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Give Dr. Keith Winking and Dr. James Polk a cigar. They somehow convinced Southwest Texas State University to send their top jazz combo to the two largest jazz festivals in the world.
If you've ever spent time wondering aimlessly around heavily populated urban areas you've already experienced the vibe that is the lifeline of street culture.
I had found a group that made sense. A group of women who were searching, and striving for the same things: to produce, write, direct, film, act, and watch movies; a group where women could come together -- void of all pretentious bullshit and get things done.
So maybe Ginsberg to Jerry Springer is a stretch, but hey, it's the worst case scenario. The best case scenario would be Dennis Ciscel and his second collection of poems called Patting The Air.
While I was listening to Jason and Delfayo Marsalis and their superb young rhythm section and soloists, I could not help but think about the culture of New Orleans, the promise of this new music conference, and the music scene back home in Austin.
Not only are a few friends moving away, but also a bunch of the bands that I always made an effort to see. That's a lot to lose in a weekend. Red Scare, Kiki Debris, Sick Little Monkey, LV Rackle, these are a few of the casualties in the war for local music. Now they're in New York, the brutal land of musical sink or swim.
Do This Once In Your Life by Freddie Mendoza
Give Dr. Keith Winking and Dr. James Polk a cigar. They somehow convinced Southwest Texas State University to send their top jazz combo to the two largest jazz festivals in the world. I was fortunate enough to participate, and it was quite an experience.
We started at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Hague, the capital of Holland. The North Sea Jazz Festival is a three day event that takes place in a building called the Congress. Normally their house of government, this state house's many rooms were transformed into mini concert halls, where I saw the greatest jazz musicians alive today. Thousands of people of all ages would pour into the building over the three days, from young children to the elderly, to see the legends play. It was nice to see young children come to appreciate jazz music. The Kenny Barron Trio would be in one room while Betty Carter was in another. You could go and see Oscar Peterson, Branford Marsalis, Oscar de Leon, or maybe Chick Corea. They had a variety of styles, including bands like The Rippingtons, Santana, George Benson, even Parliament Funkadelic with Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, and Bernie Worrell. There were at least a hundred other groups, to many to name, performing throughout the glorious festival I was in heaven.
We then went to the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The Montreaux Festival is spread out into several locations, all located off a boardwalk which follows alongside the immense Lake Geneva. Again there were too many jazz greats to mention, and thousands of people to cheer on the fabulous music. The city of Montreaux is an incredible sight to behold. It sits at the foot of the Swiss Alps, right on the coast of Lake Geneva, which itself is bordered by the Swiss Alps that tower into the sky and disappear among the clouds.
he jazz combo, which included myself, Elias Haslanger, Frederick and Shiela Sanders, Aurthur Latin, Jeff Bota, Ephraigm Owens, and Edwin Livingston, played a total of five times, and was well received. The crowds were attentive, responsive, and at the end very encouraging. They combo played well, inspired by the great performances, beautiful surroundings, andan appreciative audience. Everybody came away with something they didn't have before. It was a learning experience. I would recommend to those jazz aficionados who find themselves with the means to experience a trip to Europe to see these two festivals. I'm already looking for a way to go back next year. Peace.
Sitting on the Curb
Greetings and salutations "From the Couch." First chants first. I wanted to clarify the definition of this column because of comments from someone who gratefully read the last one but didn't understand my use of the sofa as a platform for art. So for the sake of clarification, "From the Couch" has nothing to do with having sex or watching television. Let your imagination go crazy if it needs to, but my intention here is to call upon diversity, unlike most network programming or what we know as traditional heterosexual encounters.
A disclaimer for racking the networks: my opinion does not include The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, or Seinfeld. These shows not only entertain me, but make life bearable while dealing with a yet to be determined angst that surrounds much of what this column addresses -- which is usually what the media, generally speaking, would rather forget.
If you've ever spent time wondering aimlessly around heavily populated urban areas you've already experienced the vibe that is the lifeline of street culture. After living in New York City, I doubt there is another that compares to the deep density and heat that melts inhibitions like the vibe in the Big Apple. Austin has its own thang, but sadly wears a veil of liberalism, and IH-35 still segregates "us" from "them." Recently however, people have started to talk about the separation more openly. Sometime in the future people will be less inhibited to cross-over because of the plans brewing to give the East Side a face-lift. But is this superficial action or will the newfound wealth that is generated be spread evenly so everyone can benefit? Time will tell the whole truth, it always does.
