I was living in Holland in 1977 when my younger brother, who had attended Wayland Baptist University on a track scholarship until booze and girls were discovered in his dorm room, came for a visit. While living in Plainview, his stomping grounds had been the gin joints of Lubbock. Upon arrival, he immediately opened his suitcase and pulled out an album he said I had to hear. It was some guy he had seen play in Lubbock who had just put out his first album.
It was what is known as Joe Ely's "white album." Self-titled, it has sometimes been referred to as the "No Loud Talk" album because of the sign on the wall behind the band on the back photo.
Dropping the needle on side one of Joe Ely, my entire musical horizon changed.
"Well, I left my home out on the great high plains / headin' for some new terrain / standin' on the highway with my coffee cup / wonderin' who was gonna pick me up / I had my hopes up high / I never thought that I / would ever wonder why / I had my hopes up high."
I'm from those same plains and I'd done my share of hitch-hiking, and "Had My Hopes Up High" just branded itself to my consciousness. If I have a musical hero, ever since that day it has been Joe Ely, who turns 65 today.
Long before anyone coined the term "alternative country," Ely was out there on the waffling edge, mixing up genres and sounds into a nasty roadhouse stew that was as tough as the back end of a shooting gallery and as Texan as cactus. Led by Ely, who came across something like Buddy Holly on meth, this band charged hard with Jesse "Guitar" Taylor and steel guitar whiz Lloyd Maines dueling like gunslingers.
I wouldn't actually see Ely live until New Year's Eve, 1979, at a little joint down near the intersection of Gessner and Southwest Freeway. It was an icy, frigid night and the crowd was disappointing, but Ely and his band of badasses attempted to melt the walls. At one point my brother and I stood at the rear of the club and the band was playing so loud the cigarette machine was shaking. I was convinced.
Not long after I saw him at the Pasadena Rodeo. It rained buckets that day, so the concert scene was basically a large mud hole where people sat on folding chairs or blankets. Ernest Tubb opened for Ely. As usual, in spite of a smallish crowd, Ely and band exploded like a hand grenade.
And then there was the St. Patrick's Day gig at Fitzgerald's, circa 1980. The Leroi Brothers were a hot new Austin thing and they opened. It got so rockin' and so crazy during Ely's set people climbed up on the picnic tables (in the old days, there were picnic tables upstairs at Fitz) and were pogoing up and down long before anyone had heard the words "mosh pit." Ely had been running with the Clash and he was one ball of fire.
Since then, I've since seen Ely more times than I could ever remember. A few highlights:
My son was living in Denton, playing in a band based in Dallas. He called one afternoon to inform me that a friend's band was supposed to open for Ely that night at the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Elm but had to cancel due to illness. My son's band was now the opener. I phoned my brother, he picked me up at my place, and we headed north posthaste. In fact, so posthaste we got a ticket before we got to Conroe.
I took the covers from two of my Ely lps, Joe Ely and Down On the Drag. My son got them autographed. He keeps one, I keep the other.
Just last year, my son's band opened for Ely at Rockefellers. It was a monumental occasion for our family. I was standing just off the stage with local bassman Denny "Cletus" Blakely, who nodded and said, "I think Joe's got this rock star stuff down."
A few years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the guru of the Lubbock Mafia, Terry Allen, and during the interview he made an indelible statement about Ely: "What I love about Joe is that even if he's just sitting on the couch running through something he's working on, he does it like his hair is on fire."
I drove famed Lubbock sax player Bobby Keys around for few days during the past International Festival and he recalled meeting Ely for the first time in Phoenix, Arizona, where Keys was playing with the Stones.
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"We were shooting pool back in the dressing room and Ian Stewart came in and said, 'Bobby, I think there's some of your lot down the hallway.' Some of my lot? So I drifted down there and you could hear those West Texas accents out in the hall. We had a great time."
Keys would eventually play select gigs with Ely.
Ely, who has not only shared stages with the Clash and the Rolling Stones but also Bruce Springsteen, Los Super Seven, even Uncle Tupelo, was one of the earliest users of technology that we take for granted today. His website "Campfire Nightmares," went live in 1983, long before many of us knew anything about the Internet. He also made the first digital album in Austin, 1984's Hi-Res, which included Houston fave "Imagine Houston."
So happy birthday, Mr. Ely. And thanks for the memories. May your road go on forever, and the party never end.