Home with the Armadillo
Hank Alrich shepherded the Armadillo World Headquarters through its last great days, then moved away. Thirty years later, he's coming home.
At the concert hour, Hank Alrich strums a few notes on his acoustic guitar and glances warmly at the 30 to 40 people seated in metal folding chairs for a Friday afternoon set at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. The man on stage could pass for a 21st-century John Muir lean and trim, with a bushy beard and gentle countenance and piercing brown eyes.
"This is the first time I've ever played the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar," he says, so softly that the words barely resonate above the holiday hum and mumble in the room. "Although ... a long time ago ... I used to manage the Armadillo."
Hank Alrich is a stranger to most Austin music fans. He hasn't lived here, in fact, for more than 25 years. Yet this stage forever belongs to him, for no one invested more — in terms of heart and energy and cold, hard cash — on behalf of the long-lost Austin concert hall and creative enclave known as the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Alrich didn't just "manage" the Armadillo. He was its unsung hero, its guardian angel. Even Armadillo founder Eddie Wilson — who peeked into the hulking, vacant National Guard armory at 525Â½ Barton Springs Road one beer-stained night and imagined the magical, musical heart-enterprise that would flourish there from August 1970 till dawn's light of 1981 — sees Alrich as an Armadillo savior.
"Hank is a hero," says Wilson. "If not for Hank, the Armadillo would have been closed in two years instead of open for 10."
Alrich and Armadillo began their shared history in December 1970, when he fronted a San Antonio band called Tiger Balm during the concert hall's first New Year's Eve show. In time, Alrich moved to Austin and slept in the Shiva's Headband school bus in the Armadillo parking lot. He played shows at the Dillo. He mopped the floors at the Dillo. He took up residence in the Dillo.
It was Hank Alrich who donated $10,000 toward the construction of the Armadillo beer garden in 1972. It was Alrich who built the Armadillo's Onion Audio recording studio in 1975. And it was Alrich who ran the Armadillo after Wilson left in November 1976 — when the venue, besieged by creditors, was a breath away from closure — and promptly led it through its most triumphant years.
As a boss, Alrich brought a strong business acumen to the Armadillo. He booked Count Basie and the B-52s, reconfigured the beer garden into a summer paradise, channeled $200,000 of personal inheritance into the place. He gave countless "let's go out with style" pep talks to disbelieving music fans throughout 1980 after landlord M.K. Hage announced his plan to terminate the Armadillo's lease and sell his land. And when the end finally came, on the morning Jan. 1, 1981, it was Hank Alrich who locked the front door after the last, great night of Armadillo music.
Two years later, in 1983, Alrich and his wife, Lanis, quietly left town to raise a family on 300 forested acres in his native California. Many Austin friends were certain they'd never see him again. But as fate would have it, three of Alrich's grown children have settled in Austin the past decade. Their moves called him home, in a sense. Home with the Armadillo.
Hank Alrich has also come home to music. At 65, he's just released his debut folk album — "Carry Me Home" — which showcases his daughter, singer Shaidri Alrich, and his longtime friend Doug Harman on cello. In true Armadillo spirit, Alrich did it for the fun, not for fame . Father and daughter perform around town a bit, mostly at Threadgill's, where their song list features several songs that both honor and lament the passing of beauty in the face of urban "progress."
"You know, the old saying goes that you can never go home again. But that's not right. Hank is doing it, right now," says Emma Little, who has known Alrich since the early days of the Armadillo, when she ran the on-site nursery for children of the venue's employees. "I love watching Hank and his daughter, the way they play music together. It's a gift, a gift to all of us."
The Armadillo World Headquarters was the most colorful live music venue in our city's history — a worn-around-the edges mecca that commanded national attention even as it struggled to be a viable business enterprise. The concert hall was like a giant hangar, covered in painted murals, which forever smelled like pot and stale beer and fresh-baked cookies. It was a haven for artists, rednecks, students, bikers, hippies, dancers, summer sunbathers and, most of all, serious music fans.
The Armadillo was more than its physical space, however. It housed a spirit, a communal essence, an allegiance to art and dreams, garden and nature. It reflected Austin's live-and-let-live ethic of the era. The Armadillo was built by the people who ran it, so it welcomed and nurtured creativity. If you aspired to devote your life to a dream that mattered, you were at home in the Armadillo.
"It was always in the service of art, of one kind or another," says Alrich, considering Armadillo Essence over lunch at Threadgill's, Eddie Wilson's place. "We didn't manufacture anything but an experience. The music was always the art that, like dance, only exists while it's being created. ... We weren't that great at defining what we were doing at the Armadillo, partly — and we can laugh about it now — because we didn't know. We made it up as we went along. It's not a question of being inside or outside the box. It was more like: Has anybody ever seen the box?
