Houston

26th August
2009
written by Jeff

Well, it was bound to happen. UPDATE

According to the Press, Walter’s is moving, NOT closing. Good news for live music fans. It doesn’t save Washington Avenue, but it’s something. Thank you for all the comments here and on Broken Record. Keep the faith.

Craig Hlavaty from the Houston Press reported on Twitter that Walter’s on Washington will close down after Halloween and has promised more details tomorrow.

This should really come as no shock to anyone who has been watching the slow, painful demise of the Washington Avenue corridor. What was once a promising hot bed of live music venues has turned into a long stretch of douchtastic venues for Hummer-driving popped collar assholes.

Everyone needs a place to drink and act like a moron. It’s just a shame that this stretch of road has to suffer the fate once relegated to Richmond Avenue between 610 and Chimney Rock.

For those who are unaware, Washington Avenue has, over the years, been home to some of the city’s most important music venues. Here’s a partial list. Feel free to comment with others.

Rockefeller’s

One of the all-time great music venues in our city’s history, Rockefeller’s hosted a wealth of artists from Garth Brooks (early days) and Suzanne Vega to BB King, Tower of Power and Chick Corea. Built out of an old bank building, the unique two-story interior was often packed for multiple shows. When acts started looking for larger venues where they only needed to do one show (crowd size issues were sometimes a problem for the venue that would be an IDEAL size today), Rockefeller’s died.

What is there now? A wedding and corporate events venue

The Fabulous Satellite Lounge

One of my favorite all-time places to see bands in Houston, “the Satellite” as everyone referred to it was a big, open, loud room with a great sound system and plenty of killer bands to pack the place. In some ways, Satellite was the precursor to the Houston version of the Continental Club and hosted a lot of the same acts. I played MANY shows there in the mid-90’s and always had a good time.

What is there now? A salon

Club Hey Hey

Directly across the street from Rockefeller’s, Club Hey Hey was one of Houston’s preeminent blues bars for a number of years. On one particular night, BB King playing Rockefeller’s and Albert Collins (a native Houstonian) playing Hey Hey met in the middle of Washington for a jam session with the doors to both clubs wide open. Now, all we can expect is two drunk jerkoffs standing in the middle of the street having a text-off. Brilliant.

What is there now? Apartment complex

Rhythm Room

One of the more recent venues to die off (just a few years back), the Rhythm Room was one of those places that seemed like a perfect music venue. It was essentially a long hallway with a stage at the far end, pool tables and bar in the back. It had a great sound system, was built for easy load-in/out and had a backstage set up. It never seemed to gain ground on venues like the Engine Room (now dead as well) and the taxes on the property were probably too high, so they folded.

What is there now? An empty building still for lease.

Tones

A tiny blues club next to Walter’s, Tones worked under several names when Walter’s was still an ice house, but it was a great week night hang where you could hear some killer blues music.

What is there now? A small non-live music bar.

Cosmo’s

Cool little converted diner. I remember doing a bunch of gigs there and seeing some really cool musicians play there. The bar staff was always friendly and there was always good live music on the weekends and a jam night on Wednesday’s. Thanks for the help with remembering the name!

What is there now? The Porch Swing

The Vatican

In the mid-90’s, the Vatican was THE place to go see live alt bands. Such notables as Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails came through the venue that was once a pretty majestic church. It was a HUGE venue and a competitor for Numbers that just didn’t survive, most likely because the bills on a venue that size must have been brutal. It was at the far west end of Washington and I remember it fondly because their phone number was only 1 off from mine in those days and I regularly got wrong numbers meant for them. When someone wanted to know who was playing and didn’t listen when I told them it was a wrong number, I usually made up band names like the Cheesy Weasels and the Stinky Monkeys. You’re welcome.

What is there now? Office space

The Bon Ton Room/Fat Cats/Mary Jane’s

Last year, I was dating someone who said that her friends wanted to meet her at a new bar called the Pearl Bar, so we went. What I found made me ill (both of us, actually). What was once the Bon Ton Room, home to the earliest incarnations of the Arc Angels among others, and, ultimately, Mary Jane’s, was now a packed, hot bar filled with yuppies – and that was before the velvet rope went up. Since it’s opening, I’ve often hoped the hipsters at Walter’s across the street and the yuppies at Pearl Bar would meet in the middle of the street like some sort of modern day West Side Story and fight it out.

