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A Blighted Slough of Smells, Steel and Chemicals

Touring bands sound off on Houston

Houston is a sprawling disaster of a city, possibly the most repulsive metropolis I've ever seen." So says "John" from mysterious D.C. punk band Aghast on his blog Mundane Arcana. And that's just among dozens of tour diaries out there on the Web today, some in awe of our fair city, others as disgusted as that Aghast kid.

Once, pre-Internet, tour diaries were pretty much confined to 'zines and fan club newsletters, with rare exceptions running in the mainstream press. Today, huge quantities of this unique form of travel literature are available to all and sundry through the miracle of a little creative Googling. Some are first impressions, and others come from people whose relationship with H-Town goes back decades, but in either case, they afford us the opportunity to find out what visitors here really think. Here's a sampling of what we came up with a while back...

The stoner rock band Glasspack rolled through town in October 2001, when the city was in the throes of an invasion of certain multi-colored fiberglass bovines: "Houston is cleaner than a can of Lysol and every street we drove down had a cow on every corner. Houston looked like Andy Warhol had been reincarnated into a milkman. Every cow was horribly decorated in a pop art fashion. We called our new friend Yvette to show us around Houston before the show. [She] explained that it was cow week in Houston. We took some photos with the cows and then headed back to Yvette`s apartment to let her dog water his favorite tree... Yvette, the Captain, and I visited some artistic meditation center in downtown Houston and the silence nearly blew my eardrum."

The metalheads in Superjoint Ritual -- a band that once included local Michael Haaga -- love it here, especially the Engine Room. "Off to Houston, Hot Hot Hot, fucking Hot! Houston's always great, always," they enthused in 2003. "The Engine Room is a really cool club. The crowd is right there. No barriers, a band's dream....We got ready and ripped that place a new asshole. Gotta love Houston. Lots of friends, even Billy Gibbons showed up. Thanks Houston!"

Le Tigre's JD Samson also felt pretty revved up (and overheated) after a set at the Engine Room with Electrelane last year: "I can't believe how hot it gets down here in the summertime. Dana, the sound person for Electrelane, and I tried to play badminton but we got so sweaty and hot that it was just gross. So we gave up. I decided to wear my contact lenses for the first time during the show and it was pretty fucking weird, especially since there was so much smoke in the club. I felt like my eyes were about to roll offstage and into the crowd and then people were going to jump on them... But it was fun anyways to just see Houston a little bit and hang out with the kids from our tour that came along for support. When we got back I realized how much fun this tour was, and it made me really happy."

Dave Hill of Cobra Verde, on the other hand, viewed the Engine Room with less enthusiasm. His band played on the J Mascis (ex-Dinosaur Jr. guitar ace) bill a couple of years back. "I was really psyched about playing these shows since I've been a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan for years," Hill gushed. "Plus, J's got Mike Watt rocking the bass with him and George Berz from Dinosaur Jr. on the tubs and I totally dig their playing too. The show that night was at a place called the Engine Room, a longish bowling alley-type facility where one could easily imagine Yngwie Malmsteen or perhaps even Dokken taking the stage at any moment, a feeling that was further underscored by the inexplicably bad metal the club kept playing in between bands all night."

Speaking of Mike Watt, few tour diarists are as prolific or have made as many trips to Houston as the legendary Minutemen bassist and solo artist. He calls Houston "a Texas version of Los Angeles," and reminisces about meeting up with Matt Sonzala, who brought Watt in to interview on his hip-hop show Damage Control. (Watt's hip-hop connection? He used to play with Schooly D back in the day.) "Matt plays some old Minutemen and a song I did for NORML w/ Petra, Perk and George Hurley called 'Sidemousin' the Bong,' which prompts me telling the story of when I saw Bob Marley in 1979 w/Richard 'Fuckin'' Bonney," Watt remembers. "I'm sure glad Matt had me over and we got to talk about things. There's a part of Houston I've now found out about that I really didn't have any idea of, even w/ all the tours through here. Shows to go you [sic] that life is about being always open to learn and find things out."

