“Cheap,” by Kim Cadmus Owens, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and the collection of the Museum of Texas Tech University
Live at the Continental Club
By Bill Bentley
The circus had left town. Rolling toward the end of the Seventies, all the high-dollar distressed denim, heavy turquoise bracelets, soft and scuffed Lucchese boots, and even the brain-blowing snow-white cocaine weren’t quite as ominous in Austin’s nightclubs. It was starting to feel a little more like home again, back before the so-called redneck rock invasion. When the cosmic cowboys first started raiding the city, hijacking all the musical attention in our little Austin oasis, it was the mid-Seventies and the Lone Star state was slightly sedate. But that’s how we liked it, actually, because it let the city’s hippies and beatniks create their own fantasies and live on inexpensive fumes. Before the onslaught, the dozen or so honkytonks and nightclubs took care of their own. There were no record business people to promise what rarely got delivered, and the long days and nights spread before central Texas like the promise of a pot hit and a hot kiss.
In those years, marijuana and mescaline were the drugs of choice, and Lone Star beer was the city’s Kool-Aid. Life stayed loose, but visions were also encouraged. From that collision came a style of music that did not have any restrictions. Texas had always been home to an abundance of influences and in Austin during the Seventies they all reached a cool crescendo. No one knew what to call it. There was old-time country, big-city blues, psychedelic rock & roll, and even a touch of jazz.
This music was the glue that made Austin groove. Every night felt like Saturday night, with a growing audience willing to move from club to club and party to party like a Bedouin tribe of thrill-seekers. As musical guru Doug Sahm, who had moved west to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1966, said in 1972: “Man, Austin is way cooler than Frisco was. It’s warmer and has prettier women.” Sahm had the best ear and eye in Texas.
The cosmic cowboys started raiding Austin in 1974, upping the ante on rents and restaurants. At the time, I was in a scruffy bar band called Lea Ann & the Bizarros, and we specialized in playing underused clubs every Friday night. That way, our semi-devoted group of pals knew where to find us, and we could try to create a twist-off vibe for the evening. We’d started at Bevo’s Westside Tap Room, moved to the Hole in the Wall, and in 1978 we began searching for less-crowded pastures. Guitarist Bill Campbell knew about a real drinker’s joint called the Continental Club on Congress Avenue in South Austin. It was inhabited in the mornings by jittery regulars, but by early afternoon it would empty out because of the high attrition rate of a.m. over-drinking. Nights at the Continental were lonelier than the Catholic youth center on the University of Texas campus. When Campbell suggested that the Bizarros would happily move into the club on Friday nights, the owner laughed. “Do whatever you want,” he said. “No one is ever here anyway.”
Little did he know.
Charlie Sexton made his onstage debut on August 10, 1978, at the Continental Club, the day before he turned ten years old. Bizarros bassist Speedy Sparks was dating Charlie’s mom at the time, and he took the boy under his wing and indoctrinated him into early Elvis Presley and Little Richard records. Speedy was maniacal when it came to those 45s; he wouldn’t hear of anything else, period. At that point, Charlie had a guitar but he didn’t really know about song keys. He just had a feeling for his instrument, and for the rest of his life that’s what has kept him on course and moving forward. Today, he’s a singer-songwriter-guitarist of the highest order, a musician in a party of one as the only person who’s been hired by Bob Dylan on three different occasions to fill Dylan’s lead guitar slot. Now, Sexton smiles like the afternoon sun when he remembers his early years in Texas, learning the dos and don’ts of music and the wide world that comes with it. He’s taken a twisty path, one paved with pitfalls and sometimes outright piracy, and one that might have shaken down a less stalwart true believer. Charlie Sexton wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Sexton was born in 1968 in San Antonio to a religious family; his grandparents attended a church that did not allow dancing, instruments, or any other tomfoolery in the building. Only singing. He can remember attending family reunions where everyone sang. One family member did give him a guitar when he was two years old, a somewhat rebellious move at the time. Within a couple of days he had the rhythm. “There’s a photo of me when I was two in a highchair with the guitar in my hands, and behind me on the wall is a poster of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album cover,” Sexton says. “The power of music got taught to me very young, and showed the spiritual side behind the sound. It was a joyous affair when our family got together, even if I didn’t understand much beyond just having that feeling. When my uncles played, it all came together.”
But with those good times there was also darkness. It’s like the Bible preaches: badness happens and even a young Texas boy needs to be ready. Michael Sexton, Charlie’s father, went to prison in Huntsville, Texas, sentenced to three-to-four years for possession of a single marijuana joint. He served his time in one of the heaviest lock-ups in the country, partly to be used as an example for those who crossed the line in the Texas establishment’s continuing war against the counterculture. Michael had been a Neal Cassady–type character, a man always searching for new experiences and the next adventure. When he went away to Huntsville, the family started to split apart. “I knew then that things wouldn’t be the same after that,” Sexton says.
Kay Sexton moved her sons, Charlie and Will, from San Antonio to Austin. Soon enough, Beatles albums were the coin of the realm, while Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” became the daily nursery rhyme. As Charlie tried to find his footing in a new town, he opened his ears to everything swirling around him. “Being a new kid in my school, it felt like everyone wanted to fight me,” he says now. “I’m still not sure why, but what it did to me was make me go deeper into music. My mom’s new boyfriend there was an evil guy from New Orleans who eventually got murdered. Having him around pushed me more into my inner world. It was just me and Will, but I kept playing guitar and listening to records. Finding new bands I loved like the Dave Clark Five, the Music Machine, and whoever I heard that sounded like they were real. Maybe that’s what I loved about the Bizarros. They always had a fun and very real feel.”
