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 and play baseball and not to hang out in nightclubs. Ask any musician you want how I try to get ’em off drugs. I’m a citizen, Mr. Strauss! We’re on the same side!”
“They think you’ve stowed away hundreds of thousands of dollars,” I point out. “They told me a pound of pot costs five hundred dollars coming out of Juárez, and by the time it gets to, say, Arkansas, it’s worth fourteen hundred dollars. Of course, there’s warehousers, distributors, and drivers to pay. But even if you made only a hundred-bucks-a-pound profit, that’s a million dollars.”
The 47-year-old man does not reply at first. Instead, he lurches out of his chair and departs the living room of his high-dollar but sparsely furnished Central Austin condominium. As he steps toward the hallway, Antone erupts with a spasm of coughs. Twenty-two years’ worth of secondhand smoke. A nightclub lifer, a cautionary tale. “It chokes me up, man,” he explains vaguely as he returns with two photographs, each in plastic frames.
Holding the pictures in front of him, Clifford Antone says, “These are my two grandmothers.” He lays a hand on top of the plastic and looks dead at me. “I swear on them,” he says solemnly, with an edge. “On my two grandmothers, man. I’m f—ing broke. I ain’t got shit.”
He falls back into the armchair. An anguished groan seeps out of him. “They think I’m some devious criminal mastermind,” he says. “They think I’m some genius.” Loudly he moans, “I’m not! I’m a coonass from Port Arthur! I’m a moron!”
Antone is no moron. He is well read, conversant in politics and sports, a man of discerning tastes. Still, it is hard to square this slow-moving, pallid, bleary-eyed figure with the image brought to mind by the words of one of the federal officials who have built the case against Antone: “Leaving aside the fact that it’s stupid to be dealing dope, is Clifford a dumb crook? No. He’s a wonderful crook. He’s very, very good.”
“Bullshit,” mutters the great singer and harmonica player Kim Wilson when this assessment of his friend is repeated to him. “Clifford has never hurt anyone. And you know what? That’s exactly the point. That’s why they’re messing with this guy, instead of going after rapists and murderers. He won’t shoot at you. He’s easy. And you’ll get headlines going after him.”
Maybe the two sides of Clifford Antone can’t be reconciled. That a man of his rose-colored upbringing could evoke such a shadowy mystique is all the proof one needs that life can never be trusted, only lived. Port Arthur was a place of torment for Janis Joplin, its environs the stuff of nightmares for author Mary Karr. But to Antone, it was heaven. “Maybe you didn’t have people with Harvard Ph.D.’s there,” he reflects, “but you had good, kind people, folks who were friends, and who are to this day. You had great Cajun food. And, man, you had dances, where guys and girls learned how to get along. You didn’t have fancy nightclubs, but on Friday night at the skating rink you’d hear Johnny and Edgar Winter. On Saturday afternoon, Aaron Neville. Who could ask for more than that?”
Privilege is relative, but almost from his birth in 1949, Clifford Antone knew he was luckier than most. His grandfather Elias Antone emigrated from Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1895, at the age of fifteen, and settled in the south Louisiana town of Jennings before relocating his family to Port Arthur in the twenties. Throughout the Golden Triangle the Antone family owned liquor stores, a clothing boutique, and a food import business. Clifford and his two sisters were raised on the upper-crust east side, a stone’s throw from the Intracoastal Waterway. None of Clifford’s buddies had a family maid, or his wardrobe, or his fastback Mustang.
Clifford took after his father, Jamal Antone, a dignified gentleman who, unlike most men in this refinery town, always wore a suit to work. He frequently loaned out his wheels and was uncommonly mannered—which, along with his suave features and dress, abetted his reputation as a ladies’ man. His friends knew to show up at the Antone household on weekends, when the extended family would gather for prodigious Lebanese feasts. Clifford Antone’s strong devotion to blood ties grew out of his Port Arthur childhood. Today he still travels to Houston to attend a niece’s birthday, and he was a constant presence when his sister Janelle lost a child at birth. It is among the uglier features of Antone’s recent saga that several law enforcement officials perceive his family loyalty as evidence of a “Lebanese Mafia.”
