Month: May 2012

Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein”

The location and title of every book in my palatial office is fixed in my memory. Sometimes I give them a cutesy nonsensical associative phrase to help me remember. Like, Norman Mailer’s hardback is rubbing against Amy Hempel’s front matter.

Sure I do.  Not.

I forgot to say that this book about memory training is not in my collection. I had the good sense to check it out of the library rather than spring for it on Amazon. And remembered to take it back nine days before it was due.

A Look Back at the Original Gilley’s, 1980

In 1980 when I first came to Texas, I lived in Pasadena for a while, just a few blocks from Gilley’s. During that long hot summer I went there almost every Friday night. It was convenient, and their beer was always cold.

I was an alien when it came to cowboy shit-kicker culture. The C/W music crowd and their way of dancing little mincing steps in a big polka circle seemed odd to me. Still, I always found something new and interesting to see at Gilley’s.


Going there was a part of my Texas orientation process. I was a refugee Easterner, trying to navigate a new world. I checked out a lot of hangouts in the Pasadena area in those days, before I moved into the Southwest Side. Two other memorable clubs that come to mind are Yesterday Once More, a saloon with a separate “mood room” featuring sofas and lots of Carpenters tunes; and Legal Tender, a pitch-dark multi-level club where I once was offered a couple of tokes in the upper bleacher section and got a bad case of vertigo.

All that aside, Gilley’s felt the most comfortable. It was a place where, even if you didn’t subscribe to the whole Country-Western thing, you could at least roam around and breathe. You could choose to be inconspicuous, or step out for a while then re-enter the fray whenever you liked. It was not at all like having the constant pressure and high visibility in Houston’s disco club scene.

Anyway, it was the biggest honky tonk I’d ever seen. And like real honky tonks, it was nothing pretty. Just a low one-story warehouse with a concrete floor surrounded by a bumpy, sandy, unpaved parking lot.

Gilley’s had a carport entrance with some sort of disjointed lodge decor. There were a few tree stumps to sit on, and a bunch of warning signs about guns. The office was right inside the entry way, past the bouncers. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Urban Cowboy,” the entrance was shown true to life, robbery and shootings included.

The first Gilley’s lesson I learned was out in the parking lot. Always leave the visor down in your car. Otherwise, roaming employees would plaster a red and white Gilley’s bumper-sticker or two on your car, no questions asked. My Camaro at one time or another had several Gilley’s stickers.

When friends visited from out of town and asked about it, I would take them out there in the afternoon when the crowds were down. If you were of the persuasion to dance the two-step, the music was always on, and the dance floor open and a half-block wide. The surface was parquet wood worn to a fine dusty grain.

Anyone who ever sang a country song in those days appeared on the stage. It was no big deal to go in and see someone famous you knew.

In 1980, when Johnny Lee recorded “Looking for Love” and Travolta came to town, Gilley’s transformed from a small-town, suburban Houston beer joint to a national phenomenon. More people made a tourist stop there than at the Astrodome and Space Center combined.

Mickey Gilley and his big money partner Sherwood Cryer ran another club in Pasadena called the Nesadel. That was the original C/W club for Mickey and his gang, but by the Eighties it featured mostly rock n’ roll. The Nesadel was also sort of down and dirty, but it was a good place to hear live bands. It was funky and druggy and smoky, but not a rough place. Appropriately, several head shops opened up nearby.

Gilley’s definitely had a reputation for fights. The place brought in some no-nonsense types. Locals had their codes of honor. Management installed arcade game punching bag machines to help guys vent, but the competitions probably started more fights than not.

The best way to avoid a confrontation in Gilley’s was to leave your girlfriend home. Otherwise, you might find yourself defending an intrusion. The cowboys considered all women, no matter who they were with, fair game.

Houston was pretty wide open at the time. Bars served three-for-ones. People went to work and then out to the clubs with the same flask of schnapps in their back pocket. The freeways were like “trouble on Main Street” in the old westerns. If someone got mad in traffic, the tire irons or knives or even guns might come out of the trunk.

One night, there was a traffic backup on Interstate 45 not far from Spenser Highway. Rumor had it that Travolta and Debra Winger were filming a scene at a diner along the feeder road. Pickup trucks left the freeway and tore across grassy gullies, forging new exit ramps to get there.

Houston had severe Urban Cowboy mania for a while. Everyone wore hats and boots, I mean everyone. Looking back, I can say that a good pair of Nocona boots were sort of handsome, even if (as a South Floridian) I can’t endure their discomfort now. But it’s bizarre to recall those hats: straw and felt, ranchero and bull-rider, and otherwise. I just can’t imagine people let themselves look like that. But there we were, in our hats and plaid Howdy Doody shirts, doing something ridiculous like the ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe.’

the author, Blanco TX 1980

the author in costume in Blanco TX 1980

Inside Gilley’s vast hall, you couldn’t see from one end to the other. When you went to the rest rooms in back, it was a hike. One advantage was that you learned where the exits were. Important to know, in case of emergency.

Some said the night club looked like a fire trap. I agree. While it had its charm, it was definitely not fire-code friendly. The drop-down ceiling was made of fiber acoustic tiles stamped with club logos. Many tiles were missing or water-stained by roof leaks, or simply rotted out. Everyone smoked like chimneys. The stage lighting was intense. Bar area walls were constructed of stacked-up cardboard cases of Lone Star beer. When Mickey Gilley put his label on a beer bottle (brewed by Falstaff), stacks of those were everywhere too. There were two or three food kitchens crammed into one corner behind the pool tables. You could smell the food and grease and feel the heat. That section reminded me of the vending area underneath a football stadium.

