Guest Star

We’re All Stars: Flash Jordan and the End of Keeping It Weird

This week’s Guest Star is Nick Hanover. He writes about the late Austin icon, Flash Jordan.

~~~

Ask anyone who has lived in Austin for any length of time when the city stopped being weird and they’ll give you countless answers. Maybe it was when Red Wassenich lost the battle to stop his phrase “Keep Austin Weird” from being trademarked for merchandise (complete with its own gift basket!). Maybe it was when iconic local artist Daniel Johnston passed away in 2019 and his surviving family decided to turn his art into everything from streetwear to NFTs. Or maybe, if they were really entrenched in the weirdness, it was when Flash Jordan died at the age of 80.

If you ever witnessed Flash Jordan, either in person or in her home element of public access television, what might surprise you most about her death is that it happened quietly and relatively unobserved. She passed away in a nursing home in October of 2021 and the first news story I saw about it was several months later in the polite and respectable Austin culture publication Sightlines. In some senses, that’s appropriate– Flash was, after all, heralded as an “outsider” artist and as the NFT-ification of Daniel Johnston shows, there’s a hot art market for outsiders. But I think it’s fair to say that what Flash Jordan would have wanted most was an obituary in People or the National Enquirer or whatever other trashy paparazzi mag is still available next to the checkout line at HEB. 

For years, Flash Jordan was famous in Austin for willing herself into a quintessentially weird interpretation of celebrity, one full of sequins and big blonde hair and gold cars and people claiming to be the second coming of Marilyn and Elvis despite looking nothing like either. Flash Jordan didn’t want to be famous, she was born famous and everything she did was important, no matter how strange it may have looked to us mere mortals. Flash Jordan’s art was her self and she wasn’t going to let a lack of musical or theatrical talent get in the way of her putting on the greatest show in the world.

As the hostess of variety show/travelogue “Austin City Lights” during the late ‘90s through 2010s, Jordan threw viewers into her world without much context or explanation, inviting on guests who could be anything from musicians to strangers she met at a gas station to her own mother (“Lady B”), all while equally random scenes flashed in and out of clarity on the blue screen behind her. When it honored “Austin City Lights” with the “Best Public Access Show from Another Dimension” award in its 2001 Best of Austin issue, the Austin Chronicle described Jordan’s program as “a brutally edited mishmash of unevenly heartfelt, synthesizer-laden music performances that recall ‘outsider’ artists like the Shaggs and B.J. Snowden” and “highly dissonant found video imagery that’s bound to inspire the pure at heart even as it boggles the sound of mind.” It was the type of show that you quite literally could not take your eyes off of.

It’s important to keep in mind that at the time Jordan won that coveted Best Public Access Show award, there was fierce competition. The late ‘90s to early ‘00s were a golden age of public access in Austin, with a cast of characters to rival any other public access scene, some of whom even went on to play a major role in undermining our democracy. On the better end of the weird scale, there were fellow camp icons like The Cola Sisters, a drunken duo whose show was theoretically about cooking but usually devolved into slurred conversations about local gossip while the camera zoomed in on their, uh, assets. Or Reverend Ricky, a minister who was always seen sporting a toilet seat draped around his neck. Austin even had its own southern fried version of New Wave Theatre in the form of DaveTV, a music focused talk show whose host Dave Prewitt called it quits right around the time Flash Jordan moved into a nursing home.

What separated Flash Jordan from her public access peers, though, was that all of them seemed at least somewhat aware that they operated on the fringes of polite society. On “Austin City Lights” and the associated self-made and released movies she made, it was clear that Flash was always certain she was part of the glitterati, a star that needed to be gazed at and admired, worshiped and celebrated. Here’s Flash teaming up with an artist named Fresh Fruit for a mini-movie called, “An Epic Journey Into the Human Soul,” that I once inexplicably found in a blank DVD case on the grass in my front yard one morning:

Over a clash of industrial beats and Casio keyboard demo music, Flash sings a sort of mantra to herself and her viewers, reminding us that we are movie stars, that there are people who want to hug us and take our pictures and see us in our limos. In the background green screen we see footage of Flash in those limos, joined by an Elvis impersonator, or boarding what turns out to be Air Force One. Sometimes, in a burst of voyeuristic inceptioning, the green screen mirrors the footage we are watching, as if to ask whether the show is Flash or our gazing at Flash. 

