Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hey kids! New book!

With all the Chicken Ranch stuff going on, it appears that I have completely forgotten to let everyone know about another publication of mine that recently came out. Some of you may know that photography's a sort-of hobby of mine, and that I assist The Wife with her photo studio, Lisa On Location. Some of you may also know that I've long had a fascination with infrared photography, and have experimented with that form quite a bit over the years.

Well, all that experimentation seems to have attracted some attention my way. Four of my infrared images (one of which may be seen below) were selected by Karen Dorame for inclusion in her new book from Amherst Media, Mastering Infrared Photography: Capture Invisible Light with a Digital Camera. Now, I like to think that my work's pretty good--nobody else has combined levitation with infrared to push the surreal up to eleven, after all--but there are some images by Ikan Hui Pegel Pegel, an Indonesian photography who does some amazing work with false-color infrared. Seriously, Ikan's work is fantastic. One of the things I love about the interwebz--and being included in this book--is that it exposes me and brings me into contact with incredibly talented artists that I'd never know existed otherwise. That's quite inspiring, and, if one want to get all metaphorical, very much like infrared photography, as it also brings the unseen into view.

Now Playing: Violent Femmes Blind Leading the Naked
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Friday, February 05, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Well, we lost another one. Maurice White, the musical innovator and driving force behind Earth, Wind and Fire, died this week at 74, presumably from Parkinson's Disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1992. The band's elaborate, flamboyant stage shows were legendary, and they produced an incredible amount of music over the years. In this case, I'm not going to pick out an obscure track, but rather go with the obvious choice. After all, how can one top "September"?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... David Bowie.

Now Playing: Miles Davis Birth of the Cool
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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Chicken Ranch report no. 59: The deed is done

I thought this project would be a sprint when I started, but it turned out to be a quadruple-marathon. There were many, many times I thought this Chicken Ranch book was my own, personal Sisyphean stone, but now the finish line is really, truly in sight.

Today I turned in the final manuscript and photo captions to my editor at the History Press. That doesn't mean I'm finished--there are ongoing title discussions being discussed, and I have no doubt there are endless editorial notes and revision requests in my future, but the summit has been crested. It's all downhill from here on out.

Now Playing: Postmodern Jukebox Historical Misappropriation
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Monday, February 01, 2016

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Happy Birthday Aunt Jessie!

La Grange Yellow Pages phone book, 1958
On this date in 1885, Fay Stewart was born in Waco. She would've been 131 years old today. Stewart would later adopt the alias of Jessie Williams and operate a small brothel in Austin's Guy Town district before moving to La Grange in 1913. In 1915, she bought 11 acres of land outside of city limits and opened what would eventually become known as the Chicken Ranch. Known locally as Aunt Jessie, she ran the brothel until selling it to Edna Milton in 1961.

Faye Stewart’s parents came from Georgia, moving to Waco well before she was born. The family lived for years on Franklin Street, but struggled after Stewart’s father died unexpectedly in 1886. While it is entirely possible that Stewart learned the ropes of prostitution in Waco's infamous Two Street vice district, there’s scant evidence she was successful enough to own her own brothel there.

Curiously enough, despite the fact Aunt Jessie spent nearly three decades in La Grange and was as well-known a civic benefactor as anyone in Fayette County, I have found no photographs of her. Zero. Nada. Which is strange, since I know photos of her exist somewhere. So in lieu of Aunt Jessie's photo, we'll have to settle from the 1958 edition of the La Grange phone book. Think that cover art is coincidental? Or was someone with the Yellow Pages making a not-so-subtle joke? In any event, here's to Aunt Jessie, the woman who turned a number of shoddy prostitution operations into the brothel known today as the Chicken Ranch.

Now Playing: Astrud Gilberto Astrud Gilberto's Finest Hour
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Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

So, David Bowie died three weeks ago now. The week of his death I got swamped and didn't get around to posting a Friday Night Video. The following week, Glenn Frey died, so obviously I had to salute Mr. Frey. Which brings us to today, with Bowie's brain-twistingly weird "Lazarus" video. This is a man who clearly sees the Reaper at the door and is determined to go out on his own terms. Kind of amazing. Now, I've never been a huge Bowie fan. I find him interesting as an artist and like some of his music well enough, but his work's never struck that primal chord in me that it has in so many others. That's fine--many people don't get my fascination with Ray Davies and the Kinks. Regardless, this song and video amount to the ultimate mic drop. It's packed with so many eyeball kicks that it borders on sensory overload, and fans will be analyzing and arguing over the symbolism for decades to come.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Eagles.

Now Playing: Count Basie Count Basie 1
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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chicken Ranch report no. 57: Pattern recognition

There's a popular saying that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned. Now, I don't have hubris enough to claim that Texas' Legendary Chicken Ranch: Truth, Lies and Legacy of a Lone Star Whorehouse is actual art, but regardless what anyone classifies it as, the saying is holding true.

