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72 Hours in Austin, Texas

May 20, 2012

It’s not surprising that Austin, Texas is so satisfied with itself. No doubt it’s the best city in the whole state. Unfortunately, that distinction is a lot like being the prettiest prostitute in the alley smoking crystal meth. The rest of the Texas republic is a dump and that’s pretty much the way its citizens treat it. After all, “Don’t Mess With Texas” is a public service announcement pleading with Texans to quit shitting in their own bed. The last time I was there in the late 1990s  I was shocked to find that not only do people drive on the beaches, but it is also the local custom to throw all of the week’s accumulated trash out the window while doing so.

Granted, perhaps I’m slightly biased. In 1997, I was there visiting the family of a girl I was dating. It was Thanksgiving. A month later she moved in with me. Three weeks after that she went to San Francisco for the weekend and reunited with the father of her (latest) abortion. I never saw her again. It would be disingenuous of me to deny that perhaps this situation has left me forever unfavorably disposed to the capital of Texas.

However, I like to think I am capable of change. Sure, even while blinded by love, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Austin fifteen years ago. But I didn’t like Brussels sprouts then and now I do, so I figured I’d give it another try. After all, the Psych Fest had a fantastic line-up and it seemed that it would be a fine opportunity to reassess the situation.

I met up with two friends, one from St. Paul and one from Portland. Through AirBnB we rented a bungalow/shack in South Austin that was fully stocked with Texas memorabilia and Ayn Rand propaganda: a puzzling, yet oddly telling detail in this allegedly hip neighborhood in the midst of a massive gentrification. Not so long ago South Austin was a ghetto. Now, ramshackle homes stand next to gleaming modern ones. A local boasted that it is where the slaves used to live. Now there are coffee shops, vintage clothes stores and enough food trucks to satisfy a range of cravings from $5 donuts to West African stewed goat.

We arrived at varying times throughout Friday afternoon. By the time Portland showed up, it was time to get over to the venue. The Psych Fest’s 5th edition was stationed at Emo’s East and the Beauty Bar, a short walk from one another in an odd commercial wasteland. The Beauty Bar, which resembles a barn much more than a bar, was the site of San Francisco’s Moon Duo, who provided an excellent opening salvo for the festival (for us). We ended up spending much of the evening here. At the other side of the parking lot was Emo’s East, which essentially is a warehouse with the ambiance of a truncated roller rink. It is, sadly, exactly what I’d expect a venue in Texas to be: too big for its britches and mistaking misguided kitsch for personality. In a state that routinely confuses big for better, the sound system was massive, yet muddy.

While the proprietors of both venues were amiable and created a space conducive to the freedom one might expect from a festival dedicated to psychedelia, both the Beauty Bar and Emo’s East are devoid of personality to the point that you could be anywhere. To make matters worse, the neighborhood which hosts these emporiums is surrounded by section 8 housing, dilapidated, run-down stretches of big box box stores, bingo halls and flailing franchises. It is a essentially a ghetto. Since the venues, which can hold 2500 people between them, can only accommodate about 100 cars in their shared parking lot, concert-goers will likely get an intimate view of the rotting carcass of the American Dream.

With a little time to burn before Lotus Plaza, we tested our Frogger skills and managed to make it safely to El Pollo Rico across the street. This taco shack is apparently a cherished Austin favorite and as such our expectations were high … and therein lies the problem with Austin, it’s supposed to amazing, but in reality it’s nothing special. In accordance with that calculus, the lard-encrusted tacos were fine, certainly nothing mind-blowing. It is, however, possible that my taste buds were stunted from the infusion of carbon monoxide spewing from the line of pick-up trucks idling in the drive-thru, conveniently located right next to the stand’s picnic tables.

Despite the unfavorable conditions, I was hungry for more. The weekend promised to be a marathon, it would be important to pace oneself. Somehow we managed to extricate ourselves from the greasy picnic table. But there would more tacos that evening. Many, many more.

