Singer Matt Kelly of Middlefinger was on stage at the Blue Iguana, and the place was rocking out. It was the late 1990s. Clouseaux singer Thomas Escalante was in the crowd and remembers that Kelly, known for his sly use of props -- he'd slip into a coconut bra at a moment's notice -- had pulled back from the stage and was looking at his wrist.
"Blood is spurting in huge arcs towards the ceiling. It was like a hose pointed up. We all thought it was part of the show, but what had happened was this guy was rocking on the front row, pounding a beer bottle on the table, and it broke, and Matt's wrist scraped right over the broken glass, and he sliced some of his arteries.
So he starts going all pale, and I'm like, 'Dude, you're really taking this to the next level!' Until he fell down, only his wife seemed fazed. That was when the music stopped. Luckily, someone in the audience happened to be a nurse-in-training; otherwise he could have died."
When you get right down to it, live music is as much a contact sport as it is one of the performing arts. Whether you buy a ticket to a football game or a concert, you have similar expectations: You're hoping to be entertained, hoping to get the adrenaline surging, but you're also expecting something more than what you would get from a movie at the local googolplex, where no matter the odds, you expect the hero to prevail in the end.
At any given show, the people who are there first and foremost to hear the music and commune with the band compose probably no more than half the audience. For a lot of people, hooking up is the primary reason to go. For others, and this is all too common, they go so they can say they were there.
But there is another reason people go to shows, and that is to see some real, live, good old-fashioned mayhem. Will the singer be sober enough to get through all his songs, when you know for a fact he's been drinking since noon -- yesterday? Will the equipment fail? Will a fight break out?
This story is about those anythings that can and do happen when you couple music and egos with drugs and alcohol. We've got people peeing, puking, and drinking whiskey filtered through urine strainers and crapping where they shouldn't. We've got clueless Canadians and creepy Californians. And we've got lots and lots of violence, not to mention Malcolm X dancing with Richard Nixon while getting whipped by a dominatrix with an I Dream of Jeannie fixation. Here's a look at some of Houston's most dangerous live bands and the most anarchic shows of the past couple of decades.
In November 1985, when the Replacements rolled into the Lawndale Art Annex on the Tim tour, they were the hippest young band in America. Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson and Chris Mars had welded punk spirit to Neil Youngian songcraft and come up with a mix that was as vital, if not quite as popular, as Nirvana would be five years later. Their live shows were always memorable -- they generally followed a pattern of drunken train wreck one night and a hungover beauty the next. Houston got the business end of one of their down nights. Cactus Music and Video general manager Quinn Bishop was there.
"Before the show, I remember, the guys were just sitting near the stage in a kiddie pool with no water in it, just drunk off their asses. Alex Chilton opened for them, and they were sitting in that kiddie pool heckling him. They were all wearing women's clothing -- some costume-type stuff they had found somewhere. And after Alex gets done there's this long break before the Replacements came on. When we first got there, we noticed that there was this guy asleep on the floor in front of the stage, and we thought, 'Hey, no big deal, he must have really tied one on.' So we forget about him, and a few minutes later the crowd parts and this guy lurches up and stumbles toward the back of the room, projectile-vomiting in all directions. It looked like he had eaten a bellyful of spaghetti -- there were millions of one-inch noodles all over the place -- and he slipped in it, stumbled and fell in it. It was terrible. Later, we found out it was Michael Corcoran."
(Reached at the Austin American-Statesman, veteran Texas music critic Corcoran disputes sleeping at the show, and doesn't remember if he was one of the two or three people in his group who puked.)
"So later I ran into Tommy in the bathroom before the show, and he was so wasted he could not speak, and I was like, 'Okaaay,' and as I finished up talking to him I heard this banging on the stall door. Paul had basically locked himself in the stall. And then he climbed over the top of it and fell in the water, or urine, or whatever it might be on the floor there. Remember, he was in a dress. Bob was in a tutu and flashing the audience with great regularity. Penis, ass, the whole deal.
"So anyway, there's this long, long break, and then they finally get up there and there's a false start to about 20 different songs, about 20 seconds to one minute per song. Paul [who, according to the Houston Chronicle's account of the show, was carrying a fifth of Jack Daniel's] kept falling down and knocking over the gear. At one point he fell over and knocked over half the drum kit.
