May 29, 2009
Bud Shrake wrote, in the December 27, 1974, issue of this magazine,
about "The Screwing Up of Austin." Prefacing the story 35 years later
for Land of the Permanent Wave: An Edwin "Bud" Shrake Reader, he
described the syndrome that led himas it has led so many othersto write it.
"No matter what year you moved to Austin, you just missed it.
Somebody will tell you this was a really great place to live until
shortly before you arrived. This was my pass at telling how much
better it used to be. ... And by the way, it did used to be better."
In the piece, Shrake and buddy Willie Nelson hatch a plan to cap the
population at 250,000a number the town had yet to top in 1974. No
kidding Austin was better then.
As Shrake saw, at least in retrospect, the serial impulse to wax
nostalgic about Austin is more than a syndromeit's almost a civic
prerogative. Austinites have always considered themselves the state's
coolest cats, and that assessment requires an immediate past in which
things were ostensibly cooler still, lest some underindoctrinated
newcomer take a close look around and call bullshit on the rampant
I was from Houston, and I disdained Austinitessmug self-satisfied
m@%h#!f*$#erseven more than I loathed Dallasites, who were supposed
to be some sort of rival to Houston, about which pissing match who
could possibly care? Dallas was invisible to anyone I knew in
Houston, no threat to anything. Smug m@%h#!f*$#ers patting themselves
on the back about the good life in Austin, thoughthat was annoying.
Still, when I left Texas for the latest last time, I told myself and
others that if I ever came back, I'd be coming back to Austin. And
sure enough. Because the smug m@%h#!f*$#ers were right.
But Austinas even the greenest newcomers can seeain't what it used
to be. Austin was cooler then. Way back when, when Shrake and his
running buddies ruled the roost. That was already clear by 1974, when
Shrake bemoaned the passing of the glory days, and it was made clear
again when Shrake died on May 8. All the old stories came out for a
It's a familiar parade of anecdotes: Shrake's early days at the Fort
Worth Press fraternizing with friend and competitor Gary Cartwright
(who ended up at Texas Monthly); his salad days as an elbow-rubbing
star sports columnist in Dallas; his carte blanche excesses during
New Journalism's heyday at Sports Illustrated; and his favored-nation
status at Willie Morris' Harper's.
Shrake's buddies constituted a who's who of A-Team bohemians (Dennis
Hopper, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer) and the best, brightest and
drunkest that Austin had to offer (Darrell Royal, Willie Nelson,
Billy Lee Brammer, Jerry Jeff Walker, Larry L. King). The latter
crowd, plus a revolving cast of simpaticos including sportswriter Dan
Jenkins and wide receiver-turned-novelist Peter Gent, self-styled a
clique called Mad Dog Inc., which set up camp in an office over
Austin's redneck rock epicenter, the long- and loudly lamented
Armadillo World Headquarters, and began providing "indefinable
services to mankind," which seems to have amounted mostly to
popularizing the legends developing in their own minds.
Austin's Mad Dog mythology even spawned its own bibliography: Jay
Dunston Milner's Confessions of a Maddog: A Romp through the
High-Flying Texas Music and Literary Era of the Fifties to the
Seventies; Steven L. Davis' Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in
the Sixties and Beyond; and Jan Reid's The Improbable Rise of Redneck
Rock. All are required reading if you want to know how much cooler
Austin was 50, 40, even just 30 years ago.
Shrake was at the center of it all, tall, good looking, and possessed
of a hard-partying stamina that's only partly explained by a
decade-plus cocaine habit. The story goes that even legendary
self-abuser Hunter S. Thompson couldn't hang with the Austin crowd,
passing out after a mere 40 hours running with the Mad Dogs during
one oft-retold visit.
But there's nothing more boring than other people's drug stories, and
Shrake cleaned up decades ago (except for, as he didn't hesitate to
admit, the weed). For almost 20 years, Shrake might have been
best-known in Austin as the First Guy, ever-present companion to his
late-life soulmate, Gov. Ann Richards.
It was about the time he took up with Richards, in 1992, that he hit
his lottery-caliber jackpot, co-penning with the titular Austin golf
coach Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, inevitably identified as the
best-selling sports book of all time.
Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, like the Mad Dog mythology, is
composed of anecdotes and aphorisms. By the time it set Shrake free,
he'd already written seven novels, seven filmed screenplays
(including the Willie Nelson-Kris Kristofferson vehicle Songwriter),
and two as-told-to celebrity biographies (of Willie and Oklahoma
Sooners coach Barry Switzer).
Readers who really revere Shrake aren't golfers or even necessarily
football fans, but aficionados of Blessed McGill (1968), Strange
Peaches (1972), and the historical fiction of The Borderland (2000)
and Custer's Brother's Horse (2007).
The fiction, apparently, is what Shrake truly cared about as well.
How else to explain why a man with Shrake's journalistic and
screenwriting résumé, with social skills sufficient to guarantee
dinner-party invitations through the end times, and with a little Zen
golf book that made him financially secure, why that guy took his
windfall and used it to sit at a desk typing for large chunks of the
rest of his life? He didn't drink or smoke or even go out much
anymore. He was reportedly 100 pages into a new novel when he died.
He wrote fictionwhether a major house published it, whether it sold
or not. The man who makes that choicewhatever else he may have
beenis first and foremost a real writer.
You can tell that best not from the inevitable when-we-were-young
remembrances, or from the star-studded funeral procession, but from
reading Shrake's fiction, now largely kept in print by John M. Hardy
Publishing, a small press in Houston.
Strange Peaches is my favorite, for its mean, coolly deliberate and
murderous (as Norman Mailer once praised the prose of Shrake's fellow
Texan, Terry Southern) explication of Dallas' moneyed milieu in the
days prior to the Kennedy assassination. In the book, a Texas native
quits a successful TV show on which he plays a gin-yew-wine
six-shooting cowboy and returns home, long-haired and strung out on
Dexedrine, to make a documentary about the true state of Texas. The
plot and dialog ("'God dawg, pussy has ruint his brain,' Billy Bob
Teagarden said ...") are artifacts of their time, but it was an
important time, and nobody knew its contours as well as Shrake. Larry
McMurtry considered the writer of Strange Peaches "far superior to
his drinking buddies," and Shrake himself considered his best novels
underrated. In the last substantive interview of his life, Shrake
told Observer contributor Brant Bingamon, "Peaches and [Blessed]
McGill are definitely overlooked, and yet I seem to find myself being
asked about them constantly by discerning people." They may not
escape the Texas wing of the canon, but both books are firmly ensconced there.
I didn't know Bud Shrake. I exchanged a few e-mails trying
unsuccessfully to get him to write something, anything, for us. He
was gracious, but he wasn't particularly interested. He was already
sick with the lung cancer that finally killed him, and he had other
work to attend.
When he spoke at the book-release party for Land of the Permanent
Wave at Texas State's Alkek Library, in April last year, I went with
friends to watch. I bought a copy of the book and stood in line.
Shrake signed it:
These memories of
old Austin as seen
in the Observer
It's a relic now, marking a bygone era and a writer at the end of his
run. But it's nice to have itand so much elseto remember him by.