His hibernation lasted nearly five years. Sure, his torpid state had a few movements and shifts: consulting projects for Hotel ZaZa's Dragonfly and Ama Lur at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, plus the travel. But he was mostly out of sight.
That was then. Now Stephan Pyles is ready to resume his historic role of slapping Dallas' conventional dining wisdom silly--all with a smile. He's in fighting trim. He's shed his beard. He's scrapped weight training and running for Bikram yoga. He's raised $3 million.
This wasn't a sure thing. After Pyles, 53, left his Star Canyon, AquaKnox and Taqueria Cañonita brood to the fickle fates of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide at the turn of the millennium, he said he had grown weary of the grind of the line, preferring instead to create, taste, orchestrate and move on--all on someone else's dime.
But that's changed. "It's in my blood to be in the thick of it," he insists.
The thick of it is the eponymous Stephan Pyles, a 180-seat restaurant poised to open in November in the Arts District in the circa 1963, George Dahl-designed Southwest Plaza on Ross Avenue. The location is an odd one for Pyles, who seemed perpetually enamored with Uptown. He admits to skepticism of the vaunted downtown revival that has been blathered and boostered about for years. But after sniffing around and locking in a competitive lease on the property, Pyles is swooning over downtown. "I used to think of the Crescent as being the center of gravity in Dallas," Pyles admits. "I think the Nasher [Sculpture Center] has pulled the entire center of gravity to the arts district. I'm right down the street from there."
A remarkable space it is shaping up to be, too. His restaurant features a glass square kitchen in its midst, so that diners can ogle the real-time artwork until they're sated. There's a tapas bar and 20-seat community table near the entrance, so revelers can gorge on the steady parade of eye candy. The entrance has a light sculpture that burbles water into a reflecting pool. A walkway over the pool channels diners to the hostess stand. Pyles still winks, too: Tumbleweed chandeliers dangle in the dining room, and he's trying to score one of the chandeliers from Star Canyon to hang in the private dining room.
What tectonic shifts does Pyles believe are tugging Dallas toward his new roost? Solid and funded plans for parks, bridges and grocery stores, the latter already a reality with the opening of Urban Market this summer in the Interurban Building on Jackson Street. "All of these high-rise people are moving in," he says. "Where the hell are they coming from, the suburbs? It's almost guaranteed that there's some energy being transferred right now, to this area."
And this is where Pyles will perform his new compositions, collectively called New Millennium Southwestern. Sure, Pyles will throw a bone to nostalgia, wedging a bone-in cowboy rib eye, that famous orphan from Star Canyon, into his new menu. But rather than an overt presence, the Southwestern/New Texas touches will form a culinary trellis upon which he will hang Latin blooms as interpreted in Europe and South America.
It's the latest course in a long, strange banquet that began when Pyles was 8 years old working at his family's Phillips 66 Truck Stop in Big Spring decades ago. For the past 25 years, Pyles has been the most prominent of Dallas culinary leaders, driving dining culture's ebbs and flows while he pulled national and international spotlights to the city. Still, it didn't turn out like he thought it would.
"In the early '80s when we were just young punks cooking, we just thought we could change the city and the world and it was going to become this great culinary city," Pyles says. "And there was that potential. I don't know what happened.
"In the '80s we thought that we had created this incredible kind of culture. Instead of importing things, we created this movement and Southwestern cuisine was the hot thing, but it never really completely ignited. Something fell flat." He isn't sure exactly what fell flat.
Maybe it was the stagnating economy in the late '80s, drained by the savings and loan meltdown and the collapse in oil prices. Maybe he and his cohorts were ahead of the Dallas dining brood, exhausting them with the sweep of their movement. It was revived in the 1990s, but whatever the reason, Pyles says Dallas no longer has the energy driving its own specific cuisine that it once had. Look around. We have spots like Nobu, but you can get that in 12 other cities. Pyles says he is often asked by food journalists what young, up-and-coming chefs will shuffle onto the stage where he and ground-breaking chefs such as Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel perform. His answer? There really is no one.
"There aren't any because the young chefs of today are embracing global cuisines," he says. "Back 20 years ago there was 20, 25 of us in the country that got all of the press. And now it's like once every year--every month almost--there's a whole new group of celebrity chefs getting all of this press. And you think, "Where are all of these people coming from?' And there's very few Texans among them."
Pyles believes that after 20 years, Dallas is finally on the edge of greatness. The city's residents--through travel, Internet and cable and satellite television--are much more sophisticated and demanding than they were 25 years ago. The city's core--the magneto for any successful metropolis--is stumbling ever closer to relevance. High-profile projects such as The W, The Ritz and the Hotel Palomar are sure to bring in new energy, style and resources, but it's hard to see how the culinary spectrum can shift to make Dallas markedly different from a dozen or so other cities.