After the interview and a gig at Rudz, Watt returns to his long-accustomed Houston lodgings -- the La Porte digs of local poet Mike McGuire. "'Pert-near three and we follow Mike past all the foul refinery grossness on the way to where he lives in La Porte, on the Gulf of Mexico," Watt writes. "Man, what a blighted slough of smells, steel and chemicals - there must be like 20 or 30 plants along the way. His pad is righteous though, from the teens and he's re-doing it, one part at a time. The moon is really bright out and the clouds are racing like banshees across it, a strange red tinge to their color (maybe due to contributions from the nearby refineries?)."

The 2004 Proletariat show from indie rockers the Low Budgets was one of those typically depressing nights all struggling rock bands must endure. Only Chapultepec and a couple of isolated fans stood out from the gloom of this post: "Proletariat - typical dark Houston club, all walls painted black. Had some good Tex Mex food at a place next door. First band was a rap act with a Hispanic dude. They did one song in Spanish and a bunch in English. I cannot remember their name. We were playing pool. There was a pretty decent crowd. But when the second band, C'mon C'mon, went on, a good deal of the crowd left... We played to a few people. Dandrew's bass would not work at all so he borrowed a bass from C'mon C'mon. We played a short set. It did not seem like people were into us. Tom, the promoter, liked us, though. So did the girl whose bass Dandrew used. We went to Tom's apartment to crash."

In October of this year, San Francisco's Dodo Bird also passed through the Proletariat, where club booker Shawna Forney impressed band diarist Ben Mirov with a saucily-named cocktail. "The Proletariat [is] a pretty standard issue club in a quiet, neighborhood-y part of town. The booker, Shawna, was an angel. She bought us cold ones from the moment we stepped in the door and later she bought us a shot called 'Suck Cock in the Bathroom,' which, despite its potentially misleading name, was actually delicious. I think pineapple juice was involved."

Mirov, a non-musician whose brother Nick is Dodo Bird's singer, was underwhelmed by the others on their bill. "The first band was a one man show called the Wiggins. He played low-fi, industrial rock and made a whole lot of noise for just one guy. Next, Cry Blood Apache played. I plainly hated these guys. I wanted to hose them down with fire ants. I found this three piece electro-rock group so pretentious and talentless that I almost bazooka-puked all over them. The last band the Balaclavas played a tragically hip amalgamation of dancey, screamy, post-punk."

Maybe it was just his mood. This was the first time that Mirov, the poor, naïve child, had ever spent a good eight hours in a bar. "If you have never spent eight hours at a bar, I recommend you never try it. The first few hours are pretty fun. You play a little pool, have a cigarette or two, talk to the locals. By hour four or five, if you are fortunate enough to have brought a book, as I had, you read a little. Maybe you have three or four more of those dollar Shiners they're serving in Styrofoam cups at the bar. You stare blankly at the jukebox selection for the sixteenth time. By hours five and six, you're soaked in bar. You smell like you've been smoking cigarettes through your T-shirt. If you have to piss, you actually think about saving it so you'll have something to do in the next ten minutes. By hour eight, you reach a Zen-like state of complacency and comfort. You feel at home in the bar. It's like you could take your shoes off and stretch out on the pool table or go behind the counter and pour yourself a drink and no one would mind because you've been there so long you've become a fixture, like Norm from Cheers."

We'll adjourn with a blast from the past from music journalist Jason Pettigrew, who accompanied Revolting Cocks -- led by Ministry psycho Al Jourgensen -- and Skatenigs on their pan-American orgy of 1990–91. This traveling horror show stopped in at Numbers. "The night features another audience from the State Hospital," Pettigrew wrote. "I think I'm beginning to understand the Jourgensenian concept of liquid courage. In the packed club, I wave to Billy SKATENiG and his charming girlfriend. Some Bon Jovi-Xeroxed 'rock dude' thinks out loud, 'Man, I'd like to fuck her ass.' Without a moment's hesitation I smash this guy square in the jaw. He is considerably larger than I am, and I don't think I'm drunk enough to withstand the severe ass-beating he will deliver when he gets up. To quote PRiMUS' Les Claypool: 'Later days, Willie Mays.'" john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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