Jeff Liles Tells Stories From Dallas' Past and Looks to its Bright Creative Future
Melissa Davis Hennings
There it is. Nestled in South Dallas, rescued by caring souls of our local arts. The beacon that is The Kessler.
A majestic Texas juke joint, pampered with TLC and vision that only a handful of true music fans could bring. The Kessler (or rather, "The Kessler X+" as our subject refers to it) is only the latest stop on a fascinating stagecoach jaunt that started in the pioneer days of rebellion and rock for Jeffery Liles. As wonderful of a live music spot as it is, this installment of Local Music 'Mericans is about one of the people largely responsible for turning this dusty old theatre into a very special place to get inspired, and his adventures rolls back a good dozen chapters before his time at the theatre owned briefly by Gene Autry.
Liles was 15 when he witnessed Led Zeppelin starting a tour here at the old Memorial Auditorium and was just getting his drivers license when the Sex Pistols played the Longhorn Ballroom (still standing, just a holler form Fuel City). Liles grew up on emerging punk from the era of Urgh! A Music War, and was a culprit behind shows like Husker Du at Theatre Gallery (another venue he was allowed to really wrap his head around and help birth) in Deep Ellum over 25 years ago. He shot out to California for a while, managing the infamous Roxy Theatre on Sunset for a stint, and even co-writing videos for a young Marilyn Manson. He's no stranger to performing either, with a couple of arty/quirky efforts, such as Cottonmouth, Texas, dubbed a "southern-fried Jim Carroll" -meets-MC900 Ft. Jesus, and finally, he did his time as a writer for us here at the Observer. There's a lot to Jeff Liles.
You've seen so many live shows in DFW....so many of them being talent from the neighborhood. Is there a craziest moment at one that sticks out?
The Loco Gringos were always completely over the top; their shows at Theatre Gallery and at Fry Street Fair in Denton were as surreal as any Salvador Dali painting. Bales of hay strewn everywhere, concrete lawn burros set ablaze onstage, people stage diving from the balcony.
Though many have tried, I doubt any local band will ever be able to create the kind of spectacle - and adherent commitment to lifestyle - that the Gringos managed to manifest during the late '80s. These days, if you play in a band, you almost have to have a day job. That wasn't possible if you hung out with the Loco Gringos. You spent your days at Gringo Manor sleeping, and your nights drinking tequila and jumping out of the second floor window on a tree swing.
Though I'm not sure if it was intentional, you seem to have become a historian for local music and arts. True? Is that a title you wanted to bear the brunt of responsibility for?
I'm a bit of a musical historian. Because I was born in 1962, the timing was perfect to experience epic popular music in real time. I was a child when The Beatles happened (bought every one of their records before I realized there were other people out there making music), and an adolescent when FM radio in Dallas (KNUS, The Zoo, Q102) really started to change people's lives here. I was 15 years old when Led Zeppelin kicked off their tour at Memorial Auditorium. The Sex Pistols played the Longhorn Ballroom the year I got my driver's license.
Classic rock gave way to punk rock around the time I turned 18 (then the local drinking age), and I was lucky enough to see bands like U2, REM and The Police play in tiny places like the Hot Klub or the Bijou. So I stopped collecting baseball and football cards and started collecting ticket stubs, show fliers and concert posters instead. I would also sneak my Dad's Minolta 35mm into shows and shoot pictures whenever I could. Having Bill's Records, VVV and Metamorphosis Records here in town back then was very important. George Gimarc's "Rock and Roll Alternative" introduced Dallas kids to new wave and UK punk rock stuff, then a couple of years later an original alternative music scene began to blossom in Deep Ellum; being a part of something like that was certainly exciting. These days, I mainly just shoot photos and video clips at The Kessler. But I do really like helping to keep track of the artifacts. Somebody has to do it.
Uh, you do a lot more than that at The Kessler, don't even try. For one, you've coined a name for the neighborhood you're centered in. It's not quite Oak Cliff, nor Bishop Arts....tell us what the X+ is, exactly.
The adjacent intersections of Kings Highway and West Davis Street (X), and Seventh and Tyler Street (+) in North Oak Cliff are the geographical center of gravity for the cultural community in North Oak Cliff. If you're heading south on Sylvan from I-30, then you'll hit that intersection and go one of three different ways - left to eat dinner at the Bishop Arts District, forward to head over to Jefferson and catch a film at the Texas Theater, or right to see live music or an art event happening at The Kessler. So, in a way, the X+ intersection is sort of a jumping off point for experiencing North Oak Cliff. The Oak Cliff mural at Seventh and Tyler is the closet thing we have to a recognizable landmark for newcomers to the area.
Do you have a vision for the X+ neighborhood?
Hopefully, X+ will be ultimately be known as an umbrella term, nickname, or safe haven for the type of alternative music, art and culture that one might find every day here. Not an official designation by any means, and no money is being spent advertising it. Just a nickname that might help people find what they're looking for.
You're also a multi-instrumentalist, yes?
I took drum lessons as a kid. Ringo Starr was my first rock star crush, and I talked my parents into buying a drum set for Christmas. I didn't have the discipline to memorize or practice the 28 rudiments. My instructor was a gentleman named Anthony Shepard; he was about 65 at the time, and he would wear a very smart three piece suit to my lesson each week. He wasn't Ringo or John Bonham, so that didn't work out. Discovered Jimmy Page and shifted to guitar shortly thereafter.
Bought a beat up old Gibson SG Jr at Pete's Pawn & Music for $150, and started taking lessons at McCord Music in Valley View Mall. Very different type of teacher. Each week I would bring Mike Ellis a cassette tape with a different Rush or Led Zeppelin song, he would figure it out real quick and then show me how to play it. To this day the only songs I know how to play on guitar are "Immigrant Song" and "Tom Sawyer".