But Pyles is convinced it will happen within three years. "Some people compare us to the new Vegas--I wouldn't go that far," he says. "But I fully expect that Dallas is going to become a great culinary city. I thought that 20 years ago, and it didn't happen. So I stopped hoping for it...But now I think we're really going to become--finally--the world-class city that we've been striving to become for 20 years." --Mark Stuertz
Bill Wisener does not know this story, because I've never told it to him; to others, meaning his friends and customers, I've repeated it often. It takes place not long after Wisener opened his eponymous record store on Spring Valley Road 25 years ago, which, as it turns out, is when the Dallas Observer began publication. I was all of 12 or 13 when I'd saved up some 40 bucks to buy import records that, back then, one could only find at Bill's Records and Tapes; I believe they were Adam and the Ants' Dirk Wears White Socks, a Wall of Voodoo EP and a Clash record, as well as a few others. My mother had driven me to Bill's, where I collected my vinyl and placed them on the counter. Wisener thumbed through the small stack and demanded twice what I'd brought, $20 for the Adam and the Ants record alone. I recall trying to argue with Wisener, who did not and still does not put prices on his product, but he was a veteran salesman, and I was a spindly nerd with an allowance. My mother, sensing my tirade was about to melt into tears, grabbed my hand and led me out of the store. I would not return for more than two decades, no matter how often people like Decadent Dub Team co-founder and Observer contributor Jeff Liles, The Adventure Club host Josh Venable and former Observer music editor Zac Crain insisted that Wisener had softened over the years.
Today, the place looks as it did during my first visit: as though someone had set off a bomb in 1980 and no one ever noticed. The left wall is still lined with cassettes, some from 1980 still in the shrink-wrapping; the right wall is now covered with CDs, piled alphabetically, but just barely. The middle of the place overflows with loose posters that poke out from cardboard boxes like discarded treasure maps, and next to them are boxes and racks of old rock-and-roll T-shirts. The shelves and shelves of vinyl are still here, too, and so is Bill--good ol' Bill, much, much kinder than I recall as a kid, this blessed patron saint of the vanishing record store. He has been here damned near every day, every hour, since 1980. And he will never leave, unless his landlord and his lease force him to go in about 15 months.
In April, Wisener thought he was on his way out even sooner: He got word from the landlord that an auto parts store was moving in and needed the 8,000-square-foot space. The Observer, with whom Wisener has had an umbilical-cord relationship for almost three decades, ran a story documenting his woes; the landlord's grandfather, former Dallas Mayor Robert Folsom, told the kid Bill stayed for as long as he wanted. But the mere thought of moving plagued Wisener, perhaps because he's come to realize that one day, and maybe one day soon, he will need to go after all. Business isn't what it used to be, because the neighborhood ain't what it used to be: His is one of the only businesses in the Northwood Hills Shopping Center where English, not Spanish, is spoken. Long gone are the kids who dropped in after high school to plow through the bins for the latest new wave import or local-band offering; long gone are the customers, period, save those who stop by for Friday afternoon concerts and the free beer.
"I just started thinking about what all I needed to do, and it just becomes overwhelming," Wisener says, filling up his cup of Diet Coke. It's a Friday morning, around 11, and only he and an employee are in the place. He has time to talk, and uses every second.
"I don't want to have a nervous breakdown because as you get older..." The 61-year-old Wisener pauses, grins. "I'm happier than I've ever been in my whole life about living my life. And I feel sad about a lot, too. From the time I opened--I started doing this in 1973 at Vikon Village--it got a little better every year, and then I came into some money a couple of times, and I put it all into inventory because I wanted to have something for everybody. I wanted to have no regard to what I bought. The word was out that I would buy whatever. It's just a lot of water under the bridge. It's my life. It's really hard thinking about doing anything else. From the very beginning, and I didn't know what it was, it was like magic. It used to be packed. I used to have nine people working here."
Wisener loves to talk about this store, why he's here every day, why he can't stomach the thought of leaving though he knows he ought to. He grew up here. He lived with his mother and father when he opened the store, but they're dead now. Many customers have become his closest friends; one, Jeff Liles, has even made a poignant documentary about Bill's, called The Last Record Store, which he would like to screen in the Deep Ellum Film Festival in the fall. Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, among so many other beloveds, have shopped here. Ben Harper and Wisener have even become good friends: Among the few times Wisener skipped work was to go to one of Harper's concerts. In Paris. On Harper's dime.
