Last of the Hard-Core Troubadours
Montrose legend Randal Calcote has been many things in his life: child country musician, poet, actor, hemp activist, pirate radio impresario, folk troubadour, rock and punk promoter, and member of the bands Backyard Epics, Southern Pikes and Yellow Number Six. He's also worked some straight jobs: He's repaired both transmissions and computers, and at Public News, he was perhaps the only legally blind typesetter in the history of journalism. Despite his impaired vision, you wouldn't know he's extremely nearsighted from talking to him.
"Every now and then you've got to buckle down and get a real job and put that guitar in the corner," he says of his varied career. "But it's bigger than codeine, man -- it will grab you by the balls and say, 'Come back and play with me.' "
Over the years, Calcote has performed at literally hundreds of benefits, and, well, you know the story. Sooner or later we're all going to need a benefit of some kind, and now it's Calcote's turn. In Manvel a few months ago, at a rehearsal for his country band 90 Proof, he had a close encounter of the worst kind with a plate-glass sliding door.
"I wasn't drunk or anything," Calcote says. "I just didn't see that it was closed. I walked into it and I could feel that my knee had broken the glass, and my first thought was how sorry I was that I had broken the door. I didn't feel any pain. Then I pulled my leg back out of the door, and that's when I realized what had happened."
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Calcote's got some unbelievable scars -- it looks almost like a hammerhead shark took a chomp or two out of him. His knee had lodged in the glass, and he had sliced one side of his leg open on the way in and ripped the other side open on the way out.
He remembers asking for a cigarette and the fast response time of the Manvel EMS. "They got there before I was even done with my smoke," he says. "And then when they got there, one of the paramedics told me I was gonna lose that leg. I told him, 'The hell with that.' Actually, I am very thankful he said that, because if he hadn't told me that, I would have lost it. But since he did tell me, I was able to get the word out that I was keeping it."
As you can imagine, he's facing some considerable medical bills, so an eclectic cross-section of Houston's music scene has pitched in to help out at Rand-Aid, a benefit July 2 at Super Happy Fun Land. Opie Hendrix & the Texas Tallboys, Fahl and Folk, Secret Beat Society, Muzak, Organ Failure, Friendship Bracelet, Kairos, Jimmy Deen and Glenna Bell have already signed on, and as always with benefits, expect many a surprise guest.
But Calcote doesn't just need this benefit. He also deserves it. "I have known Randal Calcote since he held the rather unlikely position of typesetter at Public News (although given the punk aesthetic of the era, using a legally blind typesetter might've been shrewdness on the publisher's part, rather than the cheapness it was generally taken for)," wrote punk impresario and Rand-Aid organizer M. Martin in an e-mail to Racket just before setting off on his honeymoon. "He has been both among my friends and my critics over the years, and deserves a lifetime achievement award as a member of the Houston music scene."
Calcote is not just Martin's friend and critic -- he also assumes both of those roles with regard to the whole Houston music scene. One hot Friday afternoon, I dropped by Calcote's Montrose garage apartment -- which is nestled just above the now-defunct Internet radio station Earthwire.net he once helped run -- and in the course of about two hours we destroyed a 12-pack of Lone Star at his kitchen table as Calcote reminisced on the Houston music scene he once knew and that of today.
It's hard to believe now, but about 30 or 35 years ago, Houston's folk music scene was positively dangerous, an acid-addled, drink-soaked, sexy milieu. The police were always lurking nearby. "Wrecks" Bell, who with the late Dale Soffar owned and operated the Old Quarter folk club on Congress downtown during that period, recalled to me a few years ago that he was thrown in jail on a weekly basis.
It was also a scene marked by greatness. Once Townes Van Zandt got rolling, the whole scene picked up steam -- everybody wanted to be as good as Van Zandt, and Van Zandt would heap scorn on those who didn't have the goods. People would ask him what it took to write great songs, and he would tell them that they had to blow off family, happiness, money, jobs and safety and focus on living and breathing music, and that there were no buts about it.
Some quit playing, but others kept honing their skills, and soon enough Houston's folk scene had produced not just Van Zandt but also Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Eric Taylor, Vince Bell, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Richard Dobson and many others. Van Zandt was never vindictive -- when any one of those people would write a good song, he would tell them so.
Though Calcote came a little late to that scene, he remembers it as being competitive and tough. "We all were mean," he says. "We took our licks. We would say, 'Oh, you wanna play that song? Why don't you go home and practice?' You needed a helmet to take some of the abuse we would dish out."
That's a far cry from the prevailing aesthetic on Houston's folk scene today. Organizations like H.A.A.M. (Houston Area Acoustic Musicians) are all about 100 percent positivity all the time.
"You can quote me on this: I can't stand those people," Calcote says of H.A.A.M. "They're an awful lot like the Kerrville [Folk Festival] people. They have rules. They have this thing called a song circle. Basically what happens is one guy sings and then passes the guitar to the next guy, and while you're singing I'm supposed to shut up and listen to you. Forget about jamming with each other and having a good time -- I'm supposed to shut up and listen while they mumble some song that nobody can hear three feet away. But you're supposed to shut up and listen respectfully and then clap like you're at the damned opera when it's over. It's the biggest ego-joke in history."
Those people will also drone on and on about the "craft" of writing songs. Calcote is about craft too, but only inasmuch as it serves the craic -- which is an Irish Gaelic word that is pronounced "crack" and translates to something like "alcohol-fueled musical fun." He's happiest playing not at clubs but at barbecues and wee-hours soirees where the barrier between performer and onlooker is almost nonexistent, the beer is communally provided and can flow until dawn, and the smoke travels round all night long. Or, in other words, where there's a good craic.
He's that rare folkie with an anarchic bent that's so sadly lacking elsewhere on that scene -- but he's not a folkie punk. To Calcote, punk equates to amateurism. "Today's scene is like a punk scene," he says. "Whether you're talking about a guy with an acoustic guitar or a whole band that barely knows how to play their instruments -- they're all out there going, 'We can do whatever we want, and whatever we do is cool, because we say so.' "
Calcote believes that today's musicians all too often don't give a crap about what they actually sound like. "Today -- and this doesn't matter if it's acoustic or electric or electronic or samples or whatever -- people say, 'Whatever we do is cool. It's all good!' No, it is not all good! It used to be you would work long and hard before you ever got on stage; the first time I got on stage as a solo act I was shaking so bad I could barely hold my guitar. And these people are all like, 'This is my expression.' No, your expression is you don't know what you're doing. When you're a real musician, you can jam with other musicians, speak to them with a musical language. You can bend the rules and break the rules. But when you just get up there and pick up a guitar and say, 'I don't need to know anything! I am beautiful and God speaks through me and, uh, love me, even if I suck,' you're not jamming, you're not improvising, you're just jacking off. It's a masturbation thing."
Calcote's got a different idea about performance. Some years back he had surgery on what he now calls his "$50,000 eyes," and he started studying visual art. One of his favorite paintings is an old Italian painting called The Penitent Magdalene. "You'd look at this thing and think it was a photograph. Absolutely perfect. There's Magdalene and she's got her hand on the Bible, which is resting on a skull, and she's raising one finger to God and she's got this ecstatic look in her eyes. But her hair was so perfect. And this was not by a famous painter. But this was so perfect and so real and this was six or seven hundred years ago. That was what a painter did in those days, and that's what a musician should do today. Give us the truest representation of whatever your vision is. It may be really dumb, but do a good job of it and people will appreciate it."