That self-voyeurism is also found in the full length (nearly three hours!) movie Flash made. It begins with a title sequence that includes a shot of a movie theatre whose marquee declares Flash is shooting a movie there and needs extras. What follows from there is something in-between a bizarro take on leaked celebrity home movies, Best Of live performances and a found footage sci-fi film about time cameras and holograms or something like that. Occasionally there are guests who look like an alien’s interpretation of Elvis, Kenny Rogers and Marilyn Monroe (or Deborah Harry?). 

Like everything Flash ever did, her full length film has no real structure or narrative or logic but then again, neither do celebrity sex tapes. All that really matters is spectacle and the voyeuristic sense of getting a glimpse behind the artifice of spectacle. What makes it especially captivating is that while public access is full of oversharers and people whose pretensions far outmatch their abilities, Flash acted like she had already made it and that you were getting these home movie montages because there was such a demand for every element of the legend of Flash Jordan.

In one clip that made its way onto YouTube, Flash is asked about her film (which may be called The Flash Jordan Movie or may be called Flash Jordan and Danny Boy in Memphis or may be called something else entirely, I’ve never been sure) and its origins. Flash explains that the movie came about because she called Paramount Studios to tell them she had created a new “3D movie technology.” 

“I asked ‘is this the janitor?’

‘No, m’am, this is the president of Paramount and you have one minute to tell me why you’re calling me,” Flash claims.  

Once she got a hold of the head of Paramount, Flash offered him the once in a lifetime deal of paying for Flash and her cohorts to fly into town to give him a special preview of her life’s work. According to Flash, Paramount was suitably impressed and didn’t want the film to get into the hands of their rivals at Universal so they immediately acquired the film. But then they sat on it for years and never sent Flash any residuals– or to put it in her words, “we couldn’t get the bird out of the mailbox.”

Like so many Hollywood iconoclasts before her, Flash had created what she felt was a masterpiece of cinema that would change the world if only it could be seen, but the suits didn’t get it and only cared about ensuring no one else got it either. But none of that really mattered in the end because it only contributed to the grandeur and mythos of Flash and aligned her with other shackled icons, like Marilyn or Elvis or even Ed Wood.

That aspect of Flash Jordan as the freewheeling, self-made, fast talking legend in the making was missing in the final incarnation of her program, released in 2017 and simply titled, “The New Flash Jordan Show.” Created with the help of Kaiju Labs Media, this version of Flash Jordan’s show was relatively well-shot– it’s in HD, so the VHS grain is gone– and basically stabilized in movement. The green screen and guests were gone and now Flash was just on her own, still decked out in sequins and big hair, still rocking a cheap keyboard, still reminding everyone she was a star and we were too. It feels like a more contained and streamlined version of her special(?) “Flash Jordan on Mars,” which had Flash in the center of a spiral of dancing people and occasionally puppets, but without all of the people and random activity there’s a loneliness to it, too.

In the comments of the first episode posted on YouTube, the people at Kaiju explain that they were trying to plan and schedule more episodes but that Flash’s health was in decline, and then the pandemic came along and made things even more difficult. I don’t know if you would call it fate or irony that Flash’s decline would come along at the same time that the pandemic made socializing and travel– seemingly her two favorite activities– basically impossible. Similarly, I don’t know how to feel about Flash somewhat getting her wish for Austin to be a big glitzy city, but at the cost of what many of us feel to be its soul. There’s also something tragic about public access itself essentially fading away now, with social media taking its place, only with better production values literally available at your fingertips.

Maybe in her final days Flash Jordan realized that she had achieved what she set out to do and made Austin and all of us stars and allowed herself to move on to the next adventure, to go from human to matter to star. Still, I can’t help feeling that without Flash Jordan here to serenade and glitz us, Austin will never truly be able to keep it weird again.

~~~

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s