Houston Mixtape Volume III
About six months ago, we committed to an ongoing lifetime project, a stab at creating the ultimate Houston mixtape. The criteria are simple the song must be about Houston, and it must not suck. On our blog, you can find a list of the songs as well as mp3s (and a link to the original two stabs at this thing), but now we're ready for a new batch of songs.
We begin with former Montrose resident Brady Harris, who is now based in Los Angeles. I've had his "Houston Town" in my collection for years and I've always simply forgotten about it when I've written the other pieces in this series. I apologize for that, as despite Harris's razor-thin, reedy voice, it's one of the better songs about our fair city. It's a bittersweet number, spare in instrumentation just jangly guitar, minimal bass and drums, and the lyrics are pretty killer. We can all relate to lines like "Now nobody I know goes to the old Montrose / not a face that I see is one that I know" and "Well there's no one around old downtown / old Market Square has just been torn down / they put up a parking lot called it Allright / I see my soul disappear on the Houston skyline." (Others of us can relate to this: "I spent my youth drunk I threw up on these streets / Westheimer Road is closing in now on me.")
Towards the end of the song, Harris turns music critic. He laments the facts that B.J. Thomas has moved away and Lightnin' Hopkins has died (and erroneously claims Roky Erickson for our city), and notes that "Houston's musical heroes just can't hang around." Then he draws his switchblade: "Well ZZ Top's so boring now / they're the only ones who should have left town / Clint Black's records sound so homogenized / he sounded so much better when he was just killin' time." And there's plenty more good stuff on there. (The album is called Good Luck Stranger. The song is on iTunes.)
Harris also mentions Dean Martin's 1965 pop hit "Houston Town" in his song of the same name. Martin's song also has a Duane Eddy twang-bangin' instrumental cover, and locals the Hates have a fast and furious punk version. And there are many more, I'm sure, but the weirdest has to be the one by, of all people, Mark E. Smith of the Fall. You haven't lived until you've heard Smith slur words like “Well it's a-lonely in this ol' town, everybody a-puts me downÉ” On second thought, maybe you have. At any rate, the Fall's vaguely techno version is called “Loop #41 Houston” and it's on the record called Real New Fall Album.
While we're talking about songs about Houston from across the pond, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention a couple more. First we submit James Kirk's “Houston, Texas.” Kirk, the former guitarist in the influential Scottish group Orange Juice, turns in a classy, laid-back, spoke-sung tune about a down-at-his-heels guy living here in a mobile home, which his Scottish accent renders as “mo-beel home.” The pleasant, scratchy guitar riff is alone worth the price of admission, as is the line where his “nee-bars” trash his mobeel home. Then there's “Houston,” by the Rumour, best known as Graham Parker's backing band. It's hard to believe this dollop of first-rate pub-rock was recorded in 1979 it sounds fresh enough to have been cut yesterday. Houston is no more than a name-checked backdrop here, but it is a fun song in the vein of Squeeze.
ZZ Top's bizarre El Loco cut “Heaven, Hell or Houston” has inspired at least two different songs of the same title. One is solid if unspectacular country by Gary Kyle, while the other is something else entirely. Houston-bred New York resident Anna Padgett is the titular Naysayer, and her “Heaven Hell or Houston” is chamber pop/alt-country of the first rank, with vocal and guitar melodies that are downright hypnotic.
Seattle's Visqueen dishes out the classic rock bombast with their “Houston”; over rumbling kettle drums and growling guitars, singer Rachel Flotard unveils a Lifetime Movie Network-worthy tale of Texas millionaires in domestic strife and laments that “Houston feels so low.”
Not one the Convention and Visitors Bureau would want to tout, and neither is Townes Van Zandt's “White Freightliner Blues” and its famous “Bad news from Houston, half my friends are dyin” line. And I don't think city boosters will be knocking down Johnny Bush's door anytime soon. The title track off his new album Kashmere Gardens Mud opens with the lines “The southern wind blows through Kashmere Gardens / with the smell of Pasadena in the air” and goes on to note that “nothing good ever grew in Kashmere Gardens / only bitter weeds and flowers of despair.” I think it says a lot about our city's robust self-esteem that you can write a song like that and still have the mayor declare it Johnny Bush Day, which actually happened last week. But hell, this song is a must, especially for you northsiders.
Speaking of bitter weeds and flowers of despair, Houston's sports teams have furnished the city with plenty of heartbreak. Luckily, the songs they have spawned are sometimes better. Everybody who was alive and sentient at the time remembers the Luv Ya Blue “Houston Oilers Number One” ditty, but how about “Go Go Astros,” the baseball equivalent? Back in the Ryan-Cruz-Puhl era, my grandparents had season tickets up on the yellow level of the Dome. I remember gnawing on many a Harry Stevens chili dog as I took in lyrics like “way down south of Houston / baseball's come alive / from pitching to the outfield / they're breathin' orange fi-yahhh” and “stealin' 'round the bases / drivin' in the runs / no place else but Houston / As-tros num-ber ooooooonnnnnne.” I seem to recall that these words led into a sort of banjo-picking break. I know you can still get 45s of that song on ebay, but does anybody have an mp3 of that floating around? (I have learned that there was also a Spanish version called “Vamos Vamos Astros.”)
About 20 years later, rap-punks Simpleton released “Milo,” a tribute to the announcer, the then brand-new Enron Stadium, Jose Lima, the Killer B's and Romey-Rome. “Hey, they've done it again, the Astros are the Central Division Champions,” goes the chorus, “with a little bit of help from Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell / and maybe one day, the World Series / but until then we've got to keep-keep-keepin' on.” Actually, the words work better in the song than they do on paper.
Aside from Telephone Road, not many Houston streets have inspired songsmiths. One exception is Fannin Street. There are a number of songs that refer to the Fannin Street in Shreveport, but at least two refer to our own. Guy Clark's “Don't Let the Sunshine Fool You,” which was recorded by Townes Van Zandt, has the line “Fannin' street in the afternoon's / An easy way to get a tune.” More recently, last year in fact, Tom Waits was also inspired by the same thoroughfare. His new album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards features the song “Fannin Street,” which begins with the lines “There's a crooked street in Houston town / it's a well-worn path I've traveled down / now there's ruin in my name / I wish I'd never got off the train and I wish I'd listened to the words you said / Don't go down to Fannin Street / you'll be lost and never found, you can never turn around.”
Seeing as Fannin is one-way, and often wracked by orange-barrel construction woes, we know exactly what he means.
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