Ennis' Wooden Nickel bar is the only place in town that serves alcohol after midnight. Tonight is the bartender's birthday, and the deeply tanned distributor of drinks has opted to celebrate by not wearing much underwear. It's her birthday; she'll wear a thong if she wants to. Unfortunately, her denim miniskirt is working overtime trying to cover up her naughty bits, futilely heaving and thrusting in all directions as she jumps over, spins on and straddles various objects in the bar.
The band onstage, Dallas' Radiohead-infused semi-psychedelic rock group The Felons, is taking this weird gig in stride. More at home at the Cavern than in the cornfields, the Felons dedicate a birthday tune to the bartender, whom they invite to the stage for a victory lap. The bartender gamely obeys, jumping up on a wooden railing, whipping her legs open, spread-eagle, and making out with a blonde feeding her Lifesavers candies—look ma, no hands! The Felons' bassist whips his head toward the mop-topped keyboardist to his right.
"FRED! Cover your eyes!" he exclaims as 15-year-old Fred Holston rolls his eyes and laughs, just continuing to lean on his fancy Nord electric organ like there aren't two drunk girls auditioning for Bumpkins Gone Wild right in front of him. Back in Dallas, Fred's peers are throwing Skittles during screenings of Spider-Man 3, cruising neighborhoods for a party or maybe getting an early start on Monday's history homework. But Fred? Fred is in a bar, banging a tambourine and slogging away on his keyboard.
When I arrive at the Wooden Nickel, Fred is sporting a new nose ring. He can't contain his excitement about a recent photography show at his mentor Hal Samples' studio in Deep Ellum. It is the first time his pictures have been on display.
"I made $700!" he says, bugging his eyes wide. Almost all his photos sold at the show—OK, fine, one of them to music booking agent Amanda Newman who also happens to be his godmother—but still. It used to take me two months to make $700 as a teenager answering phones at Pizza Hut. Argh. And to top it off, in the same breath Fred's the one telling me where to shop for cool vintage necklaces—Ahab Bowen, in Uptown. Who does this kid think he is?
Fred interns with Dallas homeless advocate and photographer Samples and plays the sitar at coffee shops when his dad isn't chauffeuring him around Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville to play his keyboard. Oh, and last Wednesday night? Fred was in Denton, banging his tambourine on stage with Austin buzz band the Black Angels at 1:30 a.m.
His dad, Bill, took a nap before making the 40-minute drive north with his son; he knows a night out with Fred could go late, and the human rights lawyer has to be at work at 7:30 a.m. But he says quality time is worth the lack of sleep. Three or four nights a week, Fred and Bill head out to a concert, art show or open mike. Bill is never far away, keeping an eye on his sitar-playing, hair-bleaching, occasional curse-word-dropping son.
What a little turd, right? I should be irritated by the 15-year-old running around my favorite bars, playing his incessant tambourine and yammering about the local rock star he got to take pictures of this week. I should loathe the fact that he gets to scrub big, black Sharpie X's off his hands every morning before school. No fair! A big night out for me as a teenager meant a church lock-in. I ought to be wildly jealous and suspicious of this Dallas wunderkind and the bespectacled father who's always supervising him from behind a cold bottle of Shiner.
But alas, I am a Fred fan, charmed by his naïveté and enthusiasm for things that I'd forgotten were once truly exciting, like rock and roll shows and wearing weird hats. (Fred's got a coonskin cap he particularly favors.) Fred likes what Fred likes. If it's dorky or too sincere, he doesn't care. And it shows, especially in a crowd.
The first time Dallas photojournalist Allison V. Smith met Fred, she was shooting Good Records for Spirit magazine. "The place was filled with cool kids," she says, but Fred "stood out" with a tambourine, bleached blond hair and fake henna tattoos on his arms. She snapped a photo of him sitting Indian-style in front of a bright yellow rack of indie-rock records. Cool, right?
"I think I'm younger now than I was when I was 15," says a bushily goateed Bill. Bill was a square kid. But in a way, Fred is too. The way some teens would obsess over boy bands and pro athletes, Fred is consumed by the indie music scene. Yet his enthusiasm for the indie-rock reveals the true essence of Fred: Deep down, he's not the apathetic, detached hipster ideal that someone who spends as much time at Good Records as he does should be.
He's a 15-year-old kid who gushes on his blog about riding to SXSW with a rock band. Even his MySpace page address is an homage to one of his favorite bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre. He pledges on the page that Andy Warhol "will forever be my favorite artist and visionary."
Such unabashed public appreciation is uncool by all known standards, and even in the eyes of his peers, Fred's not doing it right. He doesn't shop at Abercrombie and Fitch, and he isn't a varsity starter as a sophomore. He isn't going steady with the hottest girl in school. At Woodrow Wilson High School, where Fred is legally obligated to try to learn something five days a week, Fred says he has an awful time of it.
It's bad enough that his shaggy hair and trendy clothes get him mistaken for a girl sometimes, something Fred frequently jokes about, rejoicing when he isn't called "ma'am." If there's any trace of real anger in Fred, it comes out when he talks about the kids at school. "They're just stupid," he says, and the shallowness, the preoccupation with cliques, none of it appeals to him. Conforming to the standards of a good teenage nonconformist, he's got a healthy disdain for high school.
At home, Fred's parents are devout, conservative Christians, a lawyer and a schoolteacher—not the kind of folks you'd think would be shipping their son off to bars and galleries, even if it is with an official legal permission slip drawn up by Bill in case he's not around when the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission shows up. Fred was about 8, Bill says, when he and wife Jill first realized their son was going to be a little different. They'd gone out to dinner for the evening, leaving Fred at home with his older brother. Fred called his dad at the restaurant.
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"He asked, 'Would it be OK if I painted the back fence?'" Bill says. Of course, he knew better. "You mean, you have painted the back fence?" he asked his son. When they got home, they found the fence covered in peace signs and flowers.
Art galleries and smoky bars; these are the places that Fred will remember someday when he recalls his adolescence. At the Wooden Nickel, Fred doesn't concern himself with the half-hour drive back to civilization. That's his dad's job. Fred's too busy looking artfully nonchalant, pounding away at a couple of keys, letting the rock and roll surge around him. After the band's set, he walks straight up to Bill, who's still applauding.
"Good job, sport," Bill says, patting his arm.
Feigning exasperation, Fred replies, "Oh, Dad. I am not going to play football!"