Red River Pioneer…A Conversation with Justin McCoy
by Rev Jim
Since I began writing for Rank and Revue a few months ago I’ve covered dead legends (Doug Sahm), international festivals (SXSW), and how true love is something to be truly avoided (Love Stinks). But the one thing I haven’t covered is the Red River scene,and that just doesn’t seem right. After all, this mag is the Red River Review, it says so right there on the opening page. So I’ve been thinking that maybe I need to do something about that, otherwise Wendy may have me camping out downtown for a month……
I first thought of this last December, when I was at the Agony Column reunion show, part of the final days of the original Emo’s on Sixth Street. That show brought out a lot of the old denizens of Red River, aging punks with kids and day jobs now who aren’t out shutting down the clubs the way they used to. While standing in that crowd and looking at the already stripped down walls of what was once the cutting edge club in Austin it seemed a shame that no one was marking the passing of the old giant, it just seemed to be fading way too quietly into the night.
In comparison, the Armadillo World Headquarters only existed for ten years. But its birth, life and death are still generating stories. Emo’s has had some press, but since this would have been the old site’s twentieth anniversary it just seems strange that more hasn’t been written about how it all came to be. And while I was fortunate enough to have been on hand peripherally, I wanted to talk to someone who was actually there from the beginning, someone who was on the inside and out. Someone who worked both sides of the stage. With that in mind there didn’t seem to be anyone who could fit the bill like Justin McCoy, the big guy who was pretty much the face of the original Emo’s. Back in the day he was probably the guy that let you in the door, the guy that booked the band you were moshing to and the guy that threw you out when you got carried away.
Originally from California, Justin moved to Austin in 1986 and became part of the West Campus Co-op scene, mainly at The Ark and Pearl Street. While there he was hanging out with members of a lot of the early punk/funk bands, Agony Column was just getting started, as well as Squat Thrust and Slackface. After a couple of years he followed Slackface to New York City to “get found” and try and make the big time there. But outside of a lot of life experience not much came of that and in 1991 he came back to Texas,just in time for Red River to start kicking in. I asked Justin to stop by my place a while back and we reminisced over old times and I was able to get some of that down on tape.
RJ: So, you and I first met in early ’91, over at the old party house on 48th Street, you were in from Houston but not actually moved back to Austin yet. Were you just getting back from NYC then ?
JM: Yeah, I was up north from about ’89 to 91 and had been back a few months. In 1991 I was living in Houston and hanging out at the Houston Emo’s. And it was the hot spot then, it was popping, it was the place to be. I was hanging out with a promoter there named Tom Bunch who ended up managing The Butthole Surfers. He also did shows for the Red Hot Chile Peppers and Fishbone, bands that were really making names for themselves. I knew the Butts pretty well and had also met their merch guy, Danny Flaim, who was working at the Houston Emo’s. So I was in transition from the scene in Houston through mutual connections back to the scene here in Austin.
RJ: So when you moved back it would have been mid ’91 then, before the Austin Emo’s opened. What was the club scene like on Red River, or downtown in general, at that time ?
JM: Well, it mainly seemed that there was a niche for everyone. At the top there was the Erwin Center for name acts, probably the old City Coliseum after that. Then you had Liberty Lunch, when Nirvana toured in ’92 for Nevermind they played the Lunch, probably one of their last actual club dates. After that you had The Cavity Club who would book national acts that no one else would touch, GG Allin comes to mind. Then there was The Ritz over on 6th, before it became a pool hall. And the Black Cat Lounge and Jelly Club were further on down the street.But The Cavity Club was pretty much at the top on Red River.
RJ: In addition to your work in the clubs you’ve also been on the performing side of things, were you playing in any bands at that time ?
JM: I was playing in a band called Warthog UK 2001 at the time, playing a little Casio organ and doing some background vocals. It was fun and there were some really talented people in the band. Eventually though I think I either got kicked out or died when our tour bus crashed into an airplane, I can’t remember which (laughs).
RJ: Warthog I think eventually morphed into….
JM: The Fuckemos. It was always Russell’s band and after Emo’s opened and Warthog couldn’t get booked there he changed the name as a literal “fuck you” to whoever was booking then. Apparently they just couldn’t hear the magic. But Fuckemos have always been a band that prides themselves on either being loved or hated anyway.
RJ: So at that point Emo’s is just about to open in Austin. How did you get on staff there ?
JM: Well, I had met Eric ‘Emo” when I was still in Houston, had some good recommendations from the people down there. He had seen me schlepping amps for the Buttholes and Agony Column, knew enough about me to hire me. I started out working the door and cleaning up, eventually made my way up to stage manager and booking agent. But at the time I was starting out at the very bottom.
