(Note: I started this back in May of this year and couldn’t finish it. Having gone back to re-read it now, I find it’s not nearly as flawed as I thought it was, and it captures my feelings about the subject very well. So, seeing as it’s a week for being thankful for things, now seems like a pretty good time to put this up — TK.)
In 1996, I bought a brand-new car I could barely afford, then quit my job, packed up my shit and drove three days (through a blizzard; good thing I bought a sports car) from the Green Mountain State of Vermont to the Brown, Flat State of Texas. The plan was to take up residence for a few years, develop something resembling a career, and make a little scratch before returning home to the northeast. I left behind my fiancée, who I would see only infrequently until our wedding, the better part of a year later. I arrived in Austin more or less broke, with no job, knowing exactly two and a half people.
Not long after my arrival, I found work, the first step onto a path that would lead to the rest of my life. My professional life was shaping up, which was a relief. On the personal side, though, I was staring down the barrel of a nine-month separation from my fiancée. Despite how well things were going during the day, my nights were kind of miserable.
One evening, my friend John took pity on me and dragged me to see the Gourds. It’s been so long, I don’t even remember the venue. I do recall that they were so shitfaced they could barely play, and they really didn’t make much of an impression–the first and only time I’ve even heard anything by them. The opener, however, a young man by the name of Guy Forsyth, was startlingly good. He was fresh-faced, and he had this big, goofy all-American farmboy grin that was apt to appear at any moment with no provocation whatsoever. He played a resonator guitar, the first I had ever seen, and he just hammered that damn thing. I remember he played “Pennies From Heaven,” and it was enough to make you weep.
“If you like him,” said John, “you should go hear his band.”
Ladies and gentlemen! I must remind you that we are an absolutely, positively all-acoustic band!
Those were the days when the Asylum Street Spankers were the Guy Forsyth Band, at least so far as I was aware. They had not yet become God’s Favorite Band. Most Wednesday nights, throughout that year, I found myself drinking Shiner down at the Electric Lounge. It’s gone now–it used to reside at 302 Bowie, a ramshackle building stapled up at the end of a cul-de-sac. There were, ironically, not a lot of streetlights there, and you could see, off in the distance, the City of Austin sign on the landmark Seaholm Power Plant (now, equally ironically, a music venue, hosting Psych Fest as I write this).
It’s a highrise full of condos now, has been for going on a decade. But what the hell. Back then, the beer was cold, and the Spankers rocked it, forget about the lack of amps (a virtue as far as I was concerned; I had a head start on a long career of telling those damn kids to get off my lawn).
The first time I saw them, I was flabbergasted. They crammed ten people up on that stage–how the hell do they make a living? (Now, of course, I know the answer–they don’t.) They had three guitars, all different, a clarinet, a uke, a slap bass, and a snare drum. (Not even a kick drum!) Occasionally, they supplemented with a harmonica, kazoo, washboard or saw. Later, a fiddle (and he didn’t use his accent to pick up chicks!). Most of them sang. It was a ridiculous combination that shouldn’t have worked, but did. They played blues, country, jazz, and Wammo’s unclassifiable concoctions. They covered anything and anyone, provided it was recorded before, oh, about 1970, and the older the better. (They covered a little a capella number by the Clovers that remains one of my all-time favorite novelty songs.)
I went back, week after week, rarely missing a Wednesday night. (It is, in fact, one of my few regrets in life that I worked a long day, was tired, and skipped out the night Quentin Tarentino showed up at the Lounge.) I dragged everyone who would let me to see that show, sometimes multiple times. My friend Judy remarked how amazing it was, in this day and age, that Stan Smith would get up and sing “Walkin’ and Whistlin’ Blues” with his hand cupped around his mouth so the audience could hear better… and it made a difference.
If you wanna get into my britches, you’re gonna have to show me more than that three inches
I went back time and again. There are Spanker tunes I probably heard live thirty times that year. It kept me sane, and (mostly) out of trouble. It wasn’t the only Spanker action in town, of course. I caught their gospel brunch at La Zona Rosa a few times. That was okay, but my passion for it was not the same as for my Wednesday night ritual. I saw other live shows–some good ones, including David Garza, though I never did get to see Hamell on Trial–but I was spoiled. No one else was as consistently, reliably entertaining as the Spankers.
Eventually, I got married. As anyone who’s married can tell you, the dynamic of your life changes once you incorporate another person into it. I saw less and less live music, less of the Spankers. A year or two went by, and I stopped seeing them live altogether, although I still bought the albums. Then came kids, and before you know it, the kids were in school, and life had mutated into something unrecognizable. Like if an angler fish surfaced from the depths, stopped enticing little fish with his bioluminescent lure, got himself a suit and a laptop and a well-paying consulting gig–is he still even an angler fish?
When the tradewinds come blowing home…
Around 2003, the studio I worked for was shut down by its parent company. Some of us had the option to relocate to Redwood City, CA and keep our jobs. I chose to move, big chickenshit that I am. That lasted about two years, and then I beat feet back to Austin, pissing off a few people in the process.
Sometime either right before my departure, or right after I came back, was, barring recent events, the last time I saw the Spankers live. They were playing at Jazz, a ‘nawlins-style supper club on Sixth Street (also sadly defunct). They were a double header with Matt the Electrician, whom I hadn’t seen before, and loved.
They were no longer an all-acoustic band, and many of the original Spankers (my Spankers) had moved on. I got a little drunk that night, and I’m pretty sure I said some stupid shit to Christina–like why didn’t they still play any of their classics, and similar inanities. I’m a little shocked that even as recently as eight years ago (or maybe five–who knows?), I was unaware that you can’t recapture lightning in a bottle. It was great to see them again, but it wasn’t the same, wouldn’t ever be the same, and I should have known that going into it. They were stellar as ever, but I just wasn’t prepared mentally to enjoy it.
From there, they once again fell off my radar, although their star was on the ascendant. They were just about to, or had just, gotten national attention with “Stick Magnetic Ribbons…” through the wonder of YouTube. They were touring as much as they ever did, and audiences all over the place loved them just as much as I had. I’m glad. I only wish we had all loved them a few more bucks’ worth, you know?
Shine on, shine on harvest moon, high up in the sky
Two weeks ago this Saturday, I saw the last Spankers show ever. It was both electrifying and sobering. I am not their number one fan–I might have made that claim a long time ago, but the band has evolved since then, and I didn’t really evolve with it. It was the Spankers, nevertheless. Not the same musicians I knew, but the spirit, the core of what made that group really unique, still shined. They made me regret not keeping up, and coming so late to the table to enjoy the talents of Charlie King and Nevada Newman.
The Guy Forsyth Band opened for them, which was only right and proper.
In a big way, the Spankers were Austin for me. And now they are gone.
So don’t wave your flags, just wave your beer
As we slowly turn to clay
And we’ll all get drunk and sing this song
‘Til there’s nothing more to say