It's time to celebrate the coming of South by Southwest and think about how we're going to pay for our roads
There is a season, turn, turn, turn,
And a time to every purpose under heaven
"A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing"
"Turn, Turn, Turn," Pete Seeger
And a time to refrain from preaching, thinking, being involved, or caring too much about the evening news. A time to stop exposing nerve endings and nurturing deepest fears.
Let us now celebrate mid-March in Austin, Texas.
The South by Southwest Music, Interactive, and Film Conferences and Festivals begin on Friday, March 11. Prepare for the usual onslaught of music and films, as well as discussions, bloggers blogging, old friends visiting, cell-phone deal-makers cell-phone dealing, masses of visitors, and, did I mention, music and film everywhere.
As longtime readers know, the next few weeks of this column will represent an almost museum-worthy study of the avenues of conflict of interest.
Austin Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro and I are co-founders and directors of SXSW. Roland Swenson, our other partner and co-founder, is the hands-on managing director who runs the day-to-day operations, as well as being responsible for guiding and bringing innovation to the vision of what, exactly, SXSW is. But Barbaro and I are intimately involved in the event in addition to being owners.
So whatever I write in praise or anticipation evidences a conflict of interest. In addition, the Chronicle is SXSW's main Austin print-media sponsor, so conflicts are compounded.
SXSW is my favorite time of year; I actually feel honored and privileged to get to present SXSW, and suspect many of the others involved feel the same.
Look, it's going to go on as it goes on, no matter what I say, but the beauty of Roland's leadership and the whole SXSW operation is that everyone is committed to the idea of SXSW. Two and a half decades ago, when Roland, Brent Grulke, Nick, and I, among too many others around here to name, were hanging out in the clubs, we were driven by so many of the passions and fueled by so many of the dreams that are now realized in each year's SXSW. Of course, nearly anyone who has any kind of conflict of interest will explain why it really isn't one. No denials here, just gushing, but it is heartfelt gushing.
South by Southwest kicks off with the SXSW Film Festival on Friday, March 11, with the premiere of The Wendell Baker Story, directed by Luke and Andrew Wilson. Shot in Austin, the film features Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Eva Mendes, and Eddie Griffin. The SXSW Film Conference starts the next day and runs through March 15 (the Festival continues throughout SXSW).
There will be a tribute to an indie legend, producer Christine Vachon: Poison, Go Fish, Safe, Happiness, I Shot Andy Warhol, Velvet Goldmine, Kids, Boys Don't Cry, Storytelling, One Hour Photo, Camp, and A Home at the End of the World is just a partial list of her credits.
Todd Solondz's newest film, Palindromes, is scheduled, as are a documentary on Enron and Sarah Silverman's performance film.
There are an amazing number of music documentaries, including works on Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson, Wild Man Fischer, and Townes Van Zandt (another conflict of interest; I executive produced this film), as well as a documentary on the making of Brian Wilson's Smile. There will also be the world premiere of the new Flaming Lips film, Fearless Freaks.
SXSW Interactive (March 11-15) has evolved into a crucial Texas and national gathering of those who are more interested in technological innovation, improved interhuman communication, and aesthetic vision than in IPOs. Speakers and panelists this year include Malcolm Gladwell, blogger Ana Marie Cox, Bruce Sterling, Alex Steffen, Jeffrey Zeldman, and Daniel H. Pink.
SXSW Music officially kicks off with the Austin Music Awards, Wednesday, March 16, at the Austin Music Hall, as well as acts at 50 other clubs that night.
The SXSW Music Conference this year will feature a keynote by Robert Plant (who will perform), in addition to a discussion with Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks (no performance). There will be an interview with Erykah Badu, and Mavis Staples will speak and perform.
Confirmed bands include: The Raveonettes (Copenhagen, Denmark), Sleater-Kinney (Portland, Ore.), Son Volt (St. Louis, Mo.), Los Super Seven, Stephen Malkmus (Portland, Ore.), Aimee Mann (Los Angeles, Calif.), Lou Barlow (Los Angeles, Calif.), the Be Good Tanyas (Vancouver, British Columbia), Blind Boys of Alabama (Birmingham, Ala.), Ambulance Ltd. (New York, N.Y.), Bloc Party (London, UK), Brazilian Girls (New York, N.Y.), Burrito Deluxe (Nashville, Tenn.), Vic Chesnutt (Athens, Ga.), Chingo Bling (Houston, Texas), the Dears (Montreal, Quebec), Death From Above 1979 (Toronto, Ontario), Dogs Die in Hot Cars (Glasgow, UK), the Donnas (Palo Alto, Calif.), Doves (Manchester, UK), Kathleen Edwards (Ottawa, Ontario), Fatboy Slim (Brighton, UK), the Futureheads (Sunderland, UK), Goldie Lookin Chain (Newport, UK), The Go! Team (Brighton, UK), Robyn Hitchcock (London, UK), Hot Hot Heat (Victoria, British Columbia), Billy Idol (Los Angeles, Calif.), the Kills (London, UK), Kings of Convenience (Bergen, Norway), Ojos De Brujo (Barcelona, Spain), Seyi Solagbade & the Blackface Band (Lagos State, Nigeria), Steel Pulse (Birmingham, UK), James Talley (Tulsa, Okla.), Pam Tillis (Nashville, Tenn.), 22-20s (Lincoln, UK), and Wolfmother (Sydney, Australia). (Partial band list, subject to change.)
