Tales from the Fest: An Abecedarium

Pepi Ginsberg | Photo by Ryan Collerd

Fresh outta Austin, Kevin Pearson alphabetizes his impressions of the music fest, all the way from A to Zzzzz (or lack thereof).

A is for Accommodation

“It’s not the mouse I’m bothered about,” explained my host after we witnessed a rodent scurrying across his living room floor. “It’s the rat that worries me.” That -- and the fact I’d be sharing a room with seven other people, and possibly a band -- had me immediately fumbling for housing alternatives. The alternative, found for me by a friend, happened to be a palatial villa overlooking a lake that was 30 minutes west of city. While the distance was a downside, the swimming pool, hot tub, and expansive view more than made up for it.

B is for Baseball

On the flight to Austin I sat next to a bunch of dudes who were as equally enthralled about the list of bands playing as they were about baseball stats for their upcoming fantasy league. This got me thinking: SXSW would be a lot easier to navigate if the bands came complete with statistics. In baseball, we can find out if a batter is better against a left or right-handed pitcher. At SXSW, it would be nice to know whether a band is better outside or indoors, in the afternoon or at night. For example, if I am able to find out in advance that Vampire Weekend’s ERA (Earned Rapturous Applause) is only a .304, I won’t waste my precious time.

C is for Convention Center

Last year I picked up my badge at Austin’s Convention Center and never looked back. This year I used it as a haven: a cool, calming, Zen-like refuge where I could decompress once or twice a day and fill up on free water. Given that it’s the festival’s hub, it was surprisingly free of chaos and saved me on several occasions when I wanted to use a restroom that didn’t double as a portal to hell.

D is for Day Shows

The free day shows prove that the average music fan with the average-sized American wallet can see more than an average amount of bands without shilling for a badge or wristband. This year’s array of sunlit shows was surprisingly strong and could be found in venues as disparate as the traditional nightclub, the parking lot, the museum, and the pizza shop.

E is for Eating

After overindulging in trans-fats at last year’s festival, I vowed to eat better this time around, avoid pizza, and stock up on my vegetables. I think this lasted about seven seconds. Fortunately, on day two, some friends tipped me off to a Korean restaurant called Koriente. The handily placed establishment (it sits half a block off Red River Street) was cheap, quick, and extremely edible. So, instead of hitting up the Hot Dog King whenever I had a craving, I took off to Koriente. Here, I could nibble on edamame, drink green tea lemonade, and be in and out in 15 minutes.

F is for Find of the Festival

Several bands that I saw and loved were already on my radar prior to attending SXSW, so my one true find of this festival was Pepi Ginsberg. Attending on the advice of a friend, her combination of Patti Smith vocals and Bob Dylan’s lyrical cadence catapulted her to the front of what was a pretty crowded field.

G is for Groups

There were a lot of them. I saw full sets or snippets of 46 bands. That’s only 0.03 of the groups who actually played over the four-day festival. I feel like a failure.

H is for Hitchhike

Sunday morning found me stranded at the palatial villa since my hosts had to hightail it north to Dallas for an afternoon flight and didn’t have time to take me downtown. Bags in hand, I trundled to the nearest cross section, wrote a sign, and, for only the second time in my life, stuck out a thumb. (The first time was when my car overheated, so that doesn’t really count.) Fortunately, after only twenty minutes, a young man named Jason stopped and kindly took me downtown despite being headed to Houston. True Texas hospitality.

I is for IHOP

My new living situation meant I was beholden to others as to when I arrived and left the festival. (There was one van for ferrying all of us.) On Thursday night, two of our posse decided to sneak into the Playboy party, leaving three of us sitting in IHOP for two hours. As they watched Justice at 3am, we tucked into pancakes and syrup. To make matters worse, our driver had unexpectedly taken the van home earlier that day, meaning we had to take a 30-minute taxi ride back to the villa. To make matters still worse, our numbers meant someone had to travel in the trunk. As the smallest, I was assigned this task and gingerly climbed in, curled up, and hoped they weren’t going to shoot me when we reached our final destination.

J is for Just Missed

There were several bands that I missed by minutes, but the two that eluded me throughout were the similarly named Fuck Buttons and Holy Fuck. I did manage to catch two songs of a Fuck Buttons set and fell for their dystopian take on experimental and electronic music. Unfortunately, every time I tried to see them again, I rolled in just as they were packing up. I didn’t even get that close with Holy Fuck. Instead, I consistently misjudged set times or got waylaid. Their name summed up my mood each time it happened.

K is for Kevin

It’s my name. I was reminded of it each morning as I placed the official lanyard around my neck. Unfortunately, I’d let the SXSW people use last year’s photo, meaning that my current close crop looked nothing like the shaggy, humidity-fried mop of 12 months ago. So, while the name was mine, the image was of someone else.

L is for Locals

Saturday at SXSW, it seems, is set aside for the locals. Not only were my musical choices not as overwhelming as they once were, but Sixth Street and its surrounding areas were packed with more people and even more terrible bar bands. That said, the locals whom I met were down to earth, dutifully polite, and definitely welcoming -- that is, when they weren’t complaining about Californians moving in and driving up the real estate prices.

