The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades
Barbara Kooyman leverages Timbuk 3 for Texamericana.org
On a warm May day in 2001, Barbara Kooyman folded a Timbuk 3 T-shirt and laid it to rest at the bottom of a cardboard box. Atop it she packed a number of other artifacts from her life as the distaff half of Austin's Grammy-nominated Eighties duo posters, paperwork, press, band paraphernalia, much of it having to do with the band's signature song from 1986, "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades." When the box was full, she sealed it and stacked it alongside the numerous other boxes of memories.
The gesture wasn't merely symbolic. She loaded the boxes into her car and drove from her Central Austin house to a storage shed she'd rented to house the cardboard containers representing 13 years of her life. It took only a few minutes to store the boxes, which she left neatly accessible for the next time she needed what was inside. Only Kooyman had no intention of ever opening the boxes again.
"I put them in a storage shed, locked it with a dead bolt, and gave the key to Pat," she explains, referring to her ex-husband and former Timbuk 3 partner. "I don't know what became of them."
A couple of years later, Kooyman was in rural Germany, living on a mountain with her boyfriend. During one of her regular journeys between the three villages at these higher altitudes, she pondered an idea that had been bouncing around in her head. She'd heard that Congress was cutting funding to National Public Radio, and given how important NPR and nonprofit radio stations were to her career, the seed was planted: There must be a way to free these stations from the chains of U.S. government funding.
It was one of those remarkably clear days, more so standing on the mountain and gazing miles across the ancient landscape along the Rhine. Suddenly, the idea wasn't bouncing any longer. It had shape and form and substance. She clutched the basket she carried on her walks and ran home.
Things Are Going Great
The title was a fluke, something Kooyman joked about in a van with the other musicians in Timbuk 3. Things were going great in Madison, Wis., during the early Eighties when she and Pat MacDonald met at college, married, started a band and then a family. Their first EP was coming out, and the gig calendar started to fill up. The couple had set their sights on moving south and had much to look forward to.
"'Oh, the future's so bright, we'll have to wear sunglasses!'" Kooyman teased. "Pat heard me say it, but he heard it with irony so he wrote down, 'The future's so bright I gotta wear shades.'"
That was it. MacDonald kept the phrase and shaped it into a song. The smiley-face title belied the anything-but-sunny lyrics that spun the tale of a youthful nuclear scientist and his monied future. And the song was a hit. No, not just a hit, but an anthem for the Eighties, a decade just beginning to shrug off its New Wave perm and sell punk rock to Madison Avenue. "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" was a brilliant ditty: simple, irresistible. Those who bothered to listen to the lyrics seemed unfazed by the dire forecast. Most fans just wanted to don sunglasses and dance to the music.
Timbuk 3 was hardly a band to generate dance hits. Their appearance alone set them apart. The husband-and-wife team augmented their spare sound of guitars and harmonica with a boom box, not as a gimmick, but as a way to keep the rhythm tracks alive while their music moved with them from one location to the other.
"We didn't want to sacrifice the beat or the groove so we created a way to use the bass and drums and arranged them for boom box," reasons Kooyman. "It wasn't that we wanted to play with a boom box, it was just part of our band in transition, keeping our artistic integrity, our survival technique in a new place."
"Future's So Bright" bore a sound and beat that could have flowed from any number of continental music wellsprings, yet MacDonald and Kooyman chose Austin over New Orleans as their new home at one of the most auspicious times possible. River City's "New Sincerity" years were upon the capital city, well-documented by MTV's Cutting Edge episode that ran in 1986.
The show introduced the world to modern Austin music on the order of the Reivers, Daniel Johnston, Glass Eye, Dino Lee & the White Trash Revue, and the True Believers, among others. It also presented Timbuk 3, who got signed to IRS Records as a result of the show, and the label included "Future's So Bright" on a compilation cassette. The song was singled out by two Dallas radio stations and quickly picked up by others.
"The song became an instant hit on the radio," Kooyman recalls. "I don't think people listened to the lyrics. It sounds like everybody wants a future so bright they have to wear sunglasses. It was used in Head of the Class. I remember watching Chris Farley taking a pee on the side of the road to it, Christian Slater dancing to it in his underwear so many movies it got in. I can't tell you how many high schools and graduating classes used it as their theme song!"
