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I grew up in Fort Worth in the '80s, and Deep Ellum was one of the few pockets of North Texas that gave a young, snotty, music-obsessed teenager like me a glimmer of hope. This was before the Bass family grabbed hold of mid-'90s downtown FW and gave it a reason to exist--in fact, forced it to have a reason to exist--single-handedly revitalizing the area with bars, clubs and neon signs as Cowtown's music scene grew concurrently; before then, the choices a Fort Worth gal had for Fort Worth music basically consisted of the following options:
1) The Pink Floyd laser light show at the Planetarium.
2) Some yahoo whoopin' it up at Billy Bob's.
3) A white-boy blues band, fronted by a Stevie Ray wannabe with a graying pony tail, invariably with the word "tone" or "scoot" in its name.
So every weekend, my friends and I would load up on wine coolers, shed sweater vests for Bad Brains T-shirts, sometimes don bolo ties (Ugh. I know. You can blame Bono's '80s fashion sense for that) and cruise coolly down Interstate 30, take some random exit, get completely lost (you can blame Bartles and Jaymes for that) until we stumbled upon the only familiar landmark we knew: the Good-Latimer tunnel.
Passing through that tunnel, its walls coated with anarchy symbols, bright montages of hippy paint, gorgeously rendered tags and confounding, nonsensical sloganeering, had all sorts of trite-but-true symbolism connected to it: You know, a transition from one consciousness (suburban, conservative, musically dead Fort Worth) into a new one (the vibrant, speedy, inspiring Dallas music scene). A tunnel to another world, and all that. A uterine delivery into a new life...
OK, maybe that last one is a little overblown, but that tunnel was a sign of life amidst the dreary cultural prospects of North Texas in the '80s and early '90s. Once you passed through it, you entered a zone of zing and life, of mysterious distortion pedals, of hot, stinky guys with long hair ignoring you and fiddling with guitar strings, of terrible bands and really amazing bands, of tattooed freaks and, gulp, gay people, all misfit elements brought together by an ever-expanding, ever-expansive music scene. Trees, Dada, Clearview: These were code words for those lucky souls who knew there was more to Dallas' musical world than frat-boy bands and country crooners. Cross through to the other side, friends, and the dead downtown, the suburban malaise, the Preppy Handbook are all forgotten. Dallas is a real city, and this tunnel is the portal to its heart.
So of course, the first place I went when I returned to Dallas a week ago was Deep Ellum. And yet, I didn't take that tunnel; instead I just rolled down Commerce Street, guided by a weird phalanx of parked cop cars that studded the road every three feet. The constant refrain I've been hearing since I returned from an eight-year absence from Texas has been "Deep Ellum has really gone downhill...no one goes there anymore...it's dead down there," and when I spotted the Coyote Ugly sign, I figured that pretty much confirmed the reports.
But then I made my way into Club Dada, for the Dallas Observer Losers Awards show (what better place to start?), sponsored by FineLineLive.com with the odd bill of Paul Slavens, Shanghai 5 and PPT, and I realized this: It only takes one song, one lead singer, one band, to ignite--or reignite--a scene.
I've only been here for a couple weeks. I'm not gonna purport to know what's wrong with Deep Ellum, nor am I daring to predict a Deep Ellum comeback, nor am I qualified yet to offer up a suggestion of what song, what band, what whatever might be a potential catalyst to a rock resurgence. It could be Shanghai 5's gorgeous "Wheel of Fortune," which spotlights singer Amy Curnow's soaring, bluesy vocals, a song that sounds like what Heart should have evolved into, psychedelic and swaggering and lyric. Or it could be PPT's intelligent funkiness, hip-hop that is what De La Soul would be if they cared anymore, from a group that, as FineLineLive.com's Amanda Newman put it, "can really get a room full of crackers movin'."
I don't know if folks such as these are gonna save us or not. What I know at the moment is that the Good-Latimer tunnel is going to be torn down to be replaced by a DART station. It's tempting to find symbolism in the change, and maybe it would be accurate to interpret it that way: you know, the final metaphor for the end of an era, that kind of thing. But I prefer to look at it as a different sort of portal. From a DART station, you have a lot more options about where you want to go, which direction to take, whether you want to venture into Deep Ellum or start anew somewhere else. And from a DART station you can always go back to where you began. You just have to decide if you want to.
Jonanna Widner is the Dallas Observer's new music editor. You can send your insults, slurs and questions about her mental ability or personal hygiene to email@example.com. Compliments, news tips and suggestions are also welcome.