Houston's Most Unique Address

Those of us who have come to reside upstairs in the Continental Club building at 3700-3718 Main — half a block long, 70 or so feet high, built in the late '20s — have a more-or-less informal nickname for the place: the Island.

With surroundings like the 59 spur, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, a row of appointment-only antique stores and reams of vacant property — both lots and buildings — it can feel pretty isolated. An average Sunday night around 8 p.m., say, is as lonely as the desert in a John Ford flick (only with more trees). The streets are empty, save the strays making their way to and from the halfway house around the corner or the quick-marts at Fannin and Alabama for lottery tickets and 24-ounce cans of Bud or Olde English.

It ain't the Midtown you may have read about in glossy advertorial mags that tout valet parking and ridiculously overpriced cocktails, that's for sure. Noise's neighbor across the hall, "Squid," has told me about hearing nearby gunfire on more than one occasion. Much more common, thankfully, is the clang and whistle of the MetroRail every few minutes.

So maybe living here is a little like a John Carpenter movie. (Escape from 3700 — that'd sell tickets, right?) But that's only when everything downstairs is locked up tight. The rest of the time, the Island pulses with the energy that comes with having a nightclub, ­musician-friendly taqueria, record store and bar back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

It's the kind of place, in other words, crying out for somebody to write a song about it. Now somebody has, and it's hard to imagine anyone more ­qualified.

One "laid-back day" around noon earlier this year, Nick Gaitan, upright bassist and leader of the Octanes and The Umbrella Man, was upstairs in his apartment waiting for a ride, noodling on his grandfather's acoustic guitar, when inspiration struck.

"I wrote this song sitting by that window with that view," he says, gesturing towards the panoramic Houston skyline only partially blocked by the HCC building at Elgin and Main. "I was waiting to hear them honk or whatever, sitting there with the window open, and I just started thinking. I must have heard the train go by or something."

About ten minutes later, Gaitan's ride still hadn't shown up, but he had completed "I've Found My Weakness in You," an easygoing train-beat ballad with lyrical references to the MetroRail, the number of steps between upstairs and the street (26) and the sidewalk parade of pretty girls when the Continental and Big Top are in full swing. The most evocative lyric, though (see box), has to be the line "Nighttime falls on old 3700."

"That's just referring to the life — living here, playing here and everything," he says. "Every time I turn around it's nighttime around here."

Gaitan isn't the Island's longest-­tenured musician resident — since David Beebe moved to Marfa, that distinction lies with tango pianist Glover Gill — but he's probably spent more time in the building, upstairs and down, than anyone else. The Octanes just took over the El Orbits' Monday-night Continental residency, and Tuesdays he heads right back downstairs to dole out The Umbrella Man's weekly gumbo of country, conjunto, gospel and blues; that group frequently plays weekends at the Big Top as well.

Once upon a time, the Island also paid Gaitan's bills. "At one point, I worked as a bartender at the Continental, I was working at Tacos a Go-Go, I was working at Sig's Lagoon and bartending the Big Top, so I worked the entire block all week," he says. "Nighttime or daytime, whatever it was, I was gonna be downstairs working."

Gaitan reckons working at Sig's Lagoon contributed the most to "Weakness." When it was slow during the day, which it often was — having covered a few shifts at Sig's himself, Noise can testify to this firsthand — he would put on some music, stand in the doorway and watch people get on and off the train.

"Every time it stops, there's all these people jumping off at the Ensemble/HCC exit," says Gaitan, who can also see the train stop from his window. "They're either coming over here to go to the store or get their oil changed or go to rehab, or they're coming [to the Island] to get drunk, to eat or buy music."

Gaitan's song might never have been heard off the Island, or even downstairs, if not for one important detail. Since October 2007, he's been Texas songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver's bass player, a gig that allowed him to quit his downstairs shifts — he still fills in at Sig's from time to time — and handle the Octanes and The Umbrella Man's affairs from Shaver's tour bus. One night at San Marcos's Cheatham Street Warehouse, with a documentary crew in the audience, the old five and dimer put Gaitan on the spot.

"The opening band was still playing, and Billy says, 'Hey, there's going to be cameras in the house and I want you to get a piece of this publicity, so you sing a song tonight,'" he recalls. "He hadn't heard the song or anything like that. I had just written the song, and was still singing it in motel rooms to the guitar player, Jeremy Woodall, and Jason McKenzie, the drummer, like, 'Hey guys, check this out.'

"So that night, he introduces Jeremy and Jeremy plays a song, 'House on the Hill,' and then he says, 'This is Nick Gaitan from Houston, Texas, and he's gonna sing one for you," Gaitan, a graduate of Milby High School and U of H with a bachelor's in English, continues. "I grabbed [Shaver's late son] Eddy Shaver's guitar, this black acoustic Fender, and I played the song."

After the show, the tour bus was en route to the next gig — Gaitan doesn't even remember where — and Shaver pulled his bass player aside. "He says, 'Man, I think you've got something with that song — I really like it.'"

As the author of "Georgia on a Fast Train," Shaver knows a worthy train song when he hears one. After a few weeks of hearing Gaitan sing it during the set, he decided he wanted to record it himself — the first time the 69-year-old had recorded anything since the sessions for last year's Grammy-nominated Everybody's Brother album. The band set up in the living room and kitchen of Woodall's home studio and knocked out "Weakness" in an afternoon.

Besides the 26 steps and "nighttime falls on 3700" line, "Weakness" contains one more bit of interesting numerology — it's two minutes and 54 seconds long, and 254 just happens to be the area code for Waco, Shaver's longtime residence. Still, Gaitan says Shaver's voice wasn't in his head during those ten minutes that produced "Weakness," that "it just fell out."

In retrospect, though, Gaitan has come to realize how much his year and change in Shaver's band comes out in his autobiographical tribute to 3700. So has Billy Joe himself, apparently.

"At one point, [Shaver] says, 'Man, I think I wrote that song,'" laughs Gaitan. "Or something like that."

So if you're ever around Main and Alabama around sunset, keep one ear cocked for that train whistle, and imagine an upright bass thumping along to the rhythm of the rails. Rest assured that upstairs, we Islanders are doing the exact same thing.

"I've Found My Weakness in You"

I just walked up from the station

26 steps up from the rain

Looks like the sun is coming out now

Still hear the whistle from the train

I watch all those lovely ladies


Sometimes they stop and talk to me

Out of all those lovely ladies talking

I found my weakness in your

Dark hair, baby

And your dark eyes too

I like the way you shake it and don't stop until you're through

I like the way you say you love me like it's true

I've found my weakness in you

(guitar solo)

You can call it what you want now

Guess I was born to be alone

Got no money in my pockets

Walk like a king without a throne

Nighttime falls on old 3700

That Houston skyline shines on me

Down there they got any way you want it

I found my weakness in your

Dark hair, baby

And your dark eyes too

Like the girls in Southeast Houston, many times I've been a fool

I like the way you say you love me like it's true

I've found my weakness in you

I've found my weakness in you

I've found my weakness in you

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray