Why I Moved Back
Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be
I'd been a big "do-me queen" in Austin throughout the Nineties, waiting for things to change into something more to my liking. I realized that if I wasn't part of the solution, I was part of the problem.
For many years, I worked on lesbian visibility, or "making lesbianism as attractive as possible" which was my Two Nice Girls mission statement. Certainly media portrayals of lesbians have changed a great deal since then.
It must be possible for cynical and nostalgic old-timers like myself to fall in love with Austin all over again, despite (or because of) all the changes that have transpired. Rather than be upset that old cherished things are gone, I asked, what can I do to create what I want here?
My girlfriend and I came to visit an older friend in Austin in December of 1980. She lived in the building on Trinity that eventually became Chicago House. I was checking out the town to see if I could move here after graduation from high school. Supposedly Austin had a good music scene. Upon exiting I-35 onto Sixth Street and seeing all the drunken frat revelers, my first impression was that the whole town was like Sixth Street, crawling with intoxicated college kids. I figured that was what "It's a college town" meant and found that kind of scary.
Five months later, we moved here from Houston. I was 17. The cost of living was cheap. I lived in spaces back then that were $70-85 a month (shared by two). Lots of you have heard these stories. Plenty of you have lived these stories. By the time I got here, old timers were affectionately reminiscing about the really good and cheap times of the Seventies. Hell, I wish I could have lived here then too, but I was in high school.
Slowly but surely, I built circles of friends in the dyke scene, the hippie scene, and the punk scene. And those scenes were fabulously fun. Parties were plentiful, shows were brilliant.
Eventually, I got myself into a real band that actually played out in public, Meat Joy. We had an awesome practice space on Fifth & Red River. It's called Club Serendipity now. Back then, it was shared living and rehearsal space with the Buffalo Gals, a band that featured Kathy McCarty. The 1982 Chronicle Music Poll listed the "Buffalo Gals Warehouse" as a runner-up for best live music venue. I think its main claim to fame was that Husker Dü played there. Anyway, we paid wonderfully cheap rent and could play as loud as we wanted whenever we liked. We may have been poor in money but we were rich in space.
The amazing thing about the punk scene here in the early Eighties was how good-natured it was. An article in the Chronicle even talked about that ("What's Punk Now" by Jeff Whittington, August, 1982, Vol.1, No. 25). There was a mixed crowd in the pit slamdancing. People were passionate but polite as they ran into you. Jocks hadn't taken it over yet. In fact, the heavyweights of the scene were not big he-men à la Henry Rollins, they were big fags à la Gary Floyd. Being queer and being punk coincided neatly and pretty much without a hitch. As an aspiring musician I had plenty of brilliantly funny, smart, and sweet role models among the punks - until the musical stylings of California hardcore took over. Then the scene got a big testosterone injection and my interest in it went way down. But I really cherish the memories of some incredibly fun Big Boys, Dicks, Toxic Shock, Jitters, Butthole Surfers, among many other shows that took place at Studio 29 (now Texas French Bread), Esthers Pool, Skyline, etc....
The women's music scene was also very strong here. Benefits for Red River Women's Press or Word of Mouth women's theatre were always happening. EmmaJo's biggest draw was the incomparable Nancy Scott, not the incomparable Lucinda Williams. I remember being blown away by the vast number of hairy-legged sisters in rugby shorts at a benefit at Liberty Lunch starring Marcia Ball and Natalie Zoe. We had our own giant women's theatre and bar, Trans Act, on the corner of Sixth & San Jacinto. And the John Brown Anti-Klan committee kept us politicized. There were numerous lesbian bars, Austin Alternative and The Hollywood, but Chances was our cultural center. Chances was a lesbian bar with a big outdoor performance and volleyball space that eventually, organically welcomed straight men and women warmly. Not many towns can boast that. It was the site of a million hoot nights and plays and first and last dates over the course of its 11 year history. Chances filled a void that occurred in the mid-Eighties when no clubs were booking "punk" or "alternative." Chances was where I first saw Ed Hall.
There were other spaces, too: Voltaire's Basement, Club Foot, and the Ritz. Voltaire's was a performance space between Fourth, Fifth & Lavaca. (Now it is a copier toner place behind Ruta Maya.)
There was a very exciting vibe about Voltaire's, a sense that anything could happen up there onstage or in the audience. You produced your own show, and supplied your own door person; it was BYOB. Shows were promoted, amazingly enough, with Xeroxed, handmade flyers affixed to poles on the drag and downtown. There was no Fritz doing Motorblade. Shows were barely being listed in the Chronicle, much less the Statesman.
