Racket is angry this week, my friends.
The de-funkification and de-coolifying of Houston continues apace. First Fourth Ward and then Montrose went condo, Cactus closed, the River Oaks and Alabama theaters are threatened, John Schroeter of Valhalla and Jerry Lightfoot both passed away, and now, on September 25, Monroe's Gallant Knight shut its doors forever. Worse, the little brick ranch house-turned-jazz/funk/blues dive is slated for the wrecking ball. It was one of the few places in town worth taking visiting out-of-towners to -- a freaky little joint that made you feel like you were starring in your own Blaxploitation flick. The drinks were strong and cheap, the beer was served in cans, the music was cool and funky, the clientele and staff were varied, but always down-to-earth. Jason Moran, now an international jazz superstar, played some early gigs there, and Sammy Relford, who now plays the club that bears his name at 2016 Main, held it down as the head of the house band for over a decade.
Some say it was Relford's departure that led to the club's demise, but I think it has more to do with the fact that nothing cool can survive in close proximity to the Medical Center. In a way, it's amazing that the Gallant Knight lasted this long, since virtually everything else quirky, pleasant or unusual -- the Red Lion, Kiddie Wonderland, the Palm Court Inn, the friggin' Shamrock Hotel and its amazing swimming pool, the glorious Vegas-style tack on South Main -- has long since been torn down. All to make room for more sterile, fearsome edifices of the medical-industrial complex or outposts of big box retail or more vast parking lots. (The Parkwood Apartments, the 1940s brick buildings on the pleasant wooded campus over at Cambridge and O.S.T., are also doomed.)
Believe it or not, the Med Center once had some local charm. Bob Newhart recorded his star-making comedy album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart at the bar at the Tidelands Motor Inn, which also had an excellent pool surrounded by Tiki bars and palapas. Today the Med Center is as boringly efficient as a city in Switzerland, albeit with uglier architecture and less chocolate and fondue.
And oh yeah, rumor has it that the Gallant Knight will be replaced by another bank and -- you had to know this was inevitable -- a Starbucks. Just what the neighborhood needs -- after all, the Kirby, South Main, Village Arcade, Buffalo Speedway, Stella Link and Med Center food court locations of Starbucks are all so inconvenient. But hell, it will fit very nicely with the CVS -- also one of about ten in a two-mile radius -- directly across the street.
Besides not tearing down all the cool bars and replacing them with Starbucks, one of the signs of a truly great nightlife city is that you can go downtown on a Wednesday night with no plan -- except, as Nashville songsmith David Olney once sang, "to see what they built it for" -- and have a great time. You stumble into something, there's a surprise lurking down there, you fall into your fun. We ain't there yet. Last week, a buddy and I tried out this experiment, and downtown and Midtown both flunked.
Yes, the Continental Club strip at the Ensemble light rail stop was hopping, but the rest of Midtown was as eerie as the scene described in the Specials' "Ghost Town." We went to a new Midtown spot called The Roof -- a new joint where the DJs spin '80s hits and rock instead of the usual house / hip-hop Midtown mix -- and we were the only customers. Which was pleasant enough -- we had the place's awe-inspiring view of the skyline all to ourselves, not to mention the Prince, Queen and U2 soundtrack, but it gets boring with no one else to look at.
Further up the line, only Shay McElroy's was doing much business. Elsewhere along Main, the scene was as Mad Max-like as it was in 1988. Around midnight, the streets were empty save for various zombies of the night -- beggars, junkies, crackheads, pimps and hos, and packs of young dudes who looked more like they were interested in collecting other people's money than spending their own. If there was any live music being played down there at that time, we didn't hear it.
We just missed the last train heading south about 12:30 -- the driver seemed more interested in running us down than picking us up -- so we walked all the way back down to the Continental from Preston Station. We saw no one other than nocturnal ne'er-do-wells. Yes, it was a school night, but it was still hard to believe we were at the very center of the fourth-largest city in America.
One place where it's very easy to believe that is at the Miller Outdoor Theatre at Hermann Park, where the KPFT Fall Concert Series continues this weekend. Over the past month, the shows have featured zydeco, world music, indie rock and Americana-themed performances on the little stage near the back of the amphitheater, and this week they continue with dance / electronica. (The bill includes Zatouchi Live Electro, Damon Allen from Boys and Girls Club, DJ Ceeplus & the House of Bad Knives and DJ Dunnock & Jrios.) Next week is hip-hop week, starring Mojoe and Paul Wall's protgs Gritboys and more. Children, pets and coolers welcome; admission free. That's right, free.
DJ Screw's legacy lives on, in ways he could never have foreseen. On September 27, starting San Diego Chargers safety Terrence Kiel (a product of Lufkin High School and Texas A&M) was arrested by Drug Enforcement Agency officers at Chargers headquarters and charged with mailing two parcels of prescription cough syrup to some associates here in Houston.
Here's what some overly dramatic, apparently highly caffeinated DEA spokesman snarled about the case: "It goes right to the heart of what really is fueling an already out-of-control, raging fire of abuse of pharmaceutical drugs." Or maybe not; maybe these guys just like to mellow out and listen to slowed-down rap.
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But it does kinda make you think about codeine, H-Town rap and football -- San Diego is very close to Tijuana, where, according to information I received, "lean" is relatively easy to obtain. The Chargers have a lot of players from Texas, including star running back LaDainian Tomlinson. I'm not saying the guy's on drank, but I once saw L.T. on BET bangin' the screw -- rural Texas rapper Chalie Boy's "Fa Sho" to be exact -- in his candy-painted Escalade. (It's on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wXI1xScGys). It wouldn't be astonishing if Kiel's arrest marked the beginning of some big anti-codeine crusade on the part of the NFL and the DEA.
And finally, there's been a nasty outbreak of petty crime in the Montrose music community and, sadly, it appears to have come from within. On September 19, "Hambone," a washboard player and washtub bass virtuoso, a one-time member of the bands Mod Fag, Electric Ninja and the White Belt and the East Montrose Sterno Sippers, and an erstwhile associate of Medicine Show, was booked into Harris County Jail on charges of burglary of a habitation, evading detention and theft.
Geoffrey Muller, who was also in the Sterno Sippers with McLaughlin and once roomed with him, told me he kicked Hambone out of his band back in April. Muller says that Hambone started calling people and asking them for money to help with various physical ailments -- a spider bite and a back injury and stuff like that -- and then, Muller says, things started disappearing from his apartment. Medicine Show's studio fund disappeared, along with Muller's petty cash. Soon thereafter, there was an outbreak of burglaries and thefts in their circle of friends. A friend named Alejandro, who was leaving the country for the summer, had lent Hambone some musical equipment and a computer, all of which wound up in a pawn shop. (Alejandro was able to get his stuff back.) Medicine Show's Scott McNeil had his upright bass disappear, and McNeil's roommate's guitar also vanished. Hambone's ex-girlfriend was burglarized around the same time, as were several other people in their wider circle of friends. Muller said that after a while it got to be routine -- musicians would come up to him complaining about their gear, laptops and Xboxes vanishing, and Muller would have to explain that yes, he too was a victim.