The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Blues for Clifford

Men are remembered not for what they had, but for what they gave

By Michael King, May 26, 2006, News

"People in Austin are spoiled to so much good music, but when it comes to the blues, there aren't that many masters left." – Clifford Antone, 2001

I keep trying to get my earnest focus back on public school finance and the drearily official Capitol of Texas, but since last evening, my mind keeps wandering back to 1977 and my first visit to Clifford Antone's Home of the Blues, then on Sixth at Brazos. I'd been in Austin one week, with a new job at UT and looking for a home, but I couldn't leave town without hearing Junior Walker. Walker was on the disco-wave downstroke of a meteoric career, and he was hardly a household name in Texas – unlike back home, around Chicago, where every local band had to cover Junior Walker & the All Stars hits – but there wasn't a sweeter horn player on the planet. A couple dozen of us in the dark, comfortable club, listened, shouted, and danced through a hard-working set, waiting for that magical solo on "What Does It Take, to Win Your Love for Me?"

As the song says, Gonna blow now for you, Clifford. We don't miss our water 'til our wells run dry, and it's been a good long time since Antone's was the unquestioned emotional center of musical life in Austin. There were many more good nights downtown, scores more at the venue on Guadalupe – and blues reverberating in the now all-gone smaller clubs nearby, like magical ripples from Antone's pond. I even still remember with weird Austin pleasure impressing a visiting Chicagoan with an astonishing knocked-out retro night of James Brown's big band at that airless north Austin warehouse that served for a little while as the home-away-from-Home of the Blues. Where else could I have heard Brown from a front-row table, crammed in with a lot of other R&B lunatics, all of us screaming, "Please, please, please..."? Not even back home in Chicago.

It's been almost as long since I was a club regular – age, kids, and just life intervened. I can't say how much the younger folks appreciate that what we've long taken for granted as the "music capital" owes so much of its liveliness to the permanent, pervasive influence of Clifford Antone and his life-affirming dedication to the music he loved. The last time I saw him was at a premiere of Dan Karlok's documentary film about the club, and Clifford was as quietly surprised as always, thanking everybody for taking an interest in the music, shaking hands to one side of the stage, repeating, as always, that it was only about the music.

He was thanking us. I'm very happy to say I was lucky enough to shake Clifford Antone's hand and to remember to thank him too. I certainly didn't know it would be my very last chance.

Ars longa, vita brevis est.

On Another Planet

In between memorial radio blues, you may have heard Gov. Rick Perry this week congratulating himself, on the road to re-election, for "the largest tax cut in Texas history ... and more money for schools." If you think that sort of arithmetic wouldn't get you past the TAKS test, you'd be right on the money. As the governor and the Lege leadership tell it, the special session accomplished massive property tax cuts and increased the public school budget. The former is certainly true – that's been Perry's priority for four years – but the latter is essentially an evanescent consequence of a one-time budget "surplus" (that is, the money they refused last year to appropriate). The schools will get a one-time shot of fast money, hope that they can persuade local voters to endorse "enrichment" – wealthy districts will, poor districts can't – and the next Legislature will find itself swimming in red ink that can only be diluted by goosing sales taxes or slashing basic services.

The argument could be made that the only way to get school finance reform in Texas is first to cut property taxes, thereby returning the constitutional burden to the state, and the voters will soon learn that if the statewide school system is to be sustained, the state (i.e., public school taxes) must support it. Maybe so. But it seems equally likely that we are about to enter a long, deep drought for Texas schools, parallel to the reactionary turn in California (Prop. 13) that thoroughly devastated what had been the proudest and most effective school system in the country. Unless the parents of city schoolchildren – increasingly the minority/majority demographic that is the future of Texas – begin to vote in requisite numbers in their own interests to support public schools, it seems likely that the suburban conservative stranglehold on Texas politics will continue. In school finance terms, that means the rich get richer and the poor ... you know how it goes.

For an intelligent snapshot of what the latest school legislation will mean, in budgetary and in real terms, I suggest a visit to the Web site of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Not very well hidden in the legislative package is a requirement that the bulk of future business tax revenues be dedicated to "buy down" property taxes. According to the CPPP, the resulting budget shortfall, based on official revenue estimates (the fiscal notes to the school tax bills), will be $10.48 billion in 2008-2009. The following biennium, it will be $11.12 billion. Concludes CPPP: "This deficit will place tremendous pressure on the next state budget, which could cause severe budget cutbacks, an increase in the state sales tax or other state taxes, an expansion of gambling as a source of revenue, or all of the above."

So that's how you cut taxes and increase school funding. "Gov. Perry believes that the school finance reforms and property tax relief achieved by this legislature, are extraordinary and without precedent in Texas history," says the governor's campaign office, "and he wants to take that positive message directly to the people." Just don't try to teach it to your kids. end story

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