His virtues notwithstanding, young Clifford was no stranger to the wild side. He smoked three packs of Marlboros a day as a teenager and often got liquored up with his pals at the juke joints in Vinton, Louisiana. (Antone quit alcohol and cigarettes more than 25 years ago.) But it was the music at these haunts that spellbound Clifford Antone. The Boogie Kings, Cookie and the Cupcakes, the Champagne Brothers, the zydeco master Clifton Chenier. Soulful, unadorned, and gracious outpourings from musicians who saw their gigs not as highfalutin performances but as dances. A decade or so later, Antone would model his new club after the glorious Vinton dive, the Big Oaks—“Not because of the way it looked,” he says, “but the way it felt.”
After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High in 1968, Antone enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, harboring half-hearted ambitions of becoming a lawyer, with the fallback of joining the family liquor store business. Two years later he was a hippie dropout with no ambitions to speak of, unless listening to music counted. Like many fans of such bands as Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones, Antone had come to learn that the riffs he was listening to had been heisted from old blues artists like Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Otis Spann. The notion appalled him. Antone swore off the popular stuff and sought out the ante-cedents. He stopped going to rock concerts and began hanging out at places like Castle Creek, to hear Muddy Waters and James Cotton, and Alexander’s Barbecue, where he heard a brassy girl named Angela Strehli and a skinny guitarist from Dallas named Stevie Ray Vaughan.
What came next is the stuff of Austin legend. In 1973 Clifford Antone opened an imported-clothing store, which did okay business but which would become better known for its back room, where Antone and fellow blues aficionados would jam after hours. Two years later, following the passage of legislation that allowed bars to stay open until two in the morning, Antone and his friends determined to open a club where true blues artists could play regularly. Guitarist Bill Campbell discovered a cavernous building across from the Driskill Hotel, on East Sixth Street. Antone peered in through the window one evening and believed he was looking at the reincarnation of the Big Oaks. He and his friends mulled over possible names, rejecting Phantom Moon, Rendezvous, and others, before, by a show of hands, electing to name their blues joint after the only one of them who had the slightest business acumen. Just how much, or how little, was demonstrated when Clifford Antone closed down his clothing store that summer without attempting to sell it—unaware that a whole business couldbe bought or sold.
The concept of Antone’s was inspired lunacy. For the most part, East Sixth in 1975 was foreign to white folks and not altogether safe by anyone’s yardstick. More to the point, who gave a damn about the blues anyway? Progressive country dominated Austin’s sensibilities. Of his music circle Antone would later acknowledge, “We were the lowest of the low.”
Ah, wondrous adversity. Antone scrounged up $600, and like that, they were in the building. Friends crawled out of the woodwork, donating their labor and hauling in goods to be paid for whenever. A public-address system, a piano, an air conditioner, new plumbing, new wood panels—“It was all magic. You gottaunderstand, it’s too crazy to even talk about—it was just pure, absolute magic in its finest form,” he murmurs with a tremor in his voice. On July 15, 1975, Antone’s Night Club opened with a five-day run of Clifton Chenier. Every blues musician in town and numerous Port Arthurites (including Antone’s parents) flocked to the new venue. So exhilarating was that first week that by its conclusion, it dawned on 25-year-old Clifford Antone that he hadn’t yet booked a band for the following week.
Antone’s started hot, and all that follows is a highlight reel wherein Austin comes into its own as a national music powerhouse. Whether by seeing Stevie Ray climbing onstage with Albert King, sultry Lou Ann Barton sitting on Muddy Waters’ lap, a belligerent Boz Scaggs exchanging blows with a bouncer, or Antone himself tapping on the shoulder of Stray Cats guitarist Brian Setzer as the latter was mounting the stage to guitar-duel with Jimmie Vaughan and saying to him, “Sit down, son, and learn something,” any visitor could see the very rare thing that this club was all about.
