Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 18

Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch
During my trip to La Grange two weekends back, I met with local historian Gary McKee, who showed me something I'd never seen before: A 1970s-era pressing of a vinyl 45 single by a band called Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys. Apparently they were a popular local draw at the Armadillo World Headquarters back in the day. Popular enough, it seems, for the 'Dillo to cut a live single of theirs, titled "The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch." McKee was kind enough to loan me his rare copy in my never-ending quest to uncover all things Chicken Ranch.

I have to say, there's very little "ballad" to the music. It's a kind of rockabilly-cum-bluegrass confection that's catchy, energetic and entertaining, but lacks that narrative story arc that makes ballads what they are. Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys seem to have dropped off the face of the planet, without even a wikipedia article to their name, so I can't even ask for permission to use the song in some form. Ah well, it's enough to know it exists. And speaking of songs that exist, this might come as a shock to those who think ZZ Top cornered the market on Chicken Ranch songs, but in addition to Man Mountain's riveting piece, I also discovered a fellow by the name of Gaylen Ackley also recorded a Chicken Ranch song in the 70s, this one titled "Hello Marvin Zindler." Ackley didn't have nearly as prestigious record company as the 'Dillo backing him, and instead went with Dream Land Records out of the booming metropolis of Industry, Texas. Ackley's voice is solid, but the arrangement on the single is merely demo-quality, with a synth piano and what sounds like a drum machine. I can't help but think some Americana recording artist with a healthy appreciation for Outlaw Country could make this into a popular album cut or live show staple by taking it full-on honky tonk, loading it up with weepy steel guitar and maybe a Bob Wills fiddle or two. I'd love to hear a remake, seriously.

As for the book, progress continues. I'm in the middle of chapter 10, in which Significant Things Happen, and we are introduced to everyone's favorite toupee-wearing media consumer advocate from Houston. Here's a small taste of what I've written today:
As rough as 1971 treated Miss Edna and the Chicken Ranch, over in Houston, a flamboyant, 49-year-old deputy with the Harris County Sheriff’s Department by the name of Marvin Zindler was having a banner year. Zindler, a publicity-craving dynamo who’d risen to the rank of sergeant in the public relations branch after previous stops in the civil, vice and fugitive divisions, convinced Sheriff Buster Kerns and the district attorney to allow him to set up a new consumer affairs division within the department. Zindler--dragging his partner, Deputy E.L. Adams, along for the ride--set up shop in a tiny office with the goal of investigating the claims of ripped-off consumers previously dismissed by the police as civil matters. The Spartan office had one distinctly personal touch from Zindler that set the tone for his daily endeavors--on the wall he hung a sign inscribed with, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil. For I am the meanest S.O.B. in the valley.”

“I used to see dozens of people come up to the sheriff’s department for help because they’d been cheated,” Zindler explained. “But because they were cheated by business instead of robbed with a gun everybody always told them there was nothing that could be done. They were told it was a civil case and they’d have to sue. Hell, you could look at those people and know they didn’t have the money to sue anybody.”
Now Playing: Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, April 23, 2012

So much for my astronomy aspirations

The other week I outlined how pretty much everything that could go wrong with my amateur astronomy efforts does go wrong. How each time I've gotten a little extra money for a telescope upgrade, some minor disaster has befallen the family that consumes that earmarked cash. I didn't go into how many, many things went wrong during my telescope refurbishment process that kept me from observing the heavens for months. Nor did I mention the motor drive that failed to work when I bought my scope way back when. I did reference these problems as I packed up my cherished, 35-plus-year-old Meade 6" mirror and sent it off for resurfacing, joking that perhaps the astronomy gods would give me a pass this time, since the relatively modest cost of the refinishing didn't rise to the level of "disaster money."

I should've just whacked myself in the head with a ball-peen hammer. My mirror awaited me when I got home. I eagerly unpacked it and this is what I found:

From what I can tell, nobody makes 6" parabolic f/5 mirrors anymore, so my classic, high-performance rich-field telescope is now a magnificently bulky doorstop. To say I am physically ill is an understatement.

Now Playing:
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Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Geeze, Blogger's got a bad case of Facebook-itis, in that it's changed up its interface and I'm having a devil of a time adjusting. So I'll keep this short. Here's Berlin, with the immortal tune "Sex (I'm a...)"

Actually, there are several different versions of the song, and different videos as well floating around on the interwebs. Here's a fan's cobbled-together version for the extended dance mix of the track. I also remember a third entirely different video (alternate videos for MTV's exclusive use were big back in the day) but I can't seem to find it anywhere.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Paul McCartney.

