(Learn about all of our plans for the 50th anniversary of Armadillo World Headquarters HERE)
by Jeff McCord
When I first arrived in Texas, my time in Austin was limited to a drive-through on I-35. I knew Willie Nelson, the Longhorns from watching college football, and the notoriety of Charles Whitman, but really, not much else.
Relocating to San Antonio for college in the fall of 1975, I had expected to be swallowed up by a big city (it was the 10th largest city in the country in those days, it now ranks 7th in terms of population). Instead, what I found was a city rich in culture and history, but one that in many ways resembled the world’s largest small town. They had the Spurs, and a thriving tourist economy on the Riverwalk. But lacking the affluence of other big cities, little spilled out beyond downtown.
And San Antonio was a heavy metal mecca. They managed to land other types of touring shows – I remember seeing the Faces on their final tour, astounding shows at the Carver Center like the Art Ensemble of Chicago -but as a music-obsessed teen working for my college radio station, I was soon hitting the Texas highways to catch a lot of the shows I wanted to see.
Houston came first – a November trip with friends east on I-10 to catch the opening night of the Who’s 1975 tour at the Summit (now Joel Osteen’s mega-church). But soon I discovered the much closer Municipal Auditorium in Austin (the Long Center now occupies the site), where I caught a number of roadshows. It was on those trips where I first laid eyes on the hulking, non-descript building across Barton Springs Road, nestled between a cafeteria and a skating rink, and calling itself the Armadillo World Headquarters.
There was some name recognition, mostly from Commander Cody’s 1974 live album. And in haunting local record stores, I had noticed the occasional poster or flyer. But I was still new to town. And 1975 was a different world. There were no weekly arts papers (San Antonio’s It’s Only Rock and Roll was still a few years off, and The Austin Chronicle didn’t publish until 1981). Austin had some print music coverage going on, but it was hardly reaching San Antonio, and shoestring operations like the ‘Dillo, if they advertised at all, didn’t reach beyond city limits. Pre-internet, finding out what was going on was a constant challenge.
Decades later, it’s hard to pinpoint the date of my first visit to AWHQ, but it was undoubtedly to their outdoor beer garden, either before or after an Auditorium show. Roadshows at the Auditorium were like concerts anywhere, composed of large, faceless crowds. The Armadillo was the opposite; intimate, full of flavor, sweat and character. The nachos and beers were cheap and plentiful. Depending on the time of day, the garden could be full of happy hour working stiffs or late-night partiers. Given the casual vibe of Austin, it was not that easy to discern between the two.
I was already getting my own musical taste of Austin down in SA. Willie and Doug Sahm were frequent visitors there, as were the Cobras, other fusion-y acts like Too Smooth and Starcrost. The blending of hippies and cowboys was happening everywhere in Texas by the mid-seventies – this would reach its zenith when the Sex Pistols played the San Antonio kicker bar Randy’s Rodeo in 1978 – but the ‘Dillo’s eclectic bookings of rock, blues, jazz, country, and ballet (!) made this especially true. Part of their variety was due to their chief competition in the latter half of the seventies, the Austin Opera House. Their air conditioning and fixed seating (the ‘Dillo lacked both) enabled them to cherry-pick acts. But most of the credit for the ‘Dillo’s wide-open ears goes to the staff, and the loyalty of all types of bands who loved playing there. Local opening bands rarely had anything in common with headliners, covers were considered excessive at $5. So the locals showed up, took chances, and were rewarded for their efforts.
Getting there from San Antonio was another matter. I treasure the memories of the two dozen or so shows I was able to attend, but they were haphazard in nature, dependent on transportation, extra drivers for the late trip back home, who might or might not among my group of friends have a test the next day.
At AWHQ, I was a tourist. At first, I knew little of the Armadillo’s backstory, its heroes like Eddie Wilson and Hank Alrich, the cast of characters that were barely holding things together, its production company and recording studio. And I was only vaguely aware of the legendary shows that had already happened in their first five years – Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Gram Parsons, Little Feat/Linda Ronstadt, ZZ Top, and of course, Willie Nelson (his partnership in the Austin Opry House kept him out of the ‘Dillo in their second half).
And there was no denying its magic. Even before walking in its doors, the Armadillo’s imaging, defined by the stunning graphic art of Micael Priest, Guy Juke and Jim Franklin, set the tone. By contrast, the real place was almost comically plain. It looked like a warehouse (one of its previous incarnations was a National Guard Amory). I remember my first time through the door, laughing out loud at Franklin’s warning murals that fronted the cavernous restrooms. (The women’s room featured the kitchen maven, Big Rikke House, known the Guacamole Queen (and later immortalized in song by Frank Zappa). “If I catch any of you guys in the girls john… I’m gonna mash you up ‘n spread you on a salad.” The men’s room featured a furious infantryman: “If I catch any of you pussies beatin’ off in this bathroom… I’m gonna turn you over to the Guacamole Queen.”) Not subtle.
Once inside, the place was no-frills, cavernous, high ceilinged, dim, the air thick with humidity and pot smoke. Most of what light there was came from the kitchen in the east rear corner of the building. Giant warehouse fans roared on the sides of the stage, attempting to move the air around. But even in the winter months (the ‘Dillo had no heat, either), it was, um, thick in there. People wore little clothing, men often stripped off their t-shirts. They milled about, drinking epic amounts of beer, waiting for the shows to begin.
