Strikes and Spares

What ever happened to festivals in this town? A few years ago, they were going great guns. The iFest was drawing record crowds downtown, as the Westheimer Street Festival did in Montrose. Reliant and Enron were throwing huge bashes for no other reason than they could. There were ethnic fests in every plaza downtown, just about every weekend in April and October. Smaller soirees at places like Garden in the Heights and Fitzgerald's sprawled over whole weekends, with dozens of local bands from many disparate genres taking the stage.

Today the iFest and the West Fest seem to be in death spirals, each directly or indirectly the victim of its own success. The energy companies are no longer in such frivolous moods. Garden in the Heights is, as Jimmy Cliff would put it, sitting there in limbo, and many of the ethnic fests are either gone or downsized considerably. Crazy Tony shook us awake for a bit, but since then things have sunk back into slumber.

Why does this matter? Well, festivals are the best chance you'll ever have of catching local music you didn't know you needed to know. Sure, you might come across a great new act at a multiband garage rock, indie or metal show, but you won't discover that you really do love zydeco, conjunto, drum 'n' bass or rock en español at one of those gigs, 'cause there won't be any on the bill of fare. Festivals, on the other hand, are like buffets -- it's easy to get as much as you want of whatever you want, and also to taste a lot of different things.

O.P. (that's short for "original punk") Richard Tomcala likes festivals and what they do for Houston's culture. That's why he's coming out of ten years of showbiz retirement. With partners M. Martin and Brett Foley, he's helping to throw a great big one next week. The event, Three Days in Summer, will be at the Meridian from July 10 to July 12 and features everyone from locals -- including Chango Jackson, Opie Hendrix, Hollister Fracus, Dubtex, De Sangre, Lunatex and DJs Ethan Klein and Chris Anderson -- to national headliners such as Bob Schneider and Cowboy Mouth. More country, hip-hop and rock acts are being added daily. An advance ticket for all three days is a mere $15 at Sound Exchange, and even the door price of ten bucks per day promises good value.

"I always really loved music, and it felt like with the powers that be going the total corporate way, there was nobody really doing the music," Tomcala says, by way of explaining why he's getting back in the biz. "I don't really mean the club folks, 'cause they live it, but people are either not able to or not willing to take risks on special events, unusual gatherings of cultures or market segments. We find with festivals that's almost the nature of the beast. So my return is premised on the fact that I have an interest in festivals, the total cultural experience of festivals."

For years Tomcala was a big part of Houston's total cultural experience. Since the late 1970s, he has founded Public News and the first hemp store in America, published the largest hemp-oriented magazine in America and helped originate the entire alternative music scene in Houston. In 1980, Tomcala and some buddies from HSPVA took over booking and management at Paradise Island, the Phil Hicks club that was then the only punk nightspot in town. "I love a dive as much as the next person, but there's a level underneath dive, where it's frightening-scary-omigod-don't-go-there. Which is what Paradise Island had regressed into under Phil Hicks's mentorship. I mean, scary. Scary, like you'd expect mutant insects to pop up from the many, many dark corners of the place."

Which is probably what the stodgier members of Houston's nightlife set thought had happened after Tomcala had gotten through with the scene. Paradise Island was renamed simply The Island. "And that was really where the alternative music scene in Houston was born, plain and simple, " Tomcala says. "We had a two- or three-year span before it birthed several other places that were willing to try to bring this kind of music. Of course at that time punk was looked at much the same way hip-hop is today; you know, it's scary, they're gonna kill you, all those idiotic perceptions. And it just wasn't the case. We all discovered each other as having our usual set of human frailties, but that by and large we were a pretty decent set of folks, both in the new wave and punk camps, which at that time was the only delineation of any significance."

I ask him about the second wave of Houston's punk clubs -- places the Island inspired like Cabaret Voltaire and Cafe Mode -- and Tomcala's reminiscences are interrupted by an obvious sign that his wildest days are long behind him. "Please, son -- [gasps] -- put them both back!

