In the Key of G-Town
Galveston has always been about music. Whether it was Lyle Lovett at the Grand reminiscing about the Island before Ike, listening to up and coming student musicians at Selena’s Blue Room, or getting all teary eyed over Lee’s “Something in the Way She Moos” at the Acoustic (played to the Beatles tune of the same name), we all have our own soundtrack to life off the coast of Texas.
Is there a beginning and an end to a story like this? Maybe. But then I’d have to get my shit together and do some real research. And that’s just not the way I operate. And it’s sure as hell not the way I choose my music.
We can start with the stories you know. All the big bands and crooners shuffling through clubs and speak easies. Blues joints tucked into the neighborhoods, hosting parties and jam sessions. Jukeboxes in all the little dive bars that were so much more prevalent only twenty years ago. That’s not the tune playing in my head right now though.
The tune in my head is “My Pony Boy”. It was first released in 1909, written by Bobby Heath and Charley O’Donnell. My Grandfather used to sing it to me when I was little. He was born just three years after the song came out, on a farm in northeast Missouri. Once out of high school, he moved to Long Beach, California. Quite a move. Long Beach was a Navy town at the time. He got a job as a cab driver, shuttling drunk sailors between the bars and the ships. It was a lucrative trade.
In 1994, nine years before he died, I found myself working on a schooner out of Shoreline Village in Long Beach. I was hanging out in a friend’s neighborhood on Cherry Street, in the Spanish deli on Pine Street, and at the Blue Café somewhere in between. One of the acts that had played in the Blue Café was Carolyn Wonderland, a Houston musician I’d met long ago through my cousin.
I had found this all very funny, and slightly coincidental, and relayed it to my Grandfather the next time I saw him. “Where on Cherry?” he’d asked. I wasn’t sure. Close to Second, I thought. “I lived on Cherry, not far from Second.” I hadn’t intentionally gone there. Was there some kind of genetic-geographic pull to Second and Cherry? He spent the rest of his life not being able to answer that question. After about twelve times, he got a little annoyed when I asked, so I changed the subject.
Up front, I didn’t live in California. I kept an apartment in Galveston, even when sailing the seven seas. Even when putting along on the Sacramento River. My hangouts included OGC, renowned the world over for their jukebox. And when that went the way of the dodo, O’Malley’s Stage Door. Jeff used to have a big boom box on a shelf. No jukebox. No Muzak.
The Door would, on occasion have live music. It was a small assortment of local talent usually reserved for the local holidays, like St Patrick’s Day. But the best thing about it was, location location location. More than once, someone from the Grand would come in with a handful of unsold tickets and start passing them out. And more than once, I would snatch one up.
The regular drinkers and financial investors in the Door saw many an act for the price of a beer. One memorable night brought us to Luci Arnez, daughter of Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball. She sang a forgettable litany of songs. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, she feigned surprise as a giant projection of her father’s face lit up the screen. We couldn’t get back to our bar stools soon enough.
Back at the bar, I told the story of my theatrical woes to the man at my right. He listened patiently, then told me he had just been diagnosed with liver cancer. Not wanting to be rude, I offered to buy him a drink.
He introduced himself as Claude Allen. Little did I know, he had once owned a dinner theater in town called The Golden Garter. It had demanded a lot of singing, something he still practiced at a whim. But to pay the bills at that time he was a caricaturist at the Galvez.
Claude and I talked a lot about what we had done, what we were doing, and what we planned to do. Both of us included writing in the conversation. Years later, I joined a writing group in town. One of the members had been left with a manuscript by Claude Allen. It was titled, “Pony Boy”. The book had a scene straight from my own youth, hanging out under railroad bridges while the trains went by. The adventures of youth.
Now, I can tell you that this is the closing of a circle with my own Grandfather. I can tell you that Claude and I were destined to meet and share stories. I could even tell you that I got ahold of a copy of “Pony Boy” and keep it filed away, in case he ever wants it back. But I won’t. Because this is about the music.
Claude was a transition piece, between the Freetown of Galveston, through post-Ranger dark days, into the George Mitchell rehabilitation. He was a common man version of the famous musicians who came through here over the years.
BB King loved Galveston. He came to town one year and gave a free concert out on a stage where SeaArama used to be. And the only way to know it was going on was word of mouth. The place was packed, and the show went on for hours.
I’ve asked people where they went for live music in Galveston back in the day. A few names pop up, usually of establishments long gone. The more common answer is, I went to Houston. That makes sense. Houston’s music scene rivals Austin, and has fed our entertainment and furthered the careers of our musicians. Archie Bell and the Drells announce proudly at the beginning of “The Tighten Up” that they are from Houston, Texas. Big Mama Thornton tells of her early career working the clubs of Houston before WWII, and returning after the War.
I usually think of the music in my life as a mile marker for what was going on at the time. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is a callback to The Old Galveston Club, no matter where I am. “Benny and the Jetts” was a night in the piano bar of the Buccaneer Hotel, showing off the Island to some old high school friends. “My Pony Boy” is the death of Claude Allen, a few years before and twenty years younger than my Grandfather.
Thanks, Claude. This next song’s for you.