Mesmo’s Reflections on the Sixties

Janis Joplin, folksinger. Austin, Texas, 1965, at The 11th Door on Red River Street. Photo by Bob Simmons / The Rag Blog.

Gerry Storm wrote the following reminiscence on Austin music in the sixties for the Texas Ghetto website in 2000. Austin was a center of the era’s dynamic counterculture and a point of origin for psychedelic rock.

Gerry writes “Mesmo’s Desert Diary” on a reliably irregular basis for The Rag Blog. “A septuagenarian desert rat” who now lives in Southwest New Mexico, Gerry Storm is a former student at the University of Texas in Austin who was a peace activist in the Vietnam era and a noted rock musician during the sixties and seventies. He has added a brief afterthought at the end of this article.

Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / June 21, 2008

The Way We Were
Austin Music : 1965-1969

By Gerry Storm / The Rag Blog

There was no great migration to Austin in 1965. New arrivals were usually headed for the University of Texas, a place in the state bureaucracy, or they were new personnel assigned to Bergstrom Air Force Base. Austin had the reputation of being a beautiful, rather colonial place, with no industry and low pay. U.T. graduates used to lament this situation as they packed their bags and headed for promising, good paying jobs in Dallas and Houston.

Those of us with friends in River City liked to visit because it was always a place to have a good time. It was a city of state drones and school teachers, politicos and lawyers, academics and professional students. It was a place that rich kids preferred to congregate as they waited for their inheritances. It was said to be rather snobbish, a city of tea sippers. But on all social levels, it was a good place to party.

Being the State Capitol and home of the state’s largest and most prestigious university, there was an underground of irreverent scholars, artists, and politicos–some of them with national reputations–that you don’t find in any city. Although they were tolerated in Austin, they hardly dominated the scene. For the most ambitious, Austin was only a stepping stone to the West Coast or the Northeast. That was one of the appealing facets of the town that survives today: It is a good place for a smart kid with ambition and talent but no money to start a reputation.

Night life? No, there wasn’t much of that either. The Club Caravan in the Villa Capri Motel was the only place with a full-time band. The few rock clubs in town changed owners and formats regularly and enforced strict dress codes. There was a big country and western joint near Round Rock, Big G’s, but you wouldn’t have mistaken Austin for Nashville.

You couldn’t buy a drink of hard liquor legally unless you were a member of a private club but you could buy whiskey by the half-pint to gallon, bring it into any beer joint and drink it all.

The veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict who had flocked to U.T. to cash in on the GI Bill, were gone by the early ’60’s. Their departure had left a definite social vacuum on the night life. The barracks erected for them and other students who couldn’t afford a dorm had been razed, and that area of the south campus had been landscaped to feature the oil rig, Santa Rita Number 1.

The University and public places in Austin had been integrated quickly after Lyndon Johnson a few years earlier decided to run for President, without much fanfare or tumult, prompting black residents to ask, “If it was so easy why didn’t they do it a long time ago?” But it was still a southern town. The only place with any sizeable mixing of the races was Charlie’s Showcase, an East Austin rhythm and blues joint that served as a gathering place for the adventurous.

This was an era when the big happenings were private parties. The times seemed to dictate this social preference, and (as any college-age Texas kid, legislative aide or local dandy could tell you) there were plenty of these. Until a new resident found his or her social group, however, Austin could be a dead town.

Lyndon B. Johnson, longtime resident of the little city and owner of the broadcasting monopoly which controlled the town’s major radio and only TV stations, was now President of the United States; his long time crony, John Connally, was Governor of the State of Texas; Frank Erwin, a member of the Johnson team, was running the University of Texas through the Board of Regents. The Johnson machine was housed in Austin and its power players exerted tremendous influence over not only the city and the state, but the world.

Mother U.T. ruled the cultural life by booking virtually all the name, live, entertainment through the Cultural Entertainment Committee. She was showing off her new art building by lining up one impressive exhibit after another. Gregory Gymnasium served double duty as the Longhorn basketball arena and the campus concert hall. The all-white Longhorn football teams were on a long roll under Coach Darrell Royal, necessitating major expansion of the football stadium. In fact “expansion” was a key a word on campus as the inevitable invasion of the Baby Boomer generation which would eventually double the enrollment was in its early stages. There were no women’s sports teams at the university and coeds could not wear slacks or shorts or jeans to class but they could and did wear mini-skirts, much to the delight of girl watchers.

