Our Top 10s give you another chance to laugh, and rail, at us; Republican dominance and a state budget crisis bode ill for government services, and for Austin; we bid a fond farewell to "Dancing About Architecture" and chart a new course, a bit.
This is our first issue of the new year. As is tradition, this is our Top 10 issue, where we offer lists of the highlights and low points of the last year. Now, some assume that this is just another attempt by our writers to arrogantly define the culture, laying out what is and what isn't acceptable. Building a cage of our words and parochial opinions to limit and define the world around us. Come on -- this is an issue for the readers. We expect them to laugh and snort at the lists, shaking their heads in disbelief at the absurdity of our staff's choices, basking in their own good taste and uncompromised personal vision. Sure, the opportunity is there to contemptuously dismiss our rantings every week, but in this annual edition, the readers really get to relish their superiority to the poor scribes who toil for this paper. Think of this as our holiday present to you.
Top 10s have never held much interest for me. Even back in the days when I was in the trenches, working as a film and music writer, I wasn't really into preparing such lists, though on occasion I did. Given that I have the attention span of a gnat, by the time I was finishing No. 10, I was already changing my mind about the titles at the top of the list. My taste just never really focuses that clearly. These issues, however, are not just expected, but fun to read, as well.
Under my favorite heading, "Shooting Fish in a Barrel" (if this is a genre that appeals to you, check out The Chronicle Radio Hour on 1370AM, Fridays, 6-7pm), I wanted to quibble with our film folks' list. The top film is Far From Heaven. Granted, this is a stunning film, a beautiful mood piece featuring superb acting and a great score. An overly faithful homage to Douglas Sirk, the great melodrama director of the Fifties (one whose work I deeply love), the film could easily have been directed by him. Far offers slightly over-the-top dramatics conveyed with a lot of long takes, crane shots, and unexpected camera placements, the screen bathed in colors that started in nature then flew out to space, passing the most addled impressionists on the way. Sirk's films, such as All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life, were enormous commercial successes. Regarded as women's films or "weepies," they were among Universal Pictures' highest-grossing films of each year. Sirk's perversely lush visuals and dramatic storytelling resulted in subversive films that questioned the standards of the very people who were eating them up at the theatres. The films clearly illustrated the society's inherent contradictions and moral shortfalls: Conformity, hypocrisy, casual racism, assumed classism, double standards, and the importance of appearance over content were all tools by which Sirk made his melodramas work. People were devastated not in spite of the social criticisms within the movies, but because of them. They were coated in so much drama and style, they went down easily, but they had some serious fishhooks that caught in your brain. As Ranier Werner Fassbinder accurately observed, "Douglas Sirk's films mess with your head." Now we have Far attacking many of the same issues, even more explicitly. Homophobia, racism, hypocrisy, and the shallowness of suburban relationships are all skewered in this full-on assault on the bourgeois. Only in 2003, this comes across as strangely flat. A stunningly ambitious film, filled with noise, color, and emotion, Far is much ado about not very much.
Well, that was cheap but satisfying. Set up the straw man, then knock him down. What fun! Within this issue, you'll find every opportunity to indulge yourself in the same pleasures. Not just with movies, either, but books, theatre, music, and more. Forget skewering the bourgeois -- let's take out the press.
As unique and wild a ride as last year was, we expect this one to be even more intense. We face one, two, maybe many wars. The economy is staggering, and the direction in which it is next going to pitch is anyone's guess. We have an essentially new government in power in Washington, D.C., and in Austin, as the Republicans are now in control of all the legislation-creating branches of government. This should prove great for our politics/news writers, of whom I've been inordinately proud over the past couple of years. Probably not as great for the working class, the poor, the environment, alternative forms of transportation, anyone dependent on federal or state social services, education, and, of course, the future.
On Monday, the Statesman suggested this might be a legislative session without much Austin-bashing. I don't know. Given that Terry Keel, who is part of this area's delegation, has already suggested the Legislature might step in if the city goes for two-way streets, this seems optimistic. Although I do agree with Keel on this one; with so many real problems facing the city, why try to think up new ones? Still, is this an appropriate area for the state to step into? Actually, I expect the Legislature to do even more pointless Austin-bashing than usual. Call it cynicism, but with their hands tied by the budget shortfall, it will be near impossible to implement many of the social programs they aggressively support. Keeping the state financially afloat, demanding state programs be cut not just to the bone but into it, should occupy most of their time. This is bound to make a lot of people unhappy. Even those who support less government and fewer taxpayer-funded programs are going to be surprised to discover the resources they get, directly or indirectly, from the government. I assume that most of them are figuring the programs that should be cut are the ones that help out other people, who don't deserve it.
Unable to really advance their social agenda or fulfill the broad range of campaign promises, legislators need a convenient target to work out frustrations and distract attention. Our fair city fits the bill. How in the hell did this city end up in Texas in the first place? An easy way to reinforce conservative credentials will be to take another swipe at the city they position in their home districts as being left of Berkeley (in the more conservative areas, it's to the left of Moscow). Advocating less government and more home rule, legislators have no trouble trying to micromanage Austin. This is not hypocrisy, it's standing up for the state's legacy.
