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When Gravity Fails: Notes on the influence of Ed Lowry, 'Crazy Mama,' and not sweating the small stuff

By Louis Black, Fri., Oct. 21, 2005

"When you're lost in the rain in Juarez

And it's Eastertime too

And your gravity fails

And negativity don't pull you through"

– Bob Dylan


"It Was 20 Years Ago Today" Part 2

About 15 Years Before (1969): We were living in Brookline. My roommate Michael's sister, who lived across the river in Cambridge, was an active member of a Weatherman cell. She was a longtime leftist who had been to Vietnam and who contributed to the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She was involved in starting the Weather Underground and, later, in leading the feminist split against the male leadership that had fallen into traditionally patriarchal patterns. And she loved and adored her younger brother.

I didn't have much use for Students for a Democratic Society; although a leftist, I thought their politics were way too overdramatic and extreme. Obviously, I had even less use for the Weather Underground, who were even more overdramatic, extreme, and a bit hysterical. Overwhelmingly, almost anyone you met who was really involved in either of those groups was so expansively self-righteous, better than all others, that you'd soon be opening a window and gasping for air when they came into the room. This was especially true of the men.

Things were always different when we were with Carol, even when any of her cell mates were around, because of Michael. Despite all their grizzled, class-warfare, revolutionary rhetoric, they were mostly unreasonably romantic middle- and upper-class white kids. Remember, they took their name from a Dylan line: "You don't need a weatherman/to know which way the wind blows." As hard-core as they were on some issues, they were naive on others.

One time we were visiting their place, which very rarely happened, but a couple of my roommates wanted to consult on some technical issues. Nothing as nefarious as bombs or weapons; this was about telephone chicanery – black boxes, lineman's phones, and the like – ways of receiving and making phone calls without charges. My roommates were much more gleeful anarchists than any kind of ideological advocates.

At the table two women sat, with a man standing behind them, engaged in a very intense discussion. Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline had just come out. Sincerely overserious, as they were about everything, they were discussing the lyrics from the song "Country Pie": "Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime/What do I care?/Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum/Call me for dinner, honey, I'll be there"

The issue had to do with whether or not the song was overwhelmingly sexist: Were the flavors simply metaphors for women, with Dylan saying they were all the same to him?

Eight Years Later (1977): Steve Swartz was staying with me at this ratty duplex on Speedway I rented for about $85 a month. Richard Dorsett, then working at Inner Sanctum, had been working on me for almost two years to get me to appreciate the current wave of punk music and all the offshoots. He had made a lot of progress, but I still was not quite there.

Beserkley Records has just reissued the first Modern Lovers album, a copy of which Richard thrust on me. We had been casually listening to it during the afternoon, but at a certain point love happens. I changed. Changed in the same way I had when I finally fell in love with Andy Warhol, which is not to say appreciated his art, but instead got the ideas.

"Roadrunner" had come on. Swartz and I started dancing, then were dancing like mad all over the place – up and down on the furniture. As I remember it, Swartz had a cane. We danced for days.

Two Years After (1979/80): Ed Lowry and I were sharing a house on Hollywood in East Austin. After we finished moving in, we made a vow to listen only to music by the Doors and the Animals, which we kept for most of an hour. Ed was going off on some car-trip adventure, one of those where they kept calling at the oddest of times to tell me what a great time they were having, and why hadn't I come? Swept up by the ill-tempered, nearly psychotic foul moods that would soon become my only personality, I was pissed before they left, while they were gone, and got worse whenever they called. But right before they left, Ed put Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's Adventures on the Wheels of Steel 12-inch on. We all danced. Grumpily shuffling, trying to get the mood. Instead of a dance to spring, though I didn't know or suspect it at the time, this was a more foreboding dance; we were entering the darkest of times, and everything was about to go to hell.

It Was 20 Years Ago ... Okay, we're back. In the darkest of times overall, for me at least, this period was among the darkest. And that's before the month started.


October 1985: An Annotated Chronology

Oct. 3: Vol. V, No. 3, of the Chronicle is published (though dated for Friday, Oct. 4). "Texas Zone Music" is the cover, with a story on Glass Eye by Chris Walters, one on Daniel Johnston by me (the first article published on him), and an interview with Roky Erickson by Thomas Anderson and Peter Buck (R.E.M). There is an ad in the issue for ...

Oct. 4, 5, 6: Richard Linklater and Lee Daniel present their first public screening at the Dobie, a program of shorts titled "Sexuality and Blasphemy in the Avant Garde." This is the beginning of what will become the Austin Film Society, an organization that will have such a profound effect on Austin and on me.