"And that was when the beer-can shower started. There had been, like, 15 minutes of insanity by that point and people were sick of it, so they were chanting, 'You suck! You suck!' and throwing beer cans. And every time their roadie -- who was wearing this American flag getup of red striped pants and a blue shirt with white stars on it -- would try to set their shit back up, Tommy would just start kicking the crap out of him, until he would finally leave the stage. So everybody's chanting, 'You suck!' and Paul gets up in this one guy's face, and they're shooting the bird at each other, and I don't know if Paul spit on him or something, but the guy just went berserk. The guy just grabbed Paul and pulled him in the crowd, and Paul's just swinging wildly around, drunk. Right before that Paul had tried to throw a beer can at somebody at the back of the room, but he was so drunk he hit my girlfriend -- who was, like, four feet away -- right in the head. So when he went down she proceeded to kick the crap out of him.
"Finally Paul got back to the stage, and his attitude had shifted from arrogance to apologies. He was bleeding -- he had a big cut on his forearm, and he just reached in his pocket and just threw a wad of money into the crowd, and a melee broke out. A few people got, like, $20 a pop, but most of us got nothing. So the crowd was still pretty unappeased. So then he slurs, 'We're not gonna get any better, so if you want your money back, go get it,' and he points to the ticket booth. And the attendant, who was just sitting there staring at the spectacle, just closed the window, grabbed the cash box and evacuated. Eventually the cops arrived; the promoter got on stage and told everybody to leave orderly. They tried to calm everybody down, but it was just a riot."
The Texas Rangers -- the law enforcement agency, not the baseball team -- had a slogan: "One riot, one Ranger." Houston's Fatal Flying Guilloteens, who for a few years wore matching Lone Ranger costumes on stage, have adapted those fierce words. Their mantra could be "One tour date, one riot." Or another fight with another band. Here's a story from the Guilloteens scrapbook, set in and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in the summer of 2000, and told by Guilloteens guitarist-Houston Press columnist Brian McManus:
"We played one of the last shows ever at this place called Al's Bar, which was this legendary punk bar downtown, or so people told us. And there were these guys there called the Flash Express, and they were like, 'Wow, we have your album, you guys are awesome,' and they stayed for our show and they were like, 'Man, you guys are incredible.' And this guy looks like fuckin' Huey Lewis; he's, like, 35, and he's dressed like him too. He's got this sports jacket on and jeans, maybe like a V-neck shirt on underneath it. It was just ridiculous. And he's like, 'Yeah, man, we're in the studio right now and Jon Spencer's doin' a couple of tracks,' like his band is the shit or something. We get a lot of garage types at our shows because of [prestigious garage rock label] Estrus -- they're all like, 'Man, your label is awesome, but why are you guys on it?' 'cause we just don't fit. But this guy seemed to be genuinely into us, and he said that his band was gonna be playing at this legendary strip club called Jumbo's Clown Room. He was like, 'Man, if y'all want, it would be an honor to me if y'all played three songs with our equipment after we're done.' It was like this after-hours affair, kinda hush-hush. We were like, 'Fuck, yeah.' All of our friends were like, 'That's amazing! That was where they filmed the Mötley Crüe "Girls Girls Girls" video; dude, that place is legendary, you've gotta do this!'
"So everybody that was at our show came over. We had this entourage of about 40 people, and we easily doubled the crowd that was already there. And the Flash Express played, like, three songs and finished their set. And the guy looks like he's done, like, two eight-balls in each nostril, he's fuckin' sweatin' really bad, he's too old to be doing this anymore, and he's so infected with these garage rock clichés that he's got this preacher-man bit -- 'Right now! I'm gonna bring to the stage-ah! My very good friends-ah! From Houston Teck-shus! The Fatal Flying Guilloteens-ah!' Oh, we're like, 'Oh, God, this guy's a douche bag.' And I guess things got off on the wrong foot when he went on the microphone and thanked 'Huey Lewis and the Felch Express.'
"So we start playing, and Shawn gets up on stage with the strippers -- there's poles and lights around him and everything. [The band was supposed to stay on the floor next to the stage.] Anyway, this stripper, I don't know if there was a 'no getting up on the stage' rule, or she didn't want to be upstaged or something, but anyway, when she took off her bra she started strangling Shawn with it. Literally choking him with it, and pushing him in the crowd. This place wasn't built for as many people as there were in there, so when she pushed him in the crowd, they pushed him back up. So then she started hitting on him, and I think he pushed her. And she must have been Huey Lewis's girlfriend, 'cause he got fucking pissed. He came up screaming at us, and he said that if I broke his $15,000 fucking Les Paul or whatever, that he would break my fucking face.
