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This Planet is Doomed

The Austin I love. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Five in the morning at the Rochester Non-International Airport, and I am sitting next to my fellow passengers to be, eavesdropping. One of them seems like a nice-enough guy. He’s telling some people he’s just met that he’s been to Europe. Amsterdam feels dangerous, he says. Too many foreigners.

But when in Amsterdam, Isn’t he the foreigner?

Fresh perspective is always in order. I can see better at 33,000 feet.

On my way to the airport, I’d stopped at the 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of unsweetened ice tea, because I know the airport prices are outrageous. But at the security checkpoint, the bottle was confiscated. The security guy looked at me with disdain as he flipped my iced tea into a trash can, alongside containers of orange juice, soft drinks, carbonated water and other potentially dangerous chemicals. Now I have a new bottle of iced tea, acquired through proper channels. A kiosk on the other side of the De-Hydration Zone. I paid $4.75 for that bottle of unsweetened ice tea. It was excellent. And I felt safe.

As is usually the case when taking some time off, I drop into a news blackout. With my brain no longer distracted by the world’s latest tragedies, I’m free to think in non-sequiturs as I soar into the sky.

I usually wake up with a piece of music running through my head. There’s usually no explanation for what I’ve tuned into. This morning it was the theme from Hawaii Five-0.

This airplane is an MD 90, which takes me back to college, and MD 20/20. A sweet wine by Mogen David, we called it Mad Dog 20/20. It tastes like it was distilled overnight.

Whenever I get too big of a head about my status in this community – big-shot writer – I get on an airplane. After just a few minutes, I look down at the ground and remind myself that we are now out of range of my public radio news reports, commentaries and blog. The people in those tiny, tiny houses do not know me, they have never read or heard a word from me.

Up here, way up here, I look out the window and carefully observe the wings that are keeping this airplane aloft. They look flimsy, a little too bendy. The wing I’m looking at has a black dot on it, about the size of the drain in your bathtub (No, I probably haven’t been in your bathroom, but bathtub drains seem to be pretty standard). Next to the dot, I can read some stenciled words: ICE SENSOR DO NOT PAINT. Just below that, with a small arrow pointing at what we non-aeronautics engineers would call the flaps, is another set of stencils placed every few yards along the length of the wing: NO STEP AFT. These are a set of warnings to work crews, suggesting they watch their step, so as to not accidentally disable some of the technology that we might be needing at 33,000 feet. Those words also get me to thinking. Aren’t the men and women who prepare these airplanes for flight properly schooled in not slopping paint over an electronic sensor, and to please not stomp on delicate moving parts?

I’m not afraid to fly. But I don’t want to die trying.

From my window, the United States of America looks bleak. Take that as political commentary, if you must.

By the way, I like this pen that I’m using to take these notes. A nice, steady ink flow. It’s the Pilot G-2 07, if you’re interested.

It’s been five or six years since the last time I was in Austin. I’ve always loved the music, the food, the bats whirling out from beneath the Congress Street Bridge at dusk. The characters sauntering along, many walking very happy-looking dogs. The old guy with dreadlocks falling down the back of his head, stopping just an inch or two from the sidewalk. Margaret has been here for a few days before I arrive, and has already warned me that the city has changed dramatically.

The capitol building in Austin, now dwarfed by the 21st century. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

It has. Spectacular high-rise buildings, all shiny glass, have pushed their way into the now unfamiliar skyline. Many of the shops, filled with smart new art or rusty horseshoes or Cuban guayabera shirts that once belonged to someone’s uncle, are gone. Threadgill’s, one of the rattle-bangy music venues and restaurants of South Austin, is closed, the space soon to be a towering condo. Jon Langford, the charismatic leader of bands such as The Waco Brothers and The Mekons, used to have his artwork hanging in a quirky gallery called The Yard Dog. It is dark as well, a sign posted on the door telling former customers that the owners could no longer afford the rent.

This doesn’t feel right. Forcing out the merchants who once gave life to these streets. But what city official would say no to these millions from heaven?

