Monday, April 15, 2024

RIP Brent Grulke- a friend of music, a listener of life

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.

Brent was in London for the Olympics last week.

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.

Here’s an indepth interview with Brent Grulke from around 2000.

28 thoughts on “RIP Brent Grulke- a friend of music, a listener of life

  1. This is a unspeakably sad loss for, of course, Brent’s family. But is also a major blow to the community of Austin music lovers who called Brent friend. I just broke the news to our friend Alejandro Escovedo who told me Brent was the first one to ever record the True Believers (at Mike Alvarez’s studio). Amazing how someone like Brent – who wasn’t necessarily a musician – could have such an impact on music in so many ways. And thank you, Michael, for your wonderful words. They help us make a little bit of sense about a loss that seems senseless.

  2. Thank you Micheal for your loving and comforting tribute to Brent. I didn’t know Brent well mainly only through Kristen. I met Brent a few times when he brought Graham to his swim lessons. I will hold Brent and his sweet family in my heart during these sorrow filled days.
    Nora Martin

  3. Shocked….I’ve worked for SXSW for the past 11 years and one face I always saw every year was Brent. He was always nice to me and I loved to see him working on finding more bands to play. It will not be the same without him, but he’ll always be there in spirit. My thoughts are with the family during this time…surely will be missed.

  4. Thanks Michael. You captured a lot of what was amazing and wonderful about Brent. I remember loaning him a book on Vietnam’s history for one long tour he was about to go out on. As always he read the book AND brought it back AND we had quite a lovely discussion about it. I feel so bad for his family (including the SXSW/Chron family) and friends – this loss REALLY hurts.

  5. I’m so sorry to hear this, Corcoran. I know you were good friends for a long time and that you have so many great stories together. I hope those stories bring you some comfort.

  6. This is one of those things that you and only you could write, Corky – what a gift to give someone such a thorough and thoughtful farewell.

  7. Only you could have written this, Corky. And then some, I know. I feel for you and Louis and Roland and Mike and all who have known Brent since the early days. He was the best guy ever personally and professionally, totally in it for the music. You couldn’t have stated it better – that “a piece of Austin, a piece of us, has died.” I am especially saddened for Kristen. Comforting thoughts for all.

  8. Thank you for writing this. This basically captures the very essence of Brent. Words can’t even describe how much I miss him already. He is everything you spoke of and more.

  9. I started to think about how on earth SXSW is ever going to find anyone who could fill his shoes. I know they won’t. And that led me to the thought that it’s not too soon to begin considering a way to honor him in an enduring manner. Endow a UT scholarship in his name? An annual SXSW award to a non-musician or annual music event in his honor? Michael, I know you’re the guy who came up with the idea for SIMS. I’m sure this community can find an equally special way to honor Brent. I’ll have to leave it to those who knew him best to conceive a tribute that would honor his memory and his family in the most meaningful way, but I’ll be happy to help.

  10. Maybe SXSW should endow a fund to get a far-flung band here every year that wouldn’t otherwise be able to make it. Or create an annual grant to give to an artist (or here’s a radical thought: a member of the music community who’s not a musician) to spend a year or a few months getting to do something they love: traveling to music festivals, building a music library, kicking back and reading books, attending a class … whatever. Like those MacArthur genius grants. I would just love to think of something that can be more than a plaque; something that could be a living, regenerating memorial, something that could support musical creativity, perhaps by helping those who facilitate Austin’s music scene like he did.

  11. Brent also loved books more than just about anyone. And as that PE story shows, he was about so much more than just Austin bands or that classic period. My wife remembers him talking about going to catch Oneohtrix Point Never at Primavera last year (and sure enough they played SXSW this last time) and we were all over the moon at Pere Ubu that night too.

    When I came to the Chron office (the one near Dirty Martin’s) in September of ’90, I was nervous because you were my connection (through Marla Perlman) and had left. I also remember being like, “NO WAY, you’re married to Kathy McCarty!” (I had also met Glass Eye, and come to Austin in the first place, mostly because of visiting Marla one year earlier).

  12. What Jody said…. Brent’s passion for creativity and support for everything musical touched so many people in big and small ways. He encouraged me as a writer, I know. More stories of how he uplifted people and their passions will be coming out of the wood work. Just wait.

  13. I sent the news to folks associated with the band Zona Tango in Buenos Ares. Here is their response, which tells a lot about Brent’s influence on the lives of others.


    This made us so sad..
    We met Brent only 10 minutes while attending a Music International Fair here in Buenos Aires in September 2007. It was a breakfast meeting with all record labels. Of all music stands, he asked for our and began to talk to Pedro. He said “this is the kind of music I´m interested in, the new one” And then he came back to Austin and sent us the first invitation to SXSW 2008.
    He was really a nice man and a guy who supported good music no matter what. We will be allways grateful for the opportunity he gave us.
    And I don´t know if SXSW can be the same without him..

    And he was so young…
    Thanks for letting me know, Barbara.


  14. Jesus, this is such sad, sad news. Brent was a treasure to anyone who had the privilege of knowing him. My heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

  15. huge fucking bummer. he was a nice guy, a true music fan, and a raconteur. he will be missed by me and many many others who knew him, and probably a lot of people who never even met him.

  16. He was a beautiful, steady, supportive man, especially through the band years, and it is devastating that he’s gone. I have lived away from Austin for many years, but when back, I often ran into a smiling Brent. It seemed that he was always around, and I took it for granted that he would be around forever.

    What a tragic loss for all of us. Love you, Brent.

  17. Brent was always steady and calming, even when I once optimistically suggested organizing his office. That lasted for about ten minutes before he found something more productive for me to do. He understood music and music fandom in a way few people do.

  18. How MUCH this loss hurts.
    Brent and I were friends since back in the early ’80’s, and hooted and hollered along with all our other we’re-all-here-’cause-we-love-these-guys friends at just about every good band’s show in Austin at the Continental, The Beach, or wherever. (And most members of the audience were also in bands, or writing about them, or recording them, or contributing somehow. Ok, or maybe just asking to be on the guest list, but hey – they’d yell hard! Yeah, I’m talking about you, every band on Bands on the Block, et al!) He was smart, funny, sexy, goofy, and kind. We dated briefly for a spell in there (I’d had a crush on him forever!), and the friendship was just as great after as it was before. Brent was a good guy and a good friend.

    I’ve read several remembrances about how Brent respected and admired women; it’s very true.
    My heart goes out to Kristen and to their son, as well as to Brent’s brothers. I grieve with you, as does a huge portion of Austin and the music community at large.

  19. How very sad. I met Brent at that famous party house, we used to call it the House of Boys, when a friend of mine was dating him and I was dating Corcoran-Hi Michael-Brent was a lovely, lovely man and though I haven’t seen him for years , it appears he always remained that warm, funny, gentle person. That time I spent in Austin was magical and Brent Grulke was part of the magic.

  20. It’s hard to conjure up any words, except a big fat sigh of sadness. It’s funny you think you know someone, and then you find out SO much more about them and wish you just had one more chance to tell them how amazing they were and to be able to spend time talking about music, books, films, wine and so much more. I don’t know Kristin and Graham, but my heart breaks for them. Michael, thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute for a beautiful friend.

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