Armadillo World Headquarters by Eddie Wilson, Jesse Sublett
There are few Texas music venues as legendary or influential as the Armadillo World Headquarters, which stood near the intersection of South First Street and Barton Springs Road in South Austin from August 1970 until January 1981. The Armadillo became world famous for the remarkable diversity of the artists who performed there (including Frank Zappa, Taj Mahal, the Pointer Sisters, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, the Ramones, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, and Bette Midler) and for a broad range of music styles, such as Tejano, gospel, jazz, and reggae.
During the 1970s, long before Austin declared itself “The Live Music Capital of the World,” the Armadillo had become the cradle of Austin’s fledgling live music scene. Of course, there had long been a variety of nightclubs throughout the capital city, featuring blues, country, folk, conjunto, rock and roll, and other genres, but the Armadillo brought together these styles and more under one roof. As a result, it arguably did more than any other single venue to spawn the current eclectic live music scene for which Austin is internationally famous. [End Page 130]
Eddie Wilson, founder and self-described “head honcho” (75) for most of the Armadillo’s decade-long existence, has written this entertaining and richly detailed memoir (with help from Austin music icon Jesse Sublett) in order to document the nightclub’s unlikely beginnings, its rise to fame, and its eventual demise. Although Wilson focuses his attention primarily on the venue itself and the parade of colorful characters who passed through its doors, he tells the story from a first person point of view, which allows him to provide a level of detail and behind-the-scenes anecdotes in a way that only someone who was intimately involved in the daily affairs of the club could.
Actually, it’s a bit misleading to call the Armadillo a nightclub. The original vision that Wilson and the other co-founders had was for a “music and cultural incubator” (3) that would house multiple spaces for a variety of creative endeavors, including art, dance, and event promotions. As it turned out, musical performances attracted the largest audiences, so the Armadillo soon became best known as a live music hall.
As the large, barn-like building, which included a cavernous music hall, beer garden, kitchen, business offices, and other rooms, evolved into the epicenter of Austin’s dynamic 1970s’ music scene, Wilson and his associates struggled to make enough money to keep the place open. At the same time, they dealt with a variety of other challenges, ranging from sometimes strained relations with local politicians and law enforcement to floods and competition from other venues that sprang up across Austin, due in part to the vibrant live music world that the Armadillo itself had been vital in creating.
Although Wilson does not sugarcoat the many difficulties the venue faced on a daily basis, some of which threatened to shutter it, he maintains a mostly upbeat tone throughout the book. In fact, more often than not, Wilson comes across as grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of a special project that brought joy to countless musicians and fans and helped forge Austin’s identity as a hotbed for musical innovation and experimentation.
This book is a fascinating, enlightening, and often amusing account of a legendary hall that helped reshape the music culture not only in Texas but also across the nation. The dozens of excellent photographs and samples of poster art from the Armadillo’s heyday make this already well-written narrative more engaging and provide a multi-dimensional perspective. Armadillo World Headquarters should be required reading for anyone who loves Texas music and wants to learn more about the history of this near-mythic Austin venue. [End Page 131]