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.

Flashback: 1992
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.

Ferguson soberly inspects the festering tattooed arm of a young Chicano nodding out on the couch. "Gotta clean out that abscess," he advises, shaking the fellow. "You can die."

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Josh Alan Friedman