Written before SXSW by Michael Corcoran
For most people who’ve even bothered to consider it, Austin music is Stevie Ray Vaughan, PBS’s Austin City Limits, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Willie Nelson, Joe “King” Carrasco, Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely. But then most people think New York City is only Manhattan.
If Thomas Wolfe were an Austinite now, he might write “only the dead know Poison 13.” Austin’s “other” musical boroughs may not attract huddles with Sly Stallone and Sam Shepard, as Stevie Ray has, and they’ll never co-headline with Frank Sinatra in Vegas, like Willie, but in the hot-and-cold world of day-to-day life they supply the best reasons to venture out into what literary homeboy O. Henry designated “the live music capital of the world.” Well, that was later. First he called Austin “the city with the violet crown.”
Unfortunately, no one except O. Henry has ever seen that violet crown. He must’ve had some good shit. Another thing nobody’s ever seen is Willie Nelson. We see his property — all sighted Austinites do, but never his own folky self, except onstage. It must be hard for Willie to go out in public even in his home town. He can’t put on a disguise; he already seems to be wearing one.
The rest of us eat, drink, sleep, and look for kicks in The Little Town With the Big Guest List, walking around in circles as if playing a big game of musical chairs. We know we’re OK so long as the music doesn’t stop.
Blues is still happening and country is still kicking, though now it’s a mere shadow of the late-‘70s monster it was when Austin was headquarters of the “progressive country movement,” a term that suggests Chick Corea in a cowboy hat. Also skateboarding downhill of late is the hardcore crowd, which lost considerable steam with the closings of first Raul’s and then Club Foot. The subsequent breakup of the beloved Big Boys really gave the sheep in wolves’ clothing something to whine about.
You’ll still find top-named third-world music at Liberty Lunch, trendy dancing at the many gay discos, and an incredibly popular Sixth Street of fern bars, glitzy clubs, and piano bars that entertain the gentry like a funkless Bourbon Street.
Amid this incredible overlay of music we have yet to note what is so quaintly referred to as “the scene.” The most noteworthy new development in Austin music is what former Skunk Jesse Sublett has dubbed “the New Sincerity.” Seeded by such influences as the Byrds, former Austin residents Rank and File, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, the Velvet Underground, and hometown hero Roky Erickson, and incubated at the Beach Cabaret with its open booking “policy,” this scene has the jaded, over-musicked townies and college students once again excited about going out. They return home only when the last glistening drop of activity has been squeezed from the night — speed is the drug of choice, as it is in most happening scenes — and music is merely the sound track to the action, which contains equal parts promiscuity, incest, alcohol, gossip, spirit, pettiness, conceit, and after-gig parties.
* * * *
Veronica loves True Believers, Wild Seeds, and Doctors’ Mob; likes Dharma Bums, and Glass Eye; hates Zeitgeist. Lesa loves Zeitgeist and Dharma Bums, likes Wild Seeds and Texas Instruments, thinks True Believers are so-so. Patrice loves True Believers, Zeitgeist, and Glass Eye and likes everyone else except Poison 13. Lorelei loves Stevie Ray Vaughan and thinks the scene her three roommates are into is “much to-do about nothing.” Veronica, Lesa, and Patrice hate Lorelei.
Home is a big, white, four-bedroom house on Rio Grande Street. Lesa knew Patrice, who was ready to move from her parents’ house after too many lectures after too many nights ended at 5 AM. Veronica found Lorelei scanning the “Roommates Wanted” board on campus and told her the deal: $187.50 a month, plus one-quarter of the utilities. She moved in the next day. That was four months ago, before the house was nicknamed “the House of Many Women.”
Lesa and Veronica knew a couple of guys from R.E.M. — the smart money’s on “in the biblical sense” — and when “the only band that mutters” was scheduled to play the City Coliseum, the girls decided to throw a post-concert party.
