South by Southwest on a Shoestring: A Diary

11:18 am 19 March, 350 Route Northbound to the Austin Airport. A native Texan, eager to converse with an out-of-towner (he gestured towards my suitcase as a conversation-opener) but not sure of the location of Iowa, is surprised to hear I have taken an airplane to Texas. He squinted his already narrow brown eyes and bit his lip: “Iowa, that’s where they make baked potatoes?”

I set him straight on the whole Iowa/Idaho thing. It may surprise my reader to know that this exchange brought the tally to four total such conversations I’d had while in Austin.

Austin is a humid city sprawled across central Texas’ hill country. It is the capital of the state of Texas, as well as home to the major branch of its state University. The capital dome dominates the skyline from downtown; the University makes itself known in more subtle ways, like the proliferation of cheap pizza stands and vintage clothing stores. The town has grown enormously over the last fifteen years, largely because of the boom computer giant Dell brought to the area — and of course, more recently, the settling bust. Both the boom and the bust are favorite topics among my many cab drivers; the second most popular is declarations of artistic aspirations, chiefly writing or music.

Everywhere during South by Southwest, vinyl banners bearing Jim Beam or Budweiser decals welcome you to “Austin, The Home of Live Music.” Waterloo Records, the city’s largest and most popular independent music store, claims that at Waterloo, “Music Still Matters.” In the Austin Chronicle, chatty advice columns and dating services often used “local music” as a touchstone for getting young people together. Local music in Austin means live music, at any one of hundreds of venues in the downtown area.

Arrival and First Day

1:00 pm Wednesday, 14 March. I take the bus downtown and go first of all to the Austin Convention Center, present my identification, and am issued a pass indicating my status as a member of the press. I am also given an enormous canvas bag full of all sorts of promotional material, from buttons and key chains and stickers to a designer package of Kleenex advertising Sony Music Import’s “Best Music from Japan” compilation Japan For Sale Vol. Two.

This promotional material seems pointless. There’s so much to see down here, that I hardly have time to go to see random bands I know nothing about. On the floor of the air-conditioned Convention Center people are charging back and forth madly, greeting each other and squealing. I feel shapeless and inert as a wave of a kind of tawdry ambition washes over me. Rock ambition is a slightly gothic, bruised goddess — not at all like diamond-white Hollywood ambition. It attracts a different kind of crowd. Women in ripped jeans and plunging necklines pinch their tight cheeks in the hollow glare of the Convention Center ladies room and give the mirror one last ruthless, slightly strung-out look.

Everyone’s on the phone, all the time. I don’t even have a cell phone, and I am on the phone all the time. People are calling publicists to get passes for different parties, they’re calling their friends to meet them for lunch or margaritas or for whatever show later on, and they’re calling their hotels to see if they have any messages. They’re calling ahead to get on the guest list or to find out whether they missed Neil Finn’s in-store at Waterloo. It’s a freaking gabfest.

Across from where I am sitting on the carpeted floor there is a coffee bar, and I notice that as they move my fellow participants are sucking on enormous plastic coffee containers, with straws. To the left there’s a room full of extra-speedy Dell computers for press to use — fifteen minutes only!

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I consider what makes Austin a “home of live music” and a place where “music still matters.”

One idea of Austin as a live music town: dancing. The first night I don’t see much except some honky tonk/rock country stuff at a place across the river called The Broken Spoke. The highlight of that experience is watching people two-step: dignified old guys with wasp waists and watermelon guts bowing and twirling before the powdered, Aquanet-reinforced visages of their ladies. I get the idea that here are people relating in a timeless way, within the strict but endlessly variable steps of a dance their parents and their parents’ parents must have danced. Perhaps it has lasted because it is made of simple patterns, and because it offers the participants clear-cut roles. I feel nostalgic, but it’s a sort of unearned nostalgia practiced only by those born after the demise of simple patterns and clear-cut roles.

The Broken Spoke bathrooms are heavy with the close smell of wet cement. In a small museum area, visitors can examine photographs taken of the Broken Spoke’s owner with such famous Texans as Willie Nelson and Sam Shepard. Willie even gave one of his hats, one with a leather strap stamped with the Lone Star Beer logo. The walls also display every album ever cut with a picture of the Broken Spoke on the cover. There are more than you’d think.

After the Broken Spoke I go to a bunch of bars on the Sixth Street strip. It feels like Mardi Gras: drunken crowds, policemen on horseback and on bicycles and in squad cars at every intersection. Doormen hawk tonight’s band lineup and the drink specials in the same breath. By the end of night one, I am convinced that if there is fun to be had, it is elsewhere.

>> Day Two: In Which I go To the Parties and Learn The Beautiful People are Not So Beautiful After All

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.