Magically, there was a taco stand in the parking lot behind the Beauty Bar. Their tacos were far superior, and came with the added bonus of not having to risk one’s life crossing the street for the privilege of dining in a mist of car exhaust. I downed several of their chicken concoctions throughout the evening in a manner reminiscent of Ignatius Reilly’s prodigious ability to devour vast quantities of hot dogs. It seems I had acquired a parasite since touching down in Texas, which considering the nauseating state of the city’s water supply made a disturbing degree of sense.

After staying up well past 4 a.m. on Friday night we managed to get ourselves up for brunch.  Apparently, most of Austin had the same idea as the lines were long at most recommended places, even though it was already past one in the afternoon. We ended up at the Bouldin Creek Coffee House & Cafe. It is a vegetarian restaurant, a shock to us at the time, but not an unwelcome one. Their spinach omelette was not only a minor revelation, but also efficiently soaked-up the toxins of the previous evening’s escapades.

sightseeing downtown: an Austin geisha lets it all hang out

We rented bikes upon our arrival, but had not yet used them so we took them for a spin, leaving South Austin and heading over the river for downtown and the capital. The bike trails and parks are quite impressive, but unfortunately they led us to 6th Street, a tacky commercial tourist zone where Austin “keeps it weird” in the most innocuous and tedious way. First we made the rookie mistake of stopping at Jackalope for a drink. Obviously, the name should have driven us away, but the Zombies were on the jukebox, so we went in. Apparently, mixing drinks is a difficult task for bottle-toking Texans, so it should not be astonishing that making a simple whiskey and lemonade was beyond the abilities of the Jackalope bartender. I can’t say we didn’t have it coming. The Jackalope – it’s the perfect name for Texas tourist trap.

Portland takes a Texas-sized hit from an avian aerial raid

From there we went to Easy Tiger, attracted to their ping pong tables and courtyard next to a stoned-in creek full of swimming painted turtles. In a matter of minutes I managed to smash my paddle into a pile of toothpicks, while Portland was showered with a Texas-sized pile of bird shit – an incident which I thought was particularly hilarious since we had just switched sides. That bird, I’m quite sure, had been gunning for me. I don’t think the winged creature had particularly appreciated my observation that Austin is essentially Branson, Missouri for hipsters.

The afternoon was slipping away so we headed back to our bungalow to get ready for the evening’s musical offerings. After hosing ourselves off, we were again thwarted with wait times of an hour or more at no less than three restaurants (none of which take reservations), so we ended up at a food trailer park in South Austin where we dined at Little Thai, purveyors of an unpredictably decent pineapple fried rice.

The fest offered several stellar acts on Saturday night, including Pink Mountaintops, Woods, The Telescopes, Olivia Tremor Control and the Black Lips. If only they hadn’t been relegated to the sterile Emo’s East, perhaps a degree of transcendence could have been reached. The weather was great all weekend and it’s a shame that the festival wasn’t outside. While it is unfair to judge Austin on the purgatory that is Emo’s East and the Beauty Bar, life in Texas is seldom fair, so somehow my conscience will have to deal.

the winding road to the top of Doug Sahm Hill

We rode around on our bikes again on Sunday and almost immediately stumbled upon an unexpected Austin landmark, Doug Sahm Hill, named for the legendary musician. Sahm was a child prodigy and shared the stage with Hank Williams in December 1952 at Austin’s Skyline Club. Sahm was 11. Hank died 13 days later. It was Williams’ last show. Sahm would go on to have a fantastic and influential career, cut short by a heart attack in 1989.

The Sir Douglas Quintet classic “She’s About a Mover” was once named the number one “Texas” song by Texas Monthly:

The third night of psychedelic offerings ended with a solid bang of Bombino, Thee Oh Sees, Meat Puppets and Brian Jonestown Massacre. Despite the lame venues, it was a fine, albeit narrow, festival.  A few short weeks later, it is now largely a blur. And like Doug Sahm, I doubt I’ll be going back to Austin again anytime soon.

