On Friday the Downtown Highlife Bicycle Club rode again. After everyone met at the Alamo a small cadre of DHBC members broke off and there was a discussion that the route had never gone north before, only south, east, or west. This was true. And not wanting to discriminate, or worse, reverse-discriminate against the culturally challenged Northside, a route was quickly established. As a compromise we agreed to not go north of Hildebrand, formerly known as North Avenue, fittingly.
The route culminated by the zoo where we got lost and ended up on an abandoned road that took us above the Sunken Gardens theater. This rather steep road goes right behind the animal pound. To hear the screams and howls of all the animals was a bit surreal given the darkness of the night and the close proximity of the zoo. The Northside never seemed so exotic. Our only brush with danger was a feral cat that had all the ferocity of Garfield.
A bit later the ride ended in Southtown at Holden’s 101 Bar for a party for the magazine NeoAztlan (Neoaztlan,com). The theme was an iParty, which I had never heard of before but meant that various DJs brought their ipods and played seven songs each. We ended up just a few minutes too late for that segment of the night. I interviewed visual artist Robert Gonzalez for a breakdown of the highlights: Kimberly Aubuchon of Unit B Gallery DJ’ed a conceptual set that included musicians who passed away last year. Gonzalez also made note of a set by artist Cruz Ortiz.
At breakfast the next morning at Tito’s Mexican Restaurant I overheard a funny conversation revolving around the naming of NeoAztlan. From what I could hear from their table, one guy was wondering if there every really was an Aztlan, and if not, how then could there be a new Aztlan? For this there was no rebuttal. Ultimately, this conversation had nothing to do with the magazine but it was amusing nonetheless.
That morning I was cajoled into going to the Southwest School of Art & Craft to hear a lecture by the legendary Japanese textile artist Akahiko Izukura. Textiles are not something I normally want to know more about, but being a servant to the city for this column, I went to learn with an open mind and a cup of coffee, if memory serves (I was still groggy from the night before.) Izukura has a philosophy that is so old-fashioned it is avant-garde. For all of his work in silk, he strives to have no materials left over. “Zero waste” was the expression he used. The crowd was predominantly 50-year-old women, so I fit in very well. At certain moments during the slideshow the women would let out a collective ooh and ahh in marveling at his work. I wasn’t able to discern the obvious quite yet, but by the end I was impressed. My goodwill lasted all the way until I got to my car to find a parking ticket. Funny how that always happens when I don’t ride my bike…
On the Street (02/21/2007)
Friday night I swung by Beethoven’s in Southtown to begin the weekend. On a tip from friends I went to see the Psychics, a three-piece band comprising drums, electric bass, and tenor sax. Their MySpace page describes them as pop-jazz-punk-blues. That’s four categories right there and there’s only three of them in the band, but I would agree. They get a big, diverse sound out of their small group. I thought they were great. Everyone there had a good time, and the free chicken drumsticks at the buffet table were a nice lagniappe for those who stopped by.
Saturday I attended part of the Uprooted Film Series at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. The purpose of the series was focused yet broad — “Palestinians and Other Occupied Peoples from Jerusalem to Baghdad.” The series showed three films each night on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I stopped by at 6 p.m. on Saturday to see the short film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People by Sut Jhally. The film ended on a positive note, showing more recent films that depict Arabs more honestly. Next I saw They Call Me Muslim by Diana Ferrero, which offered a fascinating portrait of two Arab women and their polar views on feminism and freedom of expression, all told through their opinion of wearing a head scarf. In between films I talked to Nadine Saliba, an organizer of the event. For those who weren’t able to attend but would like to educate themselves about the Arab condition, more films will be shown in the future. Their website (Esperanzacenter.org) gives more information.
I would have stuck around for more but I had to meet people at Patsy’s Ice House at 2602 N. Flores, where, it just so happens, we were able to hear a few bands. The headliner was the enigmatic Jason Gerard, but I’ll get back to him in a second. First was RWI, the musical equivalent of Art Brut. They were a trio with a woman on synthesizer, a man on guitar, and someone who could have been their son on the congas. There provoked a lot of blank stares. Next was the prolific Jason Gerard (Myspace.com/jgerard). To quote his Myspace page, “Jason is truly one of the most innovate artist of our time and hopes to be one of the most influential in music history.” Well, it’s good to be modest. As Gerard played a joke by breaking into tuning his guitar in the middle of a song, our group passed into the night in search of lost time and taco trucks.
