Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Crazy King: What I'll Always Remember About Chadd Thomas

May 2001

I spent my first night as a college graduate at a seedy, rank shithole of a rock n' roll dive on Dirty 6th.

I was at the Black Cat Lounge at the request of one of my best friends, Chris Harrison. Chris knew that I wanted to party that weekend, and he said he had just the tonic for my gin n' sin. He was playing in a new rockabilly band fronted by a gentleman named Chadd Thomas. Chris said they were hitting the stage just around the same time I was walking off the stage, diploma in hand, from the University of Texas.

Chris even promised me that if I showed up, he would play a very special solo just for me. They were rehearsing a closing song where Chris' guitar solo borrowed liberally from the intro lick to "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC. Knowing how much I love AC/DC, and how much I enjoy seeing Chris play, I agreed to see him out there as soon as I could.

So on a steamy, late spring Saturday night full of publicly drunk college graduates cramming 6th Street in jubilation, I dragged the two people who were with me that night, Uncle Tim and Aunt Kathy, out to see Chris and his new band play at the Black Cat.

We probably got there around 10:30 PM. The Black Cat was nothing more than a stage in front, two rickety black-tarred bleachers on the left and right covered in graffiti, a makeshift bar of graying wood near the entrance door and an overhang upstairs about the same color as the bar.

No chairs were up there. The overhang was standing room only.

The walls were concrete and tattooed in every possible color, in every possible way. The walls were spray painted, smeared with permanent marker, etched in with a pocket knife, all of them marking bands barely remembered. The floors were also concrete, but faintly streaked with blood from mosh pits.

Uncle Tim went to the can, and remarked that he had "to give this place an A for its shit-house smut." I never went inside.

The rest of the Black Cat crowd took on the resemblance of the place itself: hard-edged and tough. Beyond the obligatory tattoos, the Black Cat crowd was like a UN convention of body piercings. Multi-colored hair was waived proudly like a national flag. Younger green haired Mohawk dude with piercings decorating his face like zits stood next to an aging rocker guy who had long dyed black hair and was openly bragging about piercing his hemorrhoids.

The only one who appeared to be smiling was the pompadoured 20-something-year-old lead singer of the Crazy Kings. While Chris and the rest of band appeared mildly stoic still learning the new material, this guy was over here shaking his hips like Elvis and tapping his black and white wingtips to the groove of revved-up Johnny Cash and Hank Williams numbers.

The Crazy Kings finished out their 45-minute set with what started as an almost spoken word number from the lead singer about driving up a lone blacktop from Corpus Christi to Austin. And the only thing behind him, according to the song, was a Cadillac gaining closer.

"FUCK THAT CADILLAC!" was the refrain. I wasn't too sure why the Cadillac had gotten the Crazy Kings all riled up, but it sure sounded good. Even better was when Chris launched into his AC/DC solo that got a noticeable pop from the tattooed and pierced, but was intended just for me. I dug that.

Uncle Tim, Aunt Kathy and I shook everyone's hands after the set and congratulated Chris on the new gig. Sensing that the Crazy Kings were trying to pack up, we hightailed it out of the Black Cat and headed east for beers at the Copper Tank.

However, the lead singer Chadd Thomas, as well as Chris did their finest to send me out into the world properly with a fine night of rock n' roll, beer and a slight degree of danger. At the Copper Tank, the beers weren't Lone Star, the girls were cuter and dancing to "Pour Some Sugar On Me."

I would never walk into the Black Cat again.

February 2005

I ran ragged across the country in pursuit of a career. After college, I moved to Albuquerque, NM where I worked for an 80s radio station. The station flipped formats shortly before Christmas to Top 40, and I had the impossible task of telling our advertisers why they should continue to stay the course with my station while the ratings went into the tank, general managers were being fired at a rate of once every quarter and Britney Spears was playing once an hour.

I quit right before Christmas 2002.

Undaunted, I packed up and moved to Connecticut where I found a series of great part-time work including a weekend production assistant gig at ESPN Radio. However, permanent positions were not to be had. My steadiest gig wasn't ESPN or my teaching/play-by-play gig for the University of New Haven. It was waiting tables and tending bar at the Rainforest Cafe inside a West Hartford mall.

That too was unsustainable. After a long talk with my buddy Jesse Gonzales, he urged me to come back to Austin and start over again. He had a spare bedroom for rent in a house he was living at in the central Austin neighborhood of Hyde Park. I couldn't say no.

I quit all my gigs right before Christmas 2004, and I found myself back in Austin for New Years Eve. I had no direction, no career to speak of, but I was back home again in Austin. In February 2005, I got a call from Chris to see him play with the Crazy Kings, this time at a place on Red River called Headhunters.

Why Headhunters? Well, Black Cat was burned to the ground at some point during my three-year absence from the city. It was never rebuilt. There wasn't that much to rebuild, honestly.

Jesse and I found our old downtown parking spot--the old lot of the Texas Teacher Pension building on 10th and Red River--and walked one block exactly. That one block walk smelled like a sinful amalgam, a wonderful blend of Jack Daniel's and Shiner Bock, Marlboros and perfume, Tex-Mex from Jaime's and mesquite smoke from Stubb's.

