I often say that the only goal I had when I graduated from high school in 1976 was to leave Houston and move to Austin, which to me at the time was a magical place of cosmic cowboys and armadillo races. In fact, I wrote a play as a senior in high school about armadillo races in Austin which some poor junior drama class had to perform, complete with cardboard armadillos pulled across the stage on strings. My parents were only too happy to help me achieve my humble goal, presenting me with a set of suitcases for graduation to pack me off to Dobie Mall for my freshman year at the University of Texas.
Ground zero for my dewy eyed vision of Austin was the Armadillo World Headquarters, home to Jim Franklin and his armadillo inspired artwork, and the cosmic cowboy music scene including The Lost Gonzo Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson and Michael Murphey. Austin in 1976 was mostly old (at least they seemed that way at the time) retired people, people who worked at the IRS, people who worked for the State and people at UT. Rent was cheap, the drinking age was 18 and the music scene centered around a bunch of scruffy looking hippies in that aforementioned roach ridden rodent shaped Quonset hut on Riverside and South First.
More than 35 years later, I’m still in Austin, Austin boasts more music venues per capita than any other city in the United States and some of those same cosmic cowboys continue to sing about going home to the armadillo, including Bob Livingston, one of the founding members of The Lost Gonzo Band.
Saturday night September 15 Bob Livingston brought his band of Cowboys and Indians to Maria’s Taco Express. It was only fitting that Livingston’s Cowboys and Indians show was at Maria’s. The South Lamar area including Barton Springs was home to Indians including the Apache and the Comanche for hundreds of years and Lamar is part of what used to be the old west’s famous cattle trail, the Chisholm Trail.
A non-profit multi-cultural performance troupe frequently presenting workshops in schools for students, Cowboys and Indians is a beautiful tapestry of both the east and the west, combining the music of India with the Texas cowboy culture. Along with Livingston, Saturday night’s performance at Maria’s included Richard Bowden, Bradley Kopp, Oliver Rajamani and Paul Pearcy with special guests Beareagle on the rubboard and Indian dancer Purna Bajekal.
The story goes that it was Livingston himself who coined the term “cosmic cowboy” one night stargazing with his fellow musician and sometimes songwriting partner Michael Murphy, who later wrote the lyrics “I just want to be a cosmic cowboy” for the song Cosmic Cowboy on the album Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. Back as a Houston high schooler, I had worn out the grooves on my copy of Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, my favorite song being Alleys of Austin. Is it any wonder I had such a romantic vision of Austin?
In the alleys of Austin and Heaven
The song they’re playing is the same.
The jam sessions sound like the gutters,
As the muddy licks and sticks roll down the drain.
And the drainpipe she rolls out to the river,
And the Pedernales flows out to the sea,
And the sea waters rise up to Heaven,
And rain down on the alleys of Austin,
And you . . . and me.
Of all of the cosmic cowboys that played at the Armadillo, only Willie has a statue in downtown Austin, but it was Bob Livingston and his band mates in The Lost Gonzo Band that probably did the most to musically marry the image of Austin as the home of the Armadillo with their version of bandmate Gary P. Nunn’s song, London Homesick Blues, which became the theme song of the PBS television show Austin City Limits.
Seriously, who doesn’t know the chorus of London Homesick Blues?
I wanna go home with the armadillo.
Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene.
The friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen.
Coincidentally, the recording of London Homesick Blues by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band including Bob Livingston on Walker’s Viva Terlingua! became my father’s official anthem in the three years he and my mom spent living in London, England starting in 1978. Just as I had worn out my copy of Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, my dad played that song all the time, usually taking a cassette copy of Viva Terlingua! with him as he traveled on business trips across Europe and the Middle East.
Of course, I’m not the only one who was lured to Austin by the siren song of the cosmic cowboys at the Armadillo. Brent Grulke, Creative Director of the SXSW Music Festival, recently passed away at the untimely age of 52. In his obituary, it said, “He could have gone to college anywhere, but after reading The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock by Jan Reid, a book that told of the richness of the progressive country music scene in Austin, he chose to go to UT in 1979.”
Bob Livingston told a story at the Cowboys and Indians show about how as a high school student in Lubbock, he found out that Buddy Holly had gone to the same school and he determined to figure out which seat Holly’s talented ass had occupied so he could try to channel the wisdom of Buddy Holly. Bob’s story goes round and around and ends up somewhere around Geoffrey Chaucer in the middle ages, so I won’t even begin to quote it here, but the point is, “Love is love and not fade away.”
Thank you, Cosmic Bob, for not fading away and still rockin’ with the cowboys and Indians in Austin. The ghosts all up and down South Lamar, from the Chisholm Trail to the Armadillo, were dancing with the folks at Maria’s Saturday night. Happy trails to us all.
Special thanks to Mo McMorrow for posting the video from the Cowboys and Indians show at Maria’s on You Tube and just generally being a really cool person.