(We brought Aquarium Drunkard’s J. Crosby with us to Austin last week—his first sojourn into the four-day romp that is SXSW. We traveled by car from L.A. to Austin. I asked Joe to keep a loose diary of events. Below are his notes. An homage to HST. Loosely based on facts, soaked in Lone Star and salsa, covered in tex-mex and BBQ. – AD)
After speeding across the desert from L.A. we had crashed in El Paso, a wretched border hive evolved into faux-society after generations of midnight crossings, dusty trade post quarreling and unapologetic inbreeding. We drank piss-warm beer till 5 a.m., speculating on the days to come. The next eve, seventeen hours of wandering and 600 miles later, two of our cohort–myself and a mustachioed “businessman”–were dropped at a roadside watering hole in Austin, bags in tow. “Sleep be damned,” the businessman said, and I cringed at the thought of excess. We walked inside. There, we met an albino Venezuelan woman and a tall, elastically built man who rambled about ghost sightings, corporate America and prostitutes. The four of us delighted in innocent revelry, telling stories, laughing and patting each other on the back when a certain anecdote saw fit to it. This interpersonal play had all the ostensible makeup of normalcy, despite the players.
The following morning looked more like an afternoon, and indeed it was. My eyes felt like stones, their lids tufts of unrefined cotton. My mouth was as parched as the cracks in my hands, but I otherwise felt fine. And in any case, I had business to do, so I gathered myself and prepared to make a few calls.
The businessman–a loose description, I’d soon find out–meanwhile headed toward the Convention Center, which for all intents and purposes is a bland structure of massive proportions serving bland appointments of benign futility. But on this day it would be the last jumping off point of the River Styx, where you pick up your registration accoutrements.
At the 11th hour, the businessman had arranged for me to receive a wristband. In most stretches of the world, wristbands are reserved for hopeless, swollen and jaundiced hospital patients roaming moribund halogen halls. Here in Austin, the wristband is a badge of honor, an access key, your mark flashed cooly at gatekeepers to gain entrance into the orgy of music, industry networking and Lone Star, into the darkest corners of South by Southwest. As though there were any difference. *More after the jump….
I made my calls under the pleasant Austin sky, while the businessman carried on his…business. The mild temperature and warm sun were rehabilitating. In between calls, text messages from the businessman would appear on my phone: “U need to show ID for wristband,” “Holler when ur on ur way,” and “Where the fuck are u?”
The latter prompted me to end all of my engagements and head to the Convention Center. Realizing my time was short, I took one aggressive step toward a sprint. As I lunged forward, something grabbed hold of me, ripping through my spine and numbing my right trapezius. Maybe it was a pinched nerve, the delayed onset of hangover or, upon reflection, the hand of some spiritual almighty gripping at my neck, trying to keep me in the land of the everypeople, resisting my carnal urge to enter the fray. Alas, I defied it. After all, I had a job to do.
I met the businessman at the front of loosely formed lines composed of weary travelers, weary save a twitch about them, a potential for excitability–like a pack of rabid dogs napping. We snatched up our access keys and went outside. A light fog set in over my consciousness, and the world around me began to fuzz with the halo of memory. What followed then occurred over a series of indeterminable days and nights, events lacking a chronology, though I’ll uselessly try to apply one.
We sat down at a Tex-Mex joint, the name of which matters none, ubiquitous as they are (ed. that’d be Guero’s). Beer was ordered, as were tacos, and someone notified me that I looked like shit. In tones just louder than a hush, diners rapped about bands and record labels and marketing and branding and touring and promotions and work. Colin Hanks was there. They had me as convinced as they had themselves that they were here to do business. I, being the neophyte that I was, promptly took to the act under the belief that I might ultimately accomplish what I was sent there to do: provide editorial coverage, sober and objective, of the days-long music event.
From there, I was dropped at a place called the Mohawk, savage in appearance as it was in name. Tiers were separated by barriers, the barriers protected by “lists.” I took an anonymous identity called “plus one,” displayed my wristband and barreled through. The businessman had a meeting and left me to guzzle 16-ounce Lone Stars and witness White Denim. White denim on any pant leg is an unforgivable offense in a man, but in this case, it was the name of a band. Bepopulate with chaotic contortions of plaid, never-washed t-shirts and jeans tucked under husky thrift-store boots, White Denim’s audience was short on sanity. I began to withdraw from this societal mutation, until the mayor, introducing himself, took the stage. For a moment, I thought he was there with the paddy wagon, thank god. That is, until he graciously applauded the crowd, and did a curtsy to the band.
“By god,” I said to a crazed onlooker. “It’s gotten hold of damn near everybody.”
“Fuck yes it has,” he said, unaware of my meaning or intent, and then he disappeared into the bathroom line.
