I'm partial ’cause of the wildness, and they didn‘t have the jug,

DERON: How did the jug evolve into your act?

ROKY: Tommy just had the idea, and he showed me, and I liked it.

DOUG: When the Elevators started. Were you guys into psychedelic drugs?

ROKY: We were known as the first psychedelic band, the first one to be able to play music that would make you see things if you wanted to, and then lay back and envision things like Dylan does. We liked him. And in respect to Dylan, we wanted to put out a rock and roll band. Like he was one single person. We thought we could put out more of a sound if we did the whole thing.

JOE NICK: What was the psychedelic sound?

ROKY: What we did, we made a point of being in a place when we played so that we could hear things to play for the audience. Say, somebody wasn’t able to get high—well, he'd get high with our music. He could have his consciousness or his cortex opened just by our music. We believe in a part of your brain that you need access to, called the cortex, which will allow you to open up into the many psychic things in your mind that you hadn’t been aware of before—ESP and things like that.

DOUG: We talked to Bill Josey, who had Sonobeat records back in the Sixties, and he gave me an explanation of the Thirteenth Floor Elevator name that I had never heard before. He claimed that Thirteenth meant the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, M, which stood for marijuana, and Elevator meant up high. Is that where it came from?

ROKY: The thirteenth letter is M. so we kinda let that just—not to say anything about it, but if people liked to connect it, do; it's fun; and then there`s not a thirteenth floor in a building, so we said "We’re playing on it." It was like if you want to get to the thirteenth floor, ride our elevator.

JOE NICK: Where did you all start playing as the Elevators—what clubs?

ROKY: We played the New Orleans Club and the Jade Room, and we played a lot up at a place called La Maison [Ballroom] in Houston. And then we did two shows on the Dick Clark Show [on the ABC television network], and this was real funny. We asked Dick, "Would you ask us who's the head of the band?"

And so he comes up and says. "Well who's the head of your band?"
“‘Well, we're all heads."

This was on nationwide T.V.

DOUG: You guys played Houston and Austin a lot right at the first. Did you play anywhere else in Texas?

ROKY: Dallas. But we didn’t have much luck in Dallas. We were on television in Dallas, and that was good. Remember? On "Sump’n Ellse." And we were on television in San Antonio and in Houston [the Larry Kane Show]. And then Dick Clark. And then we played with the Byrds in Ft. Worth at Will Rogers [Coliseum]. Driving an old car—I mean we were poor. The carbon monoxide was leaking into it and the devil, or God, looks down and says "Hey man, I can‘t handle it anymore”.- bam - and he stops the car and says you’re not riding in it anymore. So we got a ride to the concert, and everything was alright.

JOE NICK: Wasn’t there a club in Dallas that you were going to open called the Thirteenth Floor Club?

ROKY: Yeah, we were going to, and then they wouldn't let us do it, ‘cause our johns were not in the right place, or something like that, to their standards. They didn’t want to open up some psychedelic club. We were known as the first psychedelic band, and then the Grateful Dead came along. Then we went out to San Francisco and played at the Avalon Ballroom a lot, and that was a lot lo fun. We had an all-Texas show and there were three groups: Sir Doug, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. We put on a pretty wild show. All three of the groups got pretty far 0ut.Doug jammed a lot, played a lot of his blues, which—when he really gets going, he's good, he's really good. Ya know, I don’t really hear enough of his blues.

DOUG: How were your crowds?

ROKY: We never did have bad crowds. The only bad crowd we had was when we went to Dallas one time and we were gonna play this thing, and the guy said, "Hey, you're gonna have to play real soft and you`re gonna have to just play ‘la, de, da, de da.’ and we said no, we can’t handle it.

DERON: What was your impression of most of your gigs? You've mentioned that nits were very "up" experiences.

ROKY: I don’t know if Mick Jagger wrote "Rocks Off" to me, but I've never had a bad audience.

DERON: What’s a good audience like?

ROKY: Just real responsive—the kind of audience that won’t even clap, because they feel like they wanna do more for vou. If they clap, it's just a regular thing. Our audiences would sit there and not say a word. They wouldn’t clap, they wouldn’t even click their fingers, which was really nice. And they did it because they were blown by the music. That's what they were trying to get across: "Keep playing, we like it; we don't even want to stop to clap, we wanna hear it." So we really never
had a bad audience except that one time, and that was a beer joint.