They were all calling Clifford Antone, all the Chicago blues artists he deified, Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor and Big Walter Horton, offering to come down to Texas to play at his overnight sensation of a club. Antone treated them all like kings—because they were, damn it, and they deserved better than they’d gotten. He had friends chauffeur them around town, he put them up in hotels, and he let them play for weeklong runs—which meant that Antone’s musician buddies could actually get to know Big Walter, jam with him all night, and drink hard liquor with him at nine in the morning. Closer to home, Antone gave fledgling bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble steady work. When they needed rent money, he emptied his pockets—as he did for wayward relatives and street people he’d never seen before. The way he saw it, he’d done nothing to earn his fortunate upbringing, and everywhere he looked there were people who deserved no less than what he had. Above all, those immortal bluesmen deserved all he could give. And so he paid gladly for Eddie Taylor’s eye operation and, later, for his funeral. It was an honor.
Antone was no candidate for sainthood, being frightfully stubborn and in possession of an ego to fit his proportions. In questioning the integrity of certain musicians or club owners, he could come off sounding sanctimonious. There had been music in Austin before Antone’s, after all, and there would be after he departed. But Clifford Antone’s club wasn’t just a venue or a scene. It was an anchor. By 1980 Antone’s had relocated several miles north—though not before helping transform Sixth Street into a demilitarized zone and eventual frat boy playground—and a couple of years later would move a second time, to Guadalupe Street north of the University of Texas. It was always there,however. In turn, Antone’s lent Austin music an enduring thereness, where every visiting celebrity or peon knew to come to hear an authentically American sound.
“His impact is worldwide,” says Kim Wilson simply. “He’s never hurt a soul. He’s only helped people. That’s all you need to know.”
MAYBE SO. AND THOSE WHO AGREE need not read further, where the story takes an unhappy turn. What to do with our heroic figures upon discovering their Achilles’ heels is a peculiarly American agony—be they Lyndon Johnson, Pete Rose, or Clifford Antone. The latter would be at least as clean as most of us, his persecutors concede, but for the marijuana laws on the books. Antone famously shuns cocaine, speed, ecstasy, and the assorted new pharmaceuticals available in numerous nightclubs throughout America. He does, however, smoke pot, by his own lawyer’s admission. In Antone’s belief system, marijuana is not a drug because it is an herb. One can reject that assertion and still regard the vice of marijuana use—and, by extension, pot dealing, whether by the reefer or by the ton—as being minor by comparison with drinking alcohol, committing adultery, or other legal acts. To accept such a view, as his supporters do, is to perceive Antone’s tragedy as an unnecessary one, wherein a hero has been crazily, wrongheadedly miscast as a threat to society.
Still and all, the laws say that using or selling marijuana is a crime. No one knows this better than Antone himself, as his otherwise clean record attests. In 1968 eighteen-year-old Clifford Antone was stopped while driving from Mexico into Laredo, and a pound of dope was found in a hubcap. He received six months’ deferred adjudication. Three years later Antone was found in possession of some personal stash, which he says belonged to someone else in the car. The charges were thrown out.
Both cases were small-time, low risk. That would change. According to the feds, Antone would eventually become a significant dope dealer, a high-level Austin player in an illicit trade—with much to gain and everything to lose. And the losses would be borne by others as well, according to a source close to the investigation. He says, “All along I’ve heard people tell me what a great guy Clifford is, how generous he is. And I have no doubt that he’s done people all these favors. The problem is, sometimes he asked for favors in return. ‘You’re going to El Paso? How about taking this package with you?’ That kind of thing. Illegal favors. And because they returned those favors, on account of what a great guy Clifford Antone is, some of those people are in jail today.”
No law enforcement official has ever accused Antone’s of being a club where drug money was laundered or major dope deals were brokered. But in 1979 organized crime unit investigators Bob Nesteroff and Cary Young tracked a suspicous Austin-based plane that flew to Mexico and then to Fort Stockton. The owner, using an assumed name and an Austin lawyer’s address, turned out to be Mikal Amuny, Antone’s cousin. Nesteroff and Young observed that Amuny frequently visited his cousin’s residence, which would not be unusual, except that others did as well, and many in the group drove cars that were registered under phony names, to the same Austin lawyer’s address. When some of the cars were found to be used for transporting marijuana, the cops officially put Clifford Antone on their radar.
