Airline's furthest reaches are lined by sprawling and run-down '70s apartment complexes. And yet there's a weirdly rural feel in patches. The 281 area code hangs on for a longer time than you would expect, and there are plenty of fireworks stands, as a swath of unincorporated Harris County extends far toward town. The few houses we saw looked like they had once been out in the middle of fields.
The entire area is also pretty much 100 percent Mexican, with a couple of Salvadoran businesses for variety, and one gringo barbecue -- the Hungry Farmer -- holding out.
Even on a Sunday, the street is livelier than most in Houston - in fact, it reminded Beebe and I of nothing so much as lower Westheimer circa 1986, albeit en español.
Teenagers still cruise the northern stretches of Airline in their cars, many of which sport speakers mounted in their grills, the better to share their norteño tunes with all those around them. (It's loud, but since norteño is pretty much devoid of resonant bass frequencies, it doesn't bulge glass or rattle your fillings.) There's near gridlock at some intersections and the same sort of fleeting, duration-of-a-stoplight sexual tension (and thus its traveling partner -- potential violence) 'Theimer was known for back in its teenage hormone-drenched alleged heyday.
Other than that Westheimer aspect, Airline reminded me of the north side's exact, albeit inverted, replica of Telephone Road. Both thoroughfares can get you to (or at least very near) airports, for example, and both have rich, though mostly bygone, musical histories. But whereas Telephone segues from solidly blue-collar Mexican neighborhood to sleazy red light district as you head out from town, Airline gets sketchier the closer you are to the skyline. Also, the Mexicans on Airline's upper reaches seem less assimilated than those on lower Telephone Road. Telephone's barrio conjures the Tejano vibe of San Antonio; Airline seems as puro Mexicano as San Luis Potosí or Torreón.
Nowhere more so than just south of Gulf Bank at one of the North Side's true glories: The Sunny Flea Market, or "Los Garages," as Beebe calls it.
Uptown has the Galleria. New Chinatown has Hong Kong City Mall. The Southwest Side 'hood has Sharpstown Mall. The North Side barrio has Los Garages, where at any one of literally 1,000 market stalls you can buy a Chivas jersey, a coctel del mar, a used drill, elotes, one of those electronic jungle-scene signs, a tamarind licuado, customized belt buckles and other charro wear, or a car stereo. A norteño band in matching suits was playing in the on-site cantina, and Beebe and I got beers and watched for a few minutes, before taking our beers and walking around the grounds as the last of the tens of thousands of shoppers, stallholders and partiers wrapped it up for the week.
As for us, we still had miles to go, and on down around the intersection with Little York, there's plenty of musical history, some of it still alive.
Namely in the form of the 47-year-old Cedar Lounge, one of Houston's most storied North Side nightspots. As the home club of Joey Long, one of Houston's great unsung musical legends, the joint has a rich heritage, as attested by this segment of "The Road, the Radio, and the Full Moon," an award-winning reminiscence by eccentric steel-guitar ace (and former Houstonian) Susan Alcorn:
People who used to go whip dancing to white Houston bluesman Joey Long now talk about how he died. The heroin king of white Texas blues, always with a lit cigarette stuck between the tuning keys of his guitar. Playing a lick, taking a puff, and then blowing out the smoke in ringlets while he sustained and bent the note. He was playing at the Cedar Lounge one night, and during break time, he went outside and sat on the curb and closed his eyes. It was twenty minutes before anyone realized that he was dead. And they talk about Tommy Williams the drummer who used to have a bowl of goldfish in his bass drum, but by the end of the night the fish were always floating belly up at the top.
(For the record, Long's musician son Jimmy Joe Long disputes that his dad passed away on a set-break, but it's a great legend. Jimmy Joe says Joey passed away while walking to the store.)
The multi-talented Joey Long rose to fame alongside Sonny Fisher in a rockabilly duo, later played lead guitar on smash hits like Frogman Henry's "Ain't Got No Home" and sax on Ivory Joe Hunter's iconic "Since I Got You Baby." During a sojourn in the French Quarter in the early '60s, Long was in a band with two recent parolees from Angola prison: the pre-fame Mac Rebennack (later known as Dr John) and Freddy Fender.
After moving to Houston in the early '60s, he became the first white musician to play in Houston's black blues bands. A rare recording of a song called "Nobody Loves Me," with Long playing hellacious lead guitar for Big Walter the Thunderbird, is one of the most gutbucket, hard-hitting blues ever to have come from Houston. It was originally the B-Side to Big Walter's regional hit "Get to Gettin'."