Now Playing: Jimmy Buffett Banana Wind
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, April 19, 2012


So, I'm walking down the dog foot aisle in HEB this evening around 7 p.m. and my cell phone rings. I look at the number and see it's a 979 area code. Immediately I know it's from Sealy (I suppose it could be from Columbus as well, but I know all the numbers that would be calling me from there). I answer, and a slow, elderly voice introduces herself as Eleanor Maddox.

I'm a little confused at first. I was halfway expecting a phone call from Sealy, but from someone else and the name doesn't quite register. In my confusion, it takes me a moment to realize she's talking about a newspaper ad, and what's it all about? I took out a classified ad in the Sealy News for five weeks in advance of writing the chapter on the Wagon Wheel brothel for the Chicken Ranch book. My Wagon Wheel research has been comparatively thin, and I'd hoped to get a little more history from the locals to flesh it out. The final ad ran last week, with a grand total of zero responses. So you can understand my confusion at someone calling about the ad a week after the fact, and my failure to understand or recognize the name.

I explain that I'm writing a book on the Chicken Ranch, and since the Wagon Wheel was closed down by Marvin Zindler at the same time but is often overlooked, I'm trying to include the history of that place as well.

She paused for a moment. "The state closed it down."

"Yes, but Marvin Zindler was the catalyst."

Another pause. "That all happened a long time ago. I don't think many people want that brought up."

"I understand some people feel that way."

"Truman is dead. I don't think I'd want to answer questions only he has the answers to."

"Yes, Sheriff Maddox died in 2000. I wish I'd gotten to speak to him." Another pause. "Do you have anything you're willing to speak to me about?"

"I don't think so."

"Well, thank you for your call."

"You're welcome. Goodbye."

It wasn't until I got home did I put two and two together. Sheriff Truman Maddox. Eleanor Maddox. I'd just received a phone call from the late sheriff's wife. Obviously, I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. It's a shame I didn't realize who she was until after the fact. I have a tremendous respect for Sheriff Maddox that grows the more I learn about him. I'd dearly love to learn from her what his reaction to all the unwanted media publicity was, but it looks like that ship has sailed.    

Now Playing: Wynton Marsalis The Majesty of the Blues
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, April 16, 2012

This way to La Grange

Jayme Lynn Blaschke and Gary E. McKee discuss Chicken Ranch history at the Fayette Heritage Museum/Archives
This past weekend saw a major amount of work accomplished on the Chicken Ranch book project. I made substantial writing progress Friday and Saturday on the Wagon Wheel chapter, although the inherent challenges with that particular chapter remain problematic. I happily got over one impasse, only to run face-first into another: Namely, how to integrate the story of Austin County Sheriff Truman Maddox into the narrative. Sheriff Maddox, like Sheriff Jim Flournoy in Fayette County, was a large than life figure, but cut from a very different mold. Unlike Flournoy, he didn't grow up wanting to be a cowboy or a lawman, and more or less got drafted into the role when the community needed him. He played a significant role in the Marvin Zindler affair that is most often overlooked (which is why I'm going out of my way to not overlook it). I'll work out the writing issues eventually (most likely tonight, once the kids are put to bed), but for now it remains a stumbling block.

More significant, though, was our Sunday road trip to La Grange itself for another round of on-site research. The Wife and I rolled into town around 1:30 p.m. and went straight to the Fayette Public Library, which houses the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives. I've visited several times before, and can only say that every county should be so lucky to have as thorough a historical collection. The scanned photo archive alone is a treasure trove. For my purposes, I'd come to review a couple of new items added to their Chicken Ranch archive, the biggest draw being an interview with Miss Edna conducted by Kathy Carter, the library/museum director, back in 2007. Miss Edna told me about that interview when I visited her in Phoenix, but I never could find it in any journals or other publications. The phantom interview baffled me and eluded me. Turns out, Carter agreed to keep it sealed until after Miss Edna's death to protect her privacy, which explained a lot. Donna Green, the curator/archivist helped me out with that interview and several other pieces I was looking for.

Schulenburg native Gary McKee, Fayette County Historical Commission vice-chair (pictured above), showed up shortly thereafter with a fantastic bag of goodies, including some very rare collectibles I'd never seen before. McKee's been a great help these last few months we've been in contact, and has put me on the trail of some wonderful stories. I even got in a quick interview with him regarding one story he had I'd not encountered before, one which I'll have to go back and insert in one of my earlier chapters. It's these colorful local anecdotes that truly bring the Chicken Ranch story to life, and I'd be going nowhere fast without them.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke and Marc Speir discuss camera angles for a mini-documentary being filmed on the Chicken Ranch

Once we finished up at the library, The Wife and I made the short drive over to the Chicken Ranch Dance Hall in Nechanitz for a look-see, simply because it's one of the few businesses in Fayette County that unabashedly embraces the history of the long-gone brothel. Interestingly, they use a variation on the old logo from the failed Chicken Ranch restaurant in Dallas on Greenville Avenue. Since the restaurant's been DOA for 35 years now and the logo's shown up on all sorts of unlicensed product, I suspect nobody's going to complain.

