Sunday, October 31, 2010

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.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

one night at the book store

“Open 24 hours” is not a phrase uttered lightly in Vienna. In fact, it’s not uttered at all. Most of the stores, boutiques, and trading posts here shut down by 6 or 7. But as a patriotic American, I still have the right to confuse shopping for entertainment. So last night at 7:30 pm, I really only had one choice: the superstore at Landstrasse. It’s Borders for Wieners.

Does anyone go to bookstores anymore? I can now report that yes, they do, especially when there isn’t anything else to do. Last night I was just another clod who was shuffling around, gathering up a bunch of books I had no intention of buying, just so I could indulge in a little “late-night” libro-philia. The tables, chairs and banquettes were mostly occupied, largely by people who were awake.

I plopped down with six items: Sebastiao Salgado’s Africa (beautiful, astonishing but ultimately clichéd black and white photographs of the Continent); a coffee-table book about cathedrals (did I not mention I am addicted to big picture books?); a smaller book about a Viennese movie poster artist who was working in the forties and fifties (nice local color); a black and white graphic novel about Stu Sutcliffe (who was he again? A fifth Beatle, right? Wait, this is in German!); a gargantuan new Taschen book of vintage funk and soul album covers (uh-oh, there goes thirty Euros!); and another graphic novel called The Night Bookmobile.

After a few pages of the Taschen book of funk and soul art, I knew I would have to possess it. The Night Bookmobile, on the other hand, looked sort of amateurish, and the author’s name--Audrey Niffenegger—meant nothing to me. The title is what put the hook in me. ‘Bookmobile?’ I thought. ‘That’s a phrase I haven’t heard in—oh--forty-five years.’

CAUTION: Middle-Aged Jaunt down Memory Lane to Follow! When I was seven, the Bookmobile kicked ass! The Public Library in my town had lots of branches, but it also had a book-filled Winnebago that drove around then laid anchor in various supermarket parking lots. It didn’t really have a lot of stuff in it, and looking back, I’m sure it was the same things I could have gotten at the smaller libraries. But there was something so cool about climbing up into a big recreational vehicle full of copies of Charlottes’ Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and those Alfred Hitchcock mystery stories for boys. Anyway….

So, The Night Bookmobile turned out to be a great, though slightly macabre, sorta sad book. A very nice story actually. I won’t ruin it for you. But it’s about a woman who loves to read. And after reading it, as I left the superstore and started back down the stairs to the subway trains, I felt all gooey inside. I’m really too young to feel nostalgic, but I miss books a little.

Now I live in Screen World. I’m looking at screens all day: my computer at work, my computer at home, my other computer at home, my wife’s computer, the tv screen, the screen in the u-Bahn station, the screen in the U-Bahn train. In New York, of course, one may watch tv in the back of a taxi now. Whoo-hoo. And the thing is, Screen World is sort of cold.

But a good book? Whoa, that is hot stuff. It’s really delicious to luxuriate in a long, totally fascinating history book (or novel or biography) by a writer who not only has style but really knows her or his shit. Books don’t have emoticons. Books have complete sentences. Many of them avoid slang! No one ever writes ROFL in a book.

I’m going to read one now. After I finish this post. And check Facebook. And send that e-mail.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Top Nine Signs that you are Watching an Inferior Rock Documentary

1) Neither the difficult singer nor the brilliant but deranged bass player are interviewed for the film.

2) A doughy white guy in his thirties, identified only as an "expert" is interviewed in the film.

3) The film includes an archival clip you have seen in another rock documentary.

4) As the narrator begins mumbling, in a British accent, about a pivotal album, the director cuts to close-up shots of hands loading a reel-to-reel tape machine, and the tape moving through the gates.

5) A majority of people interviewed for the film are music critics.

6) Men are interviewed in offices, women in kitchens.

7) Or, women aren't interviewed for the film at all.

8) The music featured in the documentary is not by the band featured in the documentary. Because the producers didn't pay mechanical royalties to use the music. (Check out a few Beatles or Elvis documentaries or this one, and you'll see what I mean.)

9) The band featured in the film is Pearl Jam or the Smashing Pumpkins.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Boogie Fever

The ballet they were dancing at the Staatsoper tonight was called Onegin. I went in on a lark. Based on Puschkin, music by Tchaikovsky, okay, whatever. One standing room ticket: € 4.

Here’s the plot: A bookish Hottie gets her bloomers in a rustle over this gloomy Gus who thinks he is all of that and a turkey sandwich. He also wears a cape like Dr. Acula, and comes out of her mirror one evening so they can do the Hustle. Then the babe and Gus and her sister and the sister’s boyfriend go to a big ball and Gus reverts to form. Stuff gets said, jealousies inflamed, then suddenly—Duel time. Long story short: Gus is a real prick (plus now a killer) and even though the Hottie meets a nice Rear Admiral (or something), she still wants to kiss him one more time. Which she does. Then she tells him to get the hell out of her boudoir. Curtain.

