Road Stories: The Bombed-Out Whorehouse

Maybe the best sustained musical experience I’ve ever had was playing drums in the band Black Spiral from about 1995-1999.  I was in and just out of high school, and the band started as Chris Crowson, Ryan Dawe, and I were just starting to learn our instruments.  The first songs I was ever involved in writing, and the first lyrics I wrote all went into that band, and we ultimately felt like we were making compelling music that honestly brought something new to the table.

So of course it couldn’t last.  But it did give us the opportunity to shoot a music video in the ruins of a semi-famous brothel.  There is that.

A section of the ruins. Credit: Jayme Lynn Blaschke’s Chicken Ranch Central,  

Crowson and I stayed in Texas after high school, but Dawe moved to Georgia for college, and that was the de facto end of the band, though we (still) never officially broke up.  We pooled our money the following summer to make our album Defeat (recorded in a single day) and, later, the music video for the last song on it, “Twilight.”  The multi-talented Don Swaynos and I began scouting locations for the shoot in the vast openness between Houston and Austin, Texas.  We knew of a place in Sealy, Texas, that looked like a bomb had been dropped on it.  About six buildings, real low, maybe two of them still had a roof on it.   Don and I had driven past this place a hundred times going between Houston and the University of Texas.  This time, we stopped in for a look.

Place was nuts.  We figured it had been a hotel, and we walked the buildings, which seemed to have once consisted of two or three tiny little rooms arranged around a single, shared toilet.  But who would build a hotel like this? It wasn’t just cramped, it was oppressive, even with no walls intact.  But the entire place was all crumbling, with lots of broken glass, and the biggest freaking corn spiders you ever want to see in your life.  Great for a death metal video.

There were a couple of mobile homes parked just on the other side of a cyclone fence, so we knocked on a door to ask about the place.  If the person living there knew what it had been or anything about it (no), or who owned it.  The answer was surprising — Omar, the owner/operator of two Mexican restaurants (named Omar’s, one in Sealy, one in Katy, Texas) — was thought to own the place.

So we drove to the Omar’s in Sealy, just hoping he’d be there.  He was.  This is my conversation with him, as best I can remember, and keep in mind, Omar has a super-heavy accent:

Me: Hi, we’re film school students from UT, and we were told you might own the old hotel or whatever it was out on I-10 outside of town.
Omar: Sure. The whorehouse.
Me: The…wha?
Omar: Yeah, yeah.
Me: The, did you say…”storehouse”?
Omar: No, whorehouse. With ladies. Girls.  The chicken ranch. (The eponymous “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” of Broadway, film, and ZZ Top song fame – vk.)
Me: The…I thought that was in La Grange.
Omar: Sure, but there was another. There in Sealy.
Me: And you own that?
Omar: Yeah, sure.
Me: Ok. We were wondering if it would be possible to shoot a music video. There. In the whorehouse.
Omar: Sure. What do you need?
Me: We would need a location release, saying it’s ok for us to shoot there.
Omar: Ok.

He then took an order pad off the hostess stand, and wrote out that it was ok for us to shoot there, and handed me the torn order ticket.  Um…Perfect?

Turns out, the place was called The Wagon Wheel, the little sister of the Chicken Ranch, which was in La Grange, until a huge scandal shut them both down and propelled a TV reporter named Marvin Zindler to a local stardom that would last until he died many, many years later.  I wound up in school with Marvin’s granddaughter, eventually.

We shot the video a few weeks later in some of the crumbling rooms and back behind the building, and it was a grueling-as-hell shoot in 110-degree heat, with no shade or cover.  There were one or two rooms that still had roofs on them, albeit sagging and threatening to collapse at any moment.  They since have.  But the big reason why we didn’t want to just kick it in one of those rooms was because they were utterly, utterly terrifying.

They smelled like trash and sex.  There was a big, torn up couch in one, with the words “KILL ME” scrawled above it in red paint or possibly animal blood.  And *so many* empty beer bottles and used condoms.  It had become a love nest, I guess, for local teenagers.

It’s interesting. In The Shining, the murder hotel just has murder in its soul, and that spirit infests Jack Torrance.  I have to wonder if sex is the same.  Nobody knew what this place was, apart from local history buffs, and Omar.  The people living next door to it didn’t know.  I wonder if sex was just in the building’s —  the land’s — aura, and it called to people.  It’s possible.

It’s also possible, though, that when you’re a teenager and horny, no place is too terrifying or too disgusting to distract from the magic of touching and being touched.  There is that.

The Agony of Love and the Album Title

The phrase “…and surrender my body to the flames” is Biblical, and I can’t say why it’s always stuck with me, but it has.  If you’ve been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 that goes like this:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

That’s very pretty and poetic and you don’t have to really believe anything in particular to get behind the sentiment, hence its popularity at weddings of all stripes.  But the phrase that appears immediately before that one in the Bible is:

“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

That’s the image that always stuck with me, more than the rest.  For me, that speaks to the idea that a “sacrifice” isn’t really a sacrifice if nothing is at stake.  That’s the thing about love that people leave out on wedding days — to love someone else requires sacrifice.  It isn’t all roses and good feelings and sex.  That kid in Love Actually had it about right when he said what could be “worse than the total agony of being in love?”

But we do make the sacrifices because, paradoxically, by giving ourselves up we gain something unfathomable.  I felt that sentiment captured a lot of what was going on through the ten songs on this album.  Lovestruck, for instance, takes three snapshots of people in love, and in all three of them, the people are hurting despite having love.  But I think despite the pain, their lives are the more beautiful for having that love in them.

On the other hand, the lovers in In the Dark Together don’t necessarily know where they’re going, but they know they’re going there together.  And at times, that’s really enough.

Babies and Inspiration

After my daughter was born, I got it in my head that I would die before she got old enough to remember me.  I think this is a common-enough fear for parents.  But what stuck with me was the thought that she might not remember my voice.

As an infant, and with her older brother before her, I sang her to sleep at night.  There is something so fundamentally human about holding a child and singing it to sleep, and I thought that if there is any subconscious residue of our earliest lives, it must be bound up with the feeling of being held and sung to.  I wanted, no matter what might happen to me, for my children to always have access to that.

Normal people, when taken with the same idea, might simply record themselves telling their children that they love them or some such thing, but what I did was I made this album.

I started playing drums in 1993 and played in metal bands until about 2001.  I started moving around a lot then, from Austin to Houston to Los Angeles, and since I didn’t always have access to drums, I began playing guitar and messing around with electronic music, some of which I used to score films and recorded under the name Mission 13.  In playing more guitar, I started writing songs, and kept it up, especially when life got the most difficult.  When I write a song in darkness, it’s easier for me to embrace that and look ahead to a time when things will be better.  It forces me to imagine, and when left alone with my imagination, I think optimistic things are better company than the opposite.

So when I became taken with this notion of my pending mortality, I started culling through these songs, and tried to find the album that best told the story I wanted to tell my children, if it wound up being, God forbid, the only thing I got to tell them that they remembered.  The songs that found their way onto the record, then, revolve around this notion of darkness and light, and how in the darkness, we can also find ways to see light if we’re willing to look.  I don’t mean that in a hokey, silver-lining way, because it’s hard freaking work to imagine a time when everything will not be as unbearable as it might be now.  And it takes a lot of courage to stand on the threshold of something that could end in either tremendous success or calamitous failure, take a deep breath, and walk forward.

I think that’s what I wanted my children to know.  I think it’s what the album says.