When I left to order another Lone Star–a fast habit; an easy camouflage–I found that the bar shut down at 6 p.m., offering a slight hope that maybe after all these people weren’t unholy. A not unimportant hope.
When morning revealed itself, I had a pocket full of crinkled business cards, soft from dried sweat: an Italian from D.C., a band named for a butterfly, a publicity firm heavy on alliteration, a picture of a banana on white background with no contact information to be found. A flash of recollection, and I did remember an Italian. He looked like Sammy Hagar and was, by his own admission, tripping on mushrooms. He embraced me, though we were strangers, and now I wonder if he hadn’t slipped me any drugs. I glanced back at the name of the Italian from D.C. Not the same one. I don’t think. How many damned Italians had I met? This was Texas, for chrissakes.
Being the upright citizen that I am, I showered. I had an appointment to see some music, and seeing as how this “day party” began at noon, I envisioned a string quartet, women in delicate frocks and men wearing linen suits sipping iced tea. Delusion is a magical gift.
The moment I arrived, someone slipped me a Lone Star. Just a 12-ounce. A bottle. This would be fine. Moments later, another. Seconds later, another. “Put it on my tab,” the businessman said. I couldn’t stop them, the fiends. Next thing I knew the businessman taped my mouth shut, and I was forced to pose in front of a camera. Bands played wildly and without regard for eardrums. A singer pounded his head on a microphone, and the crowd lost themselves in a tidal wave of a song named for Steven Tyler’s bastardized daughter. I drifted into memories of my own bastard upbringing.
I encountered a youth–early 20’s, maybe–with a shoulder-length mane. I assumed he was in a band–not because of his hair length, which was all too common among rockers and CPAs, preachers and teachers alike around here–but because of his talk of the road. We exchanged stories of roadside food and the threat of both constipation and diarrhea–a finely walked conundrum–when taking to the highway for months at a time. “Careful with the beer and the brisket tacos,” he warned. Sage advice for someone so young, I thought, and then he locked himself in a stall.
Outside, the tall man appeared like the undulant, languid heat on a desert horizon. With him was his “coworker,” a gentleman wearing a blazer and speaking in deep and elegant southern metaphor, a tone not of Texas. He mentioned a wife and two children, and I felt some reasonable salvation was near.
The businessman was nowhere to be found by now, and the tall man, the gentleman and an Indian woman shuffled me out into the streets. Music spilled out of makeshift venues–a parking lot, a restaurant, an office space, a curbside–all metamorphosing into cramped noise boxes. On instinct, I angrily waved my wristband at them all, screaming obscenities as I was dragged past. On the avenues were bearded men everywhere. Long beards, short beards, bearded women, mustaches, mutton chops, chin straps–unnatural growths defying the purity of man. Men and women alike were colored with the urban-tribal imprint of the day: tattoos of birds, nubile girls, crosses, genitals, guns, stars and nonsensical poetry touting the benefits of religion. Signs were offering “Free Hugs” and “Shitty Advice.” (“What should I tell my girlfriend,” the tall man asked. “That you’re a cock,” the shittiness advised.) Human-like, genetic anomalies at every corner. Philistines, the lot. The gentleman quickly turned on me.
And endless supply of cigars and clove cigarettes emptied out of his pockets. He and the tall man fed me Lone Star after Lone Star after Lone Star after bloody Lone Star. “Not to be trusted,” I stammered, but the tall man misunderstood and went on about politics.
The gentleman vanished, and I soon realized hours had collapsed into minutes, and I was caught in a sea of writhing bodies listening to a band from a country called Australia. My bladder began to sting. I fought through the bathroom queue with little more than inebriated patience, finally astride the toilet. On the floor below me lay a pair of underwear soaking in the rot of fetid turd. Right then and there, I promised myself wouldn’t dare try a brisket taco.
I’m not sure of the hour, but the sun was out and I was meandering through the misbegotten city with the tall man. Now bespectacled, his face carried an innocence that contrasted the devious creature which had kidnapped me the day before. He smiled and handed me something wrapped in tinfoil. Inside it, something wrapped in a tortilla. Inside it was brisket.
“Shit,” I said, taking a bite, and promptly went to order another. Inside the taco shanty, there was some confusion as to my change owed, differential equations and heavy calculus spinning in the proprietor’s head: $20 minus $6. The tall man carried on eating his food, slowly wiping the corners of his mouth and suggesting I begin a heavy diet of Immodium.
Belly full and bowels on alert, we walked a few dozen feet–all it really takes to find a stage in Austin–where a young woman named Lissie howled, “Appalachian farmer, noted charmer…” I thought of the gentleman and the nightmare he represented. But her sultry lullaby cradled me into the present, where a warm amber light cleaned my face, and gave me hope forthcoming. The tall man handed me a Lone Star.
