Dancing About Architecture

Ode To the Year Formerly Known as 1998

"Don't worry, I won't hurt U, I only want U 2 have some fun."

So opens Prince's well-known party anthem "1999," a song born to a destiny far beyond the post-disco dance floors of 1982, the year it was first released. In fact, its new incarnation in CD single reissue form recently arrived at the office with impeccable timing, acting as a reminder that it was indeed time to look ahead to that mysterious, penultimate year (or not, if you're one of those who reckon 2001 as the first year of the next millennium), as well as looking back on the 365 days we've just had in Austin's Music Universe (I think I'll start using that term instead of "music scene"; it sounds more presumptuous).

"I was dreamin' when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray.

But when I woke up this mornin', could've sworn it was Judgment Day.

The sky was all purple, there were people runnin' everywhere.

Tryin' 2 run from the destruction, U know I didn't even care. "

The above lyrics sound not unlike the situation in the office of Warner Bros. biggie Bob Merlis when I phone him to discuss the label's plans for the song of the year, as it were. "Never has the simple servicing of a seasonally appropriate song generated so much press attention," he sighs grandly. Clearly, I'm not the first to call regarding the matter, and I expect I won't be the last. Not that the calls weren't anticipated; at the time of the song's release, Merlis recalls, "We thought, 'Oh, man, this is coming back in 17 years!'" This year, as the not-quite-the-millennium approached, the label decided to get a jump on requests and service the song to radio stations and send out a few other promotional copies -- just to keep calls from procrastinating radio station PDs from
piling up in their voicemail boxes over the holidays. Beyond that and the stickering of relevant catalog albums, the effort to push Prince's 1999 throughout the next year, Merlis says, will be ... nada. Why bother with anything more? That's his and the label's feeling, since everybody in the civilized world already knows the song and it's currently available on no less than three currently in-print albums (1999 and both of Prince's large and small-sized greatest hits packages).

Of course, Merlis may be overestimating the intelligence of the average consumer of 1999, the year, not the album. He himself repeats a conversation with one reporter who opened with this humdinger: "You've just re-released Prince's song '1999.' Why now?" Merlis says he felt somewhat dizzy right about then and stared intently at his phone, wondering if it was working properly, before politely asking the newshound, "Do you have a calendar?" Merlis is looking forward to déjà vu all over again when 1999 comes to a close, since the song is actually more of an ode to that particular visit of the Baby New Year. After all, they say:

"2,000 zero zero party over, oops, out of time!

So 2night I'm gonna party like it's 1999!"

But getting back to 1998 -- it's certainly been an eventful one. The year saw continued friction between bands and police on Sixth Street regarding loading/parking statutes and between clubs and police over noise ordinances (though the latter has become a somewhat, er, quiet issue in the last few months). The controversial switching of the Austin Music Network from a public to a private venture saw more ink than I, for one, care to admit to, and the Austin Aqua Fest deciding to hold its water for relocation. There were also more openings and closings of live music clubs than you can count (notable exits include the Blue Flamingo and Hang 'em High, while new hot spots like the Spot and Purgatory Lounge have popped up), as well as major changes at others, like the booking policy at Babe's. The biggest volley in this year's musical game/set/match, however, has come in the last several weeks with the announcement that after years of playing bait and switch, the city has finally decided it wants the property Liberty Lunch is on. The upcoming months will see that drama play out, as the battle is far from over, but it will need your support, Live Music Capital of the World, so step up and let City Council hear you!

"We could all die any day

I don't wanna die, I'd rather dance my life away."

Music deaths were up this year, it seemed. I mean, when Tammy Wynette, Cozy Powell, and one of the guys from Milli Vanilli clock out within the space of a week, you start to wonder if there's some sort of conspiracy going on (especially since the very existence of Milli Vanilli was a conspiracy). Also assuming room temperature this year were Frank Sinatra, local punks like Glenn Taylor and Mike Chester, and even oddballs like the Mentors' El Duce -- run over by a train while wasted, no less! I haven't checked the Web site that gives out odds on celebrity deaths-in-the-making lately, but I'm sure we can look forward to a good number of our heroes joining the heavenly choir in 1999 as well.

