Photo by Kevin Stich
Ears perk up when Eddie Wilson starts telling stories.
It does not take long for a listener to realize that Wilson is the genuine article—a living witness to and participant in the salad days of Austin’s 1970s counterculture.
As owner of the iconic venue Armadillo World Headquarters, he encountered just about all the big names from that era: Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Willie Morris and Farrah Fawcett, to name a few.
These days, Wilson is trying to capture years of wild memories on paper. The book he is working on doesn’t have a title yet, but it will surely be a must-read for fans of the Armadillo’s heyday.
There was a time when Wilson’s name was recognized throughout Austin. It was a way to separate the locals from the out-of-towners.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says. “The thesis of my memoirs is that Austin became what it was because it was so small for so long that everybody knew everybody.”
The Threadgill’s owner is constantly asked to make the contradistinction between new Austin, old Austin and older Austin.
If there’s any local snobbery about the city not being what it used to be, he doesn’t share it.
“Growing up in the 1950s, I can remember my aunts [complaining] about there being no place to shop,” he says. “Everything is better now. There are teenagers playing better now than the old salts did around Threadgill’s in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We’re the last boomtown on the globe and it’s not all to my advantage.”
Armadillo World Headquarters
Born in Mississippi in 1943, Wilson grew up without his father, who died in World War II. His family uprooted and planted themselves in Austin in 1949.
Wilson opened the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1969.
It was the kind of venue where people could watch a young Bruce Springsteen perform for $1. It helped establish Austin as one of the most happening music crucibles in the world.
Wilson had contact with the era’s notable literary icons as well. Wilson said that he wanted to punch out Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer. He knew gonzo journalist and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author Hunter S. Thompson.
He admitted that his ego swelled when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey called. Parties hosted by Kesey’s Merry Prankster collective were major countercultural events, attended by Hells Angels and the Grateful Dead.
“Kesey came here and announced that he was going to start an Armadillo party,” Wilson recalled. “We were really thinking we were something there for a little while.
“We got the attention of people like that, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We had zero training, no money and a fuzzy vision about some sort of new social oneness.”
He continues about how the Armadillo served as sanctuary for a culture that had not yet developed a cause but wanted change, and that’s something Wilson said he is proud of.
“I’m real happy that people still talk about the Armadillo more than just about any place that has been gone for that long,” he said. “It’s been gone for over 30 years, and people still seem to be curious and have good thoughts about what transpired there.”
After what Wilson calls a personal economic failure, the Armadillo closed, and he opened the Raw Deal, a downtown Austin hash house that bore the tagline, “Remember, you found the Raw Deal. The Raw Deal didn’t come looking for you!”
It quickly became a hangout for high-profile clientele, writers, leftists and locals. Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards took the oath of office for county commissioner at the Raw Deal as well.
But Wilson sold the restaurant in 1979 to make way for his next business venture: restoring an iconic Austin haunt.
Kenneth Threadgill opened a filling station just north of the Austin city limits in 1933 and was the first person to own a beer license in the county, Wilson says proudly.
A 15-year-old Wilson met Threadgill in the late 1950s and was immediately taken with the man’s open-mindedness.
The venue was an Austin staple in the 1960s. Its clientele was a blend of longhaired bohemians, folkies and cowboys.
The tavern featured a mix of artists—including Janis Joplin—and styles ranging from country, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
Wilson purchased the restaurant after it had a close call with the wrecking ball and opened its north location on New Year’s Eve of 1981, a year after the Armadillo closed.
In 1996, Threadgill’s World Headquarters was opened in South Austin, a few paces from the former location of the Armadillo, its décor a tribute to the old haunt.
“There’s a good quote by John Morthland of the L.A. Times that said, ‘Threadgill’s was Austin’s first themed restaurant, and its theme was Austin,’” he says.
At home, Wilson’s collection of Austin mementos is on par with small museums.
In fact, Wilson has loaned pieces of his collection for public sampling and recently lent a piano that Fats Domino played on to The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Wilson is not far removed from a battle with lung cancer, which he won. When asked if it was the greatest challenge of his life, he offers a swift “Hell no. There was nothing to it.”
“I’ve been kind of bulletproof in a lot of instances,” he said. “I’ve avoided getting in trouble, and yet being around a whole lot of stuff that most people don’t ever get to see.”