Then came the main event: We met up with Marc Speir, a graduate assistant of mine from many years ago who's since moved on to bigger and better things, and headed off to the Chicken Ranch. With the current owner's blessing, Speir, The Wife and I tromped around the grounds for several hours, taking photos and shooting video footage to eventually craft into a mini documentary/book trailer (my eventually publisher is going to absolutely love me). The ruins themselves are in much worse shape than when I last visited some 18 months ago. The western wing of added-on rooms has almost completely collapsed in on itself, and vandals had gone through kicking out window framed and tearing down paneling, smashing tile in the kitchen and ripping apart old duct work. It makes me sad that folks have nothing better to do than desecrate Texas history--even such neglected aspects of Texas history as the Chicken Ranch.

On the bright side, bluebonnets and prickly pear were in full bloom, a pretty, welcome change from the dry, brown drought conditions of my previous visits. We dug around in the brothel's old trash dump and found some stuff that would be meaningless garbage to anyone else, but fantastic historical documentation for us. We're strange that way. We also saw a five-foot coachwhip that wanted nothing more than to get away from us and hide in the big stands of prickly pear, and a gorgeous three-foot coral snake that, unfortunately, was too far back in the brush to get a good photo of. All in all, it turned out to be one of my most productive research trips to date. I am enthused and inspired. Time to write!

Now Playing: Six Mile Bridge No Reason
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Paul McCartney has earned a reputation as a sometimes brilliant songwriter who almost always releases piss-poor albums. This is a well-deserved reputation. His sentimentality tends to overcome his talent more often than not, resulting in musical drivel. That said, he's still capable of showing the brilliance that made his songwriting with the Beatles such a showstopper. I'm not going to argue that his 1993 album Off the Ground bucks these trends. It doesn't compare to its predecessor, Flowers in the Dirt, but by the same token it's far superior to the forgettable Press to Play. One of the standouts on Off the Ground is "Hope of Deliverance", a tune in which McCartney treads dangerously close to pablum territory, but the general sense of optimism contained in the song and buoyant instrumental arrangement lifts it to something better. It's one I quite like, and it deserves more attention than it is generally afforded.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Little Jimmy Dickens.

Now Playing: Clandestine Home
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Friday, April 06, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Back when I listened to the Doctor Demento Show regularly (that was back when you could actually find it on broadcast radio stations) one of the most popular country songs that made repeated appearances on the Funny Five was "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" by Little Jimmy Dickens. It's a great song, not only funny and clever with its curses, but it features some pretty darn good guitar work. I particularly like this vintage video of it, which shows the limitations of early video technology--every flash of his sequined jacket renders black as it blows out the recording's dynamic range.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Flatt & Scruggs.

Now Playing: Berlin Best of Berlin 1977-1988
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The perils of astronomy fever

The telescope I currently own was purchased by myself when I was 13 years old. It's a nice 6" Meade reflector, and a very, very good scope for its class. That doesn't mean I haven't wanted to upgrade over the years. I've wanted to very much--a better mount for improved tracking, computer control, etc. as well as a much larger aperture scope for deep space nebulas, more detail on planets, etc. (I would absolutely keep my current telescope, as it can do certain things a bigger one couldn't--especially if placed onto a modern mount). Various times I've been ready to upgrade, but as soon as I reach that point, something happens to derail those plans. For instance, four years ago I'd saved up roughly $1,400 for a 10" Meade Schmidt-Newtonian telescope. Yay! I placed the order, but the scope was on backorder. My order wouldn't be processed until they were available. I got a sudden sense of dread. I knew something Was About To Happen. Sure enough, a few weeks later my young son was diagnosed with needing some dental work that wasn't covered by our insurance. Guess how much was left of that $1,400?

So last week, when The Wife (who is well aware of my telescopic ambitions) generously offered to buy me one of those mount upgrades so that I could get more production out of my current 6" scope, I was ecstatic. The offer came out of the blue. I was happy. But it was the weekend, and the supplier was closed and couldn't take the order until Monday. Cue sudden sense of dread. Sunday evening, the water pump in my PT Cruiser went out. Guess where the money earmarked for the new telescope mount went? It's a universal law of some sort--if I'm about to make a large astronomy purchase, the universe will block the move. Why? What is the cosmos afraid of me discovering? Canon just announced a new 60Da astronomy-dedicated camera, which would be nice to have, but I'm certain if I ever try to buy it, my computer will suffer and immediate motherboard failure or something. I'm going to try and send off the mirrors from my telescope to Optic Wave Labs in the next week for re-coating (they're 30 years old. It's time) and hopefully the relatively low cost will help this initiative stay out of the universe's notice. We shall see.

