Wednesday, August 5, 2009
In 1983 I walked in to a bar called the Gin Mill on Goellner Road in Houston Texas with some friends from work. It was a blues joint with not a whole lot to make it remarkable other than the PA system on a black stage and a bartender with boobs a little perkier than they should have been at 50ish. A waxy carpet covered the floor that got swept and mopped instead of vacuumed because the pile had gotten sticky and then jet-smooth-as-vinyl from the years of spills and dance steamrolled into what was then the current state. It smelled like beer. Me and my group had just gotten off work from where we worked, Bennigan's, my job assignment for the year from S&A Restaurant Company. The Bennigan's was a couple streets over on Bissonett and highway 59.
The area where I lived had grown up rather quickly during the oil boom of the early 80's, this after the auto boom in the 70's that declined eventually and sent the auto workers to Texas to work on oil rigs. Strip malls shot up everywhere. Then suddenly, as if the lights switched off, people left, leaving entire neighborhoods foreclosed upon. There were a ton of workers out on the street with no jobs. Crime was bad. I had the T-tops from my 1980 Turbo Trans Am stolen twice in a month...T-tops!
The bad economy in Houston had something to do with the Savings and Loan crisis. Not too off center from the over lending that took place lately, but it was a little more regionalized as to the havoc. I didn't follow that stuff too much, it was not my concern. My world was working at Bennigan's 80 hours a week for a pittance, chasing the cocktail servers whom I was forbidden to socialize with and dealing with lack of sleep and hangover most of the time. It was such an awful way to carve out a living in a declined economy for a corporate restaurant chain soon to close a bunch of stores in the area. I was miserable and the future was bleak.
The entire culture was rotten. The city was lawless. I was doing my laundry one night in my apartment complex and went down to toss my clothes in the dryer. I held the door open for a gentlemen with his arms full and he smiled while brushing by, out the door into the darkness. When I reached in to the washer where my clothes had been, it was empty. The dude had stolen my wet clothes and looked me in the eye as I held the door open for him.
I left town eventually and moved to Kansas City to bet on football for a couple months and seek out the local music scene (Kiki and the Bon Ton Band anyone?) I thought I would fall back, re-group, and get ready for what was next. I had made it out of Houston in one piece without the benefit of license plates, they too were stolen from my parking space at the apartment complex. I found a job with Houlihan's and ended up in St. Louis, eventually marrying my wife, having a child and moving to white picket fence America, safe!
Houston was what did it for me. I got a taste of the blues and it has stayed with me since. In fact, I can't play anything else. I was banging on my new Dobro that Fenton James sold me for damn near nothin the other day. All that came out was some pretty serious Chicago blues licks, a smattering of Delta Blues from Tab Benoit, and some Rockabilly stuff from Southern Culture on the Skids, the Blasters, etc., I happen to play this stuff with a blues lick. My wife gets pissed because its "all I ever play anymore".
It was Joey Long who invited me up on stage when I motioned to him with my harmonica while standing next to the bar at the Gin Mill. I hadn't really played with a blues band yet, done some country out in Kansas in a bar for a while, that twangy swingin stuff, even played with Mellisa Etheridge one night at Cooters and didn't realize it until 20 years later, not sure she was even gay back then. I had tapes of Ozark Mountain Daredevils in my car and would play along while driving the roads to and from the sleepy Kansas town of Mcpherson to the college town of Manhattan Kansas. I, kaff...attempted college there for a while. There was plenty of time to play and nobody to see me sucking the harp on those country roads in my car.
Joey sat in his wheel chair next to Robby Campbell who wrote the song "Hello Texas" and got a Grammy nomination. Joey announced this each night and played the song three or four times. It was all they had really, that song and the Gin Mill. Robby was the bass player, Joey was the lead and there was a drummer named Luke. The story has it that Joey had gotten stabbed in the leg with an ice pick by one of his estranged wife's. He had a tough time healing from the infection that ensued. He showed up each night regardless; Joey Long and the Texas Brothers. I was to be the occasional harp player when asked and Stormy Monday was the song I learned to play first.
The blues is a place, with smells and images and stories seasoned with despair. I can't really get the Gin Mill nor my time in Texas out of my head. I remember asking Molly of Miss Molly and the Passions: "Why do you stay here, it is so depressing?" She looked at me and said: "Is there any other place?"
I seek out the time to play now more than ever, and calling upon my time spent in Houston brings out something from deep inside. There is an influence, an energy that's called upon--when I see Joey and the pathetic little bar (now a male review club)--the people moving around, dancing, fighting, getting the most that can be mustered out of the culture where they reside. Yep, the vignette is pretty much captured forever somewhere in my soul.