Multi-culturalism is here! Multi-culturalism is here!
I dig downtown, but Sixth Street bores me during the day. South Congress has a lot in the way of coolness happenin', as does the flightpath area. The bohemia of it all would make any thrift-shopping coffee-hound like myself quite thrilled to be alive. Plunging deeper into the observation I land in the area of Austin where I feel more at home. Starting south of the river all the way to Fiesta on 38th is culture -- in many flavors. Everything is naturally cohesive at the landmark grocery store, for it's about buying milk and living closely on the dairy isle. It doesn't matter what kind of milk is purchased, because it all taste essentially the same.
For a great excuse to get sleep deprivation on purpose, check out the Victory Grill on E. 11th Street -- and yank-in some energy from a traditional late night jazz jam. You'll also find the Kovak Theater at the Victory, and down the street is the delicate East of Eden Culture Cafe. Eve looks like she's been there, and left no signs of wrong-doing. Quite the opposite, and if you peek inside the hand-painted window it's easy to imagine what closeness feels like while experiencing a performance in the space.
If you like lots of funkiness like I do, there's lots of it splattered in splendor along Manor Road. Cafe Armageddon, The Manor Road Coffee House, Candy Factory, and the Planet Theatre are all within walking distance. It's food for the art-starved, a condom for the curious, and the people who hang-out there are friendly.
"I fear the unfamiliar." -- Marge Simpson
I know a few people who live or lived in the ghetto. I have a friend who lives on the street everyday. Her name is Dee, and she is the most giving person I've ever known. She is kind and compassionate, deep and understanding -- she can see straight through what has traditionally been my "tough" exterior. Dee lives on Congress Avenue, riding the bus during the day for a change of pace. She fondly refers to life on the street as living outdoors, and always wears a smile when I see her. She is unique with her pattern of living, and is one of the most focused people I've ever met in my life.
Last Thanksgiving I wasn't invited home. Instead I decided to spend it with Dee, who reminded me of the difference economics can make for people, unlike her, who are forced to live outside. I felt shattered by the back-turn of my empty family, but Dee reminded me of what it's all about -- that I could have invited myself, and at least I was sitting with her eating something.
The streets are a far cry from where I grew up, or "bringing up baby" in suburbia. Someone once suggested a poor life is a boring one, but Dee taught me life is what you choose to make it. Beautiful or hopeless, light combined with darkness, taking opportunity or riding on top of chance. Suburbia is not exactly a picnic in an amusement park, but by growing up in middle America, at least there are more options.
There is nothing superficial about the ghetto or life on the street. It's reality in purest form, and Austin shaman/artist Ariel once suggested that "people who live in the ghetto are empowered because they haven't been castrated by capitalists or fascism."
There are so many distractions that can pull us away from who we really are, or aspire to be. As a young girl my dreams were about boyfriends, cheerleading, and looking pretty at school. It was all that was expected of me, and the only dreams I had. But boyfriends turned to memories, I never really cared about doing one of those herkie-jumps the right way, and make-up always made me look much different than I really am.
In the ghetto however, there is a subtle form of power that everyone can benefit from, and it's not greedy or selfish. This power Ariel spoke of comes from the pull that wears the need to survive-and survival of anything you didn't ask for is a beautiful thing. Read something by Victor Frankl and you'll know what I'm talking about.
I first met Anna Julia three months ago. I had seen a flyer with words...First meeting tonight for women in film group. Hmmm, women in film...sounded like something I could get into. So that night, I fired up my Chevy and headed to Women and Their Work Art Gallery at 1710 Lavaca, hoping for something, but expecting very little. Two hours later, I left the meeting after having experienced much more then I could have imagined. I had found a group that made sense. A group of women who were searching, and striving for the same things: to produce, write, direct, film, act, and watch movies; a group where women could come together -- void of all pretentious bullshit and get things done. Anna Julia's idea had taken form. REEL Women had been born, and what a pretty little baby she was.