DERON: Initially you were playing much longer songs than was common at the time you started playing. You were jamming, and this was unusual for the time.

ROKY: Yeah, right. We did a lot of things. We were responsible for loosening up a lot of people. I did a song called "Song to Abe Lincoln" which says, there are a bunch of geniuses around here; you need to relax and start jamming and doing things like we're doing, and so I think we were teaching with discretion. We hardly even knew that we were teaching that discretion is our profession. Whereas, we did influence a lot of people to relax and get out. Like when we jammed with the Conqueroo, they would do as much for us as I`m trying to explain that I hope we did for other bands. We could just jam with them and feel like we had complete freedom to really blow some people's minds with our talent—like, “Man, play it, we know you have the talent, so play it. We wanna hear it." And that was real nice.

DERON: What about the other contemporary bands in Austin? The Conqueroo that you were playing with. Did you relate to any other Austin bands?

ROKY: Janis Joplin blew my mind, man. The reason she got so famous was that because she was as real a person to her good friends. In other words, she wasn’t one of these people who went, "0h, dear, get away from me, my God. I've got to do all these things." [assuming British accent] You know, she was a real person and she blew your mind just to meet her as much off stage as she did on stage. She was so real a person that it's no wonder she made it. I’m sorry she died. That’s all I can say.

DOUG: Wasn’t there one time when she almost joined the Elevators?

ROKY: Well, we did some benefits together. We loved her. She needed to get her own name more than just a member of the Elevators. She had to be known as Janis Joplin. And I had to be known as Roky Erikson. It would be like taking every band in the world and putting them together and having one band.

We jammed with Shiva’s [Headband]. They had a fantastic band, but it's like walking into a mansion. Once you have the floor there, you know it's not going to go away. And Shiva’s was really who I listened to. And then they did go away, so I really didn't have a chance to pick up on the rest of the band. I was really impressed with his [Spencer Perskin's] violin playing.

DERON:• What about California? By the time you got there, had things changed to be more receptive to your music?

ROKY: We were there when it was right. Like, California was really going through some good changes. Especially Haight-Ashbury when we went out there after that Sigma Nu [fraternity] group that we played for. And then now that I haven't been out there, I hear that it's not as big a thing down there anymore. No clubs to go to—maybe the Fillmore's still there, but that`s not it. Actually, we lived in the Fillmore district for the first part, then we were in Los Angeles when the riots were going on. We were playing for Dick Clark. We didn't really make any other clubs in L.A. That day, I remember we did three shows; we did one for KFRC, and we did a gig for a boat going out into the bay - it was kinda terrible and kinda beautiful, but it was hard playing on the boat, ya know. But it was a neat thing 'cause we got to ride out to the Treasure Island, and go exploring on it, just really seeing all the good things in a good place.

DERON: Of all the bands who were your contemporaries in the Haight in the late 60s, which ones did you respect?

ROKY: I liked Big Brother a whole lot. They were like the Family Dog; they were like a party from home, you know. And we got to see the beginning of Moby Grape out there, and we liked Quicksilver, and we liked Doug Sahm a whole lot. We were just really impressed with San Francisco.

J OE NICK: What do you recall as being your most memorable performance? You know, the one gig that you played...

ROKY: I can remember some that really stood out. I can’t remember where they were, but I would jump on top of my amplifier and start playing with the feedback and it was because of the people's interest in us. The music would do haunting things. We had one song called "Let Me Take You to the Empty Place on My Fire Engine." And what we were trying to portray was what it would be like if you could ride on a fire engine without having to go to a terrible fire. What if the fire engine was connected just to riding it and having fun as a kid, not to a big fire.

Now we try to play space sounds, influenced by the thrill, the fun of being able to go to a horror movie and being scared out of your—you know, just sitting there watching something like “The Curse of the Demon,” where Dana Andrews picks up a poker and it's real hot and he drops it, and the guy next to him just laughs, ‘cause he did it, you know...and then he walks to the woods, and there's this fire thing chasing after him. So the Bleib Alien [his current band at the time] is kind of on that thing, all the more to let you think about things like that.

