Page Two: Let Us Pray and Play Guitar
The revolution is ongoing, the revolution is daily
Back in the mid-Eighties when Michael Corcoran as the Chronicle's regular music columnist owned Austin music writing, he was more interested in alienating as many musicians and readers as possible than he now is in accumulating clicks. God bless the thread of posts therein the tail that flies all current kites. Finally embracing film, as how could one not if trying to be culturally current in Austin today, he was once quite dismissive. Arguing that each night of live music was like a movie shown once that you could never see again.
There is plenty of room in one's life for both kinds of movies – in my life for all kinds of movies – but I always thought that was an unusually eloquent description.
Had begun thinking of really transcendent music events in my life when recently the Austin History Center posted the Austin Music Network's footage of Johnny Cash performing at Emo's for SXSW in 1994.
Not just a memorable show but a truly transformative experience. Looking to reinvent himself, Cash collaborated with Rick Rubin for a new visionary but evolutionary sound. One of the places he chose to debut this was SXSW. It was truly a coming of age for the event.
Brent Grulke had reached out to Eddie Vedder about something to do with SXSW. Much to his surprise Vedder responded. They had a long telephone chat. At the end Vedder asked Grulke if he could ask one question. "Of course," Grulke responded.
"Is it true Johnny Cash is playing at Emo's?"
Before the show I had dinner with Linda Parks and her friend Sylvia Reed, by then divorced from Lou. Afterward we went to Emo's. Quite ironically in the club I ran into an unusually ebullient (perhaps a word never used in association with him) Sterling Morrison. Who blamed the failure of the Velvet Underground reunion on Lou and Sylvia. Didn't mention I had just been with her. Ever since Ondine had stayed at our house while CinemaTexas showed Chelsea Girls, Sterling had been so very friendly. Never friendlier than that night. He was so excited to be seeing Johnny Cash. And seeing him in a small club.
We had a wonderful chat. It was the last time I saw Sterling alive.
To this day Roland Swenson, SXSW's visionary managing director, reminds the staff many times before the event that SXSW is not for us. Our job is to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible, not to actually attend SXSW events. At Emo's much of the staff was there to hear Johnny Cash. I was. As was Roland. Johnny Cash was brilliant. (Look it up on YouTube – "Johnny Cash Live at Emo's, March 17, 1994.")
Why does a great performance provide such succor? What is its exact electricity? Why does it not just bathe but purify our souls in some Jungian ritual of history, community, and transcendence?
The weight of knowing of the oppressed and persecuted around the world too often becomes almost overwhelming. The young are angry, as we were once young and angry. They lecture us as we once lectured our elders. They think not another minute can go by before these issues must be addressed.
We were once so impatient. We waited for the great change. But the vision of the big revolution grew to seem silly.
It wasn't that the fire died. It just never raged as brightly as early on, reality chastened possibility.
There is a struggle against darkness. There is a struggle toward light. It is a lifelong struggle. It never gets easier. Nor does it end. At some point it stops getting harder. It becomes as breathing.
I believe in basic human decency. In social and economic justice, in an empowered electorate. In expanding the vote not shrinking the vote. In a coming together not a breaking apart.
The burning of the light against the darkness is often the simplicity of human grace. Johnny Cash's voice coming from somewhere deep inside, weathered by all belief.
Too many people are trying so hard to take as much away from us as they can. Freedom, self-respect, electoral access, economic possibility, personal control. Often the ongoing drama of daily news makes it seem as though they are winning, that we are becoming less not more.
There is an ongoing resistance, one more militant than ever. It is belief, human imagination, daring, and aesthetic ambition. The moments of human grace remind us: The revolution is ongoing, the revolution is daily. It is about making love and not making war. Music saves, theatre redeems, movies help us make sense of our lives.
Ethan Hawke told me about when he interviewed Rosanne Cash – she reminded him that for all the stories about Johnny's wild living in the early days, mostly he read the Bible and played guitar.
Every day we are the resistance. We must outperform the forces of darkness. With song, art, word, action, dance, hope, and passion.
Let us pray and play guitar.