Doug Sahm – I Can’t Go Back To Austin

God Bless America: I’m Not Like Everybody Else

April 15, 2012

When I first saw the trailer for Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, I was excited. The auteur behind Shakes the Clown had turned his acerbic eye to America’s glutinous excesses … and, yes, there would be blood. Lots of blood. As America becomes increasingly fractured and polarized over bullshit issues (while the rich get richer), clearly the time is right for a movie where people who deserve to die are systematically killed.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that we are in the last throes of Empire. Bloated and entitled, we are distracted from the world’s real problems by reality shows and fart jokes. When our hero Frank finds out that he has a brain tumor, in lieu of committing suicide he decides he’ll take a spoiled reality star with him. A young teenage girl witnesses the carnage and is filled with glee. She encourages Frank not to waste this opportunity and kill more deserving individuals.

Here is where the film goes wrong. As a muse, the bloodthirsty young girl is largely apolitical and encourages the obliteration of low-hanging fruit. For her the people who deserve to die include the Kardashians, those who give high-fives and “women who call their tits the girls.” While one could make a decent argument for Kardashian eradication, these targets, while odious, are not the people who got us where we are.

God Bless America could have challenged Natural Born Killers as the Citizen Kane of serial killer spree films, but it is merely an amusing sketch padded out into the length a feature. The uneven storytelling is almost a worse crime than any of the infractions of Frank’s victims. The film is repetitive and didactic and as a result it takes quite awhile for the action to get rolling. (The first act break is around 38 minutes in, when it could have been accomplished in about half the time). That said, it is true that there was a certain catharsis in seeing the  slaughter of a rude movie audience. Sure, the assassination of a spoiled reality star brat was somewhat satisfying and the mass killing of a crowd of  anti-gay crusaders provided a modicum of delight … but these people are merely symptoms of a dying culture, the true culprits are let off the hook.

When I think of the people that “deserve” to die, the “victims” in God Bless America simply are not it. While I would certainly not advocate murder except in fiction, perhaps if his killing duo had taken out some hedge fund managers, corporate polluters, political charlatans and fascist activist judges, Bobcat Goldthwait might have created an entertaining spectacle that truly confronted the real problems facing America today.

Watch the trailer and you will have seen all the best that the film has to offer.

The movie is also notable for featuring The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” Of course, that is America’s big lie. We all think we’re pioneering individuals. We are all special snowflakes. Everyone deserves a trophy. It is an important lie for a society based on consumption and excess. Because we are so special, we deserve all the comforts our hearts desire. In fact, we are entitled to them.

But really we’re not so different. When it comes down to it, we’re all easily slotted into a demographic: fish in a barrel waiting to be marketed to. And that’s the problem with God Bless America. It shoots fish in a barrel when it should be targeting the barrel makers.

Kinks – I’m Not Like Everybody Else – MP3

The Best Baseball Songs Ever. Period.

April 5, 2012

all tunes soon to be covered by Nuke LaRoosh

The countdown is really in no particular order, although the song in the number one slot is, indisputably, the greatest baseball song ever. Despite the fact that I’m naturally partial to tunes that have personal emotional resonance, this list should still be considered definitive for everyone.

Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, although petitioning for “Centerfield,” “Glory Days” or “Talkin’ Baseball”  will result in your IP address being banned from ever accessing this site again.

Read more…

Austin Psych Fest Preview: The Mind Spiders

April 1, 2012

The Mind Spiders: like an ear worm, but with eight legs

In case the memo got tangled in your spam folder, the Mind Spiders are here to proclaim that the Golden Era of garage rock is now. Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, Mind Spiders is the side project of Mark Ryan, who is apparently best known for his his other band The Marked Men. I regret to say that I was unfamiliar with the The Marked Men’s catalog, but after seeing this fantastic video, that is an oversight that will be quickly rectified. Welcome to the best minute and a half of your day:

Although they are undoubtedly indebted to the past, the infectiously dirty power pop sensibility of The Mind Spiders is a welcome antidote to the polished sheen of modern music. By falling back to the past, bands like The Mind Spiders have emerged as the perfect palate cleanser for the endless loop of mindless chatter that dogs our dying culture. These guys not only provide a soundtrack that make life worth celebrating, they’ll also cure your hangover in the morning.