KIRBY: The Elevators had a reputation for being the first psychedelic band, but didn’t they play for a long time before you guys got into any kind of psychedelics?

ROKY: Well, no. Like with Bleib Alien being brand new. when we first came out we were brand new in the psychedelic sense. And whereas Bleib Alien will talk about the demon rising into the clouds, and they infer the cloud-filled room of smoke, or it says "firing to your heart’s desire" for the fire demon, where in the Elevators, we would actually say, "Let me take you to de empty place" and it would sound like a spade saying “the empty place,” like Uncle Remus, and he says let me take you to DMT place, which is DMT, which is dimethyltryptamine, which gives you a trip for fifteen minutes of beautiful hallucinations. What you do is you smoke it, and you hold it in as long as you can, and what it does is you can feel it going into your skin; like marijuana. You don’t feel it penetrating. But with DMT, it just penetrates, and all of a sudden everything is spinning like fire engine wheels. So we said, "Let me take you to DMT place.” It was like a fire engine ride without the calamity of a fire, as if all the negativity could be taken away from the fire itself.

DOUG: When do you think the Elevators were at their best? A lot of people claim that the very first year that you were together produced the best music in live performance.

ROKY: Well, the reason they say that is because we were more free. We would do things with feedback, and as the years progressed, we'd say, "Hey, don’t do that, don't do this...” You don’t know what you’re gonna do. Well, the whole thing is like talking about something that you would suppress. You have to experiment with your guitar before you can find out what you’re doing. And I would get out on stage and I would start experimenting, and it seemed like it was more curbed, by the members. Like the whole idea of creation was forgotten later on in the years, I feel. You know, that we weren't creating as many new experimental vibrations.

DOUG: The band went through a change there at one point— the drummer and the bass player left.

ROKY: Seems like we were always having things like that. What it is. It’s like with a lot of bands: they'll play something and it’s so fantastic, when they get away from it, they don't believe that it really happened, and they’ll forget it. And that's what kind of happened with us. We'd forget what a sound we had. We'd blow somebody's mind when we were playing and then you wouldn't hear enough about it or there wouldn't be enough interplay on it, and you’d kind of lose faith in yourself.

DOUG: Is that why you guys broke up?

ROKY: Yeah, because it.kinda got blasé—to me it did. It got kinda like...well, this isn't a special band. You know, when I started, we were playing all this screaming feedback. Now all we’re doing is just...I like "Slip Inside This House.” I wrote the melody. I would sit up in this old, old house, and it was an old crummy amplifier and an old guitar, and I'd play [plays melody]. It's probably the only song that gets played on radio - “Slip Inside This House" and "You're Gonna Miss Me." It's like there isn’t enough feedback and there isn’t enough excitement in it on the record, but the idea is captured. And- people look at it as the capturing of an idea. And they like it. It didn't have enough of that haunting feedback special thing, something extra. It didn't have enough of that in it for my liking. That's a gripe I had about it.

DOUG: It’s hard for bands to live up to their initial surge. Very few bands can do it.

ROKY: It seems like I've broken through that. I have 85 songs written, and as I write, I find out that I'm getting better instead of just writing something. And the whole reason for being able to put out a song like "You Really Got Me" and then getting away from it, is you put out something, and you get so close to it that you can't see it. It‘s like I wrote the first line to "Splash I": "I've seen your face before...I’ve known you all my life."

And I got so close to the fact that I was seeing my friends, that I had seen them and known them without having ever met them, that I couldn’t write about it, and Clementine had to write it. And I think that’s the way it is with bands. It‘s like they can’t see the forest for the trees. Clementine was Tommy Hall’s ex-wife. They’re not married anymore. I don't know if they've gotten a divorce, but they're not together. She sang on the "I Had to Tell You" record.

DOUG: At one point on the album [“Slip Inside This House”], Tommy Hall thought that he was responding to Dylan`s lyrics.

