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Austin City Fashbacks
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Austinites are always saying that the sixties didn’t come to Austin until the seventies.

Me – I didn’t get to Austin until 2013. So over September, to learn about my adopted hometown’s past, I spoke to five long-time locals about the music scene fifty years back. They described the late sixties and entire seventies as a period when converging factors transformed the staid town into a creative hub. Much of this transformation emanated from a venue called the Armadillo World Headquarters. Travel back with us to the years when Austin declared its (partial) independence from Texas.


Michael Corcoran is a longtime music critic, author and historian.


Max Scheinin: I want to zero in on the hippie scene in Austin and in the Austin music scene. In your mind, what are the years when the hippie influence became really visible in the Austin music scene?


Michael Corcoran: I would say really when the Armadillo World Headquarters opened in 1970. Though there was a club called the Vulcan Gas Company, which opened in 1967, and it was a good hippie club. It was mostly local acts – they did have some national acts, like The Velvet Underground played there three nights in a row, the Fugs, Moby Grape. It was about a one-thousand capacity. 


Veronica Allbright is a nurse and longtime Austinite.


Veronica Allbright: My family moved here from Columbus, Ohio, in 1967. My father had a job with IBM. And we were the first people coming in for IBM.


As a preteen, 13 or 14, I thought I’d died and went to hell, it was so backwards. Our neighbors were all very conservative Southern people. And my parents were very young at the time. My mother had me when she was fifteen, so I had very young parents. 


My mother was more hip than some of the girls that I went to school with. She brought home Jimi Hendrix music. My parents would go to the Vulcan Gas Company on Congress Ave. I remember one time, my father was picking me up somewhere, and we happened to be down by the Capitol. And we drove past the Vulcan Gas Company, and you could see the lights all over the street coming out of the door and you could hear loud music. And my father told me, “That place is really fun, but you’re too young to go there.”


And I always remembered that and thought, “Well, whenever I’m not too young, I know where I want to go visit.”

John Hanson is a DJ, host and producer for KUT and KUTX.


MS: Mr. Hanson, you’re originally from Detroit?


John Hanson: That’s right, yes.


MS: So what year was it when you moved down to Austin?


JH: 1968.


MS: What was the level of your involvement with music like when you first moved here?


JH: Well, when I was at Huston-Tillotson, I played music in the Union at night and on weekends – I played records. I was still in school, so I really didn’t get involved in going out and listening to music until I actually started working at KUT in ’74.


Mike Tolleson is an attorney specializing in entertainment law in Austin, and was a founder of the Armadillo World Headquarters.


Mike Tolleson: I had been in Austin very briefly in the summer of ’68 – I came down from Dallas and spent a month here, studying for the Bar Exam. And I took the Texas Bar Exam here in Austin, and went back to Dallas, and within a week, I caught an airplane and went to London.


While I was in London, I spent a lot of time at a place called the Arts Laboratory. It was a facility for people doing independent films, dance, music, to experiment and explore and exhibit and demonstrate their work and meet like-minded people. I spent quite a bit of time there, and it was certainly a model for what I was hoping to do here in Texas.


I came back from London to work with this particular band, and we moved into a house up on Lake Dallas. While I was in London, the band had come down and lived in Austin for a little while and played at the Vulcan Gas Company, so they were familiar with it. And I knew about it, I had heard about it, but I also had heard it had closed.


And then the band decided to break up. And David Davis, who had been the drummer in the group, came down to Austin to go to UT. And he suggested that I come down and look around Austin. 


I came down in July of ’70. David had been writing for The Daily Texan, the UT school paper. And he said, “Shiva’s Head Band is back in town and they’re going to open a club down on Barton Springs Road, and I’m supposed to go down there and write a story about it, so why don’t you come with me?”


We got down to the building on Barton Springs and walked in and looked for Eddie – because Eddie Wilson at that point was the manager for Shiva’s Head Band, and had also found the building and had secured a lease. He took us on a tour around the building. He had a couple of people in there painting the walls, and starting trying to get it ready for an opening.


So I knew immediately what was about to happen there, and it was just so crazily coincidental – a ready-made situation for what I was looking for. I knew [graphic designer/poster designer/artist] Jim Franklin had moved in there, and I knew who Jim was, because I knew about the Vulcan Gas Company, which had been the main music club here, downtown, in the late ’60s.


Jim Franklin created promotional artwork for both the Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo.

Michael Corcoran: You also had the armadillo itself – not the venue, but the creature. You had Jim Franklin drawing these posters and all this artwork, and the armadillo became a symbol of the Texas hippie – because they sleep all day, come out at night, they always keep their nose in the grass.

Armadillo Mural
Michael Corcoran
John Hanson
Mike Tolleson
armadillo mural

MT: And so I met and talked to Eddie that day. I knew that Jim was there. Shiva’s was a part of it – and they were the only band in town who had a record contract; they had just come back from San Francisco. And so all the ingredients were there for exactly what I’d been looking for and planning to try to do.


So I said to Eddie, “Look, here’s who I am, this is what I do, and this is what I’m looking for – exactly what you guys are doing here.”


He said, “Well if you want to be part of this, go pack your stuff and come on back and you can stay at my house.”


And so I did – I went back to Dallas, and loaded up my old ’59 Cadillac and came back to Austin and moved into Eddie’s house, and we started doing Armadillo World Headquarters 24/7.


MC: Because the thing is, if you had long hair in Texas in the ’60s, Austin’s one of the few places you could live without getting beat up daily. If you had long hair in a small town in Texas, it was constant – and even though Austin has this liberal reputation, there were a lot of heads getting beat in. It was still better in Austin than anywhere else, though, as far as that goes.


