Izzy Cox was a Canadian import to Austin via L.A. She had already established herself in some of the more obscure genre scenes that include such uplifting monikers as murderbilly, voodoobilly and steampunk (probably due to her love of vintage dresses), and when she came to town she became queen of her own little scene that consisted of musicians of just about every style of music, the homeless and worshipful young women who saw Izzy as an inspiration and examplar.
Her early life was a mystery to most; she re-invented herself after running away from home for good at the age of 14. Her younger brother Mack said that their family did have a bit of a dark streak, which explains where some of Izzy’s attraction to death, murder and other fun violent lyrical subjects originated. But, “She wasn’t obsessed with death,” Mack said. “She could always see the humorous side of bad situations and turn it into something to laugh about.”
Gabriel Lopez is the Texicano Folk Rock Punk and the man I initially contacted about doing/saying something about Izzy. She was a much-loved staple in this town for a decade. Though he was my main source of information regarding the project, he wants it to be known that he in no way did this alone:
“Had it not been for Esmerelda [Strange], Kurtis [Machler], and Gary [Lindsey] I would have absolutely lost my fucking mind on this project, and ended up back in the hospital. There was no absolute captain to this ship. We all desperately wanted to stay afloat. It was brutally and painfully hard for all of us. Like a high school shop class project, Esmerelda and I were the two joints in need of connection, Kurtis was the glue, and Gary was the vice-grip holding it so that hopefully it would all settle. And had it not been for all of us and all of our dedication, this album may have very well never come to fruition”.
Lopez encouraged me to do more than just a CD review, so I put out the call to anyone who knew or played with her. Machler, owner of Million Dollar Sound and head of Black Eyed Vermillion offered some of his memories of Izzy as well as Leonard Smith. He’s taken some big hits in the last year. Sorry, buddy.
“This is a weird, sad harmonic convergence for me. Leonard and Izzy. Wait… What? I don’t know if they even knew each other. Did they? I was never with the two of them at the same time. I played music with both of them in some of the same rooms, had deep, ridiculous conversations and saw the sun come up in some of the same foreign places. We slept on floors and wandered around new towns.
“Izzy was complex.
“Izzy could move a room full of drunks to tears with a single, heartfelt confession but have trouble finding words to to express disappointment or frustration with a close friend. I met Izzy soon after she hit Austin. We played a few of the same shows, we knew the same people and drank the same whiskey. You know, Austin…
“We met up at a music festival in Montana in 2012. She had suffered some trauma on the way (not my story to tell). When I finally found her, she looked shellshocked. She was not in good shape. I sat with her for a bit and talked about recording some music when we got back to Austin.
This was the beginning of the “Nearly Departed” sessions. It also was the commencement of our texting communication experience. I received, approximately, one shit-ton of messages EVERY SINGLE DAY. Long, Izzy style, rambling, hilarious and sometimes angry messages. Anyone who ever followed her social media posts knows what I’m saying. The messages were exhausting but they always ended with some statement of love and gratitude. Two years later, we were sitting on one of the records that I am most proud of! I toured with Izzy for that record.
“Izzy was her songs. She lived to sing her stories to anyone who would give her three minutes of their time. Seven nights a week sometimes. Even at the end, when she was in and out of hospital and hospice, she had a full performing schedule. One week before she passed, we spent two days in the studio recording. She was so weak and frail. Her longtime friend and guitarist Billy Pitman helped Izzy up the steps and into the studio and kept her as comfortable as possible. She was barely able to hold her guitar. Once the the songs were counted in, 1,2,3,4 she was alive. Full of life and strong. I watched it happen and felt it. The songs gave her life.
“Her close friend Gabriel Lopez was with her in the hospital until the end, reading to her all of our messages keeping us all apprised. I’ll never forget what he did for her and all of us. I visited her hours before she passed and we sat quietly and looked out the window together until she was too tired to sit up. She died that evening but it wasn’t until the following morning that it hit me – I’ll never get another text from Izzy.”
Yeah. Take a second.
Literally hours before this piece was to be done, I had some Ghosts show up at my house in response to my desperate, pathetic plea to get a better understanding of Izzy’s juggernaut personality. Grant Dorian, Pete Maclanahan and Tony Cook were her final cohesive band and were poised to take her to a larger national notoriety. Maclanahan, the Ghost’s bass player, said something similar to Izzy’s brother, Mack: “She had some really dark places deep down. But she always turned negatives into positives through her music.”
Although she felt the need to leave home and make her own way through music at such an early age, Mack said she does owe her introduction to music to her parents. In order to provide her with some kind of structure after school, her mother and fathered enrolled her in the local Salvation Army marching band. It turned out she had an affinity for music that was lacking in the rest of the family.
She was homeless for much of her teen years and took some jobs that helped define her image and style. She was a cigarette girl in a club and wore a period-appropriate outfit. She even found the time to learn kung fu, probably a good idea for a homeless teenage girl.
She also managed to develop a severe drinking problem that led to her meeting her future drummer Grant Dorian in an LA support group in the early 2000s. Despite seeking help, her alcoholism eventually got her thrown off of a tour with Hank III. Let me just say that I have an inkling she must have REALLY been fucking up for that to happen.
