Ghosts In the Machine
Only in Houston
Halloween is right around the corner, and once again it's time to talk spooky stuff. Let's look around the city to see which Houston music venues might be haunted.
First, let's define haunted, and to that I must defer to Poe, because her Haunted is one of the greatest albums ever released. By haunted I mean a state of being filled with phenomena or sensory perceptions that cause a feeling of dread or unease. Sometimes this is attributed to ghosts, and sometimes we have no idea why certain places cause heebies and/or jeebies.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Fitzgerald's has something of a haunted reputation. It's one of the state's oldest and most recognized stages, and the greats have trod its boards both on the way up and the way down. Before it turned into the venerable rock setting it is today, Fitz served as a Polish dance hall dating all the way back to 1918.
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It's a much more labyrinthine building than you think it is. If you begin wandering backstage, the sagging wooden structure begins to give off a definite surreal vibe as the doors and floors no longer completely match up.
"I've had all manner of weird shit show up in pictures of many of my bands playing there over the years," says Eddie Travis, drummer of The Freakouts and Scum of the Earth, by e-mail. Considering that Travis has also played at Club 219, the Milwaukee venue in which Jeffrey Dahmer picked up some of his victims, you can bet that he knows creepy.
The existence of a ghost upstairs at Fitz was easy talk among the staff when I staged a monthlong run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch there in 2004. Reminiscing with my producer and lead actor Dave Gill, he recalls, "We had a few incidents where the power on the mixing board would turn on and off by itself, or with things being moved when no one was looking. I recall the staff there all telling us, 'Oh yeah, that's the ghost,' like it was just a fact of everyday existence."
Bunny Dast of Skeleton Dick, who worked at Fitz for six years, also remarked that creepy, inexplicable things were a regular occurrence. But the identity of the Fitzgerald's ghost, if there is one, is unknown.
Another Houston venue with a darksome reputation is Numbers. Its position as Houston's premier goth haven certainly doesn't take away from the idea that a ghost could be inhabiting the grounds, and unlike at Fitzgerald's, there is plenty of tragedy in the club's past to assign any number of restless souls a home in the club.
Mike Terror, front man of the eponymous Houston industro-goth band and certainly no shrinking violet, has sworn off ever performing onstage at Numbers again after feeling unwelcome by the antics of a spectral critic.
"We've played Numbers three times, and every single time everything goes to shit when we are onstage," Terror says via e-mail. "Everywhere else in the venue, things are fine. But once we are onstage and it's time to set up or perform, bad energy rises, my band gets irritable, equipment messes up, performance suffers, etc.
"We didn't really think anything of it until we found out that somebody had been murdered on that stage," he adds. "It just doesn't feel right up there."
The murder Terror is referring to is that of Brody Darnell, who was fatally stabbed in the Numbers restroom in 2003.
Across the street from Numbers is AvantGarden, formerly Helios, formerly The Mausoleum, appropriately enough. If any Houston venue looks haunted, then it's certainly this one, with its Anne Rice patio and narrow stairways. Though there's an idea that a ghost wanders the building, it's probably just a bit of fun hype. No one I could find had any concrete story to back up the rumor.
There is definitely at least one haunted square of musical ground left in Montrose, and that's the Rock 101 KLOL studios, now Lovett Place Condos. Some of the biggest names in rock played live on the air back when KLOL was a proud resident of Houston's radio row, and more than one DJ recalled strange events at night.
Lone Star Spirits Paranormal Investigations (LSSPI ) inspected the building in 1999, close to the end of its run as Houston's rock mainstay. DJ Chuck Shramek told LSSPI that phones would launch themselves off the hook, stuffed animals would occasionally walk across the shelves they were sitting on, elevators would open and close on their own, and mysterious shadows could be seen from the corner of the eye.
The most prevalent ghost story was that of a Hispanic cleaning lady often seen in the halls; LSSPI briefly glimpsed her wearing a denim shirt during its investigation. This same specter is rumored to still walk the halls of the condominiums, but as with so many juicy pieces of Houston music history, it's possible that she, too, has faded, yet another victim of over-gentrification.
Only in Houston
Houston transplant Lizzo bakes up a delicious hit.
Say what you will about our music scene, Houston has served as a platform for the emergence of many successful commercial recording artists, from ZZ Top and Kenny Rogers all the way to Destiny's Child and Slim Thug — a dynasty that may yet survive today.
Case in point: rising hip-hop Amazon woman Lizzo (a.k.a. Melissa Jefferson), who is currently winning raves as opening act for indie-adored singer-songwriter Har Mar Superstar and is now making the online rounds with the video for her new single, "Batches & Cookies."
A recent transplant to Minneapolis, Lizzo cut her teeth in Houston as the front woman and signature flutist for retired prog-rock quintet Ellypseas. It was with that band — which she still calls "the family" — that she says she really experienced her baptism as an artist.
"That group taught me how to sing, how to perform, how to rock out," remembers Lizzo, who grew up singing gospel in church. "I'm forever grateful for my rock past."
It was after the band had parted ways, in late 2010, and while she was eagerly seeking a new artistic outlet that Lizzo connected with Minneapolis-based DJ Johnny Lewis to form electro-pop duo Lizzo & The Larva Ink.
"After Ellypseas ended, I just went with the flow," Lizzo says. "I was so depressed and exhausted with everything that I just wanted to do things that made me feel good. I just started creating music with whoever wanted to make it with me." After collaborating with her new creative partner remotely for several months, Lizzo decided to pack up and make the move to the "Mini-Apple." And from there, the opportunities came rolling in.
