The beautiful loser

Keith Ferguson keeps a loose grip on Fabulous past

"She told people she and I could be happy in a pile of shit," Ferguson says. "She kept a good house for a white girl her age. Since I was always gone, and she was fixin' to be, marriage would give us some sort of stability. But it worked just the opposite, blew us apart."

It's whispered that the T-Birds were the only white blues band that intimidated the Stones, for whom they opened twice at the Dallas Cotton Bowl and twice at the Houston Astrodome during the 1983 tour. Pussy flowed, perhaps more abundantly than for any mere blues group ever. "I'm the only one in the band who actually talked with girls, too."

Ferguson played bass on the essential first four Thunderbirds albums, as well as the Havana Moon collaboration with Santana. He was fired in the mid-'80s, around the period when the Thunderbirds switched to CBS Records, and began scoring on Top 40. Ferguson leveled a lawsuit at the T-Birds claiming owed money, refused to settle, and was trounced in court. To this day there is acrimony and scorched earth.

Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson would not discuss Ferguson for this article. Clifford Antone says nothing for the record, other than swearing, "Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson never did anything to hurt him. You can't guess at this. It's too deep. Don't even try."

Perhaps he was too bluesy, too primitive, too tattooed--The Illustrated Man, The Man With The Golden Arm--or couldn't cross borders. Maybe he got so hip, he just hipped himself right off the planet. Yet there were knock-down, drag-out shit-kicking fistfights between Keith and Kim. And these were distinguished, sharply dressed ambassadors of the blues.

"They wanted somebody else," shrugs Ferguson. "That's what [Jimmie Vaughan] told me. Just wanted to do somethin' new. So I went lookin' for other work. I found it. Anyway, I quit drinkin' liquor when I left the T-Birds, and lost 50 pounds," he claims, as if that fact made the departure a good health move. But it was 50 pounds he needed.

Break for ITT Tech commercial. A long-haired dude stands in a recording studio and preaches his testimonial: "I'm not a musician, but I work in rock and roll."

"No shit?" mutters Keith Ferguson. "I'm a musician, and I don't."

The legendary out-of-work bass player arises another day to click on Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. Commissioner Maury Hannigan, our host, represents The Man--every man empowered to break Keith Ferguson's balls. This fatherly, mature voice of law enforcement embodies everything that's ever kept Ferguson down--a sprinkle of absent and abusive father, perhaps a dash of 1960s draft board, a few shakes of burr-headed gym coach; the customs officers who make Ferguson miss planes; the Austin cops who ticket local musicians unloading amps on Sixth Street; narcs who've interrogated and beaten him, who couldn't give a shit how many landmark albums he played bass on. They all form a composite of this brown-uniformed, hair-dyed, show-biz cop.

"Look, they're on a roll," observes Ferguson, as state troopers hunt down some truckdriver's roach. The next segment has New York's Finest surrounding a maniac, about to toss the Net--a humane method to capture PCP freaks. Ferguson sits transfixed as the maniac flails, rendered helpless.

"That's nothin'," comes one of Ferguson's roadside cronies. "They got a blanket called the Wrap for smelly winos, so's not to befoul the back of the squad car."

Commissioner Hannigan is back on the screen with contempt for everything Keith Ferguson stands for--the 17 individual lizard tattoos snaking up and down his right arm, his glistening "We don't need no steenking badges" gold tooth, his born-cynical sneer. Such cops were put on earth to make life miserable for Ferguson, a once studly rock star who now resembles a withering Aztec Indian, a poster boy of ethnic suspicion.

Avoiding the Highway Patrol is one reason Ferguson doesn't drive. You want the legendary Ferguson on your gig, you gotta come fetch him. "I was drivin' alone in 1970, and this big voice came outta nowhere and said, 'When you get to where your goin', you need to quit, or you're gonna die.'"

"Don't cop shows give you nightmares?" I wonder.
"No. We get stopped, pulled over, and humiliated for real." Ferguson was jailed en route to a gig with the Excellos several blues bands ago. He had moved a roadblock on Sixth Street to avoid a construction detour in front of the club.

"Cops were staked out there, waiting to fight crime. They fucked with me the whole ride to the station about how I look. Textbook Batman and Robin pigology: Some little booger half my age, heavily armed, baiting me while I'm handcuffed, tells his partner, 'Would you mind takin' this down to the station?' Then he tells me, 'I don't know why you're pissed off. You're makin' $700 a night.' He thought it was a riot I only had 16 cents."

I ask him if he has picked up any tips from Hannigan.
"Yeah," he responds. "Move, leave the country."

"Do you hate the French?" inquires Ms. Legere.
"Only their gendarmes," answers Mr. Ferguson.

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