— Mark Jones
My classmate Bill ventured off to the Pig Stand for lunch. I was happy to hear that it had reopend after its tax troubles this past winter. Mary Ann Hill, a woman who had previously worked at the Pig Stand bought it and reopened it. Working at the Pig Stand was the only job she had ever had, and now she’s taken over the reins to continue its legacy. There’s something about this I find comforting. Whenever I would ride my bike down Broadway by the Pig Stand I felt reassured the diner was still there. I’ll be honest: I’ve never eaten there and when it closed I immediately felt regret. But now that it’s open again, things in San Antonio seem a little more normal.
Friday night I snuck over to Blue Star for First Friday. I arrived late but was able to fight my way through the crowd to see a few galleries. At Three Walls Regis Shephard displayed drawings for his show Wild Style: The Fog of War, Mixtape Vol. 1. In my demented mind, the work reminded me in some ways of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, but also of that late ’80s Mettallica T-shirt with a disfigured head popping out of a toilet, or getting stabbed, or some combination. It was a good shirt.
Next door at Cactus Bra, Jasmyne Graybill presented her exhibition Host, with sporadic, fungi-like growths spread across the white walls. They looked like one large Petri dish, displayed for examination.
The last highlight of the weekend was going to the Potter-Belmar Laboratory to see a new live audio-video mix they were working on, an experiment for their move to full digital-laptop performance. The feedback was positive, and like myself there were several first-time initiates. You can find out more about their work at Potterbelmar.org, or read the Current interview, “Either you’re with us …” August 8, 2006.
— Mark Jones
|Saxophonist Arthur Doyle in action at Trinity University. Photo by Justin Parr.|
On Thursday I headed over to Trinity University to see a performance by two improvisatory jazz veterans, saxophonist Arthur Doyle and percussionist Han Bennick. To quickly understand their credentials, know that Bennick played with the legendary Eric Dolphy and Doyle played with the extraterrestrial Sun Ra Group.
The pairing of these two musicians is a first on stage and it came together through the hard work and promotion of local artist Ben Judson, with his organization heavy Denim (Heavydenim.org) and 91.7 KTRU radio. Ben promoted well, for I saw several out-of-towners in attendance, including Austinites Chris Cogburn of Ten Pounds to the Sound and P.G. Moreno of Epistrophy Arts. Both of these groups host various improvised music/free jazz events around the state and seem to have formed some synergy with Judson’s heavy Denim. This bodes well for future shows coming to San Antonio.
The night began with a solo by Arthur Doyle. Doyle slowly walked out wearing black pants and T-shirt and a bright safety-orange baseball hat. He was as thin as a bamboo reed and didn’t seem to be in the best of health. Once he picked up his saxophone and began to play he channeled energy from an exterior force and came alive. His set became a series of alternating moments of playing the sax and a cappella scatting. I use the term scatting loosely because it wasn’t the typical jazz scatting that makes me laugh. This vocalization was closer to a schizophrenic rant. At first it seemed a fantastic put on but then it became a fascinating veil. At that point his saxophone playing and his mumbling storytelling melded together into a unified, mysterious gesture.
Next was a solo set by Han Bennick. Whereas Doyle came across as detached and saturnine, Bennick was ballistic and anarchic. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen someone play the drums with such a contrasting combination of precision and freedom. At times he would kick his feet up on the toms while he played. He was a total showman with the heart of a jokester. I understand that many people associate free jazz with something very serious and solemn, but Bennick was quite the opposite. At one point during his set he stopped everything and asked the audience if there were any questions. P.G. Moreno of Epistrophy Arts shouted out, “What’s your favorite cheese?” Bennick shouted back, “Fuck that cheese.” He had the audience on the edge between laughter and amazement.
