Music is the brandy of the damned
Rock and roll band, everybody’s waiting, getting’ crazy, anticipating love and music; play, play play
I was drinking my Big Red soda when I heard the thump against the window. I turned to look at this piece of human debris pressed flush against the panel of glass. His spikey, blonde/orange hair and black t-shirt flattened against the pane as he slumped down. Then the twitching started. He began swatting at invisible tormentors and his legs became spastic shanks. His week was either coming to an ignominious end or off to a heroic start.
In a stroke the blue mafia were on him. They sidled up, looking dutiful and indifferent. And with them was the main hombre himself; Art Acevedo. The police chief of Austin-here to handle a routine freak out and stick a needle in the eye of whatever personal storm this Tom O’ Bedlam was weathering. The cops poured on the baby talk and managed to finesse the guy out of the window. Art posed for some fan pics.
I told my bandmates, “I need a smoke” and stepped outside. We had stopped to take a breather after our first round at the South by Southwest Music Festival which had turned the capital of Texas into a Mount St. Helens of human drama. We were taking a respite at The Chupacabra restaurant, right in the heart of the action. It had already been a long day.
South by Southwest is synonymous with Austin. For the next week or so it would be open season in the abyss as the city was overrun with the throbbing tribes: scenesters, hipsters, hustlers, hucksters, and human dumpsters. Music industry big shots came to slather on the grease, slop it around, and do some serious networking. The headliners, those heavy lords of fist and heat, would be here to finger fuck the city’s best crowds. Armies of little bands with big dreams would gather to lap up whatever honey dripped off the vulva of a billion independent record labels. People from across the globe would be pulled in by the peculiar gravity of the event-plastic wishes and debit cards on a batshit rave. Traffic would become a monument to urban aggression and soon enough the natives would turn nasty and bare their blunt, crooked teeth, at the slightest provocation.
I stepped outside and lit a Pall Mall, menthol 100. As I was sucking down the miasma, these two guys approached me. “Can I borrow your lighter?” one of them asked. I handed it to him but it wouldn’t work. “Asshole lighter” I said and handed him another one. As he lit his cigarette two hipster girls with hard candy apple asses walked by. He smirked as he watched them pass. ‘Damn right’ he said. His friend quipped, “I bet we get laid every night this week.” I continued to smoke.
These guidos had some big plans. Tap as much ass as possible and then jerk back to whatever reality would claim them. The one guy who was smoking asked me,
“What are your plans for Southby?”
“Well, I’m in a band and we have a few shows here over the next few days” I replied.
“Huh..where are you from?” he asked.
I told him, “From the area…San Marcos..about thirty miles south of here.”
His eyes narrowed, “Oh, so you’re just a local band.”
“That’s right” I said, “just local.”
We continued our smoke. He asked, “What’s it like for a local band during all of this?” He made a sweeping gesture with his hands. I thought about it for a second and then said,
“Well…I guess it’s like getting to meet Dave Grohl and then watching him eat your wife’s pussy.”
My answer didn’t amuse either of them. They were identically dressed. Pastel preppie shirts and light denim jeans with enough cologne between them to kill a detachment of Stormtroopers at the Somme.
They weren’t much interested in me. They hung on, making prurient observations about every girl that walked by. “Imagine those tits” and “What I could do to that ass.” They were about as slick and wound up as it comes. That’s when I decided to lay some heavy advice on them.
“Hey man, you’d better be careful when you go cavorting.”
“Oh yeah” they said and glared at me like I was a half-breed.
“Look fellas, I’m just telling you that you’ve got to be careful.”
“Why’s that?” the smoker asked with macho defiance.
“The witches” I said.
“Witches?” they asked.
“Yeah, man. The witches. The city’s lousy with ‘em.”
I expanded: “The news won’t cover it but there’s a real problem with witches in this city. Especially when there’s a festival and lots of out of towners around. These witches will make you part of their ‘dairy farm.’ “
“Dairy farm?” the non-smoker asked.
I continued: “Yeah-there are covens all over and they send out chicks to lure young bucks, such as yourselves, back to some squalid apartment and then drug him up. After that the poor jerk gets passed around for use in their kinky fertility rituals or he’s sold to one of their sister covens in Mexico. We’re only about three hours away from the border you know.”
Their faces sloped with livid naiveté. “So what are you telling us? That these girls steal men for sex?”
