Scene But Not Heard

Houston's student shortage forces the indie scene to go the blue-collar route

The Boston gig's been canceled. Oh, don't worry about Boston. Boston's not a big college town.-- Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith

Go to the Internet newsgroup houston. music, and enter in the words "Houston scene." There you will find almost 500 posts riffing on the theme that "the" Houston scene, if it exists at all, most definitely "sucks."

But what is this nebulous thing called a "scene"? Is it something like Austin's Sixth Street, a canyon of clubs blaring disparate styles of music in a compact area? Or is it some kind of unified movement such as the elegiac, smarty-pants college rock from Athens that swept the nation in the mid- to late '80s, and the too-angry-to-weep grunge from Seattle that did the same in the '90s? Or could it be something in between, like the CBGB's proving ground in mid-'70s New York that launched bands as disparate as the Ramones and the Talking Heads? Can a town truly be said to have "a" scene?

It is almost always the indie-rock crowd leading the outcry about Houston's lack of or sucky scene. One rarely comes across Internet or in- person venom about the city's blues, jazz, country or hip-hop scenes, at least on the order of "the whole thing sucks." There is an assumption, at least on this newsgroup and several others, that the only scene that matters is the indie scene, or what used to be called the "college rock" scene.

In a town with no mega-university, this is not surprising. Yes, the University of Houston is a big school, but no, it will never be the sort of scene-supporting college that the universities of Texas or Georgia are, or for that matter the literally dozens in Boston whose existence Ian Faith so blithely denied. The UH enrollment is too diverse. The bulk of the students are utterly uninterested in campus life. The environs of the school are not conducive to the sort of satellite businesses that ring UT and A&M. That KUHF's stuffy, unrepresentative classical/NPR lineup fails to speak for the student body at all (save for athletics) also contributes to the sterile campus life at Cougar High.

Rice is the little engine that can't quite. While many of its students are dedicated supporters of local music, there simply aren't enough of them. For Rice to be the sort of school that could propel a scene, it would need to at least double its student body, which ain't gonna happen. KTRU does its part, but it isn't enough. And with athletics usurping the station's music hole, that contribution grows feebler by the month.

Even with Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist, St. Thomas and all the myriad community colleges, Houston lacks the massive number of young folks with the time on their hands and the money in their pockets, not to mention the social networks, that a true mega-school provides. Virtually every town that has an enviable scene possesses at least one large school or many smaller ones. Cities that don't -- Houston, Phoenix, Dallas/ Fort Worth and San Antonio among them -- are not reckoned to have good scenes.

So what of Houston's student shortage? How great a scene can such a city aspire to? Rudyard's bartender/band booker Scott Walcott, cornered by Racket behind that venerable Montrose institution's downstairs bar, was initially taken aback by the question. As he pulled Racket a pint of Guinness, Walcott sighed and said, "Ask me some night when I'm drinking."

College students for Walcott do not necessarily make a scene. Sixth Street, he thinks, is something akin to the antithesis of a scene. "All those bars and all those bands. No, I wouldn't say that's a scene. They're all very different.

"I think a scene would be something like a core of people who go out and see all the shows. It could be many groups in the same town that share a similar, original sound."

Walcott recalled a time when Houston had what he felt was a scene. "When you had bands like De Schmog and Sprawl going, you'd have packed houses full of the same people at either band's shows. Sprawl got really big. They were filling up Fitzgerald's. Clouded got really big for a little while. But [in all these cases] it was the same people at those shows."

In a town like Houston, sans musical infrastructure and huge schools, the restaurant business plays a vital role.

"With Clouded, somebody worked at Chuy's, and he'd bring all that crowd, the waitstaff, cooks, bar staff. Somebody else worked at, say, The Ale House, and they would bring that bunch. That's the best way to draw people to shows here."

So while our lack of a mega-university is a definite affliction, it needn't be a fatal one. What really hurts is fatalism, the belief that since the scene sucks, no local band is worth seeing. Over and over again, on the Net and in interviews with club owners, fans and musicians, Racket hears the word "bitching." Walter's on Washington operator Pamela Robinson, Mary Jane's/Metropol bartender (and Stoma band member) Brian Guite, Walcott and Rudyard's patron (and former musician) Jeff "Skeletor" Atchley all dropped the word "bitch" or a variant thereof.

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