The beautiful loser
"I have to admit, there's a guaranteed future in dirty dishes, which there ain't in blues," Keith Ferguson concedes. "I seem to be the only one who regards himself as a professional musician. Our lead singer's a dishwasher in the back of some restaurant. If he put half the energy into booking our band that he puts into scrubbin' dishes, we'd be fartin' through silk. But he'd rather do dishes."
Keith Ferguson, Austin's once-reigning blues bassist, and ultimate hipster, is out to pasture. His pasture is a rustic wooded estate in the hills below downtown Austin. His voice is a dead ringer for that of William Holden narrating Sunset Boulevard. Some wonder whether Ferguson's fall from grace was conspiratorial, orchestrated by the blues Nazis who run Austin. But prison wisdom dictates that you don't fuck with an old wolf. Hear Ye Whomever Keith Has Offended: He offers no apologies or regrets.
Ferguson welcomes me to his front porch, the center of his universe. His current band is The Solid Senders. Fronted by the singing dishwasher, they rarely work. And Ferguson will only play cities south of Austin--or Amsterdam. With its sane drug laws, and with hardly any cops, crime, poverty, or AIDS, Amsterdam is a tailor-made utopia. The Solid Senders did a blissful tour there. Ferguson pines to return.
"If I hustled up some job washing dishes in Amsterdam--hell, I'll supply the Palmolive--we'd be back in a shot."
Ferguson, 49, was the founding bass player of both the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Tail Gators, and played with a dozen Texas virtuosos in their formative years including Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Junior Brown. "He's a cracker's cracker," Ferguson says of his old boss Brown. "Thinks that Waylon and them are commie fags." Keith Ferguson keeps a band honest. When he departed the T-Birds, that band was ready to compromise and play the pop charts.
No bass player ever layered so much bottom. Ferguson's trademark wasn't licks, riffs, slapping, or thumb popping--just a swinging elephant trunk of bottom underneath the song. This deceptive gift earned him a lower pedigree than "musician's musician"--itself a poverty-stricken but honorable curse. Keith Ferguson is a bass player's bassist.
But now, he is grand host of this dark, sun-proofed crash pad and halfway house for down-on-their-luck friends. Sweet old hippies and beautiful losers recline on his front porch to chew the fat, bird watch, and discuss the weather. Not that he wants them here; people sort of just move right in. Many who visit this front porch--be they from the dust bowl, barrio, or music biz--regard Ferguson as Numero Uno.
Inside, walls are covered by roadside artifacts--South-of-the-Border Sammy and the Fabulous Erections are sneaking across the border for One Night Only--club posters from the Tex-Mex frontier circuit: Los Alegres de Teran! Los Tornados del Norte! Los Castigadores! Ferguson knew them all. His words contain sudden accents of Calo--street language of the pachucos he grew up with, a sort of Mexican Yiddish.
A few years back, the house became knee-deep in such hipster compost, burying him alive in coolness. Live-in archivist Liz Henry led a mercy mission of volunteers that bulldozed through. Ferguson's worldly possessions were thus organized into three archival categories: "Negro," "Mexican," and "Other."
Ferguson whips out his huge vintage Gretsch bass. "It's called the John Holmes model," he explains. "It's loud." He's healthy, proud, and fit in 1996, but reduced to playing the meat-rack clubs on Sixth Street. Still, some consider this miraculous. A few years ago, cats in Austin were predicting the end of this man's career, even his death.
Ferguson paces his pastoral porch, hunched backward, scratching, chain smoking, downing one cup of Kool Aid after another, looking like an old Indian. His body ails, and his tattoos have worn out their camouflage. A rooster claw adorns the front door, like wolfsbane. "Gotta keep the neighbors pacified." Next door lives a bookie for cock fights; a few doors down, an unlicensed bad-debt collector. A Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton stares through his window, with a sign: "La Plaza--Closed--Call Again."