“Hell no” I said. “They steal men and keep them to milk their sperm. You know, for breeding. And when they milk the sperm they use a device like a dildo only it has an electric charger on it. They stick it up your ass and zap your prostate. Then, boom, you’re milked.”
“You’re making this up” the smoker said.
“I wish I were” I replied. “I have a buddy whose brother is on the vice squad. He’s the reason I know all this stuff. And occasionally they don’t use the zapper. I heard that there’s a heavy set witch queen that will take the guy herself. Yeah man…a real fatty, about 320 pounds…and most of it tits. She’ll ride the luckless mother something fierce and get him to spurt into a goblet. Word is she broke some dude’s cock once. Penile fracture…look it up, man. No fix for it either. Austin has the highest rate of it in all the nation. If you’re not careful you’ll be pissing sideways every morning for the rest of your life.”
They stared at me in half-horror. Then the smoker quickly changed the subject,
“So you’re just in a local band, huh?”
“That’s right” I said.
The smoker put his butt out on his heel. The two of them wandered out into the throng. I think my story had made them, if not nervous, at least slightly wary. And that was good enough for me.
But I was taken with the question they had limply posed. “What was it like for a local band during South by Southwest?” The answer I had given them was flippant. It was ugly. But was it real? What was South by Southwest like for so many of us “local bands? We were, to be sure, the cream of the city’s cultural cannon-fodder. For every hotshot and big name to come out of this town, there were at least several score of us keeping the vital flame of Austin’s “Live Music Capitol of the World” mythos alive. On Friday and Saturday evenings, it was our duty to suit up and hustle a crowd to ensure that, at its grossest levels, the machinery of the night could turn.
So… what was it like? Maybe I should take the punishing question and run with it? The answer, I felt, was more complex than any kind of glib response I was naturally wired to give. It was much deeper in the mix. It couldn’t be academically analyzed or confronted in the abstract. It had to be lived. And it would be subject to all manner of variables and vagaries beyond anyone’s control. Whichever way the luck fell, I felt confident in my ability to cowboy up, push it, and go however far the distance would carry me.
From that moment, I would be on the lookout for something…anything…everything that could shine a light on matters. I was dubious about what conclusions, if any, I would come to. The whole expedition would be a guaranteed ball buster. But perhaps, with luck, if I struck out in the dark with shrewd eyes and a combustible spirit, I could find the right hook on which to hang this queer pursuit.
Which takes me back to the window at The Chupacabra where seven of us sat. The Chupacabra served vegetarian Tex-Mex and obscure craft beers at inflated prices. The room was swarming with patrons tucking in to their mushroom enchiladas and cabbage stuffed tacos. Several televisions were turned on, one of which was playing a documentary about Timothy Treadwell-the lunatic who’d met a gruesome end after deciding that his purpose in life was to live among Alaskan grizzlies. Thank God the volume was muted. Otherwise the meatless diners may have been put off their lunch by the terrible sounds of the food chain at work.
We had just played our first South by Southwest show. It had been a bummer and we had one more to go on our first day. We played at a place called Rain for some kind of day party. I can’t remember who or what was behind everything but the hype on it was the free Frito pie being offered. We arrived really early; three hours before our set. The music had yet to start but the Frito Pie was already a ferocious success.
In fact, people were attacking the stuff like a frenzy of Baboon Spiders working the angles on a terminally mauled chimp. It amused the Mexican busboys to witness this spectacle. I could see their eyes alight in wonder at all these half bright gringos with their hair on fire and smacking, overdriven lips. I saw a beef necked man on his third helping say, “This is so good, I wish I could replace my teeth with baleen, hah hah, just to filter feed on it. And God damn, it’s free!”
Our drummer said, “This Frito Pie sucks” and he tossed a cup of the stuff into a grey plastic trash bin.
“Balls” I whispered back to him. “You can underestimate the value of Frito Pie, but never underestimate the value of free.”
We were set to play at three o’ clock that afternoon but pulled in with our rented van at about eleven-fifty a.m. We always arrive, or try to, about three hours before our set time. This is largely because of the nature of our act. We go onstage in full makeup and costume. All cylinders firing-total commitment. Those three hours were vital to the process-doll up, get loose, and make every physical and psychic preparation necessary in order to pour it on. This guaranteed a gutbucket kahuna of a show- a little slow off the line, some nights, but always deadly in the stretch.
