"I just bought a new bar today," says Pam Robinson offhandedly. "I just bought Mary Jane's." Snapping up bars is getting to be a habit for Robinson, who spoke to Racket from her office in Walter's On Washington, the very nerve center of her three-club cluster (Silky's is the other) that she calls "Pamland Central."
And these day's she's not just buying clubs. A glance at her recent and upcoming bookings at Walter's reveals that she's stepping up a weight class or two in that category as well. Mike Barfield and Flaco Jimenez both just played there, and Jim Lauderdale, Augie Meyers, Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, and W.C. Clark are all on the way. Tony Joe White has a tentative gig lined up in July. Walter's is starting to look a lot like either Rockefeller's reborn or the Continental Club's slightly bluesier twin.
One wonders if Robinson is targeting the road construction-racked Continental. "Whaddaya mean am I going after the Continental?" she asks slyly. "The Continental's on Main Street or in Beirut or something. We're on Washington. We're in a big city. I don't look at their calendar and look for people to get in here. That's not how it works at all. I'll be totally honest with you. Especially with the Grammy-winners like Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers and people like W.C. Clark -- a CD gets popped into my car and I go, 'Oh, I like him.' Or one of my bartenders will say, 'You should get Augie Meyers in here. Augie's the shit.' So I call 'em, and they go, 'Okay, sure.' They're just as supportive as the public is about playing a new venue and something different. They're not ragging on the other clubs, they just want something different."
As to the fate of the venerable-for-Houston alt-rock temple Mary Jane's, for now the songs will remain the same. "They've got a lot of contracts, and there's no sense in displacing them just because of the ownership change," she says, before adding coyly that "there will be changes, but only for the better, I think."
Robinson is already making some interior cosmetic changes, as well as installing a new air-conditioning system and refurbishing the patio. And she hasn't ruled out eventually changing Mary Jane's name, though she has no immediate plans to do so.
It's clear that Robinson's latest acquisition won't be just for alternative rockers anymore. She says that when acts -- be they country, blues or rock -- want to record live shows, she'll book them at Mary Jane's, long considered a great room in which to record.
"There's one staple in Texas music, and that's the honky-tonk," she says. "Everything else is just phases. They went through a swing phase a few years ago, and then you had something called ska, where they're jumping around, that was popular, but it seems to have kinda faded out. Now rockabilly seems to be kinda resurging a little bit -- and I like rockabilly. We do a lot of rockabilly at Walter's. And then you have your blues -- that's always gonna be a staple. I like alternative music, but when it's loud like that I'm old. I have to stay in the office. There won't be an office for Pamland Central in Mary Jane's."
But rest assured that she won't be making a clone of Silky's or Walter's out of the club. "With three bars right next to each other, you don't want to have the same music at each one," she explains. "I like variety. If you come over here, you should be able to find something you like."
Robinson has a vision for Washington Avenue. She's dreaming aloud with Fabulous Satellite Lounge assistant manager Donna LaMel about having a parade "with floats and everything" down the street from Heights Boulevard to just past Pamland Central. She's also trying to "grease the wheels" with Metro to have them run the trolley line out Washington.
In short, Robinson now envisions Washington not as Houston's answer to Sixth Street, as she hinted to the Press's Craig Lindsey a few weeks back, but more as an answer to Austin's South Congress Avenue. "We're not a Sixth Street, and we aren't ever gonna be that," she says. "This is just another area to go to. You've got downtown, you've got Montrose."
The past couple of years have been bad ones for the city's live music scene, and Robinson and a few others (most notably the independent promotion companies Hands Up Houston and Tapir Productions) are doing wonders to right the ship. "This is a big, big city, and there's a lot of people and not enough venues," Robinson says. "I can't tell you how many times I've looked at the Press or the Chronicle and gone, 'Man, there's just not that many places to go.' There's like the Satellite, the Continental I didn't really want to get into live music, but then I was like, 'But I want to see a good show.' "
Not only that, but she doesn't think she should have to pay a lot for it, either. "I like the Continental, and I love the Satellite, but when I go there, the covers are high," she says. "We like to keep cheap covers, cheap beer, cold beer and have a good time. I can't risk the DWI after having a couple beers at the Satellite and going over to the Continental, or vice versa. Here you can park, and you're not gonna get a DWI walking to Silky's or Mary Jane's. It's just better; you can walk around and get a variety."
Not that everything's peachy at Pamland Central. Parking figures to be a bitch at some of the bigger shows, especially if more than one of the clubs has a big show booked on the same night. For now, though, Robinson has a more trifling concern. "If I could just get them to change the law about leaving with a drink," she says wistfully. "That's the only downfall: You have to down your drink here or leave it. We have to keep somebody at all the doors because that is the law."
Two years ago, Robinson, who was then known as Pam Arnold (she's since gotten married) ran Walter's Ice House, a Durham Street barroom that was shut down by a new-in-town Dallas-bred suburbanite who bought one of the new town houses a few blocks away (see "Murphy's Law," by Melissa Hung, August 3, 2000). Billy Murphy called Walter's regulars "lowlifes" and "riffraff" and accused them of peeing in public, driving recklessly and threatening him and some of his cohorts. He hounded Robinson into submission by ceaselessly filing noise complaints (virtually all of which HPD found to be groundless) and siccing the TABC on her. He stated at the time that he envisioned a Starbucks in Walter's stead.
"I saw him one time standing in the middle of Washington Avenue shaking his fist at Jax Grill because they were playing zydeco," remembers Robinson. "He was standing there shaking his fist and going, 'I'm going to stop you!' And we were like, 'Who's that nut in the middle of the street? He's gonna get run over.'
"What's funny is that all the noise we ever made was not near as much as the damn trains. The police were there doing the sound readings, and they would say, 'Look, it's jumping to 110 decibels with the train. And you're complaining about 55 with the icehouse?' He could do something about us, but he couldn't do anything about the train."
Robinson eventually caved, a defeat that today she accepts philosophically. "He won," she says. "I paid a lot of money in legal fees, fixing the place up to try to blend in with the neighborhood, but he was having no part of it. It was really sad, because many of my customers lived in the same town houses he did. They loved the fact that they could have a few drinks and walk across the street and be home. They loved it, but he hated it. He won. Oh, well."
Murphy may have gotten Pam Robinson out of his backyard, but he sure hasn't cramped her style. "But in the long run, I win," she says. "Because I'm having a good time, and he's not, and you can quote me on that. Murphy -- bah, humbug! You're not having any fun, and I am!"
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