One, Two, Tres, Cuatro: I Got a Line on You
Of poles and polls
In 1976, I conducted my first interview for the Austin Sun naked in the bathroom of the Driskill Hotel. It wasn't until a few years ago that I even mentioned the naked part because it never occurred to me that was unusual.
The interview was with Randy California of Spirit, who was playing at the Armadillo, and the reason this is germane is because he would've turned 61 on Monday, Feb. 20, Presidents Day. I should probably say I searched Spotify for Spirit, but I went to YouTube instead, where I collected a few of my favorite Spirit videos and posted them on Facebook, complete with a comment about being on deadline and it being a good thing my editor wasn't on Facebook. [Editor's note: Yeah, good thing.] Spirit peeled out pure, shimmering, guitar-fueled rock in the Sixties and Seventies, and that was mostly because of Randy California.
First, let's agree that Spirit as a band was as great as the whole of its parts. That counted John Locke, Jay Ferguson, future Austinite Mark Andes, and Ed Cassidy, all equals in the overall equation. Cassidy was particularly notable as the bald jazz drummer who was also Randy's stepfather. This band rode the guitar plane of Randy California, a searing swoop of six strings that soared into the stratosphere a lot like ... well, a lot like Jimi Hendrix. And in a band of MTV-gorgeous men, Randy stood front and center with devilish eyes and a thousand-watt smile. Strap that guitar on his back, and he boarded the A-train to nirvana, guitar neck as automatic drive.
No surprise there. As a young guitar prodigy, Randy Wolfe started playing in 1966 with Hendrix in Jimmy James & the Blue Flames in New York. It was Hendrix who dubbed him "Randy California" after his native state and for a vision of rock that was golden and majestic. I saw Spirit numerous times over the years, starting in my teens. If you saw Spirit in San Antonio in 1969 and remember goofy teenage hippie girls dancing like tripped-out lunatics at the back of the Municipal Auditorium, I was among them.
Randy continued making music after the band split, but the core of his music remained entrenched in Spirit. He died tragically on January 2, 1997, at the age of 45 in Hawaii, drowned in the unforgiving undertow of Molokai after saving his 12-year-old son from the same fate.
My birthday miniset in Randy's memory included "I Got a Line on You," "Dark Eyed Woman," "Nature's Way," "Uncle Jack," "Mr. Skin," and "Fresh Garbage." For hours, I listened repeatedly to songs that once defined my day-to-day life, filled again in the soul with the righteousness of what good music feels like. If a rocket ship dose of rock & roll can't send you to the moon and make you remember what you love about the aural arts, pack it in.
By the way, I've been clothed for the rest of the interviews I've conducted over the years. Pretty much.
You Might Be a Ballot-Stuffer
This is Austin Music Poll crunch week, when the Top 10s give way to No. 1s and winner lists. Winner lists give way to the Austin Music Awards show schedule. From here on in, it's all about calls to winners and performing bands. These days, they are often one and the same.
Phone calls are far fewer than they used to be, however. Even email's been supplanted by a more insidious form of communicating with bands: Facebook.
The two major shifts since poll voting began have both been technology-driven. First, there was the year that computer ballots surpassed handwritten ballots in the early Nineties. That was an anticipated sea change, and changed voting patterns. It didn't change stuffing much but made it easier to detect. The second bump was around 2005, when votes spiked and I could tell a new force was driving voting: Myspace and social media.
These changes each took place at roughly 12-year intervals, a generation span by some accounts – first grade to graduation, for example, or birth to puberty. And each time, they signaled deeper changes within, the handing off of the proverbial torch. The early Nineties poll changes reflected more subtle changes, too, as CDs dominated tapes, which once trumped vinyl. That was when the poll changed from being a genuine popularity contest to a release-driven contest. Bands and performers who had a release out that year took over.
The social media switch was more visceral. Myspace, CD Baby, ReverbNation, and Facebook made it much easier to verify releases and personnel, and allowed bands the kinds of DIY and peer-to-peer access that's always best driven music: word of mouth.
This isn't a critical poll, and that's its Achilles' heel, at least to its detractors (yes, you, Michael Corcoran). Yet the votes have a funny way of balancing themselves out, the same way some categories shift according to trends.
Certain categories rarely change, and when they do, it indicates a deeper change in the scene. The radio categories are always a big indicator of change. Longtime poll-watchers will remember that KUT-FM dominated Best Radio Station for the first 10 years until KGSR-FM unseated it. Some categories outlive their usefulness, like the now-retired lounge category or Best Cassette Tape. In the early days of rap and hip-hop, there were so few entries that making a Top 5 could be challenging. Some current categories are badly undervoted; I'm talking to you, Best Metal Bands, Best Instrumental Bands, and Best Avant-Garde/Experimental Bands.
A few categories hold their allure, Best Guitarist and Best Female Vocalist, for example. Best New Band is guaranteed to be the most heavily stuffed category, year after year, without fail. Sometimes determining stuffing is a lot like Jeff Foxworthy's "You Might Be a Redneck" routine:
• You might be a ballot-stuffer if 200 mail-in ballots are written in Sharpie with the same postmark.
• You might be a ballot-stuffer if you garner hundreds of votes across a dozen categories but didn't play your first gig until the last week of the year and 45 people attended. (This happened.)
• You might be a ballot-stuffer if you enter "Your Mama" in every other category except the one you're trying to sway. Someone actually did that one year, so I made an awards plaque for my mama and presented it to her.
One category – and only one – has never been won by anyone else: Best Record Store for Waterloo Records. That category has seen a healthy resurgence of vinyl and platter shops in the last few years, but none with the remarkably vocal and loyal customer base of Waterloo.
And that right there is the guts of the poll, that hot dog you love to eat but don't want to know what goes into it.