Mind Spiders – Don’t Let Her Go – MP3

Mind Spiders – Your Soul – MP3

Buy their albums here. Don’t buy them at Amazon. Amazon will not only send you real spiders, but they will also plant electronic spiders in your brain designed to track your every commercial impulse and desire. Sure, it sounds convenient, but in the end Jeff Bezos will have you mummified in twine made of cheap Chinese silk while he sucks your blood like a milkshake.

Austin Psych Fest Preview: The Meek

March 26, 2012

Amy Lee, dark princess of The Meek

The Bible notoriously claims that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” It’s just the kind of statement that has led me to think that the good book’s teachings are a huge scam. When Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses, it’s pablum like that which tops the list of how the poor and disenfranchised are rendered brain dead through devotion. Don’t worry, it may look bad for you now, but you’ll be the big winner in the end. 30 minutes infomercials are rarely so shameless.

Well, it seems, my assessment may have been a bit harsh. My extensive research has revealed that religious scholars apparently agree that while it’s easy to equate meek with with weak, meek in the Biblical context is probably best translated as meaning “humbly devoted.” Meek comes from the Greek word praus which means gentle strength. (It’s very easy to see how people get confused since it’s so close to the Greek work prius, which actually does mean self-righteous douche.)  Semantics aside, Moses and Jesus are both called meek in the Bible and not many people would call those guys pussies unless they were itching for a Biblical beatdown.

Which brings us to the LA band The Meek. Unfortunately, since they picked such a lame fierce name for their band, The Meek will be dealing with inherit the earth nonsense for the rest of their lives. It is their cross to bear and probably what they deserve for taking the advice of an old beatnik when looking for a band moniker.

We’ll just have to say that they live up to their name in that their humble devotion runs towards Godly fuzzed out guitar driven psych that falls on the familiar continuum that starts with the Velvet Underground and leads to The Jesus and Mary Chain and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Will they inherit the earth? I suspect that whoever inherits this planet is probably going to want tear it down and start over. However, these guys aren’t exactly pioneers in that way. Instead when it comes to The Meek, it’s probably best to simply enjoy the rewards of the here and now.

Stream them from their myspace page.

Check out an interview with Amy Lee, lead singer of the band, from Revolt of the Apes, who has been doing absolutely fantastic previews for the festival.

The Fantastic, Horrific Spectacle of Courtney Love’s Hole 11.9.1994

March 12, 2012

“Whatever you say about Courtney, you can also say the opposite. She’s a walking Greek tragedy, and a comedy. She’s horrible and great, inspiring and frightening, strong and weak. She’s a role model – and everything you wouldn’t want your child to be.” – Melissa Rossi, author of Courtney Love: Queen of Noise

Sure enough Hole’s show at the Palladium was one of the greatest rock spectacles I ever saw and it was also one of the saddest. It has been a terrible, horrific year for Courtney Love.  In April her husband killed himself and in June her bass player died of a heroin overdose. It was also the year all of Courtney Love’s dreams came true. Four days after Kurt Cobain blew his head off with a shotgun, Hole released Live Through This. It was and remains a rock masterpiece. For better or worse, it turned Courtney Love into the superstar she always said she was going to be.

The year had been a battle and at the Hollywood Palladium, Courtney proudly displayed her wounds. She had been through the grinder and she came out triumphant. She may be the consummate drama queen, but her emotions still resonate. She may animate her reality, but there’s a greater truth under the surface of the artifice: and when her blood spills, there’s no mistaking its potency. In 1994, in the wake of a suicide that took the life of her husband, one of his generation’s most poignant voices, Courtney Love had risen to the top of the mountain. Her confessional lyrics bled with an honesty that washed away all of the artifice.  Some loved her and some wanted to see her fall into a fiery pit and never hear her name again.

