H-Town Mixtape Part II
Back in 2001, before Tropical Storm Allison, before Enron, before the Great H-Town Rap Boom of 2005, one of the very first columns I wrote was a piece about Houston's lack of a quasi-official city anthem. (You can find it here: http://houstonpress.com/Issues/2001-06-14/music/racket_full.html.)
Songs put forth in that piece as being almost but not quite our city's anthem included the Geto Boys' "City Under Siege," Rodney Crowell's "Telephone Road" and Johnny Copeland's "Houston." But the song I believed fit best was Guy Clark's "LA Freeway," which was, ironically, about longing to leave Los Angeles behind for Houston's relatively bucolic charms. But by 2001, I reasoned, Houston had become just as much a smog-choked concrete bungle as the Los Angeles Clark sang about, so it seemed to fit us as well as any other song.
But that was five years ago, and since then, I have been diligently harvesting fresh contenders to the throne. And I've since come to the conclusion that this city is too damned complicated for any one anthem. Now, I'm just gonna rattle off a bunch of songs about H-Town for you to download, listen to and play in the car for your visiting relatives while you are squiring them around from the Galleria to the Kemah Boardwalk and then over to the refineries at night. So, away we go:
Fifth Ward bluesman Juke Boy Bonner has a trio of Houston songs no basic H-Town mixtape should go without. Bonner, a singer-guitarist-drummer-harmonica player who billed himself as "The One Man Trio," was an atypical bluesman for the '60s and '70s -- a published poet with an unusually explicit social conscience. Much like the Geto Boys and every rapper since, he was always ready to discuss the harsh realities in The Nickel, as he does on the driving, John Lee Hooker-esque boogie "Stay off Lyons Avenue": "Cause if you go there green, somewhere down near Jensen'll be the last time you'll be seen." Which remains true, all these years later...
His "Houston, The Action Town" is a slightly more raucous boogie, as befits the subject matter -- "womenfolks running around in the street flaggin' the menfolks down." "Don't be no chump behind what you're pursuin'," Bonner advises, "'cause this city's full of slickers, boy, so you better know what you're doin'. 'Cause you know Houston -- that's the action town."
The last of Bonner's great trilogy is "Struggle In Houston," which has more of a Jimmy Reed feel. But Reed never sang about stuff like this, and the song is worth quoting here in full:
"It's a struggle here in Houston, man, just to stay alive (repeat)
I don't mean you'll die of starvation, I mean you gotta watch out for bullets, bombs and knives.
There's some streets in Houston I stay clear of after dark (repeat)
'Cause there's some cats that'll bump you off just to hear their pistol bark.
Struggle here in Houston just to stay out of Ben Taub (repeat)
You're liable to get your head bashed in if you break a twenty after dark."
The Andre Williams-penned Ted Taylor deep soul classic "Houston Town" is another great from the same era. It features a slow-simmering intro that blossoms into first-rate orchestral soul, and it finds Taylor and his keening falsetto wrecked and ruined in a cheap hotel, watching a cold rain fall on a colder city, begging someone, anyone, to get him out of Houston town. (Williams wrote the song after an epic cocaine bender here he says almost cost him his life.) Admittedly, "Houston Town" isn't one you booster types might want to bang, but it's a lost classic nonetheless.
As we mentioned in the previous Houston anthem piece, black and white Houstonians tend to write about the city differently. One of the only national rock songs to do more than name-check Houston is Iggy Pop's surreal "Houston Is Hot Tonight," with Dali-esque lyrics like "they've got a moon-man on the telephone," "Arabian sheiks and money up in the sky" and "now I don't mind a bloodbath 'cause I've got oil on my breath." But on the whole, white people -- especially country singers -- tend to just mention the city's name in passing. There are quite a few country songs that have Houston in the title, but virtually none of them bring the city to life in any way -- it's a lot like that sitcom where Reba lives here but never seems to leave her kitchen, which, at any rate, appears to be in Cinco Ranch. (Examples of this type of song include "Houston Solution" and "Houston [Means I'm One Day Closer to You].")