The Timbuk 3 rollercoaster ride was still clicking uphill with the single's release on their '86 debut album Greetings From Timbuk 3. The band was featured in Dennis Quaid's Austin-filmed D.O.A. and on Saturday Night Live. Their music was smart and sly, and subreferenced in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic. They recorded an Austin City Limits segment and were nominated for a Grammy. They were Timbuk 3, and they could do no wrong.
Except fail to make another "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades."
Life Is Hard
The end did not come quickly. Timbuk 3's subsequent output was uniformly excellent, Eden Alley ('88), Edge of Allegiance ('89), and Big Shot in the Dark ('91), each reiterating the genius behind their man/woman-plus-boom-box sound.
MacDonald wrote the bulk of the songs, but Kooyman's credits are attached to some of their best work, such as "Life Is Hard." "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" was their hit calling card, but it overshadowed better work, such as "Standard White Jesus," which is notable not only as arguably their best song but also because Kooyman's understated presence carries it. By the time of their final recording, 1995's A Hundred Lovers, they were a full band near death.
No consensus heralded Timbuk 3's final performance, no posters for the big buh-bye. Just a quiet slip into darkness Kooyman regards with guarded distance.
"We were a family with a child, and we had a band. If there was difficulty in one area, it had repercussions in other areas. In 1995, we played our last show. We'd stopped touring, and I didn't know it would be our last show, but it did feel like, 'Let's just stop and pursue other things.'"
Kooyman remembers that when the band started falling apart their material took on a darker quality. "I felt so sad," she says now, "like being pulled into something I wasn't comfortable with. Because of my involvement in child-rearing and family life, I wasn't contributing to the writing the way Pat was so I couldn't counter the direction of the music. It kept feeling heavier and sadder until I started questioning my involvement.
"Pat started getting opportunities to co-write with other people, and he enjoyed that so we started playing less. That allowed me to stay home and work in the studio. And to get our son the attention he needed. If both parents are on tour, the attention required is not being supplied. It was important that he be looked after right."
Divorce followed the band split. Kooyman continued to perform, working with longtime drummer Wally Ingram and David Lindley. She wrote with Sara Hickman and produced CDs for Austin's Sleepwalkers and Wammo. She released Ready in 2000, a fine album she didn't promote through touring. Nevertheless, Ready did as the title promised and showcased Kooyman's sharpened writing and singing talents.
The personal benefit of those years spent raising her son Devin was that Kooyman had the time to consider her life. Fame swept out as quickly as it rushed in and left her with a musical legacy of the most interesting sort: the one-hit wonder. She'd always been spiritually conscientious, and her experience with the band now left her musically aware, too. "Future's So Bright" continued its poppy appeal, sometimes to her amusement.
"A song like 'Future's So Bright' is the culmination of your work, your art. You have no control over how it's interpreted. It's like children and nonprofit organizations," she philosophizes wryly. "Once they're out there, they're no longer yours."
Devin MacDonald graduated high school in the class of 2001, May. She put her house on the market that month after clearing out the bulk of her possessions and putting others in storage. It sold that summer, and she bought a place of her own just outside Austin, where she could live, meditate, record, relax, and think about ways to pay back a world that had been very kind to her.
Cold Calls and Warm Coffee
"The original idea came on what I call my 'Three-Village Walk.'"
Kooyman gets almost giddy when she speaks of her life in Germany. She met Wolfgang Pracht after a lengthy e-mail/phone call correspondence that caused her son no small amount of concerned frustration. The relationship was instantaneous, and the two began the back and forth between Germany and Texas. Yet even in the midst of an idyllic lifestyle, she found herself thinking about music and the state of radio in the U.S., especially the government and publicly sponsored stations.
"The vision started unfolding as I was walking through these villages. What if the profit from the sales of music CDs could profit nonprofit organizations and fund nonprofit radio? Where the artists get paid their royalties, the mechanicals paid for the songwriter royalties, and the manufacturer costs are paid, something goes to the record label, and all those fees imbedded in the wholesale price. And what if the profits went to nonprofit radio? How could that work?"
