Friday, August 26, 2011

Punks: How the Austin Do-It-Yourself gang grew up

BYLINE: Joe O'Connell
Austin American-Statesman
November 25, 1999

SECTION: XL Ent; Pg. 6

LENGTH: 1684 words

Down on the Drag, the sun gleams against the brick wall that was Raul's, burning away the years one by one. Slowly the names of old friends surface beneath the dark paint meant to bury them forever. F-Systems first in the far right corner. To the left, Toys. A little lower, the Dicks.

It was a blip on the radar screen of Austin music, but that blip was loud at Raul's and a few other nightclubs. Punk rock and its later incarnation, New Wave, flamed angrily alive in the late '70s/early '80s and fizzled away just as quickly.
But like the names emblazoned on that wall, the creative forces behind that Do-It-Yourself, hippies-need-not-apply movement won't go away.

Some haven't performed in years, others dabble in everything from rockabilly to folk. Seemingly all live with a touch of the punk attitude stirring in their breasts. It pushes them to look at the world from a new angle, to strike out and shape it anew.

Jesse Sublett

Back onstage at the Continental Club with ex-Skunks bandmate Jon Dee Graham, an ashen Jesse Sublett, all 120 pounds of him, looked like a junkie. His emaciated 6'3" frame was six months into treatment for a cancer that had invaded his neck, requiring surgery and chemotherapy and leaving his voice with a cool rasp.

This Dec. 2 will mark two years since surgery, and the once-cocky prince of Austin punk is doing fine.

"I was just conceited enough to think I could be a rock star, and I was just conceited enough to think I could get through this," Sublett said. "I guess I was saved by rock 'n' roll."

Sublett and future Go-Gos member Kathy Valentine played the first punk gig at Raul's with their band the Violators.

It was during his later days as the frontman of the Skunks, arguably the hottest Austin band of its era, that Sublett began a love affair with hard-boiled mysteries a la Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The Skunks song "Push Me Around" even includes vignettes straight from the James Cagney gangster flick "Public Enemy."

He's since written three mystery novels with such titles as "Boiled in Concrete" and "Tough Baby." All feature a -- surprise -- guitar-playing detective named Martin Fender. There's even serious talk of molding Fender's adventures into a television series.

Sublett also has penned the scripts for 30 TV documentaries, including this year's "Killer Storm."

But the project closest to his heart is the memoir he began writing to help him survive cancer treatment. The Johnson City native also will reflect on the exciting road he's traveled since leaving home.

"I haven't been bored since," Sublett said. "I haven't been fabulously successful at anything, but I've always been able to do creative stuff and have fun."

Kris Cummings
(ceramic artist)

It took 15 years, but Kris Cummings finally played keyboards again with nuevo wavo bandleader Joe "King" Carrasco. This time, Joe "King" was backing her as Cummings opened a show of ceramic art at San Antonio's One9zero6 Gallery.

"I felt like it was just yesterday that I was playing with him," Cummings said.
Joe "King" Carrasco and the Crowns originally confused punk audiences with their border-tinged, peppy music. The owners of Raul's, which began as a Tex-Mex bar before taking a turn to the punk, loved the band, but the patrons weren't sold at first.

Cummings, who started begging her parents for a piano at age 5 and finally won at 12, grew up on classical and Professor Longhair. She happened into the Crowns after designing an album cover for Joe "King."

Cummings told Carrasco she'd stick with the band if he could get them a gig in New York City. Two months later they were performing at the Lone Star Cafe. CBGB's and the Mudd Club followed.

"Word got back to Austin that we were playing at the Mudd Club and that was it," Cummings said. "We had been opening for the Standing Waves; now they were opening for us."

The rest was a whirlwind. Signed to Stiff Records, toured Europe, appeared on MTV. Quit the band. Had a baby. Cummings settled down in Wimberley with husband Joe Nick Patoski and went back to school to study art.

"Once my hands touched clay, that was it," Cummings said. "I like the shape, the form, what it represents. I try to ask questions about life and what we're doing here through my art."

That exploration has included giant locks, the corporate culture, big babies, chains and, in a recent show at St. Edward's University, masks.

"I feel like an alchemist and inventor at the same time," she said. "I'm jazzed. It's a great way to age. I don't want to be a rocker when I'm 60."

George Reiff
(pastry chef)

George Reiff never stopped rocking. Since his days on stage alongside Cummings as a member of the Crowns, he has played bass with Kelly Willis, Ian Moore, Charlie and Will Sexton, Jon Dee Graham, Beaver Nelson and Michael Fracasso. He also bakes a mean cake.
Reiff is a self-taught guitarist and chef. He admits lying his way into his first chef gig in a Dallas restaurant where he waited tables. He was given a week to prove himself, and a second career was born.

