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Straight From the Roadhouse

Kid Bangham and some iteration of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Great stuff. Kramer clothes and architectural hairstyle. A short vacation for the singer. Gibsons need not apply.

Mind If My Little Brother Sits In?

Roadhouse Blues was where all the action was in the retail music business back in the early eighties. Stevie Ray Vaughan came out of it, and it was buried along with him. That’s his big brother’s band, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, in their original iteration, I think. I recognize the left-handed junkie playing the bass, the one they had before they got a right handed junkie from Providence to play bass. I wasn’t a very good bass player, and I wasn’t any sort of junkie, so I never had a shot.

Bad players buy expensive guitars one after another because they figure a new guitar will make them better players. The entire music instrument industry is based on this concept. There’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, poised to be something more, but still a spare part on his more notable brother’s stage, with a borrowed Telecaster, a guitar as useful as a boat oar, putting the lie to that whole idea. People take drugs because they think it will make them as interesting as interesting people that take drugs. The entire drug industry is based on that concept. I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan drinking directly out of pitchers of beers while he played, and knew that sort of behavior is used to dial back whatever you had going on pharmaceutically, not get drunk; but I never dreamed he had dissolved his cocaine in the beer and was taking his yin with his yang as Cocaine Tang, but I gather he was. I just don’t have that kind of imagination, I guess. I once got invited by a mutual acquaintance to go backstage at one of their shows, after SRV had gotten notable, but I passed and just sat in the audience where I belonged. What could we have possibly talked about?

People think if they act like famous people they’ll get famous. I dunno about that. My experience has been that there are only two kinds of people in any room, and some face one way, and others face the other way, and that’s that. If the people on the stage try to sit in the audience, they implode, and if the people in the audience try facing the other way on the stage, they explode. I call it the Theory of Natural Self-Selection. Well, I just did, anyway.

The Greatest Roadhouse Band Ever

Ah, The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

I don’t think very many people know how good The Fabulous Thunderbirds were. They’re like fellow Texans ZZ Top; they got crummy to get famous. But they were both primal, essential, and wildly influential at one time.

I wonder how many bar bands were launched by the first Thunderbirds record, Girls Go Wild.  Of course, the name of the record was The Fabulous Thunderbirds, but it said “Girls Go Wild” on the front, and everyone got to calling it that, and when they re-issued it 21 years later, in 2000, they gave up and named it that.

I’ve read all sorts of stuff about that record. I’m not sure how much I remember accurately, but I think they just set up two boom mikes and blasted away like they were playing in a barroom. That’s the essence of roadhouse music, and it captured it perfectly. It’s supposed to be made right in front of you like bacon and eggs at four AM in a bad diner way after last call. If you’re expecting some sort of garnish, you’re in the wrong place.

I was never much of a musician. I did get to perform a lot, in a lot of different places, with a lot of different people. I played badly everywhere for anybody, from rent parties to places that had names that ended with Civic Center, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as much of a thrill as I did that very first time I got on a bandstand the size of a kitchen table, with a neon sign buzzing next to my ear, in a blockhouse dive under a highway overpass going nowhere from noplace, razor wire on the fence outside, two-dollar cover, and blasted away at some Junior Wells song or another to the kind of flotsam and jetsam of humanity that would be interested in us on a Tuesday night in the rain. They clapped because they liked it, or maybe because it was over; I don’t know, and I didn’t care, either. I had entered another world, and it took me in like a brother when I desperately needed it.

Under The Overpass

It was under the overpass.

There was some neon along the street, the odd letter winking at you. Urban tumbleweeds passed on by until slushy puddles gathered them in like dinosaurs in the tar.

The bass notes were all that made it through the block wall until the door opened up and disgorged the treble registers to clang off the granite blocks that held their own, barely, against the traffic above. Tattered bills, read only by the people that put them there, announced shows long past attended by no one not related.

There was chain link everywhere. Chain link was our version of the Pale. Keeping us in or the others out with little more than a mute reproach. Simple effort would need to be expended to overtop it, and effort being in short supply, they knew it wouldn’t be, and that was enough to keep civilization on a low boil for another day. Chainlink can’t be vandalized. Nothing that can’t be vandalized is a symptom of civilization.

It was a shower with no water inside. The ride cymbal is the only clock. Someone, back in say, the sixties, had ordered an actual mixed drink in there once. He hasn’t been back.

The Better Brother

Jimmy Vaughan is better than his brother.

Jimmy is the older brother you never heard of. He was playing in the Fabulous Thunderbirds out of Austin Texas all through the seventies. This video is from 1980, and encapsulates the roadhouse vibe perfectly. And people familiar with Jimmy’s younger brother Stevie Ray will hear many phrases they heard later on, transmogrified and supercharged a bit. But not improved.

Of course Jimmy is an editor, a syncretist himself. You can hear all sorts of people in there, in a huge mashup of Texas and Chicago and Mississippi blues. But there comes a point where the derivations have been blended and tweaked and stacked and distilled to where they can honestly be called original. Jimmy is standing on many people’s shoulders. His brother stood on his.

It was easy to be impressed by Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was flashy. But all flash must be subordinated to the propulsion of the song forward, or it’s frosting on a turd cake. Later in his career, before he died, SRV figured that out, and calmed down enough to be musical first, and a machine-gun hero second, and so was able to push farther than Jimmy by finally emulating him properly. Move the song forward. Don’t interrupt it to show off. The guitar must thread through it like a string through a Christmas garland. There’s usually Christmas garlands from fourteen years ago decorating the roadhouse stage – in July — to give you the hint.

I used to see both brothers now and again in roadhouses, and eventually in theaters. It’s hard to describe the feeling of paying a couple of bucks and standing right in front of that and letting it wash over you. The crowd would always act like a big organism – single celled, not thinking — reacting to stimulation as one, aligning their rhythms as purposefully as the worn stripe on the pavement that passed by the shack into the darkened distance. Going somewhere unseen, together without planning. Moving and standing still.

Beer comes in its own glass. There is no worry about ruining your good shoes because you don’t have any good shoes. You never have to ask because everybody dances with everybody else. The fights are for amusement. The big Fender Twin’s tube’s reflected glow illuminates the back wall all it’s gonna get. Jimmy Vaughan reaches down with his extended pinkie, and spins the volume knob without thinking, and makes his lilting interjections come forward or lay back to taste.

Always to taste.

Tag: Fabulous Thunderbirds

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