With us was our makeup artist, Nix Nova; who is a rare gem-part Ganymede, part Da Vinci. As a kind of metaphysical jack-of-all trades, Nix was always a handy asset but especially so given our current circumstances. We also enlisted a friend of ours, David, to drive the van during our Southby run. He looked like a cross between Memnon and a defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders. At about 315 pounds of square flesh and a head full of dreadlocks, he might be a useful presence should anyone try to start “selling wolf tickets.” David wasn’t a smash-mouth bruiser, but he could put on a kind of Lion of Judah menace given the right context.
We had been at the venue for about an hour and Nix was on the second face when a fidgety talking showcase producer ran over to us. “I hate to ask this” she squealed, “One of the bands got confused about the times and have gone to eat, but they’re supposed to be playing now. Since you guys are here with your gear will you just go ahead and play?” It was already fifteen minutes into the set that was supposed to be happening. After exchanging a few sour looks between ourselves, we agreed to step up and do this lady a solid…for the greater good.
We got onstage and performed. We got about three songs in when the main event coordinator came to the side of the stage and said, “Hey, that band just got back. You need to wrap it up so that we can go ahead and get them going. They came all the way from New York and have another showcase in a couple of hours. You understand.” Rat shit, I thought. Why should we fall through the dry rot of somebody else’s poor planning?
In moments like that, you can conjure all the rank thoughts you want. Making waves will almost certainly get you nowhere. Being nice about things won’t get you much further. When you’re a piddly shit band at a thing like South by Southwest, you must understand that your role is to fart a rainbow every time you get kicked in the balls and be grateful for the opportunity to do so. No goose sauce for the minor leaguers, just curveballs. It’s enough to make you lose faith in stupidity.
We fell on our swords with hollow grins and finished the set. People looked at us and clapped. The Frito Pie was going fast. The crowd was happy, the promoters were happy. It was a job well done. As soon as we cleared the stage the band from New York took their places and thanked us for being “good sports.”
While we loaded out a woman approached us. I recognized her from earlier. She’d made a nuisance of herself before the show. Nix was putting makeup on our guitarist and she had slid over to where he was working and began to pester him mercilessly.
“Hey what’s this?” she cooed and rifled uninvited through his carefully arranged supplies.
“That’s glitter gel” he said with a sidelong glance.
“I want some, I want some” she brayed.
Nix gathered his diplomacy and said “Alright, I’ll put some on you but then I need to get back to work.”
He spread some on her arm and she immediately began to cry, “Ow, ow, owie…it burns…burns.” Nix gave her a wet wipe and she continued to hover around his work area, peppering him with numbskull questions about cosmetics. She was about thirtyish with long red hair. She wore a curve sculpting green tube dress and was as easy on the eyes as she was deadly on the nerves. We weren’t sure if she was bent, off her meds, or just generally miswired.
After catching up to us outside the venue she hissed,
“Hey, I got a bone to pick with you. What’s up with all the Nazi stuff?”
“Nazi stuff? What do you mean?”
“You in that soldier outfit… and you” she pointed to our keyboardist “raising your arm like this” she made the Nazi salute.
I explained, “Well, the outfit I wear is from World War I and is an Allied uniform. I’m afraid you have the wrong war and the wrong side.” My explanation was bypassed as she gibbered,
“I’m Ukrainian by blood. I don’t find what you did amusing. Do you know how many Ukrainians the Nazis killed?”
We spent a bad minute trying to diffuse her ire but to no avail. Finally I pointed to our glitter crusted, very black skinned bassist and said,
“Lady, does he look like a Nazi to you?” She glared at me.
“I’m going to tell everyone about you guys. You’re finished. We don’t appreciate Nazis in this town.” Seeing no reason to continue discussing the matter, we beat a prickly retreat and left her frothing and lathered in the rage of her ancestors.
By the time we regrouped at The Chupacabra it was about three in the afternoon. Our next show was at eleven pm. Eight hours might seem like a long time, but on the Southby schedule the screws are turned pretty tight. Consequently, the more time you have the better your chances of hustling to the next show without something tragic occurring. A good buffer always comes in handy amidst the madness of traffic, unpredictable road closures, and vomiting pedestrians staggering in the middle of the street. Not to mention the logistics of getting gear loaded in and safely stashed or the perineal bitch of parking.