M is for Malady

Without getting into too much detail, Wednesday found me unable to hold down any food, meaning I didn’t eat a morsel all day. Being ill at SXSW is a little like being sick on your birthday; you’re bummed, but you battle through.

N is for Nostalgia

On Thursday morning, just after midnight, at Seventh and Red River, I was transported back in time. Here, at a busy intersection, you could simultaneously hear REM at Stubbs and The Lemonheads playing Emo’s Annex. It was the early ’90s all over again.

O is for Obnoxious

I’m English, so I feel as though I can say this: the most obnoxious people I encountered -- and there weren’t that many -- were the English. Maybe the declining value of the dollar meant they could get drunker cheaper. But any altercation I encountered -- people getting kicked out of bars or forcing their way to the front of shows -- involved a Brit. Let’s hope the dollar strengthens against the pound before next year’s festival.

P is for Parties

After indulging in them last year -- and not really enjoying myself -- I decided to ditch industry parties this time around. The only one I made it to was an event staged by the New Zealand Music Commission. It was civilized and serene and, despite the outdoor environment, involved wine served in real wine glasses. No plastic cups for the Kiwis. Unfortunately, their showcase coincided with the Japan Bash, which took place in a neighboring tent, and drowned out the sound of the three bands I tried to watch.

Q is for Queuing

I didn’t have to do too much of it. Last year, I stood around a few times, kicking my heels, waiting to get in somewhere when I knew the band I wanted to see had already taken the stage. The only real line I found myself waiting in this year was for the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Deadly Oceans showcase, which only lasted 15 minutes and was well worth it.

R is for Recycling

I certainly hope there’s some extensive recycling process put in place after SXSW, because the amount of paper wasted on this festival is astronomically crazy. From thin flyers to bible-thick catalogues, paper was a commodity to which everyone seemingly had unlimited access. Worst of all were the official tote bags containing what felt like half a ton of useless information.

S is for Serendipity

Half the battle at SXSW is figuring out when bands might start. The first bands on the bill -- even if it says they’ll begin at 8 pm -- tend to start 20 minutes late. I was pretty lucky this year and felt particularly blessed when I decided to go to the Neon Neon show an hour early. (My plan was to relax in the sedate surroundings of the Cedar Street Courtyard). Upon arrival, I was informed that set times had been swapped; they were going on just as I walked in. Sometimes it pays to plan for some relaxation time.

T is for Technology

My new hosts were technically at SXSW for the technology part of the event, better known as the Interactive Festival. They spoke in sentences such as “you think so episodically, whereas I think virally,” and used phrases and terms I can’t even spell, let alone define. Their villa looked like a Best Buy warehouse, with wires and various other facets of technology littered around (see, I don’t even know what they’re called). Yet, despite not being able to understand half of what they said, they were good people who generously offered me a sanctuary far away from the craziness of Sixth Street.

U is for Ubiquity

Last year, the band around town was the Black Lips, who played 12 shows. This year it was the Mae Shi who allegedly played a whopping 18 shows, including a free Sunday afternoon set after the majority of the industry folks had already headed home.

V is for Volume

By “volume,” I could be referring to the amount of litter, people, or bands around town this weekend, but since this is a music festival, I’m talking more about taking that further step towards tinnitus. Though I brought earplugs, I often forgot to use them. This wasn’t a problem when faced with acoustic acts, but when a band like the Mae Shi cranked up their amps, well, all I could do was watch in awe and hope my hard-of-hearing, 80-year-old future self won’t be too mad at me.

W is for Weed

I entered the restroom at St. David’s Church and immediately encountered the smell of weed. It must have seeped outside, as a minute later a SXSW volunteer came in and said: “Please tell me that you’re not smoking a marijuana cigarette in a church bathroom?” I quickly buttoned up and backed away from the urinal with my hands above my head. Unfortunately, my allergy-ridden red eyes and dazed, sleep-deprived expression didn’t help me as I protested my innocence.

X is for Xylophone

This could have also been “X for X-rated,” but I surprisingly didn’t witness any debauched behavior this time. What I did see, though, was an unusually high frequency of xylophones that were plinked, plunked, and pattered. Most bands used them well, but others -- Los Campesinos!, I’m looking at you -- made it seem as though they’d just bought the thing from Fisher Price.

Y is for Yo

A reviewer’s life can be a lonely one. We rush from show to show, trying to see as many bands as we can while making small talk with a handful of people along the way. Fortunately, several friends from Philadelphia were also down at the festival. Most of the time, we’d arrange to meet, but it was pretty amazing, given the size of SXSW, how often we accidentally bumped into each other, acknowledging the fact with a very Philly “Yo.”

Z is for Zzzz’s

With day shows starting at noon (or earlier in some cases) and official showcases stretching into the wee hours of the morning, SXSW isn’t set up for sleep. Surprisingly, you learn how to survive on just three hours of shut-eye, running instead on a mix of adrenaline, excitement, and whatever stimulant you need to get by. Me? If you must know, my drug of choice was some very un-rock green tea lemonade.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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