Tag Archives: Travel

AUSTIN STORY: THE ELECTRIC VERSION, TAKE ONE…

A lot of people are calling Gary Clark, Jr. the rising star of electric blues music, and the newest future music superstar to come out of Austin, Texas.  If so, and he offers much evidence to support such claims, he joins Stevie Ray Vaughan in the royalty of electric Texas blues, a feat made more poignant by the cruel loss of S.R.V., twenty-three years ago today.

Stevie played in several Dallas-area bands, before he tried his luck down Austin’s way.  I first heard his lacerating lead guitar, lighting up the title track and several others from David Bowie’s “Let Dance” album, while I still lived out in California.  It was not the popular sound in the old neighborhood, but that just intrigued me even more; I hadn’t heard anybody play quite like that before.  It wasn’t until I moved to Austin that I started to grasp why he had left such a mark on the Live Music Capital, as the city is called.

Over and over, I played his albums with Double Trouble, a trio which included bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Chris Layton and – later – keyboardist Reese Wynans; each time, the group’s style and firepower just floored me.  (Years later, I discovered that Stevie drew from jazz, as well as the blues – legend has it the Thin White Duke first heard Double Trouble perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival; S.R.V.’s appetite for different styles, I think, explains not only his technical sophistication, but the fluid and complex way he drew out notes, or rode them to someplace unexpected.)  Stevie had recorded an album with his previous band, the Nightcrawlers, but the record label in question declined to release that music for many years; Mr. Vaughan was ahead of his time, which is not surprising.

Turning down a chance to be his benefactor’s “hired hand” on a tour, Stevie stuck to his guns, recording “Texas Flood” for release in 1983.  More albums followed: “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” in 1985, “Soul to Soul” and “Live Alive” a year later, and “In Step” in 1989.  Addiction problems followed, and relationship problems — the usual bugaboos, it often seems, of creative spirits.  Like so many before him, I suppose Stevie had to live the blues, too, with as much authenticity as that with which he played them.  As I understand it, he moved home to Dallas, cleaned up, got a new girlfriend, and made a blues album (“Family Style”) with Jimmie, but then, as they say, Fate intervened.

Joe Louis Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan relaxi...
Joe Louis Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan relaxing at home (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following an extended blues jam, at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre, located in East Troy, Wisconsin, with Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Albert King and Buddy Guy — the kind of show the ancient Greek gods must have heard, up on Mount Olympus — it seems Stevie Ray wanted to arrive early in Chicago, so he could phone up his new girlfriend.  So he decided to hop aboard a night-flying helicopter – and … well, instead, arrived in rock and roll heaven, or blues heaven, just thirty-five years young.

Austin, of course, continued to bustle and expand, becoming renowned for its cultural and other attractions; it went from being a “well-kept secret”, in S.R.V.’s lifetime, to an ever-expanding “hot spot” – perhaps the fastest-growing city in Texas.  For many who wish to “Keep Austin Weird”, not commercialized, this is a drawback.  Few outside of town realize that giants walked the streets there, lugging their instruments and their aspirations to Clifford Antone‘s famed nightclub, and similar venues, in years past.

‘TIS A PALE STORY, AND GREEN!

English: engraving of 'Emigrants leaving Ireland'
English: engraving of ‘Emigrants leaving Ireland’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it was early yet in my grade-school days when someone in the family, I suspect one of my parents, divulged to me that we were Irish.  Well, okay, better make that: IrishAmerican.  I “got” that it was supposed to be a good thing to be, and I thought I knew what being American meant from saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but the Irish bit didn’t ring my bells just yet.  I could read a map and spin a globe, though, so… yup, found it: Ireland was a tiny isle west of Great Britain – the “Emerald Isle”, which even I knew meant it was… green.

Seemed to me, at that tender age, like a strange thing to care about, especially since we had never been there, so far as I knew – of course, I could have slept through a visit, but if that happened, then I would have seen piles of photos of the place.  (I thought we were Vikings, because “Eric the Red” was a Viking… well, more on that later.)  I knew my parents had vacationed in Bermuda, but that wasn’t the same, and besides, I hadn’t gone with them.

Comes middle school; I’m, like most teens, trying to work out my part in the bigger play, living in California, where an “indoor complexion” (eventually, I did learn to call it a “moon-burn”) seemed like a character flaw to the sun worshipers in my student community, but some people don’t tan, we burn, because we’re so “fair”, which for me meant pale.  (I once looked like a surfer kid, with vanilla hair and copper skin, but that came from having been out in the  summer heat in Texas, when I was 9, 10 at most.)