MS: Mr. Hanson, when you think back on those days, do you feel like people acted differently back then – was the feel of the town different in terms of how people were?


John Hanson: I think back then, and it may just be my naïveté, but I don’t think Austin was that divisive. Although there was east and west – East Austin had a distinct feel about itself. I think the African American community was more together, maybe just because of the geographical location of how African Americans were situated in East Austin. There were a lot more activities going on in East Austin – one did not have to leave East Austin to have a good time or to find entertainment.


So that in itself for me, coming from a predominantly African American city, Detroit, and then landing in East Austin, was a source of comfort, of familiarity – of being around African American people, black folks, all the time; and being able to navigate East Austin, without having to venture out across I-35 or to North or South Austin. 


So I think in a sense, Austin was more accommodating, regardless of the segregation that took place, than it is today.


Jay Trachtenberg is a DJ at KUTX and long-time music critic at the Austin Chronicle.


Jay Trachtenberg: I came from California, and largely my circle was Jewish. And LA’s a big music center and maybe it’s because I am, but you could feel a Jewish presence at the whole thing. And then you come to Texas, and it’s so goyishe. 


It’s hard to explain; it’s not that I experienced any anti-Semitism, because I really didn’t – that’s not what this is about. It was just a real Texas thing here. And I think that’s one thing that made it unique: that people came from other parts of the country – and you’d hear all this stuff about Texas, and then you’d get here and you’d have this wild place. The Armadillo was just – it was a Texas place.


And there’s always that thin line – there’s a whole violence thing about Texas. And people are very friendly and very polite, but you don’t have to rub somebody the wrong way very much – it can get ugly really [snaps fingers] quick. Like there’s a story that at Antone’s, in the early days of Antone’s when they were on Sixth Street, that Boz Scaggs tried to get in the back door, and the bouncer wouldn’t let him in, and he goes, “I’m Boz Scaggs,” and boom, Boz Scaggs was down on the sidewalk.


MS: Mr. Hanson, what kind of acts did you see at Antone’s?


JH: Ooh, I saw all of them, because I had a split shift when I first started working at KUT. I went to work from 4 to 8 and then from 11 to 2. So I saw everybody that came through Antone’s – Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland – just the gamut of artists that came through Antone’s between ’74 and ’79.


MS: Could you describe the vibe of the clubs back then – what it looked like to be in there, what the mood and feel was in there?


JH: What I can recall is that most of the patrons were into the music, meaning that they were respectful of the musicians playing. You know, you go to some clubs and people are there more talking to themselves instead of listening to the musicians playing, you understand what I’m saying?


Michael Corcoran: Austin audiences are different than anywhere else: they know all the reference points. They know what the band is doing. Where you might play in Dallas, and everybody’s got their backs turned to the band because they’re checking each other out, in Austin you’ve got really good audiences, really connected to the music, and it’s like a tradition.


MS: Mike, did you feel like you had momentum right off the bat when you began, or did it take some time to really become the Armadillo?


MT: It took some time. At the beginning, we had a few local acts that had some degree of an audience. It’s very hard for people who weren’t around in those days to realize and remember that five dollars was a top ticket price, and more often it would be one dollar or two dollars. Imagine trying to sustain a venue today on two-dollar ticket prices.


And we had no liquor license. So the place started out with two-dollar tickets, selling cokes and ice cream. You can’t survive on that. And so from the very beginning, we were desperately trying to book bigger-name talent. We eventually evolved to the point where we realized we had to get a liquor license. We had a beer and wine license; we never had a cocktail license or a hard-liquor license. 


In the spring and the summer of ’71, we turned the interior around and actually built a real stage at the opposite end of the inside of the building. 


We did that remodeling work, and then we started working on a beer garden out back. We turned a space into a kitchen, and eventually, as part of this continual growth, we had a functioning beer garden and kitchen that was selling food and beer. Got a beer license. 


MC: The thing about the Armadillo is that it was a big ugly building: it was a National Guard Armory, no air conditioning, no heating, just ugly. What it was was a square box. 

MT: We had to put in bars and a beer system, had to create a cooling vault, constantly work on the bathrooms and upgrade the bathrooms so we could accommodate more people – you get the idea. It’s just constantly building out a space that had just been a raw concrete building.

Postcards from the Armadillo
Jay Trachtenberg
street view armadillo

MS: Veronica, you first discovered the Armadillo around ’72. Did you start meeting people there right away? 


VA: I was a senior in high school by that time. I guess I was kind of a rebel. I would hitchhike down to the drag. I would go see Monterey Pop. So by the time I was able to drive, I was driving around town and exploring, and that’s when I found the Armadillo. 


It was just a whole different place. It reminded me of the intelligence and the quirkiness of young people that I was hanging around with in Columbus. And they didn’t want to drop out – they wanted to involve themselves in this new culture of us being young, and it was alternative and vegetarian, and different kinds of things were starting to be in the culture that we were in, and we were the ones that were desiring it. 


MS: What were the people who you met there like? What kinds of friendships did you strike up?

VA: Well – y’know – it was loose. Nobody really wanted to know your last name, nobody cared about any of that – it was beyond that. And that was part of that generation. If you asked anybody’s last name, they would probably say, “Well what do you need that for?”  And then they wouldn’t be friendly with you, because it was just uncool – like, you don’t really need to know that. You don’t even need to know somebody’s first name a lot of times – you just go, and you hang out together, dance together, smile, smoke a little bit together. And it was more about that you trusted and that you didn’t need to have any more information: if you got a good vibe from somebody, so be it.

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