There was a fair amount of vice in the little city, presided over by a group of bank robbers and hard-core thugs known as The Overton Gang.

The Hill Country west of the city was still unspoiled and largely undiscovered, although the national press covering Lyndon at home had found it and been properly seduced. They regaled over the rides between Austin, Johnson City, and a Highland Lake called “Lake Granite Shoals” (soon to be renamed “The Lyndon B. Johnson Reservoir”). This was the preferred playground of the Johnson clan.

Although the influence of this political machine on the little city was well-known to and weathered by the populace, chances are the Overton Gang was more popular and, perhaps, more ethical.

Some of the best attended musical events were the “Folk Sings” on campus. These were strictly acoustic events featuring students. The repertoire was primarily traditional folk although some of the performers wrote compelling songs of their own.

Bob Dylan was the hero of the day to most folk music fans. His music could be heard in the neighborhoods around the campus, coming from students rooms and over the little local radio station KAZZ. He had managed to crack the pop music Top 10 with his ballad “Like a Rolling Stone”.

The would-be professional rock musicians were playing the “English Sound” and some of them had affected the English look with “Mod” clothing and hair that was a little longer than normal (normal was quite short at the time).

There was a distinct difference between folk fans and rock fans, the former being more altruistic and the latter more animated. It came as quite a shock, therefore, when Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival that summer with a rock group. In succeeding interviews he revealed that he felt like electric music was more suited to the times and that he planned to make all his future appearances with an amplified band as backup.

Folk purists were aghast, they felt betrayed. But young men of his generation got the point, there was a new fear sweeping this group. President Johnson had announced that American forces in Viet Nam would be increased by several hundred thousand, by one million inside a year. The young men understood that they would soon be called upon to put their lives on the line for their country. Many of them did not like the idea of forced inscription to defend a corrupt government thousands of miles away in Asia. None of them liked the idea of dying.

This was the source of the new angst in the music. Folk musicians throughout the country started “going electric”, buying pickups for their acoustic guitars and little amplifiers to go with them. They still differed from the rock musicians in that they were usually rank amateurs when it came to playing in bands. But the music most of the rock musicians played was covers of current and past hits-nothing original. And the folk players wrote almost all their own music, the lyrics to which were now reflecting their discomfort with the growing war and its ramifications. With amplification, one could protest louder. The rock musicians were also feeling the cold wind of the draft in their lives, and they heard the voices of protest.

In September of 1965 Bob Dylan appeared in Austin at the Palmer Auditorium. It was a seminal event in the history of music in “River City”. So great was the response to this music that hundreds of would be protest rock musicians went home and started trying to write songs for this genre. They also started letting their hair grow. Dylan’s attitude and appearance seemed to serve as the signs of the new times and his message was loud and clear: don’t go away like lambs to slaughter, stick together, fight the system.

There was a curious scene on San Jacinto street, a block up from the historic Sholtzgarten. On the corner was The Jade Room, a dress code night club which featured English copy bands, go-go girls, and dancing. In mid block was a nondescript little hole in the wall called variously “The Library” or “Fred”. It featured folk singers, no dancing. Since these were the days before liquor-by-the-drink was legal in Texas, both places were basically beer joints. The Jade Room was very formal, run like a tight ship by its owner/manager, one Marge Funk. The Library/Fred was barely managed at all and had a succession of lessees and would be impresarios, barely keeping afloat.

On some nights there were dozens of performers who wanted to sing but not all of them made it to the mike before closing time. These performers had at least one thing in common, they were no slaves to fashion. Being unkempt was part of the scene at this club, performers and audience alike sharing this mindset. Performers from Fred did not play at The Jade Room nor vice-versa. But there was talent at both places.

The Thirteenth Floor Elevators — Tommy, Bennie, Rocky and Stacy — at the New Orleans Club in Austin, Texas, 1965. Photo by Bob Simmons / The Rag Blog.