"They're dropping…watermelons. That's not a good thing, in the house. Outside, in a field, yeah, smash it over a branch and just dig out the guts. But in the house -- put it in the refrigerator or be prepared to die. Anyway, what was I saying?"

Uh, I guess you were telling me that old punks may start families, but they never die.

Life in the Fast Lanes

When you think of Greg Wood, you aren't usually put in mind of MTV's Cribs. The white, heavy-set, bearded, scruffy-clothed, shaggy-haired, one-eyed rockin' honky-tonk singer-songwriter is pretty much the antithesis of the typical nouveau riche rapper. But all that's changed. Sort of.

It's incredibly apparent when he shows you around his new digs in northwest Houston. First off, it's a huge place -- about 20,000 square feet. There's a wet bar in one room, fully stocked with both a keg closet and a full two-tiered liquor cabinet. He has a huge playroom, complete with kiddie murals on the walls, and in the den there's a large-screen projection TV set. There's also a full kitchen, with a grill and two deep-fat fryers, and a fridge stuffed with more corn fritters, tater tots, jalapeño cheese balls and chicken tenders than you can imagine. In his office, there are several top-of-the-line computers. Just inside the front door, an entertainment system transmits selections from his legendary CD collection to speakers all over the huge domicile. Since his nearest neighbors are hundreds of yards away, he can play his music as loud as he wants, whenever he wants, and even sing along on the built-in karaoke mike if he so desires, which he often does. A DVD player is hooked up to the same rig; its transmissions are received by no fewer than 24 screens, or one for each of the lanes in his bowling alley.

That's right -- bowling alley. And here's where the Cribs analogy breaks down. While many rappers have bowling alleys in their basements, few actually live in the real thing (Ol' Dirty Bastard possibly excepted), which is just what Wood is doing.

"It's worked out well for everyone," the singer says, while seated at one of his many small tables. The Stones' "I'm Just Waitin' for a Friend" wafts over the sound system, and we nurse a complimentary pitcher of flat Bud and several glasses of gratis schnapps. "I was working here, and then I found out I was gonna get evicted from my place in the Heights. They're gonna tear it down and build a house there. Right about then, my boss told me they were closing this place down."

It was decided then that Wood should move in, and ever since, he's been the caretaker. He answers the phones, shows potential buyers around the place and keeps vandals away. He's drawing a salary for these duties as well as living rent-free. He can help himself to all the bowling-alley chow he wants, as well as all that booze. Let's see, a diet of deep-fried carbohydrates, fluorescent light, too much booze -- right about now this little scenario starts sounding less like Cribs and more like The Shining, or maybe The Lost Weekend II: The Relapse.

Wood laughs at the comparisons, which have, of course, already occurred to him. "I'll be out of here in about a month," he says, adding that he's saving enough money for a return to Montrose. In the meantime, Wood says, this little interlude puts him in mind of two other strange eras in his life.

"It reminds me of the year I wore nothing but a sheet, and the time I worked in a porn shop," he says. "It's just one of those things."

When told he should get cracking on his memoirs, Wood demurs. "I don't think I have enough life experience yet," he says. If only half the memoirists with one-tenth the stories would show the same restraint…

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Here are a couple of Fourth of July weekend parties worth checking out. On Friday, July 2, swing by 3302 Polk around ten for the hard-rockin' All-You-Can-Drink Warehouse Party, wherein ten bucks entitles you to see the Down & Dirties, F For Fake and the Delayed, not to mention all the draft beer you care to sip. Since you'll probably need a day to recover from that one, chill Saturday and restart the long weekend on the Fourth at Red Star, where Music Masala and Generasian Radio are joining forces to present "The Remix -- The Party of the Summer." One floor of the club will feature hip-hop, Asian funk and UK bhangra; another will have desi disco, house and retro, and on the rooftop patio you can watch the downtown fireworks display and celebrate America Mumbai-style.


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