The night in 1978 when Charlie first went onstage with the Bizarros has always had a warm shimmer in my memory. Charlie and his brother, who had celebrated his ninth birthday the day before, climbed the beer-soaked stage with the confidence of grown men. They grinned as they looked to the other guitarists and the bassist to plug them in. This was their moment. As the Bizarros began Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” both boys jumped in like seasoned pros. The song has a kind of unstoppable momentum; the chords almost play themselves. When it came time for the chorus, the two Sextons took flight, jumping up and down so high and happy that all the other band members joined in. Roaring back into the verses, the band sounded like a train getting ready to jump the track. Singer Mike “Moondog” Bellamy was practically delirious with glee, shouting words across the top of the audience’s head as if he were giving them all a buzz cut. Lead guitarist Ike Ritter took off on one of his unique celestial excursions, where notes spiraled into the dizzy ozone only to melt together and come crashing back to earth. Bill Campbell hammered out a guitar rhythm as soulful as it was treacherous. The big man played like he was pulling a knife. Bassist Speedy Sparks had a Cheshire Cat grin befitting a proud papa. If he’d had to grade the boys that night, he easily would have given them whatever is better than an A-plus.
As for me, I held on for dear life, pounding my old chrome snare drum into the stage and riding the tarnished cymbal bell like a fireman alerting neighbors to a five-alarm blaze. It was one of those moments when all the trillions of molecules in the Continental merged into one, and it felt like the band, the audience, and the bartenders levitated an inch off the ground. Even the beer bottles seemed to be dancing on the tabletops. Fates were ordained that evening and, sure enough, the race was on. For Charlie, it was the gateway gig that changed his life.
By 1980, Austin had discovered there was actually a business behind rock music. Groups were recording and touring and doing the things that professional recording artists do. When he turned twelve that year, Sexton more or less quit going to school. He dropped out illegally at fourteen and essentially went on the lam in different bands. He played lead guitar in Joe Ely’s outfit and sat in regularly for Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, both of which turned Sexton into a much talked-about young Texas sensation. At fifteen, he would walk into Steamboat Springs on Sixth Street when Stevie Ray Vaughan was performing, and after handing Sexton his Stratocaster guitar, Vaughan would go to the bar for the rest of the set. It isn’t always easy for child stars, but for Charlie Sexton, the signs were there: something big was going to happen. It was just a matter of where, when, and how big.
“Looking back now, it’s interesting how my musical world changed,” Sexton says. “I was playing blues and rockabilly because that’s what was all around me. But I knew I was here to do something else.” When the big break came in early 1985, he was seventeen years old and signed to MCA Records. But a local backlash began when the deal produced the hit single “Beat’s So Lonely” and best-selling album Pictures for Pleasure. Many Austinites thought Charlie Sexton had allowed the meddling record label to change his music, steering him away from his Texas roots into the ominous pop world, though Sexton says that’s just not true. “It’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “It’s odd to look at it now, because MCA’s trip, which was to help me expand my musical endeavors, was only half as bad as the reaction by my Austin fans.”
One January afternoon in 1980, Charlie and Will Sexton joined Bizarros band member Speedy Sparks and came over to my Austin apartment to rehearse for a new band we were thinking of starting. As the rehearsal began, I got a phone call from Jay Levin, the editor of L.A. Weekly. I had never spoken to him before. Hell, I’d never even been to Los Angeles. But Levin said the recently launched newspaper needed a music editor. Did I want to move there and take the job? Without hesitation I said yes, and then I went into the other room to tell Sparks and the Sextons I was leaving town and moving to L.A. Charlie laughed excitedly and said, “Far out.” His young adventurous spirit, even as an eleven-year-old, gave me confidence that day.
Later, it would feel like I’d come full-circle with Charlie Sexton. As he was getting ready to start recording his debut album, the A&R person who signed him to the label asked me to come by and talk about possible songs to record. I’d been living in L.A. for five years by then, and I was working as a publicist at Slash Records. So I went to MCA’s huge offices in Universal City and brought a song by Louisiana swamp pop hero Warren Storm called “Mama Mama Mama (Look What Your Little Boy’s Done).” It seemed perfect for the Charlie Sexton I had known and performed with in Austin. After I played it for the label rep, he looked at me like I was a total Martian and asked if I was on drugs.
“Look,” he said with a slight edge of anger, “that was the old Charlie. It has nothing to do with the new Charlie. Sorry you couldn’t help us.” End of conversation.
I grabbed my LP and left the building in a hurry, like I’d just been fired from a job I didn’t even have. I realized everything changes and hoped that the “new” Sexton would find the best way forward for himself. I also knew I didn’t have a clue. Soon enough, “Beat’s So Lonely” was one of the biggest hit singles of the year, and Charlie Sexton was a certified rock star. One listen to his new music made me gladly realize that my young friend was all grown up. He’d go on to headline large arenas, tour with David Bowie, and start the band Arc Angels with Doyle Bramhall II and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section. That was just the beginning. There would be years and years of solo albums, exciting collaborations, producing music for others, and an appearance in Richard Linklater’s recent hit film Boyhood. And while none of this came as a surprise—the musician always had the touch of a master—it was a source of true joy to hear of Sexton’s successes as they happened. Visions of the Continental Club indeed.
These days, to watch Charlie Sexton play onstage with Bob Dylan is to see one of modern music’s most inspired musicians at his very best. Not many people before him have had this job, and those who did are among the great guitarists in rock & roll history: Michael Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, G. E. Smith, Larry Campbell, Denny Freeman, and others. Sexton sits at the top of that list today, and he was meant to be there. “I’ve dealt with a lot of things, but I have always known playing music is my calling,” Sexton says. “That’s still the thrill of it all.”