Three months later, I'm sitting across from the founder herself. The group is still young, but it slowly taking its first steps towards maturity. Serving as a meeting place for women to discuss all aspects of the film industry, the group is the first of its kind in Austin. Not only is it a place where women can go to make connections with other women, but also a place where they can voice their concerns, vent their frustrations, share their knowledge, or express their many fears about the industry. These women aren't coming to boost their egos, they simply don't have to. No one here is trying to out rank or out score anyone else. Each woman comes to the meeting in the hope of validating their self-worth in a business that is constantly challenging their ability. These women know the unpredictability and stress that they are up against and have chosen to face it together.
Anna herself is a struggling director. She understands the need and power of such a group, "I think that they (the women in the group) all just want to make good films. We all have a level of commitment to making quality. Even though some of the women have worked in the industry for a while, there is still an energy they have that typifies the group. At every meeting there's always someone who says 'I know so and so whose doing this film' and so on. Many are just starting out and they need a place to say 'hey, where can I meet these people?' So, that's why we did something different."
Unlike Houston's Women In Film group, REEL Women doesn't restrict the meetings to just members or charge dues. They know that there are too many restrictions against them already. Why waste time on the inconsequential?
REEL Women also tries to cater to the Austin filmmaker. Their meetings now take place at WATER: Women's Access to Electronic Resources, another group in town that focuses on providing video equipment and training to women. This support of other local groups only adds to the growing voice of women and film in town. "I think that the group has an important place in Austin in the fact that Austin is so independent oriented and there aren't a lot of paying jobs in this town...I think that women just want a place where they can come and find out what's going on."
Since its birth, the group has attracted a wide range of women with different skill levels. "One of the women that's producing Aunt Vivien's Wedding came to one of the meetings. I think she was 24 or 25 and her partners are even younger. I was very impressed with her and the energy that she brought to the meeting. There was another woman who came to the meeting who was working on her second film, that she was directing and producing so I was really glad she came also. Hopefully she was able to get in touch with some of the women in the group." It seems that all of the members take pride in lending a hand to their colleagues. They all understand that not only do you take an enormous risk by entering this business, but an even bigger one if you want to be successful in it.
Many of the women seem to be exploring documentary work. "Documentaries are able to show life in some form or another and do it in a way that people will look at it -- whether the subject is pleasing or not. You're taking a subject and saying that this is what it's all about." When asked why she thought women were more inclined to do documentaries, Anna replied, "I think that nurturing, which is such a part of this -- being a woman -- perhaps makes us want to do something to make things better, just take care of things. There's one woman who wants to work in Chiapas. She basically needs one sound person and one camera person and that's it." And why not? Why can't women score the jungles recording the efforts of human struggle? Or conversely, why can't they splatter the screens with sex, and violence? Our society pretends to be concerned with gentilizing the entertainment industry in the hopes of "protecting" women while simultaneously exploiting them at every turn. The time has far passed when women can allow themselves to sit back or be pushed back while men dominate the industries that shape their representation in society. The time for actionless complaints has come and gone. Women can't rely on the government or the conscious of society to regulate: we must take up arms in the form of images. We must grab out cameras and write our scripts, because our time is now. Women like Anna serve as testaments to what we can be if we choose to exert and combine our strengths. Women are steadily making their way into all facets of the business world. Without women behind the camera as well as in front on it, the perpetuation of the stereotypes that have come to be called convention and the existence of patriarchal society will persevere. What legacy do we leave the daughters of the women's movement? Strip Tease and Barb Wire? I choose to hope not.
Song of the Widow Spider by Dennis Ciscel
Many of my brother spirits
into a human's home only to be
crushed or smeared or dried
up in some corner
from the hot and dry and hunger. I had
the good fortune to find someone
me. And when he found me
his desk top, he explained
he'd love to have
me join him, but to please
build my web over
on the window sill
away from his
work, saying that way we
could better be
good neighbors, and he
wouldn't bother me.
And my web became so
woven and complex
and well maintained on the window
sill, and I grew large and
quick and wise
(not fat, but large) leaping upon
strong young flies
that took my web and I entwined for life.
Not understanding the gender
my human called me Beatrice, and he
would often speak to me (as I sat in
the sun upon my web and he sat in
his chair behind his desk) of
Thoreau, Mahatma Ghandi, and Aquinas.
Many afternoons and
this way: His open
confessions of Augustine as
my web around a fly or gnat
thing to eat someday.
