Thursday, October 28, 2010

Here's the second half of my Sueddeutsche Zeitung article on underground culture and Austin Texas. It was published on Saturday, Oktober 16.

Searching for that Lost Cool Something

One of our greatest living philosophers, Grandpa Simpson, once said, "I used to be 'with it', but then they changed what 'it' was. Now what I'm with isn't 'it', and what's 'it' seems weird and scary." Maybe only the jugendlich understand ‘it.’ So back in Vienna, which is where I call ‘home’ these days, I asked a fifteen-year-old friend how he finds out about new music. His words were 2010, but his method: classic. “Usually my friends give me a link.”

I asked the same of a colleague’s fourteen-year-old son, who has recently discovered punk rock in the recordings of Green Day. He told her that he finds out about bands from concert posters and handbills, and from the opening bands at those concerts. Sounds a lot like my methods of thirty years ago.

On the other hand, my Austin friends, being older Texans and therefore contrary, roundly dispute the notion that the underground is dead. “Bullshit!” says Davy Jones, guitarist for the Hickoids, Austin’s oldest country punk band. “Hickoids are known by a tiny group of folks, but sales and the nature of the material make it Underground, Cult, Counterculture, whatever you wanna call it today. It's not successful in any normal business sense of the word- it’s so niche.”

Another friend, who I once knew as Control Rat X, drops some very old school science on me. “What has been done will be done again,” he says. “There is nothing new under the sun." Then he tells me he’s quoting from Ecclesiastes 1:9-14. Gee, I always thought it was a record critic who had said that.

On a late summer afternoon, downtown Austin is like the Velvet Underground—all white light and white heat. Unlike the centers of some US cities, this part of town has never been successfully rehabilitated, and the lower blocks of Congress Avenue are a bit shabby. But one afternoon, as I stumble along the Avenue in the blinding, skin-searing heat, I remember to tip my hat when I pass number 316. This is the former site of the Vulcan Gas Company, a legendary sixties club which may be the true birthplace of psychedelic music, since it was the preferred haunt of the notorious Texas acid rock group, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Back then, everyone played at The Vulcan when they passed through Austin, from John Lee Hooker and Moby Grape to, well, the Velvet Underground. Today, 316 Congress Avenue is a Patagonia sporting goods and outdoor apparel super store.

The Armadillo World Headquarters is now a parking lot, and for the week that I’m in Austin, I involuntarily turn my head towards it every time I pass, searching for some trace of the first rock club I ever entered. The Armadillo was an ugly hangar with bad acoustics, great nachos and a crowd that ranged from cosmic cowboys and pink-haired punks to state politicians and off-duty policemen. I remember seeing Devo there in 1980, and goggling at one of the club’s murals, which depicted an armadillo bursting out of the chest of BB King. Then and now, the Armadillo would meet almost any standard definition of an underground club, and that’s how I remember it. But it wasn’t underground at all—Time magazine and Rolling Stone both wrote it up at the time. In fact, Frank Zappa recorded a live album called Bongo Fury there. This 1975 document of what I thought was an underground scene was distributed to the world by…Warner Bros. Records. When I look at that parking lot today, I think it may be time to revise our definitions of underground.

My host in Austin is my old friend Rich, who was also once the drummer for the Kamikaze Refrigerators. A few hours before I leave town, I am puttering around in Rich’s immaculately renovated, slightly kitschy nineteen-fifties house. Rich is in the next room working. Then I hear music. It has the unhinged tone of the Pixies, and all the leather mask perversity of Lubricated Goat. With a dash of Devo. I like this music. “What is this?” I ask Rich.

“Oh, it’s Adult Rodeo,” he shrugs. “Little local band who was playing around here a few years ago.”

Adult Rodeo aren’t the new Radiohead, but they sound weird and fresh. I believe I have made a discovery.

I guess I can leave Austin now.


C N Heidelberg said...

Great article!

supercontroller said...

At least I made the 15th paragraph. Well done.

pat said...

Thanks, CN! And thanks for making it happen, Rich!

Michael Laird said...

Hi Pat, miss you lots! Send me your email address / phone number - need to speak to you. But I guess all the girls say that


Your troll-killing pal,

Michael Laird


pat said...

It's I'm also on the facebook. But I don't have a current e-mail or phone for you!
speak soon?