Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends
of West Texas Music
"Indeed, Oglesby's introduction of more
than two dozen musicians who called Lubbock home should be required
reading not only for music fans, but for Lubbock residents and
anyone thinking about moving here. On these pages, music becomes
a part of Lubbock's living history."
by Christopher Oglesby, 2003
I think about my own behavior under that big, lonely night sky. Now, even then, it seems a little crazy. Here in Austin - or anywhere else I've lived or spent time - I certainly have never felt the same crazy way I did in Lubbock. Some of that must have something to do with age; some of those feelings must have something to do with growing pains and would have happened anywhere. But even then I was aware that what I'm writing about is a "feeling," and not an "emotion;" something originating from the external, not internal.
The feeling wasn't always bad by any means - I mostly felt it as bad during the night. But some lucky days in Lubbock, I would awake to a definite "buzz" for lack of a better term, that I at the time would call, " feeling Lubbocky." To me "feeling Lubbocky" described a feeling I've since learned to describe with this metaphor: Imagine you are sitting at a player-piano. The piano is playing a beautiful, complex concerto, according to it's programming. You have never had a piano lesson in your life, nor have you ever heard this complex piece of music. However, when you have this feeling you are able to sit down at the player piano, put your fingers on the keys and begin to successfully move in unison with the automatically depressing keys. You are now actually playing the song. Some people call that, "being in The Zone."
Now, this is what I'm saying: I honestly believe that "Zone" exists externally, perhaps geo-magnetically -- at times, when the conditions are right -- in Lubbock County and surrounding areas. I don't have any real scientific, physical way of proving that assertion, but I can honestly say that I have felt it there, and I have seen its effect manifested in the work of many folk from that part of the American Outback. This is a very positive feeling that one actually has the power do anything that one imagines and dreams. This is something external affecting one's perceptions, something natural in the earth, or perhaps the wind. In Lubbock, the earth is frequently found mixed in the wind, so references to the two elements are inextricable.
Entering Texas Tech University when I was eighteen years old, when I had moved out of my family's house and was sleeping by myself, the feeling became more menacing, troubling, if only because it was more thought-provoking. Of course, I'm sure a certain amount of the unease was caused by the garage apartment I inhabited for seven years while I was at Texas Tech. The apartment was upstairs over a two-car alley garage. It had no storm windows, no air conditioning, and only a gas wall heater for all four rooms. It was wind sieve, a dust magnet, and prime real estate for yellow-jacket hornets. But it was a pretty typical for Lubbock college abode.
The feeling I had many, many of those nights in Lubbock was not as constructive as the daylight "Lubbocky" feeling. It was the impossibility of remaining inside those four walls, a compelling need to see what was going on beyond, a hunger to know who else roamed out there in the night and to discover what was going on in their heads; a need to connect, communicate and experience; a lack, a need caused by the dry void of the night air a need for something, anything. The external force is similar, I assume, to what would happen physically if an astronaut were to step naked out of the space station; the astronaut's organs and body cavities would explode because the vacuum he has stepped into needs to be filled. The astronaut would be pulled apart from the outside in. This pulling feeling, sucking out the energy of one's soul through the eyes and ears and feet and groin, this compelling force - from where?-- is what I am feeling those long windy nights in Lubbock. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Lubbock wants what is inside of me.
Driving the wide streets of Lubbock, it is impossible to lose oneself. The city is constructed with a square grid of east-west numbered streets and north-south alphabetical avenues, perfectly aligned with the cardinal directions, and encircled by Loop 289, a 26-mile continuos circle of freeway. (I've always thought Lubbock should have a race around Loop 289 to be billed both as "The World's Flattest Marathon" and "The World's Roundest Marathon" - a paradox unique to Lubbock.) So I had no real hope of losing myself in the drive, only hope of finding myself. Frequently, I was not to be found on those streets and this feeling drove me crazy some of those nights.
In those taunting nights, I would often drive those regimented streets in my primer-green, '72 Ford pickup with heat but no a/c. Listening to KFYO or KSEL on the AM radio, I would wonder, "Where could everyone be? There are two hundred thousand other souls in this town and where are they all? How can they all be at home, in those little square boxes? Something real and exciting surely must be going on in the night, somewhere? What is everyone doing?"
They were out there, I knew. It was just a matter of seeking and finding. I would drive south past 50th Street, past 82nd, past 114th, until there wasn't anything else to pass except dirt farm-to-market road and nowhere within a 6-hour drive to go. Rocketing out of town to where? Then I have to turn around and head back into the lighted streets and avenues; like Sonny does at the end of the Bogdonavich film-adaptation of "The Last Picture Show," when Sonny, too, realizes he has nowhere to go, even though back there is really no place to call home. I'd get up on the Loop and drive the circle a few times, but even that was a nowhere road.