What is there now? Pearl Bar

Walter’s on Washington

Finally to Walter’s, a place I played both in its current form and when it was an ice house. Over the past few years it’s been a source of controversy with over zealous cops and annoying NIMBY neighbors and let’s be honest, it was never exactly an ideal music venue given its size and dimensions. But, it was pretty much the only live music venue in town that still had that ratty, run down, indie music vibe outside of Rudyard’s and maybe Numbers on a non-goth night. It was also the only venue that bid on cool indie shows here in Houston and losing it most definitely hurts.

What is there now? Who knows

Anyone old enough knows this process is sadly common in Houston. Even before my time, Market Square, a once thriving live music spot, turned into a bunch of bars for people who worked downtown. Party on the Plaza became country and cover band-centric. Richmond Avenue started out with live original music, but eventually de-evolved into Sam’s Boat and whatever remnants of the slimy coke-fest are still there.

Some of us even had high hopes for Main Street, but clearly we were mistaken.

Houston is simply not original music friendly. As a city, we don’t support live original music or demand that venues remain open. Washington Avenue, a quirky, ethnic street filled with tiny taco joints, funky warehouse lofts and pawn shops is slowly gentrifying into a plastic, vacant hell hole.

What’s worse is that, like all the other places before it, it will eventually be abandoned too. It’s not like Reign or Pearl Bar are going to be here in 20 years. When people find a cooler place to hang or when there are one too many drunken shootings along the gaudy, townhome-laden side streets, everyone will move on to some other area and infest it with the same crap that is now invading Washington Avenue.

RIP, Walter’s. You made it longer than the rest. Kudos.

Photo via Katharine Shilcutt

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11th May
2009
written by Jeff

The winding story of the Houston Rockets’ season has rarely made room for logic, linear thinking or any standard notions of cause and effect. Star players disappear, expectations sink and the Rockets surge.

They are confounding and exhilarating all at once. – The New York Times

RowdiesI am an unabashed Houston Rockets fan. I have been since I was just a kid and Calvin Murphy was such a hero of mine, I carried his basketball card around with me in my back pocket.

Like the Rockets, I am unashamed of my love of the city of Houston.

In honor of both and the amazing win yesterday over the Lakers, I give you the five ways the city and the team are alike.

Both are unselfish.

The Rockets play some of the stingiest help defense in the NBA. They also willingly move the ball to find the open man. Ron Artest, their best player now that Yao Ming is out, had a bad shooting game yesterday, but piled up six assists. Even their bench spends most of their time standing. They are the quintessential team, banding together no matter what the circumstances and realizing that what is good for the whole is good for the individual, not the other way around.

The city of Houston gives and gives and gives. When Katrina hit, Houston opened its doors without question or regret for the people of New Orleans. When most of the country forgot that we had a hurricane last year, we sucked it up and went to help our neighbors in Galveston when no one else would. I once read that Houston represents one percent of the population of the United States, but totals nearly 11 percent of its volunteer hours. When you need help, Houston is there.

Neither pretend to be something they aren’t.

The Rockets don’t try to outscore opponents because that isn’t their game. They don’t run up and down the floor with a fast-paced, wild and free offensive game. They don’t gamble on defense. They don’t try to be better athletes. They play smart and hard and they play their game with no apologies. They never allow another team to out work them and they remain true to their approach through the most difficult of circumstances.

Houston isn’t scenic like San Francisco or glamorous like New York and our weather isn’t perpetually perfect like San Diego. But, we love who we are – a friendly, opportunity-driven, quirky, southern city with great food and a giant heart. We aren’t a tourist destination and don’t want to be. You come here for the people not the views and you come here to live not to visit a theme park. We are who we are and that’s just fine with us.

They both defy the odds and the critics.

