Rock Moment: The Urban Cowboy Craze
Once upon a time, our little corner of Southeast Texas was literally swimming in oil and as a result, many people were also swimming in money. The bright lights and towers of the petrochemical plants ringed the city of Houston and the night sky often had the eerie red glow of a flame-topped flare burning off petro waste products.
Pasadena, Texas, is a compact little town that would be in the shadow of Houston’s skyscrapers if the oil refineries weren’t in the way. Many people who lived in Pasadena in the 1970s worked at the plant, and when they wanted to party, they went to one place – Gilley’s.
Gilley’s nightclub was a sprawling honky-tonk located along the Spencer Highway drag in Pasadena. It was billed as the world’s largest honky-tonk, and who could argue? It certainly looked like it was three or four football fields long (or wide, I never could figure out which) and could easily accommodate upwards of 6,000 people at one time. (Note to Yankees: I’m just kidding about the football fields. Don’t send me any e-mails, please.) Gilley’s hardwood dance floor was surrounded by long wooden tables and thousands of chairs, allowing a great view of the bandstand from wherever you might be in this massive complex.
On a typical Saturday night in the late 1970s, you could crunch into Gilley’s crushed-oyster-shell parking lot, park among all the pickup trucks and walk under the big sign that said “We Doze But We Never Close.”
Yeah, if you saw the movie Urban Cowboy (1980) it was pretty much like that – cowboy hats, smokin’ hot cowgirls (sometimes), drunk rednecks and that damn mechanical bull. They had Gilley’s beer, which tasted like chilled (sometimes) horse piss, and every conceivable souvenir with the Gilley’s logo. I used to say you and your girlfriend could walk into Gilley’s stark naked and purchase a full set of logo-emblazoned clothes, down to Gilley’s panties, jockey shorts, bras and cowboy boots.
Now this Urban Cowboy movie thing brought worldwide attention to the honky-tonk. When they were filming it in 1979, you could get daily updates on a local country radio station (KILT) where they often called for extras to fill out the nightclub scenes. When the Bee Gees – riding the disco express from Saturday Night Fever – played the Summit in Houston, guess who showed up and did a disco dance onstage: John Travolta, with a full beard!
My favorite thing was the movie premiere party in 1980 at Gilley’s. Just about everyone who was anyone at the time was there (I was a lowly member of the press). Gilley’s “Urban Cowboy” Band was playing full blast and we were stuck off pretty much by ourselves in a remote corner, swilling free Gilley’s Beer. This guy came up to us and said, hey, you don’t have to move but hang out here and help us keep the girls away. Wha? Then all of a sudden a side door opens and some big dudes in cowboy hats usher in Travolta himself, decked out just like in the movie. He looked real pale and real scared, and the cowboy hat seemed to be wearing him instead of the other way around. He gave us a couple of limp-fish handshakes and said he was pretty nervous about going onstage in front of this huge crowd. “Don’t worry, man,” I told him, “they’re all drunk.”
Later on, I ran into Andy Warhol in the men’s room. I kinda wanted to talk about the Velvet Underground, but Andy had to rush back to his dates – the tall Texas model Jerry Hall and her sister (who were in the movie). Well, that pretty much started what you already know: everybody wore cowboy hats for the next few years, they played Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee music on the radio and those damn mechanical bulls popped up everywhere.
Into the mid-1980s my wife and I ferried out-of-town visitors to Gilley’s, mostly on weeknights. The band would be playing (no Gilley) and because the place was so huge, on those rare cold Texas nights they wouldn’t even try to heat it. You could literally see your breath on the dance floor. They finally shut the place around 1989 or so, and the next year a mysterious fire burned the place down. Mickey Gilley opened a namesake club in Dallas, and now regularly plays for shriveled tourists in Branson, Missouri.
Much of his reputation seems to be staked on the memory of that old honky-tonk that once shared his name, but even though he has a house there Gilley only occasionally sets foot in Pasadena these days. After recovering from serious injuries sustained in a fall, Gilley has started performing again – mostly in Branson.