Some stuff’s still here. I stop at Waterloo Records and buy a vinyl album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Thunder of the Gods, and a book of Sun Ra’s Afro-Futurist poems. The Skylark looks like it was built out of sheet metal, with a ceiling of varying sizes of planks and duct tape. It’s afternoon, but so dark inside that I can’t see the Shiner Bock in front of my face. But I can hear the blues singer.

We’re staying at Our Friends John and Denise’s house. Standing by the pool, high up on the hill on the other side of Barton Creek, you can see a house owned by Sandra Bullock. One of them, anyway.

Denise has a shrine to The Monkees. I think that’s pretty cool. She knew them. We’re sitting outside drinking coffee, talking about the spirituality stuff we used to read in college. I mention Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Denise suggests Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. We all agree that the Carlos Castaneda books were bullshit. John disappears for a few moments; when he comes back, he has three Castaneda paperbacks in his hand. I thumb through Journey to Ixtlan:

We hardly ever realize that we can cut anything out of our lives, anytime, in the blink of an eye.

Really? It’s that easy to cure cancer? Or fix your car’s transmission?

The legendary Continental Club is still here, a dam holding back the total condo takeover of South Congress Street. There’s a blues quartet playing, young guys, The Peterson Brothers. I’m enthralled.

My feet have been aching for new boots. The Austin streets are full of them. I fell for a pair of size 13 black Luccheses They cost $450. I have never paid that much for an item of clothing. Never, ever. In fact, I once bought a car for less than that. Nevertheless, I bought the boots. I’m betting they’ll last longer than that car.

That night I have a dream that I’m in a record store and buy a strange-looking album of electronic music for $33. Someone says to me, “Why would you do that?”

Alejandro Escovedo’s dog. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Sunday at Maria’s Taco Express, it’s the Hippie Church Breakfast. One of my favorite Austin musicians, Alejandro Escovedo, strolls in, with a very cool-looking dog on a leash. I scratch the dog behind his ears. Escovedo asks if I have a dog. “Yeah, a Weimaraner,” I tell him. Escovedo is familiar with the breed. Turn your back on her for 20 seconds and she’ll clear that table of tacos.

My Friend Karen has been documenting the trip in photos. She takes a picture of Escovedo’s dog, but later realizes she didn’t bother to shoot Escovedo. She has priorities.

We go to another record store. I see a double vinyl album, a collaboration between the minimalist composer John Cage and Sun Ra. John Cage Meets Sun Ra. It’s the entire live show put on in 1986 by the two avant-garde giants. And priced at $36.99, it’s damn near my dream come true. I buy it.

Chicken-shit bingo! Photo by Margaret Spevak.

The Derailers have been a pretty slick countrypolitan band for years, but the shine’s worn off a little; now they’re the house band for Sunday afternoon’s Chicken-Shit Bingo at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Here’s how Chicken-Shit Bingo works: There’s a big cage with squares marked on its floor, bar patrons buy the squares, someone gets one of the chickens out their pen in the back yard and shoves the chicken into the cage. After a few minutes – the chickens have been eating Cheerios – the chicken poops on a square, and a winner is announced. I suggest an arena-sized upgrade would be Cow-Shit Bingo, and my friends seem willing to consider it.

I’m on an airplane again, Austin to Detroit. Then the connection to Rochester. I’m looking out the window next to me. We’re climbing over a dark Detroit, and the guy in the aisle seat isn’t looking too energetic. Thirty seconds after takeoff, he suddenly jerks his head toward the floor and barfs. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to pack my new boots in my suitcase, rather than wear them on the plane. After a few moments, the women he came on with, who’s sitting between us, looks at me and silently mouths, “I’m sorry.” No need for me to say anything: There’s an air-sickness bag in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me. On it, it says “Hope You Feel Better.”

