Gutterpunks Gone Gonzo

[19 March 2008]

By Justin Follin

The gypsies were drunk and pissed off in a parking lot off Trinity Avenue. I’d been drinking Lone Star at some film party where I sat in a corner on the phone with a friend from New York. She’d have to excuse my drinking alone, I told her—it’s South by Southwest and I’m obligated to drink free beer. I’d just seen FrontRunners, a documentary about a magnet high school like the one we’d gone to together. I was trying to get her to quit her job and help me make a movie about our alma mater. That’s the thing about film festivals—you spend the whole time thinking, “I could do that. Better!” She said it was 1 a.m. on the East Coast and she had work tomorrow. She suggested I quit drinking alone. So I found the gypsies shouting at each other, playing banjos, and chasing dogs around the lot. 

Okay, they weren’t exactly the Roma people who travel European streets while tourists shift their wallets from back pockets to the front. They were American, and my age, and a gutter-kid acoustic band that called themselves the Music Box and sort of called New Orleans their home town but were pretty much living off Dumpstered scraps of food and the money they’d made on street corners around the country singing about freights and train grease on private parts. South By Southwest had drawn them here and fate had brought me and we were talking there between the homeless shelter and the church and they said hop in and drink this so I did. Ouch. Gypsy whiskey burns.

We pulled onto Sixth Street, this wreck of a van filled high with people and blankets and smells, heading east to the other side of the highway to follow the rumor of a bonfire. It didn’t take long to realize the driver, a long-haired kid with horn-rimmed glasses, had no idea where he was going—a problem he tried to solve by downing the rest of the whiskey. As he made u-turns in the middle of Cesar Chavez, tired dogs slid from one side of the van to the other. When one appeared in the front seat, he reached his head down to give it a kiss and said, “I wuv you so much, Lady.” Whoa, watch the road, dude.

“Where the hell am I going? Where the hell is this damn bonfire?” he yelled, u-turning and kissing the dog and honking. Yes, where the hell am I going, I asked myself. What the hell have I gotten myself into? We stopped at a gas station and the tribe jumped from the van. One ran in for directions, one for beer, and one with a gas can in hand managed to convince a customer at another pump to fill it. They hadn’t paid for gas since New Orleans, they said. Just tell people you’re a traveling band, and the red can gets filled for free.

The bonfire actually existed. A generous old Austinite opens up his backyard every now and then for transient musicians to come out and jam. I’d just seen Throw Down Your Heart, a film about the banjo in Africa, and seeing all these pickers and train riders making music together around the flame felt somehow more important in a global sense. Folks had showed up from places like Arizona and North Carolina playing blues here in Austin just because this week, it’s where a musician’s got to be. I picked up a washboard and a tambourine and we sang songs about gypsy life and Appalachia and I pretended like I could sing the words with the same truth that the woman across the fire with those burning eyes and the sky-blue accordion could. But I had my laptop in my backpack, and a home to go back to. Unfortunately, my gypsy van left me and I couldn’t get back there.

Four in the morning, the gypsies had disappeared. The fire was still high and folks were still singing, but I had miles between me and home and the drunks had left me here. Where was I, anyway? The prospect of sleeping on the muddy floor inside the ranch house turned the night dark. There’s a scene in The Lost Coast where the three friends realize they’re drunk and stuck on the wrong side of the city when the sun comes up. We’ve all been there, and here I was, there again. A stumbling woman downing Steel Reserve said she was going where I was going, we could split a cab. She slurred and chainsmoked Parliaments and when the cab came two hours later, she yelled at the driver and complained that the Austin bus system sucks. She got really quiet, turned to me and said, “I hate smackheads.” What?

I woke in my room later that morning dreaming I was falling down a waterfall. My head hurt and the sun was noon bright. Shit, I’ve got movies to see. I caught a ride to the pressroom downtown and did my best to bust out a review of Humboldt County while politely declining the festival volunteers’ attempts to network. Deadlines make you mean. We can pass business cards back and forth like schoolgirl notes all you want, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the only “Check One: Yes, No, Maybe” question at this festival is are you famous or can you help me become it? Yikes, cynicism is an ugly reflection. I didn’t really say that about the note passing. But I was just a little stressed.

