Though it may be true that all the world is a stage, Dale Barton doesn't particularly come across as someone whose universe revolves around performing on it. Or at least that appears to be the case on this muggy late-October morning, as the T-shirt- and sweats-clad Barton lowers himself gingerly into a worn easy chair in the living room of his Heights home.
"It's dad's day off," Barton says with a wide, devilish grin, mentioning that his two young daughters, aged two and eight, have been safely shuffled off to another's care.
Soft-spoken and seemingly a bit unnerved, the 49-year-old musician/artist tries to lean back and get comfortable. Soon enough, though, he's hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, fingers running through his thinning, dark brown hair, as if anticipating a ringing phone or, perhaps, a child's cry. Obviously, Barton is accustomed to being on call, and he's having problems sitting still.
"We had the babies at home," he says, struggling to make small talk. "That was quite a thing there. Man, they just come right out."
By day, Barton wears the apron in the family, tending to housekeeping and parental duties while his wife, Paula DeMasi, works as a neurosurgical nurse at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. At night, when the kids are in bed, Barton retires to a home studio, where he hunkers down in front of an easel, paintbrush in hand, sometimes for hours on end. A few examples of his paintings hang on the walls of his living room; they're colorful, precise, thick-lined caricatures of creatures both real and imagined, in settings that could never be mistaken for any place on earth.
At least one evening a week, Mr. Mom breaks out of his homebody rut, crawling into the exoskeleton of bandleader Beans Barton -- he of the tuneless, late-period Jim Morrison croak, sundry crazed alter-egos and layer upon layer of freakish, ill-fitting costumes. Halloween weekend at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar was one such night. Shortly after 11 p.m., Barton appeared before a Saturday crowd, his backup quartet, the Bi-Peds, having quietly slipped on stage just before him. He looked like some mutant hybrid of a lizard, Barney the Dinosaur and Puff the Magic Dragon; thin, wraparound shades accentuated his bizarre aura. Velasco Viles was the name that this aspect of Barton was going by, and he stood at the foot of a makeshift throne like some cartoonish apparition sprung to life out of the Beatles' film Yellow Submarine. The throne was a bulky, boxy monstrosity haloed by an illuminated half-dome that resembled the cranial unit of an old beauty-shop hair dryer -- or, more disturbingly, the death helmet of some futuristic electric chair.
Quickly, Viles's ranting commenced. Most of it was meaningless, phonetically silly gibberish. Audience members in the first row studied the living, breathing, seething acid trip closely. Some applauded; others were bug-eyed and silent. But all of them were mesmerized. No one, it seemed, knew whether to laugh or to boo.
"Oh, my daughters don't see my shows," says Barton from his living-room easy chair, addressing the issue of what it must be like to have a father who spends weekend nights dressing up like some Sesame Street character gone horribly awry.
It's probably best that they're shielded from a lovable creep such as Viles -- that is, until they're old enough to tell the difference between cheap laughs and high art, and to realize that their daddy deftly walks the line between them both.
Beans Barton is Houston's rather precarious link in a fractured chain of gonzo-pop performance artists that, over the years, has included Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu. Like the first two, Barton was, for the most part, a product of the freewheeling 1960s, blessed with an irrepressible imagination and an irreverent sense of humor to match. As such, the bloated rock experience of that era is his medium. Although his Bi-Peds may never take their music to the experimental extremes of Zappa's Mothers of Invention or Beefheart's Magic Band (indeed, they fall back all too frequently on standard bar-band cliches), they provide an adept conduit for the channeling of Barton's many and varied artistic ideas.
A good band, after all, isn't easy to find, and no one knows that more than Barton, who spent the better part of 15 years searching for his. Then again, he didn't waste all of that time looking. Sometimes -- as with his infamous early-'70s stint fronting Bruiser Barton and the Dry Heaves, a group Rolling Stone dubbed the worst band in Texas -- he simply settled for what he could get, bonding with anyone sympathetic to his cause.
"It's not like I could play any instruments," he says. "I can't sing. Back in elementary school, I'm trying out for the sixth-grade choir; we're singing 'America the Beautiful' and I'm really selling it, and the teacher comes around and says, 'No, I don't think so.' Then I got the part as the court jester in the sixth-grade operetta, and they told me, 'Dale, just talk your song.' So I did this Lee Marvin kind of thing."
Born in Ohio, Dale Barton arrived in Houston when he was eight, his family uprooted to Texas by his salesman father at the height of the Cold War. "We loaded up and went to Dallas at first," Barton recalls. "When we first got here, my mother got a job at Foley's, and [my dad] didn't work much at all. It was a rough time for a while. But he ended up working for the Texas Employment Commission for many years."
Barton was a shy child, "kind of a knucklehead," as he remembers it. But he was exceedingly artistic, taking up drawing at a very young age as a means of escape. When he got to college, he started with poetry -- wild, unhinged stuff that his buddies at the University of Houston couldn't begin to fathom.
"I started as the equipment man/dancer for this band with all my friends from high school," he says. "Then, I decided I'd find myself my own little band, so I could holler all I want."
In 1969, he got his chance -- in Pasadena, of all places. "At Milby Park off 225, they had these free things every Sunday with this stage and this PA set up so anyone could play," Barton recalls. "My first band had a girl who rattled keys, another guy who scraped a comb with his driver's license, and I think I had a kazoo. It was Bruiser Barton and the Experience."