There is a chance Bill's will move in the near future. But pulling up roots will be akin to tearing down a redwood forest: Not only does he have this expansive mess to clean up, but also three warehouses full of clutter, including one he hasn't been inside since the 1970s. No wonder he is overwhelmed: Some people have memories kept in their heads and hearts, and others store them in thousands and thousands of feet of warehouse space.
"I think it would be OK if I had to move, but I don't know," he says, fidgeting one of his Carltons. "It's like, I've always been..." He pauses, begins again. "I like to know the results of something before it happens! I think my biggest problem all my life, and I'm sure it is with a lot of people, is fear. I think, because there's so many things I think I would have liked, that I wished I had not been fearful to do something or make a change...I feel comfortable in this routine, but I'm not comfortable in the fact that I can't pay all the bills on time here. But I'm comfortable in the fact that I've done it so long." --Robert Wilonsky
She was just 14 years old when the very first issues of the Dallas Observer showed up in the lobby of her favorite movie theater. Back then, Edie Brickell was still a couple of years away from enrolling at the Booker T. Washington School for Performing and Visual Arts, where she had planned to study painting and drawing. At the time, her circle of friends was relatively small. "I was too shy to interact with people at the time, and visual art was really the best way for me to express myself," she explains.
Her teenage years were spent delivering pizza ("Gosh, what was that place at Mockingbird and Greenville around the corner from Campisi's? I can't even remember the name of it now."), working the box office at the Granada Theater (where she returned to headline a solo show last year) and waiting tables at the Dixie House in Lakewood. She erupts in laughter as she remembers that the latter proved to be the most dangerous. "I had to quit 'cause I was gettin' a big ol' butt from standin' around on break eatin' all those delicious dinner rolls."
At the time, Brickell had no idea that popular music would become her profession. She developed a distinctive style of painting at a young age; close friends would anxiously await her delicately drawn personalized birthday cards every year, and her funky sense of aesthetic would later drive the art direction for the New Bohemians album cover artwork.
By now, most have heard the story of how she downed a shot of Jack Daniel's at the old 500 Café and then climbed onstage with a bunch of schoolmates for an improvised jam session. She had never been behind a microphone, had never been onstage, never even held aspirations of being a professional musician. But there she was, in front of an outdoor patio filled with her closest friends, stepping into a storybook future that would eventually find her opening for Bob Dylan, appearing in Oliver Stone's film Born on the Fourth of July, collaborating musically with artists such as Jerry Garcia, Barry White and Dr. John and, most important, starting a family with Paul Simon.
Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians had two major label releases during the early '90s--the platinum Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and its introspective follow-up, Ghost of a Dog. The group had a top 10 hit ("What I Am"), appeared on Saturday Night Live (where she met Simon) and toured the world before she ultimately chose spending time with her children over making music full time.
Still, she has never set her music aside for good. Her first solo album, Picture Perfect Morning, which was produced by Simon and Roy Halee, was released in 1994. Longtime New Bohemians fans were caught a little off guard by the succinct arrangements and polished sound, but the record seemed to connect with a more mature "adult contemporary" audience. Because of her commitment to her family, she didn't tour extensively to promote the album, and Geffen Records seemed at a loss on how best to promote the work. After eventually severing ties with the label, she continued writing songs and studying the guitar but chose not to solicit another major label record deal in the meantime.
In 1999, Brickell invited the original members of New Bohemians and local producer/engineer David Castell up to Montauk, Long Island, to try to recapture some of that original improvisational magic. The result was the self-released The Live Montauk Sessions, which included an early version of "Rush Around," a song that would later be the first single from her 2003 solo album Volcano. The Montauk album satisfied the loyal fans who had been with Brickell and the band since the beginning but never reached the vast audience that had embraced the first two New Bo's albums. Still, the group continued to perform on occasion, including a number of benefit shows and a handful of amazing "reunion" shows in Deep Ellum.
Amazingly, given all the twists and turns of her "accidental" career, Brickell has always maintained her humility and sharp sense of humor. Creatively, she also seems to have shifted into overdrive once again, with three different projects moving forward at once. Brickell has written and recorded a follow-up to Volcano, with Charlie Sexton producing and local musicians Carter Albrecht and David Monsey contributing. This new solo record, however, might have to wait, as she has also been writing and recording with the original members of New Bohemians once again, this time in Brooklyn with Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain producer Bryce Goggin. She sounds excited as she explains how this all came about.