October, around the same time: We discover that Ed Lowry – teacher, friend, Chronicle co-founder, and ongoing inspiration – is deathly ill. Marge Baumgarten goes up to Dallas to be by his bedside.

Oct. 13: Ed Lowry dies.

Oct. 18: The issue date for the next Chronicle. (I don't remember when we finished it; early, I'm guessing, because we were all in a daze, all in such terrible pain.) It is our annual Halloween mask issue. The cover is Leatherface. The Austin Museum of Art (then Laguna Gloria), with the Southwest Alternative Media Project, is hosting the Independent Images film conference, featuring special guests John Sayles and Jonathan Demme. Inside the issue, there are advance phone interviews with Sayles and Demme. I contribute a long interview with Bud Shrake, not only one of the finest writers and most interesting people I've ever met but easily the best storyteller and funniest individual. As I work on the piece, I'm deeply, crazily sad.

Oct. 15: Much of the Chronicle staff heads up to Dallas. We're all devastated. We're also mostly broke. As I remember, there were at least eight of us sleeping in one hotel room. In the middle of the night, I bolt upright, suddenly remembering that I've included in my Shrake interview the one story he asked me not to print. Already not sleeping and wrecked, I slip into the molasses of overwhelming fear and self-pity.

Oct. 16: Ed Lowry's funeral. After the wake, we head back to Austin.

Oct. 24: Jonathan Demme, who has by this time become a friend, comes to town for Independent Images. We meet Maggie Renzi and John Sayles for the first time. For some reason, Maggie takes a shine to me; over the next couple of years we spend time together, gradually becoming the closest of friends.

The point of all this is not "you don't know what you've got till it's gone" or "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" or even "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Nope, none of those.

We rarely understand what is going on in our lives when it is going on, and almost never really appreciate the long-term consequences of the things going on throughout our lives.

Inside a concrete teepee/room in a motel that is all concrete teepees (another roadside attraction) is one of the oddest family groupings ever seen in a film. Crazy Mama is Jonathan Demme's second feature, forced upon him by Roger Corman 10 days before it was to start shooting, when original director Shirley Clarke (yes, that Shirley Clarke – The Cool World, Portrait of Jason) dropped out. In the room are Cheryl (Linda Purl), her mother, Melba (Cloris Leachman), her mother's mother, Sheba (Ann Sothern), and her boyfriend Shawn (Donny Most), along with three new friends they just picked up in Las Vegas: the motorcycle hood Snake (Bryan Englund), the grandmotherly Bertha (Merie Earle), and Melba's new boyfriend Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), who is married. This is a family unit, rather affectionate and tightly knit, the kind rarely found outside the world of Jonathan Demme.

Just days before, Shawn had been a happy-go-lucky surfer without a care in the world. Now a criminal on the lam with a pregnant girlfriend and this perverse, Ark-like family, he is lying on the bed with Cheryl and Snake – whose relationship with Cheryl has already become more than close – muttering to himself about how he should be upset by all this but really isn't. Finally, Snake leans over Cheryl, lying between them, to say something along the lines of "Right now, in the Soviet Union, there could be a missile with a nuclear warhead aimed right at this teepee, ready to annihilate all of us! So don't sweat the small stuff!"

This October, 20 years later, that's still the wisest advice around: There is always enough going seriously wrong, or about to, so "don't sweat the small stuff!" end story


'SXSW Presents' Continues

The new season of SXSW Presents continues on KLRU-TV. The High School Shorts Program is this Friday at 10pm. It is astonishing what talented and sophisticated filmmakers the current generation of high-school-aged kids is. This program shows not just what is going on, but indicates the future.

Episodes will continue to run every Friday through Dec. 2 on KLRU. The show is co-sponsored by KLRU, The Austin Chronicle, and South by Southwest. SXSW Film programmer (and occasional Chronicle contributor) Matt Dentler is host.

The remaining shows:

Oct. 28: Andrew Garrison's The Wilgus Stories

Nov. 4: Dan Brown's American Detective

Nov. 11: Emily Morse's See How They Run

Nov. 18: East Austin Stories Program

Nov. 25: Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin's "Bike Like U Mean It"

Dec. 2: Jenn Garrison's PrizeWhores

These 90-minute programs showcase local, national, and international productions, both features and shorts. There will be interviews and more with some of the artists responsible for making the films being shown.

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