In October 1982 the estranged wife of a Port Arthur native named Allen Granger informed a U.S. Customs agent that Granger was on his way to Austin to procure some marijuana. On November 1, while surveilling Antone, Nesteroff and Young observed the nightclub owner and his cousin Amuny, along with an Antone’s employee named Aaron Maxwell, entering a JoJo’s restaurant in South Austin. A few minutes later Granger showed up at the restaurant. Maxwell then drove off by himself in Granger’s car. He was followed by lawmen to a residence that was rented by Royce Hebert, an old Port Arthur buddy of Antone’s—though, it was later found, the lease payments were made using cashier’s checks obtained by Antone’s girlfriend. Maxwell drove into the garage, shut the garage doors, and a few minutes later, drove out again and back to the restaurant, where he returned the car to Granger, who then drove away in it. Several law enforcement agents intercepted Granger, while others surrounded Antone, Amuny, and Maxwell as they exited JoJo’s. The trunk of Granger’s car contained fifty pounds of pot. Hebert’s residence was found to contain more than eight hundred pounds, as well as a beeper corresponding to the one Antone was wearing.
After first pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess marijuana with the intent to distribute and then losing an appeal, Clifford Antone was shipped off to the federal prison camp at Big Spring in the summer of 1985. Though the prospect of incarceration was surely traumatic to Antone, in retrospect the experience was not a watershed moment. The media, which had long admired him, made little mention ofthe ordeal. The club did not lose a step, largely owing to Antone’s older sister Susan, who ably filled in as manager and booking agent.
At Big Spring Antone had nothing to fear. The camp, a former Air Force base with the barracks converted into an inmate dorm, had neither fences nor guards. Antone’s fellow inmates included a few assistant U.S. attorneys, a federal judge, assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer, and several Austin acquaintances, along with Amuny and Hebert. “He was extremely popular with both the inmates and the staff,” remembers then—unit manager Richard Sanders, who was impressed by Antone the moment the inmate allowed as to how he and Albert King were friends. In the recreation yard the club owner—who slimmed down considerably at Big Spring—showed a sweet touch on the basketball court. “He was an inmate’s inmate,” recalls one who served time there. “Did what he had to do, but didn’t kiss ass and carried himself respectably.”
True to form, Antone left a musical legacy that, a decade later, Big Spring residents still speak of with enchantment. After a flood devastated the town’s lovely Comanche Trail Park, Big Spring prison officials offered to use inmate labor to aid in the reconstruction. But city officials had no idea where to find the money to pay for the materials—until Antone stepped in. The inmate offered to recruit some musician friends to stage benefit concerts. So it developed that in 1986, citizens in Big Spring and nearby Midland were treated to concerts by the likes of Asleep at the Wheel, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. In the process, some $80,000 was raised to overhaul the park. Says then—city councilman Johnny Ruth-erford: “There was no way any of the local folks could’ve raised that kind of money—and, of course, no way we could’ve attracted those kinds of musicians on our own. Clifford was absolutely key.”
Antone asked for nothing in return. He refused any formal recognition by the city. But he earned the admiration of locals like Rutherford, who today counts Antone as a friend and says, “Clifford’s one of the most moral people I know.” And though Antone asked for no special consideration from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the project brought national honor to the Big Spring camp. Thus, as unit manager Sanders acknowledges, “It was understood that, after what Clifford had done with the park project, we’d do anything legally to help him out.” In February 1987, after serving less than three years of his five-year sentence, Antone returned home to Austin.