How else to explain my efforts these past few days, frantically researching and rewriting a section focused on the Wagon Wheel--the second, lesser-known brothel in Sealy that was closed at the same time as the Chicken Ranch? Efforts that are kind of insane, given that my final deadline for turning in the completed manuscript to the History Press is little over a week away? In all honesty, I could work on this book for another 100 years and there'd still be information and detail missing, that I'd know I could uncover if I just had a little bit more time.

Human beings are very good at pattern recognition. Crazy good. It's an evolutionary development that's allowed our species to develop nifty tricks such as abstract thought, inferring from incomplete data, developing "hunches" that prove factual once all the evidence is gathered. That last one is often subconscious, our brains responding to patterns we're not even aware we're seeing. Good journalists often have this ability in spades. The downside is that people are also very good at seeing patterns where none exist, which explains a lot of the insane conspiracy theories to be found online. But that's neither here nor there.

Back when I started research for my book, I had an inkling that the Wagon Wheel was more significant in the story of how the Chicken Ranch was closed than had been widely reported. No great leap of insight on my part there--just observing the lack of information that came from a news media fixated on the more easily-packaged semi-amusing story of the Chicken Ranch. And to be honest, there's just not that much information on the Wagon Wheel available. Even the one photo of the Wagon Wheel from 1973--its "Closed on Account of Marvin Zindler" sign--that can be found online is mistakenly attributed to the Chicken Ranch.

Early on in my research, I came across a 2001 issue of the Texas Ranger Dispatch, which mentioned gamblers from Galveston trying to set up a casino in Sealy. Immediately, my Spidey-senses went off: pattern recognition at work. Could this motel be what became the Wagon Wheel? I dug and poked and prodded for years with this at the back of my mind. Other, circumstantial evidence seemed to support that idea, but my strongest piece of "evidence" was my inability to identify any other failed motels in the Sealy area from that era. I went to Bellville a few months ago and tracked down copies of the warranty deeds from that property in the Austin County Clerk's office, which proved much more challenging than I anticipated. Some of the deeds were missing, but one I did find from the 1990s included a list of previous transactions for that property. Unfortunately, none of the names matched any of those I had as being involved with the Wagon Wheel in any fashion. Dead end? Maybe. Did I have the wrong property? Unlikely. Plus, the transaction dates listed lined up nicely with the chronology I'd constructed through other sources.

Earlier this week, whilst doing some line edits on the manuscript, I came upon that section and decided to take another look at the deed. The pattern was there, I just needed to connect one more dot. So I started Google-stalking the individual names on the deed. Dead end. Dead end. Seventy thousand people in the U.S. with that name, dead end. But then, one little hit, inconsequential, really. But a person by one of those names--P.J. Salvato--lived in Galveston in the 1950s. Okay, that's interesting. Poke some more. Prod a little. I found out that name was referenced in the Nov. 20, 1957 issue of the Galveston Daily News. Those aren't terribly easy to come by, but I found one. And, lo and behold, that headline at the top of this blog greets me on the front page: "Gaming Charges Quashing Asked." Pattern much? The article talked about indictments brought by Attorney General Will Wilson against gambling interests on the island, and right there next to legendary gambling kingpin Sam Maceo was my man, P.J. Salvato. The man whose family was a major operator of vice in Galveston County, second only to the Maceo syndicate. The man who bought the Wagon Wheel while under indictment in Galveston. The man who, as soon as the Texas Rangers destroyed the erstwhile Sealy casino, sold it again to those who would turn it into a brothel.

Game. Set. Match.

I know it doesn't sound like much, but I am inordinately excited about making this connection. It's something that's eluded me for the past six years, yet furthers my argument that the story of the Chicken Ranch very much ties in closely with pretty much every other aspect of Texas history--and the so-called Free State of Galveston was a major aspect for more than 50 years. It's there. It's documented. It's real. I just hope readers enjoy learning about these interconnected revelations as much as I have enjoyed uncovering them.

Now Playing: Django Reinhardt Chronological, Vol. 1
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Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I know it's been fashionable to hate on the Eagles for several decades now, but I've always liked the band despite the fact that all the members are pretty much straight-up jerks. Of those jerks, I've always had a particular fondness for Glenn Frey. So obviously, it came as a shock when he died earlier this week from complications stemming from chronic rheumatoid arthritis, pneumonia and other afflictions. He was only 67, and it's disconcerting to realize that I am now older than he was when I saw the Eagles in concert back in 1994. "New Kid In Town" is a song I've deeply loved since I first heard it when it came out in 1976--I'd have been six or seven at the time, and it got heavy airplay on country radio stations back in the day (I got to listen to both kinds of music growing up: Country and Western). Oddly enough, for many, many years I believed this was a Jimmy Buffett song, and even after learning it was indeed an Eagles song, I was convinced Buffett had released a cover back in the 70s. Amazing how one's mind plays tricks on you, even in the face of all evidence. In any event, Frey delivers this one with masterful nuance, and I don't think anything can diminish my love for it.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... 38 Special.

Now Playing: The Eagles Greatest Hits vol. 2
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