A meditation on Austin.
“You gotta get up to get down!” exhorted Toni Price from the stage of the Continental Club last Tuesday night, by way of explaining the dynamic shifts that can be common to her long-running happy-hour sets at the historic South Austin nightclub. Thus the hopped-up java-juke of “Too Much Coffee” coexisting alongside the soul-aching heartbreak of “I Doubt If It Does To You”, or the spirited reaffirmation of “Hey!” being followed by the lonesome longing of “Just To Hear Your Voice”.
Later, I considered the inverse: “You gotta get down to get up.” That’s about where it feels now, on the tail-end of ten days in Austin, traversing the old trails of a personal past with a cautionary eye toward a possible future.
I’ve been here before, you see. Grew up here, even. Went to college here too. Started my professional life in the midst of all the music that fills these streets. And departed, yes, for eighteen years so far. All the while with a foot still barely wedged in the door, I suppose — though it is circumstance that brings us here now. In the depths of the New Depression, you gotta get down to get up.
And so, I renewed a lot of old ties, and made a few new ones as well. Saw some bands and friends and places that were familiar; took a look at a few things I’d never seen before, some of which are new enough to this city to feel entirely foreign. (Downtown high-rise condos? Yeah, nice view and all, but whoever can afford $374,900 for a one-bedroom is welcome to it. It appears parts of the New Austin remain well beyond our modest means, and that’s probably just as well.)
There’s a band called the Coffee Sergeants who had their 15 minutes sometime in the early-mid ’90s; Dejadisc put out their record, nothing ever really happened, and they were never heard from again — except apparently they still play shows once in awhile. I went to see them at the Carousel Lounge, a funky northeast-side bar that’s been around forever but which I somehow had never managed to patronize till this past week. Friendly place, and a pretty cool band, all these years later. Warm and melodic and psychedelic; and how many bands employ not one, but TWO people projecting those swirly oil-based collages on a bedsheet behind the stage? (A sheet which obscured the venue’s trademark sculpted elephant, though his trunk poked through a hole in the fiber.)
The Cactus Cafe I knew plenty well enough — Townes Van Zandt’s home club, and one of my favorite live-music venues of all-time — but somehow I’d never seen the guy who packed the house this past Friday evening, a fellow who calls himself Matt The Electrician.
(An aside: Though Matt is apparently doing quite well for himself musically these days, it occurred to me how brilliant it is for a musician to bill oneself with a name that publicizes a marketable trade, particularly during a depression. When his club-draw was leaner, I’ll bet he got some rather helpful house-wiring gigs from fans who found themselves thinking, “Well, we need an electrician — I know, let’s call that guy Matt!” Maybe there’s a future in, for instance, “Jon Dee The Welder”….or, in an earlier era, I might’ve had some success with “Blackstock The Blacksmith.”)
Anyway….you’ve likely not ever heard the threadbare connection between Matt and the origins of this website’s nomenclature. You might be aware that No Depression the online community was a successor to the departed No Depression print magazine, which itself was initially a sort of outgrowth of an online community that originated on AOL. That first community began as an Uncle Tupelo discussion-board, but when its regulars found they were discussing other like-minded artists, they petitioned the guy who ran those AOL boards and asked him if he would be willing to change the name of the board to a new name they’d settled upon: “No Depression.” That AOL fellow’s name was Andre Prochaska, and sometime right around then, Andre began managing a young artist named….Matt The Electrician. So that’s how most of us in the first-wave ND-universe heard of him.
Lots of other folks know him now, apparently, given the size and enthusiasm of the crowd at the Cactus. He’s persevered and improved over the past decade or so; the guy’s got a nice presence and quite a few good songs, and the good sense to hire Scrappy Jud Newcomb as a sideman. I give him props for a Walmart-oriented novelty-song that probably isn’t at all what you’d expect from a Walmart-oriented novelty song, to his credit. Less props for the (admittedly well-executed) Journey cover, but apparently his wife really likes them, so I’ll cut him some slack.
If you’re reading this, you probably think the city of Austin is all about music, and that’s partly true, except for the 800-pound gorilla in the room. You know what this town is really about? University Of Texas Longhorns Football. And so was spent my Saturday. Four hours in DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium is pretty much the best four hours of the year. Let’s go to DKR-Texas, with Darrell and Willie and the boys….
Among the old haunts on the Little Town With The Big Nostalgia Complex’s memory-lane tour is a place which has for two decades been called the Crown & Anchor, but which to us old farts will always be the site of the old Beach Cabaret, and that’s where a friend and I spent a little time this evening. On the small stage ten feet from the booth where we sat enjoying our $1.75 Monday-night Shiner drafts (amazingly, not all that far off the 1985 prices!), Daniel Johnston played his first shows a quarter-century past, and we saw the likes of Zeitgeist, the True Believers, Texas Instruments and other spirits of those times set the shoebox-esque room afire. We fell in love with that music, and part of us is still there. Probably always will be.
A couple blocks away is the Castle Arms, a dumpy apartment complex that was the first place I ever lived away from home. Sometimes I’ll drive by the old house where I grew up, but I’ve never really thought much about this old roach-infested ramshackle place, which, even as the better part of Austin has been demolished and reconstructed, somehow still stands just where it always did, and looks almost exactly the same.
On this night, I stopped, pulled into the old open-garage area with the pillars you had to be careful not to ram into when you parked. I walked up the two flights of steps, strolled by the door of #207, paused for a moment, and tried to see if I could hear the echoes of 1984. The cassette tapes of R.E.M. and Springsteen playing on the stereo. The wee-hours discussions and study-sessions with the windows wide open in the sweltering heat. The night when a carful of friends from Fort Worth came banging on that very door there, and redirected the future of my life.
Maybe if you gotta get down to get up, you gotta go back to go forward, too.
On the way home, Robert Earl Keen’s Rose Hotel struck a chord, somehow. He’s gone back, too, returning to Lost Highway after several albums elsewhere; dunno the circumstances really, but there’s something reassuring about this record (which Jeff Giddens wrote about at more length on the site HERE). Maybe it’s the perfectly captured cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Flyin’ Shoes”. Or the sweet swaying waltz of “Goodbye Cleveland”. Or the Blaze Foley duct-tape recollection. No telling, exactly….but it sounded like what I needed to hear, as I took the long way home….past the retirement home where my parents have reserved space for some day looming ahead of us….past the graveyard where my grandmother resides and where they may be someday too….going back, and forward.
Tomorrow night, Keen’s guitarist, Rich Brotherton, will take the stage again with Toni Price for another Tuesday happy-hour at the Continental Club. Rumor has it that Toni’s longtime songwriting voice, Gwil Owen, will be part of things. Seen Toni play countless times; never seen her with Gwil. I suppose that’s just about right.