Photo by Jack GouldWe had no money. We had no place to stay. We had no credentials besides a rumpled cardboard sign reading, "FAVORABLE PRESS COVERAGE FOR FOOD–CIRC. 220,000–VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA." But we had a toothbrush, combat boots and a perverse desire to see the American corporate music machine from the bottom up at South By Southwest, when the fair city of Austin, Texas, crams its willing face into the crotch of the entertainment industry and doesn't let go for one long, brutal week. We wanted to be in the thick of it; we'd live by our wits and our charm, staking our very survival on the compassion of total strangers who had made careers of making sure no potential "Thong Song" escaped the ears of the public.
We wanted to have an adventure. Obviously we were doomed.
We staggered into Austin on Tuesday afternoon: myself and my longtime friend Stoopid Jonny, an experimental filmmaker with a backpack full of camera paraphernalia and nasal decongestants. Jonny was wise in the ways of Texas: he'd spent the night on a park bench in San Antonio and been shot at in El Paso, so he served as a native guide. He got directions to a youth hostel from some kid smoking a joint in an alley. Several confusing bus rides later, we were futilely trying to explain to a sweet Australian girl named Natalie why public buildings in Texas have signs asking visitors to please leave their firearms outside.
This would be our home for days. Conspicuously short on youth but mighty generous with the hostile, our bunkmates were a bunch of paunchy, gray-haired, traveler types toting acoustic guitars and tacky hiking backpacks who exploded in paroxysms of pent-up Second World resentment when they learned we were American. The Danes were the worst. "Ha, ha," they would laugh, smugly feeding dollars into the Pepsi machine. "Do not go out and shoot a high school, okay?"
We spent the next morning dodging questions about Elian Gonzalez and skulking around the periphery of the Austin Convention Center, angling to beg or borrow a badge to photocopy so we could attend shows without paying $500. The place was clogged with neo-hipster types cooing over their tote bags of free promotional garbage; if a bomb went off, they'd be peeling leather pants and leopard print off the walls for days. As a joke, we wandered up to the SXSW volunteer table and asked if they needed any help. "We're good with our hands, and we learn real quick," I said. They inexplicably signed us up on the spot, handing us actual badges that would admit us to any show for free.
We'd accidentally become legit.
"Please don't take advantage of these," whimpered some worried college kid. "It'd be very easy. We just gave these to you because you have such honest faces."
Ashamed, we silently decided not to bail on them—at least not on the first night—because we were curious to see what it's like behind-the-scenes at a real Texas rock & roll club during the most intense week of the year.
Our duties were (in order of importance) to show up, not drink on the job, help load equipment and make sure nothing got stolen. We went on to drop several drum sets, sneak out to shows across the street, let kids in for free through the back, and not notice as some local band wandered off into the night with a custom snare drum that didn't belong to them. But we always showed up (drunk or running on no sleep, perhaps, but we always showed up).
Until the first band started playing, it was exciting. Twenty-four hours earlier, we had had no place to stay and no badge; now we had foam mattresses to call our own for four hours each night and carte blanche at every club from Congress to Red River. At that scamming rate, we figured we'd have a record deal by the end of the week.
But by the end of the first brain-deadening night, we realized that rock & roll had outsmarted us again. The real badge-holders partied all day and slept as late as they wanted. We worked until 2 a.m., bummed rides back to the hostel (thanks, Gersey from Australia!), stayed up until 5 a.m. defending the honor of our country, and were awakened at 10 a.m. by chipper hostel staffers saying things like "Boy, you dress up nice, but you sure don't wake up pretty" and "Sir, you need to get up now if you want to take a shower."
We lived on complimentary cookies, pizza, brownies, and chips and salsa; walking the streets of Austin, we could feel our bones becoming ever more brittle. Our pockets sagged with expired bus transfers. Unable to locate public restrooms, we pissed in alleys. Standing outside the club on bitterly cold Austin nights, we watched the indigenous crack dealers rub shoulders with industry scumbags. It was the most gainfully employed either of us had been in months, or would have been if we were actually getting paid.
By the weekend, our already severely listing work ethic was totally annihilated by the discovery of an adjacent tiki bar. Unfortunately, we sort of liked our boss, which prevented us from completely and guiltlessly disappearing, so we compromised by screwing him over in shifts: I'd desultorily watch a stack of amps while Jon downed flaming rum shots around the corner; Jon would bounce bass drums down the stairs while I got kicked in the head by a briefly topless punker girl at a TSOL show. Jack Grisham was happy to see some locals. "You guys are having an adventure!" he grinned. We nodded grimly and returned to the club to perform menial tasks for famous people.
Somewhere, someone was schmoozing; someone was getting a record deal; someone was making lifelong dreams come true. I was falling asleep against a dusty amplifier while some guy in a helmet and jump suit caterwauled into a microphone, and Jon wondered about the protocol for purchasing crack in Austin.
After a week scuttling around the underbelly of the festival, we had zits and facial hair bursting from our pallid cheeks and bags like bruises under our bloodshot eyes. Sometime around 2 a.m., we skipped out to make our own festival: Jon drank an entire bottle of Robitussin and spent the night puking all over the front lawn as the after-parties shut down across town.
We made our way to someone's apartment and collapsed on the couch. I asked Jon if he was okay. He looked up at me wearily, SXSW pass dangling around his neck. "I'm never going to recover from this," he said. And I can't remember anything that happened after that.
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