Everybody has stories about White Water Tavern, longtime owner Larry “Goose” Garrison told the Times in 2011. “Course we can’t tell them all.” Even now, a month after he died at 63, ask his friends for their best story about Goose — a nickname he happily carried with him from high school after he killed tame geese — and they smile and say, “I got stories, but you can’t print them.”
Peter Read, publisher of the live music guide Nightflying, met Garrison in the mid-’70s.
“It was weird at his funeral because everybody got up and talked about growing up with Larry. The most beautiful thing about the man is that he never grew up. He was a wild-eyed child of a man. That’s really what made the difference.”
His first bar, Slick Willy’s, was a playland for adults, with air hockey, foosball, miniature golf, snooker, darts, pinball and more. He and David Corriveau opened it in 1977 in Little Rock Union Station (Corriveau and Buster Corley, who owned Buster’s, next door to Slick Willy’s, went on to open the similarly themed national chain, Dave & Buster’s).
“I went down to Slick Willy’s once on a Friday afternoon,” Read remembered. “Larry walked up and said, ‘Have you ever seen $10,000 in quarters?’ On the floor of his office was an enormous pile of quarters. He said, ‘Get down there and play in it.’ He hopped down on the floor with his big butt and started picking them up with each hand and pouring them over himself.” Read asked why the pile was there. “So I can play with it,” Read recalled Garrison telling him.
Why the bar business? “I was out of my fuckin’ mind,” Garrison told the Times in 2011. Before Slick Willy’s, he made a living by gambling — especially in whorehouses.
“One right over on State Street. The madam — Mama Lou, she lived in Searcy — she’d leave me the key. I’d stay there two days and gamble all night and win my ass off. I’d wait until these guys were drunk and then clean them out. I’m a decent card player, but I’m not a fool.”
His luck didn’t hold when he bought into the White Water Tavern in 1979. A month after he became part owner, arsonist Ron O’Neal burned it down. It was the first of three fires that nearly destroyed White Water — O’Neal set it on fire again in 1982, and in the late ’90s a drunk motorcyclist crashed into the back of the building and busted a gas line. Each time, slow insurance payments kept him from promptly reopening. He never understood insurance companies’ suspicions.
“You don’t burn a bar that makes money. You burn a bar that loses money.”
Garrison didn’t have much more success with the short-lived White Water Tavern in Fayetteville, located in the former home of The Swinging Door, an iconic bar on Dickson Street with a two-story painting of a cowboy straddling the entrance.
“I come to town and I don’t know anything about Fayetteville and there was this big ugly-ass cowboy on the front,” Garrison said in 2011, “and I tore the cowboy down. Then I come in with a sledgehammer and knock the swinging doors off the front and stomped on them and broke them. No one told me they’d just gotten ’em fixed. Everybody in Fayetteville hated my guts. … That cowboy cost me a lot of money.”
Within the Arkansas music community, however, Garrison was beloved. He booked a mix of blues, folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll. Burger, The Cate Brothers, Larry “Totsy” Davis, CeDell Davis, Blind Mississippi Morris, Mojo Depot, Go Fast and The Salty Dogs were among the regulars over the years.
“He treated musicians with respect,” said Amy Garland, a singer-songwriter who began playing at White Water 20 years ago and remembers nights when crowds didn’t materialize, but Garrison still gave her a sizeable “cut of the door.” “Goose never said anything,” she said, “but I knew. … He always kind of protected me. He was just a protector of a lot of people.”
“He’d give people chance after chance,” said Marianne Taylor, a bartender at White Water who knew Garrison for more than 35 years.
“He always took care of people even when they didn’t deserve it,” former promoter and doorman T.J. Deeter said. “People always say that about people when they’re dead, but he really did those things. If you were his friend and you turned to him, he would help you out. He once gave me a car when I didn’t have one.”
In the mid-2000s, Deeter hosted the Arkansas Rockers Review, a showcase for local musicians of all genres: punk, hip-hop, metal, rock. He remembers regulars being turned off by the lyrics of some of the younger acts and of punk rock kids spitting on each other. But Goose would come to the bands’ defense, Deeter remembered.
“[T.J.] got the bands that would never get to play anywhere else,” Garrison said in 2011. “I thought they were the weirdest and most fucked-up people in the world until I got to know them, and shit, I loved them. I loved them.“
In 2007, after his health deteriorated and the stress of running a bar got to be too much for him, Garrison began leasing the building to Matt White, Sean Hughes, Nick Coffin and M.C. Ferguson — the latter two left the business within a year. They were in their early 20s at the time.
“When they were training, Sean and Nick had big beards and wore those Castro caps,” Garrison said in 2011. “And one of the old guys, a regular, said, ‘Goddamit, Garrison, you’re leasing the bar out to Palestinians. Those are terrorists.’ I said, “Motherfucker, they’re from Conway.’ “
“He gave us a shot and we became friends for life,” Matt White said. “Just about everything you did with him turned into an adventure, and I’ll always be grateful for his huge generosity of spirit. He was simultaneously very tough and a huge sweetheart. Just hanging out with him made you feel better.”
Last Saturday, White Water Tavern hosted an all-day tribute concert for Garrison, where some 15 bands performed. The event doubled as a fundraiser for a scholarship for local musicians that Garrison’s family is setting up.
Bart Angel, drummer in Big Silver, The Salty Dogs and backing bands for his wife, Amy Garland, said the hours spent hanging out with Goose after gigs when the bar was closed were precious memories, even if the details have grown fuzzy.
“I’ve forgotten the jokes and tall tales, but … I can perfectly picture Larry’s cheeks glistening with tears and that whole big head just beaming. A big, pasty, blinding white light of pure joy and happiness.”