"Well, first of all, I met Bryce through Paul's son Harper, who I have been collaborating with, too. Harper's great. He's got Paul's ear, you know, so he hears everything. He really understands melody and harmony and texture. And Harper introduced me to Bryce, who has worked with Phish and Pavement and a few other jam bands...and a light just went off. I just knew that after all these years, this was the guy who could really capture what the New Bohemians are all about. I really wanted to re-create that old sound that we had live during the early days. So I've been working with Bryce on both projects, this new thing with Harper and the next New Bohemians record."
The next solo record with Charlie Sexton might have to simmer on the back burner for a few more months. "I love working with Charlie, and we recorded quite a bit of stuff with the band from my last tour, but the first time we actually sat down and listened to it, it hadn't been mixed, it was kinda rough. I really like the songs, but it just hadn't really been produced. Then not too long ago Charlie went in and did some new mixes, and now it sounds great. But I'm just so excited about this stuff the New Bohemians just did with Bryce that the solo stuff might have to wait for just a little while."
Her family is still top priority, of course. Shortly after 9/11, they moved from a tense and fractured Manhattan to the Connecticut countryside, where the kids can play on a Slip-n-Slide during the summer, and everybody can make as much noise as they want. These days, Brickell is also becoming an exceptional jazz-influenced guitarist. She has been studying the piano and is reading far more than she ever had before.
It is rather hard to imagine how a shy kid from East Dallas went from delivering pizza in an old yellow pick-up truck to living a life that few of us could dream of. Even harder to imagine is how a gifted artist like Edie Brickell could do all of this without becoming a pretentious diva or a blatant parody of herself. She's still grounded, she can still pass for a 25-year-old and is so well-adjusted mentally that you have to wonder how she does it. To borrow the simple theme from her biggest hit single, what she is is what she is. --Jeff Liles
Number 88 is slashing through a Green Bay Packers secondary, evading hapless defenders who fall headlong just as he slips from their grasp. Someone snags a tiny piece of jersey, and soon his shoulder pads are out and flapping as he makes a cut and throws his long body into the end zone.
Michael Irvin is transfixed by the overhead video screen at Texas Stadium. "Do I look fine in my uniform!" he says, with a cocky little jerk of the head.
Six years after his retirement from football--the result of a frightening neck injury in Philadelphia, with Eagles fans cheering as he lay motionless on the field--Irvin still shows traces of the guy who'd throw down boasts about everything from his reputation as the Dallas Cowboys' "Playmaker" to his predilection for "'hos, limos and Pappadeaux."
All of that would change. Irvin bottomed out; the whoring and partying for which he was notorious became joyless habits. He'd gone on trial for cocaine possession in 1996 (he got probation); he'd been busted by the cops in 2000 while he was with another woman. His wife, Sandy, was hanging in there with him, but he felt powerless to break away from his lifestyle. He would end up at the altar of the renowned Bishop T.D. Jakes in February 2001, during a sermon with a pleading refrain, "Come in from the rain."
Like his buddy Deion Sanders before him, he'd turned to Jesus.
I met Irvin in August 2002, when he eschewed a lemon in his ice water because he didn't want people to confuse it with an early-morning cocktail. He'd begun a broadcasting career with Fox, and the same passion he applied to football was evident in his sessions with a speech and diction coach and his raucous laughter on the set of BDSSP--that's what he called it, anyway. He didn't want to say the word "damn," as in Best Damn Sports Show Period.
Last week, as the former All-Pro wide receiver appeared at Texas Stadium for his induction into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor alongside 1990s greats Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, Irvin was his ebullient self, laughing, gripping and walking around in a sleek gray suit with his characteristic swagger. He signed autographs, posed for cell phone pictures and was unfalteringly gracious to the fans, Texas Stadium employees, reporters and guys in wheelchairs who followed him everywhere like an entourage on a scorching day that heated up the playing field to what seemed like 150 degrees.
Irvin sat beside his fellow Triplets at the on-field set for ESPN, his broadcasting gig these days. There's no pretending with these guys; they obviously get along great. While they were joking on-air, musing about the upcoming Ring of Honor ceremony, Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson warmed up on the field. Thoughts of Terrell Owens and Randy Moss flashed in my mind: Here are three prodigiously gifted receivers who seem to play for a team of one.
Nothing like the Michael Irvin we knew. Crazy as he was off the field, Irvin was a total team guy, and unlike Owens and Moss, he always got along with his quarterback. At a brief news conference earlier in the evening, he told a story from his rookie year about meeting Cowboys great Drew Pearson, who asked him if he could identify the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. The answer at the time, of course, was Pearson. "I really didn't know," Irvin said. "And I said in my brash, ignorant way, "I don't know who it is, Drew, but I know who it will be in about 10 years.'" Former Coach Jimmy Johnson credited Irvin, in fact, with sparking the team turnaround that would ultimately lead to the Super Bowl. To the three-time champion Cowboys of the 1990s, Irvin brought the killer attitude.
