Page Two: A Column Where First We Ramble
Then we let others blow our horn. And with SXSW 2011 only weeks away, there's lots of horn blowing still to come.
dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level
underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bowbend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!"
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Windhover," 1877
As of the cover date of this issue of the Chronicle (Feb. 4, 2011), South by Southwest Film, Interactive, and Music 2011 are only five weeks away.
Sometimes, almost always when I'm working, wrapped up in one project though perhaps dallying with others along the way, I find myself awake for days on end; these are only slightly punctuated by short cat naps. There are other times, often in the following days, where I settle in for marathon sleeps, stretched over long periods. This is a sleep of dreams lightly fevered, as though of a dry heat rather than so sweat-inducing as to soak oneself wetter than would a bath. They lack the too-bright and harsh angles of adhesive, obsessive, repetitive dreams; the lighter the fever, the less suffocating the sleep is overall, the endless disconnected and disjointed dreams wrapped into one gentle, gigantic, yet flowing narrative.
But between the not-sleeping and the all-time sleeping, when one is not awake enough to work but not tired enough to sleep, is when I stalk my home as though trapped in a silent movie.
It is a time of rock & roll. And it is a time of stories. Trapped in a story without narrative, I strain to listen to the faint whispers telling other stories. Many of these are George Herriman-esque Krazy Kat landmarks in a life too often led in the wrong gear.
On Dec. 17, as last year wound toward its end, Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) died. I was never a great Beefheart fan, have to be honest about that, but for years I traveled through a landscape at least partially defined by him and his Magic Band.
When I visited friends in their college dorms, we'd be sitting around talking when a kid would emerge from some strange closet where he was living, just listening to Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica on headphones over and over. As he walked through the room, everyone teased him.
I also visited a commune in southern Vermont where everyone did his or her own thing. Keep in mind that commune folks back then often owned a self-righteous arrogance, a conviction that they were living the right way and were the only ones living such a way. Having rejected the dominant society, they were smug in the certainty of their superiority to everyone else. They took this self-satisfied air to such a staggering peak that they make our modern, similarly arrogant conspiracy hobbyists look, if not exactly humble, at least within phoning distance of reasonable.
On one of my visits, we were walking toward the back of the commune's property when one of them pointed out an oddly fallen tree, which was not a tree at all but a house whose resident even the rest of the commune regarded as strange. "All he does is listen to Captain Beefheart, all the time," it was explained.
Beefheart did a show at Boston University, with Ry Cooder's band opening, in January 1971. We ran into a group of our friends who had recently moved from Cleveland to Boston. They had prepared special chocolate peyote bars to eat during the show. Not only had they forgotten how bad peyote tasted, they didn't take into consideration that there would be long lines at the water fountains – lines they were in most of the show, as they kept needing more water to eat the chocolate bars and keep them down.
The stories might sound apocryphal or like fictions, but they aren't. That's just the way it often is with rock & roll stories – stories we tell and stories we hear.
The daylong, all-staff Saturday SXSW meetings begin this weekend, on Feb. 5, the final sign that the homestretch toward the event has been entered and there's no getting out now. Sweetly swinging into its 25th year, SXSW looms large in my life. Anything that any SXSW staffer has been planning on doing or needs to have done is now past due. The space between no sleep and too much sleep loses all familiar definition, as it becomes an imploded and exploded mass of stories.
Now, in speaking of SXSW and the Chronicle, often I've confused the whine and the story. Over time, it has become as though I'm in an early sitcom or an old two-reel comedy. People slap me upside my head and tell me to shut up. So now I shut up and listen to the stories others tell. Let them speak of South by Southwest.
"When John Grant first encountered Midlake at 2003's South By Southwest festival it was a meeting akin to Judy Garland's backstage run-in with James Mason in George Cukor's A Star Is Born, bright-eyed star(s) on the rise forging an emotional bond with the bleary-eyed star on the wane. Grant's band The Czars were heading towards acrimonious divorce, four fame-starved malcontents fronted by a hugely talented singer with a parade-stopping three-octave range, Grant was also, however, an artist crippled by self-doubt. Emerging from a damaged relationship and a black cloud of self-medication, he was convinced he was living an emotional lie, that people could hear a dark untruth scratching from within the bejewelled confines of The Czar's beautiful music.
"For a time the Hollywood narrative unfolded as expected. Grant gave up on music and started waiting on tables while Midlake rose from obscurity to become critical darlings with their dreamlike take on '70s soft rock. But, perhaps unexpectedly, Grant tagged along."
– From "Redemption Songs," by Andrew Male, MOJO, May 2010.
"BLURT: How did you begin working with Roky?
"WILL SHEFF: There was a writer for the Austin Chronicle who was a fan of Okkervil River and a longtime fan of Roky's. She thought it would be fun if we did a show with him at the Austin Music Awards in 2008. Roky loved it. He felt inspired and excited to have a younger band play with him, and we had a blast.
"Shortly after that, Roky's management approached me about producing a new record. I was hesitant. I didn't want to make one of those perfunctory late career records that exist just for a tour or get by on generalized goodwill, but aren't very good in and of themselves. I wanted it to be a worthy addition to the canon.
"Then they sent me the songs. There were 60 songs from throughout his career – stuff from The 13th Floor Elevators they never put out, stuff he wrote while he was incarcerated and some from his horror rock era in the 1970s. The songs were so powerful and moving and autobiographical. They presented a side of his writing I never knew was there. I felt they were some of the best songs he'd ever written."
– "Prodigal Return: Roky Erickson & Okkervil River," by Hal Bienstock, April 20, 2010 (www.blurt-online.com/features/view/603).
The writer from The Austin Chronicle is Margaret Moser, who is involved in Austin music in so many ways, not the least of which has been helping to produce the Austin Music Awards for its entire run. Her hooking up of Erickson and Okkervil River is not the first time she's shown such inspiration.
But when I talk of such stuff, people correctly fall asleep or fail to listen. So I've turned to reporting:
MOJO, January 2011, "The 50 Best Albums of 2010": 45) Roky Erickson & Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil; 1) John Grant, Queen of Denmark.
UNCUT, January 2011, "The 50 Best Albums": 35) Roky Erickson & Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil; 7) John Grant, Queen of Denmark.
Q, January 2011, "50 Albums of the Year": 6) John Grant, Queen of Denmark
The Word, January 2011, "10 Best CDs": John Grant, Queen of Denmark
The Austin Chronicle is in its 30th year of publishing. March will see the 25th annual SXSW. The University of Texas Press will publish:
The Austin Chronicle Music Anthology edited by Austin Powell and Doug Freeman will be released in February (336 pp., 115 color and black-and-white photos).
SXSW Scrapbook: People and Things That Went Before edited by Peter Blackstock and Jason Cohen in February (240 pp., 79 color and black-and-white photos).