Remembering Jimmy LaFave

May 30, 2017  

By Mike Jasper

Jimmy LaFave.

You see a proper noun, I see the heart and soul of Austin Music.

I suppose some Austinites think the same thing when they see the name Butch Hancock or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Jerry Jeff Walker or even Willie Nelson for crissakes.

But I got to Austin later, a decade or two after the Lubbock invasion, the Dallas meander, and the Nashville escape. During the ’90s, LaFave was the leader, the pinnacle, the force, the person you aspired to be like — but never aspired to be, for that was a very unLaFaveish thing to do. No, to be like Jimmy you aspired to be an Austin original, a true Texan singer-songwriter, whether you were from Omaha Nebraska, Portland Maine, Houston Texas, Stillwater Oklahoma or Sebastopol California like me.

I plopped down in Austin Texas in 1991, thanks to bad advice and a free plane ticket. Within three weeks I realized: shoulda gone to Seattle. Would have been a better fit in Seattle. Why? Because despite the big spread in National Geographic, and the big TV show on PBS, I couldn’t find any there here (thank you, Gertrude Stein).

Couldn’t hear a hit song, couldn’t hear a trend. Couldn’t hear something I wish I would have done, couldn’t hear something I’d hear for fun. Couldn’t hear a circus act, an Olympian or a nuisance. Couldn’t hear anything that made me think, well … I would never have heard this in California.

And then I heard Jimmy LaFave. He and guitarist Larry Wilson played Threadgill’s one night in 1992 and I was there, the old location on North Lamar where Janis Joplin once played (or so I’ve heard). What an amazing voice, I thought. Couldn’t stop smiling. This is why I came to Austin, I reckon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I met LaFave before I heard LaFave because when I met him we were hanging out at Chicago House, the epicenter of the ’90s singer-songwriter movement that spawned local luminaries such as Slaid Cleaves, Mark Viator & Susan Maxey, Betty Elders, Abra Moore, Guy Forsyth and, of course, LaFave. That said, I had no idea who he was at the time. He kind of seemed like a wiseass, and it was confirmed by his friendship with music critic John Conquest. But he said a few things that made me laugh, so he was OK by me.

He asked how I was liking the move to Austin.

“It’s okay, but I haven’t heard anything yet that I think could make its way onto the radio.”

He looked at me, shook his head, and muttered something under his breath.

The second time I saw him (yeah, I can mark these times on my fingers) was at Magnolia’s restaurant, eating a meal by himself. I was at another booth with two women. One of us was greedy. I asked if we could join him (he had a better booth) and he said sure. I didn’t know he was a vegetarian at the time, so I can only assume he was eating fig leaves and I was eating a calves-face sandwich.

The third encounter, (yeah, I’m still counting) I’m walking down the street, Fifth Street to be specific since at the time I always parked at the now-defunct post office downtown. Anyway, I walk down Fifth Street, and who comes walking up to me but Jimmy LaFave.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” he says.

“It’s Mike Jasper.”

“Yeah. I remember.”

“From the Chicago House.”

“Yeah. I remember.”

“Do you know a good dentist?”

Yep. I’m not kidding. I actually asked that. But here’s the thing. I really needed a good dentist, and musicians have crap health care, and here was a musician with good teeth walking down the street.

He didn’t even blink.

“Yeah, I’ve got a great one.”

He gave me the contact info.

The next time I met him was at some weird opening of the old Chicago House at the new Austin Music Hall. I opened for him. About six hours before he went on, meaning, many, many people opened for him.

“Did you ever see my dentist?” he asked. He remembered.

“No,” I said. “She wasn’t on my dental insurance.”

He looked at me, shook his head, and muttered something under his breath.

Good times.

Didn’t see him for years. Always expected to… gigs cross, you know. But somehow they didn’t. Then my next door neighbor told me, “I’m getting married.”

How nice for him. He told me about his wedding plans, wanted it old school Austin, going to have it at the Driskill Hotel, catered, big affair, biggest if possible, flowers, cakes with mannequins, the whole 9 yards. And then he said… fatefully.

“If only I could get Jimmy LaFave to play at the wedding. If only I could afford him.”

I jumped on it. Only because I knew, first hand, how affordable musicians really are. Especially if they have no gigs on the same date.

“I know Jimmy, let me check that out for you. I could probably get him to play the wedding for, I don’t know, $500?” (That figure would be redacted if Jimmy weren’t dying. Or if I had any integrity.)

