Odd Moments In Vienna

Originally posted August 20, 2007

I have one indelible memory regarding Rick Nelson.

No, it’s not the first time I heard “Hello Mary Lou” or one of his other hits. I was far too young for his hits of the 1950s and early 1960s to matter much to me as radio fare. Nor am I thinking of either of his two chart hits in the 1970s – “She Belongs To Me” and “Garden Party” – although I liked both of them.

No, I’m recalling a hole in the wall tavern somewhere in the old city of Vienna, an Austrian dive, if you will.

I’d already had a far more I interesting time in Vienna that I’d bargained for. Arriving on a Wednesday evening in late March, I’d learned that spring break for Austrian university students was underway and hostel spaces and cheap hotel rooms in Vienna were more rare than cheap beer. I stood near the information kiosk in the main train station, pondering my options. I was thinking of getting on a train leaving the city, riding and sleeping halfway through the night and then getting off that train and catching the next train back to Vienna, again getting as much sleep as I could on the way back. (With a rail pass, there would be no cost, but whatever rest I got would be less than good. But I’d done it before.)

Then a woman about my age came up to me, trailed by a young man. “Are you looking for a place to stay?” Hopeful and leery at the same time – maybe they ran a small hotel, or maybe they were into things more weird than I wanted to contemplate; I did not know – I nodded. She turned to him and said something in a language I didn’t recognize. He responded in the same language, and she turned to me and said, “This is my fiancé, and he’s arrived here a few days ago from Hungary. He knows a place where people who come here from Hungary stay.”

I was tired and it sounded better than getting on a train and switching directions in the middle of the night. So I walked with them as they led the way out of the station and north into an older neighborhood. On the way, the young woman told me that she was originally Hungarian but had emigrated to Canada when she was very young and had come to Vienna to meet her fiancé, who had just left Hungary. A mile or so later, we entered a building and went up a flight of stairs, and the Hungarian fellow knocked on a door. An older woman opened it and spoke German to him.

And then came the most odd negotiations I have even been part of. The proprietor of the boarding house, for that’s what it was, spoke German. The Hungarian fellow translated that into Hungarian and spoke to his fiancé, who translated his words into English for me and then sent my response back up the line, through Hungarian into German. After a few moments, the owner ushered us inside to show me the room I would rent for the night. (I planned on three nights in Vienna, but I was still leery.) We went through one room with two beds into a second bedroom. I saw I could lock the second room from the inside, which reassured me a little, but the bed needed changing. And I waved my hands and began to leave. No, no, said the young woman, the bed would have clean sheets in a matter of minutes. Was I hungry? There was a good Hungarian restaurant down the block, and by the time we got back, I would have clean sheets.

So we went and ate Hungarian goulash: tender beef chunks in a paprika and sour cream sauce over noodles. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, the impact heightened, I imagine, by the oddness of its circumstances. After we were done, we went down the block and up the stairs, and the room that would be mine – with a bed, a sink, and a table and chair at the window overlooking the street – was cleaned and ready for me. I still didn’t like the idea of going through another bedroom to get to mine, but it was late, and I could lock my door from inside. The landlady gave me towels and showed me where the shower and other facilities were, and I settled in.

I ended up spending two nights there. And I spent two days seeing the sights of Vienna in the company of two young women from West Virginia, Cathy and Betty, and a guy from Canada named Louis, whom I met during my first morning there. During the afternoon of our second day together, as we wandered through the central part of the city, we thought it was time for a beer or two. After a few blocks, we saw an open door into what looked like tavern that might have seen better days, but there were people laughing at a couple of tables and there were some empty tables. So we trooped in and found chairs and ordered mugs of dark beer.

Louis and I saw the jukebox on the far side of the room, and we headed over. There were only two songs in English: Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit “Stand By Your Man” and Rick Nelson’s “Hello, Mary Lou” from 1961. We dropped some money in the machine and sat down, laughing and drinking pretty good beer with Cathy and Betty, watching customers come and go.

And we became aware that the clientele, except for Cathy and Betty, was all male. The men would enter, go to the tables occupied by the laughing people – all women, we now noticed – and soon make their way to a side door, each man accompanied by a woman. We were in a brothel!

Cathy and Betty began to sing along with Tammy: “Stand by your man! Give him two arms to cling to and something warm to come to when nights are cold and lonely.” Louis and I laughed into our beers.

The song ended, and the jukebox started playing “Hello, Mary Lou.” As the young Rick Nelson’s voice competed with the laughter of the idle working girls at the two tables near the bar, Louis leaned forward. We all leaned in to hear him. And, looking at the working girls up front, he said, “Which one’s Mary Lou?”

Laughing most of the time, we finished our beers and left. A couple of passers-by on the street did double-takes when they saw that Louis and I were followed out of the place by two rather attractive young women.

And every time I hear “Hello, Mary Lou,” well, there I am in a Viennese brothel.

That holds true for the live version of the song on today’s album: Rick Nelson In Concert (The Troubadour, 1969), on which for some reason the song is listed as “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart.” It’s a pretty decent album, recorded at a time when Nelson was trying to get his recording career off the ground again. He would have a couple of hits in the next year or so – “She Belongs To Me” and “Garden Party,” as I indicated above – but he never did catch the imagination of the listening public the way he had years before.

And in a way, that’s too bad. The work he did later in his career – starting with this live album – was nicely done, starting as country-tinged rock and moving to full country rock (and a little rockabilly) in the late 1970s and early 1980s before his death in a plane crash in 1985.

In Concert presents a nice mix of three of his originals, three Bob Dylan covers and covers of songs by Fats Domino, Tim Hardin, Eric Andersen and Doug Kershaw and a few other things, including, as I said above, “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart,” which was written by Gene Pitney. It’s a pretty good listen.

(The band is: Randy Meisner on bass, Pat Shanahan on drums, Allen Kemp on guitar and Tom Brumley on steel guitar.)

Come On In
Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart
Violets Of Dawn
Who Cares About Tomorrow/Promises
She Belongs To Me
If You Gotta Go, Go Now
I’m Walkin’
Red Balloon
Louisiana Man
Believe What You Say
Easy To Be Free
I Shall Be Released

Rick Nelson – In Concert (The Troubadour, 1969) [1970]


One Response to “Odd Moments In Vienna”

  1. Saturday Single No. 430 « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] chart. I’ve referred to Wynette’s record only once before in eight years of blogging, when I told the tale of inadvertently stopping for a brew in what my friends and I quickly realized was a Viennese […]

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