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sxsw2014 Wed Mar 12 2014
Robbie Fulks cares. About heart health and "Texanliness", among other things. But may not make the best cat caretaker, if you're thinking about loaning him your house.
Yesterday I was scoffing at how little festival color and news my posts would transmit, but today I started to feel sad and ashamed. Vested with all the journalistic trust by a website, only to produce dull diary entries pertinent to no one's interest. I should get out there in the field. So I Googled "south by southwest best music 2014" and similar phrases. "Agnes Obel," says Paste.com, "exists at the crux where beauty and sadness are indistinguishable, weaving sedative piano whispers around tales of aborted love." I know poor Agnes Obel didn't write that, and might not even endorse the description, and maybe she doesn't sound like what that suggests, but if she did, wouldn't it be just awful? That's not something to go do for fun. Or because you are down on your website-writing performance. And there are eighty-four other suggestions of don't-miss music on the site. Eighty-four! With music clips included but no information about where or when they'll be playing. Sorry, but I'm not seeing anything while I'm here.
This day just passed had a truly hideous aspect, which I'll get to. I got up and went to Starbucks, where I saw Terry Lickona of Austin City Limits, and where I also saw a young light-haired bearded guy with a tight short-sleeve cowboy shirt, sitting at a table talking about his music and gesticulating emotionally to a Sephardic older gentleman who appeared deeply sympathetic and who hung on every word with a cocked head. Which character in that music business tableau would you rather be, if you had to choose? Winning entry gets one Gapers Block mug. [Editor's note: we have no mugs, sorry.]
I checked in at the convention center and got my wristband and then I returned to the Bloodshot hotel (where I rode on the elevator with creamy complexioned Lydia Loveless, and bumped into Nan Warshaw's boyfriend gleefully carrying a big Whataburger breakfast bag — easy there, folks, I need you alive for a few more records!) and plotted an easy jog along the Colorado. There's a broad path on either side, with bridges and crossovers at regular intervals, at most one a mile. After I'd run a mile and a half, I crossed over. But when I'd run what felt like an equal distance on the returning side, I became unsure of my landmarks and left the path for street level. I ran awhile trying to get the downtown skyline in my sights, but I was lost. I was running on empty sidewalks in a ghostly neighborhood. By and by I saw a man about my age, idly smoking a cigarette by a bus stop. When I told him where I was trying to go, he squinted at me like I was from the moon. Then we chatted a bit. He used to live on Sheridan Road in Wilmette, small world. At any rate, it seemed I had wandered 2 miles away the running path. After I hustled back to it, I got back in the groove and started seeing some familiar landmarks — but then I went up to street level and got lost all over again. By the time I got back to the hotel I had gone about 6 miles, which was a lot more than I meant to go. It was perfect running weather, though.
Like the cigarette guy, almost everyone here is Texanly genial, eager to assist and demonstrate their great-spirited Texanliness to outsiders. It's a blessing that SxSW takes place in Austin and not, for instance, New York. For all the congestion and silliness, this is an easygoing environment that you have to be truly churlish to complain much about. This morning at 9:30 I was making my way past a 3-block-long, 4-person-wide line of people, as heterodox in its racial composition as a violent street gang in a Dirty Harry movie, over on Chavez Boulevard. Something exciting was soon to happen, who knows what. Behind them near San Jacinto was a tent with a sign, "Trending and Vending." A lot of the women walking around looked like Jeanine Pettibone, David St Hubbins's girlfriend from Spinal Tap. Everyone in sight was young and content and calm and relaxed — none of the people that typically cast a pall over American crowd scenes, like stressed shrieking parents with their bratty kids, glowering grandmas whizzing around in golf carts, or shrewd money men — just contented youngsters, and some shrewd money men perfectly disguised as contented youngsters. A couple times this morning someone would call my name and say hello, and that's a nice feeling. I guess I have to report that I am being seduced. I still hate crowds and "scenes," but if you have to have a gathering this big, it's clear the subject should be music and the locale should be this town.
After I played (pretty terribly) a short set at the trade show at the convention center, I hustled over to Chuy's for lunch. Not a foodie place to be, Chuy's sits on a row alongside other goofy touristy places on Barton Springs near Lamar, places like the Shady Grove, where my optometrist neighbor who relocated here told me delightedly over lunch one day in 2008, "They have a saying down here, Rob — Keep Austin Weird!," and like the Filling Station, across the street but now vanished, where I played long sets in the 1980s with Greg Cahill while members of the Austin Lounge Lizards kindly listened and bought us Long Island iced teas until our tongues were slapping the floor. I went to Chuy's with good friends a long time ago, just once, and now and then I return just on the basis of that slender memory; I like to open the back door off the parking lot and walk up the graded levels to the bar, and the dim light, and the idea of slumming in an inauthentic, snob-repellent Tex-Mex joint, although I guess nothing really connects me to what passed here before but the name, Chuy's, that's the only element that hasn't mutated, and so I'm here scarfing down this undistinguished vegetarian plate and about 3 quarts of Coke all alone for no very good reason.