"I met someone the other night who told me he was 4 years old the first time he visited the Armadillo in 1974. His memories of the Armadillo go till he was 10 years old, so they're not very specific. But he said, 'I recall the feeling' — and I went wow! — 'I can recall what it felt like to be around that energy.' " Alrich loves it, about the Armadillo, "that the 4-year-old remembers the inner view."
Alrich never aspired to run the Armadillo. It wasn't in his nature to "boss" anybody. He was 32, the son of a thoroughbred horse breeder in California who dropped out of Dartmouth College in 1965 to pursue life as a folk musician — a path interrupted only by the draft and the ensuing two-year stint as an X-ray technician at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. An intensely sensitive man, Alrich preferred working in the background at the Armadillo, supporting the larger enterprise, playing flute for the guys hauling dirt in the beer garden. But he answered the call, in late 1976, with the Armadillo teetering on the brink of financial extinction.
"Eddie Wilson felt like he'd done everything he could do; he'd made the good-faith efforts to various people who had offered or proferred working capital to the Armadillo in the past — but there was nothing there," recalls Fletcher Clark, an Armadillo alumnus whose band, Balcones Fault, was a big draw in the 1970s. "So Hank hopped in there and just kind of took over. He said, basically, 'I'll just wind it up in an orderly fashion.' That was originally his only goal, to make it cleanly go away."
Alrich was intrigued, however, when attorneys floated the idea of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would allow the Armadillo to remain open while paying off its creditors. Quickly, he assumed the role as the Armadillo's responsible party — cutting the paid staff from 151 to 22, scaling back the advertising budget, championing the idea that the Armadillo audiences were stakeholders in the enterprise.
"The things we needed to correct at the Armadillo were so much Business 101A ... we had three or four telephones for every person, for example," says Alrich, noting the place was losing $50,000 every six months in the mid-'70s.
"Yet we had (already) succeeded to the extent that we'd created a huge national profile. ... In terms of promotion and production and scheduling and booking and catering, we were way down the road. We already had our doctorates! We were at the lead in our field ... That was an important factor of a potentially successful business, properly and elegantly executed."
When Hank Alrich recalls those days, he talks very much like a buttoned-down banker — accentuating the notion of service, attention to bottom line, the notion of thrift. He's clearly one who takes responsibility seriously. At the same time, Alrich is very much the man he appears to be — a '60s hippie who has lived most of his life in service to art and music and nature outside the energies of ambition.
These qualities made him a respected leader at the Armadillo.
"Hank wanted to make sure that everybody who had an artistic identity at the Armadillo had a format so that you could do what you wanted to do — be that on stage, or in the recording context or selling T-shirts," says Emma Little. "It wasn't easy for him (in 1977). Hank got thrown into a boat with 100 holes in it, and he plugged up the holes the best he could. But he handled it smoothly. I never saw him get angry, not once."
While cleaning up the Armadillo's books, improving the sound and the lights as he fended off his creditors, Alrich allowed himself one luxury — the prerogative to transcend the Dillo's "Hippies and Rednecks" persona and book more eclectic shows. This included jazz acts such as Basie, Larry Coryell, Weather Report, Old and New Dreams, the David Grisman Quintet. Alrich booked a young Pat Metheny before he was famous. And when Metheny returned in 1979, suddenly a star, he insisted, in gratitude, upon covering the Armadillo's house losses from the first show with door receipts from the second.
"Hank realized we were going to lose money on a certain number of shows," recalls Fletcher Clark. "So why not have those events be coincident? Hank thought: 'If we're going to lose money, let's at least book somebody worth listening to.'
"The musicians loved it, because the place sounded so good. I'll never forget Count Basie's reaction (in 1980). When he walked in the doors, his eyes got real big and he said, 'What in the hell are we doing here?'" The Armadillo, of course, looked like a dump compared with Carnegie Hall. "But after the sound check he said, 'you know, your people are really good.' And then when the show was over, he said, 'Anytime you guys want to do this again. ...' "
Days later, M.K. Hage announced his plans to sell his lot on Barton Springs Road. He gave Alrich and the Armadillo almost a full year to say goodbye — and throw a whale of a party.
Hank Alrich didn't like it that the Armadillo died before its time. But he has clearly gotten past it. He does not pine for what was lost. Alrich admits he was involved in larger grief at the time; his younger brother Bill died suddenly, six weeks before the close. In the end, Alrich has no regrets about the years he devoted to the Dillo, nor the $50,000 he says he never recouped from his $200,000 investment.
