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Another Skate of Mind

The Jamail Skatepark ignites Houston's music culture.

1-2-3-4!

Downtown Houston's Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, like a plethora of other such sites across the globe, is a gripping locale that merges edge-culture sports and underground music. It reflects an earlier era of Thrasher videos from the 1980s, when skateparks brimmed with punk rock and early hip-hop.

Endlessly promoted by the garrulous Barry Blumenthal — "who has the energy of a hungry lion," according to one Houston punk veteran — the park has also offered a steady diet of free concerts on the city's curvy downtown bayou for years.

The Jamail Skatepark
David Ensminger
The Jamail Skatepark
Texas Johnny Brown, shown there in 2011, had a monthly gig at the Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club for many years.
Jason Wolter
Texas Johnny Brown, shown there in 2011, had a monthly gig at the Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club for many years.
Willie D
Peter Beste
Willie D

Hordes of bands have also descended on the concrete slopes, nestled next to condos and park foliage, unleashing their fiery brands of rock and roll. The sweat-slicked, dizzyingly acrobatic and anarchically agile skaters of all ages pound the pavement for hours, supported by eager crowds wielding cameras and water bottles, smiles and smart-ass smirks.

Blumenthal, himself a shredder for four decades, is the spokesperson/chief fundraiser for PUSH, a grass-roots gathering of skateboarders, friends, families and supporters who came together to raise money and design the park, which debuted in fall 2004 under the auspices of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.

"The park is Houston's first poured-in-place free public skatepark," says Blumenthal, who adds that it represents the largest private-donation-funded park in the United States, to the tune of $2.7 million.

For half a decade, the park has been transformed into a bona fide site of "fun fun fun" (to quote Texas skate-punk legends Big Boys), where frenetic fitness melds with curvilinear architecture, forming art in motion. As Blumenthal notes, it empowers any Houstonian dropping in by transcending traditional barriers such as economic class, ethnicity and age group.

Additionally, its focus on music — the park hosts a handful of concerts each year, including Saturday's finale of the Fourth Annual sk8Rock Concert Series — makes it a hotbed for bands bored of dank bars and late-night creeps. Some musicians, like Anarchitex drummer Bob Weber, feel the location is simultaneously slightly odd and always alluring:

"Not only was it outdoors and still daylight — a crazy place for a punk rock party," he stresses — "but it's located high on the bank of the deepest part of the bayou, staring at the wide-open, two-dimensional downtown facade with the burning sun crashing down into Memorial Park.

"Very strange."

Beside the evocative locale, synergy seems to take place under the glare of setting suns or sizzling lights at the dimming of the day.

"The band would get into a hard, rhythmic churn," details Weber, "and we were a hundred people on skateboards swirling around on all sides. It made perfect sense when the sounds collapsed into a chaotic mess because the motion of the skaters was totally random."

For the art-punk fury of Anarchitex, the flux and frenzy of the skaters paralleled their own sonic worlds.

Houston underground music and skate culture have been joined at the hip for decades, epitomized by bands like Contortion Sessions, Direct Tension and the legendary Bark Hard (founded in part by John Gibson, Texas's first pro skater). The scene has also been kept aloft by local businesses like Surf House, operating on Ella since the late 1960s, and myriad other ma-and-pa skater storefronts over the years dedicated to keeping skate culture sustainable and accessible.

The current crop of musicians who exude a joint love of music and skating are plentiful, too, including Bryan A. of Talk Sick Brats; Kevin Bernier of Los Skarnales and The Suffers; Adam Burchfield of The Octanes; and Buddy of the Luxurious Panthers. Meanwhile, the stage has hosted dozens of acts, from new-school rockers like Art Institute and Omotai to vintage acts like The Hates and Herschel Berry.

The Jamail Skatepark is not some routine recreational facility meant to keep kids from surfing the bent, broken streets or using downtown businesses for freestyle frenzy. It's a 21st-century cultural mashup, an amalgam of art, music, sport and community commitment. It's a free space free of hate, a transgenerational launch pad, and an elegant slice of modern ­urban art next to a sluggish bayou where pioneers hauled goods and kids swam in mosquito swirls.

Even the deep end of Lee's Bowl at the park is an homage to the past, referencing the metal ramps from the old privately owned Skatepark of Houston.

"The park reinvented vertical pipe-ramp skateboarding," Blumenthal says.

Today it has attracted skaters from around the U.S. to relocate to Houston and has become the template for current X-Games ramps — now a global phenomenon. No wonder Pearl Jam bassist and avid skater Jeff Ament flew to Houston a few weeks ago to hit the slopes.

After taking a place for granted, sometimes people need to be nudged with reminders. But as Anarchitex's Weber testifies, "You guys don't realize how lucky you are to have the Jamail Skatepark."

The Hates and Darwin's Finches play the sk8&Rock Summer Pool Party 7 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at the Jamail Skatepark, 110 Sabine. ­Admission is free; see sk8rocks.wordpress.com.
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Miles-Tones

There Goes the Blues
Elegant Houston bluesman Texas Johnny Brown passes away at 85.

William Michael Smith

Texas Johnny Brown, one of the classiest musicians in town and the author of Bobby "Blue" Bland's epic "Two Steps from the Blues," passed away the afternoon of July 1. Brown's son Shawn had been handling his father's care, and tweeted the news to members of the Houston Blues Society around 7 p.m.

According to one follow-up message received by the Houston Press, Brown passed in his sleep and without pain.

The diminutive, dapper bluesman had been a fixture on the Houston blues scene since arriving here from Mississippi at the tender age of ten with his father, who was a blind blues musician. Brown worked with his father for some time before beginning a successful solo career.

