Page Two

For the sake of the song

Page Two
There was a time that this column would have been deep into reporting on South by Southwest 2006 by now, as planning is already moving at full speed. As has been true for any number of years, there is so much news about SXSW, in so many places, that I relax.

The following news is so terrific, however, that I'm breaking it:

The keynote speaker for SXSW Music 2006 is Neil Young, who will have a conversation with director Jonathan Demme. Neil Young, Jonathan Demme – it just lights me up.

(An aside: When you are involved with running something like SXSW, you have to learn to live with incorrect – if not outright hostile – misperceptions on many people's parts. I'm not protesting this, as it would be foolish. For those of you who figure we make Shakespeare's Shylock look generous, Donald Trump look hip, major labels tasteful, and the current Republican administrators and legislators honest, I agree. You have us nailed: It is all about money and power; we are corrupt, bloated, insensitive, and grotesque. There; that's done.

The months spent planning for SXSW are among the very best times of the year: exhilarating, depressing, stressful, overwhelming, fascinating, satisfying, devastating, tedious, and revelatory. I wouldn't even try to write about how much we love what we do, how honored we are to do it, and how the staff is absolutely passionate about music, film, new media – culture in general.

End of aside: SXSW had never asked Neil Young to keynote before, I think, because it didn't even occur to us that it was possible.)

Roland Swenson runs SXSW; he is the managing partner, with day-to-day as well as long-term, visionary responsibilities. Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro and I are Swenson's partners, but we follow his lead.

Roland has a sharp, biting wit; he cuts with the precisely worded understatement, parries with just the right barb, so nonchalantly delivered. Though he is genuinely witty and sharply funny, one probably would not find the terms "jovial" or "avuncular" used to describe him.

Under control, focused, cognizant of literally thousands of details, Swenson is the consummate professional, leading many other professionals in doing their goddamn best to execute this event at the highest level. All of us derive a genuine and deep pleasure from this happening, but we are also more reserved than effusive (well, not me, but most everyone else). Out of necessity, Swenson always maintains a certain emotional reserve.

Roland loves music, though only those who know him well realize the depth of his passion and knowledge. He especially loves Neil Young (Roseana Auten, Roland's wife, has a different take, but that's for another column). Over the past few days, as it began to look more and more likely that Young would keynote, one of the best parts has been watching Roland's delight and anticipation. Mind you, he hasn't been blowing whistles, squeezing whoopee cushions, giddily singing, or chorus-line dancing. The excitement has been in his smile, his eyes, and his manner. There's radiance reminiscent of the Roland of more than 25 years ago, when we were all so much younger and so excited about embarking on this great adventure (our whole involvement with the Austin music scene, predating – though later including – SXSW). The satisfaction is personal, but so deep that being around Roland has served to remind me of how this long strange trip is more fun right now than it has ever been.

On the cover this week is Townes Van Zandt. Margaret Brown's film Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt opens on Friday. The film has earned some amazing reviews and absolutely passionate plugs.

I'm one of the film's executive producers (see disclaimer in the next section). After seeing part of the film a few years ago, I was knocked out by its quality, especially in relation to Van Zandt's performances. Even though there have been many Van Zandt albums released, none has come close to capturing the intoxicating emotional density of Townes live. An intuitive, four-dimensional performer, he was a richly evocative writer, musician, and singer. The footage of Townes performing comes so much closer than anything else to capturing his magic.

I took advantage of an opportunity to help the production. Paul Stekler suggested that, as a way of thanking me, Margaret Brown should name me an executive producer (along with Chris Mattson and Stekler). I was touched, though within days this honorary title (or so I thought) translated into an intense and ongoing commitment. I don't think there has been a single day since that I haven't worked on the film.

The film is Margaret's. It represents her creative brilliance, aesthetic determination, and cinematic vision. My job was to facilitate, consult, counsel, and strategize. The work of an executive producer, as I'd long suspected, isn't really describable or quantifiable.

If it were up to me, the film would have been much more of a straight-ahead biography. Instead, though Brown very much tells his story and offers an extraordinary sampling of his music, it is a more meditative and resonant work. Designed to emulate the texture and atmosphere of Van Zandt's songs, it is a consideration of a life in which everything else has been given up in pursuit of art. The impact of this decision on family, friends, and Van Zandt himself are as much key elements of the film as any piece of biographical information or observations offered by the many songwriters interviewed. Lee Daniel's impressionistic cinematography sucks us in until we can taste, touch, and smell Townes' world.

I'm inordinately proud of Be Here to Love Me, especially because I made the conscious decision to trust Margaret and help her achieve the film in her head rather than try to coerce or coax her into coming closer to the one in mine.

Margaret's gamble – on a work that is as much of poetry as detail, more ambitious than explicit, and more richly toned than slavish to chronology – paid off in a big way. Filmmakers, artists, and especially musicians have responded to it in the most intimate ways. At a New York screening, I watched Suzanne Vega and Steve Van Zandt as they leaned forward, almost literally sucking in the film. Walking in Toronto, film producer Maggie Renzi turned to me, saying, "You know, I think we liked the film more than you did. By the end John [Sayles] and I were holding hands and crying."

After seeing the film, Jonathan Demme wrote:

"That Margaret Brown has fashioned such a thrilling piece of pure cinema, with its magical and original fusion of sound and image, makes Be Here to Love Me a triumph on the contemporary film front in a way that is every bit as exciting and important as her loving evocation of Townes Van Zandt and his breathtaking body of work. She has moved the whole 'possibilities of film' thing a big leap forward, especially as regards the blending of film and music, image, sound and thought. My enthusiasm knows no bounds on this picture!"

This is the most intimately and critically I've ever been involved with a film. The work itself was a pleasure and an education. The reaction is just gravy.

Okay, even a dead person would be raising the question of conflict of interest here: SXSW, Jonathan Demme (whose films I'm writing a book about), and Townes Van Zandt – celebrating work with which I'm associated. I'm an executive producer of the film; Van Zandt is on our cover; and Anne S. Lewis, my wife, wrote the remarkable interview cover story.

Inherent to the core idea of The Austin Chronicle, from the point when we first began conceptualizing it, is that the paper is of the community, not just about it, and that the people who create it are often (and welcome to be) involved in the communities they cover.

If the staff did not think this was an appropriate cover, they would have derailed it. Whereas I was certain that Margaret Brown's film shouldn't be given the cover simply because of my involvement, I also felt that it shouldn't be deprived of the cover for that reason. Townes is an Austin legend, a profound and ongoing influence on Texas songwriters. Margaret Brown is a creative teammate of a whole younger generation of Austin filmmakers who have established their own identities and attracted significant, serious critical attention. And, hell, the cover art is by Guy Juke!

Now for those who think this is cheap rationalization or off-the-cuff equivocating, I have good news: This is the first in a series of meditations on conflict of interest in general and especially here at the paper. Part 2 is next week!

(No. 1 in a series, collect them all.) end story

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