I recently published my first piece in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a well-respected newspaper out of Munich. It ran in Deutsch, after having been translated by one of their best people. This is the first half of the story in English. It's about my last trip to Austin, my hometown. I'll post the second half on Thursday. I hope you like it.
Searching for that Lost Cool Something
The morning after I land in Austin, Texas, I borrow a bike and set off in search of Krautrock. I’ve read that Amon Düül II made some interesting disco jams in the mid-nineteen-seventies, and if there’s one place in the continental US where one can find obscure, thirty-year-old, semi-funky German rock, it’s at Waterloo Records.
And of course, I do find some Amon Düül II, though it’s not the CD I wanted. But then a funny thing happens. I’m looking at a huge wall of CDs by Austin singers and bands. Legendary Texas concert posters hang in various other corners of the store. Suddenly I feel like I’m in a museum. Austin has become a theme park of Cool. It’s Disneyland with tattoos and a wallet chain, a cultural amusement zone. It’s a brand—it’s Underground Town.
I grew up in Austin, one of the most notorious crucibles of cool in the USA. By fifteen, I was acting world-weary because I was listening to Roxy Music. By nineteen, I had discovered punk rock and new wave in Austin clubs. In local record stores, I mined progressively lesser known music, and the cults surrounding bands like Big Star. I learned you have to do some work to find the best music and art. None of this is true today. If anything interesting happens in a music club anywhere in the world tonight, it will be on YouTube tomorrow. MP3 blogs, file-sharing sites like Demonoid, Facebook and MySpace--these are only the best-known ways in which people find out about the latest, coolest thing. These days, unusual, obscure or bizarre music is just a mouse click away. There is no longer any such thing as a local ‘scene’ or underground music.
Or is there? As it happens, neither live music clubs nor independent record stores have disappeared from the planet, though they do all have websites now. Nearly fifty years ago, an inveterate weirdo named Frank Zappa suggested that the “mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.” So I have returned to Austin to test this perfectly reasonable definition of ‘underground’ (I also want a decent plate of nachos.) I have found a flea market for locally-made electronic instruments like the Autonomous Bassline Generator, and a fourteen piece, orchestral pop group called Mother Falcon, playing at a club called Mohawk.
I’m not looking for the next Nirvana in Austin. Underground scenes are exciting because they shock, then energize you with the thrill of discovery, the feeling that you have come upon something astonishing and utterly unprecedented. Something you can call your own. It’s this sense of discovery I mean to investigate. Even if cool underground stuff “comes” to you from an MP3 blog like Mutant Sounds or Illegal Smoking Robot, is it still possible to discover something fantastic on your own, maybe even in your own home town?
Torchy’s Tacos may be the coolest breakfast taco stand in town. The counter help—whether they are African American, Caucasian, male or female—are uniformly covered with tattoos and swathed in black. The food is innovative, though I’m initially hesitant to try the Dirty Sanchez, or the Fried Avocado Taco.
Handbills and stickers for various species of loud music are strewn around Torchy’s, and I find myself wondering if the girl taking our order knows that the friend I’m here with was once in a local band that did a mean folk-punk Kiss cover. What sort of subterranean streams does she swim in after the sun goes down? It doesn’t matter.
A little more than a year ago, the English artist and amateur sociologist Matt Stokes arrived in Austin to create a conceptual art piece and exhibition about underground music communities. I know because I wrote one of the essays about Austin punk which appeared in the exhibition catalog. His project was called These are the Days, and among other things, Stokes juxtaposed the Austin hardcore punk scene of the early nineteen-eighties with the gutter punk scene here in the present day. The catalog for the show blended photographs from then and now, and it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. In 1983 and in 2008, punks in Austin were tough, cool, sweaty, and committed to an idea, a scene. Perhaps the Texas punk bands of 2008 have more beards. They look like the counter help at Torchy’s. And they look one hundred percent, for real, straight-up underground.
Just above the hole which was once known as Voltaire’s Basement, sits a new coffee shop. The new place is called Halcyon. It’s clean and brightly lit. It has a walk-in humidor. Something about it rings a bell, so I stop there. Voltaire’s was a legendary firetrap, as well as the site of very crazy and wonderful shows by bands like the Dicks and the Butthole Surfers. Halcyon was the name of the shaggy commune where I lived during college. Now one obscure name is transposed onto the site of a dead underground scene. It’s as if all the old words and dreams are still in circulation, only perched at different locations.
As I sip my Thai iced coffee there at Halcyon, I ask the bartender if he knows his basement was once a great punk rock club.
“Oh yeah,” he lies. “I heard about that. What was our Basement like back then?”
“It was fucked up,” I laugh.
“It still is!” he says.