One of the most pleasant and affable men on the blues scene, Brown had been performing once a month at the Big Easy for years. The first hint of his health issue, which was quickly identified as liver cancer, came in May when he canceled his monthly gig at the Upper Kirby blues venue.

According to Press sources, Brown had declined chemotherapy, and hospice nurses were brought in to care for him full-time only a few days before he passed away.

A native of Ackerman, Mississippi, Brown was honored by the state of Mississippi with his own plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail in September 2011. Brown and his Quality Blues Band attended the unveiling in Ackerman and played a concert celebrating the event, and he was a featured artist at the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival.

But Houston was Brown's adopted home, the place where he made his bones as a songwriter, arranger, guitarist and performer. Dr. Roger Wood, author of the definitive Houston blues history book Down in Houston, recently told us that contrary to other claims, Brown "wrote and came up with the arrangement for 'Two Steps from the Blues' all on his own." (Bland himself passed away at age 83 just over a week before Brown, on June 23.)

Wood also noted that Brown was typical of many Houston bluesmen in that he could read charts and that his musical ability went far beyond 12-bar blues. He was also well-known in Houston for another monumental blues classic, "There Goes the Blues."

"Like a lot of guys from Houston, Johnny could play with anyone," Wood said. "The blues was his first love, but he had a jazz sense and knew his way around a good pop tune."

Longtime Houston Chronicle music critic and former iFest entertainment coordinator Rick Mitchell recently noted that when he first came to town, "Marty Racine made sure two of the first people I met were I.J. Gosey and Texas Johnny Brown. I had no idea the talent and history those two men alone had behind them."
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Joyful Noise

Irresistible Bliss
Scientists investigate how music causes "brain orgasms."

Jesse Sendejas Jr.

I was especially bad at science in school. I failed chemistry twice and third-time-charmed my way to finally passing with a C.

So now, of course, I enjoy anything with a scientific bent and listen to excellent podcasts, like Radiolab and This American Life, that present the scientific world in a way even a dodo-brain like me can understand.

Recently I was listening to a piece by American Life contributor Andrea Seigel in which she related having a specific sensation in response to the sound of a whispering voice. She described it as "this tingling throughout my skull...it was like starbursts in my head, starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down to the nape, like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp."

As I listened, I learned there's a name for this feeling. It's called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR for short. It's a feeling I've experienced since youth, including one weekend last month while I was mowing the grass and listening to Justin Timberlake sing "Suit & Tie." That part where he's all like, "Lemme show you a few things...lemme show you a few things" sets a trillion tiny, euphoric, graceful-as-Fred-Astaire dancing ants in motion. My scalp is their happy dance floor.

Seigel's piece focuses on her particular ASMR "trigger," the gentle sounds of a soft voice. But my trigger has almost always been associated with singing voices. The better the voice, the stronger the feeling.

Turns out I'm not alone. People all over the world are submitting to, and even seeking out, ASMR triggers. A good portion of them have this sublime, relaxing and mysterious sensation induced by music. Many are trading notes and sharing stories on social media and through work done by the research organization asmr-research.org.

"ASMR is a response to stimuli — sight, sound, etc.," says Andrew MacMuiris, an outreach agent with the site's research team. "It's usually pleasurable and is characterized by a tingling sensation on the scalp, down the spine and even in other areas of the body, such as the limbs. This is also accompanied by feelings of euphoria and relaxation."

The organization created a Facebook community three years ago that has grown to nearly 5,500 members from around the globe. MacMuiris lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and says his diverse musical triggers include Leonard Cohen, instrumental guitar and even the whistling of the family's gardener.

"For me, ASMR is almost always pleasurable, and it makes me want to sit or lay there and listen to whatever is triggering it for a long time, if not forever," he says. "I find that I listen much more intently to the song playing, paying particular attention to the bits that trigger the sensations."
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Ask Willie

My Fiancé's Suspicious Past
A reader is starting to feel the pre-wedding jitters.

Willie D

Dear Willie D:

I met my fiancé two months ago, and now we are on our way to the chapel to get married. I know you, like everybody else, might think we're moving too fast, but I've always thought that if you love someone, what difference does it make if you wait two months or two years to get married?

The wedding is next week and I'm starting to get cold feet; here's why: My fiancé took me with him to visit his good friend in Arizona, where he grew up. While there, we met several other old friends of his and on more than one occasion, they referred to him with a name that I had never heard before and that had no relevance to his first or last name. For instance, if his name was William, people might call him Bob, Willie or Will.

I asked him about it, and he said it was a nickname, but that didn't make sense. I called my friend and told her about my experience; she suggested I do some snooping when I got home, which I did. I waited until he went to work and searched his belongings. Hidden inside of a small pocket of his gym bag I found four additional ID cards with his picture and alias names. I went on the Internet and searched all of the names, including the name I knew him by, but didn't see anything that stood out.

My head is spinning 1,000 miles per minute. For all I know, he could be wanted for murder. What have I gotten myself into? Do I confront him with my discovery, do I wait for him to come clean or do I run for the exits?

Suspicious:

When you meet a man for the first time and decide to marry him two months later, you're asking for it. It takes most people longer to figure out what to wear to the club. Before you make a commitment to marry someone, it's a good idea to meet his or her family and friends first. Everyone has that uncle or cousin at the family gathering who always gets drunk and will gladly tell you anything you want to know about your significant other.

You could confront your fiancé, but what if he really is a murderer? You could set him off. You could wait until he's ready to confide in you; however, by that time he could have cleaned out your bank account, ruined your credit, and sold your house for $200 to his accountant/AA sponsor and split the equity. That leaves one option: Run for the exits.

Ask Willie D appears Thursday mornings on Rocks Off.

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