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Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

The Houston rock scene and the cultural cringe


Johnny Bush immediately follows his cultural cringe speech with the illustrative example of his uncle Jerry Jericho, a local country star of the time. "He never hit it big," Bush writes. "He had several chances. He had a chance for national exposure on the [radio program] Louisiana Hayride, a springboard to the Opry, but he didn't go. And the reason he didn't go? The Hayride paid $18 on Saturday night; he could make $125 in Houston."

Bush hints that the reason Jericho didn't take the Hayride gig was that Jericho didn't believe that things would get better for him. Since no one he knew had ever made it that far up the ladder, he didn't have the foresight to see past the cash in hand, much to his regret in later years.

Since Jericho's time, that shortsighted attitude has progressed so far it has come to be regarded as a virtue. Local bands like Million Year Dance and Spain Coloured Orange who let it be known that they have professional attitudes and would like to go on to greater things are mocked behind their backs in the bars and to their faces on message boards. Regular rehearsing and showing up both on time and sober to gigs is somewhat bad form; sending demos to labels and aggressively courting the big time is considered to be sellout douchebaggery of the highest order. You're supposed to sit back and wait to get discovered, you see. According to Brian McManus, former guitarist in the Fatal Flying Guilloteens and Houston Press contributor, even the concept of going on tour is barely accepted by the local hipster community.

Hell, it's long been considered somewhat uncool here to bother writing what the rest of the world knows of as songs. If Houston has an identity to the national underground rock cognoscenti, it is as the home of the most inaccessible music in Texas, if not all of America. Bands like Rusted Shut have enshrined fearsome ugliness, jaw-dropping weirdness and earsplitting volume as some of the defining hallmarks of the Houston scene, and we are also known as the home of outsider freaks like Jandek. (There's even a Wikipedia entry on "Houston noise bands.")

That scene does have its charms, but even its most ardent practitioners wouldn't have you believe that theirs is music for everybody. To me, this music seems like an end run around the cultural cringe, or even a child's temper tantrum -- instead of trying to make music that will make the rest of the world respect us, we pitch a squalling fit of bashed cymbals, caterwauled vocals and deranged keyboards amid a wall of guitar feedback, and declare that it represents the concrete bungle of a strip mall nightmare that is our chemical-cloaked petropolis. And even in that scene, the most successful band will prove before long to be Indian Jewelry, who have attained most of their notoriety by both tempering their weirdness with songcraft and taking the time-honored step of leaving town.

Which, eventually, is what Bush did. He moved to San Antonio and became a Texas honky-tonk legend. (And grew to recognize that Houston was, in fact, loaded with talent.) And it's what dozens of others have done too -- they've gone to San Francisco (Jolie Holland, Greg Ashley), Nashville (Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell), Austin (Hayes Carll, Carolyn Wonderland, Jesse Dayton, members of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and What Made Milwaukee Famous and countless others), Montreal (Win and Will Butler of the Arcade Fire) and even Oklahoma City (Stephen Drozd of the Flaming Lips). Of course, when those people come back to town with the Houston band stigma gone, we pack the bigger clubs in town to see them.

Meanwhile, across town, on the very same night, the next batch of talented locals to leave town for good will play to yet another quarter-filled room. And so it goes…

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