Photo by Aubrey EdwardsSouth By Southwest, the yearly Austin, Texas, music-industry extravaganza-cum-smorgasbord, takes 1,300 bands from around the globe; stirs in a generous helping of record-label cretins, glassy-eyed music critics and eerily robotic publicists; adds copious amounts of barbecue, Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock beer, sprinkled with a dozen squirts of whatever that stuff was oozing down Sixth Street; turns the knob up as high as she'll go; and simmers until a savory, aurally pleasing broth develops. Or doesn't. Our annual report, reprinted from the Weekly'sRadar Orange music blog (radarorange.blogspot.com):
ELVIS' MILLION-DOLLAR CD
Buried in the yarn he was weaving Wednesday about the differences between the Imposters and the Attractions, the "faces" performers assume in public, and the relative ease with which lyrics travel from his brain to paper, Elvis Costello told SXSW interviewer Bill Flanagan the following extemporaneous statement: "I hate seeing [Joni Mitchell's] Bluegoing for 5. It should go for 50. It should appreciate like a piece of art, like a Rembrandt." Costello went on to say that CDs from musicians of the same quality—Dylan, for instance—shouldn't be marked down with stickers bearing "Super Saver" or "The Nice Price." What?This theory of CD economics is hogwash on so many levels. For one, Rembrandt paintings appreciate to unfathomable values because they are each one of a kind, whereas a CD is a mass-produced piece of polycarbonate costing less than a buck per unit. Furthermore, prohibiting impressionable, exploratory ears from affording modern classics signals a death knell for the preservation of rock & roll history. Does Elvis really want to relegate songs such as "Radio Radio" and "Watching the Detectives" and "Alison"—because, after all, he isof the same echelon as Mitchell and Dylan—to the stereos of the filthy rich, where they will be played significantly fewer times than in the slovenly, 400-square-foot Bronx studio of an aspiring something-or-other? The reasoning behind limiting the barriers of entry for oldies but goodies is similar to the reasoning behind file sharing and offering dirt-cheap MP3s: it encourages listeners to broaden their musical appetites without much commitment, which in the long run translates to steady vs. erratic sales. Anyway, that's thisyear's model.
DON'T MESS WITH TESTES
The buskers were out in force along Sixth Street Thursday, the SXSW sonic hub. A husband-and-wife duo played a country-tinged version of Inner Circle's "Bad Boys." "I wish I walked by during a better song," remarked a bystander. Another malnourished singer/songwriter sat on the sidewalk singing, "Go on and walk faster/All you self-absorbed bastards." The real musicians with real publicists fared a little better in the Sixth Street clubs. TVT Records made up for too many Buck-O-Nine albums with a $4,000 bar tab and nachos at the Hard Rock Caf. The vocals were high in the mix in the bathroom for some reason, revealing Tsar's inspired lyrics ("All my brothers are proud rockers/Tripping on acid"). The Blue Van did the whole white-band-imitating-white-bands-that-imitated-black-bands thing with panache, culminating with a cover of "Have Love Will Travel." Fatal Flying Guilloteens literally sang from the treetops in an outdoor show. Later, Tamil the Tiger, Sri Lanka's beloved children's television character, joined terror bombshell MIA onstage. At 1 a.m., the rumor of a reunited Dinosaur Jr playing a surprise show was revealed to be a publicist's ploy to bring a larger audience for Merge label mates Spoon. Didn't work: most of the attendees, suffering from their second hangover of the day, simply walked out and returned to their presidential suites.
In line at La Zona Rosa, a pair of seasoned British rock journalists are trying to one-up one another. One of them is looking forward to a Willie Nelson interview while he's in the States, but the other casually mentions he'll be heading to Nashville next to chat with Little Richard. His cohort is not impressed:
"Litt'l Richard? We ran a feature on him about a year and a half ago," he says. "He's mad. Ment'l, you know?"
"Is that right?" asks the second guy.
"He claims that he's Jewish, yet he's constantly going to church," the first guy says. "Seven Day Adventist. Absolutely batty."
"Sounds delightfully mad to me."
