The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Dream of Life

SXSW celebrates the best of what I am and what I believe

By Louis Black, February 29, 2008, Columns

South by Southwest is only one week away. Check within this issue on how to buy film passes (download the film schedule PDF here), another opportunity to purchase wristbands, and all the relevant news and information.

Next Friday, South by Southwest 08 begins. Without hesitation, I can say that the 10 days of the event are my favorite time of the year. SXSW celebrates everything our life's work here at the Chronicle and at SXSW has been about: independent media, creative talents controlling their own destinies, imagination over repetition, and vision over conformity. The gathering together of so many gifted talents in so many different areas is the heart of what Austin is about every day of the year. The event is a blast. I don't actually get to attend it, really never have, because we are all busy working it to make sure things run smoothly.

The best part of SXSW is getting to work with the SXSW staff, the Chronicle staff covering it, and the volunteers who make it possible. This is a personal and specific pleasure. There is nothing like getting to work on something you love with people whose passion and commitment equal or are even superior to your own. When everything is going right, it is an unbelievable feeling – the peak experience in a life that has always centered on the same elements as SXSW does. When it goes wrong, it can turn very ugly (though usually briefly), because everyone who works at SXSW is so absolutely, pedal-to-the-metal serious that a glitch can appear a monstrous thing, especially if it adversely affects talent. There is no sense of perspective, no acceptance of how it shouldn't matter because most things are going well. The passion that drives the staff is utterly devoted to the whole, but it is absolutely fanatical about the details.

One of the best Festival times for me is Saturday evening. I take an hour break and stand somewhere on Red River or Sixth Street just to watch the people going by on their way to hear more music. Positive and negative reviews fade in the face of the charged energy and undisguised enthusiasm of the hundreds and hundreds flowing past in every direction.

Jerry Jeff Walker has an album called Five Years Gone. The title, he relates, came from a friend who told him that every five years he should step back and consider his life – consider if he was doing the work he wanted to do at the level he wanted to do it.

My reassessments are not so linear. I'm continually, regrettably, and unavoidably obligated to the different me(s) of my life history. I can't cross the 14-year-old Louis Black: way too passionate, alienated, remarkably incapable of any accomplishments but absolutely devoted to movies, music, comic books, writing, and writers in a way I'd now dismiss as ridiculously naive. Unfortunately, in the legislature of my head and heart, he has a huge vote.

The 14-year-old is not alone but sits with other versions of myself. He sits next to the me who saw The Wild Bunch for the first time, fell in love with Frank Capra, finally managed to see Citizen Kane after looking for it too hard at previous screenings, finally got Jean-Luc Godard with Alphaville, discovered Marvel comics with Fantastic Four No. 3, was baptized at the drive-in watching Caged Heat and later reborn again and again watching Pulp Fiction, and who came to grace yet again at the SXSW screening of Before Sunset.

There is also the me of 28 or 29, living in a duplex on Speedway, listening to the first album released by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers on Berserkley over and over again on the stereo. It had been forced upon me by Richard Dorsett at Inner Sanctum Records. Those were the days when I tried to buy albums there that the Inner Sanctum staff didn't like; on occasion they would take the vinyl record out to smash it against a wall.

Sometimes I listened closely, sometimes it just played in the background. One afternoon, my good friend Steve Swartz was over; we were casually listening to the album. At the same moment, we both got it, or it got us. At the same moment, we started to dance madly around the living room. Our souls were open; dancing was an act of prayer – more than an act of prayer, it was prayer in every manifestation. I have always loved music. I fell in love with music again that day, just as I have done on so many days. I was reminded of the best parts of myself, of those rare nerve endings that just accepted without layering fears, questions, uncertainties, and concerns onto everything they encountered.

"I'm in love with rock & roll and

I'll be out all night"

– Jonathan Richman, "Roadrunner"

Those are lyrics and not just lyrics. They are a solemn vow, an acceptance of responsibility, a statement of defiance to my own overly obsessed, concerned, and tormented past, to a history of letting thought block experience and fear trump all other emotion.

