Crazy Tony Is Back
If you've seen one of the thousands of flyers around town the last couple of weeks, you know that "Crazy Tony Is Back!" Some of you have known all along who he was, but others of you had to wonder, "Who the hell is Crazy Tony, and where did he go?"
Well, over the past ten years, Tony Avitia has played in the punk group 30footFALL and co-headed the recently reunited "slip-hop" group I-45. He ran a label -- Broken Note Records -- that issued numerous compilations of local music, such as The Coolest Shit in Texas and several volumes under the No Approval Needed and Noncompliance names, not to mention all the compilation cassettes he peddled for a buck a pop and the single-artist CDs by Bickley and Dinosaur Salad. (That last band had the coolest local bumper sticker ever. Remember that one? "God Listens .to Dinosaur Salad.")
It's safe to say that over the course of the mid- and late 1990s, no single person did more to help the scene than Avitia. The CDs he cut helped document a good chunk of what was going on and carried the banner of Houston music across the country. And I-45's willingness to perform at any venue anywhere did a lot to erode what were once well-nigh unassailable walls between the punk and rap crowds.
"When we would go on tour with I-45, they would ask for ten minutes," says 30footFALL's Rubio. "And punks would dig 'em. Some clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go wouldn't let them play at all, so we learned [I-45's] 'The Bike Song,' and they would come out and do that with us."
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The testimonials keep coming: "Between being a musician and running Broken Note and promoting shows, he's probably one of the most important guys on the scene, especially when you factor in the fact that he usually doesn't get much money in return," says Clouseaux singer Thomas Escalante. "If he says something to you, you can count on it. His word is golden."
So that's who Crazy Tony is. Now, where is he "back" from?
Around 1999, I-45 started to take off, and Avitia moved to Southern California, though his bandmates remained in Houston. I-45 was doing about 200 road shows a year back then. Avitia got married, had a daughter, returned to Houston and then got divorced, amid much drama. Broken Note fell by the wayside, a victim of its founder's success with I-45, but eventually that imploded as well. Avitia had to deal with domestic issues and bandmate Billy Kinnamon had a world of trouble of his own. Not only did he face down a skin-cancer scare that cost him a few chunks off his back and a couple of lymph nodes, but he also recently resolved a serious pot bust in South Dakota, one that could have cost him 15 years in prison.
"I was coming back from up north with about 20 pounds of hydro, and I got busted," Kinnamon says. "I tried to fight it for a year and a half, but I lost my suppression hearing and they ended up finding me guilty, but because I was going through my cancer stuff, they didn't want to pay for it, so they ended up giving me just four months in jail and five years' probation. I have to leave June 7, and I should be back by the beginning of October." (Well, that's one way to beat the Houston heat for a summer )
But at last all of that -- Kinnamon's drug bust and cancer scare and what Avitia calls his "babymama drama" -- is settled. And on May 14 and 15, Broken Note Records will celebrate its tenth anniversary and its relaunch with a mother of a two-night, double-stage show at Fitzgerald's. On the first night of the shindig, I-45 will play, and Simpleton, A Taste of Garlic and Dinosaur Salad will all reunite on the stage upstairs, while Ex Porn Stars, Q.U.E. and Farm S.C. will play Fitzdown. The next night finds C'Mon C'Mon, Austin punks Cruel and Unusual, and the Molly Maguires downstairs and 30footFALL, Bickley, Non Stop Bombers and Middlefinger playing up the rickety staircase.
"We actually have fans of these bands flying in from Minnesota, Connecticut, Florida, California, Missouri, Louisiana and every city in Texas," Avitia says. "And not just people who are in the bands, it's people that know the bands and want to be here. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event. This will probably never, ever happen again, all of these bands in one place."
Avitia's guerrilla marketing was in full effect at the recent Westheimer Street Festival. He spent much of the day walking up and down the length of the party carrying a sign that said, "I am Crazy Tony." "We had the bullhorn -- we were making a ruckus wherever we went. I think a lot of people know who I am now," he notes. I-45 fans started turning up at Helios hours before the band's recent gig there. According to Avitia, the show was a hit. "It was awesome," he says. "We turned it out, the crowd loved it, they were screaming the words. It felt like a coming-back-out party."
And you can bank on the Fitz shows packing 'em in as well. For Avitia, the hard part will come later, when he has to build on that success. The show could be a mere reunion -- a chance for a scene to relive its memories and nothing more -- or it could be the glue that binds Broken Note back together. Avitia is taking pains to see to it that the latter scenario unfolds. Few who enter will leave without ending up on his mailing list, or, he says, without a copy of a Broken Note CD. Avitia and former I-45 manager Jason Whitmire are already in preproduction on a new compilation, tentatively called A Tale of Two Cities, which will be a roundup of original music by the top DJs in Houston and in Whitmire's adopted hometown of Austin. A new I-45 record is in the works, and more compilations can't be far behind.
Avitia is also working on a business degree at UH, and it shows, though it's hard to imagine him learning anything like his Mattress Mac-meets-Jesus-freak act at the West Fest from a textbook. School "does open your eyes to some of the mechanics of the way a business should operate, but at the same time I always go with the gut," he says. "The gut's the one telling me I need to make the big neon signs and walk up and down the street like a crazy person. But I'm also starting to think statistically, to think percentage-wise, to think I have to do x amount of this to make y amount of that happen. Over the last ten years of doing this I'd like to think I'm a lot more mature now, a lot more focused. I know a lot more about what I need to do -- I think I had an internal fear of becoming famous before. Now, it's like I don't care, I'm gonna go balls-out."
"Tony's a lot smarter than he lets people know," says Kinnamon. "He likes to let people think he's a retard, but he's not."
And though he hasn't yet made mad cash in this game, don't think for a minute he would pass up the chance.
"I live in a one-bedroom apartment," he says. "I'm always trying to figure out where the next child support payment's gonna come from, whether or not I'm gonna make the rent or cover all my bills on any given month. It's really on a shoestring, so I'm gonna have to get some investors. I've got an accountant in mind, I'm gonna look for a finance whiz at UH. I want to put it together like a real thing. But let me tell you -- the minute a major label comes up to me and says, 'I'll give you a million dollars for the label,' you can bet your sweet ass I'm gonna sell it. I'll stay the Crazy Tony figurehead or whatever, but you throw a million-dollar check in front of my face, and I'm probably gonna take it."
According to Rubio, that sounds about par for the course. "He's gonna kill me for telling you this, but I remember back in high school he peroxided '14K' in his hair. His slogan back then was 'Greed is good.' "
But unlike so many local promoters, the past decade has proved that Avitia isn't really about greed. He's, well, crazy that way. "I don't think there's enough people here documenting what's going on," he says, which is probably closer to his real motive than any Gordon Gekko-derived axiom. And there's another driving force behind the "Crazy Tony is back" phenomenon. "I'm still trying to win back an ex-girlfriend!" he says.
To that end, his ambition knows few bounds. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that I'll sell a million records of Broken Note releases by, let's say, 2007," he says. "That's my goal -- I can add in what I've already sold, which is 36,000 or 37,000 units."
Only 963,000 to go. That's a mighty tall order, son. But hell, Lawrence Marshall probably started with one beat-up pickup truck. Now thousands of people are making the short drive up to Hempstead to get some of those huuuuge savings Ray Childress is always yakking away on the Clobberline about. Mattress Mac probably started with one dinged dinette -- now look at what he's done on the North Freeway between Tidwell and Parker. Could Crazy Tony be next?
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