Page Two: All in the Family
Debunking the hippie Mafia theory, and starting to say goodbye to Rollo Banks
As a kid, I tried (we all tried) the On the Road life long, seemingly endless drives through the night in beat-up old cars, when you crossed state after state heading nowhere, because the driving itself was the only destination. Since I have the attention span of a gnat, these trips were usually more torture than Zen for me more fidgeting, neurotic, antsy activity than meditative quiet. Later, I discovered Cadillacs and Books on Tape, which changed everything. Admittedly, this combination was very distant from Dean Moriarty's rhythms, but it opened up travel for me in a way I had rarely known.
Now when I need to just clear my head, to sweat out the me from me, it's on the road. Right now, I'd rather be in a car in the middle of the night listening to a voice telling a story than to be here at my desk typing. Sometimes the drive clears up your perspective, until what was overwhelmingly muddy and complicated becomes simple and clear. Sometimes all that is your life vanishes, leaving just the road and the voice.
As I write this, I am a hollow man. I am not an old man being read to by a young boy, because I cannot hear. I am deaf, dumb, blind, and without feeling.
What seemed important when I wrote the first draft of this column last night is gone. The meaningless of petty criticism and emotionally pitched, hostile tirades has faded into the dust and the sea.
The reason for this is at the end; let me finish with the task at hand first.
Just a few weeks back, I wasn't sure where to go on the subject of South by Southwest, even though in "Page Two" I had said there would be a second column on it. I really do feel the strength of this column is being up front with the readers. I hadn't really finished explaining my take on SXSW 07, but I knew the topic had been beaten to death. I chose silence.
Days later, I got into my car and turned on the radio, only to hear the KLBJ gang talking about SXSW and me. Now, as I've said, I find it an honor and a privilege to go on the Dudley and Bob Show on KLBJ-FM. Dale Dudley, Bob Fonseca, Charlie Hodge, and Angela Davis are all very sharp, funny, and at the peak of their form. Now, I hate to bum out my many detractors, but the truth is that I have been insanely lucky in life. I love what I do, and almost every day is some kind of adventure. But doing their show (as well as most morning radio) is especially fun, sometimes ridiculously so.
Hearing them talk about the SXSW "controversy," I let them know I would be happy to go on the show and face any critic. Very stupidly, in the way I am often stupid, I missed the obvious; I figured that if I just explained (again) what had actually happened, although I was unlikely to change anyone's mind, I might at least bring some clarity to the situation and somewhat defuse the hostility that some bear. Yet I was on KLBJ-FM last week talking about SXSW, actually debating one of our critics. In the middle of the conflict, Dudley asked a question whose answer might help those making a mountain range of accusations out of a molehill of action take a breather.
Fostering a reasonable discussion that might move us forward just a bit was my goal. The person who represented an anti-SXSW point of view made it clear that he expected something more along the lines of a debate. It soon became very obvious that he wasn't even interested in debate; this was a trial in which he was both prosecutor and judge. Immediately, he began by insulting me, calling me "Hippie Boy" ("Hippie Boy"!!!!), a liar, and arrogant, claiming I was like Tony Soprano in my attempts to control the Austin music scene. Honestly, I have heard variations of this accusation over the years; not only is it ridiculous, but I'm not even entirely sure what it is suppose to imply. My problem with this position is not only that I am a fan and have no desire for czarlike powers; it's that I don't even have any idea how anyone could or would want to control a scene.
Yes, stupidly, as I stated above, I was surprised at the hostility and intensity of the attack. As always, I stated what SXSW had done: We gave the fire marshals a list of 80 non-SXSW venues, targeting not one of them specifically, because we're concerned with safety. What happened after that, which I took to be coincidence, this person saw as conspiracy: Somehow, according to such views, SXSW had gotten the ordinance that caused the three closures passed; using our powers, we had the city keep quiet about it; and our influence was such that the fire marshals would have followed our instructions in closing the targeted venues regardless of whether they were in compliance or not. This version of events is complete fantasy so, not having swallowed my Lewis Carroll pills, I don't even know where to begin disputing it.
At one point, my fellow guest offered up quotes from SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson on three different topics that quite clearly were not connected and then accused Swenson of lying. Swenson had described some overall problems SXSW was facing. In no way would asking the fire marshals to visit parties solve or even address these problems. It was as if, say, in response to completely unrelated questions, a person answered, "It is important to me that the boundaries of my land are accurately recorded," to one question and "I like my neighborhood" to another and was then accused of being a hypocrite: If you insist on one thing, how can you endorse another? It was that disconnected.
Dudley loves humor, outrage, and certain kinds of tirades, but he really doesn't like intense, emotional confrontations. At one point, he asked if there might be a way we could stop arguing over the past and instead consider how to solve these problems in the future. With that question, I realized how silly and foolish it was to continue to protest SXSW's innocence or try to explain, again and again, what happened.
The answer to Dudley's question will cover all the bases because, basically, it is that there will be no problem next year. Now aware that they may be visited in order to make sure that they have the correct permits and that they are in compliance with all pertinent laws, all the party-givers should, logically, invest the minimum amount of effort thus required. Even if the fire marshals then visit the party, nothing will happen.
During SXSW Music, fire marshals made around 300 inspections, including many at official SXSW events. They issued only nine citations.
SXSW did not target specific parties, and even if we had, we don't have the influence to make fire marshals shut a party down if it is in compliance. There was no conspiracy. We did not get the ordinance in dispute passed (it was aimed at fraternity parties SXSW had nothing to do with it) nor use our black-magic ways to get the city not to reveal it.
