Rejection in Texas
“The selection committee of this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference regrets to inform you that they have been unable arrange an appropriate showcase for your talents. Unfortunately, among the more than 4000 groups and solo performers applying, many highly qualified musicians were overlooked… but for the reduced rate of $250, you may still attend the conference and participate in the panels and live music events.” It’s become a bit of a joke to us to be rejected by the musical establishment. Yeah, a real FUNNY yuck fest. We fill out a complicated form, mail our carefully prepared press package all the way to Austin, Texas, and they don’t even WANT us. We’ll show them. They’ll all be sorry someday. David Geffen soflty lamenting, “I could have signed those guys back in double aught…”
I’m Redd Klaats. I play drums and sing. My partner is Itzi Rothowski. He plays guitar and sings. We’ve been together as a musical duo for about 6 years, and have just completed our second CD. Around spring of ’99, we purchased our Chicago Street Performer’s Licenses ($50 ea.) and began regaling local residents in parks, on street corners, and at any other locations where we hoped to find receptive crowds. For the most part, it’s been a gas. So much so that we’ve shied away from pursuing bookings in clubs and bars. I know, why would any musicians in their right minds want to give up thick smoke, drunks, late or non-existant soundchecks, midnight shows on work nights, low or no pay, and having to beg some booker for a Tuesday night spot opening for Big Wow?
So anyhow, we decided that since we couldn’t get a showcase, we’d pack up our drums, guitar, battery powered amps, and make some undetermined Austin street corner our own unsanctioned showcase. We were heading into the void. Taking valuable vacation time from our real jobs, spending a bunch of our own money on lodging, food, and gas, and basically throwing our fates to the wind. We have minimal music business savvy. We have no management or record company support. We’re not particularly “hip” or even “cool” or “groovy” by most senses of the words (well maybe just a little groovy), and we’re not all that young, although we are fully capable of being dumb. We just knew that playing on the streets in our hometown and elsewhere has charmed even the most cynical audiences, which is basically what we expected to find in Austin. What else could the concentration of thousands of musical egos in a confined space be? Well, a little monkey that lives in basement bowling alley told us it was worth a chance. As the lyrics to one of our songs state, “We’ll take chances, we’ll tempt fate, we’ll fearlessly collaborate. You work the pedals and I can steer, collaborating without fear.”
So, we bought a $1300 1987 Plymouth Voyager and had it checked over by our most trusted mechanic Pete, and he said “we could drive it to Texas but we better have somebody down there look at the drive axles before we try to drive it back.” Eddy from the Thai Aree Restaurant suggested we look up his cousins that run a Buddhist temple in San Antonio. Our wives kissed us and made us pack locks of their hair, cookie dough, and our own pillows.
We left on a Tuesday night at about 11 PM. Outside of Joliet in a cold fog, a sign on the expressway warns “Hitchikers may be escaped convicts.” Big excitement on this otherwise uneventful trip comes in the form of new toll collecting methods. Breakfast at “Still the World’s Largest” McDonald’s in Oklahoma. Hate to say it. I’ve seen bigger. Just north of Waco, Texas (home of the fightin’ Branch Davidians). 2 hours to Austin. Home free. Wrong. We run out of gas on Interstate 35, three miles from the nearest gas station. Hey, the car was untested. How were we to know that you couldn’t run the needle below “E”? Visions of Deliverence , Manson family members in VW buses, Cool Hand Luke , or worse as I stay with the vehicle and my partner hoofs it to get gas. Nothing bad happens at all. Fortuitously as we drive to top off the tank, we discover our first real Texas BBQ at Rick’s. Just a little former gas station turned restaurant with some of the best ding danged beef we[base ‘]ve ever had. The leathery propriator insisted we also try the peach cobbler, and we chortled at the shotgun sittin’ atop the oven. You don’t see THAT up north.
