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Strikes and Spares

Original punk Richard Tomcala rejoins the nightlife fray; also, Greg Wood's new crib bowls us over

What ever happened to festivals in this town? A few years ago, they were going great guns. The iFest was drawing record crowds downtown, as the Westheimer Street Festival did in Montrose. Reliant and Enron were throwing huge bashes for no other reason than they could. There were ethnic fests in every plaza downtown, just about every weekend in April and October. Smaller soirees at places like Garden in the Heights and Fitzgerald's sprawled over whole weekends, with dozens of local bands from many disparate genres taking the stage.

Today the iFest and the West Fest seem to be in death spirals, each directly or indirectly the victim of its own success. The energy companies are no longer in such frivolous moods. Garden in the Heights is, as Jimmy Cliff would put it, sitting there in limbo, and many of the ethnic fests are either gone or downsized considerably. Crazy Tony shook us awake for a bit, but since then things have sunk back into slumber.

Why does this matter? Well, festivals are the best chance you'll ever have of catching local music you didn't know you needed to know. Sure, you might come across a great new act at a multiband garage rock, indie or metal show, but you won't discover that you really do love zydeco, conjunto, drum 'n' bass or rock en español at one of those gigs, 'cause there won't be any on the bill of fare. Festivals, on the other hand, are like buffets -- it's easy to get as much as you want of whatever you want, and also to taste a lot of different things.

O.P. (that's short for "original punk") Richard Tomcala likes festivals and what they do for Houston's culture. That's why he's coming out of ten years of showbiz retirement. With partners M. Martin and Brett Foley, he's helping to throw a great big one next week. The event, Three Days in Summer, will be at the Meridian from July 10 to July 12 and features everyone from locals -- including Chango Jackson, Opie Hendrix, Hollister Fracus, Dubtex, De Sangre, Lunatex and DJs Ethan Klein and Chris Anderson -- to national headliners such as Bob Schneider and Cowboy Mouth. More country, hip-hop and rock acts are being added daily. An advance ticket for all three days is a mere $15 at Sound Exchange, and even the door price of ten bucks per day promises good value.

"I always really loved music, and it felt like with the powers that be going the total corporate way, there was nobody really doing the music," Tomcala says, by way of explaining why he's getting back in the biz. "I don't really mean the club folks, 'cause they live it, but people are either not able to or not willing to take risks on special events, unusual gatherings of cultures or market segments. We find with festivals that's almost the nature of the beast. So my return is premised on the fact that I have an interest in festivals, the total cultural experience of festivals."

For years Tomcala was a big part of Houston's total cultural experience. Since the late 1970s, he has founded Public News and the first hemp store in America, published the largest hemp-oriented magazine in America and helped originate the entire alternative music scene in Houston. In 1980, Tomcala and some buddies from HSPVA took over booking and management at Paradise Island, the Phil Hicks club that was then the only punk nightspot in town. "I love a dive as much as the next person, but there's a level underneath dive, where it's frightening-scary-omigod-don't-go-there. Which is what Paradise Island had regressed into under Phil Hicks's mentorship. I mean, scary. Scary, like you'd expect mutant insects to pop up from the many, many dark corners of the place."

Which is probably what the stodgier members of Houston's nightlife set thought had happened after Tomcala had gotten through with the scene. Paradise Island was renamed simply The Island. "And that was really where the alternative music scene in Houston was born, plain and simple, " Tomcala says. "We had a two- or three-year span before it birthed several other places that were willing to try to bring this kind of music. Of course at that time punk was looked at much the same way hip-hop is today; you know, it's scary, they're gonna kill you, all those idiotic perceptions. And it just wasn't the case. We all discovered each other as having our usual set of human frailties, but that by and large we were a pretty decent set of folks, both in the new wave and punk camps, which at that time was the only delineation of any significance."

I ask him about the second wave of Houston's punk clubs -- places the Island inspired like Cabaret Voltaire and Cafe Mode -- and Tomcala's reminiscences are interrupted by an obvious sign that his wildest days are long behind him. "Please, son -- [gasps] -- put them both back!

"They're dropping…watermelons. That's not a good thing, in the house. Outside, in a field, yeah, smash it over a branch and just dig out the guts. But in the house -- put it in the refrigerator or be prepared to die. Anyway, what was I saying?"

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