Not to appear overly nostalgic, but the scene had a very different feel to it then - like a large group of friends putting on shows for each other. The notion of being signed to a major label was pretty unfathomable. For the most part, people put out their LPs themselves. It was rare that a band had a press kit. Bands did indeed tour and get press and such, but the odds were pretty high that I would know everyone attending a Glass Eye record release party at Waterloo (back when it was down on South Lamar).
Upon the demise of Club Foot and the Ritz arose the Beach Cabaret (where Crown & Anchor is now). The Beach hosted a whole new era of music in Austin, dubbed "New Sincerity" by some journalist. The sound became more jangly and less punk. I didn't like it as much. But lots of people did. Austin music seemed to move into a new phase of increased respectability. Much ink was spilled chronicling it. Somewhere around this time, SXSW began.
By then, I was in the bands Two Nice Girls and Girls in the Nose. We gigged mostly at the Continental Club, the Cactus, and Chances. If there wasn't a "C" in the name of the venue, we weren't interested in playing there. Unless it was Liberty Lunch. Anyway, Corcoran had moved to town and everything was changing. There seemed to be a concerted effort to show the rest of the country what a great scene we had here in Austin.
Well, I'd say it worked. The campaign was successful, and now we have the fastest growing town in the U.S. this decade, next to Las Vegas.
It came to pass that space, which had once been so abundant, became a more precious commodity. I had lived in Clarksville because it was so cheap, then I'd moved to good ol' cheap Hyde Park. Eventually I moved to the Eastside in the late Eighties. But despite being blessed with a nose for finding cheap housing, the spaces got rattier and smaller as the years progressed. Things were definitely changing.
I became as self-righteous about my native Texan status as those xenophobes with the bumper stickers that were everywhere during the early Eighties proclaiming "If You ™ NY, Go Home." This new invasion of foreigners meant that it was harder to find a cheap rehearsal space and traffic got out of control. It seemed like summers just kept getting hotter and lasting longer. Our amazing lesbian bar, Chances, closed and to our surprise nothing appeared to take its place. I felt like the town had lost its center.
It used to be that all I needed culturally was within a few blocks of downtown and in journeys up to the Drag. But I hardly recognized these areas anymore. So many new businesses were opening up filled with so many strangers. And all those empty buildings for lease with Girton & McAllister signs on them just broke my heart. My town's soul was for sale - our history trampled in the mad influx of people who think it's so great here. The Austin Music Scene was now big business, with signs at the airport proclaiming that it was the Live Music Capital of the World. But you could no longer put a flyer on a pole to advertise your gig. The means of production had changed more than I could bear.
I found myself getting very bitter and small. All I could think about were the good old days. Eventually I couldn't stand my nostalgia any longer and decided to make the move to San Francisco. It would do me good to reside in a town that was famous for being expensive, cramped, and full of new people all the time. My move was a vision quest, an attempt at discovering how well I would thrive under demanding conditions. I no longer seemed to be doing very well under the easy conditions of Austin.
So I moved all my stuff to San Francisco in February, 1996. Their culture was exciting. There were road shows that do not usually come through Austin. The challenge was how to pay for all these great shows. I made pretty good money and my sixth sense regarding cheap housing was still working, but I found that I couldn't actually afford to go to all the road shows I wanted.
One of the things that had drawn me to San Francisco was its fantastic sense of style. People dress wildly and well there. I like that. However, in the local music scene I found it to be style over substance. Much to my chagrin, San Franciscans lacked the songwriting skills that I take completely for granted here in Austin. A band's show would begin and end with their fly polyester outfits. I was not lastingly affected by anyone's work. My poignancy buttons were not pushed. Plus, just try to get a San Francisco audience to be quiet and listen. They really only shut up for expensive shows where they've invested enough money to make it worth their while to pay attention. Perhaps that's unfairly harsh, but my disappointment was quite acute.
The "fan" aspect of my music appreciation was unfulfilled. I just wasn't a big fan of most of the local music. Being a love-struck fan is one of my favorite parts of belonging to a local scene. Getting that initial wave of enthusiasm for some performer who actually lives in my town who I could actually get to know is heaven to me. I need to be able to see bands I love grow and mature. That rarely happened to me in San Francisco.
