RIP BRENT GRULKE

Dear Friends & Family, if you are looking for the memorial I wrote for HELEN RICHWINE, CLICK HERE.

Brent Grulke told me that my band, The Skunks, was the first band he saw at Raul’s, and this was right after he moved to Austin, and we were the loudest band he’d ever seen, and that it changed his life. I’ve heard that from quite a few people, and I liked hearing it from Brent. Actually, I never knew him that well until he moved to LA for a while. Lois and I moved there in 1987 and we were living in Studio City, where I was writing novels and screenplays and playing in a band with Kathy Valentine, and Lois worked in publicity, then for the LA Weekly. Brent moved in with our good friend Cayce Cage, and they lived in a guest house next to the swimming pool, so most of our hanging out was at poolside barbecues. That was where Brent finally told me how long he’d been a Skunks fan, and I also learned, to my delight, that he loved single malt scotch whiskey. His favorite was Lagavulin, one of the heaviest of the Islay whiskies. I’m a big fan of Islay whisky. Lagavulin isn’t my favorite, but there’s sure nothing wrong with it, and if Brent was pouring, I was happy to drink it.

Cayce was crazy about Brent. Casey is very happily married now to a great guy named Chad and they have a beautiful daughter named Stella.

But the time we’re talking about now is the late 80s/early 90s. Cayce was one of a number of us Austin ex-pats who were more or less slackers in Austin but once they moved to LA, they hit their stride. Cayce thrived in California. Being so gregarious, it should be no surprise that she made a lot of show-biz friends and they all seemed quite fond of her. There were always several cast members from Twin Peaks at her pool parties. Brent was kind of a fish out of water, I thought, though he got along fine with everyone. He just looked like he belonged in Austin.

I liked Brent, but thing I’ll always remember is how much Cayce liked him, even after their romantic relationship ended.

In Austin in the early 1980s, Cayce was a kind of free spirit. She worked for a while at the Austin Chronicle with Lois and for a while she drove this little tiny pickup truck. And for quite a while her only transportation was a little moped that had no brakes. She’d stop by dragging her feet and /or gently bumping off the car in front of her. I’m not making this up.

Our friend Teresa Garrett was part of this group, too. Teresa also moved to LA shortly after we did (as did my best pal Jon Dee Graham, and a number of others). We introduced Teresa to our good friend Randall Johnson, who wrote the screenplay for The Doors, which Oliver Stone adapted for the movie. In weird coincidence, our friend Tom Huckabee also wrote a Doors screenplay. Randy was great pals with screenwriters like Shane Black and Gregory Widen (Back Draft) and the director Pen Densham. Don Knotts lived right around the corner from Randy in Rancho Park. Randy and Teresa fell madly in love got engaged. The engagement party was in Beachwood Canyon and when Lois and I arrived we had to park a good ways down the road, but you could hear Teresa and Cayce’s voice twanging all through the canyon. Loud Texas women, you gotta love ‘em. Randall later got cold feet about the engagement and told Teresa he wanted to go home to his parents and think about it a while. So she started throwing things at him. This frightened Randy quite a bit. I said, “Look, man, next time you tell a girl from Texas something like that, get ready to duck.”

Everything worked out. Randy got married to a great gal and has a son now, too. Teresa is happily married with two kids.

Cayce is a very sweet person (despite having grown up in a small town, Blanco, dangerously close to where I grew up, Johnson City) and she likes to laugh and have a good time. Cayce has this big face and when she likes something it just lights up like a full moon or a big billboard. And Brent always turned that light switch on for her, even on the last trip she and Chad and Stella made here. Something about Brent just warmed her heart. And so when we heard about Brent’s absurd demise, our first thought was how terrible it was for Kristen and their son, Graham. But then immediately my thoughts turned to Cayce.

Actually, what happened, on Monday, we had the memorial service for Lois’ mother, Helen Richwine, who passed away peacefully on Thursday of last week. It was a big day for us, following a rather intense couple of weeks, because Helen had planned it out. She was tired of going to dialysis three times a week. She was 87 and had lived a full life. Actually, I’ve written all about this and you can see it here on my blog post. The point is, we had just said good-by to the last friends who came over after the memorial service and washed the dishes, then sat down for a night cap. We both literally sighed and said, “OK, that’s over…” and Lois looked on her MacBook and said, “Oh my God, Brent Grulke died.”

You know, I write crime novels with a lot of darkness in them and I write and sing a lot of murder ballads, probably at least two or three dozen songs all total, maybe more, but I don’t think death is funny at all. In fact this week, August 16, is the day that my girlfriend, Dianne Roberts, was murdered by a serial killer here in South Austin in 1976. This has been a summer of death in some ways, because this year we had a big fight on our hands after the State of Texas almost granted parole to this serial rapist and murderer. I and a handful of other survivors had to put on a big presentation before the parole board in Angleton on May 11. It was successful, but quite wearying. You can read about that here, in Update to A K A Serial Killer.