Doyle and Bennick finished the night with a duo. Doyle began onstage by himself, attacking his sax. Bennick began playing off-stage on unseen drums. Then he came forward unexpectedly by throwing his crash symbols onstage. Doyle seemed as surprised as the audience. Bennick then returned to his drumset and continued playing like a crazed character out of a Werner Herzog film. Klaus Kinski comes to mind. Local art blog Emvergeoning.com has a Youtube clip of this moment. The night basically ended when Doyle began walking inquisitively around the stage like a character out of Waiting for Godot. Bennick realized the duo had pretty much ended and wrapped it up. A standing ovation ensued. Confusion reigned.
— Mark Jones
But then filmmaker Bill Daniel came to town in his van, the Sunset Scavenger, to show his much-traveled documentary, Who is Bozo Texino?, a film about hobo graffiti, train-hopping, and the elusive identity of legendary hobo Bozo Texino. (Back around 1997, Daniel used to come to town once a week to show films for his micro-cinema series Funhouse Cinema.)
Who is Bozo Texino? was a 16-year journey for Daniel. He rode the rails across much of the western half of the country with his Super 8 and Bolex cameras, gathering interviews and shooting hours upon hours of footage, all at great risk, but also with great excitement, which comes through in this final version of the documentary. The film was shot in grainy black-and-white, which lends a timeless quality to this fading culture. The music was scored by Texas punk legend Tim Kerr and SST producer Spot. Full of country blues and slide guitars, it evokes a sense of nostalgia. What struck me most were the wild sounds of the trains, which were fortuitously augmented by the real sounds of trains traveling by several feet outside Fl!ght gallery, where the movie screened last Thursday.
During the Q&A session that followed the screening, Daniel commented that hobos have always said their lifestyle used to be easier, and after 9/11 riding the rails became even more difficult. Given that, Who is Bozo Texino? most likely stands as the definitive statement on boxcar-graffiti culture. The film will soon be distributed on DVD. Daniel’s website, Billdaniel.net, gives the most up-to-date information.
After the film a group of people headed up South Flores to the old Judson Candy building to watch Potter-Belmar Labs project video images of graffiti onto the side of the building. It was a wonderful, spontaneous moment, and I only wish I had arrived earlier to see more of it.
I went to his new location on Main Street in Monte Vista and found myself listening to something he deeply cared about: downtown and the current state of the River Walk. An hour later it was obvious this is something we all should care about.
Arecchi ran Justin’s Ice Cream Company and other establishments on the River Walk for more than 38 years to great acclaim (President Clinton called his mango ice cream “a national treasure.”) If anyone can speak confidently about the River Walk, Justin is the guy.
The obvious reason Justin wanted to talk about the River Walk is because of the way he was unceremoniously booted from his location when landlord Curtis Gunn decided not to renew his lease and instead did business with Houstonian Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry’s Restaurants, Inc. One could easily accuse Justin of sour grapes except that Justin is very much an advocate for the city’s cultural heritage and the River Walk in particular. He has served as president of the King William Neighborhood Association and, more pertinently, as chairman of the City’s Historic Review Board.
Before 1992 the River Walk had an advocacy group, a city board called the River Walk Commission, which had some control over how the waterway could be developed. The Historic Design Review Committee took over commission’s duties and the results speak for themselves. The River Walk’s shores are now graced with the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Café, and Landry’s Seafood (which also holds the contract for the restaurant and bar in the Tower of Americas).
The character of the river has changed and this should be every San Antonian’s concern. If locals don’t want to drive downtown to eat at a chain restaurant when they can do so more easily in a suburb, one has to ask at what point tourists will begin to wonder the same. That’s a frightening thought, economically.
Will Rogers called San Antonio one of America’s four unique cities. I wonder how unique the late Rogers would consider our Hard Rock Café, for example? Luckily, Arecchi has not given up on his commitment to independent, original food, and has turned his attention to historical Monte Vista, just north of downtown, at 2212 N. Main. Though he’s come full circle and is starting over again with Justin’s On Main, Arecchi is able to draw from his long experience on the river. He wants to make his Main Street café a neighborhood hub by diversifying — by still serving their world famous ice cream, but also serving panini sandwiches, beer and wine, and gourmet coffee, and by offering live music at nights, free wifi, and the occasional lecture tour and book reading. His enthusiasm is contagious and I’m excited to watch him make it all happen.
