We land around 11:15 p.m., Texas time, and our cab driver is an older chap of West African descent. Before we see any fun, we have to infiltrate the heart of the mess—200,000 visitors are in Austin this year—to get a key to a half-empty apartment. (The owner was moving out and gracious enough to let us stay there.) While idling illegally across the street from the bar Red 7 while a friend runs out to get the key, the cab driver, who despite being jovial is not a very good listener, complains that the police "don't play around down here." He worries about getting a ticket. We get the key, and we have to inch through throngs of people to get back to open road. People curse at our cabbie. Just out of the thick, we pass by three scrawny young women, and he leans out the window. "If you hit me, I will marry you," he says with a grin. "Fuck you, nigger!" one yells back. The cabbie just laughs. "Did you hear what she said? That doesn't bother me at all! What she doesn't know is, I'm also part Irish and a Jew!" Minutes later, he will say what you always hear people say about Austin. "It's the most liberal city in the South."
"Don't call it anything else, or you'll sound like an idiot," a friend says to me early on. Bar employees wear shirts that say things like "Thanks So Much, Now Go Home" or "Don't Move Here." That's great, disgruntled bar employees, but last year this festival brought $113 million to your city. Buck up.
I make it downtown, get my badge, and am lucky to meet up with Abe. He first takes me to an area called the Eastside (he equates it with Seattle's Capitol Hill), and we have a few rounds at a lovely joint called the Brixton. From there, it's a modest walk through a residential neighborhood of junk-filled backyards, barking dogs, and spray-painted Mayan symbolism to the re-relocated SiiickXSW party, put on by CMRTYZ and the Highfives and Handshakes fellows. We're in a far-flung neighborhood because plans for this show have already been busted up by the fuzz twice.
When we finally echolocate the place, Fungi Girls are on. They fly through a set of catchy garage rock in the backyard of a nondescript house while kids mill about with backpacks full of beer. The going rumor proves true when, after the Fungi Girls, John Dwyer et al. start loading in. The neighbors to one side—a middle-aged Hispanic couple with two pit bulls and a giant bag of sunflower seeds—look on from lawn chairs in the adjacent backyard, clearly ready and in full approval.
I've seen Thee Oh Sees a number of times, and they're one of my all-time favorite bands to watch live, but when they launch into this set, the stuff seems brand-new again. Maybe it's the locale, maybe it's the work it took to find the place, but Dwyer's vocals and guitar tones ring out like he's re-created the band's enthralling material in a new but equally pleasing vision. On the porch behind them sits Dwyer's usual array of amps—piled in a pillar—surrounded by the band's ample arsenal. Down on the grass, with no barrier between band and crowd, Thee Oh Sees again vanquish any possible nonbelievers' doubts. People shake, dance, buzz—there is not a frown in the yard. Twenty-five minutes and two encores later, it's done, and even the neighbors in the next yard are cheering for more. This would never happen in Seattle.
There are many drinks and many bars before the next show, which happens to be Astronautalis from our very own town (I skip Wu-Tang for this, as I'm told it will be worth it). Andy Bothwell delivers like FedEx could only dream of. "Give me 10 subjects to freestyle on," he says toward the end of an absolutely electrifying set. Topics range from nuclear power to someone's grandmother named Gloria. He freestyles seamlessly, measure after measure, before breaking into a chorus that sounds like a hybrid of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Without question, this is a man to watch.
As mentioned earlier, people who estimate this type of shit estimated 200,000 visitors showed up this year for South By. One direct result: You cannot get a cab to save your life. Yellow Cab in Austin has a web form, it has a smartphone form, it has a phone number for Luddites. None of these work during South By. I walk more than 30 blocks from downtown back to 39th and Guadalupe. By the early 20s, I have given up on a cab and start giving all cars the middle finger as they pass me. An Escalade full of bleary revelers passes by, blasting 50 Cent with the windows down. Its inhabitants slow and lob a half-empty (half-full) beer can at me (they miss).
The following night, I am struck on the way to an afterparty by the sudden and undeniable need for sleep. I march up to 8th Street—which I've been repeatedly told is the best place to catch a cab—and spend the next 50 minutes waving my arms frantically. Others try to run and grab the doors of moving cabs as passersby look on and laugh. Eventually, a limo stops and honks its horn. My sprint across the street finds me at its door along with a small crowd—one part frat kid and two parts sorority girl. We're all headed uptown and split the fare. "Show us your titties," frat keeps saying to one part sorority, until she throws herself into his lap with a gasp of feigned exasperation.
