Page Two: Sugar or Salt?

Severed heads, barbecue, and SXSW

Page Two

Part I

"The love that loves to love the loves to love the love that love to love the love that loves to love"

– Van Morrison "Madame George"

"In the end, in the end

In the end, in the end

In the end, in the end

In the end, in the end

In the end, in the end"

– John Cale "Guts"

South by Southwest 07 is only two weeks away, but, of course, around these parts we're so deep into it already that we've changed our breathing patterns and are trying to remember how to live without sleep and work without break. It's seven days a week, nine to 10 hours a day now, and compared to most everyone else at SXSW and the Chronicle, for me, those hours are more like vacation than work.

By now, the day-to-day of all-yearlong has changed into a different texture, a kind of three-dimensional pattern with floating surfaces of shifting planes. All so casually but continually moving; taking a step forward or pausing for a thought often finds you ending up in some place very different than where you started. Most of the year probably isn't all that different, except that it isn't so obvious that you're lost among the flotsam and jetsam – floating bits of space, time, detail, words, voices, memory, and work.

During this time, I'm not always wearing a beyond-wrinkled, ill-fitting suit and driving a beat-to-hell red Chevy Impala convertible spewing smoke while heading down dirt roads even more wretched than the vehicle. Talking to the severed head wrapped in a stinking, stained bag alongside me with buzzing flies so thick it's as though they're inside my head on this brutally hot day. She's dead and so, obviously, is the head. I'm dead, which I both don't really know and know only too well, my eyes bloodshot to sunglasses red: Warren Oates playing Sam Peckinpah in the midst of hell.

Sometimes it's better, and, at least, it's usually different all the time. In the morning there's no better way to face the day than music. Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner," Grandmaster Flash's "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," and John Cale's "Ready for War" used to regularly heat me up for the day. Then, when things got rough, for nostalgia's sake I'd put on a vest, so I would be ready for the day, ready for anything. Now I just listen to CDs in my car, playing certain songs over and over.

Part II

Around SXSW I always think of Calvin Trillin's exquisite celebration of American hoi polloi cuisine, American Fried, where he's talking about Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, his favorite barbecue restaurant. Some time after World War II, it was one of the few restaurants in town that wasn't segregated. Trillin imagines that in the newly integrated U.S. Army a white soldier has befriended a black soldier. They're hungry and in Kansas City, but they have to keep passing by restaurants. Finally they come to Bryant's and head inside. Trillin is in near swoon (or as near as he can get to a swoon), noting that they've just entered the best barbecue restaurant in the world. For one of the few times in the history of our republic, he goes on to note, virtue has indeed been justly rewarded.

Now admittedly I usually start thinking of this because of Iron Works BBQ. Sometimes I've actually been forced to speak up to total strangers when I hear them deciding to go elsewhere in town for barbecue, because they figure that since Iron Works is right next to the Austin Convention Center, it must be very tourist-centric. When I'm asked to recommend a barbecue place in and/or around Austin, my list is so extensive, and I tend to go on for so long that usually at some point the folks who have so foolishly asked me just walk away, leaving me babbling to air. Without in any way disparaging those other smoky havens, overhearing such comments, I have to point out that Iron Works was here long before the Convention Center and that it would be truly foolish to let the location discourage one.

But this is really the beginning of my Trillin day drift. It's where I start. The bigger picture is that this is really the magic of and most reliable way to experience SXSW – drifting along with friends, sampling the unknown. Maybe catching a movie you know nothing about or listening to some speaker speculate on next-generation media. Ignoring long lines at some clubs to visit the dozens and dozens of SXSW venues that are easily entered. A voyage of discovery defined by the unknown and detailed by pleasures unexpected.

Part III

"From soul to poison soul to poison soul

Guts, guts, got no guts

And stitches don't help at all

Guts, guts, got no guts

Holes in the body, holes in the legs

Holes in the forehead, holes in the head

Holes in the body, holes in the legs

There should never be holes at all

There should never be holes at all"

– John Cale "Guts"

Now usually when writing this column, I try to fully craft positions so that they're understandable and not toppled by casual objections. I doubt I succeed at this very often, but I do try. Not here, not now. It's hopeless to try convincing most, especially the easily cynical, too casually hostile, and insistently negative, of anyone's intentions or ambitions, especially mine.

Arguing as to the convictions and concerns of either SXSW or Chronicle staff is not just fruitless but foolish. Rebels, the young, the angry, artists, activists, the saved, and the unwashed all have visions true and pure. Many of them about my evil motivations and unerring corruption. So, let me admit to all and get it out of the way. Yes, it's true! Whatever, however, and exactly what you know I am up to, I am. I am corrupt, corpulent, soulless, blind, and greedy. I'm obscene and dirty; I steal, cheat, lie, forge, and deal. Consciously I'm out to destroy film and corrupt music by privileging money, power, and politics over creativity. Anything you feel like adding here, you should. It's true!