Later still Long and his hornet-sting guitar tone became something like the house guitarist at Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label, and served as a mentor, father figure and influence on music legends like Doug Sahm, Billy Gibbons, Keith Ferguson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and Johnny Winter. Late blues drummer Uncle John Turner once called Long "the godfather" of white Texas blues performers.
Long ruled the Cedar's small stage for much of the '70s and '80s, often performing what were known as "pressure cooker" gigs. They were called that because they were weekday matinee affairs -- housewives would put dinner in the crockpot and paint the town red before hubby got home around sundown. And if he came home early, there would often be hell to pay if he made his way over to the Cedar...
And here we were. The sign out front advertised "Tejano Night, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays." Since this was Sunday, the crowd was mixed. Press correspondent William Michael Smith told me a few years ago that the Cedar had a weird door policy. All comers, he said, were charged two dollars at the door, after which they were given a free beer at the bar. He was told by an employee that this policy was designed to foil penniless customers from coming in and cadging drinks. I was a little disappointed that this policy was not in effect when we went.
There are a few pool tables to one side of the bar in the L-shaped room, while the stage and dance floor are around the corner. The walls are done up in red dimpled leatherette, and the place feels as old as it is.
Beebe was also starting to feel his age, not to mention the effects of the walk, the cold, the lack of sleep from the night before. He dialed up a mix of Al Green and Doug Sahm tunes on the juke while I called Mike Haaga to see if he wanted to come meet us. (He lives relatively close to the Cedar.) Haaga arrived about 15 minutes later and laughed about how much farther we had to go and how miserable we both looked.
Haaga and Beebe were objects of great curiosity to the barmaid.
She wanted to know where they were from. They told her, and she relayed the information to her girlfriend on the other side of the circular bar. After a short conference, she was back again a few minutes later.
"What do y'all do for a living?" she asked. They told her they were musicians. Off she went for another confab, only to return in a flash.
"What do y'all play?" They told her, and away she went. And so on. I guess I looked more like a run of the mill denizen of the Cedar Lounge 'cause she paid me no mind whatsoever.
Anyway, the Cedar's a great bar - only a little too far out Airline for the sort of hipster reclamation project that has taken place at funky joints like the Shiloh Club, the Shady Tavern, the Rose Garden, and the Tall Texan.
After a round or two, it was time to hit the bricks again. Haaga headed off in his car while Beebe and I put one tired dog in front of the other for the long-ass homestretch.
Across the street from the Cedar, in a run-down strip mall, there's a huge bingo parlor called Dance Town USA. It doesn't look like much today, and we didn't know it at the time, but it was even more of a hot spot than the Cedar Lounge back in its prime.
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Founded in 1962 by Larry Butler, a.k.a. "The Country Gentleman from Cut and Shoot, Texas," a singer who once had Nelson in his backing band, Dance Town USA was the site of shows by Bob Wills, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Charlie Pride, Faron Young, Webb Pierce and Johnny Paycheck, most of which are only recorded in the memories of the dwindling number of people who attended them.
Dance Town USA was country before country was cool. Through the '60s and early '70s, the Post and the Chronicle regarded the hillbilly goings-on at places like Dance Town as tacky and beneath their contempt, and as Houston-born music business veteran Bill Bentley told me last summer, no matter how much they might have enjoyed the music, it was downright dangerous for hippie kids to attend honky-tonk shows until the advent of Willie Nelson in Austin in the early '70s. Bentley says that he was made far more welcome at clubs in Third and Fifth Ward, at least until the assassination of Martin Luther King.
And so few documents of the era remain. One is a highly sought-after 1965 live recording of George Jones -- one of the few live 1960s honky-tonk records in existence. Johnny Bush later recorded a live album there, and Dance Town figures prominently in his recent autobiography Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk. It was there that Bush realized that something was starting to go terribly wrong with his voice. (He lost most of his singing voice and all of his ability to speak shortly thereafter, though he has regained much of both since then.)
The show was sold out. Both parking lots were full, and cars were lined up down the block on both sides of Airline Drive.
"Whiskey River," my first release on RCA Records, was the No. 1 record in Houston and all across Texas. It looked to be the biggest hit I'd ever had.
