Dispatches From a Parallel Universe


Damn! Cain’t believe it! Hoo-yeeha-wow! And all.

Let me try to get this to make sense, though the odds are long. I was tending the computer in the bedroom of my house in Jocotopec in darkest Mexico, maybe ten in the morning. The Mamas and the Papas roared from the speakers, third Negra Modelo gettin’ low in the can, big brown-ass hills indolent and shiftless out the window just like mankind was meant to be but ain’t got enough sense, and I’m thinking about how the vandals stole the handle and remembering twisted times in the High Desert back in the Sixties when Jimmy and I nearly fell down the mine shaft…ah, but the world I isn’t ready for that.

On a vagrant impulse I fed The Greezy Wheels into Google’s maw.

Not a chance, I figured. What did Google know about high art? Or low dives? It probably doesn’t inhale. The Wheels were a great band, even if you were straight. Or so I’ve heard. That was maybe 1973 in Austin which was the exact temporal point of the Big Bang or more likely the Great Mushroom, viewed through Window Pane, but anyway the start of anything that mattered or, I sometimes think, still does.

Google eructated, gurp.Hunh?! The Wheels got a freaking web site! Better living through chem — I mean, electronics. How come they’re still out there? How come I am? Holy fruitcake, Batman.

You gotta understand. Austin in the Seventies was the great symbiotic corn-fed Texas-plus-hippy evolutionary musical weirdness center, with these blond strong kids from the fields who came in from the farm and hit the freak years, ker-blunch. Young America, the part that mattered anyway, was wobbling around the continent like carmine particles in some sort of macroscopic Brownian-motion. I’d drifted in from — either it was NYC or it wasn’t: I’m sure of it — to see a friend who lived in a cardboard shack mostly up on Montopolis on Crumley Lane, I think. Or somewhere else. It was not a factually fastidious time.

Anyway, the Wheels were a country band. I mean real country and they felt the music because it was what they were, but they had perhaps some slight acquaintance with smokable enlightenment. Maybe not that slight. I don’t know. A kilo here, a kilo there, and it adds up to drugs. Who can tell? Hey, it’s how things were. Our childhoods made us do it.

The head fiddlist for them (this is all from lengthening memory, but you will have to deal with it) was Mary Egan who (we understood, anyway) had started life as a classical violinist and realized her error and took up the fiddle. Apparently she found it redemptive.

God plays the fiddle. Everybody knows it. In fact, he only created four instruments, the soprano recorder, the country fiddle, the mouth harp, and the clarinet. All the rest are unfortunate derivatives.

Now, Armadillo World Headquarters — this is getting difficult. You probably didn’t know that armadillos had a headquarters. Well, they did. They’re more organized than you think. It was an open-air music-and-lotsa-beer joint where wild bands played seditious music for dirty rotten anarchistic hippies, like me, and all these Texas gals, the which there ain’t no better on this or any other earth, except maybe in Arkansas, (well, or Alabama, or….) wandered around in tight cut-offs and the music soared and flew and flapped and you hollered “LSD!” at the waitress, who brought you a whole mug of it. (It meant Lone Star Draft. At least during working hours.)

They had this crazy dog, and you’d roll a piece of spongy volcanic rock and he’d run fetch it. I worry about that dog. He may still think lava is what dogs eat.

Actually, the ‘Dillo wasn’t alone. There was Soap Creek Saloon where you’d get pitchers of beer and listen in thumping dark to some really good band, which Austin crawled with like ticks on a backwoods dog, and girls would jump on the tables and dance to the twang-and-whoop — we’re talking banjos here, five strings and twelve fingers — because in those days it was still America.

You can’t play a banjo right with less than a dozen fingers. It’s a scientific fact. It’s why so many banjoists come from West Virginia.

Sometimes the Soap would have a beer-drinking contest. You’d chug a styrofoam cup and throw it to show that you’d finished. It looked like a snowstorm. All they needed was penguins. After five rounds they picked a winner somehow and the prize was…a pitcher of beer. Which the winner drank on the spot.

Then the Wheels would get it on. Mary would wail into Orange Blossom Special on the fiddle and the crowd would yoop and holler and go wild. It was, after all, Texas.

Anyway, I remember Mary and Cleve, and Lissa who sang Whatever Happened to Romance, in the swirling murk of lots of joints and occasional tobacco and I was in love with her because, well, nothing else made sense. Women are wonderful creatures when they aren’t vicious Yankee dykes, and when they play in bands the wonderfulness goes exponential. The Wheels would play Okie from Muskogee and it was exactly right, maybe better’n Merle, ’cause they were Texans but it was a joke too given the pharmacological background, or foreground, of the audience and the times. (White Lightning may have been the greatest trip but it sure wasn’t the only one.)

Then, we heard, they put Cleve in jail because he was in the airport coming back from Mexico and his suitcase accidentally fell open, the police said (uh-huh) and all this Margie Weenie fell out. It wasn’t fair. I’m sure he didn’t know it was there. I mean, you can’t tell what people will put in your suitcase if you don’t watch it. Anyway it didn’t help the band at all, or anyone’s spirits. Given that the entire city of Houston with more than a million dollars in its pocket, which was pretty much the entire city of Houston, was flying on corruption and cocaine, it didn’t seem right. I guess we’d all be better off if the government just kept its long sticky fingers to itself. Or curled up and died.

Then I went away. I must have, because I’m not still there. Cleve must have gotten out, because he isn’t still in. The years rolled on, senselessly. It’s what they do. I figured the Wheels had gone extincter than seven mastodons under a park bench, but no, they’re still there. Maybe there’s a little bit of justice in the world after all, but I doubt it.

Armadillo World Headquarters, 1974. Shamelessly stolen from their site. The triumph of music over elegance.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.