Even when friends would gather, still there was a need to conjure up some new reality in that vacuum of the dark Lubbock night. We would often go out south or west of town to the dirt farm roads running through the cotton rows under the moon and infinite stars, take off all our clothes and just run as fast as we could run. "Streaking," I guess we'd call it, but it wasn't streaking to show off one's nakedness; rather, it was more like streaking to be alone in one's nakedness; taking off all external encumbrances and feeling the dirt and wind and dry air rush against your skin, with nothing in front of your sprint but heaven spread out, nothing but the dark of the horizon to orient you in that sea of stars, gasping for air and laughing at the hilarity of the reality of it all. And who would stop you? You are the only thing under the sky, the only vertical axis on a plain of horizontal. You are both miniscule and immense in stature, racing alone under the overwhelming prairie sky. What one is able to wish is infinite, here in this space. Creation is void in your hands, to be molded like God on the Sixth Day.
But eventually, it was Fat Dawg's, the Main Street Saloon, and the Texas Spoon Café, and later the Midnight Rodeo, P.J. Belly's, and Great Scott's Barbecue. I discovered, as everyone who has lived there knows, that all the action in Lubbock - outside of Texas Tech University - is either happening in the churches or the bars. And my action now was lying inside the barn-wood walls of Fat Dawg's. After 18 years of going to church every Sunday morning with my mother, Saturday night at Fat Dawg's became both school and church to me. The Presbyterians on 33rd Street never had offered the spiritual revival of a Joe Ely show in the early '80s, with Jesse "Gangster of Love" Taylor on electric guitar, Lloyd Maines on pedal-steel, Ponty Bone on squeezebox. Often, adjunct Rolling Stones saxophone player and Lubbock County native Bobby Keys would join in, blowing the crowd to high heaven with exultant sax solos. I never ceased to be amazed that that man blowing the horn not ten feet from me has played hard with Keith Richards, John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and just about every other Rock Hero from the Golden Age.
So it came to pass that about half-a-dozen smoky, dark wooden boxes on 4th Street, 20th, Main, and 50th became the architecture of my young adult years in Lubbock. Thus, I never consciously noticed the external place when I lived there. I am writing about the place of Lubbock. But I must admit, I paid little attention to the environment around me in Lubbock while I was living in Lubbock. The only thing I noted to be remarkable about the environment in Lubbock was the utter lack of anything which isn't man-made or brought in on a truck. To me, the place was void, except for the omnipresent red dust that is alive in the wind. And I hated the dust.
I was not alone in my obliviousness to the environment around us in Lubbock. To most folks, the land around Lubbock appears to be a broad, flat expanse of nothingness. Lubbock is a suburb of nowhere, an island of civilization surrounded by a sea of cotton fields. There are no natural trees, no hills, no streams. For the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant farmers who chose to settle in this unlikely semi-arid landscape at the end of the 19th Century, all Lubbock had to offer was the soil, and plenty of it. However, these thick-skinned, no-nonsense immigrants were out on this inhospitable prairie to work the land hard for all the wealth to be reaped from it, not to enjoy the scenery. No one in their right mind settled in West Texas unless they were focused on the wealth they could coax from the soil. Most westward moving, prosperity seeking, Americans were bypassing the empty outback and forging on to the lush West Coast to California, Oregon, Washington. Only the truly imaginative saw prosperity on the empty arid central grasslands.
Naturalist and Texas Tech Professor Dan Flores has noted Americans' historical attitudes toward the Plains:
This negative view of the empty plains is not limited to among those who settled in Lubbock. Even oriental concepts of Feng Shui bode ill for life on the prairie. To Orientals, the physical world exists in a balance between the two opposing forces of Yin and Yang, which can be variously described as "dark - light;" "active - passive; "heaven - earth," etc. The theory is that a healthy balance is achieved by blending the opposing forces of Yin and Yang. Feng Shui is the science of divining such a balance in the environment around one's home. In the traditions of Feng Shui, "a completely flat landscape is too Yin (earth energy) There must be valleys and waterways to bring balance to the environment. In any landscape, there should also be shady sides and sunny sides." (2) Lacking any discernable contour or any natural vegetation to break up the line of the horizon, the arid flatland in which Lubbock lies is too "Yin" to be balanced, and thus creates disharmony that ultimately is perceived by the souls of the more sensitive denizens of Lubbock County and the surrounding plains. Any shade in Lubbock is the product of human imagination.