By their second visit to Milby's impromptu hippie forum, Bruiser Barton and the Experience had added a guitarist and become Bruiser Barton and the Dry Heaves -- then came an accordionist, a clarinet player, a drummer and a five-year run as "the band Texans have least to be proud of," says Barton, loosely paraphrasing Rolling Stone. At the long-gone Liberty Hall, the Dry Heaves opened for Ry Cooder, Little Feat and Captain Beefheart. As it happens, the management at Liberty Hall wasn't particularly smitten by the band, cutting off the power at one Heaves show after Barton -- who liked to careen around stage in a wheelchair -- began simulating a male orgasm with a spurting tube of toothpaste.
"We opened for Wet Willie. Our drummer brings out this briefcase, pulls out this big steak, lays it over the amplifier and starts whacking at it with a wooden spoon," Barton says, punctuating his recollection by moving his forearms as if pounding out a paradiddle on a thick sirloin. "We were playing away, and particles of meat are floating through the air. When I got to the toothpaste thing, they shut down the electricity, and it was just me, the drummer and the meat. The stage manager's eyes were bulging, and finally he yells, 'Get that meat off the stage!' "
With little money to be made spewing Crest and pounding slabs of beef into oblivion, the Dry Heaves eventually disbanded, and Barton moved to San Marcos, where he dabbled with guitar playing and wrote his first "opera," Gawdzilla Beach Pandemonium. "Five hours, one man, three chords," Barton chuckles. He's only played it in public once.
To stay afloat financially, Barton took jobs in construction and as a truck driver. Upon his return to Houston in the late 1970s, he tried theater, starring as Lenny Bruce in a small production of Lenny. That eventually led to comedy shows with a theater pal, Big Skinny Brown. It was with Brown that Barton began perfecting the performance art that would lead to his strangely enduring cast of characters.
In the mid-'80s, Brown went off to more serious work with the local theater company Stages, while Barton returned to rock and roll, forming the Bi-Peds with guitarist Jim Mendenhall (a.k.a. Dr. Poison Zoomack).
"We all qualify," says Barton when asked to explain the origins of the Bi-Peds name. "We all have two feet." And as for the "Beans," "that was my old softball nickname."
Back at Dan Electro's, Beans Barton was fulfilling that perpetual childhood urge to be noticed, and doing so the only way in which he feels comfortable. Barton peeled away one costume after another as the evening wore on, revealing characters with names such as Faro Face, Dr. Oblongatta, Hagus Spine and Bud Pupkin. Oblongatta is a consistent fan favorite, with his white-blond fright wig, bizarre healing rituals and raunchy, redneck communions in which piles of white bread are served to the audience, only to be thrown back at the good doctor. Oblongatta's nose, incidentally, is well-stocked with boogers that have been said to smell like vinegar -- not that you'd want to get close enough to find out.
From his throne in front of the stage, Barton continued to proselytize about absolutely nothing, pausing only to strip away more garments or sing a selection from the Bi-Peds' campy repertoire of original tunes, a repertoire made up of musty-sounding, guitar-driven rock tunes with ludicrous names such as "Fuzzy Water," "Makin' Mud" and "Human Stew." (They're all featured on the year-old live CD Absolutely Alive, the Bi-Peds' only release in more than a decade of performing together; Beans hates to hear himself sing.) Every now and then, Barton applied a few more strokes of crayon to a picture he was working on during instrumental breaks. Performance after performance, he never fails to finish his artwork by show's end, and most nights, his creation is auctioned off to the highest bidder, with all the money going to the Houston Food Bank. But seeing as this was Halloween weekend, this time the money went to the winner of a costume contest.
Directly behind Barton -- as always -- stood the Bi-Peds, who are as crucial to his twisted brand of cabaret as the fans who spout responses in unison to his between-song ramblings. What's surprising about the Bi-Peds lineup these days is how many of them used to hold fairly normal, upstanding positions in local music institutions. Guitarist/bassist Jimmy Raycraft -- the recent replacement for Poison Zoomack, who has his hands full as the owner of Dan Electro's and Heights Guitar -- did time in both the Dishes and Herschel Berry's Natives, while drummer Wiley Hudgins is another Natives alum. Guitarist/bassist Jimb Jackson played with the Basics, and his wife, multi-instrumentalist Susan Wolford Jackson, has performed with the Harry Fish String Band, among others. They all work for Beans now, and it's likely they'll never be the same for it. Not that it matters; they're hooked.
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"He's just wacky," says longtime Bi-Ped Wolford Jackson. "Maybe it has something to do with old age -- premature senility."
To Barton's right at Dan Electro's, a well-endowed go-go girl danced and motioned with her hands as if providing a sign-language translation of his spoken nonsense. Meanwhile two Bi-Peds -- one wielding a spotlight, the other a video camera with a color monitor strapped to his back -- circled their leader like flies on a goat. Those closest to Barton in the audience were unfazed by the spectacle, continuing to cheer him like they might some aging local hero -- almost as if he were normal, a person not unlike you and me. They, of course, had seen this all before, or something close to it. Many, in fact, had seen a lot worse. And so, one might add, has Barton himself.
"No record label's going to sign a bunch of 50-year-olds. We don't do well with the kids; they don't want to see their dad up there," says Barton back at home, finally starting to relax in his easy chair. "But I just won't quit. I do it because I love it. I'm a happy man."
Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds perform at 10 p.m. Saturday, November 22, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh Drive, and Tuesday, November 25, at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, 1031 East 24th Street. Cover both nights is $5. Jimmy Raycraft's Roaring Calhouns open. For info, call 863-9337.