The beautiful loser

Keith Ferguson keeps a loose grip on Fabulous past

Musicians avoid the Ferguson ranch for fear of having their cars commandeered for a barrio run. During one visit, it is my job to drive Ferguson to some urgent destination. Though banished from the Antone's blues community, Ferguson is highly received in the Mexican ghetto like some kind of shaman. He was raised in the Sexto, or Sixth Ward, a barrio of Houston--the odd Anglo in a Mexican gang back in San Jacinto High, class of '64. Our ride, through dusty roads, conjures up childhood.

Summers were spent with his grandmother in San Antonio, totally gaucho. "It was great in the '50s, pre-Beatles, before everybody had bands. There were only about eight bands in the whole area: Doug Sahm and the Pharaohs, Sammy Jay and the Tiffanaires, Eddie Luna. You had Mexicans, blacks, and whites in the same band, which was unheard of."

Electric guitars were rare and exotic sights until the mid-'60s. "I remember hearing Dino, Desi, and Billy do 'Scratch My Back' on Shindig. Good, too. I was one of two left-handed bass players in all of Houston when I started in 1966--at the age of 20."

Few musicians start so late. In high school, Ferguson had been tight with the best mariachis in town--heavy-duty lounge acts. A member of the Compians, Houston's leading Hispanic music-entertainment family, taught him to play. Ferguson turned professional mere days after first picking up a bass. He worked the Suburban Lounge, the Polka Dot, Guys & Dolls--Houston blue-collar joints frequented by characters from the Overton Gang and the Laura Coppe Gang.

"They would rob places," he says. "They dressed like Mexicans, listened to black music, and hated both of 'em."

"Where was your father?" I ask as Keith directs me off the main road through dirt alleys.

"My father was a bum," he shrugs. "I hated him with a passion. He didn't live with us. I never saw him growing up. But he would be called whenever I was deemed unmanageable--hangin' out with someone with a natural tan. My mother would panic: 'You've got to talk to him, John!'

"Once when I was 15, I was supposed to get a haircut but didn't. When he arrived, I asked him to get the hell out. He pulled me out of a chair by my hair. So I cut him with a metal rat-tail comb, the one with the end bent into a hook. Then I tried to get to my room for something better--my big Italian, spiked, carbon-steel switchblade. He managed to knock me out before I reached my room. My mother was shaking me, blubbering all over me when I awoke.

"It was a nasty scene. I'd cut him in the throat, but unfortunately missed the carotid artery. I was a little off."

Keith escaped from his bedroom window that day to gang quarters over an ice house, a place where Mando, Mario, Ladislado, Alfonso, and Parrot could crash, drink, smoke, and inhale paint.

"The side of my face was bent out of shape when I showed up. They decided to kill him. I had to talk fast. He was my father. I said, 'He didn't really come to discipline me. Don't kill somebody for that,' 'cause they would have been caught in a second. My father was a white guy. They wouldn't have stood a chance.

"They drafted the guys with a gang history out of my school into the Marines. The other option was jail. They were perfect cannon fodder, 'cause it was the ideal chance for them to become Americans if they fought for their country. But they came back with one leg and were still Mexicans. Most of 'em got killed in the war. Idiots."

Keith was destined for Mexico, his spiritual homeland, not Canada, to evade the draft during Vietnam. A week before his draft-board physical, he tore the cartilage in his knee during a fight in Laredo. He got his deferment.

It wasn't until Keith's mid-20s that he found out who his father was: John William Ferguson, concert pianist with the Chicago Symphony. Keith never even knew his father was a musician.

"You ass-wipe," he told the maestro during their next encounter. "I've been beat, ripped off a thousand times playin' clubs. There's so much you could have taught me."

After the Thunderbirds tore up the Houston Juneteenth Festival, being the only white band there, they received a four-page spread in the Houston Post. From then on, Keith's father began showing up at Thunderbirds gigs.

"He would point me out to his friends: 'My son, the rock star,'" Keith recalls. "He picked up girls at our shows. Johnny Winter and Z.Z. Top sent their limos for him to attend concerts. After I left the T-Birds, I never heard from him again." John Ferguson died a few years ago.

Keith directs my car through the barrio. Somewhere in these hills beneath Austin remain the last of the old pachucos, time-honored Mexican families who dealt heroin to Texas Hill Country junkies for decades in relative peace, until the era of crack arrived. The old-timers were overwhelmed, their quaint Norman Rockwell-era heroin days over. Colombians moved in with machine guns.

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