That said, this is as good a time as any to announce that I'm taking my one man acoustic speed metal act Que Sera Syringe out on tour for the better part of the next three years, but I should be reachable via CB radio, or maybe you can fax me at a truck stop.
Kessler had helped and supported local artists in so many ways. You can expand on that so much better than me...please do. Also feel free to elaborate on how the Kessler casts its net beyond just the metroplex, but seems to give a lot of love to the entire geographical region.
You know, it's funny. Four years ago, there were a number of Austin-based artists who couldn't find a comfortable listening room to play in Dallas. Now almost every one of them says the exact same thing as they're loading out after shows: "Man, I wish we had a place like this in Austin!" That, to me, is a pretty strong compliment. I mean, that's the Live Music Capitol of the World, right?
Being located in North Oak Cliff really helps us to connect with patrons who live in Fort Worth Worth or Denton. It's not the same as having to drive all the way into Dallas to see a show. Plus many of the people who were part of the original Deep Ellum scene live in this neighborhood now, so they just ride their bikes or walk to shows here.
You were a Richardson High School kid, right? What was it like there?
Yes, but first I went to JJ Pearce High School in Richardson during tenth and eleventh grade, and the school used to have little mini concerts during the day. I can remember Bugs Henderson and Lightning each doing shows in the auditorium during third period in the morning. Bugs and Rocky Athas from Lightning were the two best guitarists in town back then, so of course seeing them made me wanna get a gold top Gibson Les Paul and a black Ibanez Iceman.
Never got the Les Paul, but I did score an Iceman. That thing was wicked. With an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and a Ross flanger, I could generate enough distortion and effects to fake my way through as a hotshot guitar player at any weekend party or beer bash.
Then you moved over to Richardson High, and that's where you met Steve Ray Vaughan, under the most incredible of circumstances?
When I transferred to Richardson High for my senior year, there was an organization here called Palmer Drug Abuse Program, which was sort of like AA for kids who were fucking up. After I got busted for weed, part of my probation was attending PDAP meetings. It was at a PDAP function at the Grand Hotel downtown where I met Stevie Ray Vaughan; his band (which played all Jimi Hendrix songs at the time) was the featured performer. He was the first young person I ever met who had experimented with heroin, a drug that had yet to make it all the way out to Richardson. He was still a kid at the time, but man... he had Hendrix down note for note. Holy shit.
List as many DFW-based artists you love as you like. Exhaust us with a faves list!
The Buck Pets, who went to high school in Plano, were totally awesome. They weren't a month out of school before they threw their shit in the van and hit the road opening up for Flaming Lips; three years later they were signed to Island Records and opening for Neil Young at The Forum in LA. MC 900 Ft Jesus (Mark Griffin) was a guy who sold me Tackhead and Fats Comet records at VVV before his home made recordings blew up internationally. Everything that Peter Schmidt was involved in (Three On A Hill, Melt, Funland, Legendary Crystal Chandelier, The New Year) was always amazing; TOAH was one of the very first bands to draw large crowds of people to shows in Deep Ellum back in the day. Shallow Reign were kids that grew up on the same block that I did; they drew a ton of North Dallas kids to Theatre Gallery as well.
UFOFU was an incredible band; the three members went on to start and play with The Secret Machines, Captain Audio, The King Bucks, and School of Seven Bells. New Bohemians were always amazing to see live; before they even had a record deal they would regularly draw between 600-800 people to every one of their shows. (To this day, I've still never seen another local act draw that many people without having a CD out.) The first shows that Toadies did at Trees during the early 90's were always great; you could just tell by the songs (Tyler, Away, Possum Kingdom, etc.) that they were going places for sure. My favorite Dallas metal band of all time is, of course, Rigor Mortis. Mike Scaccia (RIP) was, in my opinion anyway, by far the fastest and most explosive electric guitarist to ever come from North Texas.
Since then, artists like SRV, Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, Roy Hargrove and Ronald Shannon Jackson have made significant contributions to their respective genres. We have a lot be proud of here. Our contribution to the overall fabric of popular music is far greater than most are willing to give us credit for.
If you were some sort of beareaucratic authority presiding over the decisions of the of local (regional, even?) arts community, what changes/improvements would you implement?
First of all, I'm not an authority, nor have I ever had that kind of influence. I did, however, make a commitment to do my part to help the revitalization of Deep Ellum 25 years ago, and presently I've made a similar commitment to the North Oak Cliff area. The dynamic between the two is actually very similar. Deep Ellum had an important musical heritage long before we ever started doing shows on Commerce Street in the mid-80's. North Oak Cliff is very similar in that respect; T-Bone Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Edie Brickell, and Dennis Gonzalez [Yells At Eels] all have ties here, and the Bronco Bowl - perhaps the most prolific and legendary live music venue in the history of the city - was located in North Oak Cliff. Hopefully, The Kessler, the Texas Theater and the adherent art galleries in the area will help to kickstart a similar cultural rehabilitation in this neighborhood as well.
Are we a music community, in the truest sense of the term?
Are we truly a community? If the recent benefit for the folks in West, Texas is any indication, then I would say yes. Gavin Mulloy at The Granada was able to pull together just about everyone in the local music scene in less than a week to make that happen. This more holistic approach to nurturing and supporting our creatives will certainly better serve everyone involved over the long run. Every night I see faces at The Kessler that I used to see at Theatre Gallery, the original Prophet Bar, and the original Trees 20 or 25 years ago. These people have made a lifetime commitment to supporting our local creative community. That's not just hype or wishful thinking, it's reality. And when we join together, we can do more than just entertain people; we can actually improve the quality of life for folks who really need it.
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