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America’s Guesstimation: trying to tell the tale of Malcolm MacDonald and the history of Houston’s music and arts scene Part 1: The Island and Cafe Mode

Submitted by Commandrea on May 3, 2011 – 4:40 pmOne Comment
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Malcolm circa 1985 (from an Axxiom 20th anniversary web page)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a five part series exploring the myths surrounding Houston underground legend Malcolm McDonald. Check back for updates.

By Alex Wukman

When Kerouac wrote that the only people for him were the mad ones, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk…desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars…” he didn’t realize that he was writing the description of a man who one day would become a legend of the Houston underground.

Over the last 30 years Malcolm MacDonald has been involved, in one way or another, with organizations that defined and redefined the Houston art scene, and in doing so he has become more myth than man. He has been called everything from “the Duchess of Montrose” to “the Monster of Morgan’s Point,” often by the same person. However, for the generation that has come of age since the turn of the century he, like so many others, is an unknown entity. If he is known at all to those under 45 he’s just “that creepy drunk old dude at the bar” that they heard “has cancer and AIDS.”

Like almost all of Houston’s arts history—Liberty Hall, Emo’s, Love Street, The Abyss—much of Malcolm’s (author’s note: I have decided to deviate from standard AP style and refer to MacDonald only by his first name because, like Cher or Madonna, those that know him refer to him only as Malcolm) accomplishment have faded into memories that can only be recalled by other “old people.” Anyone trying to recreate the history of Houston’s underground faces two main problems: the lack of anything resembling an official archive and that fact that many of those who were there at the start are gone; either moved to other cities or dead. This makes writing about any underground institution, whether a venue or a person, difficult because one is faced with the problem about what exactly to believe.

None of what is told may be true, all of it can be believed. And in the case of Malcolm nothing seems too far out of the realm of possibility. Should the amateur historian believe the story that Malcolm came to Montrose in the mid-1970s as a young, fresh-faced heir to an oil fortune? Should he or she trust the rumor that once Malcolm arrived in the inner loop he was, as one person who wishes to remain nameless, memorably phrased it, “raised by a pack of wild lesbians?”

What can be documented, from people who say they were there, is a life that runs through the Houston underground and connects scenes as disparate as ‘80s hardcore punk and ‘90s slam poets. It’s a life that has to be contextualized to be understood, placed in a lineage that stretches from people like Aleister Crowley and Oscar Wilde through the Situationists and right up to present day rappers celebrating the culture of excess. To understand Malcolm is to understand the underbelly of Houston.

Most know him as they see him in his current incarnation, a barfly who occasionally makes outlandish statements: something like Cliff Clavin from Cheers, if he drank mescaline smoothies instead of beer. However, that characterization reduces Malcolm to a caricature and discounts his legacy. As Clara Randle, a longtime friend of Malcolm’s, recounts he first gained notoriety as the doorman for Houston’s first punk rock club Paradise Island. Later known as Rock Island and finally, simply, The Island. The venue was Located at 4700 Main, underneath US 59, and hosted shows by bands that would go on to be legends.

In 1981 Black Flag brought their new lead singer, a 20-year-old Henry Rollins, to The Island. The next year saw Husker Du and the Misfits play three months apart. Then in 1983, six months after Husker Du came back, Flipper rocked the house. Randle explains that on one memorable night in early 1981 Malcolm “gave me, Billy Parker, and Ann Heinrich business cards to go see The Judy’s.” At the time The Judy’s, who hailed from Pearland, were the undisputed kings of the Houston New Wave scene. Holding court at the Agora Ballroom, located at the intersection of Richmond and 610, and Number’s, The Judy’s catchy melodies, minimalist instrumentation and themed shows, a beach party celebrating the one year anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, led to a meteoric rise through the embryonic Houston music scene. A rapidly expanding cult following allowed the band to open for the likes of the Talking Heads, The Go-Go’s and the B-52s.

Malcolm’s musical tastes turned him into sort of a tastemaker for much of Houston’s underground. As Richard Tomcala wrote Malcolm was, “one of the people that helped develop [one of] the first punk club[s] in town, and his project –Cafe Mode—remains one of the most interesting club concepts the city has seen since the late ’60’s.” Located at 709 Franklin, Café Mode was to early-and-mid-‘80s Houston what venues like Super Happy Fun Land, Notsuoh’s, Mango’s and Fitzgerald’s are to today’s scene. The place helped to expose Houstonians, who were still in the grip of the Urban Cowboy craze, to bands that would later go on to reshape rock music. The club hosted performances from pioneering Houston punk rock bands Really Red, that featured a pre-Anarchitex Bob Weber, and Grindin Teeth,  fronted by Don Walsh, later of Rusted Shut infamy. Grinin Teeth were among one of the first bands to use the term ‘grindcore’ to describe a hardcore sound that fused elements of hardcore punk, noise, industrial and death metal.

The most widely known Café Mode show happened in June 1986 when, a then little known punk band from New York City, Sonic Youth shared the stage with Houston’s king of experimental music, Culturecide. Culturecide were about to release the album Tacky Souvenirs from Pre-Revolutionary America, a collection of popular songs that had been overdubbed with satirical lyrics, which gained them an international cult following.

Beyond the music Café Mode was also known for its embrace of art in all its forms; which led to the club being known, even today, simply as “Malcolm’s place.” After Café Mode’s demise, the reason of which is not spoken of, even to this day, Malcolm hosted an irregular series of music showcases and performance art pieces at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse called Chez Imbecile. The ‘shows’ were initially attended by a who’s-who of the Houston underground; a group that Malcolm would drunkenly berate. However, over time the novelty of a liquored up Don Rickles impersonation soon wore off and Chez Imbecile began to fade into obscurity, but not before Malcolm created memorable moments and life changing events.

To be continued…

Next: Chez Imbecile to Catal Huyuk

One Comment »

  • RamonLP4 says:

    Awesome!!! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    My first show was actually Chez Imbecile thanks to Malcolm and we were so fearful of playing in front of people that Malcolm came up to us as we cowered in a corner high and drunk and said “Hey, you do realize that you are supposed to play BEFORE the audience leaves.” then he pretty much shoved out in front of people. I mean we had no clue what we were doing, just made some bad noise, I played on cardboard drums, and we likely sucked horribly but I couldn’t think of any better way to start off.

    Thanks Malcolm.

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