ROKY: This is like saying “What if...?” So Dylan would say, “Well, there’s a group called the Elevators, that's a neat sounding name." Maybe he didn't write anything directly, but it just came out that way because that's the way the How was. Like if you were playing music in the other room, somebody would write about their environment, so it would affect your writing...Like everything we say affects his head when he’s writing. The Elevators may have been unconsciously in the flow of Dylan's work, and that's what he [Tommy Hall] believed.

DOUG: This record label—Hanna-Barbera Records—claimed that they signed the Elevators like in '68 or '69.

ROKY: Like maybe they’d be good people to sign up with, but we never got anything from it.

DOUG: Contact Records is the Elevators' first label, actually before IA [International Artists]. Was that your own label, or was that somebody else?

ROKY: Contact? I think it was our own label,

DOUG: And then Leland [Rogers of International Artists and Kenny Rogers’ brother] found you?

ROKY: Yeah.

DERON: Any idea how many of the albums have sold?

ROKY: I don't know. But do you know that there are people that are buying them for three digit numbers, in the hundreds. The second one, Easter Everywhere—that's really bad that they can’t have what they want for $3.98 or $4.98 [it was going for $100 and up because it was out of print]. We got ripped off. I can’t even explain how we got ripped off.

JOE NICK: When did you all get started with International Artists?

ROKY: Oh man, all I can say is right now it seems like a big ripoff. Like they came and said, “Listen, we're gonna do all these things for you,” and then they ran away and couldn’t be found. We didn't get paid any money from all four albums. Never got a cent. That has a lot to do with popularity.

DANA: They did it to a lot of bands. They did it to the Bubble Puppy and the Red Krayola.

ROKY: Like, I do the organ on one of their cuts, and I do the harmonica on their album, and they just made them go in there and do it now. Like "Alright, we got five minutes for a 30—minute album—do it."

This new band has had offers from one record company in Memphis, that if we could put out one 45 and see how we do with it—now that's more like it. And then another group wants to put us out for a nationwide tour where we'd tour Texas and then the nation, apparently on my name, like "We have Roky Erikson and the Elevators and they have a brand new band and all-new material."

Like I have 85 songs ready to do, brand new ones. One of them is called "I've Always Been Here Before" and another one’s called "The Wind and More.” You know, when the wind stops blowing and something else kinda blows through. [They’re] songs that make you think about things beyond—psychic things and ghosts and goblins and gremlins and things like that, waiting behind your door. Fun things.

JOE NICK: Did you ever get any money from "You're Gonna Miss Me" being on the Nuggets album?

ROKY: We never did. Now it would be nice if I got some money. But I took that as a kind of personal good thing to do.

DOUG: The Elevators in your first albums and stuff—you guys were really among the first of the psychedelic bands and really preceded the wave of psychedelic drugs that sort of engulfed America in the late '60s. How do you feel about that now?

ROKY: Except for the bust, those were the only things you had to think about. But psychedelic kind of infers that you’re getting away from being addicted. It's like if someone has some heroin, and they take one snort, and then the rest of their life they don’t take any. They experienced it. The thing I'm concerned about is finding geniuses like Lenny Bruce dead in their room. Oh, man, it just tears you up. All you can do is wad up your magazine, just wrinkle it up, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn put in prison—bam—or Nikita Khrushchev banished from Russia—the premier, bam. It’s things like that that are bad.

But as far as the other thing, I’m pleased with it. One thing I'm not pleased about is they get me in there and they said [heavy Texas accent],. "Son, we looked at your head, and you've taken over 300 trips—trips, I say - trips of LSD, and you may have a regression where you're seeing things again.

KIRBY: You mean like an acid flashback?

ROKY: They call it...exactly. That's exactly what they call them is flashbacks. "Why, he may have a flashback and might go crazy again." And then they'd put their arm on my shoulder and say, “Son, then we'd have to put you back in here again." Oh boy, why don't you guys go bury yourself?

DOUG: I've got a loaded question here: When did you first take psychedelics? Were you in the Spades or the Thirteenth Floor Elevators? Was it in the Spades time period, or the Elevators?

ROKY: The Elevators.

JOE NICK: Were you all into psychedelics before you formed the band?

