The San Antonio in 12 Days on the Road, a chronicle of the Sex Pistols’ disastrous U.S. tour in 1978, is almost unrecognizable. But no need for a DNA test. It’s ours.
Noel Monk, the Pistols’ road manager for the tour and the book’s author, portrayed San Antonio as so violently reactionary — so cowboy — that the band didn’t spend the night there before or after their gig at Randy’s Rodeo on Bandera Road. They’d received too many credible threats, as we say in the age of terrorism. So the band, whose shows in England and across Europe were powered as much by violence as electricity and beer, bedded down in the safe confines of Austin.
To be fair, Monk, an American, made that call, not Johnny, Sid, Paul, or Steve.
A snippet of film from the show — Johnny Rotten alternately tearing and mugging his way through “New York” — shows the band dodging flying trash. There’s a sweaty crush of fans and antagonists against the stage. At the end of the song, Sid Vicious hammers one of the antagonists with his bass, which was probably his most effective use of the instrument that night.
In other words, nothing too crazy by Sex Pistols standards. In fact, the scene comes off as a little anticlimactic in Monk’s telling.
The band disintegrated in San Francisco a few days later, at the end of the tour. That’s why Monk wrote the book and why we remember the gig at Randy’s Rodeo. U2 and Patti Smith also played at Randy’s, but nobody writes about those shows because U2 didn’t subsequently break up and Patti Smith didn’t subsequently die.
Members of the Sex Pistols managed to do both. Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose a year after the band split up and roughly 24 hours after he killed Nancy Spungen, the love of his life, with a knife.
The band had made a single, great album.
I’ve owned I don’t know how many copies of “Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols” since I first listened to it on vinyl, borrowed from a friend in high school in the mid 1980s. Later, the tape player gobbled up at least two copies. The CDs got scratched in the trips from apartment to car, car to house. Each of my three daughters lifted the album for their own collections.
My curiosity about Randy’s got the better of me after reading 12 Days on the Road in June. I’d known about the gig practically since moving to San Antonio in 2000. But it took the book to focus my interest. I found the address online, loaded my 1-year-old grandson into his car seat, and went looking for it. Turns out I’d passed the building countless times on Bandera Road, but had never noticed it.
The question hanging over the Sex Pistols’ San Antonio date was whether they would survive it. Randy’s survival was never in question. Still, the Rodeo left town a long time ago. It’s now Randy’s Bingo and Ballroom, and the St. George Maronite Catholic Church owns the business.
Randy’s is a big, windowless, rectangular concrete box set far off the street.
I went with a friend, Mike Knoop, to play bingo there on a Friday night in late August. Of course our real purpose was to witness the dissonance between the past and the present — we’re both middle-age, so that kind of thing matters to us. Specifically, I wanted to experience the psychic commotion of sacred ground being profaned by the Catholic Church. I’m not sure if that’s what Mike wanted to see, too.
We stepped up to the window in the lobby to pay our $10.
If Moses had been assigned to produce Randy’s laws, it would’ve taken him three trips up and down Mount Sinai and four additional stone tablets. Randy’s operates under 27 rules, including don’t photograph or record anything that happens there. Which was odd since very little was happening.
The room was bright, low ceilinged, and nearly the size of a football field. No sign anywhere of the raucous concert hall it used to be, before bingo. The walls were painted peach. Long tables lined the room, perpendicular to the black stage against the eastern wall. Individuals and clusters of two or three people sat far away from one another. They murmured. The only clear sound was the bearded twenty-something guy on stage calling the letter-number combos.
Three women in their fifties or sixties sat at one of the tables flush with the stage. Each had at least two of the chunky black computer tablets that you get when you pay at the front window. One of the women had three tablets in front of her, in addition to several paper bingo grids. They talked in Spanish, glanced every now and then at Mike and me, made judgments too fast for me to get the gist of, and laughed.
The rules of big-money bingo — Randy’s website brags about nightly payouts of $5,000 — were as impenetrable as the women’s conversation.
Mike and I bought Budweisers at the snack bar, and tried to figure out what we were supposed to be doing.
Rules pile up over time, increasing in complexity. We couldn’t square what we saw on our tablet screens with what the DJ/caller said into his microphone. The bonus rounds were nearly over before we understood they were bonus rounds. Young men in bright orange shirts patrolled the room, ready to answer questions, settle disputes, etc. I flagged one of them down, but my question was so rudimentary, so clueless that he barely bothered to answer before moving on. I read it on his face: Tourists.
We might have unknowingly won hundreds or thousands of dollars. If so, hopefully there’s an afterlife in which we can collect our rightful winnings. But if there’s a god, he probably doesn’t like tourists any more than the St. George Maronite Catholic Church, the kid in the orange shirt, or the bingo ladies sitting in the shadow of Randy’s stage.
That’s the same stage where Sid Vicious went clubbing after wrapping up “New York” nearly 40 years ago.
Not even the Sex Pistols at their rawest could match that Friday night at Randy’s for dissonance.