As our conversation shifted from politics to history, Arecchi confirmed an interesting footnote: Best-selling author Alex Haley did in fact come to live above the River Walk to write. In his most famous book, Roots, Haley retraces his personal history. Perhaps our current city leaders could try to find that old apartment above the river and live there for a few months. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find the inspiration to take the city back to its roots. And fast.
Someone with a clipboard would start speaking aloud, and an auction would begin. Two competing companies sold books detailing the upcoming foreclosures. Because of that, numbers were being yelled that corresponded with the different guidebooks. As soon as one auction would get going, another one would pop up somewhere else. Legally, the auction had to take place on the actual courthouse steps. Sometimes, it seemed like the bank wanted to buy the house for themselves so they would slink off to a remote part of the opposite steps and start quietly reading their clipboard, hoping no one else would catch on to what they were doing. As one of those moments began again, we too slipped away, not sure what we learned that day.
First Friday was less crowded than normal, probably due to the Spurs game against Dallas. Given the smaller crowd, I was able to spot some semi-familiar faces. At one point I remember talking to the Fl!ght Gallery crew about a possible werewolf sighting the night before. I wasn’t the one who reported it, nor really believed it, but according to them there might be a werewolf (from the Greek lukanthropos, “wolf man”) at the Alamo Quarry Golf Club lake. From there the conversation downshifted to the legacy of Cheech and Chong comedy routines, did Whitley Strieber lie, and most importantly, how does one say the plural of Big Foot? Big Foots or Big Feet?
Through visiting artist Luke Savisky, who had returned for one final performance at Three Walls Gallery, I was put on the guest list at the Magic Lantern Castle, a museum on Austin Highway that is the world’s authority on, that’s right, magic lanterns. Magic lanterns, I learned, were the dominant form of projecting images before the invention of motion-picture projectors. The museum, or castle, is so specific in its focus, at first I thought it was a put-on, in the same way Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology is a wonderful jest. But the curator and owner Jack Judson is an enduring force of nature and his museum might be the most interesting one in town. `For a profile of Mr. Judson and his museum, see “The oldest picture show,” March 1-7, 2006.`
As I was sitting, waiting for Mr. Judson to begin his presentation, I realized this building used to be Shakey’s Pizza back in the early ’80s, and I was sitting in what was the old game room where Shakey used to show Buck Rogers serials. Those films had an H.G. Wells retro-futuristic vibe that seemed similar to the aesthetics and exotica of the magic lanterns . And so I felt old but young, back at Shakey’s pizza, back in town again after a long journey, moving forward, yet now intrigued by a past I didn’t know existed, and my own past I thought I had forgotten. Later, as Mr. Judson busted out his theremin, I went outside and got on my bike and made the slow way home. I felt like I was moving forward, I think.
Among many things, I learned that the famous Navarro family later was in cahoots with the Tobin family, and as we all know that lineage is responsible for a good portion of San Antonio’s heritage. I wanted to joke with the wonderful caretaker/guide José Zapata about a possible Masonic conspiracy strangling the city but I was more intrigued with the buildings. Zapata maintains the buildings in their original adobe form, even making adobe bricks on site and lime-washing the adobe walls once a year. This is a dying tradition in the U.S., and the only other person I know who is still doing it is Simone Swan, a fascinating woman who retired from the international art world, left her position at the Menil Foundation in Houston, and went to study anti-Modernist architecture in Egypt under the much celebrated (though now forgotten) Hassan Fathy. Swan has been out in West Texas for several years with her Adobe Alliance trying to introduce Egyptian styled architecture as a form of very low-income housing.
A few days later I felt like I was driving towards B.F. Egypt, but really I was just on my way out to Ingram Park Mall for a Q&A with Spurs legend “Big Shot” Robert Horry. I convinced “Congressman” Al to go along specifically because in 1989 he missed the opportunity to meet the Spurs’ chain-smoking, bench-warmer Zarko Paspalj at the Pizza Hut on Austin Highway. It’s been a running joke ever since then, and I told Al how much better his life might have been had he shared a deep-dished pie and a pack of smokes with Zarko that fateful day. For me, the highlight of the talk with Horry was when the Coyote came out and threw a free gift interestingly close to a kiosk where a woman was face down getting massaged, blissfully unaware of the mad scramble advancing dangerously towards her.
