In Defense of Going to South By Southwest

How do you now define success?

That question was posed by Dave Grohl about three-quarters of the way through his SXSW keynote address Thursday morning at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. It came after he explained how Nirvana essentially ended up restructuring the music business as a result of the revolution they caused during the aftermath of Nevermind, the group’s legendary 1991 record.

It was quite the existential statement for a guy who has arguably been among the most important figures in rock music over the last two decades. Success is a very tricky thing to define, yet alone embrace. It’s all relative, most people say, but that doesn’t stop us from constantly chasing it and paradoxically rejecting it should we become lucky enough to actually encounter the sweet taste of accomplishment, every now and then. Grohl has the entire music universe at his fingertips, it would seem, so why he would even question the very definition of such a ubiquitous term should help us realize how abstract a concept ‘success’ really is.

Michael Thompson, the man behind an information design and display studio named Accelerator in New York City, pondered a similar precept as we rode together in a shuttle on the way to the convention center on, of all days, the morning of Grohl’s speech. The trip took longer than expected — our driver agreed to a call that forced our route to backtrack away from the city — but there was palpable serendipity in the moment. I was two hours early, anyway, so the more Thompson had to say, the more it felt like fate had decided to turn its curious head toward my exhausted body, and the thought of ignoring the opportunity to humor the ironic gods would have been a lesson in lost chances, I thought.

Turns out, Thompson had a tiny punk-rock streak in him — he spoke of the band X and even wondered aloud about the impending Depeche Mode show — but looking at him would never suggest as much. His well-placed graying hair framed his perfectly square face, forcing me to both quickly ponder and quickly dismiss the question of his age (it could have been 35 or 55, either way I wouldn’t have been surprised), and he had a fit build, like someone whom you might expect bikes to work daily and eats a lot of salad. His voice was calm and intelligent, his backpack fell in line with his image perfectly and his shorts proved just a little too short in length to suggest that he was still in his 20s. All told, he looked like someone who had a hand in financing the entire conference, not a guy who was grinding away at getting the word out about his graphic design start-up.

Then again, that’s probably because at one time, he very well could have been the man behind the money. As I learned, Thompson spent a lot of his life working with the banking industry in New York, at one point revealing how “way more people pay for their Park Place apartments in cash than you would think” in a way that was humble and believable, not obnoxious and arrogant. He left that job, that career, that life, to begin Accelerator with intentions of doing something worthwhile, something that could help him come to a more tangible definition of success in his own right.

“I just got tired of it,” he told me when referencing his past. “I wanted to do something where I could maybe make a difference.”

To me, Thompson embodied a lot of what I saw at my first SXSW last week: A well-intentioned needle in a sea of haystacks that has little to no idea how to stick out, regardless of how much work or effort they put into poking through. I know this, because I was one of those needles, tirelessly running from bar to bar to hear the next buzz band all the while attempting to stay true to the one story I was initially sent there to chase (a look at what the mid-’90s / early-’00s acts were up to at such a buzzy, what’s-next event).

My foremost reason for going to SXSW was simple — I needed a kick in the pants. Obsessing over/writing about/consuming music for most of my life, I have begrudgingly become somewhat apathetic toward the whole practice in recent months, and I figured that if there was one single event that could remind me of why this stuff became my true first love almost 30 years ago, it would be SXSW (or, as I learned from the more seasoned attendees, simply “South By”). I wanted to feel excited for concerts again. I wanted to be a fan. I wanted to be happy to be tired. I wanted to be overwhelmed. And most importantly, I wanted to stop taking for granted the very lucky and very fortunate experiences afforded to those who are very lucky and very fortunate to cover these kinds of things in the first place.

What I got was exactly that. For as tired as my legs are from hours of standing and walking, for as hungry as my stomach is for ignoring mealtime, and for as overloaded as my brain feels, Austin, Texas, ended up being the home base for a fantasy camp that ultimately made me give up on ever wanting to return to reality again. Case in point? The MTV/VH1/CMT showcase at which I would have never been caught dead prior to last week. Country music has forever been the one genre that has alluded my own, personal taste, and of all the gin joints near 6th Street, the last place I would have ever imagined checking out during my first night at SXSW would be a place that was front-loaded with country music artists.