The Ferguson estate is verboten, like Castle Dracula, as few musicians in Austin will have anything to do with him. I make this road stop after my gig in town. A festive trio of German blues fans have also made a pilgrimage, but no music plays in this household. Ferguson's basses are all in the hockshop. Horst, Otto, and Gretchen are star-struck before Texas blues royalty, as Ferguson signs a few Fab Thunderbirds albums. The left-handed '52 Fender Precision bass that Europeans remember him by is long gone. He's a normal 180 pounds on the Chrysalis Records covers he signs, 130 now.
Old hombres, in tank-top undershirts, are always present. They slink in and out, from another zone. Retired bullfighters, Ferguson tells the tourists. The old men study a black phone. They sit and wait. And watch. Then the phone rings once. Ferguson disappears with them in a supernatural eye-blink. No one says goodbye, ever.
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.
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.
Ferguson describes the current transitional wars, directing me through a Mexican shantytown. We finally reach a tin shack. Ferguson has been summoned to visit an old friend's dying boy. At least that's what I'm told as I wait outside in a spanking-new white Honda Accord.
Sure enough, 15 minutes later, Ferguson emerges. A worried madre and padre follow, gratefully embracing him for paying his respects. This is Texas, not Mexico. I ask why the boy wasn't in a hospital.
"They prefer their own medicina," he says.
Back to present
"This is about the only thing my dad gave me as a kid that I saved." Back on the front porch, Keith shows me a cherished, yellowed 1945 paperback by madcap cartoonist VIP. "This and a few old records.
"People would kid me about my large collection of blues records. That's all I listened to--I was fanatic--that and Mexican stuff. Like in sixth grade, people would bring 45s to parties, but they never wanted me to bring my Otis Rush or John Lee Hooker records."
Johnny Winter moved from Beaumont to Houston when Keith was in high school. "Since blues was all Johnny liked, these local musicians thought it would be hysterical if we got together: 'Let's put these two freaks, these two mutants together.' Johnny flipped out. He never saw that many 78s in his life. He had records, too, but I had more."
Keith Ferguson began backing Winter at small lesbian bars like Club L'mour. Ferguson was dazzled by Winter's virtuosity--it was "alarming," he says now--and often had to tell himself not to stop and stare at his playing during the middle of a song.
"We used to call him The Stork," Ferguson says. "Nobody messed with him. One night he knocked out an off-duty cop for callin' him a girl. I saw Johnny Winter fight many times, he was real strong and mean. He'd go until you quit breathing and couldn't hurt him anymore."
Ferguson made Austin his home in 1972, after his stint with Winter had ended. He moved because the aggressive Houston Police made him uncomfortable--and he wanted into The Storm, Jimmie Vaughan's old band. After a brief stint, he joined up instead with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall.
"Nobody wanted to hear us," Ferguson recalls. "Nobody." In 1975, Kim Wilson left Minnesota to play with Jimmie, and Ferguson rejoined. "We couldn't get arrested either, but we were doin' a helluva lot better than me and Stevie and Doyle did, locally.
"It was the 'Cosmic Cowboy, Willie-Waylon-and-the-Boys' outlaw town then, but we were the outlaws. People wondered how we survived: 'Well, they never work.' We were so hard-core [blues], nobody knew what to do with us. But Antone's came along, sort of saved us. At least we could get some food. They served lots of po' boy sandwiches.
"Muddy Waters heard us at Antone's. We fried him. We were told we sounded like his best band from the '50s, with Jimmy Rogers. We weren't trying to. It was innate. He went back North ravin' about us, and Jimmie started gettin' calls. So we got in our little van from Austin to Boston, nowhere in between. We started openin' for [Kansas City jump-blues revivalists] Roomful of Blues. Then it got to where they were openin' for us. People seemed astonished by us."
The Fabulous Thunderbirds were the first white blues group that didn't look and play like hippies. The T-Birds took it back 20 years. Jimmie Vaughan exorcised all the rock-guitar innovations--as if Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Winter, and Bloomfield never existed--and threw it back to a long-abandoned spare '50s Chicago groove, more authentic than early Stones. Countless guitarists took heed. Kim Wilson applied no fake rasp to his voice, no black affectations, no phonetic imitations of slurred words. He sang it straight.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds spearheaded a reanimation that stabilized the course of blues, spawning back-to-basics bands that proliferate to this day. Blues cognoscenti even began to emulate Jimmie Vaughan's slicked-back hair and open-collar, 1950s rayon shirts, newly designed and imported from India by Trash & Vaudeville in the East Village. Ferguson's transparent camisas tripled in price at Austin clothing stores. "That's just the way we dressed in high school," Ferguson says. "The fashion of pachucos and thugs who've long since died--or gone double-knit."