I received a text from the businessman, offering a destination, the name of a beastly gladiatorial event: Gorilla vs. Bear. Fighting through sweaty mobs, up one block, down two, over three–the streets enumerated and crossed with names in Spanish–Nueces, Lavaca, mas–and Red River, a river swimming in blood. Finding the spartan, concrete enclave of the event, we entered the darkened den and passed directly to a discreet patio. Lone Stars were just $2 here, and the tall man bought a round. Death metal ate its away over a high fence and into our conversation. The businessman threatened to scale the wall to find its origin. Tired faces around us crushed cigarette after cigarette. And indeed crushing is the most apt description, where tobacco to filter vanishes by mere aggressive thought, the butt is recklessly flung to the floor and stamped out with a used but somehow fashionable shoe.
“To the carnival,” a woman cried out. I thought we were already there.
“Carnival?” I asked, thinking I should be taking notes.
“Music and carnival rides, free beer,” she said. “It’s at the Mexican-American Cultural Center.”
She wore a gentle face, and I trusted that, against my better judgment and a subtle allusion to Tijuana. Besides, I needed to escape this decadent display of moral reprobation and crazed consumption. The sun was, after all, still up.
“Let’s do it,” I relented, but the bewildered look in the businessman’s eye and the excitement in the tall man’s posture worried me.
We ducked and weaved through hordes of sinners, until at last we were isolated within the residential outskirts of Austin proper. My legs felt heavier with each step and a blister was forming on my heel. The businessman struggled mightily to heave a vinyl press under his arm.
“How long have we been walking,” every last ounce of energy needed to form my question.
“Days?” the businessman responded. The tall man laughed maniacally, and I trusted neither.
At the gates of the carnival, we were asked for our RSVP. I hadn’t, I responded, and slowly brought my wristband into their line of sight. They pulled my wrist toward them and strapped a new, blue wristband to it.
Inside the gate it was quiet, secluded even, and I thought I might have at last found a reprieve. Quiet it wasn’t, though. More like a forlorn bacchanal, a carnival in grotesque, as if its populace had been twirling on rides and eating funnel cake on repeat for decades, never stopping, never able to escape. They lurched around like zombies, sprawled body on top of body in the grass and waited mercilessly in a beer line that was a mile long if it was a foot. Hair spewed insanely from scalps without design or symmetry. What might’ve been reasonably good pant legs were cut short, frayed tentacles of cloth above the knee stretching down fatted calves that bulged from days upon endless days of standing. We sat on the grass next to them. No one said a word.
In our periphery, band named for a luxury sea vessel began spouting off a chant: “Chat Roulette! Chat Roulette!” This thing I had heard of where nameless Internet predators sit idly in front of computers dressed like bears, sleeping or masturbating. This thing I had heard of that Yacht was now championing. It was as if the farther you strayed from the hub of SXSW, the more desperate your plight would become. Knowing this, the businessman, the tall man and, from the ether, the albino joined me as we quickly, unnoticeably curled and twisted toward the exit, as lifelessly as possible as to not be noticed.
The businessman had more business. The albino and the tall man disappeared. In isolated wander, I sought something they called the Fader Fort. The businessman had given me a number to call, 10 ominous digits that would, if all went as intended, pull me from the purgatory of lines and rip me through the gates of hell. Alone and frightened, confused on a street corner with no sense of direction or feeling in my feet, I backtracked. I ducked into a bar. No bands were playing, which at this point was a good sign. Happy hour cocktails were being downed by a racially diverse crop of walking Target advertisements. I spotted the gentleman.
“Oh no,” I said, fraught with anxiety, recalling fragmented, hellish images from my previous encounter.
“Well, well, the ragged tumbleweed drifts into our quarters. We have found our good fellow.” His stately tone belied his malicious intent as he chewed on a cigar. The tall man and the albino were with him. As is the manner in these parts, when you don’t intend to find people–in fact, when you plan to avoid them–you always do. They bought me a Lone Star. The gentleman, slowly removing his costume of propriety, motioned toward the exit.
“Thurston Moore needs some pot,” he said. I wasn’t sure if in third person he had renamed himself a noise-pop singer. Apparently not. The tall man’s maniacal laughter returned, and the albino joined him as they wobbled together like parts of a creaky wagon through narrow corridors and littered pavement. The gentleman led the way.
To be sure, there was no Thurston Moore, only the hope of glorifying the debased practice of drug exchange.