I mentioned that an acquaintance unexpectedly offered me his empty family house for the week. It was here that I came after lunch. It was a charming wood frame house on a quiet residential block in west Austin, big backyard and front porch with a swing and quite a lot of pets. There was a lot of writing on three-hole notebook paper instructing me on the care and feeding of two cats, two guinea pigs, and "an elderly mouse," and I thought, "Uh-oh, this is actual responsibility," but once I had walked through the alarm system and keys and feeding routine, it seemed nothing much. What made me more nervous was that the house was so well-tended, every book and trinket on the kids' shelves lined up neatly, pasta and aluminum foil and cans in neat rows in the pantry (at home my food shelves are an unholy mess: pantry-monium!). I was going to think long and hard before turning down the bedsheets here, or shitting in the toilet. The instructions also mentioned that the neighborhood had a "weirdly high crime rate."
Then the hideous thing happened. I opened the back door to take a look at the laundry room, and one of the cats zoomed through, heading at top speed to a wide outdoor patio deck, where she inserted herself at the far end of a seven-inch-high crawl space. Oh no, I thought. Stay clam. No, stay calm. Think clearly. Don't let it escape the fucking yard -- get it out somehow — and don't don't don't call Carolyn in the middle of her Maui mountain hike or whatever she's doing to give her the disturbing news that you let the cat escape. The instructions mentioned clearly: these cats are indoor cats! I kneeled in the dirt and peered under the deck. A lot of leaves and junk and dust, and there in the back, two eyes glittering at me with chilly insolence. "Here, puss puss!" I twittered. I cajoled the creature vainly for 10 minutes. Maybe an enticing piece of food, or a mouselike object on a wire? But then I would have to leave my post, and she would tear off for parts unknown. I looked quickly around the yard, which appeared to have been designed with the idea of easy kitten outflow — wide-spaced iron bars, a wood fence with squeezing space at the bottom here and there, all sorts of passages to freedom.
I called Carolyn in Maui, or wherever she was. "Something happened," I said, and laid out the situation. "I can't hear you well, I'm at twelve thousand feet," she said. The reception was poor, but she sounded pretty unconcerned. I shouldn't worry, but rather go on with my festival-related deeds, the cat had been out before and unfailingly returned to the back door. I wasn't convinced that conditions were so benign, but the cat was clearly committed to its position, and what could I do? I went to the airport and got my guitar picker friend, Robbie Gjersoe.
That evening I had dinner with the Sirius/XM personality Dallas Wayne, and his wife, Jo Ellen. Old old friends. The block where we were eating, and where the Austin studios of Sirius are, is different since I was last at SxSW. Previously warehouse space and poky little restaurants, it's now got a shiny multimillion-dollar new city hall building on one side of the street (2nd and Lavaca, rechristened Willie Nelson Boulevard) and a glitzy Austin City Limits studio on the other. Politics and music. During the conference this area was ground zero, constantly awash with badge-wearing persons.
Nonetheless, at 6:30, the groovy pizza restaurant we were sitting in amid this ruckus was half-empty. I asked Jo about how the festival had changed since I was last here. "What kind of music is it, do they have a focus or is it all over the place?" I asked her. "I don't know any of the bands, like I did in the older days, and a lot of it seems like hip-hop or indie rock." No, she told me, there's no focus, it's every kind of music. But country. No country. "Just keep clear of the official events and you'll have a good time," she said. "Don't worry," I said.
I taped a sort of career retrospective in the Sirius studio with Dallas, then I went to Pedernales with Gjersoe. The drive was maybe 25 miles. I needed a van to cart the doghouse around for a couple days, and since all the vans were vanished from the rental companies, I prevailed on a kind friend, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. His Clubwagon was 17 years old and of unknown mileage ("the odometer stopped working after 100,000 miles" he said with satisfaction) and covered with peace signs and T-dye-style psychedelia: perfect! We sat on his porch for an hour, along with his wife Janet, drinking carbonated water and talking about friends' funerals, bad gigs, and 20 Feet From Stardom. When we were about to leave, Gjersoe noted an oddly behaving star, and we spent the remaining time gazing at the cosmos — what a nice interlude with Jimmie and Janet — before shattering its silent majesty with the throaty roar of the old Ford.
I just got back home, and the cat is nowhere to be seen.
Last-known sighting of cat. (Photos courtesy Robbie Fulks)
Robbie Fulks' current (and subject to change) SXSW Music Fest schedule is below:
Tuesday, March 11, 1pm - Trade show
Wednesday, March 12, 9pm - Continental Club
Thursday, March 13, 4pm - Broken Spoke
Friday, March 14, 12:45pm - Yard Dog
Saturday, March 15, 2pm - Brooklyn Country Cantina