The Texas Film Hall of Fame ceremony will take place at Austin Studios on Friday, March 11, (not part of SXSW; contact the Austin Film Society for more information). This year the honorees include: Marcia Gay Harden, to be inducted by Ellen Burstyn; Irma P. Hall, to be inducted by Joel and Ethan Coen; Robert Rodriguez, to be inducted by George Lopez; Dennis Quaid; and Lauren Bacall, accepting for Douglas Sirk's masterpiece Written on the Wind. The emcee is former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and it is a benefit for the Austin Film Society.
My column on toll roads garnered an interesting response. Without coming out in favor of or in opposition to them, I was just trying to show how duplicitous and skewed is the current debate.
The overriding theme was supposed to be that we're not willing to pay for the quality of government we want. How do we pay for the roads not yet funded? How do we pay for maintenance and repairs on the projects that exist or are to be built?
We have to pay somehow. Those who argue there is already designated federal and state money seem to miss that this money comes out of ever-shrinking government funds. Bush's cut-taxes-and-spend-like-crazy administration in Washington is matched by a state government for which "no new taxes" is the 11th commandment. There is not enough money to cover even the minimal amount the government requires.
The phoniest of dichotomies has been set up. Those against tolls are "the people"; those in favor of tolls are corrupt, immoral criminal oppressors out to steal from "the people." Without debating the integrity of all those who support toll roads (witness the current investigations), think about this: What Texas politician or planner wants to pitch tolls to the public? But how else do you pay for new construction and maintenance? Even most of the folks with questionable interests make their money from the roads being built, whether or not they are toll roads.
The real issue is, do you want new roads or not? Those who don't are using the toll issue to recruit allies, but they really have little issue with tolls; they just don't want new roads. Those who favor new road projects: How do you pay for them?
Letter-writers point out that we'll all pay more for these tolls as the cost of moving goods and getting to work rises. We all will pay more regardless. If we don't have tolls but raise the gas tax, things will cost more. If we don't have tolls but impose a wide range of disparate fees, things will cost more. It simply isn't the case that we'll have either dishonest, unnecessary tolls or free roads with no tolls.
One letter-writer offers: "There are some who don't understand what is meant by a free road. We are not referring to the cost of the road but talking about free access to the road. People that are economically challenged will be forced off the main roads because the costs are prohibitive. This is an unfair hardship caused by tolls that would not exist otherwise."
Essentially, all government money can be considered to be in the same pool, no matter where it comes from and no matter where it goes. This state is already last or near last in all kinds of social-service spending. Basically, the above argues that all Texans are entitled to free roads, which are more important than education, job training, family planning, and basic survival, as well as health and mental health care. If roads are built, if tolls are not instituted, then the state will need to further cut social-services spending.
There are many letters from readers demanding no tolls. Often they cite polls showing more than 90% of the respondents against tolls, but the results of such polls do depend on how the question is constructed. If you asked most people if they thought all their electric power should be free, they'd go for free. The question is, if not tolls, how else do you pay for new roads? The options are few. There are always those hardy cigarette smokers. Then there are disguised taxes and fees and/or cutting the budget. Finally, there's passing the cost on to our children and grandchildren which does seem to be the operative plan.
Finally, one writer offered the most obvious suggestion: "Of course, there is an easy way to pay for roads as well as health care and education without squeezing the already squeezed: Start taxing income. But, bray the politicians (and newspaper editors), Texans are congenitally opposed to new taxes, especially income taxes. Like many unalterable truths, this seems not to be true. Most polls show that close to half of Texans favor an income tax not exactly a substantial majority, but it's hardly symptomatic of the 'aggressively anti-tax' attitude you diagnose." (Again, I suggest going online and checking out our "Postmarks" forums at www.austinchronicle.com/forum/.) My response, regardless of the polls, is this isn't going to happen in Texas anytime soon.