En route to our next gig, a group of harpy women started harassing us. Traffic was standing still and next to our van this white Cadillac convertible idled. Inside were five leathery broads, all catted out in impenetrable makeup and chintzy jewelry. They looked like a group of real estate agent’s wives from Dallas; five high kicking dames in search of their inner Gila monster. The driver laid on the horn and began shouting. Then one of them started motioning to us. We slid the van door open to hear what they were saying. They were very drunk. One of them roared,
“Hey, we’re looking for the main event around here, how do you get to Auditorium Shores?”
“Practice” our bass player sung back. The woman contrived a sawtoothed look. She had hair like a haystack and a bull nettle voice that simmered in a Texas drawl.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It was a joke, our guitarist shot back. We’re all stoned.”
“Bullshit-I know you…. Hey, where y’all going anyway?” She fired off.
“Oh, we’re going to The Blackheart” Our guitarist answered. “There’s a private show. A Lady Ga Ga tribute act. Madam Goo Goo. Invitation only. She’s going to let everyone touch her butthole and then take a turn with the vomit artist. Y’all should come with us. We can get you in. We’ve got pull.”
“What the hell” the woman rasped. “We don’t come here to see that shit. We’re here for the big shows. We came to see the good stuff.” Another woman in the car started in,
“Hey, why you all wearin’ makeup?”
“We’re filming a movie” I answered. “It’s a real humdinger-a documentary about a painted mechaphile who follows five mean women around town in a van, gets them drunk, and then when they pass out screws their Cadillac.”
One of the other ladies shot us the finger and called us “Faggots.”
We got to The Blackheart around five pm. When we got there a girl in a purple dress with a floral headpiece gyrated onstage while pounding an electronic drum to the pulse of various farts and futuristic squiggles coming out of her computer. The action was happening outside and there were about thirty people looking cool and milling around. We had plenty of time to get our heads together and rev up for round number two.
While hanging loose, I struck up a conversation with a member of one of the other bands. He was from Akron, Ohio. His group dressed in paramilitary garb and espoused radical Marxist clichés over a low-fi stream of power chords and Teutonic kick drum accents. He described their act as “power indie-political poetry rock.” They were under-rehearsed to perfection. I listened to his rap for about twenty minutes, “Yeah man, we’ve completely manipulated all the social media out there. If you’re willing to spend some time and money you can get yourself thousands of followers and likes online. It’s really boss… great for marketing.”
“Thanks for the advice” I said, and sashayed away to put more time to death.
All the waiting and small talk sodomized my nerves and by the time it was an hour before our set, I was ready to be done for the day. “Just hang on” I muttered to myself. “One band to go and then we’re golden.” And what a band they were. A three piece punk outfit from Norman, Oklahoma who had managed to borrow just about every piece of drum hardware they used from various other acts on the bill. I figured it was about time to change into my stage outfit.
I walked into the restroom. There was only one actual stall and two unflushed urinals filled with piss, cigarettes, and chewed up gum. Something wet covered most of the floor. I walked over to open the stall door when I heard a low, rising moan. It was followed by another one and a chesty grunt. Too much free Frito Pie, I surmised. Then I heard both a moan and a grunt issue simultaneously. I peeked under the stall opening and saw two pairs of feet, both facing the same direction. The feet were attached to calves of disturbingly swollen girth. By now one of the voices struck me as distinctively feminine as did an ankle bracelet and pair of white sandals.
I decided it best to leave the napalm crotching in the stall alone and began to change into my stage clothes in the middle of the bathroom. I didn’t relish the thought of some drunk cowboy or priggish tourist walking in on me while I was half-naked and covered in glitter and makeup. This was still Texas, after all, and a men’s room is hardly the kind of place for a peeled degenerate to try and reason with anyone who stinks of Shiner Bock and incurable Old Testament prejudice.
I balanced gingerly to avoid stepping in any muck. No point in contracting jungle foot, I thought. As I was standing there in my red performance underwear and T-shirt that says, “Virginia is for Lovers” a man walked in. He had to be a music industry person. He wore skinny jeans, a tight black shirt, and maroon suede jacket. He had black horn rimmed glasses and every gelled hair on his head rested obediently in place. Around his neck a lanyard hung with various official badges and tags and he carried a leather portfolio that looked like it held the fate of at least a hundred people’s raw dreams.
He immediately saw me standing in the middle of the room and did his best to avoid making eye contact. He walked straight over to the stall and opened the door. As soon as he got an eyeful of the lusty behemoths inside, he stopped dead in his tracks. He looked over at me and then back at the pork circus. He turned and said in a parched tone, “There are two really fat people fucking in here.” As he said this I took his picture with my iPhone. His face twitched and his eyes cried “rape.” I felt like Caligula but giggled anyway as he paced coldly past me and out the door.
