Why I Was Wrong About Willie And Houston

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The Esquire Ballroom on Hempstead Highway in Houston

I’ve published a lot of writing in my life, but nothing has ever compared with the outpouring of responses I got to my Medium essay, “Why I Always Associate ‘Born To Run’ With Houston”. Both music and place are powerful drivers of emotional connection, and I guess that’s what makes the combination of the two so incredibly powerful. Which is maybe why I turned out to be totally wrong about Willie and Houston.

A lot of the responses came from people who have listened to “Born To Run” while driving along freeways — especially the New Jersey Turnpike. (Though nobody recalled driving along Highway 9, the Jersey coast highway made famous by “Born To Run”.) And some were from people who have listened to The Beach Boys along the California coast. Curiously — but, I suppose, not surprisingly — the most evocative responses came from people who connected music to the two large cities I know best, Los Angeles and Houston.

For example, my longtime friend Steve Erie, a retired political science professor from UC San Diego and expert on Southern California infrastructure, was unequivocal in his connection to music and place: Laurel Canyon in the ’70s. This made sense to me, as I always figured Steve for an old hippie, but it also reminded me that there is an excellent recent documentary on the connection between music and place, Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time.

As my pal and colleague Josh Stephens wrote about this documentary over on Common Edge, “On the face of it, a documentary about rock stars getting groovy has almost nothing to do with design or planning.” Indeed, it some ways it was the opposite: This creative environment was shaped L.A.’s very sprawl (and pretty environmentally insensitive development in a rustic canyon).

Laurel Canyon

But, as Josh says, “Designers and planners could never create Laurel Canyon, either in form or spirit. They could never envision ramshackle cabins, the Oedipal fury of Morrison, the extraterrestrial weirdness of Zappa, the thoughtfulness of Browne, or the bemusement of Crosby. They just cannot. But as they go about their important work, be it bureaucratic minutiae or large-scale envisioning, they should remember that places can be special — sometimes, very special.”

More than anything else, however, the response I got helped me appreciate the connection between music and place here in Houston — a city that’s somehow simultaneously a center of white blue-collar honky-tonk and earthy African-American blues.

Maybe the most wonderful response to my earlier essay came from my friend Richard Johnson, the sustainability director at Rice University (and a trained urban planner). In my previous essay, I said that on my first drive from Austin to Houston, I tried to get into the Texas spirit by playing Willie Nelson — but I couldn’t do it and I found that “Born To Run” was a better connection to Houston’s energy and blue-collar dynamism.

But Richard reminded me that, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t put Willie Nelson and Houston together, Willie had put the two together in the late ’50s, when he lived in Pasadena — then the epitome of a white working-class suburb — and played regularly at the Esquire Ballroom out on Hempstead Highway. During this time he wrote “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

According to Richard, the legend is that “Night Life” emerged from his nightly drives between Pasadena and the Esquire Ballroom — a distance of about 30 miles. “As a result,” he wrote to me, “I’ve always associated that song with being on the highways late at night in Houston.”

This all makes sense, and indeed the more I thought about it the more it made sense. Think, for example, of the collision of musical styles the emerged in the archetypal Pasadena movie, Urban Cowboy: A kind of soft country rock from the ’70s — not unrelated to Laurel Canyon, in that it included folks like Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles — and country artists like Charlie Daniels and, inevitably, Mickey Gilley, who owned the club where the movie was set. (For the demographic record, white working-class Pasadena has faded from the scene since then and the city is now mostly a Hispanic working-class suburb.)

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Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas

But Richard also, amazingly, made a connection between Willie and Pasadena over to Houston’s rich history of African-American blues. Referring to lyrics from “Night Life,” Richard said to me: “When he sings the lines ‘Listen to the blues they’re playing / Listen to what the blues are saying,’ I imagine that he is tuned in to a Houston blues station, hearing gems from Duke/Peacock Records in the 5th Ward, and the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins in the 3rd Ward, and the driving piano-blues that was associated with the 4th Ward.” (There’s a historic marker in the Third Ward commemorating Lightin’s longtime residence on what is now Emancipation Boulevard, just a couple of blocks from Emancipation Park, home of Houston’s annual Juneteenth celebration, and the El Dorado Ballroom, where the black stars played during the segregation era.)

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The Lightnin’ Hopkins historical marker

So I guess I have a new pilgrimage to make here in Houston — traversing those 30 miles from Pasadena to what is now the Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon. I’ll listen to “Night Life” along the way and maybe a little of Lightnin’ too. It won’t be the same as it was 60 years ago. I’ll probably get stuck in a traffic jam. But at least I will gain a more authentic connection to Houston’s great music history — and to the close connection between the city’s music and the places where that music took root.

Bill Fulton is a former Mayor of Ventura, California, and Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. His latest book is Talk City.

Author, urban planner & former politician. Hometown: Auburn, NY. Mayor: Ventura, CA. Planning Dir: San Diego. Now Dir of Kinder Inst at Rice U. in Houston.

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