First of Three Parts
The Cellar began as an eccentric little coffee house in a dank, dark basement underneath Houston Street in downtown Fort Worth. Down a few worn concrete steps to a narrow, low-ceiling room about the size of a couple of freight cars. The walls, floor, ceiling, everything ... painted black. On the far wall across from the entrance was The Cellar’s manifesto: “You must be weird or you wouldn’t be here!” These words were crudely printed in large sloppy letters with runny white paint. And below that ambiguous disclaimer, against the wall, was the bandstand which wasn’t a stand at all but merely a clear spot on the floor. The rest of the floor, as far back into that shadowy burrow as you were willing to look in either direction, was strewn with old sofa cushions and cheap coffee tables. The tabletops were covered with an assortment of gnarled candles that oozed melted wax down the sides to cool and harden. Anything left on the table for too long was eventually fused into one solid mass of wax, ashtrays, cigarette butts and spare change. No chairs — just big, funky cushions to sit on or to wallow on or to do whatever you could get away with on.
The man behind this cultural sideshow was Pat Kirkwood, recently retired (under a cloud of controversy) from the glamorous world of dirt track stock car racing. As a younger man, Kirkwood had raced stock cars all around Texas and throughout the South. He would show up for the big race dressed as the Devil in black jeans, black cowboy boots, black T-shirt, a short beard and a flowing red cape. The man wore a cape! Pat was quick to cash in on his role as reprehensible villain by driving beat-up looking but deceptively fast race cars with his name painted on the roof in demonic red. And as Satan Behind the Wheel, Kirkwood pulled all sorts of treacherous, not to mention unsportsmanlike, stunts on every lap while the crowd cheerfully booed and screamed for his blood. On those occasions when he actually won the race, the rabid crowd would pelt Pat’s car with beer bottles as he made his victory lap with one arm out the window, middle finger extended. Kirkwood packed those arenas with hysterical rednecks eager to blow their paycheck on a handful of tickets just so the entire family could come out and see “that sorry bastard” die in a fiery, mangled car crash. Life is a carnival after all.
Newly retired, Kirkwood was eager to maintain his hard-earned renegade outlaw reputation. So, together with a few of his long
time buddies, Pat chose to capitalize on America’s Beatnik movement of the 50’s and early 60’s by opening a coffeehouse in Fort Worth. It was the kind of coffeehouse that you would expect from a bunch of small time gangsters and big time gamblers out on North Fort Worth’s Jacksboro Highway. The Cellar featured Jazz, a “Far Out” atmosphere with just enough oddball characters to keep it interesting; illegal booze and more often than not, nice-looking waitresses walking around in their underwear. That was the kicker: Skin! Who needs chess and poetry and cynicism when you’ve got a waitress in her underwear? Friday and Saturday nights I played in the band down at The Cellar. “The Night Beats” consisted of a born-again, over-sexed bass player with a guilty conscience, a hyper piano player that we kept chained to the floor, a pompous saxophone player who mistakenly thought of himself as a jazz legend and, finally, there was me: A young, impressionable lad with a set of drums, two sticks and a dream. The band would start around midnight and keep playing right on through until the place closed — usually some time after dawn, when everyone was just too exhausted and/or disgusted to go on.
It was a desperate, tormented soul who voluntarily chose to hang around The Cellar until dawn, not a pretty sight in any light. I had an excuse. I worked there. By early morning, all the squares and the amateur weird had gone home. All of the troublemakers, during the course of the night, had been escorted up the back stairs and into the alley where the living shit was cheerfully beaten out of them by The Cellar’s courteous, uniformed staff. But after the doors were closed and locked, The Cellar, with practically no effort at all, was transformed into a sort of homeless shelter for assorted loners, perverts, small time hustlers, dope heads, drunks, carnival geeks and musicians ... plus a small army of bouncers and half-naked waitresses. If, for whatever reason, you found yourself in The Cellar at six or seven in the morning and still conscious, you were actually better off just staying down there rather than face the humiliation of climbing up those concrete steps into the punishing sunlight. Suddenly you’re dodging traffic on shaky legs, trying to get your bearings while people on the street dart around you with looks of horror as if you had an ax buried in your head. Down in The Cellar, time stood still. Down in The Cellar, there was an erotic atmosphere of late night danger as long as they kept the lights low and the doors closed.
Dr. Nottingham was a part of that late night, closed-door fantasy. Even at seven in the morning and after witnessing god knows how many depraved acts of pagan debauchery, when others were projectile-vomiting and making fools of themselves, Dr. Nottingham looked like he was ready for church. The man stayed clean, sharp and wide-awake. With his white hair, his well-tailored suits and reserved manner, the little dentist had the style and sophistication of a German aristocrat. This particular Sunday morning most of the band had packed up and gone. The place was officially closed and yet there I was still lurking about for no apparent reason. No, that’s wrong. My reasoning was very apparent. I was there for one more drink and one last shot at hitting on a waitress before going on home. But the girls were all huddled together, busy counting out their tip money, and none of them could comfortably talk to me and count at the same time. As I steered my way through the cushions and coffee tables, dodging the occasional sleeping body, I saw Dr. Nottingham off in a corner holding a conversation with Dubber, one of The Cellar’s bouncers.