Oh well, at least I had made an impression on someone from the industry. I walked into the stall. To hell with jungle foot, this was a real moment unfolding. I took my phone and shot a picture of the two most physically abominable people I have ever seen in flagrante delicto. They looked like pulsing marshmallows covered in skin tags and purple veins. They were too engrossed in their humping to notice me snapping several shots. I finished changing and left the bathroom in the bopping lap of the gods.
Outside, the punk band got ready to go onstage. As they were setting up I noticed that the crowd looked pretty good. Probably about a hundred people, all eager to hoot it up at a free show. No badges or fancy talismans required for this party. Everything here was running on pure gusto. And all that stood between us and payday was a punk band from Norman, Oklahoma.
The worst punk band from all of Oklahoma, as it turned out. They spent endless minutes trying to tune their instruments, with limited success. Then, after finally starting a song, they got about a minute in and the singer yelled, “Fuck.” All of them stopped to look around. Then more tuning. It was dreadful. This went on for about forty-five minutes. If I had any kind of soul I would have committed suicide, right then, by gnawing on my wrists and donated whatever was left of my body to Burger King.
I wondered how in the hell this act had slithered through the morass of unctuous machinery and gotten a show at South by Southwest? I saw the ghost of Lester Bangs standing behind their drummer, shooting me the finger. My opinions and I could fuck right off in the face of such a miracle. Besides, who was I to question the faceless wisdom that set these simps to burn? It was probably some fantastically clever put on that I was too stupid to “get.” The kind of act a Liberal Arts sophomore would concoct as their way of saying, “Take that, corporate rock; in the kingdom of the shucked, the jive assed are kings.” They managed to nearly clear the entire place out before stepping off the stage with triumphant half-cocked smiles.
We played our show in front of the seven people left to see it. After we finished this ruddy guy in his sixties came up to me.
“Hey man, that was the best thing I’ve caught so far! My name’s Corky Gookin. I come to Southby every year. God damn you guys put on one hell of a performance!”
“Wow, thanks Corky” I said.
“Yeah, like, it reminded me of The Scorpions or something. You know I saw The Scorpions at The US Festival back in like eighty-two or three. You don’t remember The US Festival but I was there!”
“I remember The US Festival” I said.
He continued, “Yeah, and like The Scorpions were the best band on the bill. And you guys reminded me of them. I mean, you’re not as good a singer as that guy from The Scorpions. But boy, I sure enjoyed you guys. Hey, do you know where I can get some snort around here?”
“Sorry man. All my connections are tapped out right now. You know, the Soutby market rush.”
“Aww hell, that’s alright. I never touch the stuff myself. But it comes in handy, you know. Keeps the skirts flying.” He winked at me and continued, “Say, when are you guys playing again? I wanna’ see you. And I’ll bring a whole crew of folks. Yes sir, I got a whole bunch of people I run with at this fiesta. We’ll roll in balls deep.”
I told him, “Right on, our next show’s tomorrow night at a place downtown called The Oak Room. “
We regrouped the next afternoon. Our first day at Southby had been a drag, but hope swelled amongst us all. Our “official” showcase performance was happening that night and with it came the dense optimism that something wonderful might come of it. Maybe we’d get our lucky break? We loaded our van and headed to downtown Austin for another round on the pitch.
We got to The Oak Room and, after the usual bustle of fighting traffic, loading in, and parking, found a nice spot to set up makeup and get our faces, our energies, and our focus together. The act performing when we arrived was a delicate acoustic combo out of Portland. They looked like a daddy/daughter duo and played all cover songs. Their versions bolked out with a kind of earthy soul vibe. He dressed in black, was bald, and sported the notion of a beard while she had cartoon blonde tresses and wore a flowing pink chiffon robe. She dramatically sang, “Gonna’ hitch a ride, head for the other side. Oh yeah, oh yeah, leave it all behi-hi-hind, never change my mi-hi-hind. Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.”
I went up to the bartender, a friend of the band’s, and asked for a soda.
“Hey man, I’m excited to see you guys tonight. There’s going to be some industry people here for your set.”
“Really, what makes you say that?” I asked.
