Page Two: We Are the Walrus
... And other tales of circles unbroken
– The Beatles, "I Am the Walrus" (written by John Lennon: credited to Lennon/McCartney)
"I sing this for the crickets,
I sing this for the army,
I sing this for your children
And for all who do not need me"
– Leonard Cohen, "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes"
At Randy's Rodeo, on Jan. 8, 1978, the house was packed, mostly with a wildly divergent audience ranging from old hippies and longtime rockers to both resurrected and nascent punks. They were there for the Sex Pistols' San Antonio show. Toward the back of the room, as I remember, were maybe a half-dozen people in leisure suits, in all likelihood friends of the owner, who had joined him to watch the freak show. They not only seemed out of place but also impure, as though their presence there was somehow an almost immoral cultural voyeurism. It only seemed that way, however – if those three words are not inherently contradictory. I've never worn a leisure suit, but I feel more sympathy with that group now than I do with the superior-feeling, overly judgmental ass that I was at the time.
Last week's column noted the passings of Luke Zimmermann and Jim Ramsey – both crucial, longtime supporters of the Austin music scene. Setting a context for honoring Luke and Jim, I wrote: "In any creative scene, there are those who are stars. In Austin, it's musicians, filmmakers, writers, artists, actors, and their ilk. But alongside those outlined in glaring neon are the armies of those who support them: the ones who run the clubs, book the bands, program the movies, show the art, publish the books, help make the movies, run the restaurants – the ones who show up at shows, galleries, movies, and theatres, the ones who are there in the bad times as well as the good. They are those who respond when called upon – and often do so long before."
In order for a scene to truly flower and resonate over time, it is critical not only that all of the above types are present but that they work together. Obviously, this is not a vacuum-packed world or a utopian commune. It is never, nor should it be, sweetly harmonious among everyone. There are all kinds of tensions: sharply conflicted and contradictory feelings running through a scene, all kinds of cliques and crowds. There are rivalries, feuds, alliances, those in, those out, those revered, and those reviled, with few of those designations being permanent; instead, who is labeled what is consistently shifting.
Especially during my early 20s and through my 30s, at music shows I attended there would often be a clutch of older guys (occasionally women were part of the group, but mostly men), often in jeans, some overweight. Some wore black motorcycle jackets while others wore frontier (and drug dealer) style fringe jackets, and turquoise jewelry was by no means uncommon.
Over time I'd come to know that this group was usually made up of music business folks – maybe the club's owner and booker, perhaps some representatives of local labels or old writers, radio, or record store folks. Again, they seemed an intrusion in the atmosphere: a jagged edge of dark souls ripping the fabric of the room, music, and audience that at the time was my house of worship, my place of prayer. I always assumed that these groups were there for reasons so shameless and debased that, while I could smell and taste the dirt oozing out, I wasn't sure of what constituted the core at all.
"And I sing this for the freaks and the cripples, and the hunchback, and the burned, and the burning, and the maimed, and the broken, and the torn, and all of those that you talk about at the coffee tables, at the meetings, and the demonstrations, on the streets, in your music, in my songs. I mean the real ones that are burning, I mean the real ones that are burning
"I say, Please don't pass me by,
oh now, please don't pass me by"
– Leonard Cohen, "Please Don't Pass Me By (A Disgrace)"
In the following decades, I became a member of that group, as did many of those with whom I hung out; now we were of this group that congregated toward the back of the room. This, of course, led to a much deeper appreciation for that group.
Some are there for strange reasons: predators searching for sex or looking to demonstrate their cool in the most uncool way. Still, what I realized was that most of these people are basically lifelong music fans, most of whom had been to hundreds and hundreds of shows, and are painfully aware, to a larger or smaller extent, of how out of place they might look.
We are still guilty as charged. We are "The Man," whether we want to be or not. We may love the music and could imagine no lifestyle other than the one we have now, but we are often as much music business folks as we are fans. Understanding is not redemption, and explaining is an attempt at justifying, but rock & roll has never been logical or gracious.
The bottom line in that world is that at its purest, rock music is centered on youth. Much of our generation went through the punk period. That time was a trimming back of bloated mature rock to its basic. Shed were orchestras, horns, sweeping synth sounds – all the baroque excess that had been built up over the years. There was a return to anger, passion, energy, and disregard, where attitude was much more important than musical skills.
We knew that there was remarkably great music made that was more basic than far less interesting music. We were right when we were suspicious of the people who where just like those we became, though in different ways.
Age is the consistent, ultimate game changer. What was once reasonable becomes unreasonable; what once seemed awfully tainted, unacceptable, and scarred evolves into normal. Rock is often created in defiance of authority and as a way of mocking it. We had become authority.
The idea of younger generations of rock is not to form Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm attitudes toward the greater community but to race through it with one's emotions ablaze, oozing attitude in every direction. Even though we are very often the targets, we understand their contempt and not only praise but also envy their passion. As once we were, so many of you are now. Welcome.
"Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I think
Oh bondage up yours!
One, two, three, four!"
– X-Ray Spex, "Oh! Bondage Up Yours!"
The young, renegade, arrogant, unholy, sainted, and blessed, the punks, folk farmers, hard rockers, poets, players, musicians, and preachers: All own rock in their different ways. It is theirs.
This piece is only reporting; they don't need any of us to knight them, vote them in, or grant them privileges. They own the music and the life.
There are factions and generations: There are those driven by anger, others by love, some by madness, and some by calculating sanity. The scene thrives in a subtle chaos. Various entrenched interests keep the energy flowing, often most brilliantly during times of outrage and conflict.
On the other hand, the veterans are often people who lead with their passions. Most have done so all their lives, so feeling different or out of place has been more common than strange, more the day-to-day than unexpected.
They know that often virtue is not rewarded but also that neither are the rewards for vice guaranteed. They've seen the meek who inherited nothing as well as those who achieved more than they ever would have expected from themselves. Yes, egotistic blowhards have done well, but by no means all of them, while there are those who succeeded by hard work and dedication. Following one's passions is the only way to go, but it is a journey without guarantees.
Austin's older generations have formed bands and started businesses – launching publications, producing shows, birthing indie record labels, championing the most ignored and often marginal kinds of music, art, and film – and helped fund all kinds of creative voyages.
There have been artists many believed in who soared and others who burned out. People have discovered that some of those they thought their best friends weren't really even friends at all, and many trusted those who shouldn't have been trusted. But just as often, someone has reached out a helping hand unexpectedly or given support when not asked. The number of survivors, those who keep riding in the great cultural crusades, shrinks. Every loss is a significant one, but here in Austin the community still keeps on, because along with losses there are gains.
Most of us, regardless of age, are doing what we do because we love it. In many cases, we really wouldn't know what else to do. For a long time now, we've known that the only reasonable goal is personal satisfaction. Despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, many of us are not just waiting for a rebirth of wonder but have experienced such resurrections over and over again during the years. The journey, never direct, just as often satisfying as it is hard, is in and of itself the reward.