Page Two: South by Simplicity
The plain truth behind the Festival's origins
Naked if I want to?
Can I pop fireworks
On the Fourth of every single July?
Can I buy an amplifier, oh
I ain't got no money now,
But I will pay you before I die.
– Moby Grape, "Naked If I Want To"
March 2008: Our Story Thus Far
This year's South by Southwest Film and Interactive events have been enormously successful. This issue goes to press on Tuesday, a day earlier than usual. Wednesday evening, the Austin Music Awards at the Austin Music Hall mark the beginning of the onslaught that is the SXSW Music Festival. Each new SXSW evokes memories of times past.
Still, in many ways it all runs together, getting bunched up in memory. Certain incidents stand out – many, in fact – but there is no chronologically ordered bone structure holding them together. Some of the following definitely happened in different years, while others might have happened the same year or in different ones. It is a mosaic, not a history. This is Part I in an irregular series of reminiscences.
SXSW Part I: Birth to the Early 1990s
Early March, late 1980s: The Chronicle offices are on a corner of 28th and Nueces. There are two days before the beginning of the third or fourth year of South by Southwest. Eighteen- to 20-hour days, day after day, for weeks, with ever-heightening intensity rushing your brain while blowing out your nerves. There is a fear in the pit of your stomach that becomes almost a panic with every day the event grows closer. The fear/panic haunts and surrounds you, but you can't acknowledge or let it out in any way. It is maybe 3am; the dark, wide sky is littered with shining stars as I walk around the block and then walk around it again. Hands buried in pockets, I'm caught in a very dark mood. Where it comes from or how it comes about I'm not sure, but gradually my vision is filled with the night and an even greater sense of the dark and the stars. Listening to the night, I start to feel it, or maybe to just imagine it, but the quiet and empty has faded away. There are the highways of America, filled with vans, trucks, cars pulling rented trailers, refitted school buses, panel trucks, and two or three car caravans – all filled with musicians who will be playing SXSW and heading toward Austin. There is something epic about it, not nearly a fleet toward Troy, nor an army of elephants coming over the Alps, but more something out of a Roger Miller and Waylon Jennings song.
Thanksgiving and After, 1986, Through March 1987
In early November, Roland Swenson and Louis Jay Meyers came to Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro and me to suggest we put on a music conference and festival. Roland had managed bands and music clubs, as well as run a record label, but was then working for the Chronicle. Managing bands and booking clubs, Meyers didn't work for the Chronicle but was tight with all of us. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we talked about what this event might be and whether or not we should do it. I was the most reluctant about the event. The Chronicle, first published in September 1981, was then a biweekly (every other week) but planned to go weekly in September 1987. Launching an event and going weekly in the same year caused me any number of concerns. Still, by Thanksgiving, we had decided to go ahead with it.
What followed were hours and hours of talk among the four of us. Early on, we decided on the name South by Southwest but spent those weeks and weeks of meetings talking about every related detail. If memory serves, it was after working hours nearly every day that Barbaro, Swenson, Meyers, and I would sit around the office talking and talking. Now, Nick loves a long meeting that entails going over everything in infinitesimal detail. On the other hand, I have the attention span of a gnat, as Nick once so descriptively pointed out (though several staffers suggested this was an insult to gnats). Often I just walked back and forth. The constant between November 1986 and March 1987 was the four of us in an office, sitting, lying on the floor or on desks, standing, walking, shuffling, and talking, constantly talking. Regularly, we returned to the central scenario of an individual landing at the airport, renting a car, driving to the hotel, and then registering at SXSW. Operating from that point of view, we tried to anticipate every detail.
2008: The Chronicle regularly throws a Monday-night party during SXSW Film Conference and Festival. Last night it was at La Zona Rosa. Two guys came over to talk to me, as they were very interested in the history of SXSW. They asked how we started it. I answered that we decided to do it, announced it, and then sent out press releases and letters. They kept waiting for the curtain to be pulled back, to hear that there was some major, concrete maneuver or decision involved. Instead, we basically said SXSW would begin on Thursday March 12, 1987, and then set about making that happen.
????: It was one of the early SXSWs. We had gotten into an intense dispute with a club owner – over what I can't remember, except that it wasn't terribly important. The club owner got more and more worked up. Oddly, the combination of cocaine and steroids he was obviously on didn't really have a calming effect. When he whipped out a pistol and threatened us, we had any and all SXSW staff vacate the building.
1989 or 1990: For the first and only time, because of scheduling issues, SXSW did not take place during spring break but the week before. The students were still in town. The reason we never again strayed from spring break was that they showed up in large numbers. Way too many clubs filled up far too fast. Attendees started complaining that SXSW had gotten too big, with clubs being too difficult to get into, the second year. This was something else.
1994: By this point, for a number of years there had been weekly meetings of as much of the staff as could be there in the month and a half leading up to SXSW. Roland ran these meetings, where he would remind us several times, "Remember, SXSW is not for you." Translated, it means your job and responsibilities come first by a long shot; don't take a break and disappear because there is some band you want to see. Staff had been called on the carpet for this.
Except this year Johnny Cash was playing Emo's. This is the only time that I remember seeing most of the staff breaking the rule by showing up for a set. Good thing that Roland was there, as well. Before the show started, I ran into Sterling Morrison, who seemed in an unusually good mood. We chatted for a while. I didn't know it at the time, of course, but this was the last time I would see him. Less than 18 months later, he died.
At Some Point in the Future: Part II
SXSW is about an idea or a series of ideas that most everything we've worked on has in common. The question has to be, however, "Would you let me walk down your street/Naked if I want to?" The issue is, "What is the answer?"