Thursday, January 29, 2009

You Shoulda Been Here 10 Years Ago

Talkin' a bout with my generation

Let's assume, for the sake of this blog, that each generation takes about 20 years to turn over and be replaced by the next generation. And you know what they say about the "next generation," right? It'll be diametrically opposed to its immediate progenitor. If your authority-figure antecedents wore crew-cuts, teetotaled and swam laps at the YMCA pool, you let your hair down, smoked pot and slid in the mud at Woodstock. If your mom wanted you at the table by sundown for a dinner of meat and two-veg, you preferred the greasy burger, fries and shake at the local diner at two-o'clock in the morning. If your parents were Republicans, you were doomed to be a Democrat. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Come to think of it, it is. Well, you get the idea. It's generation gaps like this that lead to phrases like "You've never had it so good," "Eat your peas" and "Axis of Evil."

Now think about the half-generation that precedes you. Ten years isn't all that big a difference; we have much in common with the elders of our generation. But there's a sibling-rivalry in thinly veiled detente between us and those who have that decade's extra under their belts. And don't they let us know about it. Except that rather than push us around like our parents/betters they tend towards one-upmanship. (Because we're younger and fitter and can out-box them, that's why!)

To whit: In Boston I knew a gal -- a sweet, generous soul, usually, but 10 years my senior, so she took on the aspect of my better-heeled big sister on occasion. And on such occasions she liked to paint a picture of the town in its heyday, 10 years before I got there. Everything worth doing occurred during that inaccessible window of spent time, 10 years ago. Anything worthwhile anywhere seems to have happened that magical decade ago. I might point out contemporaneous experiences to match her vintage ones, but to no avail. Her trump card? The night The Jam -- unknown in the U.S. and doomed to stay that way -- played at some now-defunct club in Kenmore Square to a tiny house of aficionados. "You shoulda been here 10 years ago, when The Jam..." Sigh. True, I shoulda, but something kept me what was it? Oh, yes: I was 13 and living in Scotland at the time.

The same thing happens here in laid-back Austin. Well, formerly laid-back Austin. Now it's more "easy-going," but not so laid-back as the city has grown into a, well, a city. If the trend continues we'll mature through the inevitable growth stages: "fun loving," "friendly," "hard working," "serious," "stressed out," "hardened," "bitter" and, ultimately, "dangerous." Sort of like Boston these days. Ha-ha! Take that! Yet I digress.

"You shoulda been here when the Armadillo World Headquarters was around," is the approximate equivalent to the now-defunct-club-in-Kenmore-Square jibe, and it galls just the same. Sure enough, the place shut down 10 years before I got to town. Anything that happened worth happening happened at that happening haunt. Huzzah! And I missed it. All of it. Ten years ago and to this damned day.

At least I was here long enough to see my fair share of gigs at Liberty Lunch. What? You've never heard of Liberty Lunch? You shoulda been here 10 years ago...

Photo by Steve Hopson

Friday, January 16, 2009

Austin Stories, No. 1

More wayward musing in another wayward series

I arrived in Austin in July, 1990, settled down in "the hut" and began to gear up for graduate school by drinking lots of margaritas (almost an exotic drink, yet so plentiful in Austin!) and checking out the cool, local music scene. Not long after, August 27, to be exact, the helicopter flying Stevie Ray Vaughn from a Wisconsin gig crashed and he and the other passengers and crew were lost. News of his death led the morning radio shows and one (or maybe several) local stations set about planning a gathering to play the man's music and let people congregate to comfort each other and remember.

I hadn't really listened to any SRV, though in hindsight (hindhearing?) I must have listened tons of his stuff on the radio as I puttered about town that summer in my jeep. Anyway, I was hardly an aficionado, and it was my interest in hearing lots of his music and learning a bit more about it that got me thinking I should attend the evening's memorial. Plus it was clear that his death had a profound effect on the town, which further compelled me to drive down to Zilker Park and sit among the masses as they listened to the man's music and commiserated. It was like immersing yourself in Austin's life-force.