For the next six months he lived in a halfway house, went to bed early, threw his energies into establishing an Antone’s record label, and otherwise showed every sign of fulfilling the vow he was often heard to recite at Big Spring: “Man, I’m never gonna come back here again.” What he hadcome back to, however, was a financial mess. Before Big Spring, Antone had become fairly flush with nightclub profits. He indulged himself with periodic trips to New York and Las Vegas, with Dallas Cowboys tickets and Italian suits, and even with real estate acquisitions throughout the city. But legal fees had bled him dry, and on top of that, Antone’s was entering a slump after a peak that saw Charlie Sexton become a pop sensation and the Fabulous Thunderbirds electrify the airwaves with “Tuff Enuff.” The club began to stage periodic benefits on its own behalf. Later, Antone’s would experience tax problems, put off creditors, and finally, in early 1997, be forced to give up the Guadalupe property and relocate downtown.
Perhaps his woes were of no special significance. Perhaps they were, however, especially if you believe the contention of investigators Nesteroff and Young that, within a year after his release from Big Spring, Clifford Antone was back to dealing weed.
By the early nineties the feds were hearing Antone’s name crop up in major smuggling operations. In the course of busting up one pot ring, a player in the trafficking organization offered to trade testimony for reduced time. “I’ll tell you about this guy or that guy,” he told federal authorities. “And I’ve done deals with Clifford Antone. But please don’t ask me about Clifford. He’s too good a guy, and if he’s the only one you’re interested in, then I’ll just take my lumps.”
Unfortunately for the feds, the intelligence on Antone had always been piecemeal, circumstantial to a fault. The investigators found themselves ruefully admiring what they perceived to be his stealth. “From the time I started dealing with Clifford,” says Nesteroff, “he’s proved to be one of the hardest to dig up background on. He’s been schooled great, and he cultivates a sense of loyalty such that no one wants to dump on him.”
Then along came Bruce Hackfeld. An El Paso pot dealer since high school who had served federal time from 1990 until 1993, Hackfeld bore an alarming resemblance to recently deceased Mexican drug kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and, in fact, bought much of his product from one of Carrillo’s cousins in Juárez. At the time of his 1990 sentencing, the feds had no idea how prominent Hackfeld was—he had been a crucial supplier to a massive Long Island—based ring. After his 1993 release he extended his operations to Canada, California, and Georgia.
Everyone agrees that Hackfeld and Antone met in the spring of 1994 at one of Antone’s regular dining spots, the Austin Four Seasons Hotel. According to Antone’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin,Antone ran into Hackfeld’s attorney, Richard Esper, whom Antone had met years before at a Lebanese convention, and Esper introduced him to Hackfeld. What follows has yet to be proved in a court of law, and as DeGuerin will no doubt emphasize, the prosecution’s case relies heavily on the testimony of convicted felons like Bruce Hackfeld, the boss of the enterprise, who waltzed off with a five-year sentence after ratting on everyone underneath him.
In any event, here is what is alleged: Using his cousin Mikal Amuny as his point man, an old Port Arthur friend named Phil Higgs as his warehouser, and two employees as drivers, Clifford Antone conducted at least four marijuana deals with Hackfeld between October 1994 and December 1995. The loads, transported from El Paso to Higgs’ storage area in Bastrop County, consisted of, respectively, 1,200, 3,300, 1,700, and 2,400 pounds. Another 400 pounds was refused because of its poor quality, and an additional 3,500 pounds was sitting in an El Paso corrugated-aluminum warehouse, “destined for delivery to Antone in Austin . . . [a]t the time of Hackfeld’s arrest on February 18, 1996,” according to a federal affidavit. Federal authorities say that Antone turned over each of these loads to his distributors—Doug Reed and John Maloney—who dispersed the loads north and east.
At eight in the morning on April 20, 1996, 24 days after Hackfeld had started cooperating with his prosecutors, there was a knock at the front door of Antone’s condominium. The nightclub owner had just fallen asleep an hour earlier. He opened the door to find nine police offi-cers, armed with guns and a search warrant. They brought in a drug-sniffing dog, which found a small stash of pot. The officers found and seized $91,000 in cash, documents that are alleged to be drug ledgers, and according to DeGuerin, several personal items of Hackfeld’s, who had been an overnight guest of Antone’s a few months earlier.