In rap songs, on the other hand, pictures are painted. You can see exactly where these "turnin' lanes" are and where they are stashing their candy-painted slabs, because they tell you. You could probably spend the better part of a week driving to all the corners cited in various rap songs from the past 15 years. Devin the Dude's "Lacville '79" mentions both "Chim-in-ey Rock" and "the 610 Loop," while other songs of his mention the train tracks off Mykawa, a sandwich shop at Bellfort and Scott, and San Felipe Road. Big Moe's "Just a Dog" mentions Jack Yates High School, Yellowstone, TSU and "scrapin' plates all up and down 288." And on his brand-new "Remember Me," Z-Ro reminisces about his days at Dick Dowling Middle School, and he often reps his Ridgemont 'hood in Mo City. Perhaps the best example of this Google Maps approach to H-Town rap is "Down South," the Mista Madd/Slim Thug/Yungstar collabo from the late '90s with the following bumping chorus: "Down South is where I stay / Switch four lanes / never the same / From the Antoine to the M.L.K. / these H-Town boys like to swang and bang."
But two rap songs from the past five years stand above these as absolute greats in the Houston anthem canon -- Scarface's "On My Block" and Paul Wall's "They Don't Know."
"On My Block" doesn't drop that many names, though 'Face does firmly set the tune in a specific grid in South Park. Over a sanctified gospel piano riff, 'Face reminisces about his drug- and booze-addled neighborhood on "the South Side of Houston Texas," complete with Swisher Sweet-fragrant domino games, "shell-shocked Nam vets inhalin' rocks" and a network of fierce women enforcing harsh corporal discipline over the kids. As a song set in the past and an evocation of an older Houston, it's a close cousin to Crowell's "Telephone Road." And all of this is captured well in the video -- perhaps the best ever from Houston.
Where "On My Block" is bittersweet and nostalgic, Wall's "They Don't Know" is ferocious and contemporary. Over a dramatic, string-heavy beat with near-Wagnerian sweep, Wall and guest Mike Jones rattle off a long list of everything the rest of the nation doesn't know about Houston -- including "that Barre," "candy cars" and "ghetto grub like Williams Chicken and Timmy Chan's." And the best part about it was that within two years of Wall releasing that song on his local release Chick Magnet, the whole world did hear about that stuff.
The local rock underground doesn't sing about Houston as much as their rap counterparts do, but the exceptions to that rule are memorable. Infernal Bridegroom Productions's Meat / Bar soundtrack is an essential volume here -- "I Fucking Love It Man" is a veritable roll call of late-night Montrose luminaries, and there's also the resigned and lovely "Eventually No Tsu Oh." (Which just might make you weep if you listen to it hung over.)
Another late-night hang gets a treatment in Linus Pauling Quartet's "La Tapatia," perhaps the finest death metal song ever written about a Montrose taqueria. The Last Concert Caf is another local Mexican restaurant immortalized in song -- the vaguely bluegrass-feeling ditty is one of the very best songs mid-'90s acid country superstars Horseshoe ever did. (Chorus: "I got my backpack and rolling papers / wrinkled old suit and a pack of Lifesavers / another day another test of my faith / sittin' in a booth watchin' the rain at the Last Concert Caf.")
It doesn't get much more Houston than that, unless you are talking about Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up," perhaps the only song to musically evoke the climate here. The warm bass, breezy horns and crisp drums evoke one of those balmy days in April, when the sky is deepest blue and a stiff wind is blowing in from the Gulf. And the only way to make that music sound even more Gulf Coast would be if there was a zydeco version of it, and it turns out there is, by the late Beau Jocque. It's one of the ultimate Houston anthems, rerecorded by a master of the only genre invented here in town. You can't get much more Houston than that, at least not until some South Side DJ comes along and screws and chops it. email@example.com
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