"Pretty soon everyone up in Boston wanted to be us," Ferguson recalls. "We still couldn't get arrested here in Austin, but we went from floors to motels in Boston. Everyone in the band but me wanted to move to Boston. They followed the record company line: 'You guys are fine, but all you have to do is change.' They think blues is a stone to step on to get somewhere else.
"You'll notice each one of our records got more expensive to make--and more diluted, as far as I'm concerned. I thought we should have held out for an art subsidy, 'cause there wasn't anybody else out there doin' it except Roomful of Blues. But we were more primitive, playing like skeletons."
Tuff-chick/hick blues shouter Lou Ann Barton was in the T-Birds for a spell. She even married Ferguson in Rhode Island, though their union lasted only a short while.
"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.
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.
On another day's visit, I drop by the porch with New York rock diva Phoebe Legere. She straps on her "squeezey-gut" accordion, about to launch into "La Vie En Rose." Ferguson lies on the hammock. Sweet Liz Henry, who organized his house, is slumbering on the couch. Others lie across the porch in various zones of consciousness.
Il ne parle tous bas
Je vois la vie en rose
Ferguson opens one eye. Then the next.
"Oh, I like your smile," Phoebe says.
"Cost me 200 bucks," Ferguson answers.
At the very last note of the waltz, absolutely on cue, the transformer near the top of a tree that intersects the roof begins to explode. Showers of sparks rain down on the porch. Hippies scurry from all points into the front door.
Liz and Keith offer permanent residence to Ms. Legere. Some other fellow eyes the squeezey-gut, perhaps wondering how much it might fetch downtown at Rockinghorse Pawn.
Ethnic musicians have a tendency to serenade Keith Ferguson, if only to watch his spectacular, gold-toothed smile. When the Tail Gators toured with Los Lobos, there was the unforgettable image of Los Lobos circled 'round Ferguson's hotel mattress one evening to awaken him for the stage. Each had their conjunto instruments--the bajo sexto, the guitarron--like mariachis harmonizing in Ferguson's beloved Spanish.
It has been a few years since Ferguson sojourned to the guitar-making town of Paracho, in the pine-forest mountains of Michoacn.
"I never had any trouble with Mexican customs. But America's convinced everyone's bringin' back tons of dope. Don't ever say you have a plane to catch. Believe me. You might as well just arrest yourself," says Ferguson, offering one more reason he now shuns touring. "When I came back on Christmas through Houston, I brought a custom-built bass. They took me in the little room in handcuffs, just hopin' I had a plane to catch, which I did, then went through all my stuff and got smart with me. They were dyin' to incarcerate someone on Christmas Eve, but they couldn't find anything."
These days Ferguson prefers watching the Mexican soap opera Calienas De Magura (Chains of Bitterness), starring Daniella Castro, five days a week. It's set in San Miguel de Allende, his favorite town.
Ferguson formed the Tail Gators with Don Leady in 1984. The next five years would be his favorite stretch in a band. He co-wrote "Mumbo Jumbo," the title track to the group's best album. He says now he loved every minute of being in that band: making more money than he ever had in his career, and being able to trust his bandmates when it came time to split the take.
"You could trust everybody, [and] you got your money--a lot of it," he says now. "Don was always writin' new songs. He'd play it for us once, then we'd cut it. That's the way we did records. We worked our asses off, the physical labor of playing all night onstage. I'd be happily replete--drained--each night. Then 700 miles to the next gig. We never had a roadie. But after a while Don fixed it to where I carried a bass, Mud Cat [Smith] carried a snare and symbols, Don carried a guitar, and the clubs would furnish everything else. We'd fly to Boston, rent a car, and drive to Maine. I didn't have to pay any other creatures."