The word spread through the hangar-like 3,800-seat concert venue like the map opening credits of “Bonanza.” “Party at the House of Many Women. R.E.M.’s Supposed to show.” Despite a great set, the band was barely brought back out by a smattering of applause. Frequently, what appears to be an atypically laid-back Austin audience simply consists of restless scenesters waiting for the show to conclude and the party to commence. Even an encore sing-along which Austin usually takes to like a Kennedy to politics, fell flat. R.E.M. finally closed with a version of “Wild Thing,” which must have beat out “Louie, Louie” in a coin flip, and traffic was bumper all the way to Rio Grande Street. Music is fine, but a party? Now that’s something to celebrate.
Nobody brings anything to parties in Austin. If someone invites you to a barbecue, you might bring a 12-pack of Busch (or Budweiser, if you want to make a good impression), but at the big, no-invitation-needed, after-gig parties, everyone immediately heads for the keg and remains within a 10-foot radius until it foams empty.
It seemed that people from every faction, from every band, from every perch on the generous fringe were at the HOMW after R.E.M.’s show. But what else is new? The girls were in a great mood, except Lorelei, who watched the crowd get ugly when she followed Scratch Acid on the turntable with Joe “King” Carrasco. Lorelei retreated to her room, where she smoked a solo joint and played as much Joe “King” as she wanted, which turned out to be a song and a half. She heard voices in the hallway calling to “Dino” and suddenly perked up. Finally. The only guy she wanted to sleep with from this whole “crazy punk scene” had arrived. She licked her lips in the mirror, gave a curiously EST-like smile, and rejoined the party.
Lorelei was drawn to her first Dino Lee show after hearing her roommates talk about how gross he was. They described the strap-on dildo he called General Lee, the leather zipper mask he wore to sing love songs such as “Everybody Get Some (But Don’t Get Any on Ya),” his fat female backup singers, and the way he made girls in the audience eat raw meat.
Lorelei talked Spoons into taking her to the next Dino show. Spoons looked like a biker and fancied himself a modern Viking, but he’d never really make it. He drove a Toyota and looked both ways and dropped his voice a decibel when he called blacks “niggers.”
He loved Lorelei because she looked like Debra Winger playing a biker chick, and she made him feel like Hell’s Angel material when they were together. The Dino show was at the Doll House, a “titty bar” that makes it a suitable venue for “The King of White Trash.”
After a wait that would make a POW fidget, the six-foot-six-inch “Grandmaster Trash” materialized through a smoke screen with four strippers holding his leopard-print cape. To call Dino Lee “tacky” is to call David Berkowitz “moody.” Tacky is wearing a suit Lucy might’ve seen in her worst Ricky Ricardo nightmare, but what do you call a guy who garnishes it with a Skeletor mask and a grass skirt? To dress as Adolph Hitler is tacky, but when one masquerades as Der Führer in a bathrobe at a show celebrating one’s candidacy for mayor, that’s pushing things to the limit. Dino Lee is the Chuck Yeager of bad taste.
While Lorelei wandered off to discuss lava lamps, velvet paintings, Elvis’s Vegas years and methods of birth control with Dino Lee, Patrice’s room had become the scene of a hootenanny. Brian, a friend from Houston who wasn’t in a band but played like he should be, was coaxing blessed accompaniment out of an old Martin, joining five others in songs by Hank Williams, Violent Fernmes, the Mamas and the Papas, and improv blues numbers, which aren’t too tough because they’re slow and you get to use the first line twice. Nancy, with eyes transfixed on Brian’s knees, which peeked out from jeans that shoulda had Joey Ramone’s name on the label, remarked, “At least this beats Daniel Johnston.” Brian aborted the song in mid-strum. Lonesome Dave shot her a look that maimed. Patrice laughed, “God. Daniel Johnston. Doesn’t that poor guy know we’re all making fun of him?” Dave promised he wouldn’t get into this argument again. You can’t debate musical taste, but the all-knowingness in Patrice’s voice made him say, “I’m not making fun of him. I think he’s a great songwriter.” The quiet-until-now girl next to Nancy spoke up. “That’s not talent,” she said. “That’s a freak show.”