"Hey, it costs more than that to go to college," he says wryly. "And I got a much deeper education in some ways, you know?"
Alrich derives some consolation that the Armadillo turned a profit during its last year — $80,000 — despite the fact that the kitchen operated at a $20,000 deficit. The beer garden's final year was glorious, the patio jammed almost every night, a buoyant feeling in the air. There are moments when Alrich allows himself to daydream about what might have been: An arrangement to buy the land, say, in 1983. Incorporating the adjoining roller skating rink into the Armadillo operation. Buying new carpet. Refining the sound. Or maybe: running the Dillo as a nonprofit. Sometimes he wishes aloud he had Wilson's persistence. Maybe, just maybe, he could have talked the landlord out of selling the land.
"The wrecking ball was an obscenity. And it was a good example of the beginning of something that was going to lead to a lot of obscenity," says Alrich, alluding to the growing winds of Austin's development boom in the 1980s. "But the thing that (ticks) me off is that we had it working. We accomplished what we needed, inside the box." What might have happened, he wonders, if the Armadillo artists had the chance to own that land, instead of the city. "But to put that much leverage into the counterculture's hands might have been a little too much."
"When people think of the Armadillo, they tend to think of the bankruptcy — not remembering the fact that we prevailed, that we were a successful Chapter 11 pleading when it was all done."
In the first weeks of 1981, Alrich worked almost every day in the deserted Armadillo. He attended the Armadillo auction in mid-January as part of the bankruptcy settlement. ("A mechanical thing that had to be done, a disappointment with every bang of the gavel.") As the demolition crew arrived, Alrich and Clark were at work in the Armadillo recording studio, finishing up an album by Texas yodeler Kenneth Threadgill.
Alrich watched the wrecking ball bust into artist Henry Gonzalez's freshly completed mural on the West wall. When the foreman of the wrecking crew finally entered his studio, Alrich feigned craziness, swinging a sledgehammer, not acknowledging his presence, as to allow him a few minutes to save some of his valuable recording equipment from destruction. "It's a lot easier to tear this (stuff) apart than it was to build it," he shouted, swinging the hammer. The foreman turned away and let it be.
"The energies that direct Austin now, and even then, they're not so interested in culture," Alrich says a little later. "They're interested in money. Money is important. It's good to have it. But there is no such thing as infinite growth. Period. Value has to come from somewhere else."
At the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, Hank and Shaidri Alrich are playing a song about the saving grace of light, highlighted by the line "may the lighthouse guide you safely home." The trio is quite a sight: Imagine the shaggy mountain man on mandolin; a blond maiden at the center-stage microphone; the middle-age cellist in coat and tie. Alrich looks very much at home here, invested in the moment, whether the place carries the name of the Armadillo or not.
Behind the stage, there's a photo of Hank Alrich taken some 35 years ago, in Victoria, playing an electric guitar in front of the same "jalapeno-armadillo-cowboy" banner that adorns the stage of the modern bazaar. Between sets, Alrich's daughter — and his old Armadillo buddy Henry Gonzalez — stand before the photo and marvel at how much Hank looks the same, how the circle comes 'round.
Clearly, Alrich prefers the story of this moment — family, friends, connection with music — to the daydream of Armadillo World Headquarters, circa 2010. In a sense, the demise of the Dillo might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. He broke clear, to California. He woke up every morning to the aroma of incense cedar and ponderosa pine. He home-schooled his children, surrounded them with music, founding a high-end sound reinforcement business on the West Coast. And he found his way home.
The Armadillo didn't die; Austin changed. Maybe it's for the better, says Alrich, that the Armadillo didn't evolve into a South by Southwest enterprise.
"I don't mean this negatively: but if we had the time and resources to do it all differently, we might not have been the place we were," he says. "Sure, it didn't last long enough. But if people were there — really there — and they got it in the first place, it's there. They've still got it."
After his set, Alrich hangs around the bazaar for hours, mingling anonymously with the audience during Jimmy LaFave's show. In the middle of "Desperate Men Do Desperate Things" and "Last Train to Glory," Alrich sways to the music, feels a whisper of the eternal Armadillo vibe. The house is jammed, people are happy.
"You know, Hank," says the man next to him, "had you not done what you did years ago, we wouldn't be enjoying this moment right now."
Alrich shrugs it off, glances away. "I try not to think about that."
"All the same, it's true."
"I guess I done good?" he says, not quite convinced. His voice is so soft it barely carries above the music.