May 12th, 2011
Houston Bars and Some Such: Reminiscent of a Robert Earl Keen Song
Certain songs have a way of telling a story, that you’d swear was about someone you knew or some place you’d been—hell, sometimes it can feel like something you might’ve experienced yourself. For some of us here at the Loop Scoop, the songs of Mr. Robert Earl Keen portray some of the most vivid tales. No, none of us have an Aunt Kay that talks all about AA or a landlord willing to take the rent late in return for digging his skinny cows out of the mud out at his ol’ ranch, but there’s something in his everyman approach that speaks to us, just the same.
Only one of us grew up in what you’d call a small Texas town, that’s Tea. Stephan lived out in West Texas for a number of years, so he’s likely to bring something to the table. Marc and Paul have the years on me, as far Houston livin’ goes. They’ll be accompanying me on this list as we document those spots in Houston that we most associate with REK’s songs. You can disagree with one or all, we just ask that you “think it over one time.” Feel free to set us straight and sound off below in the comments.
“This old porch is like a weathered grey haired seventy years of Texas / who’s doin’ all he can not to give in to the city… this old porch is just a long time of waiting and forgetting / remembering the coming back and not crying about the leaving / And remembering the falling down and the laughter of the curse of luck / From all those son’s of bitches who said we’d never get back up…”
Blanco’s hasn’t been around for seventy years, in fact they’ll only hit the big thirty in 2012. For a city with a high rate of turnover, that’s a good chunk. Bars go up. Bars go down. They’ve got dancing, window units, and continue to play host to whatever kinda country they feel like. The shiny embroidered pearl snaps and Chesney’s have no business there. Eat the food. Have a beer. Head out the porch for that after-meal smoke.
“Makes old ones feel young / barbeque makes everybody someone…”
There is a reason barbecue sits atop its throne amongst all other comfort foods and in “Barbeque,” REK supplies the meat and sides of that argument. Instead of arguing their point, Gatlin’s just serves up incontrovertible proof of this supremacy. They’ll treat you like family from the minute you step in the door to the moment you leave, which is great, but the taste of the food will make you thankful you’re alive. Take our word and enjoy the brisket, ribs and love—every customer gets a warm “hello.” Can’t think of a better place to pick up that “barbecue sliced beef and bread.” So, “baby if you want to rock me / give me good ole barbecue.”
“My favorite band was playin’ / an Otis Redding song / when they sang the chorus / everybody sang along… There was old man Perkins / Sittin’ on his stool / Watchin’ Butch and Jimmy John / Talkin’ loud and playin’ pool…”
Granted, Griff’s ain’t no dance hall. After Eddie’s Country Ballroom out in Manvil burned down last year, good luck finding anything in Houston that can claim that title legitimately. Maybe Blanco’s. No, not really. Griff’s is old. It smells a little. It’s pool tables and a veteran juke box. Show up in that “faded leather jacket and weathered Brogan shoes,” no one’s gonna mind. Disappear. It’s neutral ground for friends that have a couple years worth of catching up to do.
“In the corner of the barroom / lives the ghost of Langston Hughes / he’s takin’ notes and smokin’ cigarettes / sippin’ slowly on his booze/ got them goin’ nowhere blues / and on the stage beneath the spotlight / Woody Guthrie sings the news / he’s always ready for the good fight / never thinkin’ that he’ll lose / got them goin’ nowhere blues…”
Fitzgerald’s established its name relentlessly booking years of local acts. Of those acts, some made it. Others didn’t. Optimism and drive has poured off as sweat from those same musicians. They’ve fought mediocrity and failure in an intensely saturated industry. More recently, Robert Ellis paid his dues with his Whiskey Wednesdays. Hard work bore fruit. He played his last regular show on his way to a national tour. Fitzgerald’s remains.
