Brent Grulke was a music man. He bought tons of records and worked with bands and eventually rose through the ranks of South By Southwest to become creative director in the mid-’90s. The reason that 2,000 acts play SXSW every year, instead of a more manageable 700 or 800 is, in part, because Grulke just wanted more, more, more when it came to music. “Playing music is a noble calling,” he said at least once. It was a credo that guided him, professionally and leisurely.
Brent died Monday morning and the shock is still with those of us who knew his gentle soul. He was having oral surgery at the dentist office, a family friend told me, when he went into cardiac arrest. They worked on him for two hours, but he didn’t pull through. He leaves a lovely wife Kristen and a precious six-year-old son. And his brothers Brad and Brian, who were so proud of Brent for making a good living following a passion that didn’t pay shit in the early years.
Back around 1984, Grulke spent his last dollar co-producing an album called “Bands On the Block” that documented not only the so-called “New Sincerity” bands, but hardcore and power pop and whatever. He loved all kinds of music. I remember when the first Public Enemy record came out and he played it for everyone who was around. “This is going to change hip-hop forever,” he said. He was always on top of it and, as music editor of the Austin Chronicle in 1990-91, he guided a young group of up-and-comers that included Jason Cohen, now with Texas Monthly.
Although he wasn’t a musician, he co-wrote, with his best friend Mike Hall, one of the anthems of Austin in the mid-’80s: “I’m Sorry, I Can’t Rock You All Night Long.” He made an even bigger impact as a touring sound man for not only Hall’s Wild Seeds, but True Believers, Doctors Mob, the Reivers, even the Killer Bees. He mixed sound loud, but he was laid back until it was time not to be. I’ve seen him rip new assholes and once it was mine (witness: Jim DeRogatis) over something I wrote about a Sonic Youth appearance at SXSW. It took a lot to get Brent riled so when he blew up it seemed justified.
I was Brent’s roommate twice- here in Austin at the big party house across from Trudy’s on W. 30th Street circa ’86-’87 and then we moved together with Scott Anderson, the former Doctors Mob manager, to San Francisco in June 1988. That relocation proved to be short-lived. Not long after we hauled 80 crates of Brent’s LPs up three flights of stairs, they were coming back down and heading back to Austin. He couldn’t live without his records.
He also loved his baseball. Brent was so obsessed with the sport and its stats that we called him Abner, after the game’s inventor Mr. Doubleday. Being from the Houston suburb of Spring, he liked the Astros, and touring with the Reivers made him a Rangers fan, but Brent was so taken with the daily diamond action that he seemed to love every team. Once, we went to Candlestick Park where it was about 40 degrees and the scoreless pitching duel went well into extra innings. It was so cold and boring that Scott and I were begging Brent to let us go home, but he wasn’t going to miss the winning run.
The world’s largest and most prominent music conference, SXSW can be a stress factory for decision makers. But Grulke was always ready for a good, goofy laugh, even in early March. His easygoing personality helped make SXSW a friendly, music-first, type of industry juggernaut. Unflappable, ego-less, handsome and nerdy- that was Brent. Austin had a big crush on him.
During the ’80s, he had two looks: Jeff Daniels from “Terms of Endearment” and William Hurt. When he combed his hair back, off his forehead like Hurt, the women seemed to have a hard time swimming upstream and eventually flowed his way. But his secret to being a ladies man, one of his old girlfriends told me, was because he listened. He’d step over a gorgeous woman with nothing to say to talk to a gal in a “Howl” t-shirt eating peanut butter with her fingers. Brent loved conversation and one night walking by a sex shop in San Francisco, he went inside and paid $10 or $20 to talk to a near-naked woman behind a glass. He was in that booth a long time and when he finally came out, we pumped him for details. “She said she’d do more for more money,” he said, “but I just wanted to talk.”
There will be a lot of fond remembrances of Brent Grulke in the days to come and I can vouch for their sincerity. Grulke was a sweet guy who loved his family and friends. He wasn’t competitive by nature, and I don’t think he ever crossed someone who didn’t deserve it. It hasn’t all sunk in yet, but it’s going to suck when he’s not around anymore. He was kin to so many of us who felt like we arrived in paradise because music was always in the air. It feels like a piece of Austin, a piece of us, has died.
Noble songs seems in order. Now more than ever.