The above quote from the NYT about the Rockets’ season is absolutely accurate. They began the season with high hopes of a long run deep into the playoffs, perhaps even to the title. They lost Tracy McGrady halfway through the season, traded away their starting point guard in favor of two youngsters and lost Yao Ming to yet another foot injury. The Houston Chronicle’s Richard Justice even penned a eulogy for them in his blog saying, “They’ll almost certainly play their final home game of the season Sunday afternoon against the Lakers.”

But, that’s the thing about these Rockets, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, they just won’t quit and they won’t go down easy. You have to kill them. No matter what the odds, they seem to constantly come up with ways to win and change whenever necessary to make that happen.

Built on a swamp and false promises from the Allen Brothers, most people didn’t think Houston would survive. But, we scratched and clawed our way up through oil boom and bust, dot com success and failure. We turned a muddy ass ditch into the second largest port in the US. We built the first indoor sports stadium with “fake” grass when people said we were crazy to try. Hell, for all the crap we take about our strip malls, humidity and flooding, “Houston” was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon!

Like any great city, we re-invent ourselves while staying true to our nature, but unlike most cities, we always manage to do it with a smile on our faces and a wink that says, “We’re pretty freaking awesome, aren’t we?”

Neither back down from a challenge.

Shane Battier had to call out to an official because the gash above his forehead was bleeding profusely and pouring blood down his face. A few stitches later, he was back in the game facing off against perhaps the game’s best player. Yao took a hard shot to his knee – the same knee that had required surgery – and refused to go to the locker room, finishing off the game and the Lakers in game 1 of the playoffs.

Ron Artest, having taken an elbow to the throat, made sure to tell superstar Kobe Bryant he wasn’t backing off much the way Luis Scola got in the face of Lakers players when they didn’t like his hard play. The Lakers are, arguably, the best team in the NBA and the Rockets have stared them down at every opportunity.

When they lose players, they just re-invent themselves. No T-Mac, no problem. Run the offense through Yao. No Yao, no problem. Run a bunch of screen and rolls with your young guys. Trade your veteran point guard, no problem. Let the youngsters run teams out of the building.

Artest’s motto of “no layups” is perfectly appropriate for a team that refuses to go down without a fight and is intimidated by no one.

In the 1970’s and early 80’s, Houston was struggling through the decline of the oil industry. At the same time, hordes of people moved into Houston from places like Michigan where jobs were scarce. Did Houston crumble under the weight? Of course not. We converted our blue collar workforce into one of the most powerful white collar energy industries in the world. When Katrina hit and 250,000 of NOLA’s citizens descended on us, many of their most needy becoming permanent residents, did we run out of room or have resource scarcity? Not a chance. We integrated them just like we do every other member of our incredibly diverse city.

We’ve suffered through hurricanes, economic crisis, floods, political scandals and managed to come back each time emerging stronger and better equipped to face the future. In the dictionary next to the word “resilient,” there should be a picture of the Houston skyline.

Both are surprising.

Just when you think they are dead, they come right back at you. Outside of die hard Rockets fans, who knew that Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry could run circles around opponents? Like Charles Barkley joked about Chucky Brown in the mid-90’s, I’m sure that Pao Gasol thought, “This Chuck Hayes guy can’t guard me.” When McGrady went out in February, Von Wafer, a guy other teams threw on the scrap heap, emerged as a young, athletic talent with a silky jump shot.

Whatever happens to this team, they just seem to morph in whatever is necessary to keep them winning. It’s an incredibly endearing and surprising quality in an era dominated by big salaries and often even bigger egos.

I’ve often had people tell me, “When I moved to Houston, I thought it was a horrible place, but the more I lived here and discovered all the great things about it, the more it grew on me.” That’s how this city is. We’re the fourth largest city in America, but few know about it. Anyone who doesn’t get this, just look out your window when you are flying over the city. For a place that is supposedly a concrete jungle, note the massive amount of greenery.

Much like the shock over how many trees we seem to have if you look at it from above, our beauty seems to be hidden in plain sight. Most of what is most exceptional about Houston tends to be what we don’t realize exists or forget about like the Orange Show or the Farmers’ Market or the hike and bike trails along White Oak Bayou or 11th Street Park or Tacos-a-Go-Go. And those are just a few things I I happen to love and come up with off the top of my head. There are a million other things just like that which makes living here such a constant source of the unexpected. I have lived here for 40 years and am STILL finding things I never knew about.

