METRO | Sunshine Williams : Don’t keep Austin weird, puleeze!

Upscale 168-room boutique hotel planned for the Domain to have ‘rustic Texas chic’ decor and ‘Keep Austin Weird’ theme. Hey, we’ll show you weird…

armadillo poster

Armadillo poster by Jim Franklin, 1976, signed by Jerry Jeff Walker. From the collection of Sunshine Williams.

By Sunshine Williams | The Rag Blog | May 24, 2014

AUSTIN — I can’t keep silent any longer. Quick, call the Vice Squad! Lodge Works Partners and Endeavor Real Estate Group are endeavoring to pimp and prostitute the Keep Austin Weird legend by keeping the “Keep Austin Weird theme central to our design” in the Archer Austin, a chic boutique hotel to be built between Neiman Mark-up and a new Nordstrom at the Domain in North Austin. (See the May 6, 2014, Austin American-Statesman.)

I submit that these tenderfoots(feet) have no idea of the origin of the KAW slogan. If they did, they wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot(feet) pole. In the first place, the “central theme” of the original KAW was essentially SEX, DRUGS, AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. I’ll explain.

Back in the ’70s, when the Live Music Capital of the World was in its infancy after Willie, Waylon, and Jerry Jeff came to town, there were about 300 starry-eyed bands in Austin from all over the country, playing for beer and food, or the door if they were lucky, at the Armadillo World Headquarters, Checkered Flag/Castle Creek, Soap Creek Saloon, Mother Earth, Hole in the Wall, Austin Outhouse, Buffalo Gap/Gemini’s/Raul’s, Posse East, Liberty Lunch, Spellman’s, The Depot, Antone’s, Steamboat Springs, Chicago House, Alliance Wagon Yard, Split Rail, Emma Jo’s, Broken Spoke, Rome Inn, Marshall Ford Inn, Bull Creek Inn, Continental Club, Back Room, Threadgill’s, Skyline Club, Cactus Cafe, Willie’s Austin Opera House, The Pier, and my own Sunshine’s Party out on Lake Austin.

Only three or four of these are still extant. Of course, that was back before liquor-by-the-drink was legalized, so it was hard to make a buck!

As for drugs, once at Mother Earth on North Lamar, where Whole Foods, Cheapos, and now Goodwill were/is, Too Smooth was playing when this guy, whom I didn’t know, fell to the dance floor, convulsing. I quickly dropped and held his tongue to prevent his choking. He died while I had my hand in his mouth and turned as cold as an ice cube.

After the EMS took him away, the band started playing again and everyone started dancing like crazy! As it turned out, he was shocked back to life in the ambulance with no resulting brain damage, probably because his metabolism was so low from the alcohol and Darvon, which, he told me later in the hospital, he had imbibed.

Sam Cutler, a former roadie for the Grateful Dead, rolled 72 perfect joints on a Bull Durham rolling machine.

When Willie Nelson premiered his Red Headed Stranger concept album at the Paramount Theater on Congress Avenue in 1976, a Coffee Davis Band entourage of 22 of us were at Manor Downs while Sam Cutler, a former roadie for the Grateful Dead, rolled 72 perfect joints on a Bull Durham rolling machine from six-foot-long hairy Oaxacan tops and packed them vertically in a lidded china compote.

We all caravanned down to the Paramount, sat on center rows five and six, and, while Willie’s band played straight through the whole album, smoked all 72 joints. (I’ve done the math for you — that’s 3.272 average per stoner.) This just four blocks from the Texas Capitol!

Townsend Miller was a stockbroker by day at Merrill-Lynch and bar-hopped at night. He wrote a music column for the Austin American-Statesman and was largely responsible for Austin’s becoming the Live Music Capital of the World. He’d go home and take a nap after work, then go out later to listen to music until the bars closed. He was in his 70s then, or at least looked like it, smoked cigarettes, and carried a thin silver flask filled with vodka spiked with Crème de Menthe, so he smelled like Scope.