There's a certain sense to the loneliness you feel when you travel to a new place. It's almost dream-like, as if you're suspended from real life, your senses heightened to the minutiae of your new setting, which soon wears off as you get more familiar with your surroundings and the people in them; yet simultaneously it can all drift away in an instant and you seem to appear in places you've never seen, unaware of how you got there, what landmarks you passed, the people you might have seen or to whom you've spoken. I don't recall driving downtown that late afternoon, where I parked or whether there were others making the same journey towards the music playing far away across the huge open space. I felt utterly alone. Not sad, just alone.

What I do recall is that I walked about halfway down a long field and sat on the grass for a while, taking in the music and watching people move together and apart, forming and breaking small groups, always flowing towards the source of the music at the far end of the field. The sun was going down behind me and these little groups were like glowing bits of driftwood, easing past me. Mostly there was laughing; some engaged in quiet, insistent conversations, the edge of melancholy tempered by camaraderie and the meeting of friends in the heart of Austin.

I sat with my arms around my knees, staring out at the passing figures slipping by, when a hand touched my shoulder and this angelic girl looked down at me and asked, concerned, "Are you okay?" That took me by surprise: I was not sad, I hadn't just lost some vital part of me; new and disconnected to the city and its people, I had just drifted in my mind, taking in the sound and sights. I garbled a quiet, "Yes," and she smiled and floated on. I thought, how sweet everyone is, here in this new town. I liked it here before; I like it even more now.

After a while, no longer in my reverie, I got up and slowly moved against the tide of people, who, though tinged with sadness, exuded such positive energy and hopefulness. The music clearly lived (and lives on) in everyone who's heard it. That's a pretty sturdy life raft to cling to when things get dark.

The sun gone, I climbed back into the jeep and headed home.

Monday, January 12, 2009

How I Wrote the Song: Everybody's Going Away

The latest in an occasional series

There was a week back in June when I helped a long-time friend load out what was left of his furniture that was still sitting in his ex's place. They'd split, and my friend couldn't find a job in Austin, so he planned to move back to Kentucky where at least he had family. He'd rented a truck that morning and we moved out a sofa, artwork and other bits and pieces. I said goodbye to him and drove off as the day grew warmer. Later that night, Michelle called him to say her goodbye. She was sad, but then we figured we'd see him again in the future. Or we told ourselves this, though neither of us seriously believes we'll be going to Kentucky. Will he come back to visit Austin? I don't know. It seems unlikely.

That same week I helped an intrepid French family we know store their remaining possessions in a rental facility near our neighborhood before they took off in a used RV to tour the world for three years. Some things they gave to me to store at home while they were away: large dark boxes to tuck away in the closet not to see the light of day until their return years hence.

As I drove to work I thought, "Everybody's going away," and immediately the idea for a song started forming. Michelle and I talked later and we agreed that quite a number of our closest friends had upped and left town in recent years, with still more planning to go. Everybody was going away! I told her I already had the chorus to a new song:

Everybody's going away
Though some of them say they'll be back some day
But I've seen people leave here before
And when they go they don't come back no more

It didn't take long to write the rest of song. The first two verses tell the brief stories above. The third is a litany of people we've known (not even close to half!) who've moved away from Austin, in all likelihood never to return. The last mentioned is our dear friend, Don, who, having fought off cancer seven times, opted to take a journey of a different kind. He succumbed to the disease on his own terms, peacefully in his bed. We miss him.

We miss all our friends who have left.

It's funny that while I can recall the moment the song began to come together in my head -- another one that formed as I drove along on Austin's highways -- I cannot remember how I wrote the music. I can vaguely recall strumming my acoustic guitar and the chords appearing in an acceptable order; or, rather, my hands shifting to form a progression of chords that made sense and fit the words. The chorus came first, of course. Then I made a conscious decision to keep the verses simple, and I guess that was that. I wrote the song in a matter of days.

A couple of minor notes: I hadn't expected to keep the "oh-oh-oh" part between choruses and verses, which appeared out of the blue as I sang an early demo of the song, but once I did it, it stuck. And, slyly, I put in a little play on words for the part about Don. I thought he'd get a kick out of it.

Everybody's going away
Though some of them say they'll be back some day
But I know we won't see them again
So raise a glass to all our absent friends

Listen to Everybody's Going Away on The Late Joys website.