Armadillo stories, told by art - Museum curator works to save Austin's 'hippie,' 'redneck' history.
Armadillo stories, told by art
Museum curator works to save Austin's 'hippie,' 'redneck' historyBen Wermund
Daily Texan Staff
Published: Monday, June 15, 2009
Edmarc Hedrick/The Daily Texan
Henry Gonzalez, local artist and operator of South Austin Museum of Pop Culture, gives a tour of the museum's outdoor artwork and talks specifically about the fallen artists he commemorates for Dia de los Muertos.
Editor?s Note: This is a first in a bimonthly series, exploring the lives of the people who define the city.
"This is where it all begins," Henry Gonzalez says.
He's standing in the bathroom of the South Austin Museum of Pop Culture. Over the toilet behind him hangs a black-and-white picture of iconic Texas musicians Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver and Lee Clayton, posing outside of the Armadillo World Headquarters, a historic Austin music venue now long gone.
"People keep thinking it was always long-hairs and hippies and stuff like that, but no, no it wasn?t like that at all," Gonzalez says. "This is Austin, Texas; redneck capital of the world. Austin was as tough as any other town in the Southwest. Then it changed."
He is an original member of the Armadillo Art Squad, a group of artists commemorated by the museum, which created concert posters for the Armadillo.
In a back room of the museum, amid photographs, paintings, drawings "some finished, some still in the works" is a large wooden cutout of a mouth, wide open with a hole at its center.
"That one right there is where you bought your ticket at the Vulcan," Gonzalez says. "The person selling the ticket was on the other side of that."
The Vulcan Gas Company was an integral part of Austin psychedelia in the 1960s.
"A lot of these artists had to go out to San Francisco, because that was the happening place," he says. "There were a lot of Texans out there, a lot of bands: Doug Sahm, Stephen Stills, Janis Joplin, the 13th Floor Elevators. Not enough credit is given to the Texans that were there."
But the Texans came back.
In the early 1970s, the "redneck capital of the world" was faced with their long-haired, hippie culture as it all came together at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Henry Gonzalez was a part of it all.
Friendship and tragedy
For Gonzalez, it all began in Corpus Christi, where he was raised.
He studied art at Delmar Junior College, where he met Ken Featherston ? who would later become his closest friend ? and several other members of the Armadillo Art Squad.
"Ken and some other musicians he knew came to Austin for the first time in '71." Gonzalez says. "It was our little group and we wanted to stay together as much as possible. We'd come up on weekends and party with them and fell in love with the city. It was like a pilgrimage."
Gonzalez made the trip to Austin permanently to attend UT in 1973 and found work at the Armadillo.
During its decade-long lifespan in the seventies, the Armadillo World Headquarters, along with artists like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, brought together two strikingly different cultures and created one unique Austin, he said.
At the Armadillo, rednecks met hippies as cowboys became cosmic. There, Austinites had the opportunity to see local legends and rising stars of rock 'n' roll, from Michael Martin Murphy to Bruce Springsteen.
Gonzalez did whatever he could to make money at the venue, often acting as a bouncer and a stage hand in the same shift.
One night, in 1975, he ran into trouble while doing just that.
"This one guy was really drunk, giving me a hard time,? Gonzalez says." He swung at me, and I caught him by his wrist and spun him around and he fell on his butt. That was it. He was on his butt and I said, 'You don?t want me to come out there because you?re gonna get hurt and you're gonna wind up in jail, so go home.' That was the extent of it."
Gonzalez then went back to work clearing the concert hall and helping the band load out, not thinking anymore of the incident.
After about an hour, Gonzalez and his friend Featherston headed outside, unaware that the unruly patron was waiting.
"We stepped out the door and there was only one light outside, so it was pretty dark," he said. "He was in his car, with the passenger-side window rolled down. As we stepped out, he couldn't ID me from Ken. We were pretty close, long hair, beards; he took a guess and shot one time and hit Ken in the forehead. He died in my arms."
Losing Featherston changed things for Gonzalez.
"The hard part was that the bullet was meant for me and not for Ken, and that hurt me for a long, long time," he said. "But I think it made me stronger in the end, because maybe that was the reason I stuck around the Armadillo for so long. I had other plans that I was trying to get accomplished, bigger galleries, graduating, and they had to be put on hold a while until I could figure it all out."
Remembering the FallenFeatherston now remains memorialized on Gonzalez's "Wall of the Dead" running along the north fence of the museum's parking lot, bedecked with framed pictures of fallen Texans.
"I'd been trying to do this for years and no one would buy into it" "What do you want to celebrate the dead for?" Gonzalez says, standing outside, while he gazes at the wall and shakes his head.
"Because we do! Mexicans have this thing that we do every year called Day of the Dead, and we honor these folks, it's so they won't forget."
The wall, made entirely from recycled products, like all of Gonzalez's projects at the museum, attracts people from all over the world.
"I don't know if it's a release or a soul searching kind of thing, maybe both," Gonzalez says. "It's not like a cemetery or anything like that. It's more like a hall of fame thing to be included in this."
Featherston's picture also hangs on another wall outside the museum: the "Back to the Beach" wall, which features other artists who, like Gonzalez, came to Austin from Corpus Christi.
"Ken Featherston, my best friend, one of our guys; this is right before he came, right before he let his hair grow out," Gonzalez says, walking toward the wall, laughing. "It's pretty incredible."
A place with so much history hanging inside, the museum tells the story of Austin as we know it: the "Live Music Capital of the World."
"There's so many stories," he says. "My quest right now is just to stay here as long as I can. I'm losing a lot of my friends, and that's the sad part, but I'm blessed. The fact that I was able to share this part of it with everybody and I'm not slowing down."