Though not a material girl, she did love her dresses, many of which were made by fans and friends. In order of priority, it was her guitar, jewelry she made and sold at shows and her dresses. “She loved her dresses,” said Maclanahan.
In July 2016, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after experiencing extreme stomach discomfort and weight loss. She had taken a job cleaning rich people’s ostentatiously huge houses and she, Maclanahan, Dorian and guitarist Tony Cook just assumed the weight loss was from the new job keeping her on her feet and ascending and descending staircases. The stomach issues they chalked up to booze. When it got too severe, she went to the hospital where tests revealed her illness.
Friends and fans scrambled to put together a tribute record that would help pay for her hospitalization and treatments. Despite her weakness from the illness, she continued playing shows. On March 14, 2017 she played her last show at Nomad. She weighed 80 pounds. 10 days later, on March 24, she was gone.
The tribute record didn’t make it out in time to directly help her, but Lopez didn’t let that stop him from putting it out anyway. All proceeds benefit the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM). The organization helped her and she would want others to benefit as well. The Ghosts all said the same of her: “It made her happy to make others happy.”
The 24 tracks on the double CD (download) are as eclectic as the musicians playing them and that’s probably exactly how Izzy wanted it – she herself rarely played a song the same way twice, much to the occasional consternation of her band.
“We’d play a song in 4/4 one night and 3/4 the next,” Maclanahan said. “Or she would rearrange the structure one night to the next. She had a big sheet with dozens of song titles written on it. She would look at it and just start to play and you had to keep up.”
“We never practiced,” said Cook. “She asked me to play with her and just told me to show up at Beerland on Wednesday.” Dorian said his recruitment was pretty much the same.
Like her improv approach to her songs, the artists on this album take her songs and put their own mark on it. Mary Panjoram’s version of “I Love You My Dear” is pretty straight-forward and similar to Izzy’s version. That song in particular was one of her newer compositions and the Ghosts felt that it could have been the song that really broke her. It veered away from the ragtime and whatever-billy styles and was pretty much a straight 60s-style pop song.
But for every song that stays truer to her version, there is one that the artist makes their own. Joleen Heilman’s “Bad Bad Woman” bears more resemblance to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” than Izzy’s original. Sabbath Crow turn “The Devil is Calling” into the Muzak of Hell’s foyer, and Bruce 3’s “Had it Coming” while following Izzy’s version pretty loyally, is reminiscent of Bill Callahan when he was known as Smog and was more about emotion than ability. And sorry to Bruce Salmon for thinking that was him. He and Katy Rose Cox (no relation) take “Hustler’s Jive” and turn it on its ear. While staying fairly close to the original structure, Salmon’s guttural vocals give it a dark, twisted edge.
Stoned Evergreen Travelers from Washington state offer a pot-drenched, violin-driven dirge with “Only You” and White Ghost Shivers “Ain’t it Funny” kicks off the second CD and is so much freaking fun it’s hard not to listen to it a few times in a row. San Francisco’s Slow Poisoner (an old friend of this mag) offers an amazing take on “Down by the River” and Esmerelda Strange proves she may just be the second coming of Izzy with her version of “Gone Gone Gone.” An Izzy raised by Gypsy circus freaks, that is.
I was initially surprised that such a large, diverse group of musicians were involved in this project, but after talking to the Ghosts, it’s understandable. She and the Ghosts often played 2-3 times a week, doing 20 shows in one month during a SXSW. She was bound to rub shoulders with nearly anyone that plays an instrument. Such public saturation sometimes led to them playing solely to the bartender at Beerland and the homeless people sitting across the street but it meant never paying for a practice space. Many of the homeless became fans and Izzy always looked out for them, “especially the women,” said Maclanahan. Well, she knew what they faced every day.
“Songs of Life and Death – An Izzy Cox Tribute Album” is probably one of the best records that will come out this year. And it’s been so popular and so many more people want to do an Izzy song that a second volume is already in the works. At least two musicians I know who played with her quite a bit, Dorian and bass player Joe Volpi, are not on the record but they have both stated they would like to make a contribution. And after spending so much time researching her and talking about her and listening to her, I do too.
Her songs may often contain violence and sorrow, but Izzy herself had nothing but love for everyone. The Ghosts say that her music was beginning to get even darker and political as she watched America lose the priorities that make it a great country. Although she thought she was going to be dead at a much younger age, her only real regret was that she still had work to do. A European tour was being planned when she was diagnosed so she had to settle for playing around town. When she passed in the hospital where she wanted to die because she had become so close with many of the doctors and nurses there, her last words to Maclanahan were her last to the world:
“I love you.”
Love us indeed. As Kurtis Machler so beautifully said:
“I still have – WE ALL still have – the songs.”
– Trevor J Wallace
The CD is available download at Izzycoxrocks.com. All proceeds benefit HAAM, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.
Thanks to Mack Cox, Kurtis Machler, Pete Mclanahan, Grant Dorian, Tony Cook, Joe Volpi and Bruce Salmon for insights and especially Gabriel Lopez, Esmerelda Strange, Machler (again, you beautiful man) and Gary Lindsey for putting out this record.