Girls just don’t understand Daniel Johnston. You almost have to be one of the last guys in P.E. to get hair on your balls to really appreciate his broken songs. He plays dork music and has acquired a covey of followers who appreciate his teetering Neil Young/ Mr. Rogers voice and nervous demeanor. He walks on-and-offstage briskly and usually plays only three or four songs that are normally greeted with wild applause — some genuine, some sarcastic, like cheering for the biggest spaz on the B-team when he finally scores a basket. Daniel doesn’t do encores under any circumstances; if you don’t believe it, ask the fellow backstage at the Beach who held open the window while Daniel crawled through it rather than face a crowd yelling for more.
Such adulation is a far cry from selling corndogs for a touring carnival, which brought Johnston to the Austin area from his home state of West Virginia in 1985. Appreciate him or not, he’s still the only person to perform on MTV (as part of “The Cutting Edge”‘s recent Austin special) while still working at McDonald’s. Much of his minimum wage goes to making copies of his cassettes, “Hi, How Are You” and “Keep Punching Joe,” which he hands out like business cards, refusing to take money for them.
In a town where everyone works hard to stand out, Daniel Johnston does it effortlessly. He’s uncalculatedly Warhol flat in a place where virtuosos are a nickle a half-dozen.
While Austin’s favorite controversy — Daniel Johnston, genius or gerbil — raged on in the designated folksinging nook, members of Doctors’ Mob had snuck their new album, “Headache Machine,” on the record player in the main room. When you go over to the group’s house, they play their record. As the Mob drummed their knees and strummed their pockets in time to the record they’ve heard a thousand times, one fellow musician remarked, “God wasn’t that pleased with himself when he created the world.”
“He had six days, we only had three,” was the typical Mob response. A good band of the Replacements/Hüsker Dü “play-‘em-all-and-let-the-soundman-sort-‘em-out” philosophy, the Mob endears itself to the scene through its unapologetic affinity for bad ’70s bands like Kiss and Ted Nugent, and by having created a new language based on such moronic teen flicks as “Hot Dog: The Movie” and “Porky’s Revenge.” They’ve made “I think he’s trying to back-door you, man” Austin’s “Where’s the beef?”
IRS Records’ recent foray into The Little Town With the Big Empty Dotted Line to film “The Cutting Edge” gave the Mob a chance to brush up on their Los Angelese. Posing as an A&R type at the post-filming party at the Beach, Mob singer Steve Collier went up to Brian Beattie of Glass Eye and said with mock sincerity, “I like what you guys are trying to do.”
Guests were circulating, getting drunk, and having a good time when a whisper with an exclamation point soared across the room: “They’re here.” Suddenly the flier near the front door, trumpeting a two-week-old gig that nobody went to, became of interest to six or seven people. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was outside, looking around as well-wishers reminded him of gigs they were at five years ago, and he couldn’t remember where R.E.M. was the day before.
Stipe was in the living room with a beer, letting Lesa feel his grown Kojak cut, when Steve Collier approached and handed him the Doctors’ Mob album. “We’re big fans of yours and we’d really be honored if you’d take this,” Collier said while bystanders waited for the joke; but there was none. Collier was sincere. Not wanting to carry the album around with him but not wanting to hurt Collier’s feelings either, Stipe thanked him for it and said, “Why don’t you put It on?” The groan was heard on the front lawn.
* * * *
Derelicts. Winos. Hobos. Bums. They call them “dragworms” in Austin because they hang Out on “the Drag,” Guadalupe Street, which separates the University of Texas from the real world. One of them walked into Salads and Subs wearing the official dragworm arm band, a strip of tape around the arm at the elbow, which showed he had money on him but was about a quart low on plasma. He ordered a #7 sandwich- turkey and cheese- and since this was his only meal of the day and nobody liked him no matter how he acted, he was real demanding. “Is that all the meat you’re gonna give me? He gave me a lot more yesterday. Put mayonnaise on both sides. More cheese.” A real pain in the ass. But Allan Cox remained polite. He was getting off in a few minutes and didn’t want to end his work day in some hassle with a dragworm.
