Nobody knew what to make of Herb Royé when he hired himself as the lighting guy at The Handlebar. Here’s how Rockin’ A Hard Place, a memoir about the former longtime concert hall in Greenville, describes the dapper, yet scruffy oddball.
“Not long after we opened, Herb showed up at our doorstep like some rail-thin stray mongrel who only wanted attention, love, and family, but more than that: music. Herb loved music as much as a dog loves to chase cats and bark at things that aren’t there.”
Odd choice of words, “things that aren’t there,” considering that this, apropos of Halloween, is something of a ghost story.
When he first materialized at 304 East Stone Avenue, Herb was in his late 50s, though he looked to be in his early 100s. He died just before Christmas in 2007. But did he? The Greenville News obituary finally divulged his age, 61, but ran barely three lines long, leaving out Herb’s life.
Herb wove phantasmagorical stories. He spent three years in a Spanish prison; wandered the opium-tourists’ “Hippie Trail” from Europe to Kabul; appeared on that white steed in that iconic Woodstock photograph; worked as “lighting director” for The Fabulous Thunderbirds; and did stints in Vietnam and, later, at Armadillo World Headquarters, an Austin nightclub.
Just when you thought Herb was as full of horse manure as the one he supposedly rode in on, you’d run across something like this: a 1976 clipping from the Austin Sun, a counter-culture weekly: “Armadillo personnel additions include new stage manager Herb Royé, a veteran of Woodstock and the Monterrey [sic] Pop festivals and the Rolling Stones.”
The Stones? Come on. But, like, when a member of Johnny Winter’s crew stepped off the blues legend’s pot-fumed RV, he took one look at Herb and said: “Holy shit, it’s Herb! I haven’t seen you since the old Armadillo days.” Even Joan Baez said something to him about Woodstock.
The thing is, you, too, can reconnect with Herb after all these years—or, at least, check up on his sly shenanigans. Ask any former Handlebar employee or a few onetime fans. Last year, Stephanie Holden celebrated her birthday at Stone Pin Bowling, now occupying the former basement of The Handlebar, with friends from Herb-era days. “A couple of bowling-alley employees said that weird things had been happening since they started working there—basically that things would not be where they left them the night before,” says the reference librarian.
Attempts to reach the lanes’ staff failed; they proved as elusive as perhaps-deceased Herb, but Holden says they also told her: “The weirdest thing was that there was an employee that they never had that kept being clocked in overnight.”
Herb always did keep late hours—unless he had better things to do after he died.
“I would be working in the office in the morning and the chairs, they made that noise when they slide across the floor, and there wasn’t anybody there,” says Katie Plowman, once The Handlebar’s office assistant and now operations coordinator at Loaves & Fishes.
“The weirdest thing was there was an employee they never had that kept being clocked in overnight.”
She asked the cleaning guy about it. “I said, ‘What’s going on with the chairs?’ And he said, ‘I haven’t moved any chairs.’”
While Herb was particular about things like seating arrangements and his cherished stage lights, he was friendlier than Casper. Plowman tells about the cleaning guy chatting regularly with Herb. Then there was the teenager who helped set up stage lights for one of the popular Christmas jams with favorite local band The Work. Poor kid worked too hard that day and took a nap in the green room. He awoke, startled, to see a spooky apparition. We couldn’t find the two ghostbusters to verify these stories, but the staff was convinced.
“He’d never met Herb,” she says, “but he described him to a T.”
How can anybody be sure it’s the iconoclastic Herb who haunts his old haunt?
“It could be Spindle Boy,” Plowman acknowledges, naming the 11-year-old child impaled on a textile machine at the turn of the last century and still roaming the old Mills Mill, The Handlebar’s original home. “It’s gotta be Herb, screwing with us.”
She’s right. Herb’s stories always screwed with people; you just never knew what was real. Is Herb? Stop by Stone Avenue and see for yourself.