Four high schools in four years and then released into a world I felt like I had no part in. Tried to find a home in Los Angeles and then upstate New York, but I kept coming back to Honolulu, a city where a tan meant more than ideas. No place else to go.
And then, at age 28, I found Austin, and for many years after that had to laugh when someone called Hawaii paradise.
The Austin segment of the Foo Fighters’ series Sonic Highways screened last night at Studio 6A, the original home of “Austin City Limits,” the night before it airs on HBO. After the episode ended to impressed applause and scattered standing ovations from the invited studio audience, head FF and Highways director Dave Grohl and “ACL” producer Terry Lickona, who plays a big part in the hour-long doc, sat in easy chairs onstage. They talked about Austin and the 8-part series and that big piano on the stage with them that had been played by Ray Charles, Tom Waits, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many other greats on Austin’s live music TV show that turned 40 this year.
Grohl recalled his first visit to Austin, as an 18-year old drummer for D.C. punk band Scream, and how he immediately felt “safe” here. Austin was an oasis on the road, a place to let loose creatively without the threat of redneck bullying. San Francisco-on-the-range, this college town was different than all the others out on the road because it was also the capital of the most diverse musical state in the union. New York and L.A. aren’t for everybody and so Austin became a different sort of musical Mecca. One that took money out of the equation.
“We just played Austin last night and you wouldn’t believe we were in Texas,” my friend Andrella, on the road with the Cramps, wrote me in a postcard around 1980. “Punks in mohawks, rockabilly kids, wild crowd, great show!” That was the note that put Austin in my mind’s map.
I arrived, as we all did, with the energy of exploration and the determination of making this fresh start count. This is a city that people have moved to since the ‘60s for the quality of stimulation. We came here because where we were just wasn’t doing it for us, and so the best icebreaker question in Austin is “what oppressive shithole are you from?” It’s notable, then, that the two standouts of Sonic Highways:Austin are native sons Gary Clark Jr. and Roky Erickson.
Austin, what can I do to preserve you?
Clark talks about growing up in far South Austin, unaware of the live music scene on the other side of the river, and then snapping at his friend since third grade Eve Monsees when she showed him the downtown clubs where blues, reggae, rock and jazz pushed out from doorways onto the streets. “Why did you keep all this from me?” the 14-year-old Clark asked. He was reborn.
The guitarist recalls when things started changing on the music scene, when the condos went up downtown and the cops started showing up with sound meters that measure noise, not music. “This is what we do here!” Clark says of the local music way of life in Sonic Highways’ pivotal scene. It doesn’t matter anymore that the music was here first.
The ambitious idea behind Sonic Highways, also the name of the Foo Fighters album which comes out Tuesday, is that the band recorded one song each in eight different American cities, filming footage for an hour documentary each week. They would learn as much about that city’s musical history as possible through interviews for the doc, record the backing tracks in a historically significant studio and then Grohl would write the lyrics based on lines from the interview transcripts. The other cities in the already- acclaimed series are Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville, Seattle, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.
The Austin song is “What Did I Do?/ God Is My Witness,” which is about falling in love with something that’s slipping away. “What did I do to deserve you?” Grohl sings at one point, setting up a marrow-melting solo from Clark Jr., who showed up at the session without a guitar and left with a brand new Gibson SG (“Take it,” Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear said to Clark. “It’ll never sound that way again.”) Later in the Beatle-like song Grohl asks “What can I do to preserve you?”
This is no allegory. This song is, in part, about the soul of Austin, Texas being priced out of the market. Ironically, the Austin segment is so galvanizing that we can expect new waves of unsatisfied citizens to move here in the months to come.
The hourlong spotlight is a great summation of what Austin music is all about, touching heavily on the Vaughan brothers, Willie Nelson, 13th Floor Elevators and Townes, as well as Antone’s, Raul’s, Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo. Can’t fit everyone in an hour and so there’s little to nothing on Sir Doug, the “new sincerity” guitar bands, Spoon, Alejandro, the Scabs or the current garage scene. This Sonic Highway, with the exception of Gary Clark Jr., ends at about 1982.
If all the good stuff happened here before you arrived, that’s your fault. But the Austin segment brings up some good points about holding onto the history. Studio 6A is hallowed ground. Taking that elevator up to the 6th Floor and then going down the hallway with all the iconic Scott Newton photos and then entering the 320-capacity studio, the years snapped back in tight nostalgic recoil. This is where some of our favorite memories were made.
But everything that happened in Studio 6A is preserved. On tape and digitally. The stuff’s that’s going away forever are the clubs. And then the musicians. The City of Austin hasn’t done much to either preserve or nurture the activity that gives Austin its slogan. Once Austin’s crown jewel, the music scene is now just another thing to dangle from the bracelet. The way of life: is it over?
After the screening, I went to the Broken Spoke on the rumor that Willie Nelson was going to play a secret set in honor of the club’s 50th anniversary. The place was crazy, like Mardi Gras at the OK Corral, with the crowd encroaching on couples dancing to Jesse Dayton and the string of musicians he called up- Scott Biram, Rosie Flores, Jesse Harris and so on. It felt more like the last night of the Spoke than an anniversary, but it was a blowout sans regret.
There’s no backstage at the Spoke, just “back there.” A door from the stage opens outside, and there were about 30 of us hanging out, smoking, passing around a bottle of hooch in a bag. There were a couple of writers and a few musicians and a guy in a Devo-esque electric cowboy suit, plus a couple of blonde drunken sweethearts to keep it interesting. You could hear the band pretty well back there and they were doing the Joe Maphis song “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” and it felt like the original honky tonk roadhouse that the Spoke is.
Willie never showed, but it didn’t matter.
Still glad I moved here 30 years ago. Still think about leaving every day. It’s not just the traffic, but the phoniness and pretense that permeate the whole nouveau city. But at times like last night, it feels like paradise again. Watch Sonic Highways tonight, then go out and hear some people sing and play. The magic may be harder to find, but you can always follow the music.