I loved her. But I probably kind of hated her, too. While I don’t blame her for Kurt Cobain’s death, it would have been nice if she could have saved him. (That, of course, is asking too much of anyone). Courtney Love may have been the loaded gun in Kurt’s life, but he pulled the trigger by letting her in.

I loved her because the music of Live Through This justified all of Courtney’s bravado. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It tells uncomfortable truths. It brings the pain to the surface and it makes it go away. Listening to it over and over again provided a sort of catharsis to the death of her husband, but if Kurt Cobain had been alive upon the album’s release, it still would have been a classic.

That night at the Palladium was electric. It was an unsung memorial for Kurt; it was Courtney’s Hollywood coronation. The 1990s had barely just begun and its obituary was already being written. Kurt Cobain was dead and just the day before this show the Republicans took over Congress for the first time since 1954. Bill Clinton had promised change two years before and with his feet barely wet, it looked like we were headed right back to the ugliness of Reagan’s 1980s. Something, though, about this night promised a fresh start. The only question was how much the past would get in the way.

I was probably with my friend Jonathan. If the past was prologue, we lingered on the side, away from the mosh pit. Veruca Salt opened the show, a solid bill, but their power pop hooks couldn’t compete with the anticipation of the headliner. (Incidentally, while Hole is clearly an appropriate name for a band fronted by Courtney Love, Veruca Salt would have been even better. Just like the spoiled brat from Willy Wonka, Love wakes up each morning with no other goal than to be the girl with the most cake.)

I spent much of 1994 hungover from a particularly humbling break-up and I suspect that in addition to my grief over Kurt’s death, it was the emotional landscape of a broken heart that forged my affection for Hole’s music. It has not occurred to me until now, but my ex had a few things in common with Courtney. She was talented, self-destructive, whip-smart and probably bi-polar. She left me for an old-boyfriend. That happens, people are so often lured back to the traps of their past. But the ex she returned to was in jail at the time. And it wasn’t exactly for anything that could be misconstrued as glamorous.

He was essentially a homeless schizophrenic who has been caught sleeping on someone’s Beverly Hills porch. He was convicted of burglary. It was the last in a long line of the kind of brushes with the police that happen when you live on the streets. Naturally, being dumped for a prisoner didn’t exactly do my self-confidence any favors. To be replaced by someone who wasn’t even there was the greatest rejection of all. When Courtney wailed “Someday, you will ache like I ache” I’m sure I embraced that song as a comforting balm, hoping for the vindication that someday my ex would regret her decision to leave me. Someday, I hoped, she would see the errors of her ways and come back on her knees.

At one point Courtney brought her and Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean on the stage. She was two years old. Courtney said something along the lines of not caring if anyone thought she was exploiting her, Frances Bean was the most successful thing she’d ever done in her life. It was a painful, awkward moment, an acknowledgment of all that was lost with Kurt’s death, mixed with the optimism that he had left a part of himself behind – a part that would be alarmingly under the care of Courtney Love. The crowd cheered, but I felt sick. It was a cringe-inducing display. If not already obvious, it was quickly becoming apparent why Kurt Cobain suffered so much from intestinal pains.

After the show, in front of the venue on Sunset Boulevard I was buying a concert shirt and there was a commotion down the street. It turns out it was Courtney Love hot on the trail of a fleeing Mary Lou Lord, who according to Courtney “once gave Kurt a blowjob and has built her career on it.” Mary Lou had made the mistake of showing up to Hole’s after party, a bold move considering that in Courtney’s estimation, “There are five people in the world who if I run into I’ll fucking kill. And she’s definitely one of them.” That’s a lot of power for a rock star to give to a folksinger, but Courtney feeds off grudges like an athlete downs Gatorade.