One exception was the funky rock band Soul Divine with whom I became pals. But they alone were not enough to impart a sense of community to this girl who was lonely and longing for fun. Maybe 18 months is an unreasonably short amount of time to expect to get a sense of a town's scenes.
To their credit, a great thing about San Francisco is its racial diversity, which carries over nicely into its music scene. I could tell that there were tons of scenes I knew nothing about; I mostly explored the genres familiar to this white girl. There are some awesome things happening in hip-hop over in Oakland. I saw an amazing deejay competition that I don't think I would find myself at here.
And of course, the gay scene is huge. I worked on the design team of a giant boy bar that changed its intricate interior every week to a different theme. And there are lots of lesbians in SF but on the whole they're not really my type. Too young and tattooed. My type all live in Berkeley and Oakland. But I wasn't about to move there. Those two towns go to sleep at 10pm and they require crossing a bay to get to. Man, San Francisco traffic is bad. I didn't move to California just to move to its suburbs.
Eventually I longed for a little more passion than I was getting from the laid-back Californians. All the rallies I went to, be they Fight the Right or Gay Pride or Diana's Memorial, were too mellow for me. Not enough whooping and hollering. Too much relaxed strolling. It's amazing how laid-back they are given how crowded the damn town is.
It was too difficult to adjust to how crowded SF is. I'm from Texas, the land of wide-open spaces. It's tough living with so many bodies in so little square footage. Ultimately, it was this inescapable squishiness that convinced me to return to Texas. San Francisco is crowded. Not only that, everybody's stacked on top of each other like coffins in those newfangled filing cabinet mausoleum things. It's just not natural. I need to be able to let out a big wailing orgasm without worrying that one of my 15 roommates will hear. I find that concern inhibiting. My sex life suffered. And I can't have that. Lots of people have lots of loud sex in San Francisco, but I just couldn't manage it.
But these are just whiny complaints in the face of the real reason I left: My girlfriend with whom I have that sex lives here, as do my family and my closest friends. I missed everybody, plain and simple.
I want a sense of community. That sense of shared goals and values and definitions of fun. Feeling like a happy, vital part of a larger group is an unparalleled sensation. I used to feel that in Austin. Then it seemed like the scenes got dispersed. Okay, maybe I can focus on the concept of neighborhoods like there are in San Francisco. There, I lived in Bernal Heights, the Mission, and the Castro, which all have the distinct flavors. You can walk to places. As Austin continues to grow larger, perhaps our social radius will grow smaller. More and more shops and clubs open up all the time. Even now I can get just about everything I need here on my beloved Eastside and never have to cross the freeway.
On the subject of social radius, what about the house party? I want to resuscitate them. I'm sure they've never really gone away. My group of friends complain that there are no good clubs to hang out in. The house party allows you to control the music, the smoke factor, and also drink for a lot less money. At the very least, hosting a get-together is a great reason to do some cleaning up.
I envision a life in Austin filled with creative projects devoted to us getting closer to each other. We can be with each other in ways that don't involve paying money. Or paying very much. It's easy to produce video festivals around a theme like blaxploitation or horror films or - my favorite - women in prison movies. Or, how about jam sessions on the old front porch? We are lucky to have these porches. Lots of houses in San Francisco do not. Let's put them to use. There are talent shows, clothes swaps, kissing-bees, and slumber parties to organize as well.
Personally, my life goals are in a state of flux right now. My priorities have shifted away from wanting to be famous to wanting to be at peace. Now I'm less focused on getting "discovered" and more intent on establishing and maintaining a quality of life that substantiates how rich I truly am. Already. I want to be part of a community that feels as though we've got the best thing going in the world.
Before I moved away to San Francisco, I felt suffocated by my history here in Austin. Too many estranged ex-lovers and ex-bandmates and friends I'm no longer in contact with for a variety of reasons. But in SF, I eventually felt overwhelmed by my lack of history there. Now my Austin history feels comforting, rather than stifling.
The best way for me to appreciate Austin was to leave it. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. After living elsewhere, I understand better what I want my hometown to be like and how to make it that.
Gretchen Phillips was in Two Nice Girls, Girls in the Nose, and the Gretchen Phillips Xperience. Currently she is in Lord-Douglas-Walston-Phillips. Her SXSW showcase is Wednesday, 10pm at the Electric Lounge. She has written for The Village Voice, Curve magazine, and the liner notes for the Rhino collection Lesbian Favorites: Women Like Us.
This piece is excerpted from a longer pamphlet that can be ordered for $1 from PO Box 6085, Austin, TX 78762 if you so desire.