SXSW, JR - A SLIGHT RETURN
And so, three years later I return to SXSW to view it as an EQ columnist. But, as I find out, at the very start of my journey. I must also look at it as Everyman, Mankind, a representative of the human race who must face almost certain dehumanization at every turn. And I speak these truths out, not to merely complain, but to commiserate with all of you out there who probably face them on a daily basis. I, myself, try to stay out of harms way on a daily basis. I am usually safe in the fortress of my home, holed up like Anne Frank with a satellite dish. So when I am brave (weak), I accept the odd assignment to venture forth and face God-knows-what in the interest of journalism. This time, I'm in New York, doing a couple of readings and book-signings. As a taken-for -granted New Yorker, I will never do THAT again in NYC. Oh Al Kooper, reading from his book and signing it (yawn). Let's go see the Monet exhibit at the MOMA. Too much competition in NYC. Better in Lima, Ohio.
Back to the real world - I return from said book signing at 11 PM to my lawyers couch, on which I am camping for two days. My plane leaves in 8 hours. I have an Israeli car service skedded to whisk me to de plane at 5:45 AM.
It's not even light out yet. Playas are driving by, heading home with their nightly catches and their radios screamin'. Homeless guys are eying my suitcases with great interest. But my guy shows up right on time and off we go.
I am able to actually check my bags in without much difficulty. It's 6:20 AM on Thursday and the American Airlines terminal is PACKED! Go figure. I get some breakfast (prefabricated eggs, cold croissant, frozen butter. mmmm yum) and head for the gate. Amazingly, the huge amounts of change in my pocket don't set the thingee off, and I'm building a head of steam now. This ain't too bad, I'm thinkin' . I get to the gate and they've already started boarding the plane. I hate that. I always tell them I've just had foot surgery so I can get on first with the brats traveling alone (you can try to sit far from them) and the old folks in the wheelchairs. You can organize when ya get on first. Take the magazines and books outa your carry on bag and lift it gingerly into the overhead bin, without people staring you down cause they cant get by you while you struggle to fit the square peg in the oblong hole. So, I get on and have to deal with that tiny annoyance. This flight is going from NYC to Houston and then continuing on to Austin, scene of SXSW. I'm in about the 17th row aisle seat. I look towards the front as I sit down and see the prerequisite peroxide spiked heads dotting the aisles, letting ME know who's NOT getting off in Houston. Then it happens. A family of four descends on me and I get the mother (can barely fit in the seat) and the daughter (nine years old, spoiled rotten and a loud healthy contralto, to boot). In the row just in front sits the weary, henpecked Dad and the stereotype 12 year old pork boy from every child-hell sitcom filmed since 1969. The two kids converse ever-so-loudly over the seats, much to the chagrin of all around them. Naturally, the parents are immune to the sounds of their brats voices, and the kids remain unchecked for two hours when I finally lose it. By this time the smart parents have exchanged seats, so the two kids are now sitting next to ME, and their folks are in the row ahead of me, snoring away while visions of tube-tyings dance in their heads. The kids are completely out of control playing some card game incessantly the entire time.
"Hey!!! Keep your voices down - you're annoying everyone around you." I admonish them as best I can.
It does spook 'em, cause evidently nobody they know speaks to them like that. Those around me silently applaud me., but fifteen minutes later, their decibel level is back to over 100. Mercifully, the plane lands in Houston and they actually leave. I slow-clap them down the aisle but others don't join me in this lovely British ritual. No matter - they're gone.
So after a short hop to Austin we are in Hipsville, TX. The baggage claim and taxistand are not too hip. The baggage comes down the wrong carousel and the person regulating the taxis is on acid. This gets sorted out and I finally get to the hotel. Meanwhile, outside, the weather looks ominous - dark, still, all at 11:45 AM. Tornado-like as I recall from my TN days. I go and register and it's one of those where they don't have any rooms available till 2 PM. Now I've had 2 hours sleep, a rough morning which began at 4 AM (3 AM TX time) and I'm bordering on delirious. No rooms available for two hours. I tell the guy I'm gonna sit right down in the lobby and stare at him until they get me a room. It only took an hour. I'm sure I spooked the guy and I got the first available room.
I spent the afternoon on the phone straightening out the mundane details of my life. At dinnertime I convened with three other scribes in the hotel restaurant. It was Texas storming out. Two of the writers, unimpressed by the pelting, sideways rain are planning a trip to the downtown to hear four punkrock bands. The other writer and I, convinced that no band is worth going out in this weather, repair to my room to watch a PPV-Adam Sandler's Waterboy. Way too much homage to Jerry Lewis drives us to the infamous bar-hang at The Four Seasons Hotel. It is here that the big-wigs come to preen, pose and commiserate with each other, all slyly attempting to pick each other's brains vis a vis the various bands that are up for grabs over the next few days. I bump into Al Bunetta & Dan Einstein, who run Oh Boy! Records, David Pullman, the guy who floated those David Bowie bonds, uber-writer Dave Marsh, Sony A&R guy Tim Devine and a plethora of others. They throw Marsh & I out at 2:30 AM. BTW - there are more cel-phones in a two mile radius here than there are fleas on the Taco Bell Chihuahua. I go back to my room and crank up my cellular phone scanner which allows me to hear these signals that people indiscriminately throw out into the air for anyone to intercept. After an hour of laughing out loud in disbelief, I mercifully get my prerequisite four hours of sleep.
