Weird Austin

Kelley & IQuite out of the blue, my friend and ex-colleague Kelley contacted me via a comment on my blog to invite me down to visit her in Austin. Kelley, you see, immigrated to New Zealand some years ago with her partner Danny. I met her there about three years ago in her capacity as a software architect and consultant, but her original vocation was geology. It’s quite fascinating, really. For quite some time, Kelley worked for the oil companies in Texas, figuring out where the oil is. She soon got fed up with that business and so swapped to software but not before working with George W Bush for some time: a man she describes as “a spoilt little brat” and a few other things besides.

In fact, it’s quite telling that Kelley & Danny both decided to give up the Austin lifestyle they cherished so much, in order to get away from the craziness that has taken over the United States. Austin was Kelly’s home. She studied there, worked there, lived there, partied there and met with love there. So, for me, the prospect of spending some time in Austin with a bone fide Austin-ite was very appealing. I had no idea what I was in for.

I35 over Ladybird LakeI left work as early as I dared, literally running to my car so as not to waste time. I’d packed the previous night, so I planned to make the 240 mile, 4 hour journey in one stretch. Kelly had proposed we go to a live music performance at a place called Antone’s in the heart of the city, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I turned on the radio and listened for the traffic report: “The I-30 west-bound is closed due to an accident, traffic is being diverted….” Damn. The I-30 is an arterial road into Dallas and the accident sounded like it crossed inconveniently in my path. I took a detour South, via the 635, smugly congratulating myself at my improving navigational acumen. Just a year ago, I would have been reduced to a neurotic mess had I been faced with the prospect of an unplanned detour.

Kelley outside Antone'sIn a little under an hour, I was speeding South, away from the city, I stretched my arms and settled in for a long drive then slammed on the anchors. Traffic. As far as the eye could see, cars clogged the abysmally narrow I35W, south bound.

Three hours later, I blew in to Austin about 15 minutes late, found a place to park and scampered down the stairs, camera in hand. Kelley stood in front of Antone’s waving at me. The headliner’s tonight were the Subdudes, but the opening act was the Shelly King Band. I was just in time.

Poster Art at AntonesI soon realised that the Kelley I knew did not quite encompass her whole self. Everywhere we went in Antone’s, Kelley would stop and introduce me to someone: “this is Stephen, from New Zealand” she would state proudly as though I were royalty. “Oh, and Stephen, this is so-and-so, they own such-and-such, and they’ve been a key figure in Austin culture since before you were born”. I paraphrase but that’s how it seemed to me. Kelley and Danny, it turns out, are intimately connected into Austin society, and what a society it is.

Margarita & IAustin, as I mentioned before, is the live music capital of the world, and not without reason. A number of big names got their breaks here, hundreds and thousands of musicians and artists have made the pilgrimage to this vibrant cultural wellspring to soak up the vibrations (to use a 60’s term). The late proprietor of this venue, Clifford Antone is himself quite a character in Austin folklore, having supported the arts and blues music in particular for over three decades. I had a strange sense of being a part of a living history, of being connected to people who had been there, done that and, more to the point, were still doing it: prolifically.

I sipped my margarita as Kelley pointed out all the posters and other artwork that seemed to ooze out of the very walls of this place, a good portion of it could be attributed to Danny himself. Clifford Antone, who had died suddenly, just one year previously turns out to have been a long-standing friend of Danny and Kelly.

Shelly King at AntonesWe moved closer to the action to take in the performers. Shelly King and her self-named band were very good: the buxom young lady has a powerful, jazzy voice and she knows how to use it.

It’s hard for me to place the kind of music they played. To call it country would be unfair, but it’s certainly not entirely jazz or blues either, all of the above or maybe just “folk music”? I have never been particularly good at labels anyway.

Shelly King at AntonesAfter a few songs, during which the lead guitarist did things with a guitar I had never seen before (though perhaps had I been more musically literate I would have recognised them) Shelly King and her band relinquished the stage to the headliners.

