If any Berliners were wondering if the city was getting its tax euros' worth at SXSW, this is a photo of the Berlin stand at the trade show, where high technology, film, and music from Berlin all had their representation. There were a few people at the stand, mostly talking to each other, and a thick booklet with a CD in the back which they were handing out, not that there were many takers. It all seemed kind of quaint and nostalgic, two words I know the city doesn't want to associate with Berlin (no, the two words they want are hip! and edgy!).
But then consider: this was a SXSW Music where there were panels with titles like "Getting Your Music In Sports," "Advertising IS the New Radio!" "Cover Songs to Karaoke: Alternate Revenue Streams," and "Beyond Just Music: Licensing in Advertising." Clearly the most pressing issues were elsewhere.
Still, it was kind of a throwback to another age when a couple of thousand of the conference-goers assembled in one of the large ballrooms to hear Bruce Springsteen's keynote address. (Go ahead: check it out. I'll be here when you're done). Here were all these young music-biz folks sitting to hear the advice of a veteran who couldn't be any more unlike them. One of the last successful products of the old studio system, he was signed to CBS Records by John Hammond, the same man who'd heard a live broadcast of Count Basie while in his car on the Jersey Palisades and driven straight to Kansas City to sign him up in the 1930s, and, later, signed Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan. Once signed, Springsteen was allowed two semi-flop albums with increasing critical acclaim, and then joined forces with his loudest supporter, Jon Landau, who became his manager and producer, fighting his old management and the record company until a third album, after a delay of several years, could be released. It proved the commercial and artistic success Springsteen's supporters had hoped for, and, with the help of FM radio, covers on Time and Newsweek magazines, and a growing loyal and devoted fan-base, he went on to a career of artistic freedom and popular acclaim.
Man, talk about quaint and nostalgic. And yet we sat there and heard him out because, among other things, almost everyone there wanted to believe, if just for a moment, that this could still happen to them. Sort of like a Bruce Springsteen song. He said all the right things, quoting Lester Bangs in saying that "Elvis is the last thing we'll ever agree on," and noting that "We're living in a post-authentic world," while noting that the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" was "every song I've ever written," and that "There's no way of doing it -- there's just doing it."
It's just that there's no doing it the way he did it any more, and the question of whether any of the young performers in the room, or their young managers, could find artistic and financial success on the level that he has hung, unexpressed, in the air. Bruce Springsteen has never licensed a song to advertising that I'm aware of, and when politicians have attempted to use his material, he's slapped them down. Jon Landau has handled his affairs so well that he doesn't need any alternative revenue streams. He could quit tomorrow and live very well for the rest of his life, and have plenty left over for philanthropy.
And yet even this multi-millionaire playing a working-class stiff knows that the country's in trouble, and needs a radical shakeup. Along with some other musicians, he's been working on publicizing the fact that Woody Guthrie would have been 100 this year, had he not been stricken with Huntington's Chorea at 40 and died at 55. Guthrie's a thorny figure for Americans to contend with. Growing up in Oklahoma, he absorbed plenty of that impoverished agricultural state's homegrown socialism, a system of political thought which grew spontaneously and with very little help from the proverbial "outside agitators" throughout the early 20th century. I knew Sis Cunningham, one of Guthrie's running-mates from the 1930s, and in her autobiography, she tells of going to college and being exposed to the latest left-wing ideas, returning after the first year to the farm she grew up on to proselytize her father, only to discover that he'd figured out the same things all by himself -- and was to the left of her!
Woody would be very puzzled by the world we're living in now, although probably not too surprised that buffoons like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are abroad on the land. And, while a lot of his patriotism and folkie wisdom have become part of America's culture, his actual beliefs would scare the hell out of Middle Americans today. So while the audience sang "This Land is Your Land" after Springsteen's speech, and included the "missing verse," fewer than a hundred of them were present for the panel which followed, featuring his children Arlo and Marjorie, who tried to communicate the whole Woody.
There's still work to do, then, and while it's charming to listen to Bruce, it's important to listen to Woody. I'm sure Bruce would agree.
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There were other panels -- the one on the rise of the Cosmic Cowboys was ridiculous, with Michael Martin Murphey, who's become an unhinged Libertarian, declaring that the wonderful thing about the whole Progressive Country movement was that there was no gap between generations, a statement that had the other panelists rolling their eyes. Another statement he made, however, might be true, and I'm looking into it: he said that the first Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic had been financed by...Mrs. Richard Pryor? Stay tuned.
And I have to say, my own panel, "Don't Call it Classical," went swimmingly well, thanks to a relatively light hand by the moderator (me) and some stellar talent.
This, however, marked my first virgin SXSW: I saw no music. The whole process has become such a hassle, the noise so overbearing, and the rewards from the 2000 + performers mostly so negligible, that I stayed in, or hung with friends. I discovered that I'd won a lottery I didn't know I'd entered and had two tickets to the super-secret Bruce Springsteen show -- the day after it happened. Damn, I could have scalped those for a month's rent, although I think the deal was you picked them up and proceded straight into the concert, something you'd have to use a gun to make me do. (I have to admit, it's been over 30 years since I paid any attention at all to the Boss, who lost me even before Born in the U.S.A.).
I did, however, see some music. Joe "King" Carrasco was the first new band I became aware of when I moved to Austin in 1979, and he's still at it, operating out of a club in Mexico called Nacho Daddy's. He reunited his old Austin band to play some SXSW gigs, and, in the grand tradition, they did some out-of-town rehearsals the week before. I caught them out at the Oasis, which used to be a nice bar out at the lake where you could watch the sun set and is now some kind of amusement park on Texas-made steroids. His old manager Joe Nick Patoski is still doing the intros:
The band still acts silly on stage:
And they still end with the cape routine:
It was quaint, it was nostalgic -- it still sounds like 1980 -- and it was fun. With all that "talent" around, fun remains important.