Better Back When
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 him—as it has led so many others—to 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 250,000—a 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 syndrome—it’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 self-congratulation.
I was from Houston, and I disdained Austinites—smug self-satisfied m@%h#!f*$#ers—even more than I loathed Dallasites, who were supposed to be some sort of rival to Houston, about which pissing match who could possibly care? Dallas was invisible to anyone I knew in Houston, no threat to anything. Smug m@%h#!f*$#ers patting themselves on the back about the good life in Austin, though—that 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 Austin—as even the greenest newcomers can see—ain’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 fresh polish.
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 Âlatter 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 rÃ©sumÃ©, 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 fiction—whether a major house published it, whether it sold or not. The man who makes that choice—whatever else he may have been—is 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 — Best Bud Shrake
It’s a relic now, marking a bygone era and a writer at the end of his run. But it’s nice to have it—and so much else—to remember him by.