Yesterday I wrote about Eddie Wilson’s gigantic auction, which happens January 17, 2015, and it’s one of the biggest, most significant collections of Austin music and beer joint history collections being offered to the public in many, many years. So, like Eddie himself, it’s a historic thing. Usually when I see Eddie we talk about cool/weird/historic things that we know about, and Eddie has more to offer, of course, because he’s a few years older than me and he’s been a teenage brawler in 1950s Hyde Park, the guy with the fastest hot rod in Austin (a 1957 Ford), a Marine, a school teacher, a beer distributor, the manager of a psychedelic fiddle band in the ’60s (Shiva’s Head Band), founder in chief of Armadillo World Headquarters, owner of Raw Deal, reclaimer /owner of Threadgill’s and the Threadgill’s legacy, etc, etc. And so, as you can see, when you are feeling the vibrations of 100 bands up through the sidewalk in the so called Live Music Capital of the World, the guy that metaphorically poured the cement in that sidewalk was Eddie Wilson, who happens also to have a pack rat habit so, guess what, he’s had an overflowing attic stuffed with Austin music and beer culture for longer than your bass player’s grandfather has been on the planet.
Or put it another metaphoric way: Eddie keeps promising to show me this photo of long ago Austin, before the Colorado River was tamed in its wild sways between killing floods and drought-condition trickles, and there’s a guy standing with one foot on the south bank of the river and one foot on the north bank. Think about it. Austin has changed. The river stays pretty much the same. And Eddie Wilson is that guy, a guy who can still straddle Austin’s wild river.
Here’s one of Eddie’s autobiographical essays:
TEXAS BEER + ROCK AND ROLL POSTERS
By Eddie Wilson
I got fired from teaching school in 1967 on account of I treated black kids the same as I did white kids, which was no way to win the hearts and minds of the locals in Van Vleck, Texas. When I was out job hunting, I answered an ad saying the Texas division of the United States Brewing Association was looking for a field rep. Well, shucks, I could drink to that. Then I read a little further and discovered they wanted a retired schoolteacher to handle community concerns over the grand old problem of underage drinking. I was barely legal myself and I’d warmed up for my teaching job by spending six months down in Mexico, searching for Timothy Leary and hoping to expand my consciousness. With one foot in psychedelia, I went to see the USBA’s local point man for what I figured would be a short meeting. He was a James Cagney-looking guy named C.B. Alexander who didn’t flinch when I told him why I wasn’t teaching anymore. Instead, he said he’d done some civil rights work himself. Then he hired me. I was only 23, but I looked retired enough to make him happy.
I quickly became a professional beer drinker and learned well the virtuous nature of mankind’s earliest buzz; “liquid bread.” For most of the next three years I crisscrossed the state visiting bars, lounges, clubs, dancehalls, honky-tonks, military installations, college campuses, newspapers, breweries, beer distributors, and law enforcement agencies, all for the express purpose of trying to justify my job’s existence. The best I could manage was to start the Beautify Texas Council in an effort to cozy up to the legislators being urged to pass a tax on throwaway containers. It was a lot easier to let myself get big and fat and ashamed. But that was no way to be if I was going to save the planet, so I started looking for a new line of work. Nobody told me the change was going to be easy, but I was traveling light. About all I owned in the way of keepsakes was one Judge Roy Bean poster.
Shiva’s Head Band, best remembered for their psychedelic fiddle music and disdain for practice, opened the door to the emerging Austin for me. They needed a manager and I owned a few suits. It wasn’t long, however, before none of those suits fit, thanks to my new mescaline diet. But I forgot about my need for a new wardrobe the instant I stepped into a huge empty building at Barton Springs Road and South First Street, around the corner from the Vulcan Gas Company, where Shiva’s was the house band. You couldn’t see the building from the street, but it had a view, cheap rent, and enormous restrooms. Fifteen years before, in 1955, the building had opened as the Sports Center and given the town a parade of boxing, wrestling and music shows. Not just any music shows, either. When Elvis Presley showed up, he was hailed as “A Folk Music Fireball.” It wasn’t long afterward that you could put your ear to the railroad track and hear change a-coming like nothing was going to stop it.
By the early 1970s, Austin was a cultural petri dish. It was ripe for the music club that a slew of kindred spirits and I wanted to open in the building I stumbled into for no other reason than my bladder was at high tide. We called it Armadillo World Headquarters, and it became a home for every kind of musical act – rock and roll, blues, country, classical, jazz. I even featured the Austin Ballet Theater once a month. I’ve since been told that only the Astrodome sold more beer in Texas than the ’Dillo did, but that wasn’t the joint’s greatest accomplishment. Somehow the ‘Dillo had a soothing effect on the hippies and rednecks who wandered in to see what was going on in our Beer Garden of Eden. Whatever hostilities were going on out in the streets ceased the moment when they heard Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen doing “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar).”
But if they were having fun – and I tend to think they were – I was having none. After six years of trying to entice 1,500 hippies to buy tickets every night, I left with my tail between my legs and and opened a chophouse called the Raw Deal, on Sabine Street off East Sixth. It had thirty-two seats and $100-a-month rent, and it came with my first two beer neon signs, a Falstaff and a Shiner on Tap. But while I hung onto the signs, I soon sold the Raw Deal to a couple of pals and bought a gas station on North Lamar that had been run by Kenneth Threadgill, the bootlegger and folk singer who discovered Janis Joplin. We turned the station into a restaurant that serves American food, Southern Style, just like our newer operation next to the site of the Armadillo, which fell to the wrecker’s ball long ago. Both places bear Mr. Threadgill’s last name, as well as a connection to the ’Dillo. We opened the first Threadgill’s the same day in 1981 that the Armadillo was closing. The first lunch we dished up was to a bleary-eyed crowd of revelers who, about dawn, stumbled out of what was billed as “The Last Dance at the ’Dillo.”
They would take away their memories of nights that couldn’t have happened anywhere else, but memories are only part of what has kept the Armadillo alive in heart and mind. When I want to re-live the good times there, I turn to the work of its Art Squad, a crew of wildly talented, and sometimes just plain wild, artists who produced nearly 500 posters in the decade of its existence. The posters’ quality and stylistic variety has outlived even the music of the great artists who stepped onto its stage. Without the ’Dillo’s artists to capture the spirit of each performer, Austin’s musical reputation might never have taken on its enduring glow. And still their names may be a mystery to you, so allow me to seize the moment and take roll: Jim Franklin, Micael Priest, Ken Featherston (RIP), Danny Garrett, Sam Yeats, Guy Juke, Bill Narum (RIP), Henry Gonzales. I salute you one and all.
To John St. Clair, John Paul Hudson, Mike Robuck, and all the others who helped me collect my assortment of neon beer signs, I thank you and hereby offer up the surplus I’d intended to use for other Threadgill’s locations. That’s a job I’ve now grown too old to pursue unless it’s in New Zealand. And New Zealand is too far away to tote anything that won’t float.