Clifford’s Blues

Passionate and stubborn, generous and careless, Clifford Antone created one of the world’s best nightclubs in Austin. But now that he’s up against his second federal drug charge in fifteen years, he may really have to face the music.

NOTHING ENDURES, BUT FOR THE PAST 22 YEARS in Austin you could count on a night like this: Blue Monday at Antone’s. Every other club in town is asleep or dead. But open the glass door of the preeminent blues joint in America, and you’re greeted by a swarm of angry guitar riffs. Five dollars propels you into a swelling demimonde that is equal parts Austin hip and something vaguely retro. Here are outlaw lawyers wearing smirks and gold chains, overweight university jocks, tenured celebrities (Boz Scaggs, in tonight’s case), topless dancers out on the town, big hair, soaring sideburns, two-tone shoes, skirts the size of blindfolds, and bump-and-grind dance moves you haven’t seen in twenty years but have plainly missed. It’s a bona fide scene, but all the action is, to a large extent, reaction. The music rules at Antone’s. The performers parade onstage like the stars they ought to be: seventeen-year-old guitar whiz Jake Andrews, the bottomlessly soulful singer Malford Milligan, euphoric Guitar Lynn, Sue Foley in all her feline insouciance. Maybe they’re going places, maybe not. But look where they are now. This is Antone’s.

 And there, just to the side of the stage, is Clifford Antone. He is impossible to miss, a heavy, middle-aged cherub in a rumpled suit of fine material that is not quite wasted on him, running them on and offstage every twenty minutes, motioning discreetly for the engineers upstairs to lower the stage lights, shooing away the photographers at stageside, accepting the approaches of sweet young things, bah-booming with his fist as the rhythm breaks—never saying much, never having to. Soft-jowled, sloe-eyed, by turns avuncular and contained, shambling and elegant, Clifford Antone is, amid this sea of scenemakers, the unmistakable maker of the scene. The deeper he recedes into the shadows, the more he bears watching.

 At Antone’s it is tempting to imagine those present forever as they are now—to know the dancer only by the dance, the bluesman by the wail of the guitar, and Clifford Antone by his Atlas-like patronage of this most American of music forms. Outside the club, though, there are different vantage points. Consider that of Cary Young, a former investigator with the Travis County Sheriff’s office, who doesn’t frequent Antone’s. “I’m not into jazz,” he says. Instead, Young has spent a fair amount of time since 1979 surveilling Clifford Antone for the Organized Crime Control Task Force, a unit composed of local, county, state, and federal law enforcement groups. He observed the nightclub operator’s comings and goings. Made note of the visitors at Antone’s residence. Kept track of vehicle registrations made under assumed names and addresses. Discussed his habits with police informants. Helped bust him for conspiracy to possess marijuana with the intent to distribute in 1982. And all the while, contemplated Antone’s vaunted public image—“Which I always found ironic,” Young says, “seeing this guy on TV being described as a local hero, when I knew he was moving hundreds of pounds of pot.”

 Young was one of the few not to be shocked when Antone was indicted again, this past June, for allegedly trafficking more than 10,000 pounds of marijuana between 1994 and 1996. That’s five tons of pot. Antone’s blue-ribbon attorney, Dick DeGuerin, quickly launched a counterstrike. A “Chinese fire drill” of indicted druggies, he asserted, were dumping on his client in exchange for reduced sentences. And indeed they were, perhaps half a dozen, perhaps more—chief among them Antone’s alleged marijuana supplier, Bruce Hackfeld, the biggest fish among the thirty indicted, who was awarded a five-year sentence for turning on the other accused.

 Antone’s prior offense means that a guilty verdict in U.S. v. Antone will likely lead to a fifteen- to twenty-year sentence with practically no eligibility for time off for good behavior. The single most stabilizing force in Austin’s ballyhooed music scene thus risks losing his freedom until well into his sixties. A trial is inevitable—it is not in Clifford Antone to trade testimony for time, nor, as the feds well know, does DeGuerin take on clients who rat.

The proceedings promise to be a gut fight, with DeGuerin wading through the morass of evidence and impugning it piece by piece, witness by witness. The stakes could not be higher for Clifford Antone, but they are formidable as well for the federal law enforcement officials, who say they have heard Antone’s name whispered in drug-dealing circles for years. Their perseverance has culminated in a case that appears impressive on paper. But it is by no means airtight. Since Antone was not caught in physical possession of the five tons of marijuana, the prosecutors must tie him to it using both circumstantial evidence—so-called drug ledgers and rental-vehicle records, for example—and the testimony of confessed felons.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, some things won’t change. State and federal law enforcement officials will continue to regard Antone as a big-time smuggler, period. His supporters will continue to view him as a generous hero, period. And no one will learn much else about this vastly complicated, compelling, and somewhat tragic figure—a rich kid from the Golden Triangle who by all rights should have been a stranger to the blues, but who may at last have earned a hard case of it.

WHY DOESN’T MR. STRAUSS sit down and talk with me?” exclaims Clifford Antone at the mention of the assistant U.S. attorney, Charlie Strauss, who intends to throw the book at Antone next spring. “Why doesn’t he go to a ball game with me? Instead he dehumanizes me, man, so he doesn’t have to deal with who I really am. You know? I’m a citizen. I’m a citizen, man! I hate crime! I’ve done more to turn off people from drugs and alcohol in my club than he could possibly imagine! Ask anybody! Ask Charlie and Will,” he says of the famous Sexton brothers, “how I wouldn’t let ’em drink in my club when they were underage. Ask Jake Andrews about how I told him to stay in school

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