The crowd obviously knew these guys well because they cheered enthusiastically and yelled requests for their favourite songs. They’re a well-known band from New Orleans and apparently play quite frequently on the local radio stations.

SubdudesAs I listened to them play their first, second, third song, I grew a little wistful. I could see reflected on their faces a feeling I knew only too well. Here was a band of five guys who knew each other so well, knew their music so well, and were so talented that they could forget about the mechanics of what they were doing and focus on making music. Some may call it “the zone” others may call it “flow”, whatever it is, these guys had it tonight. They were jamming effortlessly, each one covering automatically for almost imperceptible imperfections in the others’ performance, each so attuned to the others that they only needed to glance at one another’s face or fingers to know which slight variation on the theme they were going to explore tonight.

SubdudesThen, it hit me: somewhere between the second margarita and the fourth song: this is where music comes from. The thought was so clear and persistent that I couldn’t shake it. What I was witnessing here was the creative effort out of which came music and I was fortunate enough to participate. Music doesn’t come from the radio, TV, CDs or the Internet. Music is from people, more specifically, music is between people, like these guys on stage. What these men shared together here was music.

Subdudes at AntonesAs I looked around the venue, I realised something else about this group. Many of them were (are) aging hippies. Most of them came of age at or around Vietnam. Many (like Danny himself) would have served in Vietnam. In all senses of the phrase, they had been there, done that, got the tie-dyed t-shirt. So, what were they doing? These people who had experienced so much more life than I? Who had the collective wisdom that in other cultures would be greatly revered? What was it that they invested so much of themselves and their time into? Music, the arts, beauty, peace, joy. What a great contrast to the use so many young people have been put to today: war, fear, consumption. I imagined that if I could fit the whole world into this room with me, so they could see what I saw and understand which of mankind’s pursuits are edifying and which are not, the world would be changed for the better.

Ruta Maya PosterI was buzzing with the music by the time we left to have a bite to eat at a nearby New York styled deli. Kelley grew up in New York, so she knows her East-coast food.

The next morning, I awoke a little late and hurried over to where Kelley was staying, just a stone’s throw from Antone’s. I realised how fortunate I was that everything was so handily situated for me. We drove to a little off-beat coffee shop called “Ruta Maya”.

Inside, they were having kids yoga classes, outside a pair of Mexican construction workers took advantage of the free wifi to check their email. This whole area had been warehouses and an airfield. It had all been bought and renovated and now it instead seemed to scream “boutique hippie” if that’s even possible.

Happy Jack & KelleyI use the term hippie often in this post but that’s the only way to describe it. If you came here you would know what I mean.
“Oh, wonderful, you’ll get to meet Happy Jack” Kelley said with a smile.
I turned around to see an old man in a violent burnt-orange shirt bearing down on us.
“Happy days” Jack enthused (that phrase the reason for his nickname), giving Kelley a hug. We were introduced and Jack took my hand with a smile. “Welcome home” he said, his bright blue eyes twinkled knowingly. “You’ll see” he asserted with a wink.

Happy JackWe sat around and chewed the fat a little. Jack lived in a bus. He didn’t drive the bus, though he did move it occasionally. He declared to us that his bus had been stationary these past five years. Something unprescedented for him. “Isn’t that just trippin’?” Jack asked? Something told me that Jack himself had enough expertise to know exactly whether something was tripping or not, I grinned.

Jack had the latest CD from JT Van Zandt’, the son of Townes Van Zandt, a famous musician whom Danny & Kelly knew. I listened with bewildered attention as they tried to explain the musical progeny of this city.
Happy Jack EmboideringWe followed Jack inside to see his embroidery machine. “It’s Stephen with a PH, is it?” he asked.
“Ooh, you’re about to get something neat” Kelly smiled
Without much hesitation, Jack created a bookmark for me with my name and a peace sign embroidered onto it. He used burnt orange since that’s the colour of the local football team. I wasn’t sure whether I should pay him. Was it a gift or a sample of his work. I decided it was a gift and pocketed it gratefully.

