The Vulcan Gas Company and Me

Gilbert Shelton poster for the Vulcan Gas Company

Some things just have to be experienced. I was there!

[NOTE: The following is adapted from an 8-13-2009 post at my old blog]

The poster is a Gilbert Shelton (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wonder Wart Hog, etc.) classic I’m proud to own. I can reach out and touch it now from where I sit. But the story starts with Shiva’s Head Band, my favorite Austin psychedelic rock band from the glory days. When an art student friend of mine asked me to help run a light show for their next gig, I was ecstatic. The time was January, 1967—the place, a rough little boogie joint in East Austin. What a bunch of white hippies playing in a band led by an crazy bearded guy with an electric fiddle were doing in a seedy black roadhouse on the other side of town is something of a mystery, but that’s the way it was back then—only in Texas, and the very essence of Austin before the city went big-time.

I was scared to death just to venture onto the east side, which shows you how naive I was at the time. I don’t remember much about the venue, but I don’t think many people were there except for a few regular patrons. There was a little stage at the far end of the room, and my friend and I set up his equipment near the front, just inside the door.

The really cool thing was that light shows for rock bands was still a very new phenomenon. We’d heard about what was going on in San Francisco using overhead projectors, but no one was hip to that yet in Austin. What we did have were two battered 16mm film projectors, a shopping bag full of assorted film clips from a University of Texas TV station trash can, and an assortment of colored pieces of glass, translucent plastic, and the like. With both projectors running at once, we each grabbed strips of film at random and ran them on through, altering the projected images by manipulating the colored bits in front of the lenses, tilting or shaking the projectors, and anything else we could think of. Sometimes the strips of film would get jammed in the projector and melt, creating an awesome visual backdrop for the music. At other times, the superimposed moving images were either impossibly weird or just hilarious. Every moment was completely improvised, and I was in heaven: it was one of the most exciting and satisfying things I’ve ever done in my life. And that sound! Loud and inaccessible for the audience, I’m sure, but Spencer Perskin’s electric fiddle gave me goosebumps.

“Okay, okay. But what about the Vulcan?”

A few weeks later, my friend and I produced a couple of light shows at the new Vulcan Gas Company on South Congress for Shiva’s Headband and The Conqueroo. I can’t remember for certain, but we may have been there for the grand opening. At any rate, by then he’d learned the overhead projector and colored liquid trick, but I still got to play with the 16mm. The Vulcan Gas Company didn’t last long—Austin was still a scary place for hippies—and I never did another light show, but shortly afterwards Eddie Wilson and friends opened Armadillo World Headquarters, and the rest is history. (We won, by the way.)

Being in on the beginning of the creation of a completely new cultural form like that was electrifying, and in that respect, I honestly can’t recall a better time to be alive: every morning I’d wake up with my heart pounding, anxious to get up, circulate, and find out what new wildness was in the air. The current zeitgeist couldn’t be more different, sad to say. I’d like to find a way to communicate this more directly—so many people have it mostly wrong about those days.

John Hamilton Farr lives in Taos, New Mexico, U.S.A. with his classical pianist wife. “Possibly the only place I can get away with this,” he says. As New York Times best-selling author James C. Moore (Bush’s Brain) put it in a review of John’s first book, Buffalo Lights is the work of a man attuned to the world who sees it differently than you and I and writes about it with a language and a vision of life that is impossible to ignore.” John is the author of BUFFALO LIGHTS, TAOS SOUL, ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, and THE HELEN CHRONICLES. He has been publishing online since 1996 (Zoo Zone, Farr Site, MacFaust, GRACK!, FarrFeed) and blogs regularly here at JHFARR.COM. See also → John’s Twitter profile, Amazon Author Page, video channel at YouTube, and website photos at SmugMug. To email John, please see CONTACT INFO on About page.  

  • Chipper Thompson October 30, 2013, 6:44 AM

    Good stuff, my brother! Wish I’d a-been there!

    • JHF October 30, 2013, 8:37 AM

      They were utterly different times. Just by virtue of what was in your heart, you were marked for suppression—and yet it didn’t work! That made for some incredible feelings, all buoyed up by the music. The only thing remotely comparable today is the wave of good vibes generated by collapsing resistance to gay marriage. That kind of openness to change, and the happy feelings associated with it.

      (There was always going to be a crackdown and a cultural swing back in the other direction, but it wasn’t as great a difference as the initial move.)

  • Katy George October 30, 2013, 12:25 PM

    I was there! Loved dancing at the Vulcan to Shiva’s Head Band!
    the light shows were an awesome new thing.

    • JHF October 30, 2013, 2:05 PM

      Amazing! We might have been at the Vulcan on the same nights. 🙂 I’d forgotten you were a student at U.T. in the same time frame as I was. I visited the campus extensively a couple of years ago when I was in Austin to see my sister. The feeling was still strong. So proud of having gone to school there.

  • Jim D. Wynn October 30, 2013, 1:18 PM

    I remember that when I was a senior at Stephen F. Austin High School in 1967 that a student teacher who was teaching English said he was involved in light shows at the Vulcan. Could this be that small a world?

    • JHF October 30, 2013, 2:09 PM

      Well, it wasn’t me, and I don’t think that would have been my art major friend, either. But he and I only worked a couple of shows, right at the beginning, so it makes sense that a number of others were involved later.

      Back then Austin was just a fraction of the size it is now. Are you still there?

      • Jim D. Wynn October 31, 2013, 1:04 PM

        Even though it’s turned into a much less pleasant big city I’m still here. But I head for New Mexico whenever I can. I am also looking at a print hanging on my wall by your sister. She was a great lady and a wonderfully humorous artist.

  • Shirley October 31, 2013, 1:10 AM

    I love the poster. I haven’t’ heard of Shiva’s Headband, then I googled them.. and they sound good. I think I’ll add them to my playlist.

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