Bandwise, there was only one word that needs saying this year -- Fastball. Sure, there were other occasional distractions, like when Junior Brown started performing with Jimi Hendrix drummer/sideman Buddy Miles, or Abra Moore started turning up in Visa ads (or Junior Brown again, in iced tea ads, for that matter), but one power trio (along with their guest keyboardist who had the mistaken notion that they were a quartet!) took Austin music onto the charts, onto radio, onto MTV, you name it. Most everyone else with notable news presented plenty of the negative variety, it seems: the Butthole Surfers' battles with Capitol and Touch & Go Records; local labels like Trance Syndicate giving up the ghost; Storyville and many other Austin acts breaking up -- and Vallejo managing to somehow garner most of the resultant attention); acts like Ian Moore and Sixpence None the Richer deciding to leave town altogether; and of course, hordes of acts including Sixteen Deluxe and Spoon losing their major-label status. There was a smattering of good news, like Hollywood Latin being formed by ex-Arista/Latin folks to take up the Tejano slack, and youth-oriented shows on various TV networks increasingly using Austin acts' recordings for soundtrack fodder, but overall it was Fastball, without a break, who continued to inspire all of us with their continued good fortune and the fact that there was precious little sign of the fame going to their heads. Then again, I'm excluding that horrid, "Look at me, I'm a rock star!" fur thing that Miles Zuniga was seen parading around town in during their last visit.

"I was dreamin' when I wrote this, so sue me if I go 2 fast.

But life is just a party and parties weren't meant 2 last.

War is all around us, my mind says prepare 2 fight.

So if I gotta die, I'm gonna listen 2 my body 2night."

Backing away from Austin for a minute, let me opine that the first thing this country -- and this planet -- has to be thankful for as we don't quite enter the new millennium is the fact that Bill Clinton is president -- for the moment, anyway. I mean, the idea of impeaching this guy is insane! As Bill Hicks was fond of noting, for 12 years this country has been run by conservative Christian men whose beliefs were such that Armageddon was a certainty by the year 2000, and what did we do but put them in a position, with their fingers on the button, to bring it about! (Saith Prince himself: "Can't run from Revelation, no!/Sing it 4 your nation, y'all!") Since President Clinton is clearly not capable of believing in anything that's not handling his button at that particular moment, he's proved himself as the only safe person to bring the White House and America into the 21st century in one, er, piece, and yet as I write these words, he's being impeached. What are we thinking?!?

"Listen 2 what I'm tryin' 2 say

Everybody, everybody say party!

Come on now, U say it -- Party!"

In Austin, we can give thanks that despite a shaky record industry, more and more local artists are finding ways to get their music heard. Judging from advances and press releases we already have piling up, you can expect to see new releases from Kelly Willis, the Damnations, and Monte Warden in the first quarter alone. South by Southwest continues to expand as well, with over 4,100 applications received this year for what Jon Dee Graham dubbed "The Festival of Broken Dreams; The one event that lets you know where you stand -- somewhere in front of Wammo and behind Exene."

"Dreamin' when U're singin', baby!

Say the telephone's a-ringin', mama, now!"

Yep, telephones (many of the cellular variety) are indeed ringing, and planes are flying and airports are moving and the city of Austin is growing in leaps and bounds. No one can tell how much of the town we know will still be here by the end of 1999, and how much of the place will have completely turned into "little L.A."

So, are urban blight, gang warfare, murder sprees, and smog to be the earmarks of the Austin of the future? We can only hope that by the end of 1999, the final line of Prince's song doesn't become the one we most identify with:

"Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?"

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More Dancing About Architecture
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The last installment of "Dancing About Architecture."

Ken Lieck, Jan. 3, 2003

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