And when he died,
his neighbors cleaned his
things away and I
was left alone, woven web of
underneath me, sunshine
shining from above,
and echoes of the minds of
on the nature of mankind and
and all the broken friendships
time has taken.
Writing poetry is one way I have of coming to grips with both internal and external realities. I also think of my writing as a form of prayer -- a prayer for illumination, perfection.
Jerry Springer. I was flipping through the channels at that unfortunate time of day when nothing's really on (is anything ever really on?), when I noticed quite a commotion on the Jerry Springer Show. It seemed that some poor souls had agreed to come on the show and try to explain to a ferocious, unruly studio audience, why they are like they are. To justify their appearance, or sexuality, or something of that nature, by means of telling their story to a blood-thirsty mob of strangers.
And, of course, at every sign of weakness, Springer, like some kind of junior Joseph McCarthy, would lead a verbal assault of questions and insinuations, stripping the flesh off the persons dignity, and throwing it piece by piece into his own personal lions den. Welcome to confessionalism in the '90s.
During the post World War II era, poets like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and later Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton, developed confessionalistic and analytic styles to their writings that would prove to have a great impact on American literature and art. Subjects once considered taboo, previously reserved for entries in the diaries and journals of writers, crept their way into the forefront of an emerging genre. The habit of keeping skeletons in the closet was becoming less and less practical in an ever changing world, the end result being that more writers using a realistic and introspective approach began making it into print. Then came Ginsberg talking about those "who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof / waving genitals and manuscripts" in his Beat-epic "Howl," and something really started getting stirred up. With the 60s, it hit the fan. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, it was all part of that bigger picture of people writing what they wanted, singing what they wanted, being who they were. So maybe Ginsberg to Jerry Springer is a stretch, but hey, it's the worst case scenario.
The best case scenario would be Dennis Ciscel and his second collection of poems called Patting The Air. Writing in a style that is extremely confessionalistic and disturbingly truthful at times, Mr. Ciscel gives a voice to a multitude of personae that fill the 60 poems in the book. From the spirit of a dead boy in "David's Song," to a transsexual talking about her days as a prostitute in "Angel's Song", the characters are all quite distinct and each is made convincingly real to the reader. Most of the poems are short, yet they are so finely crafted that each delivers a powerful message in the context of an event or a series of events in one of the persona's lives.
The themes of loss, pain, life, and love are all present and accounted for, but without an overkill of sentimentality. Everything happens very naturally, and Mr. Ciscel's concise and honest style of writing lends itself to that effect. In "Martin's Song", a poem where the speaker is dying of AIDS, the author shows the potency of the right metaphor in describing the ebbing of one's life:
In "About Abraham and Marta, then Abraham, then Marta," the author tackles larger issues of racism and religious hypocrisy, uncovering the contradictions of both. In the poem, set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, a German woman turns her lover over to the Nazis when she discovers he's a Jew. At the end of the piece she coldly recalls:
And when I died, after a good life, a practicing Christian all of my days, they said that I did not belong in Heaven. For turning in the Jew, they sent me to the lowest ring of Hell. Oh well, it was my purest moment, if you ask me.
In other poems dealing with subjects as delicate as suicide ("Bill's Song") and molestation ("Barry and His Sister"), the author's truthfulnes and underlying tones of spirituality, of right and wrong, pull the reader through an intense cycle of images and emotions. That's not to say that all of those emotions are solemn either. In the poem "David Sang This Song," Mr. Ciscel exhibits his lighter side. When the speaker, who is a young boy, receives his audience with God in Heaven, he asks why his father on Earth was so cruel. God tells him:
He was jealous of your youth and your mind and your brand-spanking new penis with which he feared you'd have more fun than he had had.
Throughout Patting The Air, the author maintains a graceful balance of wit, melancholy, anger, and contentment, yet each poem remains true to its confessionalistic roots. The reader is never left feeling like they didn't get the whole story, and sometimes you get more than you wanted. Not only does Mr. Ciscel prove to be a very perceptive poet, but he's also a skilled storyteller. As Robert Hayden would suggest, poetry for Dennis Ciscel is also a way of coping, of purging memories and demons, of dealing with life and death and all that's in between. He seems to have taken bits and pieces of the lives of those people who have passed through his realm of existence, and has done them a great justice. He has immortalized them in words, and shown the thread of humanity, be it beautiful or repulsive, that runs through all of us, no matter how alike or different we are. In the age of sensationalism, exploitation, and Jerry Springer, there's a lot to be said for that.