Ignoring the gathering storm clouds of the impending legislative session, here at the Chronicle we're focused on disruptions in our own daily/weekly lives. After more than a dozen years, this issue offers the last appearance of "Dancing About Architecture," as well as marking the end of Ken Lieck's tenure here. This is a decision that was reached mutually by Ken and the Music staff. Over the years, "Dancing" has evolved more and more into a news column, reporting on club closings, legislation that affects the Music scene, recording deals, and impending events. This was never a conscious decision, but was a gradual evolution as the scene became more businesslike, and the city acknowledged music's importance. Everyone was taking the music scene more seriously; consequently, we observed it in more reportorial terms. We have always taken it seriously, from the very first issue published. It became obvious, however, that it's time for the column to go back to covering music rather than just news. The focus needs to be on the week-in, week-out life of the scene -- the clubs, where the action is, the emerging new bands, the evolving older ones. How audience taste is changing, what bands are hot, and what is intriguing local musicians that might affect the next wave of music being made locally are crucial issues. Ken was clear that going back to the night-after-night beat of covering the clubs was out of the question. He had lived that life too long, and there were health issues, as well.
We are hoping and expecting that Ken will keep writing for us. Personally, I'd like to see him tackle general culture issues more than music. There are few who boast such a voracious, omnivorous appetite for popular culture: He has a vast affection for and knowledge of comic books, comic strips, action figures, toys, games, eccentric magazines, whacked-out stand-up comics, new and old television, and cultural oddities of all stripes. Wrapped up in the week-to-week concerns of his column, Ken has been able to offer only a few pieces on his more eccentric affections. There are lots of folks who write about music for us, but almost no one else who covers the variations and aberrations of the strains of modern culture that he finds fascinating.
In his farewell column, Ken notes that when he first started writing here, we published any number of music columns monthly, rotating them each issue. That wasn't because our commitment to covering Austin music was any greater than it is now. It was that we were desperate to figure out how to replace the departed Michael Corcoran, whose column was the core of our music coverage throughout the mid-to-late Eighties.
When Margaret Moser, our first music columnist and a notorious scenester, departed, she bequeathed us Corky. Literally bequeathed him. She was leaving, having married the legendary Rollo Banks, an internationally known tattoo artist and innovator. Rollo was Corky's boss and mentor, so we kind of inherited him. Eventually, Margaret and Rollo moved to Hawaii, back to Banks' fabled Honolulu Tattoo Parlor (inherited from Sailor Jerry, but that's another story). Corky caused a lot more trouble than Margaret did. It wasn't that she hadn't caused trouble -- she had -- it's just that he caused a lot more, often deliberately. His specialty was the exploding bomb of a column in the SXSW issue, offered because he knew we would be too busy working on the event to pay attention to what he was writing.
This potential, along with Corky's vicious humor that respected no local music group nor personality, meant that his column was the first thing many folks read when they got the Chronicle. When he departed, we weren't sure how to replace him, so we tried anything and everything (for those who like the "Find Five Things Wrong With This Picture"-type puzzles, you can easily "Find 10 Things Corky Will Hate About the Preceding Paragraphs").
Among all the writers and columns, we figured something or somebody would emerge. As it became more and more obvious that Lieck was the heir apparent, we hesitantly (do you know Ken?) created "Dancing" as our main music column for him to helm. In a short while, he put doubts to rest; his humor, his knowledge of the scene, his passion for music, and awareness of the bands drove the column. Ken was having a good time writing and a good time listening, which his column reflected. Out every night, Ken was hanging at the clubs, soaking in the texture, and sharing it with our readers. Often he performed under a variety of names in a number of bands, usually combining humor and satire with skilled musical chops (Not Daniel Johnston was my favorite). His current band, Caühaüs, continues this tradition. A performer, writer, observer, and participant, Ken proved exactly the columnist for whom we'd been looking.
Over the years, as much as anyone he defined our music coverage. Every so often, especially with a weekly, you have to stop, take a deep breath, figure out where you've just been, where you thought you were going, and what you're going to do next. The end of the column was inevitable, but reaching the decision hasn't been fun for anyone. Nevertheless, we all decided that the paper could use some new voices and different tastes.
The music coverage continues with as strong a team as we've ever had. Lead by Music editor Raoul Hernandez, it includes the returning Chris Gray; Margaret Moser, still causing trouble; Andy Langer, who keeps surprising all with his creative growth; and Michael Chamy, who's just beginning to make his mark. Members of the family, as well, are the many freelancers, including the regulars and those who only occasionally check in.
If I were to tell you what our coverage is going to be in this new year, what is going to change and what will stay the same, I'd be full of it. We have ideas, but we don't have a firm blueprint. As always, we're going to let the music decide; we'll trust what we hear, visiting the clubs, listening to the musicians, and trying to stay as on top of the wild ride of Austin music as we possibly can.