I first became consciously aware of the effects of the West Texas environment perhaps only after I had left Texas to live briefly in northern California. Although my dad had said to me in disbelief, as I left Texas, "I never thought any son of mine would ever live in California," chasing the fickle love of a woman, in 1997 I found myself living in the fertile Central Valley west of Sacramento. Gina and I arrived in California from Texas the day Princess Diana died.
Yolo County, where Gina and I had moved for her job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the agricultural center of California and the source of much of America's food. In many external ways, Yolo County resembles West Texas. Both Woodland California and Lubbock Texas are flat, dry, agricultural. However, differences between central northern California and the south plains of West Texas are not only visual in crucial ways, but psychic and otherwise palpable.
Northern California is new and thrusting. The Central Valley is the energy of the up-thrusting continent below your feet, the peaks of granite crashing like tidal waves on both east and west. A large, fertile riverbed runs through the Big Valley, miles between the crests. California is active and masculine, promising and cruel. I was never comfortable in the stress and charge of the land in Northern California. The land there is suffering all sorts of geological and man-made torments.
West Texas is a shy, beaten woman who offers nothing but fertility. She hides her bounty for only the imaginative and determined to earn. West Texas is old and flat as an ocean in doldrums, a place where one gets mired and driven mad chasing sirens, muses, genies, and fates. Her words on the wind are imperceptible whispers of temptation, or raging hysterical rants of scorn. But her hard edges are rubbed off and she invites you to lay your head anywhere and dream anything you wish, if you can.
After only four-months in residence and the decline of my relationship with the woman who brought me there, I left California to return to Texas. As I drove all my possessions back eastward across the continental divide, toward Lubbock, I had the music of my hometown frequently in my ears and on my mind:
I left my home out on the great High Plains
Heading home to Texas in early 1998, I was contemplating the creation of this book. I had always been amazed by the number of remarkably creative and artistically innovative musicians and artists from my dusty hometown, including Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen, Lloyd Maines, & Rolling Stones saxman Bobby Keys, to name a few. For years I had been known to comment about a singer or songwriter or musician heard on the radio or some actor on TV, "Do you know where he's from?" For those who knew me, the answer was always a long groan and, "Lubbock?" The book would be an effort to answer a question that has been repeated for years among those who write about American music: "Why is there an inordinate number of musicians, poets, writers, and artists being emitted from arch-conservative, ugly, boring Lubbock?"
While in Lubbock, for some unknown reason my mom had given me a book to read. I have no idea why she gave it to me. One afternoon shortly after I returned from California, Mom just handed me this book, called The Kingdom of God, and said, "This is for you to read." It was written in the '50s, by some Old Testament scholar named John Bright. The book is about this Biblical concept of the "Kingdom of God," which Bright points out is the central theme of the Old and New Testaments - the coming of The Kingdom of God. Bright explores what that "kingdom" actually is; what the biblical scribes were speaking of when they used that term "the Kingdom of God." People are always talking about it and praying for it and wanting it to "Come." Bright asks, "But what is it?"
Bright summarizes the history of the Hebrew people by describing how their Prophets repeatedly warned the Hebrews, "You're screwing up. You're not acting the way God wants you to act." And then the tribe gets jacked, racked, and ransacked by the Persians or the Babylonians or Egyptians or the Hittites, just about everyone around them. Bright described what social conditions were like in the eastern Mediterranean at the time when many of those Old Testament events were happening- 300, 400 B.C. - And the descriptive words he used really reminded me of people in Lubbock; xenophobic and bound to the law. "You CANNOT violate God's law without suffering the penalty!" This was because they were so concerned with preserving this idea that they got from the Prophets that they were a "Kingdom Under Judgement," and God was going smite the nation if the people erred.
That description of old testament Israel, a crossroads in the middle of the desert, in the outback of a great empire and populated by mystics, cynics, priests, believers and fanatics in search of a messiah really matched my impressions of life growing up in Lubbock. It is the same kind of environment in Lubbock, both geographic and psychic. The people are wholly dependent on the volatile and unforgiving desert elements, getting their asses kicked by tornadoes and duplicitous weather all the time. In Lubbock, the people believe, "We gotta' be 'GOOD.' We can't put up with any tomfoolery, at all or else we're just gonna' get wiped off the face of the earth."
to be continued...
1 Flores, Dan, Introduction to Canyon Visions, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1989, p. 2.
2 Too, Lillian, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui, Element Books, Boston, 1996, pp. 53-54.
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Buy the book by author Christopher Oglesby
Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air:
Legends of West Texas Music
"As a whole, the interviews create a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue. This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor, and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and Joe Ely." - University of Texas Press
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