"So now instead of fun, it's kinda tense. 'Okay, this guy's mad 'cause Shawn pushed his girlfriend and I'm playing too violently on his guitar.' So we start the next song, and everybody's getting all into it, and the guy puts Shawn in a headlock, so Shawn starts hitting him over the head with a microphone. Our half of the crowd and their half of the crowd just start going at it. I unplugged his guitar and held it over my head like it was a fucking crucifix in a room full of vampires, and I was saying, 'I will break your guitar if you don't stop this shit.' And he was saying, 'Go ahead and break it, muthafucka! I will kill you!' Anyway, I had to carry the guy's guitar over my head all the way to the door, and his friends were all like, 'Go back to Modesto, motherfucker!' which didn't make any sense at all. I guess in California hicks come from Modesto. But I dropped his guitar at the door, we ran to the van and peeled out."
I've found that as long as you're holding a mike, you can get away with doing things in public that would get most people arrested. -- Greg Wood
Prior to the Guilloteens' ascent to the Most Dangerous Band in Houston throne, the reigning king was (and often still is) Greg Wood, whose antics in bands such as Tab Jones, Horseshoe and his eponymous current group are often difficult to document, for the simple reason that everyone, from Wood and his bandmates on down to the bar staff, is generally obliterated at his shows, and people tend to have vague recollections of mayhem and little else. Generally the six-foot-plus, 250-pound Wood has a six-pack of Bud Light at his feet at every show, which he augments with shots of bourbon, sometimes knocking back a shot and a beer per song. Years and years ago, he was known to silence the band so he could give extended readings out of works by Charles Bukowski, Arthur Rimbaud and Penthouse Forum on stage, and he has long delivered killer impromptu Bill Hicks-esque comedy monologues between songs. And therein lurks the danger. He directs his barbed comedy at his fans one at a time -- he's like a whaler hurling harpoons at his prey, and once he sees blood in the water, he transforms from Captain Ahab into Jaws. He also always brings an extra-long mike cord, the better to get in your face, up close and personal, and when he does, the results can be scary. He doesn't so much stand by your table as he looms over it, and his shaggy hair, bushy beard and milky, useless eye (lost to an infection) make him look like some sort of pirate king.
"A lot of those Silky's shows got ugly," remembers Wood's songwriting partner Rob Mahan. Wood had a run of gigs in 2002 and 2003 at the defunct Washington Avenue dive. "Greg used to chase the audience off -- one person at a time. He'd focus in on someone and interrogate them on mike until they got so uncomfortable they had to leave. He'd follow them as they left, out the door and onto Washington Avenue, yelling on mike, 'Hey, I have feelings, you fuckers!' acting all hurt that they had walked out on his show. It was funny on the one hand, but then he'd come back in the door and the whole bar would have an uncomfortable hush to it, as if it were afraid of what might happen next. You almost forgot it was a music show. Sometimes someone would then yell, 'Play a song!' And then Greg would go after that person."
Pam Robinson -- owner of the Pamland Central clubs cluster, which included Silky's and still includes Walter's on Washington and Mary Jane's Fat Cat -- also has a few tales of Greg Wood gone rampant. "One time at Silky's he passed out cold on stage in the middle of a song. He ran off one of my best customers one time, I guess just 'cause Greg figured he was easy to pick on. I can't think the way a cow thinks, I can't think the way you think, and I sure as hell can't think the way Greg thinks."
At about the same time as the Silky's shows, Wood was also playing a run at St. Pete's Dancing Marlin downtown. There, amid all the gentrification, he put on a one-man freak show. He took off all his clothes at a few gigs, showing off the scars from his heart surgery and his less-than-svelte physique in all its glory, drank a shot of whiskey through a urinal strainer he found on the floor, and once took his saving grace -- his beloved microphone -- out onto Main and yelled "You fucking pigs!" at some police officers. And just like he figured, he didn't get arrested on any of these occasions.
Nightclubs are freak magnets. Not only do the clubs themselves attract their fair share of weirdos, but since many of them are in marginal neighborhoods, the areas around them often do, too. Moises Alaniz of Chango Jackson can verify that. "In Chicago a homeless man followed us around all day and into the night," he remembers. "When he was asked to leave, he said, 'What? I just want to hang out and smoke some crack!' "
Mykel Foster of the Southern Backtones (who by day, and under another name, works at the Press) can vouch for the weirdos on the inside. "We were playing in Midland or Odessa. This old guy -- we think he might have been mentally challenged -- saw a picture of us in some ad and he drove in from a long way off. After the show, he insisted that our drummer was his long-lost son. He was like, 'Where've you been all these years?' Our drummer was trying to let him down easy, but he finally just had to say, 'Look, I hate to burst your bubble, but my dad's in Santa Fe, Texas, and you're not him.' "
It's not just kooks you run into. If you travel far enough, you start suffering culture clashes, such as this one told by Barry Hembree, a Canadian-born Houston violin shop owner. Hembree attended a folk music festival in Jasper, Alberta, where African-American Texas songbird Ruthie Foster played. Foster is on Hembree's good friend Denby Auble's local Blue Corn label. (Warning: This tale manages to be cloyingly sweet, appallingly ignorant and toe-curlingly embarrassing, all at the same time.)