(Although I was unaware of it until now the column otherwise finished and edited I just learned that when we checked with the Fire Department, it turned out that the party my fellow radio guest accused SXSW of targeting wasn't even on any list. Marshals were walking by the building when they noticed the party going on and decided to check on it.)
Any party cited or shut down during SXSW 07 either didn't have the correct permits or wasn't in compliance. This happened not because of the city, the fire marshals, or SXSW, but because of the failures of those putting on the parties. SXSW does not exert any influence that causes fire marshals to ignore the law for us, and it is beyond ludicrous to so imply that it does. That these "parties" were not really impromptu, friendly, backyard soirees open to all but rather were for the most part carefully considered, corporate-sponsor-funded events targeted at SXSW badge-holders (hoping they would attend but, if not, at least be aware of the parties' sponsors' logos) I won't even go into here.
Back to the answer to Dudley's question. If the many conspiracy theories about SXSW and its nefarious, scheming, evil, underhanded, and behind-closed-door power plays were even marginally true, then it would be reasonable to be concerned about next year. But SXSW not only has no special influence with which it can convince the city to pass secretly punitive laws, hide legislation, or illegally disrupt events, it has never done so, nor would it even try. The fire marshals and police are dispassionate, nonpartisan champions of safety and the law; they do not represent special private interests, nor would they ever serve their purposes regardless of the law. The concern for SXSW 07 was absolutely and only safety. If the party-givers and their corporate sponsors are even vaguely conscious, there should be no closures or major problems next year.
Having turned in "Page Two" way too late for the last several weeks, I wrote this column last night. As I sat down to edit it, I first checked my e-mail. Margaret Moser had sent me a note: "Rollo [Banks] took his own life day before yesterday in Chicago. He'd been in ill health for some time." All I could see was a dull light, and the only noise I could hear was a ringing in my head. My heart hurt. My fingers were without feeling, my mouth without taste. Everything was emptiness; I was drowning, though able to breathe.
Someday, if my heart and head hold out, I will write the tribute that tattoo artist Michael "Rollo Banks" Malone deserves deserves for his life, work, and influence and for his critical role in The Austin Chronicle. But this isn't it. For now, just the facts and a little part of the story.
Rollo and Don Ed Hardy inherited Sailor Jerry's Tattoo Shop in Honolulu. From Wikipedia: "Norman 'Sailor Jerry' Collins (born 1911, died 1973) is considered the foremost American tattoo artist of his time. He expanded the array of colors available by developing his own safe pigments. He created needle formations that embedded pigment with much less trauma to the skin, and he was one of the first to utilize single-use needles and hospital-quality sterilization. His attention to detail was so precise that the riggings in his nautical tattoos were perfectly accurate. Artistically, his influence stems from his union of the roguish attitude of the American sailor with the mysticism and technical prowess of the Far East. He maintained a close correspondence with Japanese tattoo masters during his career. He regarded tattoos as the ultimate rebellion against 'the Squares.'"
Malone became a tattoo artist while on a photography assignment for Esquire to shoot New York City tattooing, which was then against the law; he took the name "Rollo Banks," the fat rich kid in the brilliant Nancy comic strip written and drawn by Ernie Bushmiller.
Rollo took over Sailor Jerry's shop (Hardy went to San Francisco). He was a brilliant tattoo artist and over the years trained many of the world's best in the art. To this day, when you walk into a tattoo shop anywhere in the world, you are very likely to see his flash (tattoo designs) hanging on the walls. Later in his life, he also designed outstanding electric tattooing machines. There is much more to the story, so much more, but that is at least a piece of it.
Rollo was not just powerful, important, and unique to so many of us, but something much more. We met him through Michael Corcoran. He was Corky's friend, mentor, and teacher. Later, he married Margaret Moser. There are some wonderful and funny stories to be told about Corky and Rollo's adventures, as well as about his courtship of Margaret. He changed their lives, as he did so many. They both loved and love him. It was and is the same with me and with so many others, if not as intimately or long-term.
This paper exists as it is because of Rollo. This is true in many, many ways. One of them is that, for a long time during the worst years, every afternoon Nick Barbaro and I would head over to the tattoo shop to sit around talking and joking with Rollo and Corky. Saying that this saved our lives doesn't even begin to describe the legacy.
This was not mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, when one is dazed and gasping for breath at the end. This was where our souls were restored, where our sense of the importance of job and responsibility was reinforced. It is where, and Rollo is from whom, we learned how to be who we are.
There are principles by which one must live for a life that is honest, meaningful, and of worth. Those we didn't know, we learned in the shop; for those we did know, our understanding matured. We knew that, at the end, all that it is really about is love, humor, friends, honor, and work. If life isn't fun challenging, interesting, sometimes terrifying, certainly depressing, exciting then why bother?
At the center is the joke. Rollo knew the joke intimately, generously sharing it all the time with everybody he met. There is much more than the joke, but without it there is no meaning that is worth anything.
Rollo mocked me, teased and taught Corcoran, helped nurture the Chronicle, loved Margaret, and knighted Barbaro as the Captain. There is so much more that can be said, but there is, in many ways, also nothing more that needs to be.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our May 4, 2007 issue: In the April 20 "Page Two," Don Ed Hardy was mistakenly referred to as Jack Ed Hardy. The Chronicle regrets the error.