TRASH: PICK IT UP
The must-breeze-through hipster daycare shows were MIA (fun fact: Tamil Tigers are the only terrorist group with their own air force) at some screwy venue only those cash-flush enough to hire cabs can get to and the New York Dolls at the SPINbarbecue, who will reportedly unveil a 20-years-in-the-making new low by wheeling out Johnny Thunders' casket for a grand-ish finale. Even more reportedly: after a private viewing that demands a special SPINlaminate to attend, Thunders will be re-interred in an Austin mausoleum (alongside Bobby Soxx from the Teenage Queers and the guy from the Vomit Pigs who choked to death on a log of barbecue) with a coterie of Bettie-Page-haircut girls to attend to his corpsely needs in the afterlife. Later tonight, the Dolls will play a set theoretically open to the public, and then they will be gently dabbed with cool washcloths and propped upright in their leather backseats of their private limos. Local band watch: somewhere, the Alleged Gunmen and the Geisha Girls played an unofficial and possibly illegal party/show/firetrap. Celebrity dish: Har Mar Superstar in an elevator; poster artist Tara McPherson beaming joyfully, as she is known to do. Non-celebrity dish: lots of ugly dudes in ill-fitting cargo pants, unfortunately charged with finding and marketing the Next Big Thing.
NEVER SEEN IT THIS THICK BEFORE
The Dolls were sad. "This is sad," said a girl. "Let's go sit down." It wasn't quite pointless, but it felt like it was going to take a lot of exercise to get a good time out of the experience. Sylvain Sylvain was probably just happy to get a hot meal.
Getting a badge doesn't mean anything at SXSW anymore. You need a laminate and your name on the list, and even then admission is not guaranteed. It's a bad sign when a band's publicist and the music writers assigned to cover the show have to watch from a drainage ditch. The situation results in long naps after languid whiskey sessions. So what are the hot bands this year? Who knows?
Photo by Aubry Edwards
HORRIBLY DISFIGURED; DRANK HIMSELF TO DEATH STATESIDE
[00:00:00STARTTAPE]Awful blah at the SPINbarbecue. Louis XIV sound like a bar band, which is what the Dolls were supposed to do, except ironically. Hope they're saving their money. Buy their iTunes; keep scum off the streets.
[00:19:46GAPINTAPE]Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes: good name, and they looked it, sort of a camp-y Cramps riff on girl-group shtick that went way off the rails and turned into—well, not disco punk, but they were very dirty, and the drummer played the offbeats on the high hat. Bassist Kris Vlasic is an old-time Arizona rock & roller—so talented, actually, that he managed to move away and so cheerfully slimy that he found enthusiastic welcome in the sex parlors of decadent ghetto-dwelling art-school dropouts. That would be the two girls with shedding spangles hot-glued to their panties; one sang (one of those glass-cutting operatic falsettos) and the other did sexy dancing but wasn't really putting a lot into it. She was too polite: she pretty much gave the speaker tower a firm handshake and a kiss on the cheek.
[01:10:34GAPINTAPE]Ninety-minute wait for food at Casino Camino, plus lots of whiskey.
[01:32:12GAPINTAPE]Something in a street. There was a horse there. Possibly pizza.
[01:16:07GAPINTAPE]Rolling Blackouts played the same songs they've played for two years, plus two new ones. They need to get famous soon or at least land a residency on a cruise ship. (Oh, yes: the Willowz were at this show, bouncing around. Earlier, they'd played a solid set to a pile of lumber, a little kid and Keith Morris—now with trimmed, travel-size dreadlocks.) It's always nice to see the Blackouts—they're the friendly sort of guys who'll yank you off the street into a van and then put drugs in you.
[00:46:52GAPINTAPE]Some bar. People tip with change, sadly. Bartenders scoop in extra ice, angrily. Red and yellow lights.
[00:23:14GAPINTAPE]The Mae Shi are very efficient: three or four songs all at once, superconcentrated into something you'd download and decode if you could, but you can't, so you just listen. Thoughtfully arranged, carefully planned-out music, but after 20 minutes of guitarists running around in the crowd and drums that cut in and out on no discernible signal whatsoever, you may feel like you are being fucked with. Possibly that is the point.
[00:10:06GAPINTAPE]Dios Malos: sad songs by drunk dudes.
[00:14:37GAPINTAPE]Wives: refer to the Mae Shi, but they hauled a whole platoon of crazy people onstage. Girls with elaborate hair and bugged-out eyes, Mike Moran grinning through the viewfinder of a video cam, etc. "Bracing," you might say.
