There was a punk show Tuesday night at Walter’s and, for the most part, those in attendance clung to their sneers, beers and assorted semblances of toughness. It wasn’t until you asked someone about the suddenly imminent closing of the venue that they got a bit verklempt. It didn’t get truly emotional until each of the local bands playing the show took time to honor Walter’s during their respective sets, all delivering heartfelt moments that are likely to repeat over the course of the venue’s final remaining shows this week.
Those moments aside, it was a typical punk show at Walter’s. People moshed, skanked and ran up bar tabs. The perpetual march — into the room for raucous bands and out to the patio for smokes and bullshit — carried on, same as it ever was. In spite of the week's bad news - that the venue’s last day of operations is going to be this Sunday, February 4 - its legions simply acted upon what they've learned from more than 16 years of attending shows at its downtown and Washington Avenue locations. They just appreciated the night's music and kinship.
Zachary Palmer, owner and proprietor of the venue, delivered the news via a brief, sincere Facebook post-cum-press release on Monday evening. At last count, the post had been shared more than 1,100 times, with hundreds of the venue’s followers commenting. Some thanked Palmer and Walter's extended family — including his late mother and Houston music dignitary, Pam Robinson — for giving locals a place and the nerve to begin their musical journeys. Some remembered the litany of indie, hardcore and punk acts they saw at Walter’s, both during their formative years as music fans and more recently, too. Many said they were "heartbroken," "very sorry," or asked "is there anything we can do to save it?" Others needed only one word to express their dismay: “No!” A lot just said Walter's is the best venue in town or that it "will never die." One kind musician even asked Palmer if he needed help moving any items from the venue. That's love, y'all.
Of course, we spotted Palmer at Tuesday's show. He was there, as he frequently has been for shows and just as his mother typically was, ensuring that things went smoothly and audiences felt safe and happy. We asked whether he cared to expound on Monday's statement and he said he did not, which was good enough for us. He did advise he'd have more to say about it all later, but for the moment he was content to oversee the final Tuesday at Walter’s as we know it.
Over the years, Walter’s has attracted plenty of musicians to the ranks of its audiences, creative types on hand to support their local favorites and friends or to catch touring acts. Tuesday night, some were there for the rollicking jazz-cabaret-punk of NYC’s World/Inferno Friendship Society. Others came to support the slate of Houston-based acts on the bill. And many were eager to share what Walter’s has meant to them. Like Derek “Deek” Huddleston, the front man for longtime locals, the Ballistics.
“The best show that I’ve ever played was here with the Subhumans. It was the coolest fucking shit that I’ve ever gotten to do in my life,” Huddleston gushed. “I opened up for the Subhumans with Ballistics and right after our set I came outside and I was getting pretty good feedback from the crowd and everything and I’m standing next to somebody, I wasn’t really paying attention, and the guy comes over beside me and is like, ‘Hey man, great set.’ And he had the British accent and that forced me to look over and it’s fucking Dick (Lucas) from Subhumans. He’s like, ‘You’re a great singer, man, great set,’ and I’m like, holy fucking shit, this guy’s telling me that I’m not a piece of shit?! He’s not telling me to give up on life?! I can actually keep playing punk rock and not feel bad about it? That was validation, man.”
Ray Carr had a similar story from Walter’s on Washington. He said he and his former group, Rats in the Attic (described by Houston Press back in 2008 as “Richmond’s DRI-loving Rats in the Attic - MySpace headline: “Shit on my face!!!”) actually played Walter’s before he saw a set there.
“I think it was Krum Bums’ CD release party for As the Tide Turns. Rats in the Attic had six songs,” Carr recalled. “We played all six three times.”
Carr said it was the band’s second show ever. It was a wild success. The room was filled with their friends and Krum Bums gave them props for doing a good job and bringing out the locals.
“Once we got off stage it was like, ‘Oh my God, we played at a place! We did a thing! It was our second show. Our first show was a house show at Punk Rock Joe’s. And our second show was a CD release party for one of our idol bands,” he said excitedly, as if it all just happened yesterday and not more than 10 years ago.
“Our only goal was to make sure there was a show we could do. That was it. It was just like, man, it sucks when there’s not a show because that’s where our family is. We don’t have cars so we can’t get everyone to go somewhere unless there’s a show, let’s make a show. Walter’s was the most legitimate place to play at the time….Walter’s gave us the ability to be who we were. There were some rules, obviously, but not as many as some mainstream conglomerate corporation cookie-cutter places. It just wasn’t that. It was a great place for people who were newcomers to punk rock or newcomers to a movement to find something worthwhile.”
Freddie Boatright’s band, Slummer, opened Tuesday night’s show. He was the first of many to ask that night’s audience to raise a glass to the venue. After his set, he told us that he played both Walter’s locales. One of his first bands, folk punkers U Not I, played the Washington site. He said someone wrote the band’s name in permanent marker on a fold-out table at the venue following the set. That exact table was being used for merch sales Tuesday night at Walter’s Downtown.
“My first show was at Walter’s. I was 13. It was Against Me!, O Pioneers!, Saw Wheel and Smoke Or Fire. And that was the shit. It was the first time I’d ever been to an actual show venue. So you had kids chugging down 40’s behind the dumpster. There’s no smoking area, so you’re like locked in. If you’re underage, you can’t go back outside, so we’d be trying to bum cigarettes from people and go deep into the pit because you could smoke inside of Walter’s, too. Back then they hadn’t done the smoking ordinance yet. It was small as shit and you could imagine all those people smoking. There would be like a blanket of smoke around that place.”
The night goes on and this version of Walter’s is engulfed in a cloud, too, made not of tobacco smoke, but fond memories. In the virtual world, Facebook followers keep adding their recollections to Palmer’s original post. Back onstage, practically every Houston band on the bill takes a moment to acknowledge Walter’s sound man extraordinaire, Terry Nunn. When the last Houston band of the night points him out, there’s enthusiastic applause. Nunn humbly nods or waves a hand then goes back to work making a band with a washboard and a washtub bass sound like a Grammy-winning quartet before seemingly effortlessly sound checking World/Inferno Friendship Society’s eight-piece act. All in a night’s work.
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After the music, as the audience clears out, the imminent is more evident. We see Walter’s longtime talent booker and promoter John Baldwin and offer a nod. He’s already cleared his Deep End Records store from Walter’s lobby (and, thankfully, will set up shop at Insomnia Gallery). The space it once inhabited feels empty, something music lovers all over Houston will feel once Walter’s closes for good.
We’re reminded by a hopeful fan that Walter’s shuttered its doors on Washington only to move downtown. Maybe Walter’s is like a black cat, we surmise – a little unlucky, but maybe still possessed with more lives.
“I feel like Zack’s not gonna stop,” Boatright said after recalling his teen exploits at Walter’s. “There are too many people that have memories like this.”