All shows were general admission, and most everyone stood, few used the rusted-out metal chairs on the floor. I usually headed for the risers on the side, covered in filthy carpet, to get some elevation off the flat floor. The stage was large, and had a good rise to it, so you could see the performers from most anywhere. I remember the sound system being better than decent.
On the left side of the stage, a gruesome Jim Franklin painting of Freddie King hung under a spotlight’s glare, portraying the Texas blues legend in full grimace as a bloody armadillo burst from his heart. I recall staring at it, while waiting for shows to start, with equal parts amazement and trepidation.
While, unbeknownst to me, a reorganization was going on at the time to help make AWHQ profitable, to me, little seemed to change in my five years of sporadic attendance. Some unmemorable shows I attended with more enthusiastic friends – Trapeze, Savoy Brown. I saw Zappa (entertaining, but without Beefheart, sadly – they recorded the Bongo Fury album at the ‘Dillo months before I arrived), but I also managed to catch performers I was excited to see: Van Morrison, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Bruford, saxophonist Phil Woods (the most sparsely-attended show I saw there, though Woods would later release an album of the concert.). And, best of all, new artists who would go on to define the eighties – Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, Rickie Lee Jones, Rockpile, the Pretenders and Talking Heads. Seeing the Pretenders original lineup, and Talking Heads’ 1980 big band premiere with Adrian Belew, hang around in my memory as my most mind-blowing AWHQ moments. But there were many others.
This is what haunts my admittedly hazy memory of the Armadillo today. Perusing the spreadsheet of the ten years of Armadillo shows assembled post-mortem, I can pinpoint most of what I saw but also what I missed, often within days of when I was there, shows I just couldn’t get to, or ones that I had no idea were happening. Concerts by seminal artists I would not get to see perform until years later – John Prine, the Kinks, Blondie, Jimmy Cliff, Joe Ely, Tom Waits, Sonny Rollins, Freddie King, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, the Ramones, XTC, Sun Ra, the Clash, Devo, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Randy Newman. Even worse, I missed artists I would never get to see at all – Captain Beefheart, Spirit, Old and New Dreams, Gil-Scott Heron, Bill Withers, Roxy Music, Magazine – all just out of reach a few miles up the highway.
This dizzying lineup represents only a fraction of the talent coming through the doors of the Armadillo in their final five years and doesn’t touch on the excellent local musicians taking the stage nightly, in headlining or support roles. I can think of no venue, before or since, in Austin or anywhere else, that took so many chances with their booking. The ‘Dillo wasn’t always a hippie utopia. Testosterone reared up among beer drinkers now and then. And while booking was diverse at times, like most institutions in 70s Austin, a majority of the staff and customers were white.
The ‘Dillo’s first five years were precarious, but they were turning a profit in their final years, only to have their landlord sell the place out from under them. Ten years isn’t a long run when you look at the Austin institutions like the Continental Club, Antone’s or the Hole in the Wall. But it was enough to lay down a blueprint for all to follow.
In one of my early AWHQ visits, I wandered into the venue from the Beer Garden in time to see Nashville songwriter Larry Gatlin ask from the stage for the fans to be turned off, in hopes that people could listen more intently to his solo acoustic set. Bad idea.
First, the crowd got hot. Then they got loud. Exasperated, Gatlin threw a fit. “These songs are my babies,” he shouted. “When you don’t listen, you’re disrespecting my children.” A chorus of boos quickly followed, and Gatlin stormed off the stage. It was an awkward thing to see, like a comedian having to explain a joke. But also, an astonishing one. Had Gatlin been more compelling, none of his scoldings would have been necessary, and everyone in the place seemed to know that. This tough crowd displayed a collective musical sophistication I had not witnessed before, one I would see repeated time and time again in every future Austin venue I attended. That stuff might play in Peoria. But if you come to Austin, you best bring your A-game. Anything less than authentic won’t work. The bullshit detector is always on.
As much as anything, it was this attitude, an open-mindedness combined with very high expectations, that would zero me in on Austin. I never got to hang out at the Armadillo as a local, go there on nights just to see what was happening, as I would do with so many other Austin venues I came to love over the years. When I finally made the move to Austin in late 1980 – I was mostly settled by the Gang of Four’s fabled election night show at Club Foot – the Armadillo had only weeks left to go. And visiting family for the holidays, I missed out on their closing nights.
In the years before I moved to Austin, I would make arena shows at the Erwin Center, discover Inner Sanctum Records on UT campus, play in bands that gigged at Raul’s and Duke’s Royal Coach Inn. But for some time, the Riverside Drive exit I took to the Armadillo was all I knew of Austin. It was there I first experienced the real community, watching locals on stage and in the crowd who would eventually become good friends. I couldn’t be there as much as I would have liked, but it proved to be more than enough. The Armadillo wasn’t just another place to go to see music. It was a community center for a rapidly evolving college town, a lab experiment that pushed the limits of what was possible. And a beacon that led me straight to my new home.