Upstairs, Downstairs: Drive-By Truckers, "The Living Bubba" and the Steep Price of Radioactive Ice Water

After many, many years, Rocks Off is beginning to realize that it's possible to have a worthwhile musical experience nowhere near a stage. Ironically, the band responsible is Drive-By Truckers, whom we've seen live more often than probably any other save Wilco, Rev. Horton Heat and a handful of old Austin favorites like the Gourds, Grand Champeen and Lil Cap'n Travis.

Our history with the Truckers goes back at least a decade, when they used to blow in from Athens, Georgia, and wreck Austin's Hole in the Wall with the barrel-chested likes of Denton's Slobberbone and Austin's Meat Purveyors. Halloween night 2000, they debuted what would become their breakthrough a few months later, Southern Rock Opera, and we remember a blood-curdling cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," some broken furniture and, in retrospect, giving thanks we made it out of there alive.

Last month, the Truckers released Live from Austin TX, an unedited-for-television CD/DVD of their inaugural appearance on PBS' s Austin City Limits. Recorded last September, the performances are first-rate - the Truckers, de facto frontman Patterson Hood in particular, are obviously a little nervous about being on the iconic series and put their shoulders to the grindstone a little harder because of it. The set list mixes several songs from DBTs' most recent album, last year's knotty Brighter than Creation's Dark, with well-worn older material like "Let There Be Rock," "Zip City" and "Marry Me."

Houstonians should have a special affinity for the Truckers, who roll into House of Blues October 30. Many of their songs ("Puttin' People on the Moon" and "Space City," to name two from the ACL set) are about Huntsville, Alabama, which is (or was) almost as big a NASA company town as Clear Lake City. But the one that really hit home with Rocks Off this time is "The Living Bubba," which has nothing whatsoever to do with NASA and everything to do with where we find ourselves as we approach the doorstep of 35.

Originally released on the Truckers' 1998 debut, Gangstabilly, "Bubba" was the first hint that DBT might amount to something more than a bunch of Skynyrd-loving beardoes jamming at a Tuscaloosa frat party (other Gangstabilly titles include "Panties in Your Purse," "Late for Church" and "Buttholeville"). Hood wrote "Bubba" about his friend Gregory Dean Smalley, a central figure in Athens's "Redneck Underground" scene in the early '90s. Smalley played in the local bands the Diggers, Redneck Greece and Gregory Dean and the Bubbamatics, often ended his sets in the buff and, when Hood met him around 1995, was dying of AIDS.

Smalley didn't let his condition affect him in the slightest, at least not if he could help it.

"Some nights, he'd place a barstool on stage behind where he stood to prop him up for the set. When he wasn't singing, he would lean back on that barstool and play his ass off," Hood told Paste magazine in 2003. "He would lean forward semi-upright and sing in that raggedy voice and crack nasty jokes between songs, occasionally looking like he was about to fall off the stool and drop dead on stage, but he stayed on his feet and never went down."

Smalley invited Hood's band at the time, the Lot Lizards, to play a tribute concert/benefit called Bubbapalooza. Hood called Smalley to thank him, but his wife answered and said he was too sick to come to the phone, that he was in the hospital and "probably wouldn't be coming out." Shell-shocked, Hood went out to walk his dog and was about halfway into a field near Athens when a song came to him. He ran back to his house and wrote "The Living Bubba" in, he told Paste, "about the same length of time it takes to play it live."

"I wake up tired and I wake up pissed

"Wonder how I ended up like this

"Wonder why things happen like they do

"But I don't wonder long cause I got a show to do.

"I'm sick at my stomach from the AZT

"Broke at my bank cause that shit ain't free

"But I'm here to stay at least another week or two

"And I can't die now 'cause I got a show to do."

Rocks Off often wakes up tired and pissed, but - as far as we know - we have not contracted any sort of terminal disease. Yet. However, the compulsion to go to another show, at the expense of everything up to and including your own health, feels all too familiar.

Watching the Truckers DVD, feeling "The Living Bubba" lyrics sink in, led Rocks Off to start adding up what we have to show for the thousands of concerts we've been to in the past 15 years. There's a few shoeboxes full of ticket stubs, a decent poster collection and, we're pretty sure, a hole in one eardrum. (We can feel air whistling through our ear canal... it's freaky.)

Tangibly, that's about it. Constantly going to shows has left us in a state of perpetual post-adolescence. Rocks Off has been able to hold down a job, and can make rent (usually just barely), but that's about where our engagement with what most people refer to as "adulthood" stops. Our longest relationship to date lasted a little more than nine months. We have no kids, no savings, no 401(k). We own almost nothing: one pet, one plant and a car that doesn't run and that we can't drive anyway.

Maybe if we had known what was ahead of us that first time we saw the Truckers tear up Hole in the Wall, we would have stuck around college long enough to graduate. Or at least gotten in the habit of wearing earplugs. But after almost a week of navel-gazing, we'd be lying if we said we regretted (much) the choices that led us to this loud, empty life.

We were for a while, actually. Then Rocks Off put on another recent DVD, Wilco's Ashes of American Flags, and got lost in the opening title song. Those six minutes of the band sound-checking at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa are as beautiful as any symphony.

Like clockwork, we felt that same transcendent thrill that shot through us like radioactive ice water the first time we ever saw Wilco, the Truckers and too many more to mention live. Being there, in the moment - whether in your head or in the venue - is still, to us, the happiest place on earth.

Noise can't die now. We've got another show to do. Or, maybe, another DVD to watch.

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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