RJ: You had mentioned to me earlier that this would have been Emo’s 20th Anniversary at the old location. Do you remember the first shows there ?
JM: I remember that we actually had two openings. There was a “soft opening’ that was during SXSW in ’92, there was a big push to have the venue up for the festival. We had to get a temporary liquor license for that because the full license was still pending with the State. Then we had the official opening in April with Agony Column as the first act.
RJ: So the Cavity Club would have been fading by that point ,what other clubs were still going in the area?
JM: It’s so hard to keep track of clubs coming and going down there that it’s really hard to say. Of course you had your shot bars and DJ clubs, those came and went like the wind. The clubs that were actually opened by insiders did a lot better. But at the time I know we had what we referred to as The Bermuda Triangle, that being Emo’s, Casino El Camino and Lovejoys. Lovejoys is off of Red River of course but it definitely has the same vibe.Flamingo Cantina has also been there all along with the great reggae bookings that they get. And the Blue Flamingo was just up Red River, really just a closet sized club but I remember seeing some of the best live shows in my life at the Flamingo.
RJ: So you started at Emo’s working the door and cleaning up, moved up to booking agent. What was your philosophy when deciding who would play the club?
JM: It was a wealth of riches back then,just a magic time for music in Austin. I always wanted to try and add some variety to the alternative acts that we were known for. I remember hearing demo tapes from such people as Dale Watson and Wayne “The Train” Hancock. We had the Asylum Street Spankers when they first started, and of course we had The Bad Livers many times. These would have been mixed in with local alternative bands such as Ed Hall and Daddy Longhead and then the top touring acts such as DOA or Fear that usually got more attention.
RJ: I remember seeing quite a few Don Walser shows there for a while, how did those come about?
JM: Those are shows that I am really proud of. Don had a long term residency at Henry’s on Burnet Road,but it had burned down. So we brought him over to Emo’s and he played every Thursday for quite a while. Don was always a crowd favorite and he really enjoyed the crowds that he got with us.
RJ: For what will probably go down in Austin history as a punk club, the country side of things was pretty prevalent during your tenure at Emo’s. The most obvious example of that is the Johnny Cash show back in 1994. I know that you were stage managing and provided security for him, what are your memories of that night ?
JM: That would have been on March 17th,1994. Saint Patrick’s Day and part of SXSW. The first of the American Music albums with Rick Rubin had just been released and Mr. Cash had given the keynote address at SXSW. I acted as the liaison between our staff and his. Of course nobody had to ask me to stick with him, escort him back and forth from limo to stage. Just being in his presence was phenomenal. He had just got back from Australia and his voice was a little hoarse, but it was still an incredible show. For the first part of his set he just sat on a stool and did acoustic stuff. Then the band came out and they did some of his classic stuff to finish things off.
RJ: I remember that there used to be a stool hanging over the bar after that he was supposed to have sat on.
JM: Yeah, that was the stool he sat on in that first part of the set. Being stage manager I was able to snag it off stage and set it aside, then later that night I was so amped up about the show that I took White-Out and wrote his name and the date on it. We hung it over the bar that night,our version of a “Hard Rock Cafe” kind of memento.
RJ: When I was back at the club for this last Agony Column show I looked for it but it was already gone. Any idea who ended up with it ?
JM: No idea.
RJ: In addition to the Johnny Cash show I seem to remember quite a few high profile day shows during SXSW around that same time.
JM: That’s right. I think I pretty much pioneered the concept of doing day shows during SXSW weekend. Our contract with the festival was for a specific time frame in the evening, so the club was still ours to book during the day. And we ran a lot of bands through during the time we had. I remember Lewis Black asking if I was maybe trying to set some kind of record for number of bands through a venue in a single day. But that was nothing compared with what I did at Blue Flamingo a few years later.
RJ: Wasn’t there some kind of showcase for High Times magazine one year ?
JN: I believe that would have been in 1995. We had the Masters of Reality and Sublime. And we got a lot of national press on that one, a great show on all fronts.
RJ: Besides booking bands into the club it seems you were playing quite a few shows yourself back then. Who were you playing with ?
JM: That would have been with Buzzcrusher, and my old buddy Jeff Martin. I was doing lead vocals with him ripping it up on guitar. We had some original tunes and some covers, did some shows that I was really proud of. We were together from 1994 to 1997, had some really good times. We actually had a brief resurgence a couple of years ago, re-released our CD and booked a few shows. But we’ve been “on hiatus” since then.
