Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Did Austin invent grunge?

Bands from Texas were influential on genre's early scene

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

An iron-clad axiom in pop music applies to every popular art form: It's not the first person who does something, it's the second.

When most music fans think of psychedelic rock, they think of 1960s San Francisco and bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

But every good Austinite knows that psychedelic rock started in the capital of Texas. Roky Erickson and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators practically invented the stuff and brought it with them when they headed out to San Francisco.

With Nirvana's album "Nevermind" and Pearl Jam's "Ten" both turning 20 years old this fall, one wonders if Austin didn't do something similar with the fuzzy, post-hardcore music that became (extremely unfortunately) known as grunge.

It's not a new question: Some say yes, some say no.

But sometimes, influence is not an obvious thing. You hear a thrilling piece of music, see a hypnotic movie, read a powerful poem, it can change the way you think about your art, or even your life. Your attempts to imitate it, or draw from it, might be glaringly obvious or downright unconscious.

In the do-it-yourself world of American punk rock, as bands criss-crossed the United States throughout the Reagan administration, they played for each other, inspired each other and changed each other's lives.

Three Austin bands — Poison 13, Scratch Acid and the Butthole Surfers — had a complicated relationship with Seattle; the city didn't quite steal their thunder, but certainly learned a thing or three from their virulent Texas insanity.

Poison 13

Tim Kerr spent a lot of the 1980s being ahead of his scene.

His Austin punk outfit the Big Boys spot-welded funk to hardcore, something that was largely unheard of anywhere else. His late '80s band, Bad Mutha Goose, took the funk idea even further with a pan-racial band whose music was closer to Sly and the Family Stone, the go-go music of Washington, D.C., and Fishbone than, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Between them came Poison 13, a band that did for blues and soul what the Big Boys did for funk. Kerr and former Big Boys roadie Mike Carroll drafted Big Boys bassist Chis Gates and guitarist Bill Anderson to find the places grimy punk, swampy blues and '60s garage rock sloshed into each other.

"We were just doing the same thing that the '60s bands were doing, except we had come through Black Flag so stuff was louder and a bit more (expletive) up," Kerr says.

Created in 1984, at the very height of hardcore punk at its speediest and most orthodox, the Austin punk scene was not wild about Poison 13's slower, bluesier vibe.

"We were a lot more popular on the West Coast than we were in Austin," Gates says. "So we tried to play Los Angeles and San Francisco as much as possible."

In 1985, Poison 13 played Austin's then-annual Woodshock festival. This was not a festival in the slick, large scale Austin City Limits Music Fest sense. This was 20 or so weird bands at the Hurlbut Ranch in Dripping Springs, including Poison 13, a vital, Seattle pre-grunge outfit called the U-Men and the San Francisco act Tales of Terror.

Some swear that this was, to use a phrase that screams "marketing" at the top of its lungs, the birth of grunge. Gates remembers it as the birth of a lot of hangovers.

"That was an insane weekend," Gates says. "The day before it was supposed to start, 25 people in bands from all over the country came to the house on 32nd and Lamar that Mike Carroll and I were living in, including the U-Men. It was a miracle anyone was walking the next day to go to Woodshock. But it was great bands all day and a ton of swimming. It actually got cold, so people were building fires out of anything that would burn. The U-Men were just stunning."

Poison 13 never actually made it to Seattle to play live. As the legend goes, the U-Men returned to Seattle with Poison 13 and Tales of Terror records, which ended up on influential turntables. The garage aspects of early Seattle underground rock idols Mudhoney feel as much out of Poison 13 as anywhere else.

After two albums, Poison 13 fell to pieces in 1987. Kerr started Bad Mutha Goose and spent the '90s playing in various bands (some with Mike Carroll) and producing countless records. Anderson went on to play in the Austin acts Meat Purveyors and Churchwood,

Right after Poison 13, in 1988, Gates joined the Los Angeles glam-metal band Junkyard, which played a show with a very young Soundgarden. "This was before (Junkyard) was even signed. My first inkling that anything was up was when the Soundgarden guys all said, 'You were in Poison 13!' and I said, 'Uh, you know who Poison 13 was?' They played a Poison 13 song as an encore."

Later, Junkyard played a gig with Green River and Jane's Addiction. The same thing happened. "Green River were huge Poison 13 fans, and they went on to be in Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone (the latter of which became Pearl Jam)."