Everyone has their own personal TV screen mounted on the back of the seat in front of them, 15 inches from their faces. I’m the only one who doesn’t turn it on. All of the adults are watching Fox News or Transformer movies or Pixar movies of kids with huge, round eyes. I pull out my new Sun Ra book, This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra, and read:

all governments

on earth

set up by men

are discriminating

but the government of death is a

pure government

it treats all in an equal manner

it is a startling, revealing picture

of equality for all

and all in the realm of death

is nothing else but


Profound. Sun Ra is no Carlos Castaneda.

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The Critical Mass

Live from SXSW No. 4: Like The Clash, only drunker

With dozens on the schedule, the big daytime party choice Saturday afternoon for me comes down to two choices. The Rachael Ray Feedback Party at Stubbs’ BBQ, with the queen of Food TV playing host to some pretty good acts, including She & Him, a duo featuring the country-folker M. Ward and actor Zooey Deschanel. Or Mojo Nixon’s Mayhem Jalepeno Pancake Breakfast at the Continental Club, with acts like the Mother Truckers and the show-closing  “Toadlikker (Tribute to Mojo Nixon).” A sign came to me Friday afternoon, while sitting at an outdoor table in front of my third Guero’s mango margarita. Mojo walked by, wearing one of his usual outrageously flowered, billowing Hawaiian shirts and what seems to be the same pair of cutoff bluejeans he’s worn for the last decade. As I watched Mojo, he teetered on the edge of the sidewalk and stumbled a little into the grass. I thought: “Drunk again. I’m goin’ to Mojo’s party.”

During this South by Southwest Music Festival, the Austin, Texas, newspapers are pretty hot for reporting celebrity sightings. Even if they’re not doing anything newsworthy. Dakota Fanning, Colin Hanks, Perez Hilton, just “spotted.” People I wouldn’t know if I had to pick them out of an Entertainment Tonight police lineup. OK, I might know Sissy Spacek or Bill Murray, whose omnipresence this week has earned him the title “King of South By”  from the Austin American-Statesman.

So Friday I’m at the Bloodshot Records party, timing my appearance for Justin Townes Earle, Steve Earle’s kid. He’s already put out two great records and I know his two festival showcases will be long lines, so this party is my best chance to hear him. While I’m waiting for Earle, I notice the guy next to me, wearing back-framed eyeglasses, a bow tie, a narrow-lapel sports coat and polyester pants in the most godawful shade of unnatural blue.  “Must be in a Buddy Holly tribute band,” I think to myself. Five minutes later, he’s onstage. It was Earle. I’m useless in this celebrity-spotting thing. The music was a gentle, Appalachian honky-tonk trio of guitar, fiddle and upright bass, and went down surprisingly well with the beered-up crowd.

I also liked a young band, Ha Ha Tonka, whose punk leanings fused well with an appreciation of older styles of music; they sang some beautiful a cappella harmonies. Rockabilly Filly Rosie Flores’ set included versions of Mose Allison’s “I’m Not Talkin’ ” and Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm.” Excene Cervenka, former lead singer of the ’80s LA punk band X, with her usual crimson-red lipstick, brought out a new album of country songs that I’ll probably have to listen to in a more-contemplative mood. She was accompanied by an all-female band including Maggie Bjorklund, who someone from the record label told me was “the finest pedal-steel guitar player in all of Denmark.” There’s a joke in there somewhere. Chicago’s The Waco Brothers closed out the party, five middle-aged guys with big boots and guitars and one slim Asian-American woman with a fiddle stomping up a cloud of working-man’s rebellion. They sound like The Clash, only drunker.

Later that evening I caught Jimmy Vaughan. Maybe it was a little too familiar-sounding, because my mind wandered, wondering why older blues guys always look like they work on their own cars. Buddy Miller reprised his amazing singing and guitar work from the previous day, once again bringing Patti Griffin onstage to close the set with “Gasoline and Matches.”