[00:05:47GAPINTAPE]Mean Reds: "Suck by suck WORST!" they were yelling, wearing painters' smocks over jeans. They're ripping off Bad Brains, etc., a lot these days, which is a welcome graduation from ripping off Le Shok. Kids shooting for the stars—always a beautiful thing. LA royal rock sleaze holding court: Aoki, Frankie Chan, Cobrasnake, maybe Cali DeWitt, camouflaged by facial hair.
[00:08:45GAPINTAPE]Some SPINhouse party, but also some walking around, sleeping in a place or possibly a location. The night winks caustically, etc. Overheard later: "Give him some water so he won't die."
THE NATURE OF THINGS
Overheard: "Blog me shit, asshole!" Also: "Who was that sleeping on our floor last night?" Also: "All music is worthless garbage." Untrue, actually—that last one's a famous quote. From, um, Heraclitus.
Staying with a band in Austin means tinkling guitars late at night, friendly kittens and coconut popsicles (instead of vending-machine Doritos) when you need a snack. If you're lucky enough to stay with a band like Shearwater (one that includes a foodie and an ornithologist), it could mean cinnamon-spiced glasses of horchatain secret taqueriasand nature walks in Zilker Park as well. But it also means lo-fi computer access, which makes blogging difficult.
THE HIPSTER GENERAL STORE
At the FaderTrading Post, you can buy groovy jeans and hip accessories on your way in or out of a show. In the back yard, cushy chairs and plush couches are set up under a black tent. A cute DJ spins dance and R&B. You're instructed to hang out until Bloc Party is ready for their interview. Everyone there has this perfectly disheveled style. It's as though you walked into an Urban Outfitters catalog, and it gives you a sinking feeling you haven't experienced since you were in the cafeteria on the first day of junior high. There are a few other journalists in the house, including a smiling radio crew from New Zealand. You've each been promised 20 minutes with the band. The publicist leads all of you to an outdoor staircase, where you must stand beside a security card who looks a bit like a Diesel model. He adjusts his corduroy wristband and holds a finger to his ear phone as he awaits further instructions. You are afraid of what is at the top of those stairs. And you just realized that your 20 minutes with the band will be shared with the other reporters. When you're finally granted clearance, there's another guard in the room upstairs, along with an untouched pizza, a bowl of miniature candy bars and several racks of neatly folded bandwear. You and the New Zealanders are led to a patio overlooking the main drag of Sixth Street and under the hum of the elevated I-35. There are two terrified 23-year-olds facing the doorway when you pass through. It's Kele and Russell of Bloc Party—you know, the Next Big Thing? They're a couple of kids who are even more nervous than you, but they're so serious and sweet you just want to kidnap them. You want to take Russell out for cheese enchiladas or vegetarian barbecue (the bashful herbivore is afraid he might starve here). You want to sneak Kele into LCD Soundsystem or MIA (he didn't know they were playing until you showed him the SXSW schedule), but he hasn't been given a wristband to allow him into shows, and Bloc Party has performances in conflict with everything he wants to see. They're playing six times over the four days. At least. They're certainly not complaining about their situation, but they do seem a little sad at the moment. Unfortunately, they're too heavily policed (and well-behaved) to sneak them out, so you have to leave them alone with their hype machine. And when they say they hope to see you at the show, they really seem to mean it.
THE MICK ROCK SHOW
Mick Rock, "the man who shot the '70s," is looking more and more like Phil Spector. Hiding his eyes of the world behind sunglasses, he bares a white-toothed smile when a fan approaches him with a vinyl copy of Lou Reed's Transformer,the cover image of which he shot. Rock chomps down on the record and poses for the throng of photographers gathered to document him signing his book, BloodandGlitter.It's all part of a two-week-long exhibition of his rock & roll portraitures at Factory People, a boutique on the bohemian strip of South Congress. Featured is a head shot of the Ramones that is especially eye-grabbing because it is one of a few that portrays them in color. In another, Andy Warhol sports a Santa Claus outfit and giant lollipop and lets a denim-clad Truman Capote hug him. (Other famous shots that might have gone unnoticed: the cover of Iggy & the Stooges' RawPowerand a good portion of the images from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust days.) Rock's casual shots of Reed, Pop and Bowie in their heyday are regarded by Obey Giant creator Shepard Fairey as seminal images in celebrity photography, one he says his protg, Mark "the Cobrasnake" Hunter, will someday capture. Incidentally, the Cobrasnake is in from LA, shooting SXSW—but from the outside. He says he chose not to get a press pass for easy entrance to the showcases because "that's not really my thing."
