Do the Right Thing
Call me Commissioner
Early in December and without a great deal of fanfare, I was appointed to the Austin Music Commission.
This came on the heels of serving as one of five behind-the-scenesters on the Austin Music Memorial committee, which posthumously nominates Texas musicians for engraved discs at the Long Center's City Terrace. Whatever respectability this perhaps suggests feels almost fraudulent. I'm fairly certain that at some point a whistleblower will point out my lack of high school diploma, absence of college education, misfit personality, and degree in slacking, then rightfully demand I step down.
Yet the opportunity to engage in civic service is compelling. No question that the changes of 2009 affected me, much like it did KGSR architect and on-air personality/manager Jody Denberg, who admits that the sudden death in October of Health Alliance for Austin Musicians co-founder Robin Shivers at the age of 53 shook him to his soul and provoked his unexpected exodus from local airwaves.
Shivers' passing, followed so quickly by the death of Bill Narum, just about did me in. It's been a hideous roll call of death since January, friends passing in record numbers. Mr. Bones isn't content with a nudge of the scythe in the ribs; he's bitch-slapping us left and right. Into that emotional void echoed the call of the Music Commission.
I've always believed that I was extraordinarily fortunate to have fallen in with people like Narum and Denberg, a group of thinkers and doers who make things happen in this town. That's one of Austin's most unusual traits, the ability to not just nurture groups of like-minded people into action but to sustain them. Many of you reading the paper think of my editor, Louis Black, and publisher, Nick Barbaro, as establishment crossovers and figureheads of the Chronicle and South by Southwest. I think of them in terms of fart jokes and spontaneous trips to Laredo after work on Fridays, though I confess it's been a while since either occurred.
Which again brings me to feeling like a fraud for being on the Music Commission. Except for one thing: I deeply love the music made in Austin.
I care so little for new national acts (with plenty of exceptions) that I struggle every year to complete the Chronicle's national Top 10s. And yet I could make five completely separate lists of top local releases. My pride about Austin music is so distinct it could be chauvinistic.
Maybe that's why the shake-up at KUT wounded me the way it did. I noticed it most acutely on a Wednesday night a few weeks ago, the day that the news of Narum's death chilled a large segment of this community. Had it been a year ago, I know what would have happened: His friends would have wandered over to KUT where Larry Monroe would have been on the air playing ZZ Top. Monroe would have brought us in, an ersatz minister overseeing a spontaneous mourning.
As it happened, the station put together a moving tribute to Narum several days later. It was lovely and meaningful, yet with all due respect, it did not come from the trusted KUT voice that Monroe has been for so many years. I can recall that booth at KUT filled on numerous occasions by Austinites who badly needed the community consolation KUT provided, like when Walter Hyatt died. I remember sitting across from Cleve Hattersley the night Mambo John Treanor died and handing the microphone over to him because I was too choked up to speak.
Even more emblematic, when Doug Sahm died, I was in such a state of shock that I sort of stumbled over to Monroe's show that night because I knew he'd be doing the right thing. He let me sit teary-eyed in the control room when Ernie Durawa walked in, his face frozen in pain over the loss of his childhood buddy. Monroe played the soundtrack to our grief, and I held Durawa as he wept. As we sat silent but for sniffles and the shuffling of CDs, the door opened and in walked Louis Black, Jody Denberg, and Raoul Hernandez.
And that, my friends, might have been a penultimate moment of recognition about why KUT has been so important to me and my life, and subsequently why Austin is so meaningful. Seeing the program director of a competing station walk into KUT under such terrible circumstances was stunning in its meaning to me. I've thought long and hard about that November evening 10 years ago. I've loved KUT for the authenticity of its voices, the sense that any of the deejays could speak with authority about Austin, music, and about the world for that matter. I gave money to KUT this last fund drive not because of what's transpired but because I trust and have faith that they will do the right thing and listen to the voices of the audience who really care.
Which brings me back to the Austin Music Commission and what it does. I had to look this up because I'm one of those armchair blowhards with a general opinion about governmental process that may or may not relate to actual issues. According to the city's website, the appointed members, "Advise city council on music development issues. Duties are advisory and include: studying the development of the music industry, assisting in the implementation of programs to meet the needs created by the development of the industry; and review matters that may affect the music industry in Austin."
In other words, talking, discussing – brainstorming.
That had been my experience on the Austin Music Memorial committee, which culminated in a unanimous vote on the 10-name installation at the Long Center. In all cases, the actual presentation of honors provided more extensive documentation and testimonials that made for even more compelling cases. For a history geek with a love of genealogy and a passion for music, this was heaven with a 512 area code. It gave me new appreciation for the time I've spent in Austin since 1973.
When the invitation came to serve on the commission, it was accompanied by an insistent banging at the door, opportunity demanding entrance. That I could take 36-plus years of night-clubbing in barbecue joints, Mexican food restaurants, biker bars, honky-tonks, former National Guard armories, converted gas stations outside town, and even respectable rooms, plus more nights on the road than I can remember, let alone count, and put them to practical use was an extraordinary concept. That I could take the time spent hanging out, collecting cover charges and checking stamps at the door, making posters, standing in line, selling merchandise, fetching band drinks, and looking for parking spaces and use it all to inform my decisions was almost too good to be true. That if I believe passionately in the future of Austin's young musicians, I could make a difference.
That difference will come in issues the Austin Music Commission tackles and on which it advises the City Council. This year it convened the Live Music Task Force to deal with thorny sound ordinance issues, met with the Fire Department to review city ordinances related to public assembly and temporary use, worked with CreateAustin, and oversaw the Music Memorial selections.
Much is left on the table, including the quality of life for musicians, live music venue issues, working with other commissions such as the Downtown Commission and the Arts Commission, Waller Creek questions, and yes, even street busking, an activity that can be traced back centuries. Is an open guitar case panhandling? No? What about an open guitar case with a CD for sale? Does it matter?
It matters to the extent that music has saved my life many times over. Writing about music saved me much the same way, and gave me a voice I didn't know I had. Music amplified the good times, redeemed the bad times, and put together an unforgettable soundtrack to 331/³ years of documenting the town whose music I so love.
Now it's time to listen to the voices of others who have also been saved – and/or just plain care – and do the right thing.