By Jef With One F
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By Corey Deiterman
With surroundings like the 59 spur, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, a row of appointment-only antique stores and reams of vacant property — both lots and buildings — it can feel pretty isolated. An average Sunday night around 8 p.m., say, is as lonely as the desert in a John Ford flick (only with more trees). The streets are empty, save the strays making their way to and from the halfway house around the corner or the quick-marts at Fannin and Alabama for lottery tickets and 24-ounce cans of Bud or Olde English.
It ain't the Midtown you may have read about in glossy advertorial mags that tout valet parking and ridiculously overpriced cocktails, that's for sure. Noise's neighbor across the hall, "Squid," has told me about hearing nearby gunfire on more than one occasion. Much more common, thankfully, is the clang and whistle of the MetroRail every few minutes.
So maybe living here is a little like a John Carpenter movie. (Escape from 3700 — that'd sell tickets, right?) But that's only when everything downstairs is locked up tight. The rest of the time, the Island pulses with the energy that comes with having a nightclub, musician-friendly taqueria, record store and bar back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
It's the kind of place, in other words, crying out for somebody to write a song about it. Now somebody has, and it's hard to imagine anyone more qualified.
One "laid-back day" around noon earlier this year, Nick Gaitan, upright bassist and leader of the Octanes and The Umbrella Man, was upstairs in his apartment waiting for a ride, noodling on his grandfather's acoustic guitar, when inspiration struck.
"I wrote this song sitting by that window with that view," he says, gesturing towards the panoramic Houston skyline only partially blocked by the HCC building at Elgin and Main. "I was waiting to hear them honk or whatever, sitting there with the window open, and I just started thinking. I must have heard the train go by or something."
About ten minutes later, Gaitan's ride still hadn't shown up, but he had completed "I've Found My Weakness in You," an easygoing train-beat ballad with lyrical references to the MetroRail, the number of steps between upstairs and the street (26) and the sidewalk parade of pretty girls when the Continental and Big Top are in full swing. The most evocative lyric, though (see box), has to be the line "Nighttime falls on old 3700."
"That's just referring to the life — living here, playing here and everything," he says. "Every time I turn around it's nighttime around here."
Gaitan isn't the Island's longest-tenured musician resident — since David Beebe moved to Marfa, that distinction lies with tango pianist Glover Gill — but he's probably spent more time in the building, upstairs and down, than anyone else. The Octanes just took over the El Orbits' Monday-night Continental residency, and Tuesdays he heads right back downstairs to dole out The Umbrella Man's weekly gumbo of country, conjunto, gospel and blues; that group frequently plays weekends at the Big Top as well.
Once upon a time, the Island also paid Gaitan's bills. "At one point, I worked as a bartender at the Continental, I was working at Tacos a Go-Go, I was working at Sig's Lagoon and bartending the Big Top, so I worked the entire block all week," he says. "Nighttime or daytime, whatever it was, I was gonna be downstairs working."
Gaitan reckons working at Sig's Lagoon contributed the most to "Weakness." When it was slow during the day, which it often was — having covered a few shifts at Sig's himself, Noise can testify to this firsthand — he would put on some music, stand in the doorway and watch people get on and off the train.
"Every time it stops, there's all these people jumping off at the Ensemble/HCC exit," says Gaitan, who can also see the train stop from his window. "They're either coming over here to go to the store or get their oil changed or go to rehab, or they're coming [to the Island] to get drunk, to eat or buy music."
Gaitan's song might never have been heard off the Island, or even downstairs, if not for one important detail. Since October 2007, he's been Texas songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver's bass player, a gig that allowed him to quit his downstairs shifts — he still fills in at Sig's from time to time — and handle the Octanes and The Umbrella Man's affairs from Shaver's tour bus. One night at San Marcos's Cheatham Street Warehouse, with a documentary crew in the audience, the old five and dimer put Gaitan on the spot.
"The opening band was still playing, and Billy says, 'Hey, there's going to be cameras in the house and I want you to get a piece of this publicity, so you sing a song tonight,'" he recalls. "He hadn't heard the song or anything like that. I had just written the song, and was still singing it in motel rooms to the guitar player, Jeremy Woodall, and Jason McKenzie, the drummer, like, 'Hey guys, check this out.'