ROKY: I've always had the quest and want for something that would raise my consciousness up. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been in the flow of things, I think people should be able to talk about it. Like some people think, "I may be in this, I shouldn't have said that. They’ll probably think I'm a nut for saying that." And nothing gets said. Nothing really far out gets said, nothing really interesting gets said, because everybody‘s so afraid to say anything. So that’s what we‘re doing. We’re just kinda saying it.

People need to say more about what they're afraid to say, so that things will be discovered, because that’s how man discovers. That's science—being able to accept that there’s something beyond, that there are beings on other worlds that are our friends that are maybe thirty thousand years ahead of us intellectually because they've been born. Maybe we're all aliens; maybe they came down here and colonized and lived on earth for a giant thing, and then they had to split and they left everybody living here, and that we had to look like cavemen because man, we were living with dinosaurs and things. You had to be rough to exist in the environment, so maybe cavemen were smarter than you think of them. Because they said, "I'm gonna have to be here, so I’ll form my body in this way." Maybe they were aliens. You think of an alien - they could be real flexible. Like I could come in looking like Roky and then look like somebody else, look like him. There'd be two of us sitting here that looked like him. And then maybe the cavemen could form their shape to be real big and have lots of hair because of the cold and all the ice, glaciers and everything around during the Ice Age, that they had to form them, or that they were aliens, or that we're all aliens.

DOUG: Well, how many times did you guys get busted as the band, and then you got busted later on?

ROKY: Yeah, I was driving along, and the cop said I had some marijuana with me, So I said, “What can I do?” So I lied about it; like I've already said, because I was going to jail. I know it. And so they were gonna come down hard on me, because l was such a controversial, doing such controversial things. Not as much a controversial person, more or less doing controversial things, and other people sitting back and relaxing and letting me do it. So they said, “We’re gonna make an example of him. We're not gonna have all these people grooving on what he's doing. We've gotta stop it and stop it now, 'cause he's a threat."

Not a threat to the government, but a threat to the police.

DOUG: What you‘re saying is that they got Roky out of the way so that nobody would ask any questions.

ROKY: They had put me in a mental hospital [Hedgecroft] and I ran away from it. And then when I came back to Austin to do a show, a policeman comes down and says, "Hi, man. I used to he a good friend of your father. You used to ride horses on my land. All we wanna do is ask you some questions; just come down and answer the questions."

As soon as I got down there they put me in a cell and I didn't. hear from them for a week. And the club didn't know where I was. They'd said, "Listen, if you get arrested, make your phone call to the club," and I wasn't able to make that connection: So I was shafted, I was just run over.

DANA: Nobel Gunther [IA exec] said, "Don't go to Austin, you'll get busted.” And there was a car out there waiting with the motor running ready to take him to Austin. So who knows what IA was up to`?

ROKY: So I flew to Austin. And this friend of mine took me to the place out here—used to be the Torch Club, used to be the Action Club—and the police were waiting for me there.

DOUG: You went down to Houston and talked to the record company people, and Roky ended up coming back to Austin, and then they grabbed him again, and he ended up in Hedgecroft?

DANA: Rusk State Hospital. Before he even got busted, the record company put him in Hedgecroft for a rest. They said he was doing too many drugs, and he wasn't getting the music out, and he needed a rest. Hedgecroft came right after the first bust, and before the second.

DOUG: Hedgecroft is a private hospital?

ROKY: Yeah.

DANA: Roky’s mother was in on that business too, thinking that he needed a rest. And she would go to the record company and say, “You’re pushing him too hard, look at him, he's falling apart.” She was just misguided.

DOUG: When did this last bust that put you in Rusk occur?

ROKY: That was four, five years ago. Those three years were the longest three years of my life. I thought I’d never get out.

DOUG: I went up to see a friend of mine in Huntsville [Texas State Prison] Sunday; he's just in for a year at the most.

ROKY: Well, a year is just, wouldn’t believe. One day, by the end of one day, you've already thought up ages of thinking. You've thought everything you could think in a million years, and you're tired of it in one day. Like I was going to jail, and so I said, "Hey, man, I'm seeing things on the wall, and I'm hearing voices, so I'm crazy, put me away."

So they said, “Alright, he's crazy. “

For three years...I was such a good actor. When you put your mind to it. you can really convince people, so you gotta be careful. `Cause at the end of three years, I'm sitting there and they said, "So you‘re still hearing voices?"