We arrive in Austin at about 8 PM looking for our “Airport Ramada” — logically, near the airport — only to discover that while it was still called the “Airport Ramada,” they had actually moved it about 5 miles away from the airport. We’re beat. Ready to turn in. But… after showers and some bad TV, we decide to scope out the scene. This is actually the first night (Wednesday) of the conference, and we don’t expect much activity. Au contraire. It’s 6th Street. The heart of the music community. A few blocks jam packed with clubs and bars and music oozing from every pore and cubbyhole. Hey, let’s set up over there under the ABC Loans sign and play some music. It almost doesn’t seem right that after having driven 20 hours straight that we can set up and be playing in something like 5 minutes, but this is one of the reasons we took up street performing in the first place. SXSW, meet Twang Bang. Are you too jaded for us? Too professional? Too alternative? Too country? Too Stevie Ray? Have you already seen it all? Maybe not. They hang around. They like us. Tatooed, business suited, half naked, homeless, hip hop, hangdog, shit kickin, British, kids on shoulders, Japanese, nerdy, pierced, All-American, mom and dad, teen queen, raving, everyday Joes and Janes. They throw money in our guitar case and buy CDs. Hell, we don’t even know what to charge for our discs. Too much and no one will buy. Too little and they won’t take it seriously. As the night unfolds, the method of sale evolves quite naturally and becomes a bit of a game.
“How much ya got?”
“Trade us your CD.”
“You win a free CD because you hung around for the last three songs.”
“Your kid is cute and she represents the music buyers of tomorrow, so here, take one, kid, if your mom says it’s OK.”
“You look like David Crosby, so here’s a CD.”
Two young men are making a video documetary about SXSW. They ask us for an interview. We graciously acquiesce. Wow, we must really look like pros… or loveable goofs. This makes us feel BIG.
“What are you doing here in Austin?”
“If your partner were an animal, what kind would he be?”
“What do you consider your job to be in doing this?”
We ask, “Is this gonna be on TV?”
12:30 AM. Getting tired, but the crowds continue so we plug away until… a couple of Austin’s finest approach.
Mind you, cops had been walking past us for several hours displaying no reaction to us whatsoever. But one of these lawmen is different. He’s young, clean cut, and ready to tangle or tango or something like that. He asks us to cease. Some crowd members boo. Wrong thing to do. Something snaps, young officer becomes joe marine, nose inches from the booer’s face.
“You wanna go to jail? HUH?”
Seems like a DANG good time to stop playing, but first, we must put in our two cents with this eager centurion.
“We called and e-mailed the Austin police months ago from Chicago and were assured that street performing at reasonable volume levels was perfectly acceptable.”
“Who did you talk to?”
He ain’t gonna believe us. We have no proof.
“But every other doorway has 150+ decibles of distortion spilling out into the street.”
“It’s your amplifiers that are the problem. You need a special outdoor amplifier permit.”
There is no arguing. It’s late. We are bushed and satisfied and 150 or so dollars richer, and this guy ain’t budging, and our crowd drawing momentum is basically dead, and we are about as tough as toast when it comes to sticking up for our rights, especially in this situation. Nothing can really kill the genuine surprise and satisfaction we feel for our first 2 hours of performing 1200 miles away from home in a world quite foreign to both of us. We sleep satisfied at the Airport Ramada nowhere near the airport with our pillows from home.
Thursday morning. I awaken at 6 AM and become the man on a mission. Off to the main police station. I want proof positive that we can’t play in the street. The information officers are friendly and somewhat sympathetic, but they don’t really know the law. I’m sent to City Hall to get a copy of the actual ordinance. Then to Public Works Temporary Permits and Traffic. Then to the City Planning Department. All separated by several miles. A bit of the old runaround, but I basically glean that while amplified sound does seem to require a permit, it’s intended more for things like festivals where streets are closed and PA systems are used or restaurants having outdoor music or those big megaphone type speaker on top of woody station wagons that tout political candidates. The noise prohibition makes it unlawful “to create noise in a way or manner reasonably calculated to distrub in the vicinity of public places.” We aren’t calculating to disturb anyone. We are not even close to the volume levels of serious beer and chili farts, much less the din pouring out of most bars. It really seems to indicate more of a judgement call by the individual officer, and if there’s any time of year when “anything goes” in Austin musically, this would be it.