I learned something interesting while my car was in the shop. I got a cheap rental for a couple of days, a Ford Fiesta, which looks just about the most tiny car imaginable short of a Smart Car. I expected to hate it, but was surprised when it turned out to be a nice little ride. The front passenger section is surprisingly roomy, and the deep bucket seats are quite comfortable. It gets great gas mileage, has decent pickup for an economy car and is very nimble. That said, I won't be getting one for myself. For one, the back seat is incredibly cramped, even for my kids, and the rear cargo space is little more than an afterthought. Well, fine. This is a tiny compact after all. But then I had it parked next to my PT Cruiser before returning it to the rental agency, and was shocked to see that they're both the same length. The PT seems to have infinitely more overall cabin space, and the cargo area is much bigger. The PT is slightly wider, but that doesn't explain how the Fiesta just seems like such a smaller car overall. One of the PT's design problems is that it is too heavy for its size, which results in lower gas mileage than one would expect. I developed a new appreciation for this extra weight while driving the Fiesta, though, a much lighter car. On the highway, the Fiesta felt like it was constantly skittering in and out of my lane, and I had to stay on top of it to keep from suddenly drifting. Any sudden gust of wind would threaten to send it into the opposite lane. The heavier PT, in contrast, grips the road and isn't going to change lanes unless you darn well decide to change lanes. I found that quite interesting.

But, yeah, the new water pump is in and the PT is up and running again. All I'm asking is for another 10,000 miles and I'll be ready to trade it in. It's been a enjoyable car to drive and overall hasn't given me too much trouble, but it's still a 10-year-old car getting to the point where repairs are costing more than it's worth overall. Maybe once I replace it I'll be able to start looking at new telescopes again. Maybe.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Little Creatures
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, April 02, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 17

Over the weekend I completed chapter 7, which is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that I am finally done with that ornery piece of writing. The bad news is that it took a week longer to complete than I wanted. Coupled with the previous chapter running a week over its allotted time, and it's pretty clear I'm off my pace. To hit my June 1 goal of completing the entire first draft, I've got to knuckle down and write three chapters per month for April and May. This is daunting, since I've yet to manage more than two per month.

Still, I'm encouraged by chapter 8 getting off to a fast start--even if it was a false one. Not to get into a bunch of arbitrary and complex details, but I wrote the following section for chapter 8, then almost the instant I finished, realized I couldn't use it in the book. Which is a bit of a shame, since it was fun to write. Rather than just hit delete, I figured I'd share it with you good readers, much as I had the excised Monument Hill material from chapter 1:
Sheriff Jim Flournoy stood up from behind his desk as the posse of minister filed into his office. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian... five all together, he counted.

“Howdy Reverends,” he greeted them in his slow drawl. “What can I do for y’all today?”

“Meaning no disrespect, Sheriff,” one said, “but you’ve been in office a full month now, and have not lifted one finger to rid our community of that den of vice. Frankly, we are all disappointed in you.”

“That Chicken Farm is a corrupting influence,” another spoke up. “They peddle lust in a most shameless way. They pollute the morals of our citizens. You gotta do something!”

Big Jim nodded thoughtfully, taking a deep puff from his cigarette before stubbing it out in the overflowing ash tray on his desk. “I confess this vice situation’s weighed on my mind something powerful,” he said slowly. “And Reverends, I do believe y’all are right. From now on, I’m gonna start enforcing our vice laws in this county.”

Startled, the ministers began clapping and congratulating the sheriff all at once, before Big Jim broke in.

All of them vice laws. Especially gambling. I instructed Deputy Prilop just this morning to start writing up a list of all the illegal bingo parlors and raffles, so we can shut ‘em all down,” Big Jim said calmly, lighting up another cigarette. “When I’m through with Fayette County, ain’t no place in Texas gonna have a cleaner--”

The first minister cleared his throat, interrupting the sheriff and breaking the awkward silence that’d fallen over his group. The other ministers stared at the sheriff with equal parts panic and horror.

“Sheriff,” the minister began awkwardly, “we would counsel you not to act, uh, too hastily. La Grange has always been a tolerant, live-and-let-live community, and if you get right down to it, those ladies out a Miss Jessie’s don’t really cause any trouble...”
In other news, I submitted an abstract and C.V. for a paper presentation at the East Texas Historical Association's fall conference in Nacogdoches. It's not a done deal, but my chances of getting in are pretty good. I've also spent a good bit of time this past week in discussions with Theatre Under the Stars in Houston about some possible speaking events. They're putting on a big production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas this June, and while there's nothing definite, we're tossing some ideas back and forth that could turn out to be pretty cool indeed. I'll be sure to let everyone know as soon as I have something definite.

Now Playing: John Mellencamp Big Daddy
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