It was around midnight on Saturday, and the Cactus Music & Video farewell party was nearing the bitter end. Cactus employee bands the Program and the Jane Frequency had rocked hard; folk-singing hobbyist and Cactus employee Ian Wilkinson had surprised many of his co-workers with his strong singing voice and well-chosen songs; and Big Brown Truck's "Whip It" had gotten a throng of dancers fidgeting along with Devo's herky-jerky grooves as a beach ball bounced around overhead.
By midnight four kegs had been drained -- not to mention bottles of vodka, mescal, bourbon and gin. Door prizes had been handed out -- this writer got a plush stuffed Beatles Yellow Submarine. Old friends had reunited with hugs and backslaps. Chocolate cake had been thrown on unsuspecting bystanders. People were smoking inside and getting in trouble for same.
General manager Quinn Bishop had made his gracious farewell speech, and as Big Brown Truck scrambled around harvesting their gear, local songwriter Rob Mahan -- who admittedly started drinking about noon that day at the West Alabama Ice House -- saw his chance. He rushed up to the stage and jumped behind the mike -- which, foolishly, had been left live.
"I never was a Cactush 'ployee," Mahan slurred. "But I rented a lot of movies here...Alsho paid a lotta late fees." The dregs of the crowd stared up at him, most no doubt wondering who the hell he was -- his name tag read simply "No Job Rob" -- and what the hell he was doing up on stage.
"So here's what I have to say about that," Mahan continued. "Fuck you!" He pointed to one stunned former clerk, and then rounded on another and then a third. "Fuck you! And fuck you, too!"
And so if anyone ever asks you who the last performer was to grace the Cactus stage -- the last entertainer to tread the same hallowed boards as Jeff Buckley, the Ramones, Townes Van Zandt, Doug Sahm and Patti Smith, there's your answer. And it was perhaps a fitting end. Cactus always was more of a community than a mere music and video store. Why shouldn't a customer close the store with a drunken rant about late fees?
Anyway, after a tense and depressing week, the closing party had more of a sense of release and joy than anger and sadness. It was less a funeral than an Irish wake. "This is a good party," said Wilkinson, who, on big Star Wars-related occasions, has been known to show up at the store in a stormtrooper suit. "But I can't really say that it's worth it. It's like a good friend died. I'll still see these people around, but it'll be a little different."
Outside, a few former employees were climbing the marquee and taking pictures of each other tangled up in the giant faux saguaro on Shepherd. One such was Greg "Gunther" Kemper, who often changed the letters on the sign in his ten-year tenure at Cactus. "This is the way it should have ended: with a live band, a lotta food and all the musicians that came through here and worked here and their friends," he said. "Nobody that worked here got rich doing it -- they all worked here for about minimum wage. And for a lot of us, it was the only place they could work."
For a time, Kemper was one such. "I came here in December of 1990, and I was just gonna work Christmas, and I ended up here for ten years. It was more than just a learning experience. It was a big piece of my life. I met my wife here. We got two wonderful children out of that. It means a lot to me."
And you could tell how much the store meant to some other employees, who were less diplomatic and accepting about the end. One such, who shall remain nameless, was irate that none of Cactus's well-heeled customers had stepped up to reopen somewhere else. "Some rich honky-ass honky needs to lay out the cash," he said. "These fuckin' pansies -- you should see their faces when we tell them we're closing, and not one of them will pony up the cash to start a new record store. I'm like, 'Fuck you, man. I waited on your ass for all these years.' And our last customer was just a fucking bitch."
In a way, a store closing is every long-term retail drone's dream scenario -- screw that "The customer is always right" bullshit if there's no tomorrow, right? Not so, said this employee. It wasn't worth the pain. "I'm dead serious -- I was hoping somebody would fuck with me," the employee said. "I was checking this lady out on the register and my hands were shaking and she said, 'You're shaking.' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm a raging alcoholic.' Working here yesterday really sucked. You didn't see anyone you knew, and people were just coming in and grabbing, like, 50 videos. Exactly like vultures. The whole thing got progressively worse."
Which is pretty much the opposite, you could say, about Cactus in its life. All through the night, people kept reminiscing about how bad Cactus was in the early and mid-'80s, and how it had gotten so much better since then. And you have to credit Cactus's development to the arrival of Bishop, who was hired on at the store in 1986. And so I did so. I walked up to him and told him how much good he had done for the store. As usual, Bishop was gracious and eager to share the credit.
"Myself and a bunch of other really great people, under the direction of the previous general manager David Gray, kind of rebuilt the company from four kind of off locations to one grand location. We did turn it around. The stores weren't very attractive. They were very '70s: wood paneling and bright green paint..." Suddenly Bishop saw one of his employees and collared him. "Hey, Tommy. Stop people from smoking in here. If you can't, you're, um, fired." Even on the night after his store closed, Bishop was still in bossman mode, and even as his final company party was winding down, was still able to formulate complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses. Screw music retail -- Bishop needs to be in politics.
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And since everybody wants to know when and if Cactus or some reasonable facsimile thereof will reopen, I put the question to Bishop. He basically had no comment, but left the distinct impression that there is a very real possibility that something along those lines could be in the works. (Meanwhile, the people over at the Continental and Sig's Lagoon are ready and eager to pick up the slack.)
But just like the party flyer said, this was the end of an era. In a download/iPod nation, I believe it's unlikely that we will ever see a store like Cactus again.
Club DJ, all-around great guy and former Houston Press ad rep Eban Doss, needs our help. Last month he was diagnosed with late-stage malignant melanoma, and he doesn't have health insurance. The first of what will probably be several benefits is The High Hopes Car, Truck and Motorcycle Show and Benefit this Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., in the parking lot behind Telvent (7000 Hollister Road). The entry fee to register your car for the competition is $20, which also buys you a raffle ticket. (Raffle tickets are $20 if you don't enter a car; there will also be door prizes and a silent auction. Prizes include a week's stay in a condo in Baja California.) Vehicles will be judged in 23 classes, with first-, second- and third-place prizes awarded in each. There will be three famous hot rods on view, including Sonny Poteet's '55 Chevy and "the fastest Corvette in Texas," and bluegrass ace Kelly Lancaster, quite possibly the fastest guitarist and mandolinist in Texas, will jam with his friends. To know Eban Doss is to really like Eban Doss, so get on up there and help him beat this illness.