He took me to one of the first screenings of Austin City Limits at KLRU Studios — Johnny Gimble and Ray Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel, if memory serves me — and the opening shows of Chicago bluesmen at Antone’s in the former furniture store on East Sixth.

One night when we went to see Townes Van Zandt at his single-wide trailer at Goat Hill in Clarksville, Townes was up the street in front of a friend’s garage apartment threatening to stab himself in the abdomen with a dinner fork. The last time I went out with Townsend, we went to see Alvin Crow at the Broken Spoke on New Year’s Eve and he could hardly walk. He died tragically in his VW bug when it burned on Festival Beach a few years later

archer austin

How weird is this? Architectural drawing of Austin Archer boutique hotel.

As for weird, one night at my bar on Lake Austin, someone came up to me and told me a tall, toothless guy in a black derby hat, straight out of “Deliverance,” had a yellow McCullough Junior chainsaw hidden on his lap under his Levi jacket. When I asked him to put it in his boat, he grabbed it up and left. When he got to the pier, he started sawing the planks below and the pilings above and he, in short order, sawed himself into the lake, sawdust sprinkling the waves. I called the sheriff to report him and, when asked if I had gotten a license number, had to tell him “He went that-away in his boat.” We never saw him again and we were left with the costly repairs!

So many stories, so little time!

So many stories, so little time! But I do have a few questions and one suggestion for the Archer Austin owners and developers:

(1) If you want to resurrect the “Keep Austin Weird” theme, do you plan to allow skinny dipping in your large soaking tubs and pool? After all, Hippie Hollow has had nudity since day one and it was only in the ’80s, I think, when Travis County officially made it a “clothing optional” park. And down nearby Quinlan Park Road, the now luxurious Lake Austin Resort and Spa used to be a one-story motel-like nudist colony, as was an apartment complex just east of I-35 on the right side of Manor Road.

(2) Will the “culinary-direction of a chef-driven restaurant and bar” include bringing back those scrumptious saucer-size nachos they used to serve on the patio of the Armadillo? And will you hire Micael Priest, Armadillo poster artist, to do your menus? And will your “7,000 square feet of event space” have no seating so that the concert goers will either stand or sit cross-legged on the floor, like in the old Armadillo days? And will the bar serve ice-cold Lone Star longnecks for them to suck on? And will the ladies’ restroom be large enough that you don’t have to bolt the line to find refuge in the men’s room, much to the surprise and chagrin of the guys inside?

(3) Will the parking lot be unpaved so that after a drenching rain (which we seldom have anymore) your guests have to get out the picks and shovels, ropes and chains, and dig their stuck cars and pick-’em-up trucks out of the muck, like in the old days at Soap Creek Saloon off Old Walsh Tarleton Road? And will your kitchen allow a musician to come in and let a comely fan sit on his lap, like John Lee Hooker did there while waiting for his nachos to emerge from the oven of the old kitchen stove? And will your restaurant furniture be comprised of old telephone company spools for tables and chairs, like at open-air Hector’s Taco Flats out on North Lamar across from the Stallion Drive-Inn?

Will you have ‘weirdos’ employed by your HR as Hospitality Ambassadors in costume as Bicycle Annie with all her bags?

(4) Will you have “weirdos” employed by your HR as Hospitality Ambassadors in costume as Bicycle Annie with all her bags? Leslie Cochran in his thong and high heels? Crazy Carl Hickerson, who ran for Mayor, Council, and even Governor, selling his Spinning-Flower Action Figures? Blaze Foley with his duct tape? Max Nofziger, Sixth Street flower-seller, later a City Councilman, selling flowers to your guests? Dry Creek Cafe’s Sarah as a waitress exclaiming, “Fix your own damned cheeseburger!” and a newsboy yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Get The Rag right here!”

(5) And, finally, I will have a “distressed look” like your area rugs, if you don’t have a huge fire pit on the Terrace, so that you can reenact Jubal Clark’s Fourth-of-July “Bean Blast” that occurred at Star Ranch below Texas Tumbleweed Hill out on RR 2222. He’d toss unopened cans of beans into a raging fire at intervals and then we’d all wait for the explosions! Of course, you’d have charred pinto beans stuck to the stucco of your “rustic ‘Texas chic’ decor, with design touches including native Texas limestone.”

armadillo poster 2

Kid’s coloring poster of Armadillo World Headquarters complex by Micael Priest, 1977, signed by Jerry Jeff Walker. Poster from the collection of Sunshine Williams.