I'd previously enjoyed a successful five-year recording career with such hits as "What a Way to Live," Undo the Right," "You Gave Me a Mountain," "My Cup Runneth Over," and "I'll Be There." Most of these songs had reached No. 1 in the Texas market and gone Top 10 or Top 20 nationally.
In 1969, I'd been voted the Most Promising Male Vocalist in country music by Record World magazine -- the equivalent to today's Country Music Association Horizon Award. Bob Claypool, the music critic at the Houston Post, had proclaimed me "the Country Caruso."
This rising star, a hometown boy made good, was the one the crowd had come to see and hear perform. I loved playing to the Houston crowd. This was special. This was home, the city where I'd been born and raised.
The familiar pre-show adrenaline rush began. But on this night it was different. This wasn't the natural high of anticipation and excitement I usually welcomed before a performance.
What I felt on this night was fear.
By now, what Beebe and I were feeling on this night, all these years later, was pain. And since the Dance Town USA Bingo Parlor wasn't even open, we kept on walking, unaware of its glorious past as the top honky-tonk in Texas. We managed to alleviate some of our discomfort in Recuerdos, a Mexican piano bar on the corner of Parker. Murals of bygone Mexican film stars looked on as we filled ourselves with the warm glow of Cazadores tequila, though I must confess my blood chilled when I got the check.
By and by we passed the shuttered Canino Farmer's Market and then I-45, which is where things started getting sleazy. I went in a Valero to get a couple of beers, and wound up impulse-buying an extremely ghetto Obama t-shirt. The president-elect's head doesn't really fit on the Muhammad Ali's body, but at $12.99, it was still a steal:
Beebe stayed outside, and he had company when I came back out. A fiftysomething man in a flannel shirt and baseball camp was talking to him.
"John, this dude wants to sell me some crack!" Beebe said.
The guy slowly turned to appraise me. I've seen drunker men in my 38 years, but only because I once traveled extensively in Eastern Europe.
As I was wearing dark blue clothes from head to toe, I think he took me for an undercover po-po. I could see his mind grinding through several gears at once and practically smell the burning transmission grease coming out his ears.
Finally, he decided to throw the dice. "Twenndolla frtheezrocks?" he managed to stammer. I told him to get lost, which he did, slowly at first, and then faster if just as unsteadily when he saw a police cruiser driving up Airline.
Minutes later, while Beebe and I were discussing the glories of the Isley Brothers and taking in a selection of same on the iPod, an ashen-faced teenaged girl with dishwater blonde hair materialized abruptly out of the shadows.
"Hey man lemme use your cellphone I need your cellphone can I use your cellphone you gotta let me have your cellphone!" I told her no. I didn't want her pimp having my digits. "Awww, come on. Please, I need your cellphone..."
I told her no. I didn't want her pimp having my digits.
"Awww, come on. Please, I need your cellphone..."
Even though it looked like she might cry, I remained unswayed. She melted away into the night as swiftly as she had appeared.
If I had 50 cents on me I would have given it to her, honest.
We debated halting the walk at Cavalcade, but decided to press on to Spanish Flowers. We figured that people would confuse Cavalcade with Crosstimbers and think we were wusses. What's more, Spanish Flowers is sort of the psychic end of Houston for many Montrosians and other South and West Siders, and as such, seemed to have more value as a terminus. Saying we walked from Intercontinental to Cavalcade sounds way less impressive than Intercontinental to Spanish Flowers.
It was around eleven o'clock - not too late to catch a bus downtown and save on cab fare. Or so we thought: somehow, while farting around mere feet from the bus stop, we missed not just one but the last two buses of the night.
And so we called a cab, which finally arrived around Midnight. And with that, a disbelieving cabbie was the first to hear of our complete adventure. We were at Warren's in minutes.
On the way in, Beebe spoke what we both had been thinking in the taxi.
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"Man, that cab really stank," he said. "It smelled like puke."
I agreed. In fact, we could still smell it. Instinctively, like two people who know that one of them has stepped in dogshit, Beebe and I both started checking our clothes.
It was me. While seated in the cab, I had been steeping in some stranger's vomit all the way from Spanish Flowers, and I had the chunk-encrusted pullover to prove it. That's what I get for not walking all the way, I guess. I gingerly removed the pullover, dropped it on the floor, and kicked it into a corner of Warren's. I ordered my martini extra dry.
-- John Nova Lomax