[Dennis Ciscel works in HIV prevention training and before that worked in alcohol and drug abuse counselling. He has lived in Austin for almost half his life and is a gay, single parent. HIs collections of poems Tiny Stories and Patting The Air were both published by Plain View Press and are available at Local Flavor, 305-B East 5th Street, (512) 472-7773.]
...at the Funky Butt
Yeah, that's right. Up all night, upstairs at The Funky Butt. It's packed, the music, the vibe and the folks are hot-indeed funky. The homefolks tell me it's even hotter and funkier at Donna's just down the street, on North Rampart. But tonight I'm doing the tourist thang and hanging with the handful of other conference attendees who have come to New Orleans (N'awlins?) for the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference. I look around the room and I see familiar faces from the morning's seminar sessions, band members from bad reggae showcase groups I'd rather forget, and the welcoming smiles of Austinites Tammy Gomez con la Palabra present in the audience. The rest of the room seems to be full of New Orleans homeys, jazz scene players and wannabes, and a support system -- an extended family of multi-colors, grandmas, teenagers, and macdaddys -- there to cheer on the home team at this final jazz showcase of the conference.
The crowd comfortably funky in a cloud of cigarette smoke, musk and whiskey, all entranced by the groove thang emanating from the stage. Two of them famous homeboys -- two Marsalis Brothers -- are taking the band and the listeners on a trip from the second-line, down to the blues cross-roads, straight ahead into the future of neo-voodoo-bop, up pocky-way, and right back down-home to Basin Street. And they do this (very musically) without ever leaving this upstairs Rampart Street jazz dive with the utterly N'awlins name of The Funky Butt. It ain't nothing but a groove thang in here. This is jazz music; these are jazz players; this is a jazz scene. But, then again, this is New Orleans.
While I was listening to Jason and Delfayo Marsalis and their superb young rhythm section and soloists, I could not help but think about the culture of New Orleans, the promise of this new music conference, and the music scene back home in Austin. I find that I do this kind of thing now when I travel. And I always pay particular attention when I see young folks involved and knowledgeable about their culture. It's not some superficial attempt at being a critic, really. It's more a sense of trying to figure out what's up with us here in Austin and comparing/contrasting here with other cities that I find more culturally stimulating and vibrant.
Just what are the differences? What makes the jazz players in New Orleans (even those who moved there) groove like they do? What does New Orleans do to get their kids ready to carry on the cultural traditions of the community? What makes the N'awlins homey-on-the-street more aware of the culture of New Orleans than is the Congress Avenue investment banker of Austin's cultural life? (Yes, that is a big assumption, but I'm playing the averages on this one and will bet I'm right.)
Even more troubling: what is it that makes the N'awlins homey-on-the-street even more aware of the economic benefit of supporting a city's arts and cultural life-even street culture -- than the Congress Avenue investment banker, some city council members, and many mainstream Austinites? I think it's because homeboy understands the street-level value of the local arts community, a vibrant downtown, and the contributions of all of the cultural communities of New Orleans. Now that is my assumption. Might we assume that of the Austin homeboy-on-the-street? I don't think so. I think Austin's homey is not really sure of just what cultural identity to place on us folk out here in the provinces.
And homey is certainly not getting any credible guidance from Austin's cultural gate keepers. Are we now (again) outlaw country rockers? Are we alterna-punk-metal-christian-grungers? (Tell us, Andy and Corky?) Are we the reigning kings and queens of white blues-rock? (Or is M.M. right when she mourns the death of that scene?) Are we just the adopted home of West Texas singer/songwriters? (Lubbock or leave it?)
And what happens when Austin's homey goes to New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago: to him, is Austin still the Live Music Capital of the Universe?
What Austin does have is a cultural legacy of homegrown blues, jazz, country, and Tex-Mex/Tejano that ties it to its true cultural roots. That is some deep stuff, that is the real groove thang of this region. So, if this is really true (and I think it is), why is it that the cultural gatekeepers only go back to 1975 when they plot Austin's music history? Why is it that former Austin Chronicle Music Editor Rob Patterson choose to begin his history of the Austin music scene with the mid 1970's? Why not re-examine the importance of, the cultural legacy of folks such as Johnny Holmes and the Victory Grill, of Kenny Dorham and Gene Ramey's jazz roots, of the Ramos family's Tex-Mex fame, of the spiritual sons and daughters of Kenneth Threadgill?
