I’ve never been to ACL but this year I’ll be closer than usual, with the gig featured in this poster. I’m not much for big outdoor shows, haven’t been since I was a long-haired twentysomething. I like clubs. Anyway, this is my little gig, drop in if you are in the hood or in the mood.
A couple of other notes about writing:
We Were Not Orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home has been selected for this year’s Texas Book Festival. I worked on the book alongside author Sherry Matthews, conducting dozens of interviews which I then edited down into tight oral history vignettes that are sure to make the reader laugh, cry and pull their hair out. It’s a really good book, and I’m proud to have my credit as an editor on it. Look for events at the TBF site or on the We Were Not Orphans site.
Another music note: Last Laugh records will be reissuing The Skunks’ first 45, “Earthquake Shake” which originally came out in 1979, on vinyl, limited. Later they will re-release “Cheap Girl.” The sister label of Last Laugh does current releases, including Liquor Store’s debut LP, “Yeah Buddy.” For obvious reasons I’ve chosen to post the image of that record rather than my own band’s.
Texas Confidential, by Michael Varhola is a lurid encylopedia of all things bad, tacky, cruel, seedy and sleazy in the Lone Star State, which makes it essential reading for everyone. I wrote the foreward. The book has a dandy online entity, Texas Confidential Online, which you should check out.
In honor of this worst summer of all time, I am posting my foreward for the book here, because it does inevitably mention the horrible, apocalyptic heat, which has been on mind a lot these last few months.
Every summer when the mercury starts heading toward the100-degree mark, I ask myself, Why do I live in Texas? Walk outside on a typical July or August afternoon and the sun is like a hammer hitting you in the back of the head. Why stay in a place where the heat can kill you if you’re not careful? Not that there aren’t lots of other reasons to not be associated with a state that’s number one in executions and dead last or close enough to it in education, environment and other categories that would seem vital to the quality of life.
As a crime writer, however, Texas is a gift that keeps on giving. It’s not just the garden variety drug crimes, murders, rapes and robberies, either. There’s some special about it, and I confess I can’t really articulate a simple description of the Texas criminal environment, but like pornography, I know it when I see it. Its frontier traditions and its stubborn clinging to the bullshit myths of that period have something to do with it, as do the collision between hard core Christian repression, progressive ideals and greed. One great example of the schizophrenic nature of rabid conservative politicians who was revealed to be criminally corrupt, Senator Joe McCarthy, was not from Texas. However, he was so admired here that a Texas oil man gave McCarthy a brand new Cadillac for being “a great American patriot,” and Governor Allan Shivers, who was in office at the time and approved the gesture, campaigned on a platform that urged the death penalty for membership in the Communist Party.
I was honored and thrilled to be asked to write the forward for this book, even before having a look at the material to be included here. The chapters listed in the table of contents bears a strong resemblance to the labels in my own research files. I was glad, for example, to see a mention of the Overton Gang of Austin. I’ve been working on a book about Timmy Overton and his merry band of fist fighters, pimps and safecrackers for several years now. It’s been difficult but very rewarding to sift though all the stories about the Austin underworld of the 1950s through the 1970s. Part of the problem is that I’ve found enough material for several books.
The Veterans Land Scandal is another topic I’m pleased to see treated in this book. A few years ago I was researching that topic for a possible book project. The real estate scams perpetrated during that episode very often took advantage of African-American war veterans. A Cuero newspaper reporter named Ken Towery won a Pulitzer for his series of newspaper articles which blew the whistle on the scandal. When I interviewed Towery, however, I was repulsed by his own racist and ultra conservative views. At the time I submitted an outline for the book to my agent, it had recently been revealed that President George W. Bush had lied to the public about the reasons that the U.S. invaded Iraq. My agent pointed out that the scandalous behavior of Texas politicians of the present would probably make those of the 1950s seem distant and trivial. It was hard to dispute his point, even though I’m not sure he was right. I still think it’s a fascinating chapter in Texas history.
The chapter here on the band of Indian scalp hunters, the Glanton Gang (which was actually only one of several such groups), helps evoke some of the bad juju that seems to have existed here since at least the years when the Comanche Indians were terrorizing the Plains, raiding and killing and stealing, then trading their booty with other groups, including white reprobates. The Comanche method has accurately been compared to outlaw motorcycle gangs, except that the Hell’s Angles are pussies compared to the Comanche.
The Texas Rangers served as the tip of the spear for the white takeover of Texas territory from Native Americans. Talk about a license to kill, James Bond had nothing on the Texas Rangers. Texas school kids grow up hearing heroic legends about these frontier militia men, as sterling examples of rugged independence, virtue and justice who rescued white captives and protected white settlements by launching both punitive raids and preemptive attacks. Few of us hear about the atrocities committed by the rangers. A memoir by Captain Rufus Perry related his refusal to participate in the gang rape of Indian women and how, on one expedition, a fellow ranger hacked off the leg of a dead Indian to eat later.
Texas has many fine attributes, but the state has a lot to answer for. Lee Harvey Oswald may have assassinated President Kennedy, but (conspiracy theories notwithstanding), the city of Dallas always seemed complicit in the crime. If brain waves could kill, the toxic public sentiment there would’ve killed Kennedy before he stepped on the tarmac at Love Field.
Coincidentally, the night before the assassination, the presidential party spent the night at Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, right on the edge of what was still known as Hell’s Half Acre, due to its reputation for vice. Back in the Roaring Twenties, Jim Thompson, the author of The Killer Inside Me and dozens of other pulp fiction classics, was a teenage bellhop, working nights at the hotel and, buzzing on cocaine and booze, attending high school during the day. Thompson helped procure hookers, booze and dope for guests, and in addition to his tips, collected enough material for a few dozen pulp fiction novels. Later, Thompson worked as a roughneck and gambler in West Texas, places with rich oil reserves below ground and damned souls above.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that crime is funny or that criminals are admirable. Mostly, criminal behavior is an indicator of deep and often irreconcilable contradictions and injustices of modern society. I think crime is fascinating because of what it exposes, and because desperate people do desperate things, whether they are billionaire oil executives or crack dealers on the street. The big difference there is that the billionaire crooks and corporations usually do a lot more damage to society than the small time operators. The latter, however, usually have more personality.
– Jesse Sublett, Summer (!!!) 20111