The floor around the mechanical bulls area was covered with dozens of dirty mattresses, to cushion riders when they got thrown off. I heard people in the bar say the mattresses came from whorehouses down in Mexico. Later, as Gilley’s grew in fame and tried to Disney-ize itself, they were replaced with shiny red vinyl mats.

Gilley and Cryer eventually got a little crazy expanding things. The touristy gift shops and themed spinoff enterprises kept coming. They even built a full-size arena for rodeo next to the club.

Meanwhile, except for the local die-hards, people were coming to their senses again and leaving the Urban Cowboy craze behind. As they moved on to the next thing, customer traffic slowed.

As for me, I moved to the city inside the Loop near Bellaire and went back to the places I know best: lounges, R&R dance clubs and discos. Places like Todd’s and Confetti’s where we used to wear our suits after work and dance freestyle from five until whenever we took someone home.

Whether by accident or design, Gilley’s nightclub burned down in 1989. The 15-acre property was taken over by the Pasadena school board.

Now there is a new Gilley’s several hundred miles north in Dallas. The ads indicate that it’s probably an overblown, Branson-ized tribute to the original. I can’t imagine it could ever be as memorable as the first one

Apparently in 2011 a new Gilley’s re-opened in Pasadena. I wonder if the old dudes there still get in fights over their old ladies. 

PS- Thank you, Frank Billingsley of KPRC-TV in Houston for quoting from this article as emcee of the Mickey Gilley Tribute in Pasadena, TX in June 2022.    

William P. Moore ©

Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies”

This is an odd thing to be reading. It’s a 1930 British novel discovered in a roundabout way.  I liked Alduos Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow and searched Amazon for something similar: an early century comedy of manners, or a compact novel that presents sort of a claustrophobically attached circle of people. Preferably portrayed with and without mercy. A style that bares their naked motives on stage, like Shakespeare would, or Dickens.

It’s interesting how Waugh makes characters and scenes so alive with so little effort. There is not much accompanying narrative to describe who they are or where they are; just enough to be efficient  The story moves via dialog, often as sharp as a razor. Waugh also has a knack for profiling characters by their names (Miss Runcible, Mr. Outrage, Fanny Throbbing). A few pages in and I’m on the boat with them, seasick and singing hymns for the benefit of Mrs. Ape.

The Angels (named after Virtues) stay aft on the ship and in second class on the train. We’ll have to see what becomes of them. Waugh became a converted Catholic around the time this book came out. He was 27.   Guilt?  It didn’t stop him from writing some (reportedly) even more scathing books afterwards.

Jennifer Egan’s “Emerald City” (with…pause…Bernadette)

Egan’s short story writing led to the construction of “Goon Squad.” That adds interest to reading this collection of her earlier work.

The nine stories keep us engaged, provide excellent writing with precision and imagery, and then close with something of thematic value to consider when we’re done. What more could you ask?

For example…the first two are risky and dark, presented with skillful characterization. The first examines a traveler in China with a male crush trying to conceal it from his family. The story walks the tightrope between safe and creepy.  The second is about two teenage Catholic girls with a sexual attraction, the adored one being more lost than the other – she’s a cutter. Being enamored leads the good one to go way off course. We worry about them both and go back through the pages looking for a clue to what will become of them.  This makes me think of “Goon Squad,” where Egan has the open landscape of a novel and takes advantage of it to provide a summary, in media res, of where characters will arrive in the future.

The title story “Emerald City” borrows from the illusory Land of Oz with its supposed shining glory that requires visitors to wear sunglasses. In that story, the glasses themselves make the city look artificially green. Otherwise, as the Wizard knows, the city is not glossed with gems but is ordinary. The story is about the lure and superficiality of fashion photography. That’s a big topic and Egan offers us an intimate and informative picture of the business and its players within fifteen pages. Vesuvi the big name photographer is the Wizard figure, cloaked and powerful. The two lead characters, Rory the photo assistant who looks like a SoCal beach boy but is from Chicago, and his girlfriend Stacey the quite-not-good-enough model, are like visitors to Oz. They aren’t exactly dazzled by the Emerald City.  They don’t fit as well as the bratty Russian model (closest thing to a witch here) who brags about her status and percs. Rory and Stacey’s  ambivalence about staying in New York City is the story’s core element. In a way Rory and Stacey are heroic; they are not easily taken in by its seductive lure.  Even Vesuvi demonstrates, with great guffaws, that NYC is not the whole wide world.

Many more. “The Stylist” with Bernadette’s toes in the sand is one of the best ones. Another is “Spain in Winter” showing a darker side of bright Granada. And the Catherine Black character (in “Puerto Vallarta”) – sexiness on a stick and morally flawed? We all knew one.

But … (experience Jennifer’s snapshots and tricksters of time … for yourself).

Dana Spiotta’s “Stone Arabia”

Report in progress:

  • 1st night’s reading derailed by the pages and pages of italicized stuff.
  • next day, things got a little better, typeset and story-wise, but noticed the narrator overstates most everything, thereby narrowing any chance for the reader to think independently.
  • wondered if the timing wasn’t right to read this book, moody reader thing.
  • the overstating, which I thought might just be a temporary style to induce a breathlessly excited tone for mundane events (full, deep cups of coffee?), doesn’t stop and keeps going and going and going…
  • Skimmed far ahead and read the same thing I read earlier, repeated a different way.  The content’s padded? Maybe there’s a reason but maybe not.

(to be continued after some eyedrops, a beer and two Advils)

  • Back.  Tried again, but… obviously a major conflict in style appreciation. Sorry. I will try to simplify it in five words instead of five hundred: I can’t read this novel.