Keep Gomorrah Weird
The rest of Texas vilifies Austin as a breeding ground for long-haired hell-raisers. To me, it’s an open-minded, open-hearted, magical little town—and always will be.
In the fifties I moved from Houston to Austin, which didn’t seem like that much of a cataclysmic cultural leap at the time. Compared with Houston, Austin was a sleepy, beautiful little town in which I went to high school and formed my first band, the Three Rejects. It would take another decade or two for Austin to become fully vilified by the rest of Texas as the long-haired, hippie, pot-smoking, hell-raising Gomorrah of the Western world. I never felt this way about Austin. All I knew was that the music was great, the drugs were cheap, and the love was free.
When I enrolled at the University of Texas, Willie Nelson was still a struggling songwriter and a pig farmer in Nashville and the Armadillo World Headquarters was just a gleam in Eddie Wilson’s eye. In college I distinguished myself by managing my friend Ken Jacobs’s nearly successful campaign for head cheerleader, in which our slogan was “I can jump high.” I also formed my second band, King Arthur and the Carrots. I met folksingers, poets, political radicals, and women who loved other women. None of these life choices were in mainstream fashion, of course. (Back then I never could have used one of the slogans for my white-hot gubernatorial campaign: “No lesbian left behind.”)
In my bright college days we pretty much took for granted that Austin was far more progressive than the outlying provinces. Looking back, I’m not so sure that was entirely true. In the early sixties there was a place called the Plantation Restaurant at the corner of the Drag and what was then Nineteenth Street. It was open 24 hours, many of which were spent by me and my friends drinking endless cups of blue coffee and solving the problems of the world as we knew it—and I think that, at times, we very possibly knew the world better then than we know it now. One thing that didn’t really seem to register at the ol’ Plantation, however, was that, among the bikers, fraternity boys, and square-dance clubs, there were no black patrons. It took me awhile, but as a card-carrying member of Students for a Democratic Society, I finally lamped upon this inequity. With my fellow SDSers, we picketed night after night, at last forcing the restaurant to change its policies. Today the Plantation, which I both loved and protested against, is gone, and the street where it used to be is no longer known as Nineteenth Street. It is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In a world of shopping malls and glass towers, that, my friends, is real progress.
After graduation, I left Austin for three years to work for the Peace Corps in the jungles of Borneo. By the time I returned there was an almost palpable new spirit in the air, what Jack London might have called the “smoke of life.” Not that Austin wasn’t an exciting place before I left, but now it really seemed to rock. I blame this transformation mostly on Willie. He likes to say that he just “found a parade and jumped in front of it.” The truth is that when Willie began playing the Armadillo in the early seventies, the union was finally consummated between the long-haired, dope-smoking hippie and the cowboy, giving birth almost simultaneously to the cosmic cowboy and the “outlaw” movement and giving God-fearing folks who’d never trusted Austin in the first place a real reason to worry.
Willie was not alone. Other cosmic cowboys, like Waylon Jennings, Doug Sahm, Michael Martin Murphey, Billy Joe Shaver, Steven Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, also led the charge. And somewhere in there was a wiry little band called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. But it was ten minutes after “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” exploded on the national consciousness that everybody wanted to come to Austin to have his hip card punched. And the converted National Guard armory known as the Armadillo World Headquarters was just the place. No seats. No air conditioning. No pretense. It was too late to stop the train. And that was a good thing, because you never know which one might be the train to glory.
I have recently written a guide to Austin called The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic. It’s a big title for a rather small book, but in the process of researching and writing it, I once again discovered the reasons God made Austin the Live Music Capital of the World. I relived a moonlit night with a long-ago high school sweetheart, parked on top of Mount Bonnell in my 1953 green Plymouth Cranbrook convertible complete with wolf whistle and Bermuda bell. She left me for a quarterback even though I held the vaunted position of sports editor of the Austin High newspaper, the Austin Maroon, in which I once published a review of a football game in Latin. Poor girl never realized she could’ve been the future first lady of Texas.
Most of the old Austin, however, along with most of my mind, is gone like the now-extinct blue-buttocked tropical loon. Some of the greatest times of my life were lived right here in this open-minded, open-hearted, much-maligned, much-celebrated, magical town. In the jukebox of my dreams I have vivid early memories of Willie and Jerry Jeff and Doug, along with so many others—moments of fine madness, high lonesome nights, running and playing together like the kids we were, when all the pearls were in the ocean and all the stars were in the sky.
Today, as I sit on the deck of my family’s home on Mountainclimb Drive, I can clearly recall a vanished vista of rolling green hills, replaced by a glut of new houses, the bigger the better, as far as the eye can see. The city has become more high-tech now, more conservative, some say, more California-influenced. But underneath, I know the old DNA is still there. Since my father’s death two years ago, I find myself hanging around Austin even more than usual. Like the deer that now populate Mountainclimb, I relish those rare moments of peace that life and love and leaf blowers occasionally bestow. Like the deer, I’m caught in the headlights of the twenty-first century, somewhere between progress and the world we used to know.
In the meantime, I do my best to keep Austin weird. As longtime Austinites used to say: Onward through the fog.