Me at Barton CreekThe next event of the day would be to go to Barton Creek. Because of the unusual amount of rain, Kelley guessed it would be more than just a bone dry creek as would be the case in September of any other year. We stopped at Walmart to get me a pair of shorts for swimming in. It seemed everyone else had the same idea: they were all out. I eventually made do with a large size boy’s pants. Yes, I know I’m just opening myself up for a joke on that one.

Me at Barton CreekKelley navigated me down to the creek, something that, as a tourist new to the city, I would have had a great deal of difficulty finding. It’s a fair walk from the car park down to the creek. Fortunately, however, the closer you get to the water the cooler it becomes.

Me at Barton CreekIt brought back memories of hiking in South Africa, the hot African sun filtering through the trees, the sound of rushing water nearby. An unexpected benefit of hiking with a geologist is Kelley could point out the geological features and give a kind of geological history of the area just from memory: kind of like a guide to history of the land itself. It wasn’t long before we came upon the creek.

Now, it’s been a long time since I have swum in fresh water. I guess the last time would have to be at Midmar dam, all those years ago in central Natal, South Africa. The water was invitingly cold after a long hot trek. There were at least a dozen people out here enjoying the water, I submerged myself and spent a good deal of time just lying peacefully in the shallow rapids, letting the incessant water pummel the stress into submission.

Barton Springs - Diving BoardOur next stop was Barton Springs for an ice cream and a look around. Barton Springs was a popular tourist destination since the 1830’s due, in part, to the ice-cold fresh springs from which the area gets its name. The intrigueing thing for me about this place was that it is the self-same creek I had been swimming in earlier, except that it had been fashioned into something of a pool by enterprising people. The juxtaposition of the man-made structures and the natural rock shelves is actually quite beautiful.

Philosopher's RockEven here, Austin’s rich cultural heritage is blatantly apparent. The philosopher’s rock is a statue depicting three of the great literary minds of their day: the naturalist Roy Bedichek, folklorist J. Frank Dobie and historian Walter Prescott Webb.

They were well known to have used this pool as the location for their vibrant intellectual discussions. Yes, that’s right. A history of intellectualism in the heart of Texas.

At around 4pm, we decided it was time for a drink and a bite to eat.

Armadillo Sculpture at ThreadgillsThe venue for this was a place called Threadgill’s World Headquarters Restaurant. When the mayor of Austin declared Danny Garrett day (yes, that’s right, Danny Garrett day) they celebrated it here at Threadgills. This restaurant, a place which itself has a long and illustrious Austin history, was purchased by Eddie Wilson and refashioned to pay homage to another Austin legend he himself owned: Armadillo Headquarters. The Armadillo played host to a wide variety of music throughout the 70’s and 80’s and is all tied up into the musical legends of the “Cosmic Cowboy”.

The armadillo was a cultural success but a financial nightmare, it closed in 1980 due to financial troubles and was raised to make way for office buildings, but the effect it had on the musical community was far reaching. You don’t believe me? What do The Police, AC/DC, Ray Charles, The B52’s, The Clash, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson have in common? They all played at the Armadillo.

Posters at ThreadgillsBy the way Kelly spoke, it was apparent that she and Danny knew Eddie personally. We walked nostalgically past all the posters and pictures that line the walls. “Oh, look, that’s Eddie there… he doesn’t look anything like that” she would say a little wistfully “then again, none of us do.”

Once again, a lot of the artwork that lined the walls was from Danny’s obviously prolific career. I had no idea that the unassuming man who once sat so quietly in my living room had such a rich personal history that is tied so strongly into the legends of Austin, and thus into the musical world in general. All in all, it was a great little break from the hum-drum of my usual work-week and an eye-opening jaunt through recent history.

Lost Gonzo Band PosterAmazing Rhythm Aces PosterCharlie Daniels PosterMarshal Tucker Band Poster

The title of this post is “Weird Austin” in acknowledgement of the local bumper stickers that say “keep Austin weird”. May this Southern cultural diamond continue to sparkle in strange and unexpected ways.