About an hour before kickoff, a weary Irvin retired to the office of a Cowboys executive. Fans were literally pressing against the glass doors of the administrative suites, but here he could escape for a few minutes.
Hunched in a worn leather chair, he seemed merely life-size. He spoke quietly about his faith; when he talks about God, all the bluster and bragging drains away. He's still hanging on to Jesus four years after his very public conversion; he's replaced "chasing, running around" with "chasing the best father I can be, chasing the best husband I can be," he said.
Irvin still attends Bishop Jakes' church, The Potter's House, every Sunday in the off-season. And while life after football has yielded its share of disappointments, Irvin credited Jakes for helping him adjust to the "real world," as he called it. "The football world is all about we're a team, we are together," he said. "In the business world, there is no team. You have to be careful. In the football world, I had a promise from a man, and it meant a lot. In this world, promises mean nothing."
Sanders is still pulling for him, too; the former teammates talk regularly. "He calls me at 10 o'clock in the evening," Irvin said, "and he knows I'm on the road, and I'm not answering my phone. "Adam, where art thou? I'll call heaven.' And he'll break off in a sermon on the phone.
"We just mess around with each other," he said. "We have accountability with each other, and you need that. You need somebody that you're going to be naked with."
Talking with him in this rare quiet moment, Irvin offered that he's not all he's cracked up to be. People expect a spiritual All-Pro and dog him for every misstep; he's hanging on to Jesus, he'll tell you, because it's the sick who need a doctor.
"He sustained me. I've been doing fine," he said. "But I'm not perfect. It's a funny thing, when you go around and tell people you're saved, they say, "You're no greater than me.' I didn't say that. I just said that I'm saved.
"I know that I'm no better than you." --Julie Lyons
Of course, around the office we like to say our Best of Dallas issue only comes out once a year, while our Worst of Dallas issues pile up the other 51 weeks. That's always been the Observer's function, though: telling you how this city works and why, more often than not, it doesn't work. It wasn't always this way, of course. There was a time when the Observer consisted of little more than dolled-up press releases, a page of calendar items and a softball feature story. A story about La Bare graced the very first issue, published October 2, 1980, as did an editor's note that promised to reveal "Who is J.R., really?" (Perhaps we have not come so far, after all.) There was a time when the Observer was merely something to be read between dinner and a night out, a skinny little diversion that just maybe told you about some hep little place to catch some upstart band or some bizarro indie flick in a foreign tongue. And Lord knows how many people used to pick up the damned thing just for the personal ads. This one, from 1985, still remains a personal favorite: "This very attractive, classy young female would like to meet a financially and emotionally secure gentleman with a sense of humor for an exclusive (weekly) liaison in exchange for generous financial aid with discretion assured." Very classy, indeed, milady. But even before Phoenix-based New Times Inc. bought the Observer in 1991, the paper began the gradual change from arts rag to news mag. Already in place were writers like Rob Walker, who would go on to The New York Times, and film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who would become a Pulitzer Prize finalist while writing here. New Times saw the paper's potential and delivered, hiring such folks as Editor Peter Elkind (recently the co-author of the best-selling Enron book-turned-movie The Smartest Guys in the Room) and writers Ann Zimmerman (now at The Wall Street Journal) and Laura Miller, now the mayor of the city she used to bitch-slap like it owed her money. (We knew we were doing our job the first time Miller called to complain about something we'd written.) New Times' purchase came at a fortuitous time, just as The Dallas Morning News was buying up and shutting down the Dallas Times Herald. It would be left to this paper to barbecue the News' sacred cows. We hope you have enjoyed, and will continue to partake of, the buffet. The Observer has always asked of its staffers one thing: Dig for the truth till your fingernails are dirty. Whether investigating the criminal misdeeds of various city officials, who never seem to learn, or tasting the latest in local restaurant fare or singing the praises of previously unknown local musicians, such as Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians or the Dixie Chicks or Erykah Badu or Norah Jones, the Observer has been Dallas' go-to newspaper when readers need to know the whole story behind the quick headline. It has spawned some of the finest journalists in Texas and the country, without whom we would have been the Thrifty Nickel. To those who've cluttered a desk around these parts, we offer our thanks and good riddance. You must understand that with our deadlines, we have no time for nostalgia. With a crack, award-winning staff that aims to take on this city and this City Hall like a heavyweight champ, we believe the Observer's best days still lie ahead. Our anniversary card isn't printed on a tombstone. This isn't the end, just one more issue, after all, with thousands more to come. You can't say you weren't warned. --Robert Wilonsky