“My Cousin Ray, he said he’s got a job for me… so I’m goin’ away cuz’ I got a busted heart / I’m leavin’ today, that’s how travel always starts / I recken where I’m headed, might need me different close / where the laughing river flows…”
When the original Gallant Knight closed its hallowed doors in ‘06, it left a lot of hearts busted. The old haunt moved on though, found itself some new digs, a new girl, took a shower and found a new job. Things seemed to be going fine, but some guys just can’t win for losing. The wheels have fallen off again and Gallant Knight is no more…floatin’ aimlessly down that lonesome, Laughing River. Maybe the new bar in its stead, Antique, will pick up where it left off.
“Sometimes I can’t believe those days are gone / most of my friends back then have moved along / one’s in Hollywood, one’s a millionaire / some are gone for good, some still livin’ here… One thing I have found there are just two ways to go / it all comes down to livin’ fast or dyin’ slow…”
Who hasn’t wasted a day at this favorite college hangout, well… wasted? Sure seems I committed more than my share of “dreadful, selfish crimes” within its dark confines back when I was in college. So maybe I wasn’t getting by on money from tip jars, but back then, money was pretty scarce. Somehow, I could always scrounge up a few bucks for booze, which made the Marquis a destination of choice. Two of their LITs and there’s a good chance you’ll be too drunk to do anything, let alone play a guitar. Ah… it’s good to be young.
“Brother Ken brought his kids with him / the three from his first wife Lynn / and the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell / of course he brought his new wife Kay / who talks all about AA / chain smoking while the stereo plays Noel, Noel / the First Noel…”
All the jigsaw puzzle pieces may fit, but when you step back and see the final product, it’s a kitten riding a dolphin while shooting you the finger. But sometimes there’s beauty in blatant dysfunction. Just like “Merry Christmas”, the masterpiece that is Shoeshine Charlie’s Big Top certainly isn’t a Rockwell, but it’s a classic in its own right. Funky, mismatched pieces come together, for no reason whatsoever really, and warm the heart every single time. Feliz Navidad…Feliz Navidad.
“The children on the playground, the lovers in the shade / remind me of a life and time that feels more like a dream / when the sound of love and laughter was the music that we played / as we lay beside the waters of a never ending stream / now the stream has gone to hiding, the dream lives on in vain / it’s been a long hot summer, not a drop of rain…”
We’re in the midst of one of the worst dry spells the state of Texas has known in the last hundred or so years. It’s a May that feels like August. It’s parched earth, teased by the moisture in the air. West Alabama Ice House offers no respite from this. Cold beer, easy customers, and basketball or horseshoes provide alleviation, easing the stress of whatever situation we find ourselves in. Bring your dogs. Bring your children. Revel in bliss at the picnic tables as one round turns to four – giving no head to weather or worry.
“Big and round, sweet and real, good to eat and they appeal / to anyone who wants a meal, it’s sure to fortify / kiss the stars and sweat the years, it appears that all your fears won’t bring to you those happy tears / it feels so good to cry…farm fresh onions…”
Who hasn’t taken a lap or two around the reflecting pool in Hermann Square, looking for their ideal onion. The smell of the dirt on the lightly washed skins upholds our perception of this majestic tuber. There’s a sadism in the joy that comes from slicing through layer after layer, all the while cryin’ like your hound got put to pasture. Is it in the onions diverse array of uses? The taste that so easily mingles with much of our cuisine in Houston? Or is it the love rooted in the waiting and eventual search for that perfect, farm fresh onion?
“Still I get restless / and drive into town / my radio playin’ / my window rolled down. / it’s crazy but God knows / I don’t act my age / like an old desperado / who paints the town beige…”
Men and women in their 30’s dominate the patio, substituting a Wendy’s Double, black coffee and a smoke – with a child, a cocktail and a salad—metabolisms slowed. The yearn for the wild has left its fingerprints all over this quaint Heights family. “The Road Goes On Forever” drifts over the cool morning breeze, taking ‘em back. The feeling of nostalgia sticks as they shut that last door of their Honda Pilot.