The next day, I figure I should go to the actual convention. I panel-surf for a few hours ending up in a discussion involving the music-talent-bookers for Conan and Letterman. It's pretty interesting and artist Joe Henry is there to offer the artists point of view about performing on TV. There is a jazz panel with my old Sony cohort Bruce Lundvall, who has been the president of Blue Note for quite a few years. He reminds me how I used to walk across his desk at work and set explosions off at his table in restaurants. I can barely remember that Al. Then it's off to Borders in the middle of nowhere for a book-signing.
I get in the cab and an African-American man, about 10 years my senior is playing a blues CD. He informs me it will take about a half hour to get where we're going and I tell him I don't mind if he keeps playing Howling Wolf on the box. The next song comes on and I correctly identify Sonny Terry. I tell the guy he probably cant stump me and he says he bets he can. I say okay, double or nothin' on the cabfare and now the ride is getting interesting. He puts on a CD of a an alto jazz singer with typical jazz backup. For the life of me, I cant recognize the voice. Nancy Wilson? I try spending one of my three guesses. Nope. I cant hear any familiar parts of the competent voice to hang on to. Dakota Staton, I try, out on a long limb this time. Nope, he says, you couldn't be further away. The meter is up to $18 now and it looks like this will be a forty buck cab ride for me with one useless guess left. "You ain't gonna get it," he offers "Cause it ain't a woman..." Awwwww, he really tricked me. NOW, I know who it is because only one man REALLY sounds like a jazz woman.
"Little Jimmy Scott!!!!!" I scream out as the meter hits $20.
Thass right he says.
But I can't take this man's cab money cause he's entertained me more than ANYTHING this weekend so far. He tries again, but I nail Arthur Prysock in one verse. He's very impressed and I give him $26 and go face my book reading/signing in the boonies of TX. As expected, it's a light turnout, but everyone is really nice and I go out of my way to answer all their questions and sign anything they brought. After that, it's a comparatively boring cabride to Sullivan's, Austin's finest steakhouse, for a meal with producer Fred Mollin and freelance writer Beverly Keel. Then it's back to the StarWars Bar for an hour of vindication. If this is what the future of the music business looks like, then I know I've made the right choice by teaching school.
The next day is my SXSW day. I arrive at 11 AM for a pre-panel conference. There's a line around the Austin Convention Center. Free tix to the Tom Waits show that evening. It's encouraging to see so many Tom Waits fans up before noon. I meet my fellow panel members and we discuss possible scenarios for our upcoming panel. The panel is called Mister Rubin's Neighborhood. It's chaired by Marc Rubin who is the bass player in the Austin band, The Bad Livers. Strangely enough, it is a panel concerned with mental health alternatives for musicians. Once you get past the obvious joke, it is a helpful, serious discussion about places for musicians to turn when the burdens of responsibility and depression become overwhelming. Marc is the crazy musician, I am the rock survivor, and we are joined by two shrinks who have made this genre their life's work. It is a fascinating hour plus and I'll probably allocate my next column to discussing it's content. After that, I'm scheduled for an hour of SXSW's Mentoring Program. I have always participated in this portion of the proceedings. It's where any person can sit with someone experienced, and ask them anything for 15 minutes. I field all kind of people, and hopefully, help them all in some way in the short time prescribed for our talk. Then it's over to the General Merchandise table for a book signing. They really don't have it together over there, and I basically kill an hour sitting there and signing no more than ten books. From what I can tell, they sold more books when I wasn't sitting there! I realize that I somehow have missed lunch and run off with Rolling Stone Online writer Jaan Uhelszki, an old friend for dinner at The Shoreline Grill. There is a line when we get there. We walk to the front. "Dinner for two" I say. "Do you have a reservation?" they reply. "I certainly do - two for Kooper for 6:45." I lie. "Certainly - right this way please." Don't be afraid to bluff, folks - it works ninety per cent of the time.
After dinner, I return to the room and pack a voluminous amount of stuff, cursing my inability to travel light. If you're an insomniac, there's nothing worse than being trapped in a hotel room at 3 AM with nada to do. So I carry a CD player, a walkman, the aforementioned cel phone scanner, cassettes, CDs, $70 worth of magazines, and a powerbook, along with computer speakers that double for the walkman and the CD player. Put that in with a week's worth of clothes and toilet articles, and you'll support the local chiropractor for the next five years single-handedly.
So after three days in Austin, I've done the impossible. With 600 bands playing, I've not seen one. I've schmoozed my ass off - but not networking or looking for gigs - just chatting up old friends and new acquaintances, perhaps making some new friends. I've signed a few books, told a few stories, and gotten out of Boston's chill for a few days. I apologize to the 600 bands that have traveled at great expense and are playing for no money in cramped, sweaty clubs, sometimes for their lives, for not being jammed in said upholstered sewers allegedly enjoying their music. Somehow, I feel that there are better environments and circumstances for hearing these bands and that I can come across them in the ensuing year. The buzz bands mentioned in the Star Wars Bar were Mercury Rev, The Donnas, The Honeydogs, and forgive me for not remembering the rest.
For a chance to help out some younger people and reconvene with old and new friends, for a chance to flog my book and remember how nice it was to live in Austin, I owe a debt to SXSW - but I'm a professional - don't try this at home!
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