Illustration by Tony Mostrom
Just flew in from Austin, and boy, is that rock & roll tired.
Can’t get away from that shee-it. In Austin on a good/bad night, you cannot avoid it, you cain’t hide from the people who love it like a plague. And I was riding around in a cab and I mentioned to the driver that the Austin cops seem to have a pretty laissez-faire attitude, ’cause the South by Southwest music confab coincided with St. Paddy’s Day, y’know, and there were way-wild crowds of drunk, proud Irish people and music-industry pinheads in the streets at the same time (some of ’em in the same body), and basically happy hellfire reigned right there on the pavement. The cops, though, my cabbie said, any other week of the year “they’d be down here crackin’ heads.”
Huh. Thought so.
Austin is a lovely little place split down the middle by a wide-ish expanse of fairly rapid Colorado River, and it’s relatively unspoiled and quite pretty and peaceful down at the river’s edge — plunk your naked feet into it, feels good. They’ve got docks down there from which the university rowing teams launch their boats, and there are willowy trees, and the chirps and buzzings of obscure birds. Above, on the ridges surrounding the river, expensive-looking cribs on one side, on the other your Holiday Inns and Sheratons, blah blah blah.
It’s hard to pinpoint the essence of this place, since it’s also a college town and the seat of the state government. A friendly breeze kept the air clean — outside. With its benign mix of hippies, rednecks, punks, rastas and yuppies, Austin carries a heavy stink of San Francisco. It’s a pot-and-beer culture, at least part-time (also a white wine and Jim Beam culture). I walked and walked, observing the blend of Disneyfied old frontier town, glass-and-steel corporate power-thrust and the odd Art Deco/
streamline-moderne-flavor bank or laundromat. Throughout Austin, there are patches of green, but it feels squeezed by an impending upscale cityness. Guitar-strumming folkies or solo drummers or violinists busking blithely in the streets. They seemed happy.
At SXSW, something like 900 bands played during the four-day run. From all over the USA, Japan and Europe, hopeful young and old musicians came to hawk their wares, in numerous clubs — so many nightclubs it really is rather awe-inspiring. Yeah, Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, and you are required by law to listen to music all day here — in Austin, you can actually be levied a fine for listening to an insufficient amount of music.
During this convention, in addition to all that live music in club after smoky beer-smell club, there are panel discussions by music-biz experts of all kinds — promotions people, managers, lawyers, sound engineers, Web producers, booking agents, songwriters, musicians too — who engage themselves in the big financial, technological and supposedly musical issues of the day. These discussions are generally very well attended, and often enjoyable, if only to witness the spectacle of virtual music in action — i.e., to watch the gargantuan talking machine that processes music in our time. If you are a very young, innocent musician or aspiring music-biz type, you can glean valuable insights from these sessions. No kidding.
Anyway, at night I gorged myself on music, in club after shit-kickin’ club. As I popped in and out, or walked the main hot lanes of Fourth through Eighth streets, and down around Red River Road, I tried putting it all together, somehow — I could imagine other writers scratching their heads too, trying to come up with an “angle” on the whole thing that would wrap it all up in a “nutshell.” I collected a few impressions, and, taken altogether, perhaps they add up to something. Now let’s see:
Stoner rock . . . dewd: In Austin, on every corner and in every greasy spoon, lurked hordes of boys and girls who aspired to the visual flair and radical sounds of their parents — long, lanky hair, big ol’ bells, halter tops and blue eye shadow, rifforama, Marshall stax. I have never seen so many Lynyrd Skynyrd roadies in one place. The bands I saw who worked in this image revealed the timeless allure of White Dumbshit culture, and I can’t say I didn’t totally “get off” on Bottom, for example, three girls from NYC who did a Sabbathy power-sludge thing to max effect. I made a note to myself to consider the extremely subtle humor involved in this elephantine music, especially coming from girls born in 1980 or thereabouts. I mean, one assumes that all young people are being ironic all the time now, so it was interesting how Bottom’s utter sincerity (desire) allowed them to kick such major butt.
Similar — way, way similar — were the hippie-rock walls of mud strewn by such bands as Nebula and Acid King, both of whom have recorded for S.F.’s Man’s Ruin label, which has carved a gnarly niche for itself with band after band cloning scratchy Vanilla Fudge records: power trios w/mile-high stacks ’n’ wah-wahs, muttonchop sideburns, brontosauruses-fucking beats. Riffa-beorcha-blamma-sludga. Positively numb.-
ing, but this crowd craved it. One could argue that, as a contrast to new wave know-it-alls or shaved-head beef-rockers, it was refreshingly “real” and direct, and manly.