She bounced the idea off Pracht, who responded positively and with guidance. They contacted a Web-designer friend, Ben Bright, and posed a theoretical question about how someone could buy a CD and make a donation via Web sales. Bright showed them how it could be done. Kooyman continued to develop the idea until it became manageable.
The idea was to create a new source of funding for listener-sponsored radio. To do that, she created a record company called Sparrows Wheel. But Sparrows Wheel needed product, so on July 4, 2005, Kooyman recorded what became Undercover: The Songs of Timbuk 3.
"Did I enjoy recording the songs of Timbuk 3 for Undercover? You bet I did. I had to learn them over because originally I'd played the second guitar and sang harmonies. They had been my life for so long, and I did them as they were never done by Timbuk 3. And I did them because I wanted to connect my real name, Barbara Kooyman, with Timbuk 3 and the most beautiful music I could pull out of my soul."
Undercover: The Songs of Timbuk 3 was her first deliberate use of the band name, a test of its name recognition. It was a smart move because Sparrows Wheel didn't quite fly.
"We didn't sell records, we had no marketing budget, no advertising budget," she sighs. "Just good intentions and a CD that got a bit of airplay and sold in 15 states. After putting almost everything into the record company, we realized the drawbacks, we realized our successes, and I realized it wouldn't work. It wasn't really the dark night of the soul, but when faced with failure, you have to dig deep if you still believe.
"I paced in circles in my front yard, talking to Wolf for hours, to Ben, ready to cry but not wanting to let go, knowing it needed to happen. What does it take to support people who are doing really good work in this time of dwindling support from the government and the downward turn of economic security?"
The challenge dogged her that night and exhausted her the following day. Too tired to do anything, she lay down that afternoon for a short nap.
"Then I sat up, and there was a word in my head. The word was 'Texamericana.' I remember going, 'Texamericana?' What if that's the way to do this for any artist or any label? Not just Sparrows Wheel, but what if that became the way to do it together? Would it work? The answer was, it would have to be a record store an online record store. I didn't want to do that, but that's what I had to do with it. It couldn't be anything else. It couldn't be a label."
Kooyman started the Texamericana.org Web site. She studied marketing plans, accounting systems, sales tax, and corporate structure, not things necessarily conducive to being an artist, but paramount to keeping a business going. She invested her savings and when those dwindled, she reached out for support.
"I had the Timbuk 3 name to drop, that 15 minutes of fame to cash in on as if it were an account I could withdraw from," she acknowledges. "I don't mind using that name to help achieve things that are really important. 'Will you talk to me? No? Will you talk to me if I'm Barbara K from Timbuk 3? Yes? Then this is who I am, and this is what I'm doing. What do you think of that?'
"My days are filled with cold calls and warm coffee."
Kooyman began the informal Texamericana Social Hour at Threadgill's last spring, which developed into a current Tuesday evening residency. The support from her friends and peers came immediately and continues to spread but not without occasional hitches. Sara Hickman consigned her CDs to Texamericana, but Lucinda Williams' label declined. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel joined the cause however, as did Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Shocked, and nearly three dozen other artists. After SXSW 2007, Kooyman will have corralled even more.
"Texamericana is based on giving away 100% of the projected proceeds to things that will make your grandmother smile," grins Kooyman. "It protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press by supporting listener-sponsored radio. It relieves social insecurity by contributing to a community organization that feeds the hungry or houses the homeless. It supports environmental integrity which will give all of us a livable, breathable planet."
The Power of Music
Kooyman imagines a crystal ball. The future's a little cloudy, but that's a matter of wiping fingerprints off the surface and peering a little closer. When she speaks, it's almost as if she's channeling herself five years down the way.
"Texamericana is successfully operating its online store," she projects. "It's selling CDs, books, and maybe some other things. It's funding nonprofit radio stations, community service organizations, environmental organizations. The Texamericana Radio Hour features artists who've placed their CDs in the store so they can be played on radio without the stations having to say 'we need money.' People in the community doing community work are the unsung heroes financially supported from the profits raised from the sales of Texamericana.
"I see a touring Texamericana travelogue: fans and artists and painters and poets on tour together supported by Texamericana. Cultural and musical diversity while turning the profits right back into the community, where the money was spent in the first place. Wouldn't that be nice?
"Some folks still believe in the power of music."