In Austin, his pastry has graced the tables of the Granite Cafe, Shoreline Grill and, for six years until just recently, Jeffrey's.

"They were amazingly good to me," Reiff said of Jeffrey's. "They allowed me to come and go as I pleased, which allowed my music career to flourish as well as my pastry career."
The two fields have more in common than might be apparent.

"I get the same instant gratification rush baking as onstage," Reiff said. "Onstage, you have to be in the moment. In a restaurant, the menu changes every day."

Reiff says his creativity can sometimes go over the heads of people who, when it comes down to it, are looking for a good piece of pie. But the creative juices he honed in the punk scene won't stop flowing.

"We were a bunch of DIY (Do-It-Yourself), expressive people who wanted to create with their hands or minds," Reiff said. "In '78, the weapon of choice was a guitar. Those same people might have been visual artists, architects or writers."

Randy 'Biscuit' Turner

(collage artist, actor, film set decorator)

Randy "Biscuit" Turner closed the chapter on another band, the Swine Kings, who recently had their final performance. And he made the final mortgage payment on his South Austin home. Is the former frontman for the Big Boys finally growing up? Not hardly.

His house is overflowing with more than 100 of his bright and quirky collage pieces he describes as "psychedelic Mexican folk art."

Turner moved to Austin from East Texas in 1970 . The Big Boys were formed when he and some skateboarding buddies got together and combusted into a band.

"Our goal was skateboarding and rock 'n' roll as much as our little brains would let us do," he said. "We were not trying to do anything but have fun."

The Big Boys defined Austin punk to the rest of the nation, thanks to extensive touring and outrageous stage presence.

These days, in addition to his visual art, Turner has starred in low budget films like "Night of the Killer Piatas," and sees film prop work as his goal, aided by his extensive collection of boomerang ashtrays and poodle statuary.

"I've not got time to get all of the things done that I want to get done," he said.

De Lewellen
(comedian, artist)

The story goes that then KLBJ-FM owner Lady Bird Johnson personally called to demand that "Too Young to Date" never be played on the station again.

The tongue-in-cheek 1979 song about a precocious young girl was clearly tongue-in-cheek to its co-author and singer De Lewellen, but that didn't stop nine college radio stations from banning it. Or fans at Pasadena, Calif., radio station KROQ-FM from proclaiming it their favorite while their mothers picketed outside.

The furor was typical for the theatrical Lewellen (a former member of Esther's Follies and the Blandscrew Sisters), described by one reviewer as an "emaciated Judy Garland."
Behind Lewellen's powerful Garland-like vocals, D-Day, which included David Fore of Bubble Puppy fame and John Keller (now Lewellen's husband), was a force to be reckoned with both in Austin and on the West Coast. Lewellen even passed on a chance to audition for "Saturday Night Live" to chase her punk rock dream.

Lewellen continues musically with Zydeco Ranch and comedically with Jokers Wild, a troupe of ex-Esther's performers.

But three years ago, after recovering from hepatitis C and weaning herself from alcohol, she found another artistic outlet: nechos, small Mexican altars she fashions from cigarette boxes.

The pieces focus on the Virgin de Guadalupe, Mary Magdalene and the power of women, Lewellen said, and are sold at Alternate Current Art Space on South First Street.
"I have to have a release of creativity somewhere or I go totally berserk," she said.

David Cardwell
(TV crime reporter)

David Cardwell was in the crowd at Raul's the night in 1978 when Phil Tolstead of the Huns was taken from the stage in handcuffs for bad-mouthing cops infiltrating the bar.
Many say punk rock Austin-style was born at that moment. University of Texas students Cardwell and Larry Seaman lived in the Ark Co-op with the Huns drummer, and the pair got a serious case of the punk bug. The Standing Waves were born of Seaman's penchant for cutting-edge music such as the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music.

Originally a cover band, popularity forced them to write songs.

"It felt like an exciting, slightly dangerous cultural explosion," Cardwell said. "We all got swept up in it. We wanted to get on a ride and see where it took us."

The Standing Waves were influenced by the Talking Heads; now Cardwell works with real talking heads. He covers the crime beat for FOX Channel 29 in San Antonio. That follows reporting stints in Waco and at Austin's KXAN.

"Both are fun, full of adrenaline and excitement," Cardwell said. "You do TV news because you always liked show-and-tell in school. You do music because you want to share something. You want to say, 'look at this!' "

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