And also this weekend is Lois’ birthday, and one more thing, we are moving Dashiell down to San Marcos to start his second year of college there, after moving back from California where he put in his freshman year at Whittier College. So we’ve got a number of landmarks going on all at the same time.

The house is still full of flowers from Helen’s service, but they’ll be dead soon, ready for compost. Helen is being cremated. We’ll take her ashes up to the Monongahela River Valley, where she was born and raised, and scatter them along with those of Harry Richwine, Lois’ dad, who passed away five years ago, on Easter, ironically.

Lois’ Uncle Billy DiMascio, at 84, the baby of the family (nine siblings total) was here all week, full of life and laughter. We took him to some of our favorite Italian restaurants (well, actually, the two best in town, Vespaio and Enoteca, the only ones we go to) and he was favorably impressed. Plus Lois made us an Italian dinner, too, which he was also quite pleased with.

So we’re thinking about past, present and future here. It’s easy to get temporal displacement, with all this birth, death and life going on at once. Sometimes when you’re happy, you forget about the hard, dramatic parts of life. It’s all part of the same stew. Just like blues music has that flatted third. It’s not all minor and it’s not all major. Sometimes it’s this neat mixture of both, and that’s the blues. That’s life.

One other note about Brent. I remember when the big Elektra compilation of Texas bands came out called Ten From Texas: Herd It Through the Grapevine. We were excited, because we thought Austin was about to be recognized, worldwide, as this music Mecca. And we thought that my act, then known as Jesse Sublett’s Secret Six, was ready for a major label deal. Our song on the compilation, “No More Weekends in Warsaw,” came out pretty well. A big ballad, dramatic and modern sounding. Brent reviewed the record and remarked, more or less: “I wish Jesse would sing more naturally because when he uses this affected voice, he sounds strained or something.” Not word for word, but that was the gist of it. I wasn’t offended, because, unlike some of my friend-critics, he inserted (I think he did, anyway) that little caveat, “I wish…” which made all the difference.

When we moved back to Austin, Brent was in between things and we cooked him a big dinner with lots of booze and when we sent him home, we filled the back seat of his car with vinyl records, which we just didn’t want anymore but being farsighted and fanatical about music, Brent still treasured vinyl. We thought we’d be seeing more of Brent after that, but I guess we just moved in different circles.

Thinking about Brent just reminds me of all the Austin people we’ve known forever who kind of built the music community here. A lot of them, or hell, probably most of them, were slackers and crazy artists and misfits, people who, when you take Austin out of the picture, it’s very difficult to imagine them even existing. It reminds you that for all its faults, Austin is a real special place and has been for a long time. But then again, it’s largely because of these people.

And so, not long after Brent moved back to Austin, I came here for about a week to do research for a novel. Brent put me up. He had a house on the east side, nice place, with the weekly poker games with his gang of poker pals. We watched the level go way down in his bottles of Lagavulin every night. And he picked me up at the airport and we went to get tacos at this place on 38th or Cherrywood, I forget the name. I ordered some tacos and a couple of hot pups (for outsiders, that means a jalapeno stuffed with cheese, battered and deep fried), because I am an aficionado of hot pups. We sat down to wait for our numbers to be called out and the guy behind the counter called out, “Hey man we’re outta hot pups wanna beer same price?”

I said, “What?”

“We’re out of hot pups,” he said, enunciating only slightly more this time. “Want a beer instead? It’s the same price?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. I loved that. It was so Austin.

It feels criminal not to mention this last association with Brent Grulke. By 1986 I was fed up with driving a band van, plus we were moving to LA so I could be the rock n’ roll Raymond Chandler, playing blues on the side. So I put my van up for sale. A 1979 (or so) Dodge Maxi-Van, a stripped down cargo van. So generic and minimal, it barely had seats. No upholstery, no padding in the cargo area. High mileage, and I bought it from a sleazy car lot so I’m sure the odometer had been rolled back at least once. In fact I thought it might be on its last legs. To my chagrin, Mike Hall responded to the ad and sent over his mechanic. Mike’s band, the Wild Seeds, were one of those bands who wanted spread their rock n’ roll gospel to every little club and joint in the USA. To my surprise, Mike’s mechanic, Steve McGuire pronounced the van in good health. They bought it and I crossed my fingers. With Brent as their road manager, the band fitted the van out with padding and futons to save on motel bills and they crisscrossed the country and played every town far and wide and underneath. Brent told me they LOVED that van. He said it finally died, after more than 150,000 Wild Seeds miles, in some town up in the northeast. They knew it was dead because a big chunk of the engine block had fallen off.

So long, Brent. Even that van finally wore out, but the music survives. The body dies, but the smile remains. Have a beer, it’s the same price. I’ll keep a bottle of Lagavulin on the bar in case you stop by.

Please visit the SXSW site “Friends and Staff Remember Brent Grulke” and contribute to the education fund for Graham Grulke here.

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