In Austin, where I was for SXSW, the annual music conference and festival, a couple of hundred people spent the afternoon acting up at the foot of the capitol and down Congress Avenue. I saw them on my way to a day-party. I was headed north to Sixth Street as they were slouching south toward the lake. They banged on drums and plucked stringed instruments, jabbed placards skyward, chanted slogans, invited passersby to join in. I never broke stride, just glanced sideways every couple of steps to make sure the march hadn’t turned into an angry, anti-Italian-guy mob but also to do what I was there for: observe and take notes. Readers love local color, especially the DayGlo hue of Texas’ most liberal city, and if there’s a tussle between the protesters and The Man, I thought, I’ll be Gianni-on-the-spot.
Before I started off for Sixth, I had no idea a protest was going on. As I ambled by, I didn’t think about the war and its casualties, or The New York Times’ and The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages, or Lara Logan and Wolf Blitzer, or Lara Logan and Nicole Kidman, or Lara Logan and Nicole Kidman and a pitcher of margaritas, or what kind of power or powerful drug can move a mass of humanity to march loudly in a semi-straight line on a glorious spring afternoon, on a glorious St. Patrick’s Day. Some stuff crossed my mind, yes. I hope the bands don’t suck. And In a couple of minutes, I’m probably going to start doing some serious drinking that may or may not end until early tomorrow morning — should I stop somewhere and get a bottled water? And Don’t tell me I’ve lost my debit card. But of all the thoughts and images that fluttered through my head, I suddenly realized, the war in Iraq wasn’t one of them — and I was 10 feet away from a big anti-Iraq war protest!
I put my pen to paper. “Austin is all about personal expression: artistic, political, whatever,” I wrote. “‘Expressing yourself’ is expected and seems to have become about as clichéd here as fake boobs in Houston or big hair in Dallas.
“I guess if you’ve seen one protest in Austin, you’ve seen ’em all :)”
Along Congress, I passed convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, panhandlers and street artists, banks and art galleries. I saw a protester covered in red theater paint. I admired my new official KGB wristwatch. (Made in the Motherland!) I overheard someone playing the trombone lazily. I thought I felt my cell phone buzz. (It didn’t. It never does.) I noticed two young protesters wearing oversized, furry green hats and drinking beer from plastic cups. (Clearly, two upstandin’ Irish lads had gotten lost.) I also felt an odd sort of embarrassment, both for not expressing my disgust with a bewildered puppet-in-chief and the U.S. defense industry’s pet war, and embarrassment also for the people I could see who were expressing their “disgust,” especially the silly, red, drunk ones.
I pulled out my notebook again: “I guess the only way we can voice our approval/dissent is by gathering together in public and hoping there’s a tv or newspaper cameraman or a crack alt-weekly reporter around. But what if you don’t agree with everything that your party/group/mob stands for?” The night before, I had made the mistake of mentioning to some friends that I wanted to see a certain band the following day. Their unanimous opinion — that the band sucks — didn’t stop me from going to the show, but what they said stuck with me. I wondered how many of them truly didn’t like the band and how many were parroting the opinions of others. I wondered how many protesters marched out of an honest sense of righteousness and how many marched for the wrong reasons, like extra credit or physical exercise. I wondered if I liked the band as much as I claimed to or if I was simply being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. (Me? Never!)
I turned onto Sixth, away from the march and into the heart of the music festival. The strip of clubs and bars/restaurants was sunlit and littered with hipsters. It wasn’t as crowded as it normally gets at night, when the streets are blocked off and all of the really big bands are playing, drawing locals and visitors alike out of their caves or posh penthouse suites and into the fray. But the street was lively. The concert I was on my way to see was a showcase of three Fort Worth bands and one Austin outfit, all sponsored by Firelight Music Group, Vatican Apparel, Party Buckit (PartyBuckit.com), and the Weekly. By the time I got to the club, the first band, Cowtown’s Holy Moly, had already played, and the second band, Austin’s Frontier Brothers, were in the middle of their set. The club, Darwin’s Pub, is small, but it is spacious, and cool breezes came and went happily through its faux patio facing Sixth. By the door, Vatican Apparel hawked t-shirts and lapel pins, and along the wall, stage left, the performing bands sold their merch. Like The Frontier Brothers, the other two bands — Stella Rose and headliner Calhoun — were great. By the time Calhoun took the stage, about 60 people were in the club. About 75 percent of them crowded the stage, really just a small rise with no separation between the musicians and the fans. The throng obscured the band almost completely. All you could see were the three guitarists’ heads. The drummer was invisible from just about every angle.
I didn’t get a chance to see any other local bands. Most of them either were unceremoniously stuffed into weird time slots (incredibly early or incredibly late) or forced to play earlier in the week, before I — and ostensibly a majority of the other attendees — got to town. I was glad that our paper and some fellow Fort Worth operations did something unaffiliated with the festival. I was also glad that what we did turned out pretty cool. Bitter? A little. See, as a co-sponsor, I get to choose to send one Fort Worth/Tarrant County band every year to represent my paper. Every alt-weekly music honcho does, from his or her respective coverage area. This year, I chose Calhoun, four great guys who I believed would do Cowtown and our paper proud but whose — what? — mature talent obviously didn’t jibe with South-by’s Taste Council?! They were rejected, but so what. The night before, I popped into several SXSW-sanctioned showcases, and most of them weren’t nearly half as packed or as perfect as ours was. “I told you so!” couldn’t even begin to describe the magnitude of my glee, but I still jotted it down in my notebook for posterity.
One of Calhoun’s best songs may be “These Are the Dead Days,” whose chorus includes the lyric “’Cause if you love this place / You’d be crazy or possessed.” “The place” to which frontman and chief songwriter Tim Locke refers could be anywhere or anything — a married couple’s house, skid row, Iraq, Austin, a resigned state of mind. The point is that we all have different perspectives and points of view. For example, I think South-by was wrong for depriving me of my band choice; South-by probably thinks I’m wrong for being a big baby about it. Similarly, most sane people think a surge in U.S. troops in Iraq is stupid; President Bush doesn’t. Somewhere in between — between South-by and me, and Boy George and the rest of the planet — lies the truth. In the case of Iraq, it may be subjective. In the case of music, it probably isn’t. Some bands are just better and more diligent and more worthy of attention than others. Period.
In my three hours at Darwin’s, I know that a U.S. soldier in Iraq died from injuries sustained during battle.
These are the dead days / We’re living in
The Times published another column calling for Dubya’s head.
This the new permanent haze / Hanging around our head
Nicole Kidman made a million dollars for batting her eyelashes.
Don’t kid yourself / This will improve
A man covered in red theater paint in an anti-war rally twisted his ankle.
We are just prisoners now / Where no good thing can soothe
A CEO embezzled a cool mill.
You hope for some highs / God knows there’ll be lows.
An anti-war demonstration somewhere went untelevised and unreported.
But it’s mostly just numbness between / You have no idea how bad it can go
And a handful of Fort Worth artists and art lovers drank ’til oblivion and into the early morning.
These are the dead days / We’re living in