I feel like I’ve just returned from an extended journey through the past: I just finished reading Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir, by Eddie Wilson with Jesse Sublett. Replete with scads of the incredible artwork by the Armadillo Art Squad and fantastic photos by Burton Wilson from backstage and beyond, this is treasure trove of memories, some of them old, some renewed — some brand new!
For those of us who lived in Austin during the days of the Armadillo (1970-1980), the whole flavor of the volume rings true. If you went to any shows there, you might find Eddie’s reminiscences of the particulars of that show or that performer included here. For me, it was fun to confirm specific dates for specific shows I saw. Even more fun, though, were some of the behind-the-scenes stories.
Like the time Dandy Don Meredith, veteran Dallas Cowboy and at-the-time, announcer on the new Monday Night Football show, saved the ‘Dillo from the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission (TABC) and imminent shut-down for liquor violations early on by glad-handing the agents, talking ’em up, signing autographs and slow-walking them back outside.
Or how the legendary Thanksgiving Jam of 1972 with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead joining old buddy Doug Sahm and Leon Russell came together for an unannounced gig the day after the Dead’s show across the street at the Municipal Auditorium.
One fun detail for me was the tale of Frank Zappa’s first show there on March 10, 1973. Hearing some of the backstage tales filled in some color details on a night with several memorable moments. The opening act was Blind George McClain, a nearly blind-nearly-deaf keyboard player who rocked from side to side and banged his forearm on the keys for rhythm. At first, I figured him for one of Frank’s traveling band of freaks, but no, George, was a local favorite known for his rowdy rock-a-billy. Eddie tells of getting Frank to meet George, and George’s critique of the Mothers’ (shortened) sound check: “You were way too fucking loud!”
But the highlight that evening, for me at least, involved an inspired pairing for a most unlikely song to be performed by the Mothers of Invention. Touring with the Mothers at the time was jazz violinist extraordinaire, Jean-Luc Ponty, supercharging Zappa’s tunes with the rest of the top-notch band. Late in the show, Zappa stepped up to the microphone and said, “We don’t usually play with local folks, but this girl’s name is Mary and she plays the fiddle.”
Sweet Mary Egan of Greezy Wheels joined the band on stage and they tore into the bluegrass standard, “The Orange Blossom Special.,” and Mary and Jean-Luc truly tore into into it, ripping that thing wide open as they fiddled with each other, at each other, and around each other’s necks at one point. Never before nor since have I ever seen such ferocious fiddling!
Another Armadillo moment I recall that did not make it into the book but seared itself into the memory of nearly anyone there was when my friend Nancy blew up Keith Godchaux’s piano during a Jerry Garcia Band set.
Okay, she didn’t “nearly blow it up” but here’s what happened. This configuration of Garcia’s side band included Keith and his wife Donna, both also in the Grateful Dead. Now, Nancy & Larry, friends who helped run Nothing Strikes Back, the world’s only black-light ice cream parlor, loved the Dead and especially adored Donna singing in the band. So Nancy had brought a small bouquet of roses to toss onstage for Donna.
Larry describes it best. “She’s got, like, 25 yards of stage she can toss them onto and she hits the open bay of the piano.” Where there was a web of microphone cables strung to capture the grand piano sound — which immediately started shooting giant sparks and making loud crackling and popping noises as the water at the bottom of the packaged bouquet hit the wiring.
The band wrapped up the tune quickly and lights dimmed as someone ran over to assess and fix the damage. In the dimmed light, I could see Keith nervously trying to light a cigarette — but his hands were shaking so bad it took him several tries before it lit.
Truthfully, though, I did not get to that many shows at the Dillo. Between schooling, being broke, and working evenings, sometimes up to 7 nights a week, I caught a few shows but nowhere as many as a lot of lucky folks. Flipping through the limited set of great show posters at the end of the book, though, I found 5 from shows I know I saw: Jerry Garcia-Merl Saunders, Jimmy Cliff, David Bromberg, Zappa, and Bob Weir.
I did spend a lot of time through the years at the Armadillo Beer Garden. I recall a carpenter friend saying we could find him down there anytime in the summer in the evening — and that turned out to be true. Later, when I first worked at the Brown Schools, our Lariat dorm staff would hold one weekly team meeting a month off-campus at the Dillo beer garden. It always loosened us up and let us speak more candidly to solve tough team problems.
But my favorite visit to the beer garden had to be with my old friend, Billy the Kid, who had worked awhile in the Dillo kitchen, We were sitting outside, lamenting not being able to get in to see the Kinks that night due to our being broke. Then Billy looked over at the back door where staff walked in and out taking and delivering orders. “That door goes into the kitchen,” he said, “And it’s a straight shot to behind the beer counter on the floor at the back.” He swigged his beer. “I betcha we could just walk straight through and no one would say anything.” He thought a moment. “If they do notice you, just smile and keep going.” Finishing his beer, he announced, “I’m gonna try it — if I’m not back in a minute, give it a shot. Good luck.”
Well, he walked straight through the door there and disappeared. And did not reappear. Gulping the dregs of my beer and mustering up some courage, I headed over there. As I walked through, only one person looked up from a counter surface and we exchanged smiles. The folks at the beer counter seemed a bit surprised, but I slipped around them while they were busy selling beer.
I headed up around the crowd to the front where you could still boogie your way in closer to the stage. Ray Davies and the boys launched into “Demon Rum,” as he strutted the front of the stage, sloshing beer out of his cup onto the crowd. I jumped forward to get some soaking, drinking it all in.
Good times, good memories — and a great book to help bring them back alive!