KICKING OUT THE JAMS

Elvis Costello, far right (and far skinnier than today)jams with the Skunks at Rauls.

Elvis Costello, far right (and far skinnier than today)jams with the Skunks at Rauls.

This is a continuation of the Backstage History page I began a while back. I’ve already written about playing at Raul’s and it was covered in the 2000 Austin Chronicle story about the Skunks, which you can read on that page.

The Skunks always had the philosophy that if it’s rock n’ roll, it’s not brain surgery. We usually worked up new songs in the van or during sound check. Show the other guys the riff, give it a shot, bang it out that night at the gig. This usually worked fine. Really.

Before starting the Skunks in 1978, Eddie Munoz and I played one gig at an outdoor festival near San Antonio with a band after only an hour’s rehearsal. We played a weird collection of covers, including “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a couple of Beatles songs, something by the Young Rascals, and other eclectic stuff like that. The singer had just gotten out of rehab, probably by escaping. He was on thorazine. It sounded kind of like the New York Dolls crossed with the MC5.

By the time we started the Skunks, Eddie and I knew dozens of covers between us. We were fearless. Friends came to gigs to jam with us. Often touring bands stopped at our gigs and joined us. Elvis Costello came up to play “Mystery Dance” and then never left. He played on cover tunes, he played on our originals. We did “Pushin’ Too Hard,” by the Seeds, several covers from the Who in their early days, including “My Generation,” lots of Stones and Chuck Berry. … Wait, wait, there’s more. We covered the Kinks and I’ve always had a half dozen Lou Reed or Velvet Underground covers to pull out (in those days it was “Sister Ray,” “Waiting for My Man,” “Heroin” and “White Light/White Heat.”). The Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” was a great song for us, and we loved Mose Allison — “I’m Not Talkin'” and “Young Man Blues.” We also knew a Twyla Gang song or two, plus some Dr. Feelgood, Bo Diddley and of course, Willie Dixon.

Oh, yeah, and the Yardbirds… but nope, no Led Zeppelin, no “Freebird.” We were capable of slamming out “Gloria,” “Route 66,” “Dirty Water,” “Shotgun” and even “Louie, Louie” with our heads held high, our amps turned up to eleven, but we never considered ourselves a “cover” band because we didn’t play the Top 40. We were playing the real shit, we thought. It was rock n’ roll.

Costello knew them all, of course. even came back up for our second set and played a bunch of hard core country songs, including “The Night the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Honky Tonkin'”. I wasn’t too keen on country music at the time and was anxious for him to get off, so I kept turning up the volume on my bass amp and using the fuzz box. Finally he got the message. I hate to sound ungrateful, because the fact that Elvis Costello jammed with us got us a lot of publicity and respect. More people came to our gigs to check us out. I just felt I had heard enough country music when I was growing up in Johnson City, Texas. Typically, the people who loved George Jones and Merle Haggard hated black people and wanted to kick my ass because I had long hair and wore mod clothes.

Lois Richwine and Debbie Harry, backstage 1978

Lois Richwine and Debbie Harry, backstage 1978

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I met Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie when they were in town before their first gig here. I had a feeling the band might drop in at Mother Earth, which was really the only rock club in town at the time, except for Raul’s, which may have been having conjunto that night. The introduction was easy because I was carrying a pet skunk, which a fan had left with me for the weekend (Actually, the fan never came back for little Flowers, who had been de-scented but was still rather smelly at best and was not terribly cuddly most of the time and was definitely NOT house broken, as the fan said). Debbie and Chris came up to me and Flowers and petted flowers and received a gig flyer and an invitation to be on our guest list at Raul’s that night.

So the band came to see us at Raul’s. By mid-set, we had Clem Burke on drums and Frank Infante on guitar. We also may have had Jimmy Destri playing the keyboards left by the opening band, but I don’t remember for sure. No Deborah Harry, sorry to say, but they were all really nice people. We had lots of beers with them afterward. Besides being one of the greatest drummers of all time, Clem is a world class gentleman. Years later, our paths crossed often, when I was living in LA. He and Frankie jammed with the band I was in, which happened to include Kathy Valentine, his paramour at the time.

My then-girlfriend/now-wife, Lois Richwine, had been a major Blondie fan since forever. Years earlier, living in NYC, she used to go see the Ramones, Television and the Stilettos (the pre-Blondie band with Chris Stein) at CBGB. So it was only fair that she got the snapshot with Debbie Harry and her souvenir Skunks T-shirt.

One of the craziest nights at Raul’s was when Patti Smith came to jam with us. This was in 1979 and she was in town to play her first Austin concert the following night. I had been a fan of hers ever since her first single, produced by ex-Velvet Underground John Cale (“Piss Factory” and “My Generation”, if I remember correctly), followed by her debut LP, Horses, also produced by Cale. Cale was a real hero of mine (Later we got to open for him at the Armadillo). I had read a story in CREEM magazine about her jamming with a local band in Detroit, I think it was, so I knew it was possible. I showed up at her poetry reading at the university that afternoon and introduced myself and gave her a flyer for the gig. She said, “The Skunks, huh? I have a poem called ‘Skunk Dog'” I said, “I know, I like your poetry a lot.” Which was more or less true.” I said, “Why don’t come down and play with us?” She said, “I can only play in the key of E, you know.” I said OK, having read that, too, in CREEM. Actually, she couldn’t play a lick. She just strummed and wanked and made noise with the guitar.