The pressroom was stationed on the second floor of the Austin Convention Center, which acts as some sort of base camp for skinny black jeans and faux-hawks for SXSW week. Conversations are half live and half iPhoned while badge-carrying pretty people shake hands: L.A. meets New York, halfway in the middle. Talk was fast and loud and always about people I’d never heard of, so I spent a lot of my time outside on the balcony where I could watch the city from above and breathe secondhand smoke from the free American Spirits burning all around me. Today I headed north to Sixth Street, to the mirage of pop bands that appeared like a smoke signal one morning and would leave nothing but ash and scattered flyers when it left five days later.

Downtown Austin feels electric. Stick your finger in a socket electric. It drags everyone in its path into a wake of beer and hangovers and music, chiefing mellows like three no-dozes and a drive from Amarillo to Santa Fe. It kicks your ass. Music pours from dive bars and laundromats and taco stands. Walking along the blocked-off street discombobulates the aural cavities with swells of drums and bass guitars indistinguishable from each other, like falling asleep in a crowd of talking people where the chatter becomes one rolling tide of inflection. Except here, you’re wide awake. And so is everyone who hasn’t yet found the bar with free Crown and rolled into a gutter or doorway to puke.

It was in this sweltering rumble that I found the gypsies again. They’d set up near the corner of Neches, right underneath a dive called “Treasure Island,” and looked like the kind of band that might have been waiting at a dockyard to play, sneaking on board and stealing the boat while the pirates were getting ripped in the Jolly Roger theme bar. It was a pleasant coincidence, I thought; I’d wondered what had happened to them. One of them later said they hadn’t left me: they’d just hidden their van around an empty building and passed out. I could have slept in the van.

The eight of them played their asses off out there on the street. Passersby yelled and locked arms and danced and walked off. Teenage girls with their mothers stopped to take photographs of this beautiful roving freak show. A clarinet player jumped in and they swung out to a celebration of their Sunny Side of the Street. It was an upright bass, banjulele, trumpets, and washboard throwdown. A camera crew set up their picture-perfect, halter-topped anchor lady in front of them and she struggled to say, “South by Southwest is just filled with all sorts of neat things,” above their collective chorus of “fucking, yeah, fucking on a freight train.” It happened like this until the police showed up and moved the party along.

I had to get to Lou Reed’s Berlin to watch Lou Reed lead an orchestra onscreen and come up afterwards to tell us about it. And then I was off to write about that when the gypsies came speeding down Congress, swung open their door and yelled, “we’re going!” I jumped in and we wrapped around the city, back to the other side of the highway, the East side, the OTHER side, where badges and wrist bands start to lose their meaning the further from I-35 you get. They had a gig at a backyard show, a place called Fuck by Fuck You, where the five o’clock shadows and hair-gelled, Paper Magazine, bad-boy look gets replaced with cup-sized ear gauges and face tattoos. There were goats and chickens and free kegs and five-minute set changes and crowd surfing and sweat stains on your clothes from everyone else’s pits.

The gypsies played and we kept moving, back in the van, pulling whiskey and rolling tobacco, headed SOUTH, to another show, to a place called the Enchanted Forest, a hidden arts collective tucked behind a guy’s house across from an Office Depot. A walk in the woods here revealed a breathtaking display of outsider art hung from the trees, painters displaying their trades, and a Pig Pen-like old man free-styling consciousness raps above a digderidoo and djembe. A main stage hosted a funk-playing clown band while a sequined goddess slithered through the most enrapturing hula hoop dance I’d ever seen—two multi-colored lit hoops and a body that traced sex in the air. There was fire here. Fire breathers and fire fountains and fire works. And the gypsies played, too, and then, they disappeared like smoke or the chaos of this festival from the capital city of Texas.

I saw a movie this week called Gonzo. My apologies to Dr. Thompson.

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