A text again appeared on my phone. “Roadside Graves,” from the businessman. No explanation. A band, I knew they were from the depraved “day party” or yore. Where they were to be found, across hundreds of potential locations, I had know idea. Through a series of question-and-answer surveys, I was directed to the Key Bar. Without knowing better, I was certain this was a speakeasy that dealt in cocaine and lewd women.
I arrived in time to see the singer, yet again, pounding his head on a microphone, then on a hi-hat, knocking the cymbals over. Psychosis settling in. There were no drugs or hookers to be found in this place, a discovery in which I delighted, but that most assuredly would have put off the tall man had he joined me. Across the way, a saloon called Annie’s West beckoned with the psychedelic hollow of avian soothsayers: FUTUREBIRDS. Lost in the contemplation of my life, I managed the full six-song set through a series of philosophical thought experiments that I conducted quietly upon myself. The set ended and I fled.
An hour later, angry and disheveled, I stood street-side in the land of South Congress, a sharp pain penetrating my intestines–from the brisket, the beer, both–my body beginning to reek with odor, the soles of my shoes each a small bed of nails clawing into my feet. Completely disoriented, I hopped a pedicab–an Austin euphemism for slave-guided rickshaw–back to the fight, back to Gorilla vs. Bear, into the belly of the whale.
My wristband proved only so effective here, as this event had exponentially expanded in both size and stench. In line, a couple from West Virginia offered me some pot. I declined, scratched my crotch and pretended to type on my phone. My ID checked for the umpteenth time this hour, I descended into the clubs innards. A blue fog filled the room as a trance waved over the crowd. The music pounded at my temporal lobe, vertigo set in, and I had to brace myself at the bar for fear of falling over and becoming lost forever. A Lone Star was pushed in front of me. The businessman was there.
After an hour I was losing myself in the abyss. Like a Christian tied down and forced to to receive heroin injections in his eyeballs. A ghastly unreality fast becoming experience.
In his way, the businessman pulled me from my forced intoxication, leading me to believe that at long last I could depart these deviant crimes upon humanity.
“We’re going to the 508 House,” he said. The address was innocuous enough. I figured I might find a bed, a warm meal, possibly a shower and hopefully a cilice. As it turned out, the 508 House would have none of these things. It was an after-hours party, and knowing what I knew of sunlit parties, this was surely a convocation of sinners, demons, vagrants, vagabonds and rock stars (if you’ll forgive my redundancy). The businessman was consumed by the masses, faceless among them. I took the advantage and walked eastward, quickly as my gelatinous legs could bear, seeking repentance.
Had my mind not blacked out by this point, I’d have more to offer. My assignment, sober and objective, was shot long before my memory. Both were lost to a horrid suffering of spirit. The flashes now are episodic and brief. The sky, previously honey colored and warm, decayed to a cold gray, temperatures nearing freezing. The effect of this “festival” had taken its toll, and celestial warmth was without question murdered right alongside cultural ethics. I stood in the frigid wind, people appearing as vapors, Lone Star tasting as air, music bending into itself where band upon band nearly failed to distinguish themselves in my ringing ears. A woman told me a story of a man who filled shampoo bottles with ejaculate (wtf), and I gagged viciously. The last thing I remember was being coerced into explanation of how I only have nine fingers, while the tall man wore cutoff gloves with skulls on them and a stranger wildly grabbed his anus. Like a monkey, I performed stories and tricks for fear of being lashed or, worse, given another Lone Star. We were aloft–somehow, through some journey–in a palace in the sky, dozens of stories up. Its panorama revealed the expanse of SXSW, a microcosm of hell on earth that washed its way into the gutters of the city, into the subconscious of its revelers, into hibernation until it’s once again summoned.
I spent hours the following day collecting my thoughts, panicking with the vague memory of what I had been subjected to and the certain doom I faced when I found I had no notes, no interviews to speak of, no job well done. The brown Texas landscape was a continuous blur as we sped past it. Abandoned exits were lifeless but for fenceless, roaming sheep and the occasional roadside squatter. My head bumped gently against the window, my mind lost in an vacuum of existential dread.
The only solace I found was knowing that I could separate myself from these ravenous humanoid vultures I had witnessed over the terrifying course of a week. They were the baseless corruption of society, not an honest bone or moral scruple among them. I could retreat to my life of piety, decency and decorum, and forget the nightmare to which I had been confined. An affirmation short-lived.
West of El Paso at two in the morning, the decision to drive through the night shortly behind us, SXSW a day, at least, behind that. We stopped at an all night truck stop for supplies: a pack of cigarettes, soon to be crushed; a bottled of liquid speed; a slab of beef jerky. The businessman, crawling like a daddy longlegs, laid a billy club on the counter. Laughing maniacally, I tucked a six-pack of Lone Star underneath my arm. And in grand delirium we pressed on into the night… words/ j crosby