If you’re going to have a theme hotel, then you might as well go whole hog and do a full-court theme park out there like the demolished Astroworld, where I worked in PR, and turn it into “Turtle Creek South at the Domain.” Just please keep “Keep Austin Weird” out of it! That’s a sacrilege and is the most ridiculous PR gambit I’ve ever heard of! Austin was one of the lowest cost-of-living cities in the country back then and our “chic” was ragged cut-offs, sandals, beads, long-haired hippies, cosmic cowboys, and lots of free expression and outrageous behavior! Rude, crude, and tattooed!

Austin still has its pockets of weirdness and still has a few closet weirdos, but Austin, the city as a whole, is no longer weird, thanks to people who want to cash in on it. And the ironic thing is, the guy who came up with “Keep Austin Weird” didn’t trademark it and never made a penny from it!

[Sunshine Williams, a real estate broker who will turn 80 on May 29, lives above Barton Springs with her calico cat, Callie. A news and sports junkie, she enjoys reading, yoga, and her many collections. She is searching for a publisher for her memoirs. She can be reached at sunshine.williams@att.net.]

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17 Responses to METRO | Sunshine Williams : Don’t keep Austin weird, puleeze!

  1. Vern Turner says:

    Sunshine hits it out of the park with this brief history of Austin. I first visited here in 1985 and thought Austin was very groovy; the music and dining being super good everywhere without pretentiousness.

    I don’t know if the “KAW” culture can survive the onslaught of over development, but I think that what I’ve seen so far, not even spoiled, self-indulgent yuppies can mess up KAW.

    Find an agent or publisher quickly before all that you write about – and the people who made it so – are gone.

  2. Tassia lynch says:

    Reading Sunshine’s historical piece makes me wish I was around to see and experience Austin as she did.

    After reading the article, there is no doubt in my mind that “weird” refers a very particular time in Austin’s history and the slogan should only be used in specific reference to that period. Using it in any other context is disrespectful to people like Sunshine whose contribution of their own , unique, weirdness lent the relevance the expression.

  3. Pam Davis says:

    Great piece, very accurately.reflects the Austin I knew when I lived there from 1968-1981. I know how incredibly lucky I was to have been there. The article was a wonderful reminder. Thanks Sunshine for writing this piece. Thanks Bayless for sending us the link. Thanks to the Rag Blog !!!!!!!yeehee!

  4. I love this so much — Sunshine, you rock, girl!

    The “new Austin” can’t be weird because it lacks authenticity, a quality gained only through experience, trials and tribulations, and a lot of spunk. No one gets it by hanging a Jim Franklin in their new high-rise luxury abode, or buying a pair of vintage Western boots. It is not a quality shared by conformists in general. Wait til that high-rise is a grungy slum in a bad part of town, then learn where weird comes from: making do, getting by, and having a blast doing it.

    Thanks, Sunshine; keep on keepin’ it real!

  5. Lori says:

    So well written, you brought back a lot if memories.

  6. janet gilles says:

    Ah, yes, the glory days. The Pier, on Lake Austin, water, boats, music, and weed. Thanks for the memories.

  7. Melanie Martinez says:

    If I were a publisher, I’d publish Sunshine’s memoirs, for sure! What about a Kickstarter, Sunshine?

  8. LC says:

    I loved your post on KAW … brought me to tears .
    I have lived in Austin since 1964 ( where I attended UT with the Johnson girls ( LBJ’s )
    Gone to most places you mentioned …. and then a few !

    I miss the old days .

    Thanks for the memories .

  9. David Bayless says:

    Hey, so enjoyed Sunshine’s article regarding the Weird-Great
    days. I was there 70 – 2000, still go back to enjoy the coffee and to observe the pretense, and marvel at the cost. More from Sunshine!