At six o’clock Cox took off his apron and thanked the manager for letting him leave a couple hours early. Bob didn’t mind; lie was kind of tickled to have a rock star working for him. “You looked good on TV, Allan. It must’ve been the lights,” he joked about Dharma Bums’ recent appearance on “The Cutting Edge.” Allan just smiled and left to run a few errands before getting ready for the show he had that night with the True Believers.
“They let anyone on TV these says,” said the dragworm said with his mouth full.
* * * *
Not wanting to pull up to a crowd, Lesa parked her car 100 yards from the entrance to the Continental Club. As she walked to the entrance, Lesa hoped that no one would come up to her and talk about their project. Everybody in town is working on a project — a record or a video or an art show or an article or a goddam poetry reading or something — is all great but Lesa didn’t always like to hear about it. She had no projects to talk about. She was a geology major who loved her family and would give everything she had, which is quite a lot even if you don’t count what’s in storage, to be able to write or draw or play music. She takes good pictures with her Nikon every now and then, but doesn’t claim to be a photographer. She already has her place on the fringe: she throws good parties.
There were a lot of scrubbed and decorated new faces at the True Believers/ Dharma Bums show, which happens to the scene twice a year when a new semester starts at UT. Only a couple girls were wearing the Madonna bow, though several others tried to hide the summer-long dent in their hair with teasing and side parts.
After the show, Patrice leaned against the bar talking to Alejandro Escovedo, the former Nun and Rank-and-Filer who heads True Believers. Veronica wondered what Al would think if he knew Kodak paper bearing his toothy, dimpled, and married smile was bound to Patrice’s chest with an adhesive of sweat. Patrice had such a crush on Alejandro. All the other girls gawked at his brother Javier, whose long, black, wavy hair, soft looks, and uniform black-leather vest over longsleeve white shirt is computer-date material for girls who outgrew David Lee Roth last week. But Patrice only looked at Javier when he intersected her vision of Alejandro.
Patrice, Veronica and Lesa sat on the couch at somebody’s house later that night. Much later. The bands had already come and gone from this party. It was 6:30 AM, the party was winding up, and the girls were winding down from the lines of speed they’d done in Johnny’s car. The only other leftovers were four guys who were, thank God, engrossed in Bullwinkle videotapes. None were prospects.
“It was full tonight,” Veronica said as she threw back another throatful of gin. “Love those True Believers. I wonder if I still think Zeitgeist is better?”
“I thought Dharma Bums were hot tonight,” Patrice said emptily. “I love that horn section. It reminds me of the horns on the Rolling Stones album that ‘Bitch’ is on. ” She was beat. “Jon Dee Graham told me — actually he didn’t tell me, he told Ed Ward, but I was in the same conversation — that from the Skunks to the Lift to True Believers he’s always been in ‘the best band in town,’ and he said that it means absolutely nothing.”
“Who the hell is the Lift?” Veronica asked.
“The scene just doesn’t seem real,” Patrice said.
“MTV is real,” Lesa interjected.
“It isn’t. That’s what I mean. Daniel Johnston couldn’t even watch himself on MTV. He had to clean the deep fryers. Money is real, but nobody’s making it except trendy discos like Club Iguana and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Patrice said.
“And Willie Nelson. He’s making money,” Veronica said, getting up with a slight sway.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Patrice said, also getting up, “whether our scene is really great, and the bands are really special, or if we’re just lonely people trying to create continuous company.”
Veronica looked at her and started to reply, then stopped, and fished into her pocket. “You drive,” she said, and gave Patrice her car keys.