Yet, Ferguson says, he receives no royalties, "not enough to get cigarettes," from his acclaimed albums. "I got a big check the other day--three dollars and 22 cents--from BMI. Then I got a letter from [Nashville publisher] Bug Music sayin' I owed them money. It's surprising how niggardly everyone connected with the music business becomes over money. People tell you you're important, but apparently not important enough to give you money you've earned."
And then, Ferguson feels the weight of banishment from the entire Antone's blues community. Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's old guitarist, once asked Ferguson to back him on a record that was supposed to be released by Clifford Antone's blues label. Ferguson insists Antone won't release the record because Keith is on it.
"[Clifford] just hates me," Ferguson says. "He told somebody once he can't meet a girl anywhere that doesn't like me, and it pisses him off. He redid that book, Picture of the Blues, just to get me off the cover. Me and Kim and Jimmie and Muddy Waters. They redid the cover just to get me off of it. They couldn't get me out of it, just off of it."
"Keith is a real musicologist," Clifford Antone says. "What made us friends was his love for the most lowdown music that existed." But Antone denies that the Sumlin record remains unreleased because of Ferguson, he denies omitting Ferguson's mug from the book cover, and will discuss nothing on record about their bitter relationship.
So all Ferguson's got now is this woodsy refuge surrounding his old front porch. His reclusive mother has her own home on the grounds, as did his grandmother, who recently passed on in her mid-90s. No matter how much his profession shuns him, Ferguson remains patriotic about the land. He loves the hawks flying overhead, the snakes that fetch rats, the ecosystem.
"I kept hearing someone screaming, 'Fuck you, fuck you,' deep inside my walls," Ferguson says. "I thought I was having a nervous breakdown the first few weeks." Ferguson released several gecko lizards under the house for insect control. "I'd be shaving, and suddenly from within the wall something would shriek, 'Fuck you, fuck you!' I'd whip around and cut myself...It was the geckos!
"They emit this uncanny shriek that comes out as 'fuck you' in English. They're indigenous to Laos and Cambodia. Freaked out our boys in 'Nam who thought they were Cong, cursing from the trees--'Fuck you, fuck you!' But they eat roaches, rats, mice, and do anCR> amazingly efficient job. Don't leave over anything, no blood or tails. They breed like Catholics, grow up to 20 inches over the years."
"Aren't they also a delicacy in Southeast Asia?" asks a porch hippie.
"Delicacy?" comes Ferguson. "Doesn't that word usually mean something on a stick that shouldn't be there? Something's balls, or brains?"
"They call him Chago."
Ferguson sits on his porch, beatific over bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida, or "Chago," heard playing on a scratchy Narciso Martinez conjunto record from the 1930s. It's simple folk music, but Ferguson rides some low wave underneath, inaudible to most human ears. "Listen to that tone," he says.
He leads me into his bedroom to show his new bajo sexto. Though he's hesitant to fess up, it's a Keith Ferguson model. Built on his design, he named it the Rodando. "This is the cheesiest one of the bunch that were made. Keith Hofner owns the company. A Mexican luthier now makes 'em with truss rods and contours. No two are alike."
Bajo sextos please Ferguson immensely. But they are transient, like visitors to the house, or old girlfriends. For years, Austin players have spotted his bass guitars sadly hanging in hockshops.
"I always got 'em out myself," Ferguson says. "Or else I left 'em. I don't know where people get the idea you gotta play the same bass forever. One guy bought my '52 Fender Precision, took really good care of it. I borrowed it for that Solid Senders tour to Holland, then gave it back. I brought it to watch people's reactions. It freaked 'em, because they remembered the bass, but they never seen me lookin' like I do now."
Keith Ferguson does the only sensible thing when an old tattoo fades: He gets a new one over it. A feathered serpent Aztec god adorns his left elbow-to-wrist. The 17 lizards, resembling Escher prints, run up his right arm.
"I got most of 'em so I'd remember where I'd gone," he explains. "I used to play so many different cities, everyone was so screwed up and tired, tCR>hey wouldn't know where we were. But I remember gettin' each tattoo, where I was at the time, 'cause that's the thing that lasts, innit? You look down at your arm and think Spokane or Atlanta or Toronto or Seattle or Austin...
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