“That would be awesome!” he said.

“Cool,” I said. And then I thought, hmmm. Wonder if he’ll do it for that?

Turns out I was right. It pays to be a musician. Frequently. Sometimes. OK, rarely. (I’m only talking financially, you know.)

He said, sure, it was lower than usual, but he’d play the gig, since I was the one who asked and he had no other gigs that day. He’d even bring John Inmon, the guitarist from the Lost Gonzo band and a vegetarian himself. (I’m fascinated by vegetarians, although I want no part of it myself.)

Jimmy sounded amazing. That was the best I ever heard him, pure and simple, just LaFave and his guitar and Inmon playing leads and fills over my old sound system made new again by the brilliant sounds of LaFave’s strident tenor, a voice dripping with soul, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes, and it definitely brought tears to others’ eyes.

Afterward, I followed him and John to the food line. Just to see what the hell vegetarians eat.

Last encounter. One to one, anyway. My Californian friend Eric Anderson comes to visit me in Austin. He wants to see the Hill Country, he wants to see the LBJ museum, and he wants to see Jimmy LaFave, his favorite Austin musician. Unfortunately, Jimmy had no gigs lined up during Eric’s stay in Austin. But it turns out Jimmy is, indeed, in town.

“Would you like to meet Jimmy?” I ask.

Eric says yes. What the hell else would he say?

Jimmy agreed to meet me and Eric for breakfast at Opal Divine’s on South Congress. It went well, and I was a hero in Eric’s eyes. At some point, Eric went to the bathroom and Jimmy and I were left together in an awkward silence.

“You gigging?” he asked.

“No, not lately.”

He took a deep breath, turned his head, and muttered … something.

I could never really hold a conversation with Jimmy. How the hell do you talk to an idol? You don’t. You just genuflect and hope for the best. But LaFave always came through for me. Always. I asked for a dentist, and he said yes. I asked him to play a wedding, and he said yes. I asked him to meet a fan from California, and he said yes.

But I wanted him to live forever, or at least outlive me, and someone, somewhere said no.

The last time I saw Jimmy LaFave was on stage at Threadgill’s, April 21, the world headquarters downtown, the night when the Austin Chronicle wrote about his impending doom from an aggressive form of cancer called sarcoma — as if regular cancer wasn’t aggressive enough. I got off work, thanks to the compassion and understanding of my supervisors, and arrived just in time to hear him sing a song from his idol, Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Oddly, the last time I saw Townes Van Zandt, he recited a Woody Guthrie poem on the upstairs stage of the Chicago House during one of my Wednesday open mics back in the day, 1995 I’m thinking. Guess there’s a certain symmetry in that.

Yep. One more time I got to hear Jimmy LaFave’s still amazing, if weakened, vocals pierce the air of a crisp spring Austin evening. One last time I got to be part of his night tribe.

Sonofabitch. The heart and soul of Austin music is dying, and there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it Austinites. Just gotta turn our heads away, cover our eyes, and mutter a little prayer or two.

I’m gonna miss you, Jimmy.


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2 COMMENTS

  1. By James Casey, June 1, 2017

    I saw Jimmy’s performance on Austin City Limits in 1997 and thought “this guy is phenomenal” before making a mental note to check out his work. There were only a few albums at the time and this was before streaming, I could think of other excuses but the sad reality is that I never got around to it. There were many opportunities to see him play live, he was practically a regular at the Blue Door in OKC. I considered making the 60 mile trip a few times but laziness or lack of funds kept me at home. Then out of the blue I read about that last concert and Jimmy’s losing battle with cancer on the Austin Chronicle’s website…I was stunned. I knew this guy was the real thing. You only have to hear him interpret “Walk Away Renee” one time to realize that. Then, it couldn’t have been but a few days later news of his passing reached my facebook newsfeed. Suffice to say that I have learned my lesson about putting off genius on the rare occasions it is so patently obvious as it was with Jimmy LaFave. I wish I’d gone to every show he played at the Blue Note, that I would have been a regular, maybe even have had the chance to meet him like you did. The only consolation, and it is a cherished one, is that I’m hearing the bulk of Jimmy’s recorded output for the first time. Thanks, Mr. Jasper, for sharing your memories.

    Reply
  2. By Roger, July 7, 2017

    Nice story, Mike.

    Reply

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