At the elegant Victorian Room at the Texas-gothic Driskill Hotel, I showed up early for the Carolina Chocolate Drops and caught the act just before them as well, a serious yet self-effacing Piedmont-style bluesman from Duluth, Minn., Charlie Parr, playing a room-ringing National resonator guitar. That set the stage perfectly for the Chocolate Drops, a young African-American trio mining many styles of old American roots music. Their presentation is respectful to the era, yet presented with imagination. Fiddles, banjos, National steel guitars, snare drum and a jug back their high-hillbilly vocals of the Appalachians, with no apologies for a little period minstrel showmanship.  The group did take an unexpected turn into the 21st Century with Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” in which the Dom Flemons’ banjo, Justin Robinson’s human beat-box and Rhiannon Giddens’ wailing R&B singing made an obvious point: That’s where hip-hop comes from.

OK, enought typing. Now it’s time to get my Mojo workin’.

The Critical Mass

Live from SXSW No. 1: Human trafficking, right beneath the bomb-sniffing dog nose of Homeland Security

With one salmonella outbreak in the chicken enchiladas, a huge piece of the popular music industry could be wiped out. The South by Southwest Music Festival begins Wednesday in Austin, Texas, with an estimated 1,800 acts officially playing, and hundreds more unofficially as far as I can tell. The hotels are packed with label execs, producers, ad men, radio DJs, writers, music software designers, TV reporters, publicists, poster artists, guitar geeks, roadies looking to sell TV pilots about being on the road with the Allman Brothers Band  and guys who can tell you every B side ever released by Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators.

To get there, they must elude a gauntlet of $10  airport beers at faux-sports bars; Someone’s got to pay for the special diets of those bomb-sniffing dogs. Haven’t the nation’s airports been on Orange Alert since 2004?

And either Gregg Allman was flying first class on my plane, or some guy who knows he really looks a lot like Gregg Allman was flying first class on my plane.

Austin is a pocket of liberal civility in the midst of a Republican state whose governor likes to talk about seceding from the United States. It’s drizzling on Tuesday, and the grackles are taking shelter in the trees, and complaining loudly about it. At Curra’s Grill, the Mexican coffee smells elegantly of vanilla. The breakfasts are Huevos Curra’s, two eggs over easy on carne guisada (that’s beef chunks in a gravy sauce). And, since it’s noon, the cocktails are Tito’s Mexican Martini: Tito’s Texas homemade vodka, Cointreau, lime juice, sweet and sour and olive juice. The owner, Jorge, comes over to say hello, and points out his 75-year-old mother working in the kitchen.

I don’t really know anyone who lives here. But a lot of people look familiar. I guess I just feel like I know them. The people watching is good. The musicians help with that. But the car watching is good as well. There goes a 5,000-pound chunk of 1960s iron with rocket tail fins, cruising past Guero’s Taco Bar and the mango margaritas. This is South Congress Avenue, home of the Continental Club and funky shopping. You can get your scuffed-up taxidermy castoffs in these stores. “Wow,” says one teenager. “Is that a turtle?” “It was,” says his pal, who’d evidently been paying attention during biology class.

The public transportation is extremely useful. “Anybody know where Elysium is?” a guy in a black leather jacket shouts to no one in particular on the bus, looking for the downtown rock club.

Four rows in front of him, another guy in another black leather jacket says, without turning around, “705 Red River.”

“Is there be a cover charge?”

“On a Tuesday, usually not, although you never know with it being South by Southwest week.”

“When are they open?”

“Monday and Tuesday, 6 till 2, Wednesday through Saturday 4 till 2.”

This guy was better than a guide book. “Who’s playing?” I asked, kinda deadpan. People on the bus started laughing.

At the South Congress Cafe, the bartender asks if I want another Shiner Bock. “I don’t know, I’m taking a bus back to the hotel,” I say…. “Waitaminute, I’m not driving the damn thing. Sure.” I’m in full wiseass mode.  Behind her, I spot a sign: WARNING: OBTAINING FORCED LABOR OR SERVICES IS A CRIME UNDER TEXAS LAW. CALL THE NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE 1-888-373-7888. YOU MAY REMAIN ANONYMOUS.

I don’t think they’re talking about Jorge’s mother. Slavery, still an issue in 21st-Century America? Wednesday, the music starts at 11 a.m. with David Olney.

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