Lay of the Land

Houston headed toward hard times: sports flops, floods and transit duds. If only city fathers could find a proven leader, an energy executive with a KEN-do attitude.

Houston's cultural world was not ignored by Lay. Gladys Knight starring in Smokey Joe's Cafe at the Wortham Center as part of the 2001 Theatre Under the Stars season? Ken Lay did it. The extremely hard-to-get Beach Boys for the downtown Fourth of July bash? Lay.

Even more notable, he used the arts to test Houston's resolve, to see just how much the city could take. While some folks might have thought that the city had suffered enough with Tropical Storm Allison, the Rockets and 'Stros and endless traffic, Lay offered one thing more: a new Ezra Charles album.

Jay Bevenour
A certain Rockets center went north to make way for superstar Cato.
Jay Bevenour
A certain Rockets center went north to make way for superstar Cato.

Few Houstonians have been able to escape Ezra Charles, the city's local version of…well, of a really nasty toothache. For years he's been pounding out his bland R&B (except for those years when he was doing swing) at bars, bah mitzvahs and corporate Christmas parties all over town. Unending critical scorn has done little to stop him.

Still, it had been three years without a new Ezra album. Getting Charles into the studio was the No. 1 priority for Lay's plans to improve Houston's cultural life.

Some would have simply stopped with Charles's agreement to record Beaumont Boy (now available on Icarus Records!), but not Lay. He did more. Without Lay, Houstonians would never have known, through song, just how Charles felt about the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Houston had waited 11 years for this. And they got it: "Bad Year for the Blues," which actually contains these lyrics describing the helicopter crash that took Vaughan's life after a concert with Eric Clapton:

He had jammed on the stage with as big as they come

And he'd showed 'em his power and might

He was offered a helicopter back to town

But the rain and the power lines conspired to bring Stevie down.

"You don't think it's a bit over the top, Ken?" Charles had asked at the recording session.

"No, babes, no," said Lay, who was behind the soundboard in wraparound shades, his arm around a lively gentlemen's-club dancer. "I'm telling ya, this one ranks right up there with 'If There's a Rock and Roll Heaven (Then You Know They Got a Helluva Band).' "

Charles was still hesitant -- was Lay just blowing smoke up his ass by comparing his work to an epic like "Rock and Roll Heaven"? So he added these liner notes explaining the song (and if you don't believe us, you can buy the CD): "'Bad Year for the Blues': August 10, 1990. Has it really been 11 years? Since SRV's been gone does everybody feel this giant hole in the music world, or is it just me?"

When it comes to giant holes in the music world, few are as expert as Charles. And without the enthusiastic nudging of Ken Lay, we might have been deprived of all this.

Lay was also intent on helping out the local media in 2001. He was the one who tipped KTRK off to its biggest scoop of the year: that baby-killer Andrea Yates was pregnant in jail. KTRK was also very competitive in eventually reporting the further development that Yates wasn't pregnant. And Lay made sure the Houston Press named South Park Mexican as a winner in its annual music awards just before the rapper was arrested for allegedly molesting a child.

Whether it was managing the Chris Bell for Mayor campaign or urging former Astro Ken Caminiti to loosen up a little, Lay's influence was felt everywhere in 2001.

But his fierce sense of loyalty meant that Lay and his team could not ignore their pride and joy, Enron. Even as they took on all their other responsibilities, they continued to work magic at the little energy-and-trading company that could.

Things didn't always go smoothly, however. Lay and his team became aware in the fall that Enron stock was in danger of plummeting because of…of…something someone else had done, to be sure. At any rate, Lay ordered a company-wide memo to go out ASAP telling all employees that their retirement plans might be affected.

"To: All Enron Employees

"From: Ken Lay

"Re: Our Stock

"Our stock is CRATERING! All the money you think you have saved up is about to vaporize! Whatever you do, CASH OUT NOW!"

Tragically, a glitch in the e-mail system caused the memo to be distributed only to the company's highest-paid executives. When Lay found out, he was really, really mad.

Suddenly Lay was forced to spend more time at his company. People kept tossing around words like "Chapter 11," and things got very tense until he was assured that it would affect only those unfortunate folks who couldn't be bothered to check their e-mails.

But all of a sudden lawyers were badgering him for his time, and investigators actually wanted to know about what was known, in Enron culture, as bookkeeping élan, that je ne sais quoi that made Enron Enron.

It became increasingly tedious to have to explain to nonvisionaries how it took a special vision to, well, envision profits where lesser minds saw none.

Regretfully, Lay came to conclude that he would have to devote all of his time to pulling strings in Washington to save his butt. Or, as he put it, "to ensure that our loyal Enron employees get all the value for their stock that they deserve, because here at Enron we are just one big happy family."

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