Playing a show at Liberty Lunch was like playing in any other former lumberyard. The stage was wide and sagged in the middle. There was a partial roof over a concrete floor, where people stood or sat at weathered picnic tables. The bathrooms always seemed to be in a state of transition. Across the street was an abandoned warehouse, next door on one side was a boarded-up 19th century general store, and on the other was a homeless center.
It was the coolest club in town. The Lunch had opened in 1975 and started off as a reggae place, which would explain the mural on the wall of a hippie raising his child above the waters of a river that poured from a giant coconut. In the eighties and nineties, bookers Mark Pratz and Jeanette Ward brought in punk, metal, blues, country, folk—whatever. They had Nirvana, Run DMC, and Oasis on their ways up; Dolly Parton, King Sunny Ade, the Pogues. The Neville Brothers and Joe Ely did live albums there.
I first played there in 1982 with my band the Soul Bashers, and then did dozens of shows there with Wild Seeds, including our final one in 1989 to a packed house of 1,000 people. I bartended there, did security, did drugs, had sex down the hill by the river. It was wide, open, shaggy. It felt like Austin. The Lunch was as essential to the growth of the music scene and the city’s identity as a music mecca as any club since the Armadillo World Headquarters, which closed in 1980. As the Fillmore was to San Francisco and CBGB’s was to New York, the Lunch was to Austin.
So when owners Pratz and Ward announced the Lunch had lost its lease and would be closing at the end of July 1999, we knew we were losing something special. I came up with a way to celebrate the club and to say goodbye to an era. We would drink, we would laugh, we would cry.
We would play “Gloria” for 24 hours straight.
“We” would be my band the Brooders and as many musicians as we could find who had played the Lunch over the years. We would play the song together, defiantly. “Gloria” is one of the primeval documents of rock and roll, one of the songs every kid with a guitar learns to play, a celebration of youth, simplicity, and the power of three chords. For a goodbye to the Lunch, it was perfect. Plus it has one of the most anthemic choruses of all time: “G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”
The one rule: musicians could come and go onstage but somebody had to keep the beat going. I called up friends and musicians I didn’t know and asked them to come play. It’ll be fun, I said. I’ll see, they replied. Some outright refused (one insisted on doing “Louie Louie” instead) but most laughed and said they’d stop by. Blues bassist Sarah Brown—one of the best players in town—said to sign her up for ten minutes.
We set up two drum kits, several guitar amps, a bass amp, a couple of keyboards, and several vocal microphones. The Brooders started at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 23. We began quietly, with bass, vibrato guitar, no drums for 15 minutes. After a while I started singing those iconic first words: “She comes ‘round here…” I figured we had a ways to go, so we free-associated for a while on the song’s basic chords: E-D-A. We finally hit the chorus after an hour of dicking around and it felt like a holy release. “Gloria!”
Then we went back to the verse, vamping on those chords: E-D-A. E-D-A. The song burbled along for six minutes or so then began picking up in intensity, the band playing as one, everyone straining for that release again: “Gloria!”
Then back to the verse. Soon we were lost in the hypnotism of repetition. It was like trance music. E-D-A. E-D-A. E-D-A. After a couple of hours, various Brooders began leaving the stage as replacements arrived to take our places. They would play for 30 minutes or an hour—and not want to leave the stage. It was addictive, playing the same thing over and over, feeling the rush of anticipation as we moved toward the chorus, hitting it—and then starting all over again. Sarah came and started playing and stayed up there for a half hour. Others got up and stayed for two or three hours. Guitarist Kevin Carroll would play for six.
Different players gave different feels. Barbara K, one half of indie pop stars Timbuk 3, took the song in a reggae direction. Terri Lord, a drummer for local punk bands since the early eighties, played completely differently than Mark Patterson, the drummer for Kelly Willis’s band. Kevin McKinney was a groove guitarist with Soul Hat while Steve Collier was a pop guy with the Sidehackers. Guitarist Carroll was a lyrical lead player, while Brent Grulke bashed the strings of my Gretsch so hard he cut open his fingers, spraying the guitar with blood.
Various vocalists sang Morrison’s words or made up their own verses. Folk singer Gretchen Phillips channeled Patti Smith; punk rocker Tex Edwards channeled Jim Morrison. There would be long stretches where no one sang and we just played the same three chords: E-D-A, feeling the simplicity, the repetition. Then the singer would start picking it up and so would the players, and everyone could feel the anticipation build, he or she would get more agitated, leading into the spelling out of her name and the band would start playing louder, culminating in the glorious cathartic chorus, a dozen musicians screaming on stage and a couple dozen people in the audience singing along. It didn’t matter how many times the chorus came around—every time it was fresh, wild, transcendent. Every time it was new.
Musicians began leaving around closing time, but others showed up. There were some bleak hours before the dawn, but the skeleton crew pushed on. E-D-A. E-D-A. A guy