Monday, February 23, 2015

Stereo Shoestring

Being that my blog is named after the A side masterpiece of the lone psych-punk 45 by Corpus Christi's Stereo Shoestring, I couldn't possibly betray my obligation to research them and write an in depth piece on the band itself! 
I had the pleasure several years ago of meeting and befriending lead guitarist Jim Howard. 
By a strange twist of fate, I was referred to Jim while interviewing the drummer for a band called St. John's Wood who recorded for the Mark VII label. While on the phone, the ex drummer for this Waco band told me his wife was related to a guy who had also recorded a record down in Corpus which featured a cover of The Zombies "Tell Her No" on one side... NO WAY!
Later on, I also located and spoke with the Shoestrings ex vocalist, John Coco. His memory was foggier so only a few bits from that conversation will be featured here. 

From Left to Right: John Coco, James Noe, Richard Lalor, Steve Schultz, Jim Howard

The band members were:
John Coco - Vocals
Richard Lalor - Guitar
Jim Howard - Guitar
Steve Schultz - Drums
James Noe - Bass

Jim was about 15 or 16 years old when he had been taking lessons from a well known local guitar teacher named Chester Rupe. The teacher eventually caught wind that a new band was seeking a lead guitarist, and suggested that Jim go try out with them. He heeded the advice, and went and met with the band at bass player James Noe's parents garage. Jim was intimidated by the fact that all the other members were about 3 years older than him, out of high school already. Along with his already nimble guitar abilities, Jim was aided by a nifty state-of-the-art fuzz box built for him by a man named Smitty who worked at the Horn Shop music store. It was a similar pedal that Smitty had also famously custom built for local scene kings The Zakary Thaks after they performed with The Yardbirds.

Although he never got a direct confirmation that he made the grade, the band must've been impressed, as they continued to invite him over for the next 3 weeks leading up to their first live engagement.

Shortly before Jim's entrance, singer John Coco had been brought into the fold. John was born in Hawaii and subsequently lived all the US due to his father being in the Navy. Just prior to moving down to Texas, John had been attending college in Wisconsin and spent his spare time singing with various cover bands. He recalls one day in 1966 riding in the car with friends when he heard a song on the radio which completely shook him out of his seat. He waited intently for the DJ to announce who this radical new group was... It turned out to be a little ole group called The 13th Floor Elevators! He knew at this point that he needed to end up in Texas, and that he did just a few months later when his family was relocated to Corpus Christi, TX.

By early 1967 John was enrolled at Del Mar University in the city by the sea. He very quickly found himself a spot during the daily lunch hour sitting at a table with the misfit kids. Several months later, one of those kids asked him if he sang and if he would come and try out to replace their current vocalist.

Within just a few short weeks of settling the line up, the group was to participate in a big battle of the bands event at Memorial Coliseum. The band had only prepared 7 songs by this point and played before a huge audience. To their surprise, they won first place and had to perform another set of songs for an encore... They had no other material worked up, so they just played the exact same 7 songs again!

On the subject of how the band came up with its wild psychedelic name, it came about one day when the guys got together to hash out the tedious task of naming their new project. Jim was staring down at his two shoes and slowly uttered "Stereo.... Shoestring!" The "Stereo" part was dropped after about a year of playing, as they considered this addition to be too lame.

Coco's girlfriend at the time was a young Del Mar student named Vicki Jones, who took on the duty of managing the band and helping them book shows. She was instrumental in landing the group a lot of their live performances and even took on tasks like designing their business card (which featured a neat Warhol-esque logo with a banana). She also was the one to reach out to KEYS radio DJ Gilbert Garcia and request that the band use his English Records label to release "On The Road South."

The band began playing gigs all over town at places such as The Carousel Club, Beach Club, Stardust Rollercade, Our Lady Of Perpetual Help, The Dunes, etc. At one particular performance in Robstown at Motts Steakhouse, the proprietor came up to the band at an intermission and irritatedly pointed at Jim's newfangled effects box and said, "You guys can keep playing, but please don't use that thing anymore!"
On another occasion the band found themselves playing a Methodist church youth dance. The folks in charge kept asking the band to turn down to the point where the guys decided to pull a sarcastic prank on the directors. They unplugged their electric guitars and proceeded to start "House Of The Rising Sun". All you could hear was the planking of the un-amplified strings and the softly tapped drum set. While still playing the song, the guitarists began a march towards the exit as Steve grabbed his high hat stand. They walked out the front door and didn't come back to finish their set!

Indeed the band must have been quite loud, as their bassist and musical genius of the group James Noe was constantly blowing his amps out. Steve was described as one of the best and hardest hitting drummers in town and was also regularly replacing broken drum heads.

