Reivers, and the spirit of ’85

By Michael Corcoran. Austin American Statesman, Feb. 1, 2008.

Relive a time when a cadre of bands brought national attention to Austin, as the band once known as Zeitgeist plays its reunion shows.

“Veronica loves True Believers, Wild Seeds and Doctors’ Mob; likes Dharma Bums and Glass Eye; hates Zeitgeist. Lesa loves Zeitgeist and Dharma Bums; likes Wild Seeds and Texas Instruments, thinks True Believers are so-so. Patrice loves True Believers, Zeitgeist and Glass Eye and likes everyone else except Poison 13.”

— “The New Sincerity,” Michael Corcoran (Spin magazine, February 1986)

Sounds of the scene
Defining albums of mid-’80s Austin:

  • ‘Translate Slowly’ – Zeitgeist (DB)
  • ‘Saturday’- The Reivers (Capitol)
  • ‘Hard Road’ – reissue of two True Believers LPs (Rykodisc)
  • ‘Mud, Lies and Shame’ – Wild Seeds (Passport)
  • ‘Headache Machine’ – Doctors’ Mob (Wrestler). Later packaged with ‘Sophomore Slump’ on ‘Last One In the Van Drives’ on Hoedown reissue.
  • ‘Scratch Acid’ EP- Scratch Acid (Rabid Cat)
  • ‘Bent By Nature” – Glass Eye (Bar/ None)
  • ‘Yip/ Jump Music’ – Daniel Johnston (Eternal Yip Eye)
  • ‘Sun Tunnels’ – Texas Instruments (Dr. Dream)
  • ‘Wine Is Red, Poison Is Blue’ – Poison 13 (Sub Pop)

The Reivers live:
The Reivers are playing two shows at the Parish, 214 E. Sixth St. The 8:30 p.m. Saturday show is sold out. Tickets are $15 for the 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 show.

All of a sudden there were all these bands that listened to the same records, yet sounded almost nothing alike. It was the mid-’80s and Austin was becoming known, musically, for more than progressive country and electric blues. MTV gave an entire hour to the new Austin bands. Rolling Stone sent feature writer Steve Pond down for a report. Spin went all out, devoting a seven-page spread to “The New Sincerity,” a tag issued as an insult from an old waver, yet worn like a crown by unpretentious new bands having the time of their lives.

Austin was in the throes of a real estate bust, but the music scene centered on the Beach Cabaret and the Continental Club was booming. “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” the Dharma Bums sang in the midst of sweaty, delirious faces. Zeitgeist’s “Things Don’t Change” was another anthem embraced, in part, for its irony.

This exciting era was officially ushered in with the 1985 release of “Translate Slowly,” the Zeitgeist record that was proudly Texan (covers of Willie’s “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” and the instrumental “Hill Country Theme”), yet exotically powerful and artfully accessible.

Talk about chemistry; the interplay between John Croslin’s deadpan growl and Kim Longacre’s angelic harmonies sounded like a merger between the Velvet Underground and the Mamas and the Papas. Bassist Cindy Toth, so shy offstage, would lose herself in the rhythms, while Garrett Williams, more musician than drummer (though he could smack the skins with the hardest of rockers), pulsed in tune with Croslin’s muscular guitar. This was a dynamic band of four individuals — two men and two women — who melted together in song.

If the major labels drafted unsigned acts like their pro sports counterparts do players, Zeitgeist would’ve been a lottery pick. The band signed with Capitol, home of the Beatles. They were on their way. Everybody knew it.

But in the summer of ’87, the band lost nearly all its momentum when a Minnesota choral group called Zeitgeist (which means “spirit of the times”) demanded a name change. To avoid a lawsuit, Capitol wouldn’t put out the next record, the Don Dixon-produced “Saturday,” until Austin’s Zeitgeist found a new handle. They became the Reivers, after the William Faulkner novel. Zeitgeist was such a perfect name.

The band, which also released “End of the Day” on Capitol in 1989 and its 1991 swan song “Pop Beloved” on DB, will reunite for its first gigs in 17 years at the Parish next weekend. It’s a pair of shows that came out of nowhere, with no reissue or anniversary to celebrate. And don’t expect the group, which always shirked the obvious, to open with “It’s About Time.”

This chance to once again hear “Freight Train Rain,” “Almost Home,” “Cowboys,” “Araby,” “Secretariat,” and so many more great songs in concert slouched toward reality a few months ago when the band started rehearsing again at the Music Lab to see if they still had it. Former Javelin Boot drummer Dave Mider, who now works for C3 Presents, suggested the Parish. It would be just like the old days, playing a fun gig for a room full of friends. Although noted producer/engineer Croslin (Spoon, Mates of State, Damnations) and bassist-for-hire Toth have kept their hands in the music biz, Longacre and Williams have performed rarely since the Reivers’ breakup.

With little press, Saturday’s show sold out in a day. A second show was added for Sunday. Tickets are $15, which is pretty low considering how many folks, including No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock and “Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas, are flying in for the shows.

Don’t know if the magic can possibly return after all these years, but you can be sure many minds have been sweetened by memories since the Reivers reunion was announced. A lot of old Reivers discs and cassettes have been pulled out. And as good as the Reivers were on record, they were better live. No one smashed the pane between musicians and audience so jubilantly.

1985 lasted only two years. The first blow came on Sept. 1, 1986, when the drinking age rose from 19 to 21, hurting the clubs at the register and the bands in the amount of energy they got back. But the zeitgeist started really souring in the summer of ’87 when the clubhouse closed. The great Continental Club of Mark Pratz and J-Net Ward (not to be confused with Steve Wertheimer’s great Continental Club at the same 1315 S. Congress Ave. address) was little more than a black box with a pool table, covered in plywood, in front of the stage. Rattling off the names of all the great bands who played there for less than $10 will only make you jealous.

When Pratz and Ward struggled to meet the club’s $1,500 a month rent, they closed the Continental to concentrate on Liberty Lunch, which had three times the capacity and one-third the rent. Headlining the last night at the Continental was Zeitgeist, in one of its last shows before the name change, with Wild Seeds, Glass Eye and Doctors’ Mob also on the bill. The club was jam-packed, of course, but there were several hundred more fans outside, ringing the entire block. It didn’t matter that they had no chance of getting in; they just wanted to be there.

About 1:45 a.m., the True Believers turned up from their gig across town, and Zeitgeist lent the Troobs their instruments and stepped aside as their rivals closed out the historic night. While Zeitgeist ruled the Beach and Liberty Lunch, the True Believers were kings of the Continental, so it was fitting, but still quite gracious, for Zeitgeist to yield the stage.

The Troobs were on fire that night and the crowd outside crammed around the back door to hear. The band was going so hard, out to prove they were the best band to ever play the Continental, that they blew out Zeitgeist’s brand-new bass amp.

There was a confrontation outside between Croslin, who demanded payment to repair the blown amp (about $200) and a couple of shrugging True Believers, who said they didn’t have it on ’em. Just moments from the euphoria, things had gotten ugly.

After all the media attention on Austin and the emergence of Timbuk 3 (not really part of the scene), bands started moving to town to make it big. South by Southwest launched and everyone was looking for a record deal. Austin’s era of innocence was over. The amp was blown on a scene that was short-lived and overhyped.

Austin was tagged the next Athens, Gee Ay. But we never produced an R.E.M. or a B-52s, just a whole lotta Pylons and Love Tractors and Guadalcanal Diaries.

And in 1985, that was more than enough.