He explained: “There were a couple of guys here earlier. They work for Ballbuster records or something. I told them that they had to check you guys out. I assured them y’all would be playing tonight and told them when. They were intrigued, man, said that would work out perfect because they’d have some time to kill then. How about that, man? Far out, huh?”
“Yeah, right on, far out.”
Perfect, I thought. We’d dazzle these two industrious rascals and put a very dulcet bug in their ear. Soon enough, they’d be crowing about their big discovery all over town and our untamed ambitions would be realized. There’d be some hard business to negotiate, no doubt. But then we’d be set to play the long game and make for the big time-rich and famous. So rich we would no longer need religion and so famous we could look to the most mystical and esoteric of philosophies for spiritual guidance.
While we continued to get ready, the next act geared up to hit the stage. They were a hip folk- rock-jazz-pop extravaganza out of Los Angeles. No sooner had they gone onstage and started their set when BOOM! Something electrical went Fukushima on the joint. In the wake of this development, all the monitors were rendered useless. There was much frowning and scurrying trying to diagnose and correct the issue, but to no avail. The band onstage turned nasty while the sound guy’s brain and body degenerated into a mass of raw shrieking nerves. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen and looked greener than a goose turd.
After lots of teeth gritting and face twisting, the band from L.A. told the audience over the P.A. (which still worked), “This is bullshit” and then proceeded to reorganize their stage set-up. They managed to rig one of their speakers to use as a monitor and ate up thirty-five minutes in the process. After carrying on with their full set and shoving the night’s running order perilously back, they said a few more sharp things and left the stage in disgust.
The singer/pianist lost all emotional balance and she broke down in tears while someone representing the group went ape scat on the kid running sound. I didn’t hear much of what was said, but what I did hear was brutal. “You fuck! You’ve ruined our whole week. I’ll fix you, punk.” The kid just absorbed it. The guitarist came up to me and urged our band to write a strongly worded letter. I told him we would and would flip off a church too…just to cover all the bases.
The whole scene was awash in jangled vibrations and cruel steam when we took the stage. And the stage was a sight to behold: a viper’s nest of jumbled wires and carelessly strewn live microphones that hummed and squealed at random intervals. The soundman had no idea what he was doing and never should have been there in the first place. Bless his heart. He was in ruins. It would take a bottle of Dr. Hammond’s Brain and Nerve Tonic and a few rude turns with multiple smelly prostitutes in order to bring him back to anything that resembled a connection to humanity.
The room looked dull and nearly vacant, all the tech issues and bad vibes having skunked the energy of the place. When you’re a local band you learn to cope with technical snafus, empty rooms, and rotten teeth. We got up and laid into our set, sensing another defeat at the hands of a churlish and disagreeable fate. No monitors, no crowd, and a diabolical chorus of squeals and hums that our sound man had long since banished from his anguished mind. We slogged through our first song. This was it. This was our showcase. Pure Masada, Rock-n-Roll style.
We started our second song and throughout the number we noticed that, little by little, the room started to rustle with new life. The grim fog of the night began to dissipate and people started to make their way in to the venue. At first there were just a few new faces. In a moment or two a few became quite a few, then a bunch. We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew better than to question it. The gods are capricious pricks, after all, and when they lay some benevolent hoodoo on you, in this enterprise, you smile and say thanks. Only a fool pushes back at his healthy luck.
After almost completing our set and giving some righteous thanks to this much appreciated and wholly unexpected crowd, we were feeling light and luminous. I decided to offer a toast to the vivid congregation. “Here’s to cigarettes” I chirped. The room broke out in low, confused murmurs. Christ, I thought, swing and a miss. Then I heard a voice yell, “Hell yeah!” followed by a light sprinkle of laughter. I looked out and saw Corky Gookin. He made his way through the crush. “I told you I’d bring some people” he cackled. “God bless Corky Gookin” I broadcast over the microphone. He gave me a salute. We finished strong and cleared off the stage for the next act.
I thanked Corky profusely and went to talk to my friend at the bar.
“Hey man, did you see those guys from Ballbuster records come in here?”
“Yeah” he balefully said. “They came in when all that equipment trouble was happening. They saw the band before you but left before their set ended. That sucks too since you guys got pushed back by the delay. I guess they had someplace they needed to be. Too bad they missed it, you guys slayed tonight in front of a bitchin’ crowd to boot. Bad luck, man. Bad luck.”
I growled back, “Piss on luck. It’s too pedestrian. Only eager beavers and insurance salesmen rely on the stuff.”