But I capped off my visit to Austin with Spin magazine’s annual “private” bash (must’ve been a thousand people stuffed in there), where the Meat Puppets and Supersuckers did their own white-trash shticks, and by this time I was growing tired of being strapped into someone else’s cornpone rock nostalgia. So by the time Supersuckers came on with their super-ironic hard-rock/cracker bullshit, it began to stink really, really evil in there. I mean, it was depressing — besides the fact that the room reeked of Jim Beam rotgut, there were all those groupie girls around the stage, the singer’s mirrored shades and cowboy hat — the fatalism, I mean. We’d come full (small) circle — you know, Supersuckers did a very poor-quality cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” and basically just want to beat Foghat at their own game, for crap’s sake. I can tell you something: In 1973 it sounded like shit too.
Nostalgia everywhere: I did check in on Doug E. Fresh, who made sort of a comeback in an outdoor pasture kind of setting. Tons of people showed up to hear him jam with the once-crucial Big Daddy Kane. Doug E. always did have a weak voice, and he just talks about a lotta nothing, basically, but he was sort of nice, which these days means star power, and the crowd ate it up.
It’s a question of who gets to inflict his nostalgia on whom, the way I see it. All over the world, American music twists the aspirations of daydreaming youths. Take Scandinavia. I saw this Danish/Swedish trio called Tremolo Beer Gut, pound for pound probably the best “rock” band I saw in Austin for their exacting scrapes at the bottom of the surf/spy barrel. It was as if by focusing with blazing intent on one very, very stupid thing — surf music — they made smart music, witty too. Scandinavia was also fairly represented by Norway’s Locomotiv, whose pop was played with drama and dynamics, and a textural complexity that absolutely didn’t dichotomize between punk and progressive rock. They also seemed to take enormous pleasure in their playing, a good thing to see.
No longer human: Much-hyped music from Japan pulled big crowds. Why? I saw Puffy, a brutally efficient pop machine fronted by two near-look-alike young women whose tag-team/tandem voices pecked at the eyeballs like a thousand cranes. Their songs were perfectly played and peppy and perky, and they were singing about boys they have crushes on, in Japanese, and most everyone in the house (I looked) had this really lame benevolent grin on their faces, and many guys had their hands in their pockets. It was gross. By the way, I received CDs from six American bands that used nonsensical Japanese writing as a design element on their covers — because it looks neat-o.
But you should’ve seen Ninja Tune’s Cinematic Orchestra. The young English band w/DJ in a Miles/’70s electric vein took it into fantastic realms by exploring the juxtapositions of keyboards and sax with samples in extended compositions, and did it with imagination. Liquid Sky’s Yellow Note, too, pulled off a marathon set of seditious drum ’n’ bass, like a combination athlete and master juggler of diabolically compounded sound worlds. Carl Craig, sans his revolutionary Innerzone Orchestra, delivered one of the most mentally and physically dense house sets I’ve ever heard.
Rock iconoclasm is far from dead, and San Diego’s Upsilon Acrux delivered an uncompromising (irritating) non-rock free and composed art-music set of squawky angularity and noise on just bass, drums and guitar, and appeared to enjoy playing to about eight people. I thought, well, good on yer, chaps, but you ought to dig beneath the surface of the noise. Isn’t weirdness for weirdness’ sake just more reaction? . . . sheesh.
Meanwhile, down by the river at night, swarms of bats flickered out over my head. I sat by the water in the dark and soaked in quiet. Earlier, I had stopped in at a place called Ruta Maya for iced coffee, and to observe the nu-style country-folk ’n’ laptop mellowness, rough-hewn front porch and modern punky art. Round the corner and up the street grandly loomed the Texas capitol, with its polished patterned floors and dark panels and portraits of political luminaries past. It’s a peaceful place on a weekend.
So, sitting there with my iced coffee, jotting down my little pearls, I began to weigh the futility of carping on the tapped-out black gold of American music, the pop dream as perpetuated by the majority of the hopefuls who’d graced the SXSW stages the last few days. I had wished to return home with the feeling that I’d experienced something that suggested a small shift away from the more familiar American music paradigms. But I didn’t, and it could have been a visually biased impression: Many of the acts I saw were forced to perform under huge banners advertising Jim Beam. In effect, it was like “Jim Beam Presents American Culture,” and it was a bit sickening.
In most every band, I heard ceaseless flogging at the same crippling blues-country-jazz-rock-folk elements, a narrow emotional range (rock “passion,” country-folk sensitivity) that said real music has to be happy or gloomy or angry, goddamit. The overall lack of new direction was especially glaring when I considered how, back at the convention hall, the proceedings were so dominated by the scads of new Internet downloadable-music sites and software. This American problem — we’ll make it yours, too: The technology is leaping forward, but content isn’t keeping up.
Back in my hotel, I watched a limitless flood of broken-heart tales on TV, and it struck me how much Americans want to feel sad. They like their music that way too — weepy, lonely — because it suggests depth, painted in very, very broad, brightly colored strokes.
In Austin, I saw something really funny, though: A supercharged salsa band is absolutely ripping the almighty bejesus on a flashy, stylish yuppie-club stage — and no one is dancing. Empty floor. Everyone’s just standing there, slurping their beer.