  10. Bill Oakey says:

    I love your amazing, wisecracking stories about the good old days!

  11. Leeah Taylor says:

    Sunshine, I absolutely love this! I totally agree! Jeremy and I are so disheartened by all the condos going up… the whole reason I moved back to Texas was to escape the crazy city. Austinites always said to “not Dallas Austin” and now it’s just turning into a smaller scale Dallas. 🙁
    So sad to see.

    I’m definitely passing this along!

  12. Scott at Strange Brew says:

    Great read, thanks Sunshine. I am happy to hear you are coming to hear some music at Strange Brew. I hope we can live up to the old Austin feel, which for me is a laid back and unrefined kinda scene, I posted the link, all in tact to our facebook page.

  13. Trey Massengale says:

    I really enjoyed your piece on KAW. You have a great way with words, especially on such a topic like that so dear to your personal history. You’re a great recounter of the tale. Keep it up. The world needs more good story tellers, especially since Maya Angelou has passed on.

  14. Kermit Lingard says:

    Here Here! You always nail it! Your knowledge of Austin history, as a native, living it, is enviable. I caught the tail end of the Austin that is no longer. I’ve thought, over the past number of years, after hearing that there was a “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, that, if you need a Keep Austin Weird marketing strategy – it is no longer weird. Sure do miss Austin.

  15. Before the clubs you refer to, Ms. Sunshine, there was the Folk Sing at the UT Student Union and the black jazz and r&b clubs in East Austin. And then there was Threadgill’s in its heyday in the mid-1960s.
    Of the clubs you mention, I count not three or four, but seven still extant clubs–Hole in the Wall, Donn’s Depot, Antone’s, Broken Spoke, Continental Club, Cactus Cafe, the Pier. Of course the Continental Club was a topless bar before it became a music venue.
    Jerry Jeff Walker escaped from New Jersey and was in Austin by about 1965. He played that club on San Jacinto, maybe back then called the Fred. The band I was in, the Conqueroo, integrated the same club with our so-called “black” bandleader, Ed Guinn; then we integrated the IL Club on East 11th with all us so-called “white” musicians, Bob Brown, Fat Charlie, Darrell Rutherford, and myself. The IL was owned by Mr. Ira LIttlefield. His son, Ira Willis Littlefield, was the drummer and may still be in the Bells of Joy. Google them . . .
    Townsend Miller, 1919-1989, made it to his 70th year. He did look mighty old to me back then. Used to run into him all the time, we had the same favorite band. They played my song, We Will All Go Together One Bright Day, often as an encore. And Sunshine, dear, I never made a penny off of their 10 years of playing my song. Not one of them ever asked me if I knew BMI or ASCAP would collect money for performances of songs. My fault for being stoned all the time, I suppose.
    Other weird facts about myself, my friend Janis Joplin came to my pad the first time she made it to Austin, met the downstairs neighbor, Powell St. John and his musical partner Lanny Wiggins.
    I caught her first appearance, at the Folk Sing, strumming the auto harp and singing Silver Threads and Golden Needles and Black Mountain Blues.
    The photos of the young man in outsize polka dot boxers and psychedelic pilot cap standing in an “oat bucket” are of me; and I made up the saying “Onward: Through the Fog.” Never got any money for that, either, and a smart businessman trademarked it. I don’t want any money for that, though, it’s a gift.
    The weirdness of Austin began in the late 1950s or early ’60s, by the ’70s it was going full blast and the big boys climbed on the train.
    Yeah, you shoulda seen the straight small city–that shut down at 10 pm–in the early ’60s of civil rights and folk music, and 90% button-down students looking askance at us outcasts, misfits, socialists, and artists. We were weird, and those of us who lived are still here.

  16. David MacBryde says:

    Thanks for the writing! More, please!
    For a history time line do see
    http://www.austinbelovedcommunity.org/
    and click around “movement history” to get to the big map and long list.

  17. Sunshine, you have the history as non others do. Those times when Austin was Austin and it was weird. We didn’t really know it was back then. We were in it.

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