So we spread the word that Patti Smith was coming to Raul’s to jam with the Skunks. She showed up. The place was packed tight. You could barely move in there and the temperature was about 120 degrees. She came up during the first set and we jammed. Eddie and Billy and I started this jungle thing and she chimed in with the noise and started chanting, “Have no fear! Have no fear! Tell God the Skunks are here!” There was more to it than that, but I forget. I had a cassette of it for a long time, but finally it disappeared.
The Skunks give Patti Smith (in hat) room to chant "Have no fear! Tell God the Skunks are here!" as she rips the strings off Lois' guitar. That guitar was later stolen from our van in New York City, after our second night at CBGB.

The crowd went nuts. We finished out set after she left, playing “My Generation” toward the end and during the chorus, she’d grab the microphone and sing along.

It was a pretty cool night, except I found out that just because Patti Smith jammed with us, it didn’t mean she wanted to be pals. I tried to strike up a conversation but got nowhere. She was wearing this shortbrim hat and at one point, after she had irritated me, I patted the crown a bit and said, “Nice lid, Patti,” and she scowled and walked off.

We played the last set without her. By then everybody was so happy and loaded they didn’t give a shit.

The following year, Lois and I went to NYC, trying to get bookings for the band. Nobody would talk to us. One night we ran into John Cale at the Mudd Club. He recognized me from when the Skunks opened for him at the Dillo. We caught the band at their San Antonio show, too, and became pals with some of them. I gave him a demo cassette. Guess what? He liked it! He said to call his manager, Jane Friedman. We went to see her and five minutes after we walked into her office, she had booked a half dozen shows, starting with a Friday and Saturday at CBGB. She didn’t even listen to the tape or the record.

By then we were friends with the late George Scott III. George, formerly of James Chance and the Contortions, played bass for Cale and Lydia Lunch’s band, 8-Eyed Spy (a really great band!) and stayed in his apartment whenever we were in NYC. It was just around the corner from CBGB and after our second night there, we got drunk and left all our equipment in the van. The door locks didn’t work (hell, the thing barely ran). Jon Dee’s only guitar got stolen, Billy’s snare got stolen and I lost two Fender basses, my amp head and Lois’ little black Fender Music Master guitar. The one Patti Smith ripped the strings from. Boy, we were hung over that day. Hung over all the way back to Texas!
We opened for the Clash and Joe Ely at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1979. Now that was a hell of a night. Ely was in his “Live Shots” era and the Clash were white hot. After the Dillo gig we had a gig at the Continental Club, which was right around the corner. A lot of the crowd from the concert came down to the Continental so we had a full house. Ely and Topper Headon and Mick Jones joined us onstage. I looked around and said, “Well, what do you wanna play?” Nobody said anything, nobody had any ideas. So I got to sing, which was fine with me. “You Keep A Knockin'”, “Route 66,” and a few others. We also did Ely’s “Fingernails.” I didn’t know any Clash songs and nobody suggested it anyway.
Big Dave, the door man, came up to the stage with Ely’s fancy cowboy hat. Seems like it was more like a mariachi hat or something, I remember it was decorated somehow and really, really big. In any event, I had always detested cowboy hats, going back to my time growing up in Rednecksville, Texas, and I always believed that cowboy hats were OK if you were riding a horse, roping cows and pigs. But not if you were supposed to be playing rock n roll. So when Big Dave tried to hand up Joe’s hat, I shook my head and said, “No way, no hats on my stage.” Big Dave was flustered. This was a big dude, one of the old Austin Opera House employees, if I remember correctly, a guy who looked like one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, cosmic cowboy all the way. He didn’t understand. His face got red. How could I forbid Joe Ely his hat? I could, I said, because it was my band, my stage. No cowboy hats allowed.
I explained to Dave later on and he understood.

Maybe this will help explain a little better. The Continental had recently been taken over by a partnership of guys from the old scene, Wayne Nagel, Roger One Knite Collins, Robin, Summer Dog, and another guy or two. They were all longhaired and bearded guys. The kind of guys you saw mixing with the Willie Nelson entourage. They were great guys, generous, hearty, funny, and they liked to party all night long. And then some.
Roger, whom I had met back in the days of the One Knite Saloon, was the most colorful of the bunch. (The One Knite, by the way, was more or less a biker bar located in the same building now occupied by Stubbs Barbecue on Red River; a small, dark, dank, dusty, smoky joint with a ton of weird junk attached to the ceiling and a coffin lid door and man, it was one of Austin’s greatest joints of all time.) Roger was a gambler for real and a kind of gunslinger-type personality. Long hair, beard, cowboy boots, gruff voice and a serious prankster. He never went anywhere without his cowboy hat. Nowhere. He wore it everywhere and he never took it off. It wasn’t just part of his image, it was his statement to the world.
But after seeing the Skunks that night, blasting our industrial strength rock n’ roll, flexing our muscles with the Clash and Joe Ely, Roger underwent a change.
Roger hung up his cowboy hat after that night. He even cut his hair.

PS. 10.3.09. The info on the jam with Costello has been added to this fan site. These things are pretty weird, one of the odd little gems of unknown value on the internet. I’ve seen sites devoted to Mick Taylor, cataloging all of his gigs, including many of those from the period when we had the Carla Olson Band featuring Mick on guitar. (I used to tell people that Mick was the only guitarist to quit the Rolling Stones and live to tell about it… until it got old and it didn’t seem funny anymore). More on those fan sites later.

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