I can lie to you, our readers; I can spin for the media like a breakdancer; I can whine and rant with the best of them. But at the end of the day, I'm absolutely loyal to all these earlier, often miserable versions of myself because I have no other choice. They control my dreams, the feelings in the pit of my stomach, the way I really feel when there is no one else there but me.

Over the last two years especially, I've taken to militantly defending SXSW against mostly local, online assaults. The event's press, nationally and internationally, is overwhelmingly positive. But I've become absolutely obsessed to the point of being completely preoccupied with ongoing, Austin-based criticisms. Most of them are not even critically negative comments; rather, they are flat assertions that are almost entirely false. Almost everyone who knows me has told me to get over it, to stop reading the blogs and certainly to stop commenting on them. My flailing responses represent the most pathetic parts of my personality. Despite many hard miles and very tough skin, despite a reasoned cynicism sharpened by decades in the trenches, I find myself still sadly sincere; deeply believing in the value of the activities I'm involved in leaves me open to the laziest attempts to wound me. It's all wrapped up, you know: the loyalty to the past, the sincerity, the full-speed-ahead obliviousness that has empowered and crippled my life.

I'm writing this because I'm filled with the excitement and joy of facing another SXSW. When asked what films he watched to prepare to make Citizen Kane, Orson Welles answered, "Stagecoach, Stagecoach, Stagecoach." When I'm asked a similar question about the success of SXSW and why it works, the only answer is, "Austin, Austin, Austin."

Whenever my name appears almost anywhere, it should be accompanied by a few to many, many other names. Whereas I solely accept blame, everything that I've been privileged to get to do and to accomplish has been done working with others as a part of a team. The wonder of Austin is not just the environment and was never just a more laid-back past. It has nothing to do with traffic, the height of buildings, the density of development, or the amusements and entertainments available. If, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggests in No Exit, hell is other people, it stands to reason that some versions of heaven must be other people as well. The ongoing, unquenched, undeniable wonder of Austin is the people who live here. SXSW is very much out of them, of their work and faithful to the construct of their achievements, ambitions, and dreams. Even the delighted naysayers and happy haters of online disgust are, at the end of it all, part and parcel of the fullness of SXSW. Thank you all!

Throughout my life I've operated with such physical awkwardness, poor sense of social mores, and consistently inappropriate and oblivious manners, I make a bull in a china shop seem like a ballerina. My not fitting in was matched by an overly earnest destructiveness even if I ever came close. In every way, SXSW celebrates the best of what I am and what I believe, all of which is very wrapped up in Austin. In my life, the greatest moment of redemption and deliverance was when I ended up in this town. My dreams always have been of comic books, movies, music, terrific film posters, art, and culture – especially the culture of the down-low street and the dirty water running through it. In Austin my dreams have come closer to being fulfilled than I would have ever thought possible or had any right to expect. Austin is a community not just knowledgeable of its past, excited by the present, and open to the future, but also and always aware of and grateful to the huge number of people responsible.

I know grace because, though undeserving of it, I experience it on an ongoing basis.

Writing in The New York Times, Jon Pareles observed:

"The festival is still a place where record-label scouts see bands and make deals. But it is also, for many more performers, a hub for operating outside the recording business. A success here doesn't have to be – and probably won't be – a seven-figure advance. It could be finding a European distributor for a self-released album or the offer of a Midwestern college tour instead. ... With its emphasis on live showcases, SXSW reveals the gap between the narrowly defined, studio-fabricated realm of radio and MTV hits and the less glamorous but far larger territory of van tours and club dates. That difference showed in the music."

Now after all of the above, after the truth and the passion, the "I pledge allegiance to my former selves," what makes Austin and SXSW great is the ability to throw a great party. When one website asked a musician about his feelings toward the SXSW Music Festival, he responded:

"What festival? No, but seriously, how many parties with free booze, food, and great music can you fit into one city in a week? It's like a kid in a candy shop for rock bands and, oh yeah, you make more connections than you would ever think possible."  

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