Thursday, May 29, 2008

Joe Ely; Lubbock Calling

The West Texas plains have produced a lot of honkytonk heroes. Joe Ely fits in just fine.
(published in SPIN)

Sitting around of a late Sunday afternoon at Joe Ely’s place, the talk turns back to Lubbock one more time. Maybe it always will. The creek has settled down after this last week’s rain flooded it out against the field, the road between Austin and the ranch is open again, and Jimmie Gilmore’s here to bring back the microphones he borrowed for his show last night at the Broken Spoke. Butch Hancock came along for the ride and they’re both sitting over close by the fire where it’s good and warm.

Another reason they’re here is this theater guy from San Francisco wants the whole bunch of them, all the notorious Lubbock expatriates –– Joe and Sharon Ely, Butch and Jimmie and Jo Carol Pierce, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen and all –– to write and act in this play he’s planning on producing if he can come up with some funding. Which is an interesting concept and everything –– maybe a little loose in the joints, but that’s about right too. It sounds like maybe he’s figuring on getting his funding by busting into some art council’s secret hidden vault–– something about "accurate determinations of currently outstanding grant-in-aid-assessments" –– but that’s okay. If it happens to fall together, that’s just fine. If it doesn’t, nobody’ll hold it against him. They’ve already gone back to telling Lubbock stories again anyway, starting with the Lubbock Lights.

Now the Lubbock Lights were famous UFOs that swung low over the Hub City back in 1957, back when flying saucer fever was pitched way up high. “I have kind of like a little theory, you know? Sharon Ely says. “One of the things that was happenign during that time was there was a lot of of honkytonks up in West Texas, and country music on the weekends, and everybody up there dances in a circle. I mean, I danced in a circle at the Cotton Club, and it causes a frenzy of heat and energy, and I think these Lubbock Light things that were flying over West Texas have this way of detecting heat energy, you know? And ‘cause it’s so fun, they probably went down and saw all these circles of heat rising from all these honkytonks and they probably wondered ‘What the hell is goin’ on?’”

Good question. If it was country music and Texas two-stepping that put Lubbock on the interstellar roadmap, it must have been the Cotton Club that kept the saucers hovering overhead in a low circle. The Cotton Club had been the last stop in West Texas for the big touring Western Swing bands like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys before they headed out for the coast, and it served the likes of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams too. The original club burned down in what unquestionably was a burst of heat energy, but it was resurrected with futurific slumpblock architecture just in time for Elvis Presley and the flying saucer jockeys to show up. And through it all, spaceships or not, the Lubbock locals kept up their West Texas waltz, their enduring shuffle around the dance floor, counter-clockwise.

“Joe and I was talking about that particular time,” says Sharon. “The cotton was doin’ great, there was gamblers, there was railroads runnin’ –– there was a lot of energy coming though Lubbock. I mean, farmers were drivin’ Cadillacs! There were more Cadillacs sold in West Texas than in any place in the whole United States. It was a high-energy place.”

And that’s not even to mention Buddy Holly, Lubbocks’ most notable export besides Phillips 66 gasoline. And higher octane too. Holly had him a Cadillac of his own, pink with blue Naugahyde upholstery, and Joe Ely used to own one just exactly like it until the guy who was repainting it went crazy from too many paint fumes and wound up in a mental hospital and the Caddy just plain disappeared. Now Joe’s got a Honda station wagon he’s thinking of getting rid of. And a three-year-old daughter Marie Elena, named after Buddy Holly’s wife. Seems like there’s a trade-off for everything in life.

The San Francisco fellow has a theory abut the Lubbock Lights that dovetails neatly with Sharon’s. Oddly, maybe, but neatly. He reckons that it had a lot to do with the circular mounds the Plains Indians buil, and the fact that they too danced in a circle.

“And Stonehenge was a dance hall,” Butch adds helpfully. Butch has been showing his notebook around, cartoons and photographs and words all woven together into one lumpy life. Butch writes songs too; a lot of them have made real fine appearances on Joe Ely records, and he also has a real nicely evolved theory of his own about the wild winds that blow all the way down from the North Pole with no interruption at all until they hit Yellow House Canyon and dump raw unadulterated oddball energy right over top of Lubbock –– the wind’s own dominion, home of the dusty hurricane, the original wide open space. “Plus, it was Tornado Alley, so there was already this elemental cirucular thing going on.”

“Counter-clockwise,” Jimmy Gilmore notes. He can afford to be quiet. He sang at the Broken Spoke last night. The Broken Spoke is probably the closest thing to the Cotton Club that’s left in Austin and, well, let’s put it this way: if heaven looks a lot like Texas, the saints will spend Saturday night dancing at the Broken Spoke. In a circle, counter-clockwise. Jimmie’s songs have showed up on Joe Ely’s records too, including one that starts out “Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?,” a line that cansing itself. He can afford to be quiet. “Counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“Like drains,” says Butch. “Dervishes dance counter-clockwise too.” So do West Texans. Always.

“I remember watching toilets before I went to Australia,” Joe says, stretching back, “made sure and flushed ‘em and remembered which way they went. And I got to Australia and the first thing I did was flush a commode. But their holes are square....”

Somebody or other starts speculating about the Lubbock Lights again, and how maybe what they were up to was they were out scouting around for Buddy Holly and maybe he didn’t actually die in that plane crash but got picked up by space folks. Of course that would mean that the outer space fellas got Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper as pure gravy. Anyway, somehow or other, this reminds Joe of a a little story about this cousin of his back in Lubbock who grew onions one year.

He didn’t know anything about onions, never grew any before this, but he went on ahead and planted onions. Got so all you could smell was onions. Since he hadn’t ever raised any onions before, he didn’t know where to sell ‘em when it came harvest time, so he picked and loaded ‘em all up and went to a Furr’s Supermarket in Lubbock. Maybe it was garlic and not onions –– anyway, he went to the manager, and the manager said, Sure, we’ll take a gallon or two. Well, he had a whole truckload of these garlics or onions, whichever, and after he’d drove around to supermarkets all over town and they each one took a gallon or two, he could see he wasn’t getting nowhere. Finally, he got so mad he just took it all home and dumped the whole load out in the middle of his field. They just set there and rotted and his neighbors got mad because it smelled so bad and he had to hire someone to come out and dig a hole to bury all these onions. Cost him five hundred bucks.

“Needless to say, there were no werewolves in Lubbock County that year,” Butch adds.

Fin de Seccion Numero Uno