suppressed pulp

Power to the (Gray) People

Saw Redford’s new movie “The Company You Keep” last night in the musty old Gateway Theater (est. 1951) in Ft. Lauderdale. The theater is three years younger than me and about ten years younger than Robert Redford and Julie Christie. The crowd on a Tuesday night was not big, but there were a lot of old Sixties couples in attendance. You looked around and looked at yourself and said, yeah man, some of us here we were the ones sitting on blankets listening to anti-war speeches before Steppenwolf came on stage.

In my college days we were in the middle of things. We had martial law, tear gas, beatings.  I knew of the groups mentioned in the movie and the general vibe of the Movement.  My father, who ran a travel agency in those days, sent me FBI WANTED posters he received for the kids up in Madison, WI who blew up a building. That showed me the times and the dangers were real.  Back then, the radicals were vigorously pursued, under limited technology of course (a lot relied on informers). It’s implausible that the FBI would be so zealous about tracking radicals down forty years later. But all the chase scenes and dogs and guns stuff was necessary to move the story, to make it typical box office fare.

The entertainment for me was watching Redford and Julie and Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte and other veteran actors re-create and fan the flames of the Sixties arguments and, as well, exhibit their consumate on-screen skills.

Julie is still striking. She played the most radical character, far-fetched, but what the hell.  Seeing lithe Julie piloting a sailboat to smuggle pot and hanging out in Big Sur with Sam Eliott, or gracing a dark cabin in the deep Michigan woods (as filmed in Canada) were pretty good visual moments on film.

As for the script, I was willing to buy into the “radical forever” bit and the longstanding loyal brotherhood and cover-up between perpetrators.  I was also willing to buy into Shia Labeouf’s role as Redford-warmed over, as young aggressive journalist.  (Shia was also fascinating to watch in his deft approach to chicks.)  I was relieved when Jackie Evancho skillfully portrayed Redford’s cute little pre-teen daughter and didn’t sing in the movie, though to hear her sing, like on PBS, is a trip unto itself.

The portrayal of the gung-ho FBI team was totally over the top.  The Feds track Redford as if he had an atomic weapon or had murdered Santa Claus. His character is an old benign Sixties protester, that’s all, who happened to be associated with some folks in the past who went too far.

We get plenty of chances to see old Robert running around in the woods with his backpack and jeans and scruffy hair, as if he were flashing back on behalf of all of us.

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.

gilleys

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.

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NOTE:  This article is copyrighted and published in Tales of Don Pedro” by William P. Moore, for sale on Lulu and Amazon.

Enemy of the State

He was leaving when I came in, the Enemy of the State. I didn’t see his face, just his glossy black hair. And he wore a camel-colored sports coat. If I had to guess, he was Italian and about forty. He was on the bulky side like he played football once. I noticed Crissie’s hands were shaking. Her phony welcome smile didn’t hide her anxiety about what just happened when the Enemy of the State visited her clinic. I took my position on the bench, face down, like I do every week. Crissie’s breathing was heavy above me. She put the heel of her palm flat against my lower back and I guess put her other one on top of it and then her weight came next, all five-eight of her. She pushed violently. I heard the grunting noise she always made with the effort, and this one was a little louder. My back popped back into place and I got up and smiled at her with relief. I gave her my usual thirty-dollars. For a second I thought she wasn’t going to take it. There was no time to talk to her. She led me to the door, like she was anxious to have the place empty again. Her tied-up hair had come loose and strands hung in her face in distress. Even so, I remember thinking how pretty she looked as I left. The place closed, and I never went back. A few months later I read in the paper that the clinic was busted. The Enemy of the State was identified and convicted of health insurance fraud. Crissie was found to be complicit and got a sentence as well. They sent her to the Federal Pen in Miami for two years.

Sometime over the holidays in the mid 2000s – I can’t recall exactly, an anonymous phone call came in. A male voice with a thick Long Guyland accent said, “Stay clear of her.”

Three would make her weep

She didn’t know what she was doing. The “CD Hits” jukebox ate her dollars. If a machine could be smug, she thought, this was the one. Her thoughts grew angry. Just like that little chink bitch yesterday at Lucky-Duck 89, she thought. The one who tried to shortchange a twenty for three measly egg rolls.

An adolescent waiter asked if she needed help. She said she was trying to play Best of Bare Naked Ladies. It’s her idea of fine music.

Applebys’ sound system was stuck. Haunting twangy guitars saturated with reverb and Chris Isaak’s plaintive Elvis voice. Endlessly during her solo supper of pasta diablo del mar and brown insta-bread. Toyed-with cellphone, no Incoming’s, spotted with grease marks.

Two glasses of bordeaux. She remembered that three would make her weep.

She paid the tab. Heard Chris still wailing on extended speakers in the bathroom. Saw her moonlike forehead stressed and oily in the mirror, but her eyes cocaine bright. Breasts still right out there, one or two more buttons undone before leaving, the maroon pushup bra doing its best.

Wasn’t sure where to go next, sitting in that new Lexus, not even able to hear it idle.