JM: Well, I drifted around a bit. But I guess my best memory of that time was when I was booking for the Blue Flame, though I’ll always remember it as the Blue Flamingo. It was under new management, some guys who had no business sense at all had just bought it. But I was able to do a bit of a counter South By Southwest thing that I called South By So What, had some incredible shows. I ran over sixty bands through that tiny little club in 3 days, bands from as far away as Israel and Japan. This was when SXSW was changing from its original concept of featuring bands that were actually looking to get signed to its current state of an industry-type schmooze fest. And it was really a turning point with me and the downtown music scene.
RJ: And I guess a lot of other changes came about for you then. I remember you working the kitchen at Casino’s there for a while, as always the “jack of all trades”. And then somewhere along the line true love came calling and you got married, moved to the ‘burbs and started raising a family. That seems to have taken hold pretty well, how long has that been now?
JM: Keri and I got hitched in May of 2000, our daughter Eden was born the following June. And yeah, we are still out there in the ‘burbs, seems like a million miles from Red River and those crazy days.
RJ: I know I saw Eden out at some of your last Buzzcrusher shows, seems like she might have picked up some of her Dad’s music bug. Do you ever think of getting back into the music scene in any way?
JM: Not really. It’s a whole different scene now and I’ve been out of touch too long. And clubs aren’t booking in-house the way they used to, now days the booking agent may well be in Colorado instead of Austin. Just too many changes from the original scene.
RJ: Speaking of changes, what with noise ordinances and I guess what would be considered “gentrification” it’s getting harder and harder to keep a live music club going downtown. Room 710 closed a while back, Emo’s is gone and Beauty Bar has closed. But as the downtown clubs close it seems like things are moving eastwards. Do you think of this as a sort of natural migration, with the Red River scene just changing with the times ?
JM: Well of course Austin has always had this huge dividing line that is I-35, and sometimes it can be pretty formidable. When my friend Kumbala told me he was opening up a new bar on East 11th I thought he was crazy. The last time that I had been in that neighborhood it was still pretty much what you might call a hot spot for freaks. But the first time I drove over to The Longbranch there were like new bank buildings and new-wave deco office spaces, a totally different look. And it’s really worked out for them.
RJ: But I think the east side in general was always pretty open to the kind of crazy characters that go hand in glove with the edgier side of music. I can remember going to word-of-mouth warehouse shows all through the ’90′s over on the east side, places I couldn’t find again if I had to. They were loud, raucous and a ton o’ fun.
JM: I was probably involved, one way or the other, with a lot of those. Or even before that I remember shows we did at a warehouse space that Squat Thrust had over at Fourth and Medina, right by where the Scoot Inn is now. And we had some incredible shows there with groups like GWAR and L7. A lot of those were back in the ’80s and I don’t recall any neighbor issues. So if the condo people are going to run us out of downtown I think that the people with their ear to the ground, those listening to the heartbeat of music, will always find a place to be. Back in the 60′s and 70′s Greenwich Village was the big scene in New York. But by the time I got there on the late 80′s it had all moved to the lower Eastside. And by now its surely gone on out to the burroughs, it’s the nature of the beast. The edgier, more alternative music will always follow the dregs of society no matter where they go (laughs).
RJ: Okay, one last question then.Austin has always had its musical touchstones, it’s icons going way back. In the 60′s there was Kenneth Threadgill’s place where Janis Joplin sang. In the 70′s The Armadillo was the absolute king. In the 80′s Raul’s was pretty much considered the birthplace of Austin punk. Where do you think the original Emo’s,and Red River in general, will fit into all that ?
JM:Well, for all the bands and all the people who basically lived down there at the time, and I was one of them, the memories are just really incredible. And for the people who actually witnessed it, and there were a great many of them, it will be up to them as to how it all fits in. But those were magical times and some of the alternative acts we booked were just phenomenal, bands like Killdozer, The Melvins, Zeke. Great live acts that sometimes when we booked them the first time there might just be 6 or 8 people at the show, but the next time it would just be packed in. And that was the nature of the beast back then, just the price that I paid for being so avant garde and ahead of my time (laughs). After that I know that there were a lot of clubs that came after us, Room 710, Beerland, The Red Eye Fly, Headhunters, these were all great clubs who each added to the mix of things. But I think that for Emo’s the big historical nod will always be towards that Johnny Cash show, it was a real shining moment for the club and for everyone who was part of the Red River scene. I think that will be our true footprint in time.
RJ: And a mighty big footprint it will be………Thank you so much for coming in out of the hinterlands and back into Sin City to talk. And thanks for sharing your memories.
JM: Anytime brother.