I liked it a lot.

Really, what have I been doing, paying good folding money to see garbage movies when I could have been spending a night at the Oper for a few Euros?

Watching Onegin, I got all choked up about the cruelty of passion, and the, uhhh, futility of bad love. I thought I'd just stay for an hour then leave. But I stayed for the whole damn show because I wanted to see that Hottie take the trash out.

I thought I didn't like ballet. Of course, I'd never seen one, but I was positive this wasn't my bag. It turns out I like the way they stand on their pointy little toes! I like the soft "clack!" sound of twenty feet hitting the stage at the same time! And that orchestra, sawing away in the pit, that's okay too!

What a dope I've been. This means I'll never have to see another Kate Hudson movie.


Here's one weasely excuse for not writing Euro Like Me often enough lately: my first German language newspaper story! Sort of. I wrote this article in English and the nice people at the South German translated it for me. Maybe I will get to do it again, we'll see.

Anyway it's about being cool and underground, neither of which I know much about, but it's also about Austin, Texas, my hometown. I'll try to post the English text a bit later.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Well, the Viennese voted yesterday. The Mayor gets to keep his job, but that's the only good news. The real winner was Hans Christian Strache and the anti-immigration, Nazi-apologist Freedom Party (FPO). They ran a campaign of hate, insisting, among other lies, that the other parties would institute mandatory headscarves for women (!) The FPO gained ground in the last election largely because Austria has given 16-year-olds the right to vote, and lots of these little pantshitters cast their ballots for Strache. Yesterday the FPO again made frightening gains, especially with "lesser-educated" male Wieners.


Friday, October 8, 2010

A Real Ring-Tail-Tooter

Gawd, that was a tough month. Or as by brother in Montana would say, 'a hard pull.'

The last four weeks have been so crazy-exhausting-exciting-exhausting. But you wouldn't know about that, would you? Because I've been neglecting this blog again, haven't I?

Well, it started with a complete technological mutiny. Both of my computers stopped speaking to the Internet. Both my computers: kaput! My watch stopped. My phone quit. For one night, even the DVD player went on strike.

This lasted for a little more than three weeks. The turning point was the night I spilled beer on (and in) my laptop. After that, everything started working better. Honestly.

Then I got an assignment from a pretty respected German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which was great! but I wasn't entirely prepared for it. I had to scribble and circle around the subject for a bit, then write it one or two paragraphs at a time, on the subway to work, or in moments stolen from my real job: Father. So I was barely able to write anything else--not even Facebook updates.

Then Adinah did an end run around us and joined the Girl Scouts! And V. got a new kindergarten teacher (who is great, but isn't it always stressful to get to know someone new?) And I had a birthday--my forty-ninth. And even more important, preparations began for V.'s birthday. Then everyone in my department at work got sick just as my boss dumped several new projects in my lap. I had to teach, do all the administrative stuff that normally consumes my days, plus quite a few things that other people usually do, plus create and do a presentation for a Webinar, whatever that is.

Then we got a kitten. A small black and white love cat named Ada. She was rescued from a garbage can in Romania, and brought to a shelter in Vienna, which is where we met her, the little darling. She's the kind of cat who gets her motor running--like, purr city--then melts in your lap.

But when we brought Ada home we got a horrible surprise. Both Adinah and V. were terrified of her. Neither of them has ever lived with a cat (actually Deanie has, back in NYC, but she doesn't remember The Little Guy.) So the kids looked at Ada and saw, not a cuddly, fluffy little Hello Kitty! but a strange, stalking furry Creature, with claws!! On Morning Two, Ada sprung at Deanie's face to play with her hair extension. Adinah shrieked to break glass, fled to her room and hid in her bed.

Meals in the kitchen were impossible--neither girl would dangle their feet from their chairs, because they could see Ada down there, purring. We had to set V. on the breakfast table whenever the kitten said 'Mraow.'

We've always known that V. both loves and fears animals (monkeys, cows, dogs, pretty much everything except caterpillars, whom she does not fear.) But we had no idea Adinah would be so traumatized by a fuzzball from Romania.

So began the long and painful era in our history known as the Katzenintegrationsprojekt, or The Great Coming Together. Many tears were shed, many screams rang out, and several gasps were gasped.

But today, we can look back and say that we have made great strides. Both girls let Ada sit in their laps now. Yelping, hollering and hissy fits are down by 50%.

And it's been a week already.

Friday, October 1, 2010