Dubber was an exact opposite of the kindly old Doctor. Dubber was a big sweaty hillbilly with a stubbly beard, a bur haircut, dirty jeans, work boots and the official uniform of The Cellar: a black T-shirt. Along with several other convicted felons on The Cellar payroll, Dubber was assigned to Crowd Control. And anyone found guilty of pissing off the staff in any way — any way at all — had better pray that the situation didn’t elevate to the level of “Dealing With Dubber.” The man was notorious. He could make grown men wet themselves. And that’s not to imply that Dubber was just some callous, sadistic brute — Hell no! Not at all. The guy would kill me if he knew I said something like that about him. No, Dubber was just a guy trying to get by. Here’s a man with a limited education, very few marketable skills, an ugly wife and an ugly baby so, why shouldn’t he get paid for something that he’s actually good at? And if that involves stomping a few fellow human beings into the ground, well, good for him!
At first, the sight of Dubber and Dr. Nottingham in a conversation that hadn’t yet erupted in spontaneous violence took me by surprise. But my concern that the Doctor was about to be mauled was just my own cynical view. In truth, nothing like that would ever happen. Number one: Dr. Nottingham was part of the extended Cellar family, and two: Once the place was closed and the doors locked, Dubber’s badass attitude diminished and a relatively reasonable person with sort of a sense of humor emerged. Dubber and the rest of the bouncers at The Cellar were only scary to the customers. And especially scary to those drunken, mean-spirited, redneck farm boys who wrongly assumed that this filthy basement full of transient bohemians was “some queer joint.” As I approached the two men, I could see Dubber and Dr. Nottingham inspecting a piece of metal pipe Dubber had found on the floor under a cushion. It was a zip gun: a crude weapon made by inserting a 410-caliber shotgun shell into a short piece of pipe. Behind the shell, attached with a spring, was a much shorter piece of pipe with a firing pen inside. You hold the pipe firmly in one hand then pull back the firing pen and let go — which is exactly what happened. The zip gun went off with a quick flash, a loud pop and the Doctor was hit in the face.
Luckily, the Doctor managed to avoid a direct hit and was only wounded by a few shotgun pellets and powder burns. But he didn’t
know that! Shocked, blinded in both eyes, disoriented and in fear for his life, Dr. Nottingham thought Dubber or SOMEONE had shot him in the face! Still, no one expected the Doctor’s bold reaction. He pulled a small silver-plated pistol out of his coat pocket and started firing into the floor all around him. Later the Doctor explained that this was a reflex action, that he wasn’t trying to shoot anyone, he just wanted to keep everyone away from him — a reasonable request under the circumstances. With bullets flying, everyone scattered like mice into the shrouded corners of the Cellar. About half the bullets fired harmlessly into the cushions but the others ricocheted off the concrete floor then off the concrete walls and suddenly it was like Yosemite Sam in there! Here’s this little white-haired old man in his tailored suit, blindly spinning around, shooting a gun into the floor. Jumpin’ horny toads!
The waitresses were screaming, people were shouting. Dubber was hit in the leg by a stray slug and went hopping across the floor, yelping like a scalded dog. Another ricochet buzzed over my head and took out a light bulb in the ceiling. Jesus Christ! I understand that this was Fort Worth, Texas, “Where the West Begins” and all, but I was not ready for this shit! I considered myself to be an artist. OK, I was a drummer but the point is I came down to The Cellar to play music and meet women, not dodge hot lead from ornery ol’ Doc Nottingham! Fuck that! The Doctor finally did calm down. He ran out of ammo and had no choice. But they went ahead and took his pistol away just in case. The whole thing had been a grisly mistake but a hell of a show. The slug that hit Dubber had bounced off the floor, entered the back of his left thigh then exited the lower butt cheek, hitting nothing but meat. Dr. Nottingham suffered from shock, a few buckshot pellets in the face and, due to his close proximity to the blast, no eyebrows. A little blood and burnt hair but no permanent damage.
Thankfully, for everyone involved, Dr. Nottingham was a real doctor with full access to the medical community. He arranged to have his and Dubber’s wounds treated without any publicity or any inquiries from the police. The man had class. The rest of us, assorted innocent and guilty bystanders alike, weren’t about to say a word either. And best of all, there was no ill will between Dubber and the Doctor and no threats of retribution from anyone at The Cellar including the owner Pat Kirkwood whose only comment was, “Hey, the guy went a little berserk and started shootin'.... That shit can happen.”
Of course, none of this civil disobedience ever discouraged me from returning to the scene of the crime on a regular basis. I enjoyed a free ringside seat at The Cellar for a variety of sleaze-fests and sordid spectacles and I was not about to give up that seat over a mere narrow brush with death — no way! These people were sort of like family to me. A very twisted, dysfunctional sort of family. But at least they had the up-front honesty to paint a sign on the wall admitting, “You must be weird or you wouldn’t be here!”
George Rains © 2018
George Rains has played drums with Willie Nelson, Jimmy Vaughan, Doug Sahm, Boz Scaggs and many others. He's famous for his Texas Shuffle.
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