One of the lawmen, an Austin Police Department officer, hung back with Antone during the three-and-a-half-hour raid. The cop, as it turned out, was a big fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he prodded Stevie Ray’s patron for information. But Clifford Antone didn’t feel like talking much.
HE HAS SPENT THESE DAYS, PERHAPS his last as a free man, wearing his same placid, beatific expression all over town, carousing with Kim Wilson, checking up on his family, rooting for the Astros, flirting with the girls at the gentlemen’s clubs, eating his chicken-fried steaks at the Austin Land and Cattle Company, and paying lip service to his plight only during sessions with his lawyer and when he takes his random urine tests. Politicians have called to express their support. So has Willie Nelson, who himself has felt the heat from the federal government in past years. “Everybody is behind me,” Antone says. “Everybody. The reaction I’ve gotten is unbelievable. You’d think I was running for office instead of getting indicted.”
The musicians at the club are there for Clifford Antone, but they don’t really know what to say to the man, and the man is not saying much on the subject himself. (One longtime friend spent a good half an hour chatting with Antone, waiting for the subject of the indictment to come up, before finally asking, “So how are you, Clifford?” To which Antone replied, “I’m in a world of trouble.”) No one seems to feel comfortable speculating aloud about whether Antone is guilty. Few of them come out and say they think he is being railroaded. After all these years Antone finds himself in a familiar dilemma: Despite its lyrical intimations of poverty and cruel turns of fortune, the blues has always resonated with self-indictment. That bedraggled Everyman who keeps picking the wrong women and boozing his days away must one day face the mirror. The blues is our all-too-humanness set to music—ever passionate, tacitly confessional.
Better, then, to leave it all unsaid, let the music do the talking. When I saw Clifford at his club this summer, he invariably buttonholed me and shouted into my ear breathless exclamations like, “Twenty guitarists onstage last night, man,” or “How about that Sue Foley, man? She’s one of my favorites,” or with a diabolical leer, “Come see the Scabs tomorrow, man; you won’t believe the crowds they bring out.”
Even as I attended to the thunder and the wail onstage, I heard Clifford Antone’s voice back at his condo the day he tried to explain to me how he, a 47-year-old man, would never leave this house of blues unless he was forcibly removed from it. “Often I say to God, ‘Why me?’ I have all kinds of family businesses I could be in. I could be making money. Believe me, I’ve tried to get away. This life ain’t easy, man. I’ve never owned a home. Never married. How can I, being at a club till four in the morning?
“But it won’t let go of me. I’m raising up a bunch of kids right now that are so good—it’s just like those early days all over again. I mean it. These kids come from Minneapolis, from California, man. I say, ‘I can’t take any more kids!’ But what musicians! I’m working with this young band, the Keller Brothers—Mike Keller on guitar, man, in two minutes I knew it. It’s like seeing Jimmie and Stevie Ray again. The guy in their band on piano just turned eighteen. He’s from Abilene, but God he does New Orleans music like he was born there fifty years ago! ‘Tipitina’s, Tipitina’s …’”
I remember how his fingers tinkled imaginary ivories as he sang, how he then went on about all these other kids. Johnny Moeller from Dallas: “He’s got the heart to play the blues that hard like Stevie did.” Teddy Morgan from Minneapolis: “I said to him, ‘Go back home, kid, and keep practicing—you’re gonna be good someday,’ and he went home and got his training, and now he’s a monster.” Doyle Bramhall, Jr., the son of a Dallas blues great: “Of course, Doyle Junior’s so good I don’t wanna talk about him. It’s too scary.” When he talked, his fingers mimed each musician’s instrument, as if that were as much of each’s identity as his given name.
I remember another conversation about the young ones. “The kids I got now,” Clifford began, then winced and said, “That’s what kills me. Leaving those kids. Those kids needme.”
It was the time for me to ask the damning question: “But Clifford, if you did what they say you did, you knew the chances were good you’d get busted. So who’s really to blame for those kids getting left behind?”
But let me plead guilty. I didn’t ask it. I couldn’t ask it. The music must have drowned me out.