I turn on the local news just to see if it's any worse than Seattle's. Breathless reports exclaim, "South by Southwest: bigger, but is it any better?" and the like on every local news channel. In succession, we see the type of clips that the local news loves, a video of Ben Weasel punching some woman in the face and the words "Ben Weasel, of the band Screeching Weasel, punches woman in the face" on the screen. There is a report of a riot at Beauty Bar for the recently reunited band Death from Above 1979, even though the incident consists of less than five people trying to climb over the chain-link fence in the back area. Owner: "It's good publicity, obviously."
It could be the weather, or it could be the lack of pretension in Austin, but HOLY SHIT ARE THERE BEAUTIFUL WOMEN EVERYWHERE in that damn town. Even the women I see who have relocated to Austin from Seattle seem to have multiplied their attractiveness rating by like 10 to 90 percent. I fall in love with a girl who used to live here (hi, Leah). Seattle women, please: Take note of whatever they're doing down there.
Fred (all the names have been changed, BTW) looks skinny but happy. He drives us straight to Ruth's Chris Steak House in a rented Escalade. The valet disposes of the eyesore/eye candy, and we enter in T-shirts and hirsute faces. My steak would be mouthwateringly delicious if not for the Red Sea quantity of salt on top. Abe leaves us after the meal to go visit his girlfriend, and Fred and I take the eyesore/eye candy back to his rented house, only it's not a house, it's a fucking mansion with a view of the Austin high-rise skyline. Police are standing guard at the entrance to the neighborhood, but they remember Fred and let us right in. As we walk inside, a guy and girl lazily shuffle upstairs. "Who is that?" I ask. Fred doesn't know. We move past stacks of unopened cases of beer to the back porch for a cigarette. Fred's company was supposed to throw a showcase at the house, but it got canceled/moved at the last minute. "The owner saw that there were 700 RSVPs on Facebook and freaked out." Through the window I see the couple walk into the upstairs bathroom.
We call the car service so Fred can stop driving and we can get back downtown. "Do you know where we can get drugs?" someone asks Fred. "Just wait for the driver," Fred answers. Minutes later, Pablo picks us up. "I can get you seven grams," Pablo says. Fred and the others balk. "Is that too much money?" Pablo asks. "That's too much cocaine," Fred answers. But as almost always happens with cocaine, minds change within minutes, and Pablo calls someone on his cell phone and starts speaking in Spanish. The next minute, we are pulling into a parking lot behind a convenience store, and Pablo puts his Lincoln in park and jumps into the car idling next to us. One minute and he is back in the car with seven grams of cocaine for $200. "I will do the first taste if you don't trust it," he says. Fred grabs the bag out of his hand and tells him that won't be necessary. Some must be done, though. It is late and we are drunk. In no time, Pablo has three giant lines laid out on a Julio Iglesias CD case.
I REALLY love almost everything you do. But for Christ's sake, can you take better fucking care of the pissers in your bars? Emo's only inside shitter was "out of order," which I assume just meant that they didn't want anyone doing coke in there, but what about maybe just clearing the garbage and detritus out of the urine trough once a day? I know SXSW is a captive audience, but for the love of god, show some respect. Your town would pretty much just about dry up into a tumbleweed if it weren't for this dubious music festival and your goddamn Longhorns.
The UT tower gunman story that anyone over the age of 45 remembers is looming every time I walk past the university. "There are still bullet holes in the wall of a barber shop, if you're weird enough to look for them," Abe tells me. I consider myself pretty weird, but I never go look.
Have you guys heard about this genre called bounce? It basically consists of Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Vockah Redu and the Cru—and if Vockah Redu and the Cru's show Sunday night at Beerland is any indication, it's the best goddamn thing you will see last year. Are you a gay man or a straight woman? Vockah Redu has like 40 dudes with athletic asses wearing tight jeans and dancing in unison with his razor-sharp vocal barrage. Are you a straight man? Prepare to be converted or not care one way or another as this entourage blows away any preconceived notions. Best live show you've ever seen since the best live show you've ever seen.
"I am a big fan of systems that make things happen. It's like scaffolding around a building. If the scaffolding is not strong, the building will fall."
"The fact is, TV is evolving. And the fact that you can watch YouTube on your TV now means everything. People these days just want to know, and they just watch the same shows as their friends."
"The Head and the Heart are just amazing"—this from an older man, talking about what he's seen in Austin. They're from Vancouver, Washington. His wife confirms everything he says as she's falling asleep. He orders a sandwich for himself and a glass of red wine and a fruit and cheese platter for her, even though she's out. I order one glass of whiskey on the rocks and another glass of red wine, drink them as fast as I can, and pass out before he says anything more.