“It pains me to be here today, from Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, live music capital of the world…Houston, we have a problem. The left hand don’t know what the right hand is doing.”
— Gerry Van King, “The King of Sixth Street”
Calling himself the King of Sixth Street, musician Gerry Van King was once a one-man institution of Austin nightlife. Since at least the late 1980s, Van King busked in the bar district with an amplified bass guitar, quickly finding a usual spot in front of defunct restaurant Jazz: A Louisiana Kitchen at 214 East Sixth Street — the owners of the restaurant, appreciating the local flavor of his presence, eventually placed a neon crown in the front window over the spot where Van King stood:
After establishing his reign on the street, it understandably came as a surprise to Austin’s musical milieu whenever local police harassed Van King for supposedly obstructing the sidewalk or violating local noise ordinances — the trouble started in the mid-90s, but the situation really started attracting attention from the local press in November 2002, when Van King was issued a noise citation for playing with his amplifier, just as he’d done for roughly 14 years at that point.
Austin’s war on the local music community reached its final straw on Nov. 8, when the King of Sixth Street himself, Gerry Van King, was issued a citation for performing on the street with his bass and small amplifier in front of Jazz, just as he’s done for years and years now. Don’t blame the folks at Jazz, by the way; they didn’t call the cops, and in fact, stood in shock at the scene of the “crime” defending Van King. Jazz employee Josh Paul Jones reports, “Everyone here thought it was preposterous!” Jazz owner Tom Prindible adds, “King’s not loud — that’s the thing that I don’t get.”
. . . “If [the police] are just looking for something to do,” suggests Jazz’s Jones, “there’s about 40 crack dealers up the street.”
In March 2003 the next year, Austin police officers arrested Van King on a misdemeanor charge for once again playing in his usual spot, which fired up the late Statesman humorist John Kelso something fierce:
Rule No. 1: Real music capitals don’t mess with the music. I mean, the cops in Vail, Colo., don’t ticket people for skiing, do they? So the cops in Austin shouldn’t be ticketing street musicians for picking.
— John Kelso, Austin American-Statesman, November 17, 2002
Van King would later appear before City Council imploring the city to address what he described as a selective enforcement of noise ordinances — for what it’s worth, these days Austin’s official Street Performance Program does not allow amplified music without a permit. As far as we know, Van King, who turned 68 this year, hasn’t been seen on Sixth Street in a while — but during the controversy over his arrest, he assembled clips of his addresses to council and other footage from the period into a 2004 documentary telling the tale of this “War of Sixth Street.”
Thanks to the Austin History Center, the film is now available online, and we believe it deserves far more than a few hundred views as an essential visual document of Austin in the early 2000s — and a great use for approximately 34 minutes of your Friday.