I type up a summary of my morning’s municipal excursions, including times, names, and numbers on a free typewriter at the local Office Depot and make 10 copies of this and the ordinances themselves, and Itzi purchases a 29 cent snappy blue folder to officially house this citizenly ammunition. As it turns out, we are not challanged again for the rest of the trip. You know, I hate to admit it, but in some ways I can see the point. If there was an amplified band on every street corner, it could become problematic. Who knows, maybe a bunch of bands will try to emulate our success after they read this and we will have ruined it for ourselves as well as everyone else, but… you know, this kind of exhibitionism is not for everyone. In fact, it was insinuated to be beneath some serious musicians, and is certainly not the kind of thing just anyone can pull off. Sure, a few bands were discovered this way (Violent Femmes come to mind), but more often than not, this form of entertainment is lumped together with mimes and subway performers and hammered dulcimer guys at the zoo. Just a pleasant diversion. A few bars of melody while waiting for a train. Some nickles in a monkey’s tin cup. Twang Bang, however, would never play withing 300 yards of publicly viewed animals or in a place where trains interrupt the flow every 30 seconds, and we don’t have a monkey with a cup (though we have talked about getting one). And, by the way, WE DON’T MAKE NOISE. WE MAKE MUSIC.
With ordinances firmly in hand, we strike out to find daytime venues on a gorgeous, sunny 80’s Texas day. First stop the SXSW convention center. We are not allowed in without official badges (only issued to participating groups or for big bucks), so we will miss such useful panel discussions as “The Internet and Your Band, Key to Musical Immortality?” and “Groupies, Do They Really Go All The Way?” Near the entrance seems like a potential playing location, especially with the crowds anticipated coming to see the keynote speakers, Patti Smith and Steve Earle. But the vibe outside the center seems wrong. A very sterile and new building with police patrolling outside (to keep crashers out or the participants in?). We see a small grouping of shaded tables manned by jewelry salespeople whose elderly “leader” sees our equipment and asks us to set up near the dealers and play. It seems like a naturally good location for us. A welcoming coordinator, art, shade, a constantly rotating crowd. So we begin to set up quickly to discover one of the dealers concerned about our volume level and the potential for scaring away their customers. The etiquette of street performing is strange. You want to be somewhere you can be seen, but you don’t want to infringe on someone else’s ability to do business. On several occasions in Chicago, we have been blasted away by less considerate groups, including teens beating on plastic pails, a blues band, and bagpipers. There seems to be an unwritten code that not all abide by to not invade others’ “sonic space.” We are also wimps and we avoid confrontation. Rather than ruffling any feathers, we opt for another location a few blocks away, across from the entrance to a Tower Records store where some live conference sanctioned performances are occuring. We set up on a busy street, in front of a wonderful wall mural and play for several hours with virtually no recognition whatsoever. This was the kind of thing that would inevitably send us spiralling into dark funkland when we first started street performing. “Does every one hate us? Are we set up in the wrong place? This was a baaaaad idea.” What we have come to realize is that each and every time we set up, the response can run the gamut from oblivious to wildly supportive. There is no predicting the nature of our reception, and it is best for our psyches to simply go with the flow. No one paying attention is the perfect opportunity for us to practice new, untested material. And that is what we did on this warm and sunny Texas afternoon.
Around dinner time, storm clouds rapidly approach from the west as we go to reclaim our successful corner perch from the night before only to discover that it has been STOLEN by another band. OK, so maybe it wasn’t really OUR corner, but the successes of the previous night made it seem at least like a lucky place for us to be. So we must find somewhere else. You’d think this would be a simple task, but many factors affect our choice of an alternate location. Blocking the flow of pedestrian traffic, too close to a noisy bar, too close to a quiet folk musician, not enough light, no wind break, sewer smell, not enough visibility, too much visibility, etc. Another critical consideration has always been choosing a location where people can experience us by choice and not by force. The only entranceway to an event is a bad place to be. People are on a mission to see something other than us, and they usually don’t want to be detained. As we finally settle on a promising location, the rain begins. And it is a COLD rain. The temperature has dropped about 40 degrees in the past few hours. This is not looking good. We could even reclaim our lucky spot from the night before as the other band has bolted, but we opt to huddle beneath an awning to see if the weather will break. It doesn’t. We cannot play. No one in their right mind or even semi-right mind would watch us. The water/electricity combination is potentially lethal. And fingers just won’t move like they are supposed to in 40 degree cold. We return to the motel to discover that more of the same cold and damp is predicted for the next 2 days (the projected length of our stay). Is this it? 1200 miles of driving for a mere $150 and a few ego strokes on a street corner and a daytime practice with no audience? Sure looks that way. “Oh God. This has been a terrible mistake. Why us?” Optimism? That’s for dreamers, not serious musicians.
