Finding Austin

From the outside, nothing about Eddie Wilson's near-north Austin bungalow would indicate that a prime architect of the city's mystique lives inside. Once through the door, though, and the whole fantastic story becomes plain as a giant javelina sucking on a six-story jug of tequila. Over the fireplace, in the living room where Wilson jokes that prior to remarrying his ex-wife he spent five divorced years cavorting as Austin's "fat Hugh Hefner," there hangs a painting of the Armadillo World Headquarters, the venue and "beer garden of Eden" he opened in 1969 and sold to a partner in 1976.

More so than any other place in the Texas capital's history, the Armadillo was where Austin got its merit badge in cool. Just for starters, it was the epicenter for the rise of redneck rock, the sacred place where cosmic cowboys like Waylon and Willie united the hitherto-warring tribes of rednecks and hippies. Next to the painting, on the mantel stands a Day of the Dead shrine to Doug Sahm, another Armadillo regular and perhaps the one man who truly mastered every single style of Texas music from gutbucket blues to conjunto. To the left is the 'Dillo's old piano, played by everyone from Fats Domino to Johnny Winter to Mose Allison to Van Morrison.

The idea for Austin City Limits — the brand name that indelibly stamped Austin as the "Live Music Capital of the World" to a generation and counting of PBS viewers, and the driving force behind Texas's largest music festival today — was hatched at the Armadillo. Indeed, ACL's raucous Gary P. Nunn theme "London Homesick Blues" famously choruses "Take me home to the Armadillo..."

While you are taking this all in, Wilson is regaling you with tales of this bygone Austin. He explains how people were able to smoke weed with impunity there; powerful men like Bob Bullock liked to ogle the coeds in their halter tops and faded cut-off Levi's. And Wilson also shows you a picture of him goosing a youthful Ann Richards. The heat wasn't gonna come down on the fat cats' playhouse.

In the study, amid thousands and thousands of books and Burton Wilson photographs and psychedelic Jim Franklin posters and other lore, hang five paintings of giant armadillos prowling rolling bluebonnet prairies amid towering Lone Star longnecks. Yep, Wilson's club inspired that whole National Beer of Texas, "Long Live Longnecks" ethos, too.

"Cheap pot, cold beer and cheap rent," Wilson says in his courtly, old-school Texas rasp of a voice. With his snow-white mane and goatee and piercing eyes, he looks for all the world like a potbellied Mark Twain. "That's what got it all started here and now we're running out of all of it."

Well, maybe not the beer, but the point is well taken. Eddie Wilson's Austin, the one people flocked to from all over Texas and the nation to come join, where people could share $60-a-month rent houses and while away their lives hanging out down by the water and partying, is buried, if not dead.

Sure, you can still find vestiges of that magic in places like the Continental Club on South Congress and the Saxon Pub on South Lamar, and Wilson's own Threadgill's restaurants, and the other pockets of freakiness that dot the city from the North Loop to deep East Austin, not to mention in farther-flung outposts like San Marcos and Martindale, but by and large, Austin is coming more and more to resemble places like Dallas and Houston, the cities so many adopted Austinites fled in disgust.

And at the same time, Texas's larger cities are getting cooler and more livable, much "less suffocating," as Wimberley journalist and Willie Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski puts it.

As Wilson approaches 70 and battles lung cancer, he is wondering what will happen to his legacy and the city he worked so hard to craft in his image. It's been 30 years since the Armadillo met the wrecking ball. Wilson says he watched as a loader tipped remnants of the old stage into a dump truck. He swears he saw the glitter Doctor John once tossed in the air twinkling among the foam, dust, floorboards and mortar, but nowadays that seems less like an omen of great things to come than a coda to an era that will never return.

Today, where once the Armadillo rollicked, there squats an utterly sterile, suburban-looking, glass-sided office building. It's as if Austin had declared an official intent to abandon its good-timing days, sober up and get in the hamster wheel with the rest of the rat race, to mix rodent metaphors. Austin officially decided to barter its imagination for a bid at Houston- and Dallas-sized stacks of cash.

"What's even more ironic is that was initially a bank. And it failed," says Wilson. "That piece of real estate was the first flip in Austin, and I believe it flipped twice or three times before the thing got built and failed."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax