By Michael Corcoran
Was this really happening? Being marched, handcuffed behind my back, through the crowd of about 5,000 at Waterloo Park, sobered me up and gave me time to think practically. Busted for hitting on a joint a friend passed me, I would certainly be fired from my job as music critic for the Austin American Statesman and so as the faces, some familiar, stared at me with looks of shame, horror and amusement, I considered my options. Maybe this newfound notoriety would help me get an edgier new job. Maybe this was a sign that I should switch fields and start writing screenplays. Maybe Willie Nelson, the great hemp activist, would play a benefit concert to keep me out of the shelters. Maybe this would end up being a good thing.
But the dominating thought was this: who the fuck gets arrested for smoking a joint at an outdoor music festival in Austin?! A concert here sans marijuana smoke is a hockey game without a fight. If there’s a balcony at a Raffi concert, there’s a parent torching up in the darkness.
And those guys don’t get arrested. Oh, but not me, public enemy number one. On March 30, 2000, while I was reviewing the Cajun/Zydeco-themed Swamp Romp, I accepted an offer to make the music sound better and was about to go from “My Toot-Toot” to my cellmate. When the park police (“there are a lot of kids and families here”) emptied my pockets onto a table, I recognized a song being played from the stage a quarter mile away. “Excuse me, officer,” I said. “Could you please write ‘Hot Tamale Baby’ in my notebook?” If I was going down, by God, it would be as a professional.
As the cops ran my name for priors and warrants, I pictured that crackling police scanner on the desk in the Metro section of the newspaper. “C-O-R-C-O-R-A-N, Michael. Age 44.” He had to spell the last name two or three times because they always do, thinking the second “C-O-R” is repeating the first one for clarity. Then, after about a 30-minute wait, they cut me loose. Just like that. “On your way and don’t come back tomorrow.”
I understood, in that moment, how it feels to win a Super Bowl. Instead of “I’m going to Disneyland!” I was “Not going to jail!” But instead of thanking my lucky stars and going home, I went to a club and celebrated not hitting rock bottom.
Then reality hit the next morning. My bosses were going to find out. Someone in the audience who didn’t like an old Alanis Morrissette review or something, was going to dime me. What are the chances in a crowd of 5,000 that no one wants to see the rock critic fired? That’s 5,000 movie critics giving the new Adam Sandler movie a pass. If not the crowd, the Statesman cops reporter was going to blab. I was done at the Statesman. And maybe in journalism.
This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me. Just a week earlier, my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column had been suspended and I was publicly flogged for material deemed not up to the paper’s standards of accuracy and tone. It had been building for awhile since Michael Dell’s people called the publisher about a little Jewish holiday joke, but last straw status goes to two items: 1) my account of a Texas Monthly photo shoot in which the art director, speaking of clothing, said “there are too many whites over here and too many colors over there.” Everybody laughed because she pointed to a section of mostly white people over here and then black people over there, and singer Malford Milligan joked “I haven’t been called colored in awhile.” It was all in fun, but there were charges of racial intent, the guy who wanted me fired would stop at nothing and my peeps caved in. That was bullshit. 2) But the second reason was all my fault. I fucked up by reporting that Matt’s El Rancho was towing cars during SXSW, when, actually, they had someone stationed at the entrance to turn festgoers away. My contention that Matt’s was towing out of jealousy of Maria’s Taco Xpress next door, which was attracting thousands a day to the music and tacos, made it potentially libelous, so I fell on the sword. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The Monday after all this went down, Austin talk radio all over the dial blasted the Statesman and talked about things that only myself and my superiors were privy to- mainly the Texas Monthly incident- and I was called on the carpet. Holy crap, was that editor fuming! I explained that my then-girlfriend, one of the most well-connected public relations persons in town, had simply told her curious friends what had happened and how can I control what my girlfriend says? I couldn’t even get her to go to Emo’s with me. “Well, you’d better get her under control or you might get fired!” the editor told me.
Six days later I was in handcuffs with a cop leading me through the crowd. As a pre-emptive strike, I went to my first-ever, long-overdue AA meeting the next day. I figured that on Monday, when I was called in again, I could say I’m currently a member of a 12-step program blah, blah, blah and maybe they might think treatment instead of termination. It was worth a shot.
That first meeting was uncomfortable, of course, because it meant trading what I loved- getting high- for what I hated- public speaking. I was terrified of being called on to share and so I used the same “not me not me not me” look as I do when a magician is looking for “volunteers.”
The guy leading the meeting introduced a theme: “the worst thing I ever went through never happened.” The worst thing. I ever went through. Never happened. I kinda thought about it a little, boiled it down to “stop worrying so much” and went back to watching the clock like the big hand was my kid playing soccer.
The next day I went back to work expecting it to be my last day. A friend called and said he’d heard I got arrested at the Swamp Romp. Great. It was just a matter of time until the word hit the glass offices. But that first day nothing happened.
Tuesday was also a day of dread, as I realized, the sleepless night before, that the editors needed time to figure out how and when to sack my sorry ass. Again, nothing. I went by the Metro desk to see who would avert their eyes, but it was business as usual. By Wednesday and Thursday I started wondering about those sadistic fucks in management. It seemed cruel to draw out the obvious. I kept going to meetings.
A week went by without mention of my RWI, reviewing while intoxicated, arrest. Then another. I was out of the woods. I stopped going to meetings. But I never forgot what I heard that first one.
The worst thing I ever went through never happened.
I ended up working at the Statesman another 11 years after the Swamp Romp incident. I drank and smoked heavily during that time, aside from a couple months here and there, when I sat with other Catholics in the basements of Protestant churches. So many times I gave it all up one day at a time. But then one day I’d be at the beer barn drive-through telling myself just this one time to blow off steam. Nobody needs to know. Then three years later, I’d be back at the meeting with the worst hangover of all time.
I quit drinking after going to rehab in November 2012. It’s holding this time like never before and some days I don’t miss it at all. Most days, actually.
The concept of embracing the higher power was easy because I grew up in a time when the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Cream and the like were Top 40 artists. Whatever I was going through, there’d be a song on the radio that would tell me what to do. “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon convinced me to quit a job that I was miserable in. “When a Man Loves a Woman” kept me in a trying relationship until it was really time to move on.
But it was in a dark room stained with cigarette smoke that a song that didn’t need music taught me a lesson I access every day. Stop punishing yourself needlessly. Don’t obsess over things you can’t control. Let the angels help.
My Swamp Romp review ran as planned, though the evening’s headliner was inexplicably not mentioned. And nobody cared. The highlight of the night to me was “Hot Tamale Baby,” written in my notebook in a different hand.