The morning breaks with low, cold fog and more rain and tornado watches (one actually touches down just north of the city a few hours later). Not looking good. We call home. My wife tells us to stay. What a novel idea. Our sometimes-manager, producer, and confidant, Chalky Mahoney also tells us to stay. They both make sense. The weather could unexpectedly change. Maybe we could find somewhere indoors to play. Maybe a night of sleep brought up back to our senses. We drove all this way and already took off work, so why not give it another day and see what happens? OK. We’ll give it some time. So we go to the Highlife Café coffee shop and have a tasty breakfast featuring esspresso steamed eggs. The piano in the corner lights the bulb above our heads, and we give the owner a CD saying we’d like to do our act there later that evening at no expense to him. We[base ‘]ll call later after he’s had a chance to listen. This is all timed to occur as we pay our check so it would be difficult for him to simply give a blanket “no” unless he already had someone else scheduled to play. The gloomy weather continues. A ride into the country seems in order. After all, we really haven’t seen the Texas of our fantasies. Where are those giant, stickery green plants and cow heads and tumbleweeds and stuff? OK, so maybe we don’t see any tumbleweeds, but we do experience the beautiful rolling hill country west of Austin, and they sell cow skulls at a roadside antique store, and we saw LBJ’s hometown, and we bought a mirror for the van at a junkyard. I try to say “y’all” to the guy who fetched the part, and I feel stupid.
Back in Austin mid-afternoon. Still cloudy, but moderate temperature and no rain. The guy from the coffee shop loved the CD and wants us to play for a couple of hours around dinner time. It’s nice to be loved. First, it’s time for a little more street action. One guy stops by, “Hey, I reviewed your first CD 4 years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen you live. You are definitely one of the highlights of SXSW.” His is not the first comment of that sort. How could he remember us from 4 years ago? I can’t remember most of what happened yesterday. How can we possibly bring something surprising to a relatively small town that has seen tens of thousands of bands in just the past few years? What spurns the musical hunger here? What fires it seems more than simple pursuit of money and fame. Why don’t we feel the pressure of competiton we expected? Do the groups with 40 minute showcases have more of the “one shot to make it or break it” stigma hanging over their heads? One of the women from Nashville Pussy passes. She’s like 8 feet tall and has several toadies following her. I want toadies. How does her mother refer to her daughter’s occupation at her bridge club? “Yes, Susie is a musician in Nashville mmmmmumble ussy…” Some one drives past and bleats at us out their car window, “Six strong legs!” which is a line from one of our songs. Now THAT’S recognition. I mean, to have someone hear us on the street 2 nights previous and remember a specific line from a specific song. Something to be said for clear diction. If I catch one word of most of today’s groups’ songs, I’m lucky. “Ya know da kids deese days. Dere so nice looking but I just don’t understand a single word dat dey sing.”
To the Highlife Café for an extremely low key dinner performance. A sweet and gentle island on the fringe of musical Sodom. Whereas most of the time our goal is to attract attention on the street, be it by volume or antics or both, the restaurant environment presents a different challenge. How to captivate without being so captivating as to affect digestion. Mostly this problem is addressed by simply lowering the volume and perhaps playing at an overall slower speed. This discipline naturally spawns refinement. Heightened awareness. As a drummer, it is much more difficult for me to play accurately at lower levels, so it becomes an excellent exercise. We are tucked in sort of a side room while most of the customers are off in other rooms, so it’s hard to gauge reaction as we play, but at the conclusion of each tune, the applause relays the attention and appreciation. Strangely satisfying. It’s as if we were Stevie Wonders, unable to assess the mood of our crowd by sight, but able to employ other methods. Though we’re not black and we’re nowhere near as talented and no one knows who the hell we are. Maybe more like Little Stevie Wonder before he was famous.