"After the show was over, I went over to say hi to her and [collaborator] Cyd [Cassone]. This girl came up, about 18 or 19 or so, who had obviously played earlier in the day. She started telling Ruthie how much she loved her music, and how much she loved her voice and everything, so Ruthie was being kind to her and said, 'Well, you keep after it and you'll be able to do that too.' And the girl said, 'Oh, no no no! I'll never be able to sing like you, because black people have extra vocal cords. I'll never get your sound.' Ruthie was being real sweet -- she just kinda rolled her eyes a bit and said, 'Well, you keep workin' it, and sooner or later you'll get it, and in the meantime I'm just gonna call you "sister." ' And the girl was just beside herself. Just walkin' on a cloud. And then she asks Ruthie, 'What are you gonna call me when I finally do get it?' And Ruthie says, 'Well, then I'll call you "soul sister." ' After the girl left, poor Ruthie didn't know what to think, so I just put my arm around her and said, 'Welcome to the Great White North, baby.' "
Everybody knows that Los Angeles is full of freaks. Houstonian Dan Johnson, the steel guitar player in Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys, found out firsthand just how weird the Hotel California can get when he toured with Hank Williams's grandson Hank III.
"We were in L.A. filming the Craig Kilborn show, and we got done and I was hanging around backstage and Hank comes back, and there's this note back there that says, 'If you want to see the most evil, twisted thing you've ever seen, come to so and so.' Hank sees that note and he's like, 'I'm there.' Then he says, You've got one and a half minutes if you want to go.'
"So I think it was me and Hank, the drummer and the T-shirt girl, and we go off to where the note said to go. It was this shop on the Sunset Strip called the Odium. Even though it was afternoon it was still closed, but a sign said it would open later. This was right after September 11, but there was a mannequin in the window of Osama bin Laden -- with an AK and everything. We knew we would come back. So we go shopping for a couple of hours and come back after it opens.
"Turns out this shop was owned by Stanton LaVey, the grandson of Anton LaVey. [The elder LaVey founded the Church of Satan and was the author of The Satanic Bible.] He looked kinda normal at first, but if you looked into his eyes, you could see he was the grandson of Anton LaVey -- just real crazy. And he had this assistant that looked and talked exactly like Mr. Burns off The Simpsons -- he's like, 'Let me know if you need any help finding anything.' And the shop is just full of psycho stuff -- riot footage videos, the Faces of Death series, this thing called Hillbilly Psychodrama, with these dudes in the hills shooting morphine and sitting out in the snow, naked, singing people taking band saws to live animals, lots of GG Allin and Mentors videos, that sort of thing. There were all these busts on top of the bookshelves, there was Hitler, then like Louis Farrakhan, then Mr. Rogers. Really crazy. There was lots of Manson stuff -- that Burns guy was a big Charlie Manson fan. ["Mr. Burns" was in fact John Aes-Nihil, a cult filmmaker/underground musician touted as the world's leading authority on the Manson Family.]
"So Hank buys some stuff and gets talking to Stanton and his assistant, and they decide to go have a meal. Stanton's like, 'Y'all aren't from around here. Why don't I pick the restaurant?' So he gets talking to his assistant, who asks us if we like Mexican. We say sure, and he's like, 'Eggsellent. I know just the place. It's called El Coyote -- it's where Sharon Tate had her last meal.'
"So we go over there and get a table and this guy's all pissed off that we didn't get the table Sharon sat at, and I'm like, 'Dude, it doesn't matter, it's okay.' And Stanton and Hank are talking and laughing, and every now and then you'd see this other side of Hank. Ordinarily, he's just this stoner, slacker kinda guy, the kinda guy who back in high school would work on a car all through lunch listening to Slayer, and then come in class smelling like cigarettes and sit there and laugh at the teacher and draw skulls on his notebook. But I saw this other side of him then, the same side that would say, 'Hey, check this out' and sing those spooky Luke the Drifter songs. And then all of a sudden it hit me. I'm sitting here at the restaurant where Sharon Tate had her last meal, with the grandsons of Hank Williams and Anton LaVey, both of whom look just like their grandfathers. It really freaked me out bad, man. I couldn't even finish my meal."