Headhunters still attracted a lot of the same Black Cat crowd, but it was a much nicer venue. It used to be an old tiki lounge called Ocean's 11, and Headhunters still featured some of the same drinks from the old joint like the gin-heavy Sufferin' Bastard. It was much tighter quarters in the middle compared to the Black Cat, but the floors and walls were mahogany paneled, void of the old graffiti coverings of the Black Cat.

Jesse and I found the bar, ordered a round of Shiners, and spotted a long-haired brunette wearing a tight black tank-top and a short white skirt also at the bar. We start talking it up with this girl. Turns out she had just moved to Austin from Utah with a friend of hers. A friend of hers who was also there that night.

Chris and Chadd came out to greet us before the show started and shared a Shiner with us. Well, we drank Shiners. Chadd drank a Lone Star. Shiner was too fancy for him, he said.

We shook hands and let them get down to business. They hit the stage around midnight and it was clear that this wasn't the same band that I remembered. Chadd Thomas and the Crazy Kings sounded loose but completely locked down the rockabilly groove. Everyone was smiling on stage and kept the crowd dancing. Dylan, the bassist, started throwing around his upright bass w/ abandon, twirling it around his head like an eight-foot, four-stringed baton. Chris was grinning wildly while playing whirling dervish blues solos on his prized grid orange Gretch guitar.

Somewhere around the song "Nueces County Jail," I spotted the friend of the girl in the blank tank-top. She was tall, about 5'9" with long blonde hair and a glittering nose stud in her right nostril. I walked up and asked her why she had a shiny booger in her nose. I offered her a tissue to get that cleaned up. She smacked me in the shoulder, but smiled and said how rude I was being to a total stranger.

It was on.

Throughout the set, I regaled her with tales from Connecticut and New Mexico, some of them true, but most of them false. The best was when she bragged about how good she was at air hockey. I told her that when I was at ESPN, we had a game room with an air hockey table. One day when I was there, Wayne Gretzky was there and challenged all comers to a game of air hockey. I told this girl that I beat #99 in air hockey by a score of 8-5.

She was completely enthralled by this. I was, of course, lying. I've never met the Great One, let alone kicked his ass at air hockey, but I know one thing for sure. There's no way in hell I was letting this girl beat me at air hockey or storytelling or dancing to rockabilly music.

So with her mouth still agape from the Gretzky tale, I grabbed her hand and lead her on the dance floor. Chadd winked at me while this blonde cutie and I tried our best to reenact the final dance scene of Swingers. I was Mikey, she was Lorraine and Chadd Thomas and the Crazy Kings were our Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

We twirled all over the makeshift dance floor, laughing like the semi-drunk loons we were while careening into other people on tight quarters of Headhunters. Chadd was putting the final notes on a song called "Hot Rod Man," while the Crazy Kings ended the number with a desperate fury. I flipped her down in the classic way to end a song, her back over-arched in my arms, her soft, glistened hair barely scraping the booze-soaked floor.

I brought her back up and we were both standing upright, smiling. I leaned in to kiss her.

Her friend in the black top and white skirt had about enough of this. Just as I was about to reach her lips, her friend grabbed her free hand and told her she was leaving.


She hauled her out of Headhunters, and was about damned near on 7th Street--two blocks away--before I could catch them. I asked her for the girl's number, but the girl in the white skirt hustled her down a side street before I could get an answer.

I got back in time for "Fuck That Cadillac." Jesse and I had one last Shiner as the Crazy Kings closed out the bar and the night. Regardless of the outcome with the blonde girl, one thing was clear. This was the first night I had been out in Austin, Texas since I moved back. It consisted of pretty girls, great beer, the greatest friends any man could have and ass-kicking rock n' roll.

I never saw the pretty blonde girl or her friend again. But it was good to be home. And I haven't left home since.

Two of the most memorable nights out. One night marked the end of college for me. The other night marked the beginning of my homecoming here in Austin. Both times I was there to support my friend, Chris Harrison. Both times, though, it was the voice, the direction and the vision of Chadd Thomas that was the soundtrack to those nights.

On July 12, Chadd Thomas was found dead on South Congress, the victim of an apparent homicide.

He was 38 years old.

Chadd was the voice of so many great nights out. Nights that marked passages and rites, departures and arrivals, beer and whiskey, and the promise of dangerous liaisons. Most of which didn't happen, but a few certainly did.

Chris left the Crazy Kings about a year ago to pursue his own surf rock act, the Mighty Landshark. While I will always support Chris and his musical ventures, I will, as well as the Austin community, miss the voice and the talents of the Craziest King himself, Chadd Thomas.

Austin Police continue to search for clues and suspects. What I've been searching for the last few weeks is peace and understanding as to why or how this could happen. I still haven't found that yet, and I don't suspect most will for awhile either.

But for now, I think of the crazy nights with the Crazy Kings. I give thanks for sending me off in grand fashion, and welcoming me back with open arms and a beer in hand.

Until we meet again, Chadd. Fuck That Cadillac.

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