On Saturday night I ended up at the Limelight to see Capitol Records’ Sound Team, a former Alamo Heights band now making music and getting chicks up in Austin. Grammy- and Oscar-winner Christopher Cross was also from Alamo Heights. Along with Kenny Loggins, Toto, Jimmy Buffet, and Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross wrote number-one songs and was a pioneer of the wretched “Yacht Rock” movement of the mid-’70s to early-’80s. The San Antonio interconnection continues because when yacht-rocker Michael McDonald was in his more famous band, The Doobie Brothers, he sang their signature song “China Grove,” a mysterious ode to the SA suburb of the same name. I realize this has absolutely nothing to do with Sound Team. Before I jinx them by ridiculously placing the dying legacy of yacht rock on their shoulders, I think it’s best I stop right here. However, if the major label starts giving them headaches and they need advice, I hear they might be able to find Christopher Cross out on his boat on one of Austin’s many lakes perhaps humming the lyrics to his number one song “Sailing.”
Historically, Texans have been known to be larger than life. And Texas history, similarly, has been just as super-sized. I believe that’s fairly accepted. Of course one can say that’s it’s all just a myth. But a myth doesn’t necessarily mean a falsehood; it just means that it is a shared belief, even if the myth is not exactly true. If anything, paradoxically, a falsehood only makes the myth larger and adds to its strength. It creates its own asymmetrical reality. So where the hell am I going with this?
Follow me, literally. I was riding north on Austin Highway for some exercise. Texas history wasn’t exactly the first thing on my mind. Austin Highway seemed like a different route to take so I headed out on a whim. But since we’re talking about history, Austin Highway these days seems anything but historic. Sure, its good to see Bun ’n’ Barrel BBQ still going fairly strong. But the American Graffiti drag-racing days are mainly a thing of the past. My memories of Austin Highway are from the 1980s when I would see prostitutes walking around by the small motels right next to Terrell Hills! That always amused me — that the two could somehow exist right next to each other.
I passed the cemetery on the left and came across a Texas historical marker by chance. And this is what set my mind in motion. The marker was for something called the “Dawson Massacre.” I read it, and then back home read more about it online. To summarize: On September 11, 1842 (that’s right, 9-11!), San Antonio was invaded by a French mercenary leading an army of Mexican soldiers. They kidnapped almost all of the local judges and basically sacked the city. A group of Texans responded. Over by the Rittiman flea market the Battle of Salado Creek occurred. At the same time, some other Texans came into town to join the fight and were massacred, i.e., the Dawson Massacre.
Without getting into all the details of what happened next (including something called the “Black Bean Death Lottery” — I swear to you, I’m not making this up, and no, it’s not the name of a Heavy Metal band) I want to ponder the context of all this. San Antonio was captured by Mexico six years after Texas defeated Mexico at the battle of San Jacinto! One would think this would be something significant, right? I don’t remember that in Junior High.
And that’s what perplexes me — Texas, with it’s wonderful love of itself and all its stories, has pretty much abandoned this piece of its past. Sure, you could say it was a massacre, but the Alamo was a massacre too and that doesn’t stop thousands of tourists coming here every year to check it out. So why is that? All I can guess is that the Alamo falls into a better narrative arc; it’s the end of the second act. All seems lost. Third act: the come-from-behind victory at San Jacinto. All is well. End of story. Next 10 years, Texas was a nation! Cool, right!? I suppose no one wants to dwell on the less than glamorous aspects of those 10 years of nationhood as Mexico undermined Texas’s legitimacy. And, Santa Anna kept sticking around, like the Saddam Hussein of his era. It just doesn’t fit into a good story. There’s no myth there. It’s just the randomness of life.
So, I’m not going to expect any tourists will want to come to town to explore this seedy part of the past. They should; there are some pretty bizarre stories; but they won’t. Just in case they do, though, and they need a place to stay, I know there are some motels on Austin Highway that would be happy to take their money, even if it is by the hour.