As one of Houston's top DJs for the last couple of decades, Sean Carnahan has also been privy to plenty of weird scenes. "I think one place that would get top marks would be most nights when I was spinning at Some," he remembers. "One particular night on Halloween, the entrance to the club had a petting zoo of completely wack animals: two-headed creatures, peculiarly developed sheep and goats and many other oddities you could pet as you entered the club. Inside there was this man in a full suit and tie, which really stood out, as he looked out of place. He then proceeded to stand in the middle of the room and undress into pink pig-print pajamas, put on a Nixon mask and then started dancing around like a madman while giving the victory/peace sign to everyone in the room. Later he ended up dancing with someone dressed like Malcolm X who was being constantly leather strap-whipped by a girl in an I Dream of Jeannie outfit on a leash connected to her chest piercing."
Live music is a visceral experience. Literally. Here are a few tales about bodily fluids, starting with one from Hank Schyma, front man of the Southern Backtones, with a tale of a bladder that could take no more.
"One night we were headlining in New Orleans. Headlining usually sucks in that town because some bars are open all night, and on that night we arrived at 6 p.m. and started playing at 2:30 a.m. I was in the middle of a long song/long solo when I thought, 'After this song I have to take a restroom break!' I then discovered you can hold your pee and play the guitar, you can sing and hold your pee, but you can't sing, play the guitar and hold your pee when you're drunk. My urine drenched one of my pants legs and overflowed the top of my boot while we finished the song. I was so astonished that I unwillingly announced into the mike, 'I just pissed my pants.' The crowd loved it! And we didn't have to take a break."
Pam Robinson has another tale of misplaced sewage. "The singer from 36 Crazyfists took a crap in one of our men's urinals. My husband was going to kill him.[Robinson's husband is about six-foot-four, 250 pounds, all muscle, and resembles one of the heavies in a Guy Ritchie flick.] We didn't owe him any money or anything like that -- we paid them high dollar. It was just one of those hardcore shows, and they were on Headbangers Ball, and for some reason when they get on Headbangers Ball they get an attitude. And this band was sponsored by Jägermeister, and liquor doesn't agree with them, it doesn't bring out the pretty side of them. Anyway, my husband says, 'Hey, you're gonna clean that up!' And the guy was like, 'Yeah, go ahead and touch me. Just try it.' And my husband says, 'Honey, if I touch you, you're never gonna walk again.' And our bartender Ryan's got a baseball bat -- he's about to kill him. And this kid says, 'Look, I ain't cleaning that shit up, and neither are my people. You're gonna clean it up.' "
Eventually, Robinson's manager Tim Carrizal defused the situation by cleaning up the mess himself. "So I said, 'Look, it's all cleaned up, why don't y'all just leave?''' Robinson says. "So the band walked the singer outside, and right before they got to the van, his own band kicked his ass. I mean, just tore him up. My door guy almost called 911 'cause he was scared for him. He had gravel all over his face -- they just pounded him. Then they threw him in the van and just drove off.
"They left their cell phone here, too. They called, like, an hour after they left and asked if they left it here. I said, 'Yeah, you wanna come back and get it?' And they were like, 'Nah, you keep it.' "
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We're left with this touching tale from local Americana chanteuse Lise Liddell about a woman drunk on love. Well, love and about nine martinis.
"About seven years ago I had a gig at Ovations," she recalls. "John Lassen was my lead guitar player. Some chick got hosed out of her mind and approached the stage, which at that time was about five feet off the ground. She had apparently fallen instantaneously, madly in love with John. Somehow she managed to grab hold of his guitar cord.
"She began to use the cord as a sort of rappelling rope to hoist herself up on the stage in order to get closer to her object of crazed desire. About the time that her torso had made it up onto the stage, her feet dangling and her arms sprawling, John pulled the cord from his guitar and scrammed his ass off the stage.
"I tried to ignore all of this crap and kept on singing, until I noticed the bartender mopping the floor right beside me. I was making some sarcastic remark that the club must not be overly impressed with my show if some dude was mopping during my song, when the dude informed me that the drunk chick had barfed all over the stage. The only saving grace was that I had not witnessed her throwing up, as this would have, I am sure, triggered my own pukefest."