The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Same As It Ever Was

South by Southwest and other lifetime labors of love

By Louis Black, February 26, 2010, Columns

This story happened any number of decades back, during a summer visit to the home where I had grown up in Teaneck, N.J. I was sitting reading when the doorbell rang. I opened the door to X, probably the single hippest guy in my high school class (then at least a decade behind me), longtime lead singer of the hottest, most popular band in town. We knew each other only slightly. He explained that his car had broken down a couple of blocks away and, remembering where I had lived, he had come by to see if I could lend him $20 for a tow. After a short hesitation, I told him that I had no money, but that Steve, another high school friend, lived only two blocks away, and gave him Steve's address. He left.

Quickly, I called Steve to warn him. Not an urban legend but an unfortunate suburban truth, still more heard about than experienced, this was a ploy by junkies looking to get enough money to score. This might seem a very cold conclusion if there had not been so many arguments against his story – not the least of which was that there was no way X would know where I lived. I imagined him sitting at a table, yearbook and telephone book opened, tracking down addresses to figure out where to go.

Now, during our high school days, he had been unimaginably cool. No bands rock like the very first ones you hear. None ever comes close to sounding as extraordinary as the first band with which you fall in love. X's band was way too hard-sounding for my tastes, but I still saw them half a dozen times. Now, as an unmitigated dork, when watching the band I was completely jealous of the life I imagined X lived. Being tone deaf, uncertain, and more than a little awkward, in many ways I took X's life to be the developed positive to my terribly underexposed negative.

A decade later, I found myself still feeling far more jealous of the life he had in high school than I did superior to or sorry for him for being a junkie.

When I first stumbled on rock & roll and then later fell in love with it, my passion for popular culture, for film and comic books, was fully inflamed. I know exactly where it began.

I was 9 or 10, visiting my grandmother's house in Lakewood, N.J. (about 70 miles south from Teaneck), where my family spent a number of summers during those years. "The Dragon Lady," who liked us far less than we liked her, was living most of the time in Florida, so she wasn't around. Her big old black-and-white TV, which took up a huge amount of space for its relatively small screen, was always turned on. Walking through my grandmother's bedroom, heading out, I turned to look at the TV. I made it only a few more steps before climbing into her huge bed to watch. Seeing just a few seconds of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon had captivated me. I intended to watch just a little of it before leaving. Maybe for the first time, but so far from the last it isn't even worth beginning to calculate, I stayed glued to the movie until its end.

Sometime later, I would watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At that time, I had no idea that it also was directed by Frank Capra. But I will never forget how I felt at the climax of the film, when the will of the people of the state that Sen. Jefferson Smith had been appointed to represent was thwarted by the political machine that controlled it. After hours of filibustering, exhausted and hoarse, Smith became revived as sacks of letters and telegrams were delivered onto the Senate floor. Expecting an end like Miracle on 34th Street (among others), where the voices of the people led to a resounding triumph for democracy, I was beyond crushed when it turned out the sample of those read all condemned him. I was at most in my very early teens, but my innocence was immediately crushed, never to fully recover. Moments later, the anticlimax of Smith's fellow senator (Claude Rains) trying to kill himself and then confessing, allowing for a happy ending, even then seemed like the most unreal, Hollywood-manufactured deus ex machina.

Maybe a year or two later, one of my friends bought Theodore Huff's thick, exhaustive biography on Charlie Chaplin at a library book sale. Long before ever seeing Charlie Chaplin on film, we passed the book around among ourselves (that was the kind of wild pack with which I ran). I found it thrilling and fascinating. Without having seen Chaplin, I became a huge, though conceptual, fan.

When there was a Chaplin retrospective revival at a theatre in New York City, a family friend took me to see The Great Dictator. Still carefree, at that time I had an overly hysterical, continuous laugh so loud that when exercised in a movie theatre it had people around me, including even my closet friends, throwing worried glances in my direction as though they expected my gasping for breath and suffocation to quickly follow. It filled the whole theatre that afternoon. Watching Lost Horizon had been awe-inspiring, though a bit perplexing, and Mr. Smith was infuriating, but The Great Dictator was a film I gave my heart and soul to without hesitation.

These were my junior high years, during which I also met and became close friends with Len Maltin (of Movie Guide and Entertainment Tonight fame). One afternoon, we started talking about film, which was our first real communication with each other. The very weekend after that, he took me into New York City to see a program of Chaplin shorts at the Museum of Modern Art. It was sold out. Still, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, with Len ushering me to hundreds of movies and dozens of film events – including dragging me to meet Buster Keaton under the Brooklyn Bridge when we were around 14. We frequently went into the city after school and on weekends to watch movies.

We watched all and every kind of film, including innumerable silent films, cartoons, and two-reelers dating from the Thirties to the Fifties. Sometimes, for long stretches we would go into the city almost every weekend. Len and I would split museum memberships because a member was allowed to purchase two tickets to a film before they officially went on sale. A fairly normal Saturday would find us catching the late-morning movie at MOMA, going over to the Huntington Hartford for the midafternoon screening, then back to MOMA for the late afternoon. Then maybe we'd see a commercial movie before we ended up the night at the Theodore Huff Society, which was run by William K. Everson.

Back in New Jersey, if it had been more like modern times, we may well have been arrested when, as young teenagers, we would go to Saturday kiddie matinees. Waiting in line to watch the cartoons and Jerry Lewis feature, we towered over all the other children, most of them being warehoused by their parents for the afternoon.

I always was a terrible student, being slightly dyslexic with severe attention issues. This had started in the first grade, where I was very late in learning to read. I had no skills except a passion for reading: Art, music, sports were all beyond me; I was tone deaf, with absolutely awful hand-eye coordination (my writing was illegible – forget about drawing). In every class, I always felt like I was drowning either way too quickly or ever so slowly. Having given up all hope, my parents allowed my cinema travels. Len was a different story, having sold the very first edition of TV Movies (later Movie Guide) while a senior in high school and then a film history book in each of his first four years of college.

The last years in high school found me as passionate about rock & roll as about movies. The first time I saw a nationally known act live, it was the Byrds in Central Park. At the time, they were so popular that they wouldn't even perform their first two hits, "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Buying albums then was a big deal, with all of us going over to a friend's house to listen to the newest purchase. Len did not accompany me on this journey, but we still regularly went to films together.

I bring this all up right now because in so many ways these years were the fertile fields from which my entire life has grown. There is an organic chronology begun back then that stretches unbroken to today, two weeks from the Chronicle's issue dated March 12, the first day of South by Southwest 2010. Love SXSW, ignore it, or dance around painted in pastels hating it; as it comes out of my life and the lives of all of us who put it on, it is still faithful to what we have always believed. More than that, it is of what we have always loved and still do.

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