She eventually outgrew The Larva Ink and parted way with Lewis, then turned her full focus toward two different all-female projects, GRRRL PRTY and The Chalice. Both quickly garnered accolades from the local press and began building an impressive following around the Twin Cities.
Lizzo says the warm feelings her newfound home has afforded her go both ways.
"I love the collaborative vibe of Minneapolis," she gushes. "Everyone wants to make art with each other — everyone appreciates art. If you're an artist [here], you're just as important as a doctor."
Which is not to say that she's forgotten about good old H-town, which the Alief Elsik graduate and former UH coed called home for more than a decade. Relocating from Detroit with her family, Lizzo came to Houston at the age of ten and quickly became enamored of its culture and drive.
"I miss H-town, baby," she exclaims. "I miss my friends, I miss Montrose, I don't miss the heat and humidity — I'll be back." Currently Lizzo is promoting her first full-length solo album, released October 15. A collaborative effort with Minneapolis producer Lazerbeak entitled LIZZOBANGERS, it serves as a high-energy musical melting pot that bears the diversity of Lizzo's musical and geographic backgrounds — something she says defines her very soul as an artist.
"I'm just Lizzo," she says when asked to define her style. "I came up on gospel, classical, rock and trap — and when I open my mouth, I think that's what comes out."
Signed to Minneapolis-based label Totally Gross National Product, Lizzo got her biggest break yet when fellow Minneapolite Sean Tillman — better known as Har Mar Superstar — invited her to tour with him as both an opener and an accompanying band member. The tour's three-month stretch is taking the free-spirited wanderer across the U.S., as well as into Canada and the UK, making this her first international touring experience and — just maybe — her first big break.
Already, the video for "Batches & Cookies" has been acknowledged by several respected online publications, including Death and Taxes, which called it "better than Gucci Mane's new mixtape."
While acknowledging that her recent successes are at least partially attributable to good fortune (and maybe the migration north), Lizzo also credits years of dedication for finally paying off.
"It all comes from working," she says. "I've been working my butt off, singing backup for people, playing flute, tracking additional vocals for bands and also being in my own bands. [My success] has all come from word-of-mouth that hard work exposed."
On new tape Quicc Strikes, nothing comes between hot young rapper Maxo Kream and his sneakers.
Maxo Kream understands both the light and the dark within him, the duality in his rap: "I know I'm Christ, but I know I got the devil in me." It makes perfect sense; all over Quicc Strikes, his sophomore mixtape following Retro Card, Kream not only relishes robbing people to further his sneaker obsession but brandishes a warning at every turn.
Quicc Strikes is ambitious. It's smart at times and attempts to bully its way out of problematic situations at others. The year has been rather void of authentic street tapes, at least ones that adhere to full-blown nihilism and survival above any other human thought. Here "Whitney Houston" pumps over 8-bit drum claps and synths, a freewheeling exhibition of slanging drugs, King Kong posturing and fetishisms: "Posted with a Puerto Rican, she gon' suck and swallow, chew it / I'ma break her walls like Jericho and give that ass a bruisin'."
What makes Quicc Strikes so linear from start to finish is that Maxo completely understands who he is. He adheres strictly to the persona of a gun-toting, robbing menace, which means that whatever chance Kream has of wooing casual listeners is lost. He knows two speeds only, a drowsy haze that slings to and fro on the steeled-out haunt "Lewinsky" and the sticky double-time flow of almost every other space on the tape.
He just won't stop stacking bars that check off his wants and needs, like a kid doing his best to get to every last thing on his Christmas list. But even when you should be chuckling at punch lines like "house full of white bitches, call me Bob Saget," he immediately switches to a flow that hypnotizes listeners into a trance.
If Retro Card was Maxo's statement about strictly being fly and an obsessor over shoes (see "LeBron South Beach"), then Quicc Strikes is its utterly violent cousin who takes a trip through the West wearing said shoes and itching for more.
Houston needed at least one purveyor of perverted violence to obtain success; now the city has Maxo Kream to deal with. Maxo Kream, rap star, is not long off.
Ask Willie D
Thou Shalt Not Covet
A 15-year-old reader has a crush on her 37-year-old neighbor...and it's mutual.
Dear Willie D:
I have a crush on my neighbor, but he's way older than I am. He's 37 years old and I'm 15 years old. Every time I come out of my house and he's in his yard, he looks at me like he wants to devour me. Sometimes I put on short-shorts with my cheeks hanging out and go outdoors to get his attention. When I do, if his wife or another grownup is around, he will pretend to not look my way, but when they're not around he always smiles from ear to ear and speaks to me.
Yes, he's older than me but I'm mature for my age. I'm not sure if I want to be his girlfriend, but I do want to have sex with him because I really, really like him a lot and he is hot. I have had sex before, so it's not like he would be taking my virginity. Please don't say the politically correct thing and try to talk me out of it. Tell me what I should do so that I can be with him.
Okay, I won't say the politically correct thing. I'll just say the correct thing. If you like the man as much as you say you do, leave him alone. If your teasing and his flirting escalate into something more, he could find himself in prison for unlawful sex with a minor. What you're feeling isn't love or even like. It's hormones, and we've all been there. Don't be selfish. Think of all the other people your actions will affect: your parents, his wife, his children if he has any.
Once the truth is revealed, he will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Do you really want all of those burdens on your conscience? Be careful with your temporary feelings; they could lead to permanent damage.
Ask Willie D appears Thursday mornings on Rocks Off.
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