Jeff Liles Tells Stories From Dallas' Past and Looks to its Bright Creative Future

Melissa Davis Hennings
There it is. Nestled in South Dallas, rescued by caring souls of our local arts.
The beacon that is The Kessler.

A majestic Texas juke joint, pampered with TLC and vision that only a handful of true music fans could bring. The Kessler (or rather, "The Kessler X+" as our subject refers to it) is only the latest stop on a fascinating stagecoach jaunt that started in the pioneer days of rebellion and rock for Jeffery Liles. As wonderful of a live music spot as it is, this installment of Local Music 'Mericans is about one of the people largely responsible for turning this dusty old theatre into a very special place to get inspired, and his adventures rolls back a good dozen chapters before his time at the theatre owned briefly by Gene Autry.

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Liles was 15 when he witnessed Led Zeppelin starting a tour here at the old Memorial Auditorium and was just getting his drivers license when the Sex Pistols played the Longhorn Ballroom (still standing, just a holler form Fuel City). Liles grew up on emerging punk from the era of Urgh! A Music War, and was a culprit behind shows like Husker Du at Theatre Gallery (another venue he was allowed to really wrap his head around and help birth) in Deep Ellum over 25 years ago. He shot out to California for a while, managing the infamous Roxy Theatre on Sunset for a stint, and even co-writing videos for a young Marilyn Manson. He's no stranger to performing either, with a couple of arty/quirky efforts, such as Cottonmouth, Texas, dubbed a "southern-fried Jim Carroll" -meets-MC900 Ft. Jesus, and finally, he did his time as a writer for us here at the Observer. There's a lot to Jeff Liles.

You've seen so many live shows in many of them being talent from the neighborhood. Is there a craziest moment at one that sticks out?

The Loco Gringos were always completely over the top; their shows at Theatre Gallery and at Fry Street Fair in Denton were as surreal as any Salvador Dali painting. Bales of hay strewn everywhere, concrete lawn burros set ablaze onstage, people stage diving from the balcony.

Though many have tried, I doubt any local band will ever be able to create the kind of spectacle - and adherent commitment to lifestyle - that the Gringos managed to manifest during the late '80s. These days, if you play in a band, you almost have to have a day job. That wasn't possible if you hung out with the Loco Gringos. You spent your days at Gringo Manor sleeping, and your nights drinking tequila and jumping out of the second floor window on a tree swing.

Though I'm not sure if it was intentional, you seem to have become a historian for local music and arts. True? Is that a title you wanted to bear the brunt of responsibility for?

I'm a bit of a musical historian. Because I was born in 1962, the timing was perfect to experience epic popular music in real time. I was a child when The Beatles happened (bought every one of their records before I realized there were other people out there making music), and an adolescent when FM radio in Dallas (KNUS, The Zoo, Q102) really started to change people's lives here. I was 15 years old when Led Zeppelin kicked off their tour at Memorial Auditorium. The Sex Pistols played the Longhorn Ballroom the year I got my driver's license.

Classic rock gave way to punk rock around the time I turned 18 (then the local drinking age), and I was lucky enough to see bands like U2, REM and The Police play in tiny places like the Hot Klub or the Bijou. So I stopped collecting baseball and football cards and started collecting ticket stubs, show fliers and concert posters instead. I would also sneak my Dad's Minolta 35mm into shows and shoot pictures whenever I could. Having Bill's Records, VVV and Metamorphosis Records here in town back then was very important. George Gimarc's "Rock and Roll Alternative" introduced Dallas kids to new wave and UK punk rock stuff, then a couple of years later an original alternative music scene began to blossom in Deep Ellum; being a part of something like that was certainly exciting. These days, I mainly just shoot photos and video clips at The Kessler. But I do really like helping to keep track of the artifacts. Somebody has to do it.

Uh, you do a lot more than that at The Kessler, don't even try. For one, you've coined a name for the neighborhood you're centered in. It's not quite Oak Cliff, nor Bishop Arts....tell us what the X+ is, exactly.

The adjacent intersections of Kings Highway and West Davis Street (X), and Seventh and Tyler Street (+) in North Oak Cliff are the geographical center of gravity for the cultural community in North Oak Cliff. If you're heading south on Sylvan from I-30, then you'll hit that intersection and go one of three different ways - left to eat dinner at the Bishop Arts District, forward to head over to Jefferson and catch a film at the Texas Theater, or right to see live music or an art event happening at The Kessler. So, in a way, the X+ intersection is sort of a jumping off point for experiencing North Oak Cliff. The Oak Cliff mural at Seventh and Tyler is the closet thing we have to a recognizable landmark for newcomers to the area.

Do you have a vision for the X+ neighborhood?

Hopefully, X+ will be ultimately be known as an umbrella term, nickname, or safe haven for the type of alternative music, art and culture that one might find every day here. Not an official designation by any means, and no money is being spent advertising it. Just a nickname that might help people find what they're looking for.

You're also a multi-instrumentalist, yes?

I took drum lessons as a kid. Ringo Starr was my first rock star crush, and I talked my parents into buying a drum set for Christmas. I didn't have the discipline to memorize or practice the 28 rudiments. My instructor was a gentleman named Anthony Shepard; he was about 65 at the time, and he would wear a very smart three piece suit to my lesson each week. He wasn't Ringo or John Bonham, so that didn't work out. Discovered Jimmy Page and shifted to guitar shortly thereafter.

Bought a beat up old Gibson SG Jr at Pete's Pawn & Music for $150, and started taking lessons at McCord Music in Valley View Mall. Very different type of teacher. Each week I would bring Mike Ellis a cassette tape with a different Rush or Led Zeppelin song, he would figure it out real quick and then show me how to play it. To this day the only songs I know how to play on guitar are "Immigrant Song" and "Tom Sawyer".

That said, this is as good a time as any to announce that I'm taking my one man acoustic speed metal act Que Sera Syringe out on tour for the better part of the next three years, but I should be reachable via CB radio, or maybe you can fax me at a truck stop.

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It's a treat having somebody like Jeff in the community.


Uh, would someone please explain to Alan Ayo that the Kessler is by no means "[n]estled in South Dallas," but -- instead, as repeatedly pointed out by Jeff Liles -- is in North Oak Cliff.


might be a good suggestion for readers to check out 'echoes and reverberations' from this here blog for more of Liles great stories.


It's amazing when a bold explorer discovers a heretofore unknown and uninhabited, exotic, foreign land. Now, to go about the business of 'clearing the land' of any type of people or things that were there when the visionary stumbled upon it, and voila! Uptown South of the River!


great interview Alan. Way to go Liles. 

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