Dance With the Devil

Getting Austin Artists in Step With Their Audience

Mardi Gras in New Orleans will be a little different for the Krewe of Sinbad this year. They've been driven into exile. Their yearly masquerade ball will not be held during the Carnival season -- which runs from Twelfth Night in January until the most famous Tuesday on the social calendar. No, Sinbad's ball happens this coming weekend, the first Saturday after Christmas. The rearrangement is made necessary by Fox Television and the Super Bowl, which have booked up hotels, convention centers, and party rooms throughout the city. Since the Super Bowl happens smack in the middle of Carnival's prime time, this means the krewes are shut out. The large flashy groups, like Rex and Zulu, will continue as always; that's because the network needs them for cultural context shots. (We cut from Barry Switzer's dour imitation of Harvey Keitel to watch Zulu's masquerade, while an announcer opines, insightfully, "Nobody parties like the Crescent City.") But a smaller krewe like Sinbad -- which draws from Baton Rouge and little towns like Gonzales -- will have to clear a path. The NFL is mass media, nationally significant business; merely local events will have to adjust.

From Austin's progressive vista, we recognize this scene as the corporate dragon devouring the embattled and ever-shrinking hero. But Sinbad members don't share our enlightened views. They're elated with having the Super Bowl come to town. Some of them have tickets, and others are planning a separate gathering in Baton Rouge to watch the game. Brian R. says, "Shit, I'm not even Catholic... Nobody's really worried about this. We'll have our ball in December, a New Year's party a couple days later, then party for the Super Bowl with everybody else." The Krewe of Sinbad, like its mythological namesake, knows how to adjust to circumstance. And why not? The corporate event will ensare millions in its virtual -- make that palpable -- web, including members of the cultural elite who build careers denouncing the hegemonic demon of big business.

Listening to my Louisiana friends recount this particular ballad of Sinbad, I wondered why their resilience surprised me so. It's because I'm accustomed to the gloom and doom of Artist-talk. You know the routine: Mass culture has stolen the soul of the creative enterprise. We are faced with a challenge between making Art and making it. Either compromise the vision for the sake of glory, or toil away in sanctified obscurity. The committed artist joins the cult of John Keats, who often wrote his poems from dusk 'til dawn after tending the sick in a sordid English hospital. The posthumously deified author of "Ode to a Nightingale" said he'd still spend his nights writing even if someone came by each morning and erased every precious word. Keats was so oppressed by the thought of his impending death (consummated at age 24) and with his artistic ideals that he often found himself standing "on the shore of the wide world alone/Till love and fame to nothingness do sink."

But that's a false and destructively Romantic proposition, half in love with the pointlessness of life and art. The greater challenge is to play the game, to court and win public attention, and still make things happen artistically. Charles Dickens, for example, circulated his "classics," such as The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations in magazines as serial publications. The serials stirred interest for the stories in book form, as "triple deckers," so-called because the book came out in three volumes; that way the reader bought, or paid to borrow, three books instead of one. (If you ever thought those big 19th-century novels seemed padded, you were right.) Charlotte Brontë, who along with Jane Austen is currently enjoying a renaissance in moviehouses, also managed to balance fame and artistry, publishing Jane Eyre under the pseudonym of Currer Bell until the book became so popular that she had to reveal herself. And in the world of the theatre, nobody ever courted attention and her muse like Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress who wowed audiences in Paris, London, and New York, and went on to run her own Théatre Sarah Bernhardt, where she played Hamlet.

Even in our fallen state, on the cusp of a new millennium, we're treated to Kenneth Branagh's immensely popular adaptations of Shakespeare at the multiplex, including the latest, his frog-lipped sir's rendition of Hamlet. And who can forget our own Bernhardt -- Sandra, that is -- whose status as performance artist, indie-film actor, and pan-sexual weirdo, is buttressed by appearances on ABC's Roseanne?

Austin, in my mind, is largely in the realm of Keats when it comes to the work of courting a public versus courting the muse. I've detected a vague sense of resignation, even among those scurrying to publish and perform. But this isn't entirely true. For example, 1996 has been one hell of a year for the artist still known only as Wammo. For most of the last 15 years or so, he's been in and out of bands, and been known more as a hard-drinking, Southern-fried punk rocker than as an artist. But when slam poetry sparked a media frenzy, including a place in the gargantuan Lollapalooza rock-tour machine, Wammo came into his own. His album Fat-Headed Stranger was released last month on Mouth Almighty Records, a subsidiary of Mercury. The ever-stranger Wammo now juggles gigs with the Asylum Street Spankers -- a band that makes a living playing music that sounds good enough and old enough to be relegated to the cultural heritage niche of the NEA, but instead plays to packed houses -- and is embarking on a nationwide promotional tour for the album. This from a man who performs in KISS T-shirts and says his big dream is to get an apartment with a shower.