The band had an 'equipment manager' and personal mentor by the name of Ashley Johnson.
Ashley's record collecting habit was what indirectly lead the Shoestring to use a riff from an obscure Pretty Things import recording called "Defecting Gray."
That manic fuzz riff lead to the creation of the Shoestring's classic song...

Pre Stereo Shoestring band Clockwork Orange, featuring a young Ashley Johnson on bass, Richard Lalor on guitar, and David Odem (of the family who founded the small town of Odem) on vocals...
Details of the groups first recording session are a bit fuzzy. They remember traveling out to ACA Recording Studio in Houston to record. Jim recalls there being mattresses on each wall to provide sound insulation. He thinks there were only about 3 microphones used to track the whole band live. Once the engineer got the sound dialed in, they nailed their two songs in the first couple takes.

While recording "On The Road South", Jim would keep his volume knob on his guitar down in between each lead guitar line he would play. At one point towards the end, you can hear him accidentally turn up the knob too soon and his amp emits a loud screeching feedback noise which is on the final take. He was terribly embarrassed of the mishap, but the wild noise arguably only added to the frantic beauty of the recording!

That same night, the guys happened to stay at the same hotel that Paul Revere & The Raiders were staying at after their big concert that night. To the Shoestring boys astonishment, they watched as a long line of beautiful women waited in line to be let into the Raiders hotel room...

The band pressed up between 100 to 500 copies of the single. Not surprisingly, folks were not ready for the insane attack of "On The Road South", and the record got little airplay aside from legendary KEYS DJ Charlie Brite playing it a couple times. One interesting note is that, unlike most garage bands who would never perform their originals songs off their records, the Shoestring would usually open their second set with "On The Road South".

"On The Road South"

"Tell Her No"

Not everyone in Corpus was appreciate of the "long hairs" and their rock music during that time...
One night while playing the Stardust Rollercade for a particularly defensive audience, the Shoestring took a break after their first set. Jim went to the use the bathroom and while at one of the stalls, felt a guy tap him on the shoulder. Jim turns his head to face the stranger, and this young cowboy says "I don't like the way you play guitar!" and punches him out cold! His bandmates find him laying on the ground and somehow Jim is able to come to his senses and play rest of their set.

Floyd's Restaurant was a 24 hour establishment which was THE after hours place to eat. All the local rock bands would go there after gigs, including the Thaks, Bad Seeds, Smokestack Production, etc. Leaving the restaurant was often a scary process though, as any late night dinner there was usually accompanied by heckling and threats from the tough cowboy crowd that would usually fill the majority of the establishment.

In mid 1968 the band opened for Austin's Baby Cakes at the Dunes club in Port Aransas. They were completely blown away by this out of town band who had never made a proper recording. That same night, they were introduced to the music of another local band that they would cross paths with, The Children.

Some time later, Jim recalls going to see The Children perform at a private party with his band mates. This was a very exciting night, as the Shoestring boys were all big fans of the band and knew all their songs by heart. The next thing he knew, his band mates were bringing in their gear and he was being informed they were about to play a few songs during the Childrens intermission. They proceeded to blast through their own versions of the 4 songs they knew of the headliners "Rebirth" album, and the Children members all went up the front of the stage and enthusiastically cheered them on!

The Stereo Shoestring also got to perform on Corpus Christi's response to American Bandstand, a TV show called Teen Time. Outraged to hear that they couldn't actually play their song live, they decide to make a mockery of the whole thing and went around the corner to the Horn Shop to borrow a couple cheap guitars with no strings on them. With the price tags hanging off their unstrung instruments, and Steve exaggeratedly swinging his arms out of beat behind his drum set with the song, they taped their performance of "On The Road South"! Boy, don't we all wish this footage was still out there to be seen!

In their later stages, the band moved their rehearsals over to a huge empty cathedral which was offered up by a charitable Episcopal priest named Jim Kilpatrick. The building had been essentially abandoned and Kilpatrick saw its use as a way to reach out the youth. This spot came to be known as The Crossing, and it became a hip hang out spot were several other rock bands would rehearse.
The Shoestring would frequently play for free at dances held there as thanks for use of the building. They would set up in the choir loft and put on a psychedelic light show as the audience would watch from below while they sat on floor, since all the pews had been torn out. The city wasn't happy about this arrangement, and they eventually got the building torn down.

Around this time Jim quit the band, Steve enlisted in the air force, and the band would reform later on as The Red House... Read more on that at the great Garage Hangover website.

Many Thanks to everyone who made this piece possible: Jim Howard, John Coco, Vicki Jones Jackson, Peter Buesnel (for use of the Shoestring band photo and show flier), Erik Carter (for use of record label side B scan), and Garage Hangover (for use of record label side A scan and business card scan). Sound clips coming soon!