Methinks the Live Music Capital of the World should pay more attention to our local cultural roots. That is really the stuff that defines who we are and where we come from. Getting all too excited about the passing musical fancies of college radio wannabes and alterna-punk garage bands misses the point. They grow up, they graduate, they leave. What real lasting impact will this week's Emo's line-up have on the long-term cultural identity of Austin and Central Texas? Now, I am not totally dissin' the Emo's scene, nor inviting sentimental nostalgia. I use it as an example to illustrate my bias. That youthful scene just might have the key ingredients necessary to confirm its significance in Austin's cultural future. But how do we define our roots right now, in 1996? More importantly, my point is I don't think we are doing enough to actively cultivate the kind of mature regional identity capable of positively setting us apart from most other youth-driven music markets. Seattle and Athens seem to be doing a much better job at that already.
It should not be enough to boast that we have a lot of stages -- more than Seattle, even -- and the world's biggest music conference (in South by Southwest). After all, SXSW takes little advantage, really, of its unique potential to promote the diverse musical cultures that call Austin and Central Texas home. Its good for today's commerce, but what does SXSW really do to send its conferees away with an appreciation of the traditions, the cultural roots of Austin's music scene? What does it do to offer up Austin's own music scene as an example of how local music bidness culture impacts the economy, quality of life, the media, race relations, politics, interpretations of history, artistic influences, tourism? If we just look at the big picture, it's all in there. And, without the big picture we miss our opportunity, really, to substantiate our uniqueness.
How does the Music Capital of the World dignify this self-generated claim? Where does SXSW place itself in the narrative history of "the sound of Austin?" How could the Council, the Chamber and other bidness-boosters (such as The Downtown Alliance), the mainstream media, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau not cash in on the economic benefit of painting a full and colorful picture of Austin's musical past and present? Wouldn't we have more credibility as a significant cultural/music center if more of us were aware of musical roots that pre-date the life span of the current generation? Country music did not arrive here with Willie. Austin was blue long before the blues crossed I35 into West Austin. Spanish language dance music did not just happen with the current interest in salsa. Gene Ramey was hanging with Bird long before the opening of Piggy's. How can we hope to legitimately define Austin's unique musical culture without looking further back than the average age of a college sophomore.
Now, I know that some of that old stuff is not very flattering to our reputation as the hippest town in Texas, but those old truths have everything to do with the cultural identity of this region today. And, yes, it very much impacts the development, evolution, performance practices, tone, and marketing of what we now call Austin music.
Back to New Orleans. New Orleans is PHATT with history, music, culture, commerce. The people of New Orleans sing a N'awlins song in their speech, swing a N'awlins groove in their walk. The cooks in New Orleans put all kinds of secret ingredients in their individual pots of gumbo, but they are not trying to make a rue that tastes like Tulsa. Their aim, secret ingredients and all, is to make a pot of steaming voodoo that makes the quintessential N'awlins taste statement. I won't even try to talk about their concept of snap beans.
My point (is it not obvious by now?) is that the people of New Orleans -- complete with their Congo Square cultural past and corrupt political present -- celebrate their musical roots, know their history, teach their young about "What it means to miss New Orleans." (They also make a funky buttload of money selling that cultural identity to millions of tourists each year.) Yes, there is a grunge scene in the Crescent City, but that scene is certainly not what defines the soul, the flavor, the commerce nor the feel of their regional culture. I think our challenge here in River City is to dig deeper and get to know what ingredients add spice to the cultural flavor of Austin.
Earlier in this piece I mentioned the Cutting Edge Music Conference. I went to New Orleans because I was intrigued by the promo material for the conference. As it was described in print, the Cutting Edge Conference had a number of things that tweaked my interest: most notably they actually mention issues of culture and history as they relate to the music industry; and there was a tract of the discussion sessions aimed at addressing roots music, blues and jazz. Throughout the descriptions the word "community" was used in ways that matched my sensibilities. So, I figured the conference was worth the trip. New Orleans is pretty much always worth the trip.