Actually, that would also be the last place I would suspect Matt Pinfield — yes, the Matt Pinfield who hosted 120 Minutes; yes, the Matt Pinfield who could probably recite track-listings for every single major-label record release ever; yes, the Matt Pinfield who offered some expletive-laden tirade on a Limp Bizkit record years ago; yes, the Matt Pinfield who is … Matt Pinfield — to be at, too. But he was there, and even though the sight of him bobbing his head to a relatively unknown country music duo called Striking Matches was hard to believe, what he did after their set was downright incomprehensible.

“Mr. Pinfield. Hi, my name is,” I said as I approached him like a nerdy schoolboy who finally got the courage to talk to a junior high cheerleader.

“Colin, nice to see you!” he exclaimed before I could insert the word after “is.”

My heart stopped. His reaction nearly knocked me over. Matt Pinfield isn’t supposed to know my name, I thought. There’s something wrong here.

“Wait … how do you,” I asked.

“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” he countered.

“Well, maybe,” I said. “But, h –“

He laughed, shook my hand and pulled me in close.

“Actually, he said with a smile, “I looked at your badge.”

I laughed. He laughed. I said, “You have been the single biggest influence on everything I’ve ever done with this music writing thing,” and I believed him when he looked grateful. He told me about his podcast. We talked about what he’s been up to. I sheepishly said something along the lines of “Maybe we’ll run into each other again this week” before he told me that we was flying out the next day. My heart found its way back to my chest. I left the showcase and felt inspired to run laps around the convention center.

And that was only the beginning.

– The thrill I felt when I attended my most sought-after event of the week (a panel on Miles Davis’ lost quartet) and the leader of the panel looked in my direction to ask if Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke had anything to say about a question he posed, only to realize I was sitting right behind David Fricke.

– What amounted to a private screening of Out of Focus, a documentary about the singer/songwriter/producer Butch Walker, that was presented by the actual director of the film, who also stood around and talked with me for quite a while before and after the film ran.

– Realizing that Vampire Weekend can actually pull off their songs live as they offered up a surprisingly rambunctious and extremely memorable short set.

– Checking out the final half of the Sound City Players’ night and landing a guitar pick from Rick Nielsen after Taylor Hawkins screamed his way through “I Want You to Want Me”.

– Standing with who I’m still convinced was Green Day’s Tre Cool (though I can’t confirm — we got separated before I could ask) in some dirty, dimly lit bar that was packed to the brim with people guzzling free beer in the middle of the afternoon.

– Trying to type a 1,200-word story while sitting on a floor in a hallway while in a conference room to the left of me featured Clive Davis talking about his new book and what it’s like to be Clive Davis.

That 1,200-word story I was typing on the floor in the hallway was about the keynote address that gave Grohl the chance to wax poetic on his definition of success. “Is it still the reward of playing a song from beginning to end without making a mistake?” he asked. “Is it still finding that new chord, or scale that makes you forget all your troubles?”

Those questions still ring as loudly in my ears as his Sound City group’s performance of “Bad Moon Rising” did when John Fogerty joined them on stage Thursday night. Some people have goals, achieve those goals, and then move on to new goals. Other people subliminally force their goals into a state of fluidity that makes it impossible to ever recognize and/or appreciate any of the moments where achievement is obvious.

Me? I struggle all the time with trying to figure out how to define success and I’m not so sure I’ll ever land on something definitive. The only thing I wanted to accomplish during my week in Austin was penning a collection of good stories for PopMatters. Did I succeed?

Still, I think I learned at least one thing about the abstract term whenever I stop to reflect on my conversation with Thompson. The minute our lives begin to grow tiresome is the minute we know we have to stand up and do something that will ultimately lead to changes within our personal existence. It sounds fundamental, but the truth is that it’s hard to accomplish. For Thompson, taking a chance by blowing through his life’s savings on a business venture was enough to inspire him to take different direction in his life. For me, it was deciding to fly to Austin just to experience so much good, live music.

Does that make either of us successful? Who knows. But it sure does make the journey to the answer a lot more memorable.