Austin’s first nationally famous rock band grew from a combination of these two scenes, the English copy bands and the folkies, the boys at The Jade Room and those at The Library/Fred. The driving force behind the marriage was one Tommy Hall, leader of the first Austin band to find success in the rock business. He was originally from Houston, an English major. In the family who hung out around the Ghetto, he was called “Turn On Tommy”. He was a fast talker, a hustler, a jive artist, a rapper, a believer, a fanatic, a salesman, and sometimes a bore. Originally he had been a Young Republican but had switched allegiances when he became infatuated with music. He was also a good student in his early years at U.T., a quite literate young fellow with English language skills. He could not play a musical instrument so he took up the jug. He could not play the jug very well either, at least not in the traditional sense.

Unknown, unheralded and largely unheard at the folk sings was a skiffle group called “The Lingsmen”. Skiffle was a bastard stepchild of folk and acoustic blues which had a brief fling on the hit parade with an English group led by one Lonny Donegan. Leader of The Lingsmen was Tommy Hall. If you had heard The Lingsmen then and been told they would be the band that would put Austin, Texas on the map as a center of pop music, you could have been forgiven if you had laughed.

In the summer of 1965 when Dylan shocked his followers by going electric, Hall got the message. The Lingsmen played that summer in Corpus Christi. They were no longer a skiffle group. They were covering the rock and roll songs of English bands and surfer music in a decidedly electric format. The group consisted of two boys from Kerrville, Stacey Sutherland and John Ike Walton on guitar and drums, respectively, and Austinite Benny Thurman on bass. None of them was much of a singer. None of them was much of a rock musician either, although Sutherland had some experience. Hall acted as manager of the group but did not play.

Another rising star on the scene in Austin was one Roger Erickson, Jr., the son of an architect/engineer father and frustrated opera singer mother. Rocky, as he was called, had an abiding love for the blues and a good collection of blues records which he learned to imitate quite well. He also had inherited his mother’s voice, a powerful, intense instrument. He had received early musical training and was a competent guitar player. While still a student at Austin High he made a reputation by being expelled for refusing to cut his long, black, wavy hair. Rocky was a good-looking, very likeable fellow. He had plenty of charisma. He was a budding star. His debut on the Austin scene (while still in his teens) came when he put together a band he called “Rocky and The Spades”.

They appeared at The Jade Room and were by most accounts a decent band, and a very loud one. They did not last for long and did not develop a large following. However, in Rocky, Tommy Hall saw the vocalist that he had been searching for to front The Lingsmen. Throw into this mix a lot of spooky mysticism, a little LSD, plenty of pot, other chemicals, sex, an amplifier for Hall’s jug, the literary talents of Clementine Hall, Tommy’s wife at the time and the author of most of the band’s better lyrics, alienation, angst, and a “can do” attitude and you have the recipe that created the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Hall had become an erstwhile “Acid Guru”, an individual who guided others through LSD trips. In San Francisco, in Boston, and in Austin these individuals were forming groups of followers who believed that their guides (Gurus, masters, etc.) were disciples of God (or The Man himself) sent to lead them into a greater glory. Charles Manson fit this mold. It is said that Tommy Hall had this kind of power over Rocky Erickson and others. For better of worse, it was under this veil of mysticism that Austin’s first successful rock band emerged.

© Gerry Storm 2000


The real story of the Austin scene was beneath the surface in the pot biz. Well into the ’80’s it was the dealers who financed the shows and various other businesses, bailed out buddies, financed bands, etc. You gotta have some capital to create a scene! The first upscale hippy businesses that morphed into the 6th Street scene were financed by the pot trade. Whole Foods? Dell? There was no grand conspiracy or cartel, just some guys and gals who figured out a way to cross and deliver it to a waiting buyer, and resist bragging about it. Lots of them figured it out and made it work for a time. I’d guess that they are still at it, although growing on this side of the border seems to be more common these days.

Gerry / June 21, 2008

Source. / Texas Ghetto

The Rag Blog

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1 Response to Mesmo’s Reflections on the Sixties

  1. Anonymous says:

    There was a Charlie’s Playhouse and a Sam’s Showcase on the Eastside. Was Charlie’s Showcase a later variant on one of those places?

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