I went outside to have a cigarette, take a walk up the street, and process things. Luck, fate, destiny, mojo…no point in gnawing the struts over any of it when we had scored a kind of victory for ourselves. Even if it was completely invisible to the real movers and shakers of the universe, it still felt good. Nothing beats playing an ace show for a room full of real people and honest energy. When the smiles are bright and the steps are high, not even luck can fuck you out of that perfect moment.
Besides, for those who count on it, luck always bites back. Just ask Timothy Treadwell about that. He spent the better part of his life living with bears. Then one day, when luck was feeling particularly black, he was eaten by them. I guess there are worse fates than being eaten by the very thing that gives your life meaning. It beats getting rickets.
No doubt, luck of one kind or another was dropping on musicians and hustlers all over the city that night. Hell, we locals were all lucky to have landed any shows at the festival at all. Perhaps the industry guys who missed us play had gone on to find theirs by discovering, “the next BIG thing?”
…Meh, luck’s a bitch and only the good get eaten by bears.
I stopped in front of another club and looked in at the band playing. I listened for a minute. They were great. I could tell they had spent countless hard hours developing their craft. Every struck note was eloquently nurtured and precisely developed. It was well honed, original, and fun. Unfortunately for them, there was no one in the room to appreciate things. I marveled at this lack of interest as people swaggered past; a blasé troupe of smart phones and dull feelings. Too many first world distractions for something as trivial as good music to gain traction. After a billion years of evolution, fat and hype will out. Between the celebrity sex tapes and tween thumping gristle of the Disney machine, the meat grinder was already filled with a surfeit of diversions.
Loud banging interrupted my reflective stroll. I looked up and saw a stout Korean dude pounding on the windshield of a Honda Civic. The pudgy Hispanic man inside kept his eyes forward and pretended not to notice his assailant. “You piece of shit” the Korean cat shouted. “You almost hit my girlfriend. Step out of this car, babo. I’m gonna’ eat your eyes and use your filthy skin to make a kite.”
The Honda took off slowly and deliberately as soon as the light changed. Down the street I heard a woman scream with a distinct urban patina, “Get your hands off me mother fucker!” A few minutes later, three cops on bikes whizzed past. The insides of the night were spilling out. It all stopped me and my thoughts dead. I looked across the street and saw an open air café lively with people. There was a massive plastic sign that read: HUGO’S WELCOMES THE VICTORY CULTURE. A thick velvet rope blocked the entryway.
I walked over to get a better perspective on it all. The guy working the door stopped me and asked,
“Can I help you?” He was wearing faded jeans, a grey sweat stained T-Shirt, and eerily resembled the late Lester Bangs. “I’m looking for the South by Southwest Miracle” I uttered. “Any idea where it might be?”
He grimaced, “It’s not in here.”
“What is all this?” I asked.
“Hell if I know. Some big boned throw down for a hot new distribution racket. They’re called, The Victory Culture or something like that.”
“The Victory Culture? Sounds horrific. “ I mumbled… “like the name of a Glenn Beck podcast. Any chance I could come in and take a look around?”
“Fat Chance.” he chuckled. “It’s a real who’s who of industry swingers inside-private event kind of thing. Sorry bud. Maybe next year, huh?”
“If I’m lucky” I winked.
I slunk away slowly, looking past the velvet rope to take it all in. The moon was full and followed me like a spotlight. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of someone notable? It’d be a real gas to bat my eyes and flash a smile at Elijah Wood or Rod Stewart. Maybe they’d like my style and invite me in for a drink? Imagine that. Me beyond the velvet rope, yuking it up with the big shots-all being right with the world.
As I scanned the crowd this young guy drinking a beer came over to the street.
“Hey, man. I know you.” He shouted. “We played a show together.”
I squinted for a minute then made him. He was one of the punks from Oklahoma.
“Oh, hey. How’s it going?”
“Great” he stammered. “My band’s gonna’ get signed, man. Yeah, these guys from Ballbuster records just caught our set. Said they loved what they saw. Now we’re here with them celebrating. Isn’t it amazing?”
“It sure is” I yawned. “It sure is.”
The next morning struck early. We were set to play at eleven a.m. for this day party. We showed up at eight-thirty. Banging on the door of the club was useless because no one was there. Too early for the night people to come to terms with that poison Sun. We slid off to the side of the venue in order to start putting on makeup and dressing. There was a nifty alley way with a picnic table. Perfect for our needs.