Like the Rockets, Houston isn’t a city of surface, but rather a city of substance, which is why I love both and why millions of others do too.

GO ROCKETS!

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3rd March
2009
written by Jeff

KrogerI did it. I got lazy. I wanted a snack and the Kroger is just 3 blocks from my house. I had been avoiding it except for household goods – paper towels, detergent, etc – and even going to Target for those whenever possible.

Last night, I decided it was a Kroger night because I didn’t feel like going to Randall’s or anywhere else and my visit helped remind me why I don’t care for the ghetto version of Kroger that is near me.

The stink of garbage outside the store.
I’ve been going to this Kroger for a long time. In fact, I used to go to this store as a kid with my grandparents. But, since it became a “Super” Kroger or whatever they call it when the old, quaint store is swallowed by the Godzilla of grocery stores, the garbage outside the front door of the place has stunk like Mothra’s asshole.

The woman at the courtesy booth who didn’t speak to me.
I still had some rolled coins left over from my yard sale, so I took in a couple rolls to cash out. I didn’t want to be the dumb ass who tried to check out with a roll of dimes, so I went to the courtesy booth. The woman behind the counter just stared at me when I asked her if I could get bills for the rolls of coins before walking into the back office for a couple minutes. These were still wrapped from the bank. She came back out and, without speaking, called the manager via the intercom and began to help another customer without saying a word. When I asked, she said that they sometimes have to count the coins. The manager showed up and approved the transaction. She looked at the two rolls of dimes and one roll of quarters and asked, “Twenty dollars, right?” Jeez, I dunno, Rockefeller, you’re the cashier.

The choice selection of baked goods.
I don’t go into a grocery store expecting it to be like a German bakery, but it would be nice if the selection of rolls and bread reached more than three bags of day-old yeast rolls and a pyramid of knock off Wonder bread on sale three for a dollar. And why exactly do your croissants need 50 ingredients? I’m fairly certain you can make them with less.

The DVD player showing High School Musical 3 while I stood in line.
I do everything within my power to avoid anything relating to Zac Efron. It’s just a policy I have. I also don’t want to know anything about, hear anything from or see anything related to high school musicals of any kind, particularly those with spoiled little acne-free Disney kids. Playing High School Musical 3 on a DVD player so I am basically forced to watch it while waiting in line to pay for my groceries is both cruel and unusual.

The stinky helper behind me in line.
While standing in the checkout line, a strange gentleman began asking me questions randomly. “Is that one broken?” “If the woman would just help her, she’d get done faster, right?” “They need about four more of these, don’t they?” I tried to nod politely, but the pungent aroma of his horrible breath nearly knocked me out. He even walked over to one of the machines to help someone out when she didn’t need help. Patience, stinky grasshopper.

The toothless lady at the self-checkout lane with the hundred.
In case you wondered who stinky breath was helping, naturally it was a toothless woman wearing camouflage and trying to pay at the self checkout lane with a hundred dollar bill. This prompted an exchange between she and stinky that made no sense. I’m fairly certain they were speaking a language only the mole people who live in the abandoned subway tunnels in New York understand. I don’t even want to speculate as to why she had a hundred dollar bill yet was unable to match the color of her socks.

The guy who nearly hit me in the parking lot.
Once I made it out of there, I got in my truck and proceeded to back out at roughly the same time as a guy in a black Mercedes about two spaces behind me. I was ahead of him slightly but seeing me must’ve triggered the gene that makes him want to prove he’s still a man, so he slams it into reverse and tries to get out before me. This was silly because my truck was already out into the aisle. He was CLEARLY pissed that I didn’t respect his bizarre attempt to out-testosterone me and raced up near my bumper. I leapt out of my truck and smashed his windshield with a bottle of Dasani water shouting, “I will crush your will to live!” That last part probably happened in my head, but still.

I think I’m going to stick with Randall’s and Target. Sure, Randall’s plays elevator music and Target is nearly always filled with screaming children, but it seems preferable to my sad ghetto Kroger.

Photo by Kymberlie R. McGuire.

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