Other people have pointed me toward the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's fall production of The Gospel at Colonus. Critics and audiences alike loved this show, though I never made it there myself. Zach laid the groundwork for this aesthetic and commercial hit with years of Beehive and Forever Plaid, interspersed with headier shows like John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation and Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll. When it came time to serve up the reconstituted Greek tragedy of the Gospel, there was an audience there who trusted and rolled with the offering.

And as long as I'm citing things I haven't seen, there's the Basquiat exhibit currently in residence at the Austin Museum of Art, a fine arts organization with plans for expanding into a multi-million dollar, multi-armed downtown site. Purists might raise their eyebrows at a show so shamelessly piggybacking on a major motion picture. They'd be missing the point though; especially in this case, since Basquiat the artist and his namesake, Basquiat the film, came to light from the snake-oil aesthetics of the Andy Warhol crowd. The cross-fertilizations of form are exemplary: Warhol confers celebrity on a young artist, whose best work looks uncannily like graffiti; the artist's early death inspires a romanticized portrait on film, which circulates the work to a larger audience still. Did success kill Jean-Michel, as the movie seems to imply? Probably not. Without the success, we wouldn't have him to mourn. He'd be just another addict biting the postmodern dust.

I did see in 1996 my first sight of Salvage Vanguard Theater, a tiny group founded a couple of years ago by Jason Neulander and David Bucci. However small their current status, Salvage Vanguard is playing the right game. Bucci wrote Stranger Desire, a sort of Tom Waits riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, specifically with the dark confines of the Electric Lounge in mind. The result was exhilarating, and drew a healthy house of about 50 people per night. (Success is relative as always -- the attendance was twice SVT's usual draw of 22 to 30.) Several things built this success. Bucci is gaining name recognition as a playwright, yes, but more so as frontman of the noise-rock band, Enduro. And never underestimate the power of riffing on something people already know, like Tennesee Williams. The work still has to deliver, and Stranger Desire did, with a little help from good P.R. and savvy cultural scavenging.

The big hit for Salvage Vanguard was, in its own way, a revival piece. The Intergalactic Nemesis was shrewdly designed to capitalize on the popularity of The X-Files, the coffeehouse fad, and the quaint charm of radio drama. SVT used several authors and directors to compose the 10-part radio serial, which was recorded live at the Little City Coffeehouse downtown. Audiences averaged 70 people per night, with overflow crowds at some performances; the later broadcasts on KOOP and KVRX gained an even wider audience for this lounge-flavored tale of aliens, psychokinesis, and 1930s political intrigue. Neulander admits that the company has "a long way to go still" in building a sustaining audience. However, it's making that build with a slate of new shows for '97, a possible merger with another company, and a still-secret promotional campaign for Ruth Margraff's Battle of San Jacinto this February.

In this admittedly idiosyncratic list, I see an aggressive refusal of obscurity, which I'm hoping will become the watchword of 1997. Art is inevitably compromised in its execution, never quite attaining the ideal status of its conception. I hope this time next year we'll see more examples of artists who used the tools and savvy of mass media to find bigger audiences. However righteous his calling, the prophet in the wilderness is still isolated. I want to hear that same voice on Center Street.

There are pitfalls in this proposition. I certainly don't want to see all expression conforming to what a network, a studio, or a glossy corporate magazine deems fit for consumption. Besides, there are no guarantees that success breeds anything but itself. Our hometown team of Joe Sears and Jaston Williams wowed the world with Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas, but they have seemed decidedly comfortable resting on those laurels.

I'm not even saying that making good is a good in itself. Like a number of people, I've never gotten comfortable with the rant-aesthetic that drives a lot of Wammo's peformance. But the virtues of what he has to say might never be heard without the loud growl and boots thumped against the stage. That's all and exactly what a lot of the audience expect from the fat-headed one, and so be it. He's being heard while more sacrosanct writers are pressing typescripts on their friends. Call it a deal with the devil; we join our muse with the God of Thunder so that at least the muse gets a say.

Because our choice -- as writers, dancers, filmmakers, or singers -- isn't between the cult of Keats and the crap of Schwarzenegger. Keats had a contemporary who played the 19th-century public like a harp from hell; he has been called the Elvis and Warhol of his day; and he wrote his greatest and most shocking work -- the 16,000-plus lines of "Don Juan" -- to see how far he could push the envelope of his celebrity. George Gordon, Lord Byron, is surely better known as a dandy, revolutionary, and sexual persona ultima than he is for the exquisiteness of his poetics. Still, he is known. He proves the point: It's possible to traffic in both art and fame. The payoff can be vicious and always extracts a cost. But it's a fabulous game.


Brett Holloway-Reeves is a freelance writer living in Austin.

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