Club 21 & Up is an abandoned bar situated off Reed Road in the hardscrabble Houston neighborhood of Sunnyside. Earlier this month, the squat wooden structure with its retro maroon trim caught the eye of singer-songwriter Arthur Yoria and a small video crew as they were scouting a location for the “Ruff Life” music video. The track heads up a documentary about the area’s stray problem, and the sight of three roaming dogs outside the dilapidated watering hole caused them to pull over.
“The only concept we had for the video was me interacting with the stray dogs,” recalls Yoria, who has released a steady stream of albums and side projects since his 2001 self-titled debut EP, and whose alt-rock-leaning riffs and wittily wrought lyrics were also licensed for the show The O.C. “We spotted three dogs, two of them scattered, but then this little puppy came up and really wouldn’t leave my side.”
At that point, the video crew from the World Animal Awareness Society began filming footage what became the “Ruff Life” flick — although, behind the scenes, Yoria ended up finding a canine companion for life. He decided to call her Rita Hayworth, inspired by a combination of meeting her on the similarly sounding Reed Road and in tribute to the way the dog engaged with the cameras like her screen idol namesake of the ’40s.
Looking back on their first meeting, Yoria says that despite the eight-week-old pup’s raggedy appearance — she was covered in fleas and clearly malnourished — he quickly became smitten with Rita as the day unfurled. “She has a sweet face, and my heart just melted,” he recalls.
After Yoria asked about the idea of taking Rita home with him, an overnight stay at the Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward volunteer rescue was arranged, where her fleas were zapped and she was given puppy shots. Then it was time for the Pit Bull and Beagle mix to enter the next phase of her journey and travel from the blighted streets of Sunnyside to a warm and loving abode.
Earlier this year, Yoria had returned home to Houston after a spell in Dallas and Colorado and discovered his mom was suffering from dementia. As her condition worsened, Yoria decided to “come back and spend time with her while she still knows who I am and so forth.” Adding Rita Hayworth to the family wasn’t in Yoria’s original plan, but it turns out their serendipitous meeting has been a bonus.
“Rita has completely revitalized both of my parents,” he says. “They were shellshocked at first, as they haven’t had any pets for a long time, but I’m telling you, this little dog is a heartbreaker. They had a similar first reaction to me when they met her, and took to her immediately.” (For the record, Yoria adds that his father has also renamed her Dharma, in tribute to a dog his grandfather used to have.)
While Rita is adapting to her new home, Yoria’s next moves involve promoting “Ruff Life” and its accompanying documentary, titled Operation Houston #StrayDogCity. He was invited to get involved in the cause by Tom McPhee of the World Animal Awareness Society and asked to pen two songs for the soundtrack. “Safe” was cut in collaboration with McPhee and addresses the idea of disparate cultures coming together to solve the local stray dog problem. But it’s “Ruff Life” that has emerged as the project’s anthem.
Yoria says he wasn’t given much in the way of “coordinates” when charged with writing “Ruff Life,” but instead went with his gut feeling that there was a parallel to be drawn between “the life of stray dogs in a city and the life of a single male.”
On a first listen, the finished song is defined by a melancholic lilt, enhanced by Yoria’s lonesome lyrics about searching out a soulmate against a cold-hearted metropolis. But as the accompanying video plays out and Yoria finds Rita — fleas and all — outside of a ramshackle bar in a rundown part of town, “Ruff Life” resonates tenderly, and tough times give way to love and companionship.
Watch the video for “Ruff Life”:
To learn more about the World Animal Awareness Society and its upcoming documentary, visit the organization’s website.
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About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.