For those of you who are not familiar with music business conferences, like SXSW or CMJ, most of what goes on is related to getting and keeping that elusive record deal or good gig. The seminar sessions almost always are directed only to the commercial aspects of the music industry. Very little, if anything, is said about the connection of art and culture. Very little is said that relates to us folks who are in the industry, but have no interest in being rock and roll stars, managers or booking agents. I went to New Orleans hoping that Cutting Edge would be different. And it was.
I left New Orleans hoping that they keep trying to get it right. Why? Because what they are trying to do is really needed. There needs to be an alternative to the commercial excess of confabs like SXSW. Or, and perhaps this is really what I'd like to see happen, SXSW would really benefit from adding more programming that addresses issues of culture, the non-profit arts scene, local community involvement, and diversity among its panels and seminars. SXSW is uniquely qualified to do much to help showcase our local music culture. As well, they could do much to help attendees return to their hometowns with an appreciation of how communities, such as Austin, can work together to promote their own cultural identities.
Recently some friends moved to New York. This in itself is no great tragedy, it's something that happens every day. People get sick of where they are, feel a place no longer has anything to offer them, have to move elsewhere for work/family/random life changing events, etc. A large segment of society is nomadic (just look at the deaths of many American small towns for proof of this). But this time it's different. This time it 's a whole bunch of people who I've met all too recently who also happen to be musicians. These people comprise a strange group of incestuously collaborative punk/hardcore/rocker/citizens who were always throwin' parties or playing at other peoples' parties or landing big important gigs at the Blue Flamingo or the E-Lounge which required dedicated attendance just to ensure that there'd be another one. They didn't really make any money or anything, but they worked at it intensely. So not only are a few friends moving away, but also a bunch of the bands that I always made an effort to see. That's a lot to lose in a weekend. Red Scare, Kiki Debris, Sick Little Monkey, LV Rackle, these are a few of the casualties in the war for local music. And not just local music, but a communal music scene. Now they're in New York, the brutal land of musical sink or swim.
Maybe Austin is too comfortable. It's too easy to reach an acceptable level of mediocre response and appreciation. "Working your way to the middle" if you will. Of course there are opportunities to rise to the top of your field here, but where is the top? What does being the best band or actor in Austin mean? The recent breakup of Ed Hall, the forerunners of the current hard rock or whatever the frig you want to call it scene is a signal that hard work and talent -- hell, even a gimmick -- don't necessarily pay off. Respected and attended here, they toured to marginal success elsewhere, and record sales and opportunity of expansion werenot significant enough to keep them together. Bands like Spoon, 16 Deluxe and Starfish, to stay within the albeit narrow but VERY accessible genre, have been tagged the next big thing and have been met outside of the friendly confines of Austin with mediocre response.
What about writing? Or acting or painting or dancing or filmmaking? Richard Linklater has taken his work outside the city limits and has done well. SRV and John Henry Faulk are other obvious examples. But what else? Not too long ago in this magazine, Alissa Winternheimer wrote a critique about a play she saw that was good. It was good, not great; appreciable but not moving. She said this is an affliction common to most theater she sees in this town, and I suppose I find that to be true about most things. It's just something that often goes willingly unnoticed because greatness often upsets the contentment you feel. It startles you and wakes you to your very core. That 's not always pleasant, but you never forget it.
This is a very comfortable town. Most people you meet here are very non-confrontational, easy-going, open-minded people. And that's good. But it's hard to have a passion for comfort. Maybe it's impossible to strive upward from contentment. It's self-destructive to live by the idea that great art comes only from misery, but it seems to be proven time and time again.
I offer no solutions here which, I realize, is sort of a cop-out. Perhaps if people got tight, if there was more a sense of artistic collaboration, the energy exchanged from mind to mind would crack the doldrums wide open and release the creative genius that lolls against the thin skin of apathy. New ideas are a preferable inspiration to pain and suffering because, I admit, I do enjoy the comfort here. Three years removed from ChicagoLand and I feel I've finally assimilated to the Austin pace, and I don't wanna go back.
Apparently that sentiment is not shared by all, which is fine. So to those who leave I wish you good luck, you 'll be missed. To those who stay, whaddya say we get together and slap the boredom off each other's faces and wake up to create a new art for ourselves, inspired by the appreciation of why we 're all here. Regionalism? Commensalism? Mutualism? Whatever it is, let's get it going.