GUNS AND GREAT LAKES
Somebody gave struggling bands the idea that handing out fliers at SXSW is a great way to generate publicity. Mostly, it's just really annoying, but if you're gonna get out there and push your band like a used-car salesman, you might as well do it with style. Follow the lead of this young fellow in a slim-fitting vintage shirt, slicked-back hair, dark sunglasses—he's like the indie rock version of Vince Vaughn circa Swingers.With a cigarette dangling from his lips, he says, "Good times, good music. It's all about the party, baby." He hands you a post card featuring the Gun Shy. You don't check them out, but you do drop them into your blog. You're more interested in checking out a slightly less gregarious band, Great Lake Swimmers. The lead singer's deadpan introduction goes something like this: "We're from Toronto. This is a song about manic depression."
Nevertheless, the set is delightful. Pretty and sleepy, but not somber. That is, until their morose lead-in to the last song: "This is the first of many thank-yous to Dylan and Phil for putting us up here in Austin. Thank you for coming to our first show in America. This song is called 'I Will Never See the Sun.'" Hey, what did you say about that party, baby?
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"It's sad when some 85-year-old who had shock treatment is better than everyone else," someone says one chorus in to vaunted Texas acid martyr Roky Erickson's set at the Threadgill's Psychedelic Ice Cream Social, and isn't that a nice thing to hear? Because history loves an artsy weirdo, and Roky's so artsy and weird he elevates toward genius—the American Syd Barrett, the guy who kissed the sky and then fell hard on his ass. After a lot of long trips in the '60s, poor Roky went from his band the 13th Floor Elevators to a series of insane asylums. That's dedication to your muse, though. Anyway, he's back tonight, and he had a vaguely pained, half-surprised sort of look for the whole set, opening his eyes all the way only when he'd smile at someone he recognized in the crowd, but he pecked merrily at his guitar and couldn't have done much of anything to get this feel-good hometown crowd to quit loving him. "Starry Eyes" was darling power pop; forgot the middle tune's name, but it's the blues riff about the Beast; and then Roky's othermonster hit, "Two-Headed Dog." Nothing says "thanks for visiting Austin" like a couple of hundred ex-hippies singing along with "Been workin' in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog!" The PA blew up right then, and since no one really knew the lyrics but Roky (not that the crowd didn't mumble supportively), the set rolled to a flat-tire stop after three songs. Roky slid out from that guitar pretty quick, and everyone applauded extra, extra hard. Here's some for the songs, Roky; here's some for just being you. Here's for the free ice cream we get in the back, and here's for all our tax dollars that paid for the electricity the insane asylum zapped you with back in the '60s. Sorry—we cool now?
It takes an inhuman amount of stamina to be a rock star. SXSW gives aspiring bands a glimpse into the Big Time—grueling schedules, industry scumbags, unremembered compromises that make up a whole career. It's all there for a taste test at SXSW. Some will be jolted awake tonight by the image of a black-clad A&R agent on a police motorcycle, dragging the rotting corpse of a deer. A quick spin in the fast lane can leave you debilitated and dependent on pills just to remain semi-functional. Look at Roky Erickson, the poor bastard: after only three songs, he had to be strapped down to a strong board and carried off to a dark quiet room. Rock stars live a little less for the music to live forever.
Saturday is the last day, the ugly day, when every pore pops open at first light and never closes again, and the grand-finale parties demand the sort of passionate dedication to duty that would make you eat a sled dog just to get your strength back. Bloc Party was everywhere this year, looking scared and lost, and they're at the closing party, too—hopefully someone there will have mercy and spot 'em some gentle tranquilizers. Otherwise, it's always a little sad around this time. The shit just gets to you. A lack of passion and dedication, perhaps—you wouldn't mind an industry slime if they were passionate about their sliminess (Kim Fowley, where were you?), but even the sliminess seems insincere, a pose to be dropped at a point when the dramatic revelation of something deep and true is somehow advantageous. Plus there's so much shit—so many bad ideas rolled out and rewarded. Just imagine: walking past a wall sagging with band stickers and realizing that half of them are just references to TheSimpsons.The human brain was once used to make beautiful things, you dicks. Don't spill your seed so casually.