ARMADILLO WORLD HEADQUARTERS: A MEMOIR
by Eddie Wilson & Jesse Sublett
Distributed by UT Press, Available in all fine stores, online, and brick & mortar
A featured book at the 2017 Texas Book Festival, November 4-5.
“A perfect evocation of a crucial time and place in Texas cultural history, this book isn’t as good as being there, but it’s close.”
The Rambling Boy
September 21, 2017
Wilson also describes some seamier business situations, including … the tangled relationship between the Armadillo and the television program Austin City Limits. The takeaway is that the music business is a business like any other except that more throats are cut and the egos involved are bigger.
Eddie Wilson says that if he had a larger bladder the history of Texas music might be different. As Wilson tells the story, one night in July 1970 he was at a South Austin music spot called the Cactus Club listening to the Hub City Movers when he felt the call of nature. There was a long line at the club’s rest room, so Wilson stepped outside and found a convenient wall across the alley. The wall was part of an enormous building that had once been a National Guard Armory, and after Wilson zipped up his pants he explored it in the dark and realized that its cavernous spaces would make a perfect music venue.. He rounded up some business partners and turned it into Armadillo World Headquarters, an institution that dominated the Texas musical scene for a decade.
Wilson records a couple of stabbings and one fatal shooting, which I guess is not a bad record for a Texas beer joint over a ten-year period.
Wilson himself has become an Austin institution that has lasted much longer than the Armadillo, and as the proprietor of Threadgill’s, a South Austin restaurant with occasional live music, he has been regaling friends and patrons with Armadillo stories for the past 40 years. Now he has finally got them down on paper in a beautiful, self-published book, designed by Lindsay Starr, printed on heavy paper, and illustrated with at least a hundred and fifty black-and-white photographs by the late Burton Wilson and at least as many color reproductions of the famous and eccentric Armadillo World Headquarters posters. The book, Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir, distributed by the University of Texas Press, is a perfect evocation of a crucial time and place in Texas cultural history. It is also very much Eddie Wilson’s own book, with a certain amount of edginess and score-settling in the text and an absolute openness about the illegal substances that fueled the Armadillo’s staff and performers and sometimes paid the bills.
There is a disquieting scent of violence underlying Wilson’s narrative, which may have as much to do with Wilson’s self-admitted explosive temper as it does with the fact that at bottom the Armadillo was a Texas beer joint.
The Armadillo World Headquarters opened on August 7, 1970 at 525 ½ Barton Springs Road and closed on December 31, 1980. Over those ten years it became far more than a concert hall. In Wilson’s words, it was “a hippie boot camp, a trade school, a music hall, an art pad, home.” It also incorporated a beer garden, a restaurant, a recording studio, a bakery, an ice cream parlor, a jewelry shop, an art gallery, an advertising agency, and a nursery for employee’s children. At its peak the Armadillo had 140 full- and part-time employees and countless volunteers and hangers-on.
The Armadillo is best remembered as the place where the fusion between county music and psychedelic rock and roll took place, where Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings produced what Wilson calls “the cosmic cowboy and progressive country thing,” but Wilson is quick to point out that the music presented at the Armadillo was far more diverse than country rock. Over a ten-year period Nelson played there only seven times and Jennings five. Nelson left in 1974 after a dispute with one of Wilson’s partners, Bobby Helderman, over the fact that too many of Nelson’s entourage carried guns. Emphasizing the diversity of the Armadillo’s presentations over the years,Wilson writes, “We had everyone from Shawn Phillips to Slade, and in between we had Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Bette Midler, Leo Kotke, John McLaughlin and the Mahakrishna Orchestra, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. . . . Roxy Music….We also had ballet every month.”
There is plenty in the book for the fans of the bands of the 1970s, but in my opinion Wilson is most interesting when he is describing the intricate business arrangements that kept the Armadillo afloat. The advertising agency, TYNA/TACI (which was pronounced “teena tacky” and was an acronym for Thought You’d Never Ask/The Austin Consultants, Inc.) was a scheme dreamed up by another partner, entertainment lawyer Mike Tolleson, to get around a state regulation prohibiting beer companies from making contributions to beer retailers. Lone Star Beer paid TYNA/TACI $5,000 a month to promote Lone Star longnecks, and Armadillo artists produced tee shirts, bumper stickers, and posters, including the famous Jim Franklin poster showing a covered wagon inside a Lone Star bottle.
The campaign was run by a radio genius named Woody Roberts, who compiled a list of two hundred words that he thought would elicit positive reactions from potential Lone Star customers, had them market-tested by a psychographic research lab in Richardson, Texas, and then commissioned songwriters Tom Livingston and Gary P. Nunn of the Lost Gonzo Band to incorporate as many of the high-scoring words as possible into a song about Lone Star Beer. What emerged was “The Nights Never Get Lonely,” recorded by Sonny and the Sunliners, Freddie King, and the Pointer Sisters. And you thought country songs got written by an inspired songwriter just plucking a guitar.
Wilson also describes some seamier business situations, including arguments in the box office over the night’s receipts between performers’ agents and Armadillo staff members and the tangled relationship between the Armadillo and the television program Austin City Limits. The takeaway is that the music business is a business like any other except that more throats are cut and the egos involved are bigger.
There is a disquieting scent of violence underlying Wilson’s narrative, which may have as much to do with Wilson’s self-admitted explosive temper as it does with the fact that at bottom the Armadillo was a Texas beer joint. For what it’s worth, the Armadillo’s security staff took instruction in Zen meditation, and followed the precept of “hug, don’t hit,” preferring to envelop bad actors in bear hugs and walk them to the door rather than laying them out with punches or black jacks. Wilson records a couple of stabbings and one fatal shooting, which I guess is not a bad record for a Texas beer joint over a ten-year period.
Wilson left the enterprise in November 1976 after a dispute with his partners over how best to reduce and pay off the business’s increasing debt. The Dillo’s management was taken over by Hank Alrich, a long-time friend of the house with a private income. Alrich restructured the business’s finances and actually had it showing a profit when the landlord, Austin real estate developer M.K. Hage, announced his intention to demolish the building and sell the property. He gave the Armadillo a year’s notice, time to organize one hell of a goodbye party on New Year’s Eve, 1980. Thirty-seven years later, Eddie Wilson has recaptured the essence of the place in this fine book. Reading it is not quite the same as being there, but it is close as you are going to get.