And I said, "No, man, I'm not hearing voices. I lied."

And they said. "Yeah, sure you lied.”

It’s obvious now I lied. but they were just mean as they could be. There at Rusk, I got beat up there by one of the attendants once. A lot of times people are victims of police and bad record companies.

DOUG: That Rusk episode - do you mind talking about it?

ROKY: When I got there it was like, “Here comes this guy with long hair and a top hat." And they said, "Oh, boy. We got him."

If I had been wearing a tuxedo it would have been just as bad. And so they cut my hair completely bald, just as mean as they could, and they put me in khakis. And for three years you'd get up at six in the morning, and you'd clean up the place. It was just terrible, man.

I got my GED while I was there, and I got couple of credits in college, but that was the only interesting thing the whole time, ya know, Some of them were groovy; I was on television a couple of times. A couple of groovy guys managed to get me out to be in a rock and roll band with some of the patients, and we called it the Missing Links. We performed, you know, but I couldn't perform. I tried. It was so funny. I’d try to scream there and I'd be under so much tension that I couldn't scream while I was there. But I try to scream now, and I'll be able to scream now as good as ever when I get on stage again.

We have so the word “wrong“ and the word "mistake" and the word "text." They should have different meanings so that when you say "text", you could say it could be in text and out of text and not be slandering the word “text," And then if someone was wrong, they wouldn't be considered. See, if I said something like, I'd say one statement; I'd slip and forget I was in a mental hospital and I'd say something, but then they’d say "You're crazy. You're gonna be put here one more year for that."

You know, llike I'd be there two years and think I was getting out, and I'd say something, and they'd say "You're crazy." They lived in the small town of Rusk, and they never got out of it. [It was] a penitentiary—like thing. Cold, man.

DANA: Paranoid is more like it—the people were real sheltered.

ROKY: It was nice sometimes. She came up to visit me every two weeks, that's all they’d allow. We had from 8 till 4, and she’d bring me a carton of cigarettes and she brought me a television and a twelve-string guitar. But you wouldn't wanna watch television because by the time you got it set up and passed all the regulations to watch your television, you didn’t wanna watch it. Or there wouldn't be a good show on. And then with the guitar, you couldn’t be inspired. You wouldn’t wanna sing "Gloria," I wouldn't do my own material in this band. I'd do others. Because I had such a pessimistic attitude—they could learn this, they couldn't learn that, they wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. 'Cause you were in there with people that were in there for murder—vicious murder—and they said, "Alright, here's the guy with the vicious murder and here`s Roky. His circle is just as big as Roky`s circle – they’re equal. They’re in here for the same thing: they’re crazy."

It's just like the "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." There’s injustice in justice.

JOE NICK: Do you think people put down psychedelics now?

ROKY: With psychedelics, a lot of people will say things about psychedelics without realizing that when you take acid, it enters your body and goes out of your body in fifteen minutes. And all it is, is in your mind and what you've thought of and been ` able to build, in your mind. And that's why it’s so beautiful: because it's an art. It's like being an artist. Because the whole idea of it is like being able to have nothing but positivity around you. Like, if you're ever gonna take a trip, you always wanna know where you're going, who you`re gonna be with, what you`re gonna do, what records you're gonna play, what books you're gonna read. So that you don’t have a knock at the door and “I'm Ariel and Happy Birthday and we have all these..." you know. [laughter]

At the time we went to press several things had changed with Roky since this interview was taped. He has released a single with Doug Sahm’s assistance and production: "Starry Eyes/Two Headed Dog" on Mars Records. It was cut at Odyssey Studios in Austin with Doug on guitar and Bleib Alien backing Roky. Doug took interest in Roky after Bleib had played their first dates; and he helped Roky get to LA where he played with Doug at several clubs in hopes of generating some record company interest. While in LA, Roky went to San Francisco and talked with Tommy Hall. He said that they are close friends, Tommy and he will probably not do any recording again. Roky is going to San Francisco with Doug for a couple of months to work on his music and possibly do some recording. He played with Doug and Freddy Fender at Armadillo recently and sounded better than ever.