The glimpse of Courtney running down the road barefoot in her torn slip, attacking a woman who’d had a long-ago dalliance with a her dead husband wasn’t exactly an endearing encore for a show that had at times been life affirming and triumphant. It was just sad. In the depths of her sorrow, Courtney was swinging wildly at ghosts. As much as Love wanted to rise above the angst and grab the golden ring of fame and fortune, she couldn’t get her feet out of the cement of the past.

It is the essential dichotomy that defines her today. Reportedly, Courtney now wants to trade in her kinder-whore dress for Coco Chanel, but without her crazy history, there is no context. While Courtney’s music is often about transforming, it always has its eyes on the rear view. That’s not a criticism so much as an observation of the corner that she has painted herself into. The tension of her dualities is always what kept Courtney Love standing, without them she falls down. Now, it seems, she’s just propped up by the corner itself – a misfit, broken doll from the past with nowhere to go.

Courtney Love hasn’t aged too well over the years. Hole’s Celebrity Skin had a few standout tracks, but was generally forgettable. She was amazing in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but hasn’t come anywhere close to landing such a roll since. The rest of her artistic output revolves around her playing the role of Courtney Love, an icon of sorts. Someday there will be an opera or a Broadway show. Unfortunately, in the meantime, it seems being Courtney Love has become a full time job that she couldn’t walk away from if she tried.

I don’t think about Hole much anymore. And I also don’t think about the woman who broke my heart during that turbulent time. Yes, she eventually came around. She saw the errors of her ways. The relationship with the prisoner lasted only about three weeks once he got released from jail. A few years later, she said she wanted to marry me, but by then my love had faded. I just wanted to be her friend. If I have any regrets it’s that I wasted two or three years wanting her back and during that time I blinded myself to all the other possibilities around me. I used to think that the only way I could live through this was to return to the past, but sometimes you just have to move on.

________________________

This is a great version of “Violet” from the MTV Video Music Awards 1995. Courtney is playing to her kind of crowd: one full of celebrities. Stay tuned to the very end when Courtney punctuates her performance with what seems like a rehearsed tantrum. The noisy feedback immediately segues into a cheesy instrumental as the announcer primes the audience at home for the next act: Bryan Adams! It’s a beautiful, painful illustration that even the most vivid, primal emotions are just grist for our endless need to be amused to death.

The Magnetic Fields “Andrew in Drag” is the Best Looking Girl in Town

March 9, 2012

The Magnetic Fields return to 69 Love Songs form with “Andrew in Drag,” the first single off their new album Love at the Bottom of the Sea. It’s a fantastic video. It’s also an excellent reminder that dressing in drag takes some serious work. These men are artists.

On a related note, I could not help but notice that while perusing the local alterna-rags here in Seattle, it’s hard to miss the sex worker ads in the papers’ back pages. Certainly, it is always a delicious irony that these allegedly progressive publications are an integral force of the prostitution trade. After all, their editors and writers routinely scribble their half-baked screeds lamenting the exploited and manipulated, yet they profit off of people who have been reduced to selling their bodies for money.

That said, there is a much more intriguing trend here in the Pacific Northwest, one that I have not seen replicated in the pages of any other free local art and lifestyle birdcage-liner. In Seattle, the transgenders are exponentially better looking than the regular whores, at least the ones who advertise. And it’s not even close. On one side of the page it’s full of Angelina Jolies, while the other features syphilitic, pasty, bulging versions of Jennifer Anniston.

If one were to judge from their pictures in the back of The Stranger, even the homeliest women in Seattle can make a living in the sex trade. But if you’re going to sell your body as a transgender, you better have it going on. What that says about the Emerald City, I’m not sure, but I like it. What it says about me for noticing is an entirely different matter …

Magnetic Fields – Andrew in Drag – MP3

Buy the whole album here. Don’t buy it at Amazon, where people searching for “magnetic fields” are immediately put on the terrorist watch list. Word up.

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