High school, and I’m keen on it, at last, to a degree that amuses my friends, even now.  Some of my friends proclaimed themselves Scottish and/or Welsh and/or English, and I was the Irish one, even though we lived beside the Pacific Ocean, not the North Atlantic.  These are sub-sets, because we were considered various flavors of Celts, who – it works out – sprang from Spain, and then intermingled with Normans, whose ancestors in France and elsewhere were… Vikings – I was partly right!

University life in Texas, and I’m reading a pile of library books, from the Irish section, one summer: the mythological stories of Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cool, histories of multiple invasions, poems by William Butler Yeats, short stories by James Joyce.  I had wanted to visit England for a million years (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration), so I figured it out that I should, if presented with the opportunity to do so, fit a side trip to the Auld Sod, too.  A coach (bus) and a ferry boat later, I watched Dublin harbor swallow us whole, and it… floored me, just how moving and emotional the experience was.  It all happened on the twenty-ninth of July, thus my posting this today.

We ran around, ate and drank, gave money to street musicians, the full-on tourist thing, but I think I felt “there” more than my non-Celtic schoolmates did.  (I had also met an Irish girl at my university in London… but ’tis a story for another time.)  In one pub I thanked the bar staff for the “Foreign Visitors Welcome” sign, only to be told by one friendly guy: “Yanks aren’t foreign to us.”  I don’t know if he was speaking for all of Ireland, or just that particular establishment, but given that something like 100 million people have emigrated from Ireland to the United States (and Britain, and Canada, and Australia, and South Africa, and what do you know, Bermuda), I just thanked him again, as a “local” for that night, and ordered another pint.

LIKE A ROLLING STORY

English: Trade ad for 1965 Rolling Stones' Nor...
English: Trade ad for 1965 Rolling Stones’ North American tour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Best if you toss the tourist map, look for your own special places, when you travel.  One July day in London, England, an accidental number of years ago, I took a walk in search of the apartment where, decades earlier, the Rolling Stones almost died.

An exaggeration, you say?  Correct, for I refer here to only three members of the band: Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  I had read stories about these skinny young dudes who, crammed together into a tiny apartment, lacking musical (or other) employment, during a punishing winter, had to feed coins into a space heater, time and again, to get through the nights.

The “sensible lads” of the group – Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and “Sixth Stone” Ian Stewart – lived elsewhere, and presumably had regular work.  The frosty air and bare refrigerator must have forced these skinny guys to focus, like industrial-grade lasers, on music.  Imagine these kids – nobody’s future rock stars, back then – trying to stop shivering long enough, while they practiced their songbook, to ignore how hungry they were.

Hard to reconcile that sympathetic image, in the years since, with all the nonsense about how “devilish” they were supposed to be!  (I didn’t find the place, of course, but it’s the voyage that matters; the place could have been knocked down, for all that I knew, or cared.)  Indeed, it wasn’t the place where they had “almost died”; it’s closer to true to deem it to be the spot where the Stones’ unity was born.   It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that they persisted, well past springtime.

HOW THE “WHERE” FITS INTO THE STORY

Geography and social studies gripped my imagination; they were among the first subjects I enjoyed in elementary school.  That terminology and I share an American provenance; I could have said “primary school”, had I been brought up elsewhere.  I write differently in Texas than I did in California, not because I have switched technologies.  The backdrop exerts quite a different sort of effect – call it a gravitational influence – on more than just the weather.

Out West, I liked to write about chilly places, snow sheathing foliage and terrain, as well as fog banks, rain, folks mumbling about dark doings, that type of thing; it appealed to me while I lived near the ocean, under warm blue skies.  Here in the vastness of the Central Plains, I write about urban events, cities with tall buildings, overstuffed with millions of people.  When I’m on the East Coast, places of warmth and jaw-dropping, open spaces seem so far away – so then, of course, I write about them more.  Writing about places I’d like to visit has a different appeal from writing about where I’ve already been; I’m drawn to wherever I’m not – that’s the explorer, the sailor, the archaeologist, the astronaut, even the diplomat (I hope) hitting the keys for me, putting my “horizon fever” to good use…

Today it seems like traveling anywhere can only bring us into contact with the same restaurants, the same sporting and cultural events, and other features of modern life, “flattened” by our ubiquitous technology, five hundred channels of the same information, broadcasting, cable-casting, satellite-casting, pod-casting at us everywhere.  Then, too, a well-told joke can make people laugh on both sides of an ocean – because what resonates with people hasn’t “flattened” us at all; quite the reverse.