Off Friday night to the same corner as Wednesday, happy to see it unclaimed and beginning to feel like ours, reinforced by the fact that people that had seen us before return to show us to their friends. The weatherperson lied to us just like they do in Chicago. Many T-shirts and slinky dresses. One thing that amazes us is the number of musicians that compliment us. Of all the places you’d think the attitude of cool assessment would prevail. After all, this event is somewhat of a competition. But no one seems to be afraid to let their guard down and be a bit ga-ga. Perhaps buskers are filed in a less threatening cabinet. Isn’t the word busk derived from the French verb busque, meaning “to non threateningly musically entertain tourists without resorting to the antics of buffoonery, mime arts, and or home shopping network type bait and switch tactics”? At a certain point, even the hardiest, healthiest musician’s body gives out under the strain of hours of… After 9 hours of nearly continuous picking, the Itzi’s fretting index finger folded and refused to straighten out, a common symptom of repetative motion syndrome in that part of the body. Remedy: lots of water, Extra strength Tylenol, and Vitamin B-12 to reduce the inflamation… OR maybe just call it a night! The evening ends with a 2 AM visit to what is proported to be the best BBQ in Austin. Indoor picnic tables, yellowed walls plastered with childrens’ school drawings, local gospel greats, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Martin Luther King, assorted weddings, proms, birth announcements and soul groups’ promo photos. Our ignorance sees us failing to grab our wax paper wrapped white bread for soppin’. But maaaaan. This is mean BBQ, good night.
Our last full day in Austin. We are damn glad we didn’t decide to leave after Thursday’s downpour and chilly temps. All the fun we would have missed. All the babies that we kissed. Having checked out of the hotel that morning, the plan was to play as long as we could stand and climb straight into the minivan and head out of Austin, hoping to arrive home by a reasonable hour Sunday night. We stop by Waterloo Records, supposedly the town’s biggest and friendliest. Overhear a clerk trying to find a CD for a customer based on a recollected song lyric. Now THAT’S service.
On Saturday afternoon, we got a taste of one of the many SXSW “fringe” events. Typical of these gatherings was the beer and BBQ party we attended. The hosts of the party happened to be acquaintances of ours from Chicago, proprietors of a particularly nurturing music bar called the Hideout. It was set up a few miles from the center of town in a picturesque little glen or dale or gully next to a BBQ restaurant around a farm type shed along side active railroad tracks. At the center of this outdoor party was a stage that alternated mostly Chicago and Midwest bands. Although not actually scheduled to perform, we were invited to play at the fringes of this fringe event between officially scheduled acts on the outskirts of the party grounds. The guy who wrote “Wild Thing” and his partner who played guitar on “Moondance” really liked our music, along with a bunch of local folks and their kids. Although we live in Chicago, this was ironically our first opportunity to see some of these groups we had been hearing about. Man, there is a lot of country and alt-country music around Chicago! Go figure. A word about beer. There wasfree beer here. There is beer everywhere in Austin. Some places you can’t get anything but. If beer made Milwaukee famous, then Austin makes beer famous, or something like that. Maybe this is the secret to the town’s friendliness. I don’t know. I don’t drink and Itzi maybe had half a bottle the whole time we were there. A real couple of serious party dudes we are. Hey, if it makes our music sound better or puts more money in our guitar case, then my vote goes for beer. As long as you kids use it responsibly as tool to open creative doors of perception and it doesn’t make you do stupid sexual stuff.
Saturday night. Our last evening in Austin. Once again the weatherperson lied. We reclaim “our” corner. It’s the triumphant culmination of the past several days. It all comes together. Newfound fans return, bringing their friends, grandparents, teachers, dead pets etc. Spontaneous dancing erupts and the crowd presses close. We need to stop several times just to contain the money in the overflowing guitar case. A few industry types slip us their cards that we don’t discover til we’re back home. Strangers are actually in the palms of our hands and we play til our twangers and bangers just don’t work no more.
As we leave, we briefly stop at a bar to see the band of one of the guys who had loved our music a little earlier. He had quietly mentioned to us that his “little band” was jamming down the street for free at a non conference affiliated venue. Very humble, very low key. Well, nothing prepared us for the raw, blue eyed soul this unit put out. It was like the Commitments meet the Weather Girls. Here was a group playing its heart out for little more than the love of music. I hate to sound too sappy, but it’s not all that far from the truth. It really epitomized the attitude we felt our whole time in Austin without ever having actually set foot in a real SXSW showcase, and kind of echoed what we felt about our act as well. “Here’s what we do. It’s great if you like it, but to each his own. We’ll continue to entertain you in the best way we know how and if you want to pay us, that’s nice, too.” We took a big chance, did our best, and came out happy and satisfied. Did we get that big record contract? Nah. But we had fun. And, at two in the morning as I took my last step on Austin soil into our van, I stepped in a big puddle of barf. I think THAT’S rock and roll. Isn’t it?