The process of getting ready was underway when our keyboardist hollered, “Careful, there’s a piece of shit here.” And so there was. Right in the middle of our space, our green room, our alley, was an exquisite human turd. What a thing. We did makeup and changed into our stage gear, mindful of the turd. I said “Maybe this belongs to Dave Grohl?” Nobody was impressed. As we fixed cheeks by jowl, some burned out looking black cat hobbled up and asked if we could lend him some money.
“I’m a proud Vietnam veteran.” he told us and carried his shoulders high, almost ear level with a gait that was somewhere between a shuffle and a limp.
“I survived the war, man, but the peace has just about finished me off.” he chuckled. “Say, are you all a part of this Southby noise?”
“Sure we are” our drummer said. That was all it took.
He poured it on, “Alright, I like rock stars. I’m a rock star too. I’m the last rock star.”
I said, “I wouldn’t call us rock stars. More like local musicians.”
He looked at me with a grave expression and bellowed, “My friend, we are ALL local musicians in the eyes of the Lord.”
Then he pulled a harmonica and went to work. It sounded like bronchial death.
“How about that?” he slurred.
We were cordial. He asked if we wanted to hear him sing. We demurred, but too subtly to prevent him from laying into an absolute angelic version of, “More Than a Feeling.” Not an easy song to sing, much less pull off a cappella. But he did it. And there we were. Riveted. One billion years of evolution…seraphim voice…the better part of him laid out at Khe Sanh… today, the best act in town…all soul and golden pipes…corporate rock plastic fart…no way. He was the real deal… it was humiliating. He wandered off, a sad cephalophore…to ballbuster records, perhaps…to fame, hopefully…to death, undoubtedly…
It was our last gig of South by Southwest. And despite the high from the previous evening, it had been a long few days. Some of Dr. Hammond’s Brain and Nerve Tonic was definitely in order. Everyone in this local band was ready to be done. No more music. No more pulling death from our throats. Just sanctuary, free and clear, from the debris of the feast.
We played our little show. The only folks in the audience were the irritated staff members. Outside it was all ghosts and tourists. No one had come in. Not even bad luck for us today. No luck…anywhere. Nothing to press and nothing to curse. At least not in this place. The distance had come to its end.
After the show I went out and walked towards the turd. Hell with it, I thought. I need a souvenir. So I scrapped it up in a plastic bag. Then it occurred to me; the turd said it all… This is what it’s like… I whooped, “This deuce is pure rock n roll. It means everything. Ye gods and little fishes! … oh man, where in the hell are those two pastel sucking guido boys now that the universe is revealing all? I finally have a straight answer to their crooked question.” My bandmates must have thought I had, at long last, tumbled over fool’s hill. I declared, “It’s a miracle…enlightenment in a bag, and by damn, local band or not, we’ve earned it.”
We loaded our gear out and there was a long line gathering across the street at STUBBS. “Shit, must be a real damn show happening there.” I said. We gathered our stuff in the van when this redhead shouted at us from across the street, “NAZI’S! It’s them, it’s them. They’re all Nazis!” Everyone in the line glared at us and started murmuring. We were all rattled and I told my band mates, “Relax. I’ll put the cure on that freak show.”
I couldn’t help myself. I took my turd filled bag and flung it at her yelling, “Tell Dave Grohl not to leave his personal property just laying around.” I got some ugly looks…then I yelled, “Keep Austin weird!” She fingered the bag and cast a queasy look at us. We took off fast.
Seven of us, exhausted in the van. It was finished. No one spoke. Then the song came on, “It’s more than a Feeling, when I hear that old song they used to play.” …how absurd…I closed my eyes and I slipped away…but just for a second. In an instant I came to. And when I did, I surged as mystical as Timothy Treadwell going insane amongst his bears. I told the driver, “Hit it you fat butter buck…we can have supper in Mexico! Hell yeah, enough of this first world chicanery. We can make Coahuila in three hours. Us man! We’re Cabeza De Vaca on four wheels.”
I had it all planned out. Once we got there we’d sell the van and equipment then push deep. Make for the darkest jungles of the Yucatan to live like kings or die like pigs. But we would know where we stood and it would be a fair fight. Either the natives would revere us as holy men or we’d be eaten on sight. It would be out of the hands of the idiots…no more charade…no more middle ground… no more luck. Just us and the noble savages; refugees hiding from the long arm of the victory culture.