Part IV: An Interlude

Edited excerpts from a recent e-mail exchange I had with a number of folks involved in an Internet fan group:

"What do you do? Respond back in a fucked-up and disrespectful manner to us. Well ... we're organized, we have our own resources, and we network. So keep it up. We're about to respond. You think we're powerless? Toothless? A bunch of jag-offs? Well ... Okaaaaaaaaay. We've seen your type before and we're the ones still standing. We've been around 10 years.

"Just let it drop. Man, I can't believe how you talk to people. Keep it up! The gloves are about to come off!"

"[What you threatened to do] is so unprofessional, I don't even know where to begin. So, suffice to say: Blow me, you fucking hack. I don't give a shit what you do or don't do ... tape it to a vibrator and shove it up your ass. Why anyone would even want such an obvious lowbred, asinine, unprofessional blowhard of an individual – or anyone from an organization that would hire him/her – to review their record is beyond me. I don't understand the logic behind it. You have confirmed my opinion of 'journalist' in every way: a bunch of fucking ink-stained whores. I am also sorry if this condemns your fellow hacks to the same fiery pit in journalistic hell that I condemn you, but fuck, if they didn't blow your pedantic, jackass brains out the first time they met you, then they deserve it."

"So quit treating us like a bunch of jag-offs. Quit talking to MY people in a fucked up and disrespectful manner. 'Cause we can bring it on if you want ...

"Why do you gotta work at pissing people off?"

As to the allegations and accusations I made against myself in Part III, I rest my case.

Part V

In a very real sense, I've never been to SXSW because I've been busy working every one. It's great fun, but one doesn't actually get to experience it, to watch movies, attend panels, or hear music.

Almost every year I take an hour or so off and just stand on a corner watching all the folks from all over the world race from club to club. Often this is as deep into it as I get.

Now back to the Iron Works. A few years back during SXSW, a whole party of us were eating there. I didn't eat much, wrapping most of it up to eat later in the wee hours of the morning when our work was, if not done, than at least temporarily subdued.

Part of that party was the legendary and amazing Elliot Roberts, Neil Young's longtime manager, though as important as that is on his list of his credits, it doesn't actually occupy that much space, relatively speaking, in light of all else that he's done. If you pay attention all the time that you're with Roberts, it's educational and just as often enlightening, as well. Certainly this is true about the music business. It's not just that he's one of a bare handful of geniuses still working in the industry, although that does count for a lot. It's that he so completely understands and acts on the belief that the purpose of the business is to serve music and musicians, not the other way 'round. One can also learn many other things from Roberts – grace, patience, enthusiasm, and passion among them. At a Neil Young or Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young concert, it's always an added pleasure to see Roberts off to one side, smiling and moving, lost in the music, especially when you consider just how many times he's heard it all.

In comparison, as I noted to Nick Barbaro just yesterday, it continually amazes me that I make it through this world given how truly inept, tongue-tied, clumsy, and unfocused I am. In much the same way that the Shaggs music sounds like it's being made by people who've never actually heard music but have only had it described to them, my hands operate completely independently of me, only loosely imitating focused motion. On very rare occasions they seem to be doing, at least generally, what I'm trying for, but rather than coordination or skill, this is more along the lines of how a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Thus when I finished wrapping the rest of my meal, the package looked like a kindergarten class' head-on assault on a wastepaper dump. Shaking his head as he looked at it, Roberts picked it up and headed to the front of the restaurant. A short time later he came back with a package efficiently, economically, and exquisitely wrapped in brown butcher paper. This was Christo to my team of anarchist tots. I almost asked him to sign it and did plan to keep it as a piece of art rather than opening it. Unfortunately, in the swirl of SXSW, I lost this work.

In the best way I can get at it, this is why SXSW is so special to me. Sure, I'm not even broaching the real content, purpose, and/or activities of SXSW, which may make this column seem even more painfully self-absorbed than usual. It doesn't even begin to touch on the outstanding films, music, panels, parties, workshops, speakers, and so on. It's akin to talking about a mountain climb in the middle of relating a story of an ocean journey.

When I was growing up, food in my house was served without spices, the table usually lacking salt and pepper. One time, as a teen, over at a friend's house for dinner, I discovered how much better meat tasted when salted. The next time we were in New York City, we went to a Horn and Hardart's Automat for lunch. There was a glass cylinder filled with white grains on the table. Excitedly I poured it all over my roast beef sandwich. It was sugar.

So maybe this story is about salt, and maybe it's about sugar. Then again, maybe it's not. end story

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