Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive
Nobody in Houston was ever worth a shit," writes Houston-bred honky-tonk legend Johnny Bush in his forthcoming autobiography Whiskey River (Take My Mind). "To my way of thinking, with my young skull full of mush, Hank Williams was great because he was from Montgomery, Alabama. That's why he made it. Webb Pierce was from Monroe, Louisiana, that's why he made it. Houston, Texas was square.full of rejects or wannabes.Nobody'd ever come out of Houston that I'd heard of."
The two honky-tonkers residing in Houston whom Bush respected -- George Jones and Floyd Tillman -- he classes as non-Houstonians since they had come here from other towns. Even though Bush is writing about the country scene in the early 1960s, it's still a depressing passage, because all these years later, that attitude is still going strong. Sociologists speak of the "cultural cringe," which Wikipedia defines as "an internalized inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries." I would argue that it applies to cities as well.
The concept was named in the Australia of the mid-20th century. At that time, Aussie culture was deemed inferior to British culture in every way, by both the Brits and the Aussies themselves. There was no question about it. How could a 150-year-old former penal colony offer up any idea or work of art that was worthy of respect in the home of Shakespeare and Dickens, Newton and Darwin?
I would argue that a similar self-hating attitude permeates every level of our city's self-image. At the very top you have the boosters and their endless touting of our world-class status, which they underpin by bragging about stuff like symphonies, art museums and playhouses, all of which warehouse the cultures of faraway, presumably superior, cultures. Don't get me wrong -- it's great that the Museum of Fine Arts and the Alley and the Menil and the like are here, but in countries like France and Holland, the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum are crammed to the rafters with works by native artists. Not being Dutch or French, I can't say for sure, but I imagine it must feel really cool to walk into a museum packed with tourists from all over the world who have spent thousands of dollars to come gaze at the art of your people.
So how must local musicians feel when only a couple dozen people will pay a few dollars to hear them play their songs? Pretty bad, I would believe -- like Houston must be, as Bush put it, full of rejects and wannabes.
Former Houstonian Mary Cutrufello was an unusual figure on the local scene for several reasons. She had a national reputation and a major-label deal, for one thing, but she also had a working knowledge of scenes in other cities, including Austin, Nashville and New York. A few years ago, I talked to her after she had left town and set up shop in Minneapolis, and she said that the difference between the bands there and the bands here was that the Twin Cities acts believed in themselves. "There are so many bands that have come out of here and made it to the next level in the past 20 years," she said, citing Soul Asylum, the Replacements, Hsker D, Prince and Semisonic. "What that does to a scene is make people suddenly think that going to the next level is not something that other people do. Any one of us could be the next person to write 'Closing Time' or 'Runaway Train' or 'Purple Rain' or whatever it may be. I think that really makes a difference in the way a scene perceives itself."
At the time we talked, the two biggest national success stories in Houston rock history were ZZ Top and, to a much more limited extent, King's X. (Even with those two bands, I am given over to cultural cringe-y misgivings -- after all, two-thirds of Top is from Dallas, and King's X moved here en masse from Missouri. Neither band was an organic growth from Houston's musical soil. )
Since then, of course, Blue October has hit it big. But what kind of message has their success sent? As local musician/ man-about-town David Beebe pointed out in a note on one of the posts on our blog, there was once, long ago, something interesting about Blue October's sound. It definitely didn't sound like Houston, whatever that means today, and it was neither my idea (nor Beebe's) of great music, but it was somewhat unique. But after they got signed and dropped and signed again, they totally junked whatever that unique thing was. Today, they are Nickelback with a fiddle. They could come from anywhere, from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver, but sadly, right now, they are our rock and roll representatives to the world. Today, when outsiders think of Houston rock, they think Blue October, and they heap scorn on us, and that just furthers our sense of cultural insecurity.
And so today nobody believes that our bands are truly as good as those of Austin, Dallas, New York, Omaha, Chicago or San Francisco. Touring bands are better than local bands for the simple reason that they are not from Houston. What's more, the touring bands often come to town equipped with pre-made validation in the form of glowing press clips and, in some cases, radio play. Fans of Houston bands have only their own ears to guide them.
Johnny Bush immediately follows his cultural cringe speech with the illustrative example of his uncle Jerry Jericho, a local country star of the time. "He never hit it big," Bush writes. "He had several chances. He had a chance for national exposure on the [radio program] Louisiana Hayride, a springboard to the Opry, but he didn't go. And the reason he didn't go? The Hayride paid $18 on Saturday night; he could make $125 in Houston."
Bush hints that the reason Jericho didn't take the Hayride gig was that Jericho didn't believe that things would get better for him. Since no one he knew had ever made it that far up the ladder, he didn't have the foresight to see past the cash in hand, much to his regret in later years.
Since Jericho's time, that shortsighted attitude has progressed so far it has come to be regarded as a virtue. Local bands like Million Year Dance and Spain Coloured Orange who let it be known that they have professional attitudes and would like to go on to greater things are mocked behind their backs in the bars and to their faces on message boards. Regular rehearsing and showing up both on time and sober to gigs is somewhat bad form; sending demos to labels and aggressively courting the big time is considered to be sellout douchebaggery of the highest order. You're supposed to sit back and wait to get discovered, you see. According to Brian McManus, former guitarist in the Fatal Flying Guilloteens and Houston Press contributor, even the concept of going on tour is barely accepted by the local hipster community.
Hell, it's long been considered somewhat uncool here to bother writing what the rest of the world knows of as songs. If Houston has an identity to the national underground rock cognoscenti, it is as the home of the most inaccessible music in Texas, if not all of America. Bands like Rusted Shut have enshrined fearsome ugliness, jaw-dropping weirdness and earsplitting volume as some of the defining hallmarks of the Houston scene, and we are also known as the home of outsider freaks like Jandek. (There's even a Wikipedia entry on "Houston noise bands.")
That scene does have its charms, but even its most ardent practitioners wouldn't have you believe that theirs is music for everybody. To me, this music seems like an end run around the cultural cringe, or even a child's temper tantrum -- instead of trying to make music that will make the rest of the world respect us, we pitch a squalling fit of bashed cymbals, caterwauled vocals and deranged keyboards amid a wall of guitar feedback, and declare that it represents the concrete bungle of a strip mall nightmare that is our chemical-cloaked petropolis. And even in that scene, the most successful band will prove before long to be Indian Jewelry, who have attained most of their notoriety by both tempering their weirdness with songcraft and taking the time-honored step of leaving town.
Which, eventually, is what Bush did. He moved to San Antonio and became a Texas honky-tonk legend. (And grew to recognize that Houston was, in fact, loaded with talent.) And it's what dozens of others have done too -- they've gone to San Francisco (Jolie Holland, Greg Ashley), Nashville (Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell), Austin (Hayes Carll, Carolyn Wonderland, Jesse Dayton, members of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and What Made Milwaukee Famous and countless others), Montreal (Win and Will Butler of the Arcade Fire) and even Oklahoma City (Stephen Drozd of the Flaming Lips). Of course, when those people come back to town with the Houston band stigma gone, we pack the bigger clubs in town to see them.
Meanwhile, across town, on the very same night, the next batch of talented locals to leave town for good will play to yet another quarter-filled room. And so it goes
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