It wasn't too shocking when Kerr's first record with Monkeywrench — a band started with Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney and Tom Price of the U-Men to revamp unfinished Poison 13 songs — arrived in 1991, the year Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke. In 1994, SubPop released "Wine Is Red Poison Is Blue," a compilation of both Poison 13 albums and an EP.

"When I heard (the Seattle bands) I thought they were cool but didn't really hear the similarity," Kerr says. "I tried to explain to (Mudhoney) that nobody really liked us here and we were sorta fine with that."

The Butthole Surfers

For a couple of years in the 1980s, the Butthole Surfers were essentially homeless, an itinerant explosion of noise, lights and drugs that toured constantly because, well, living out of a van is at least living.

"We stayed a lot in Seattle when the first Alternative Tentacles record came out and we were trying to tour in late 1983," Surfers drummer King Coffey says. "Shows were hard to come by." Imagine a homeless band trying to book shows without the Internet and a cell phone. Fortunately, Surfers guitarist Paul Leary had a girlfriend who had just moved to Seattle and allowed the band to stay at her place between shows in December 1983. The band ended up befriending the core of the Seattle punk scene.

"I have a picture from that time with Mark Arm from Mr. Epp and the Calculations at a party," Coffey says, "(Soundgarden guitarist) Kim Thayil lived around the corner from where we were staying and popped over from time to time.

"We wound up playing everything in Seattle from punk clubs, to parties in basements, to a Chinese restaurant," Coffey says. At the latter show, the people on stage outnumbered the audience, so Surfers singer Gibby Haynes called the audience to the stage, got their names and introduced the audience to themselves.

"Seattle was like a hub for us," Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus said. Pinkus joined the Surfers in late 1986 and became their longest-serving bass player.

"We were always well taken care of, even the time we played with Green River and I was too young to be let into the club. Everyone snuck me goodies," he says with a laugh.

But the Surfers' itinerant lifestyle meant they didn't really know who they influenced or how.

"We were a bunch of people living in a van with a dog," Pinkus said. "We would hear new music when people gave us tapes."

When Seattle blew up, Pinkus says it wasn't that Surfers were jealous as much as not interested. "I remember someone mentioned to Paul that we and (the slow moving San Francisco noise rock band) Flipper were the 'Godfathers of Grunge.' He flipped out — he could not stand that idea."

Scratch Acid

When this 1980s Austin noise-rock act reunited in 2006 to play the Touch and Go Records 25th anniversary festival, the band — singer David Yow, bassist David Sims, drummer Rey Washam and guitarist Brett Bradford — played two warm-up shows, one in Austin and one in Seattle.

"We went to Europe in December of 1986," Yow says, "which was weird for an art-punk band of our stature, but we still hadn't gone to the West Coast. And everyone said, 'You have to play in Seattle' and we were like, 'Yeah, right, sure, whatever.'"

They booked a show and Yow was greeted with a packed house. "It was crazy, crazy sold out, packed to the gills, people were having to sit on the stage," he says. "Seattle friends told me that the Nirvana boys and Tad (Doyle, of the Seattle band Tad) were there. I have been told it had a huge impact on Seattle."

It was, then, a no-brainer to do a Seattle show in 2006. "It was just a tip of the hat to how good that city had been to us."

While Yow doesn't buy the comparison between Scratch Acid and Seattle bands, those bands sure loved him.

Kurt Cobain wears a Scratch Acid T-shirt in an early Nirvana publicity photo, and the band ended up releasing the excellent "Puss/Oh, the Guilt" split single with the Jesus Lizard (Yow and Sims' post-Scratch Acid outfit) in 1993. It was likely as much Scratch Acid's on-stage demeanor — a sense of wild, chaotic possibility and danger — that influenced the Seattle acts as anything else.

In an age of Google and instant access to millions of records at the click of a mouse, it's tough to imagine how vital and mysterious these bands seemed to one another, how limited their communication was. A tape made for a touring band, a live show in a basement, a group stuck in a town for a few weeks while their van was repaired — through these things, bands from Texas could change the lives and influence the music of twentysomethings in the Northwest. You can steal ideas from an MP3 of a punk record, but that's very different from having the lead singer pass out on your couch.

But you can't pay your bills with street cred. Earlier this year, when Scratch Acid was asked to play the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the UK, Yow was a little hesitant, but says he recalled how much fun the 2006 shows were, not to mention his stunning tour with the Jesus Lizard in 2009.

"Also, I'm broke," says Yow, now mostly a visual artist.

As Gates puts it, "being ahead of the curve means you're ahead of the curve," as in, the curve is where the money is.

"I have plenty of friends in legendary bands, and they're all broke."

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5925