advice from a fake consultant

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

On Music And Succession, Or, The Tao Of Texas


To think about the place is to consider the duality of Tao.

A State with a dramatic duality of geography—the trees and rolling hills of East Texas compare starkly to the Panhandle...or Corpus Christi, for that matter.

The duality extends to politics as well.

Consider today’s “Madness of King George”, the weird nexus between Conservative politics and State governance as practiced by Rick “Leadership by Coiffure” Perry, and the perennially wacky antics of the Lege and the unique personalities who find there safe harbor.

Balanced against that are the “aw shucks” kinda folks who have truly made Texas great: Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, and Molly Ivins being three examples who between them represent just a tiny scratch on the deeply carved surface of the big picnic table upon which the BBQ of Texas society is served.

Duality factors into today’s conversation as well; as we intertwine thoughts of West Berlin, succession, and a mini-review of one of the world’s preeminent music festivals: SXSW.

Then let’s get to it.

“It was a nice neighborhood. If you liked neighborhoods.”

--Kinky Friedman, from the book “A Case of Lone Star

The SXSW Festival (pronounced South by Southwest, for those not familiar), based in Austin (the Texas State Capitol), has grown from a neighborhood effort capitalizing on the city’s well-deserved reputation as a haven for live music performance to the new “Aspen”; with A & R reps, movie industry types (there’s now a semi-big semi-fancy film festival in addition to the music), and thousands of glitterati and their retinue roaming 6th Street in search of the “next big thing”.

Your friendly fake consultant was not able to attend in person (issues...), but thanks to the courtesy of a satellite provider who shall remain nameless (but which rhymes with Smerect TV) I’ve been given the chance to see almost a dozen bands in live performance over the past 48 hours, including Daniel Lanois, Dizzee Rascal, Tift Merritt, Sia, X...even the former teen sensations Hanson.

Much of our discussion will focus on my impressions of these bands (and more as yet unmentioned); but first, a few words about West Berlin.

At the end of the Second World War, the defeated Germany became a nation divided by the victors, with French, American, British, and Russian Zones of Occupation. Berlin, the nation’s capital, was also divided into four zones; even though it was entirely within the larger Russian Zone of Occupation.

At the height of the Cold War, Berlin was an island city surrounded by East Germany (a Warsaw Pact member in very good standing and the former Russian Zone; the rest of Germany became known as West Germany) and separated from the world by a series of barriers that collectively became known as the Berlin Wall.

West Berlin’s location deep within a Soviet client State offered a unique perspective on life within this otherwise closed society; making it a legendary locale for espionage...and a legendary location for escape, as East Berliners realized life in the proximity of the West was far less appealing than a life actually in the West.

Because of limited space, SXSW invites about 25% of the bands that apply to participate in the Festival, meaning only about 1,600 bands are able to play during the three-day run of the event, and 25 of those are featured in the satellite provider’s per hour for three days. With re-runs, it means you get three chances to see each band, and there were some bands that I did see twice—including Daniel Lanois (who actually performed at least double duty, also appearing in Martha Wainwright’s band), who` is touring with his guitar and Brian Blades, a drummer who was more than ready to swap melodies with Lanois through the several long-form songs they played.

You may not know Lanois by name, but his work as the producing U2 albums makes him one of those “unknown soldiers” who have had much more influence on your music than you might think. It is also reported that Lanois has been touring with a documentary filmmaker...and with any luck, he’ll be coming to your TV set (or cooperative arthouse theater) in the not-too-distant future.

The Soviet Union’s frustration regarding West Berlin’s status inside East Germany led to an effort to blockade the city’s rail and road connections to the outside world; this in an effort to force the remaining former Allies (an alliance which later begat NATO) to abandon the city to the East Germans.

Harry Truman refused to be bent to the Soviet’s will; the result was the Berlin Airlift, the first effort to feed and supply a city of this size entirely by air.

The treaty creating the German partitioning arrangements had granted to the three Allies the right to access Berlin through certain air corridors...which could not be blockaded by Soviet air forces without committing acts of war (a bad decision at the time, as the US enjoyed a nuclear monopoly—which we had made use of only three years earlier against Japan).

The story of those who engaged in this effort is one of the great epic tales of American and British military history...and one of those rare times when having a military—and using it—truly is the mark of a great power; beyond that it may be the single event that made America the most admired nation on the planet for at least a generation...which eventually sort of turned a President into a self-described pastry:

“Ich bin ein Berliner...”

--President John F. Kennedy, June 26, 1963

Sia is the former lead singer of the band Zero 7, and as much as I enjoyed her music, I was also struck by the fact that her presentation and personality bear a startling resemblance to Cyndi Lauper—not in costume, but in the unpretentious and self-deprecating way she interacted with the crowd...and while I do wholeheartedly recommend her songs, I would also tell you that she looks like one of those people who, if your tire was flat, might help you change it—and might even have a joke handy to lighten the moment.

Are you all familiar with the expression “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”?

Hanson and X (featuring Xcene Cervenka, as the doyenne of punk) performed.

In keeping with the same “say nice things” policy, I will relate to you my “short skirt” theory of music, naming the innocent, and protecting the guilty.

The theory is simple: the shorter the skirt, the more the band sucks.

Results based on a universe of three bands confirmed the hypothesis: the skirt of the first “skirt band” female singer was quite short...and I did not find the band particularly interesting musically.

The second skirt was not only short enough to permit unanticipated gynecological examination in the event of even a minor accident, it was actually cut so as to expose additional hip...which, frankly, may have been a mistake.

There is no question that this particular band practiced posing in their glittery costumes far more than writing and playing recently...which was also a mistake, as it left them even farther down (or up, if you prefer) in the “skirt vs. music” rankings.

Then comes before us Nicole Atkins and the Sea; she of the American Express commercials and a nearly knee-length skirt (and fascinating top that almost appeared to be an inverted whalebone corset in emerald green).

She did a great show, by far the best of this group of three, and I would encourage you to give her a listen. She’s got a folk-rock/storytelling thing going on, and all in all I felt she did great work.

The Soviets tried mightily to prevent the use of the air corridors, occasionally swooping near US and British cargo aircraft (among those the legendary C-47, some of which are still in service to this day) in their smaller, more agile fighters. Despite these efforts at intimidation, the deliveries increased from a few thousands of tons of supplies daily to such a river of air cargo that the Soviets were forced to abandon the effort...and the blockcade was broken.

It taught the Soviets that we would not be beaten...a lesson that may have paid dividends a few years later.

Some of the coolest new musicians today are the British “grime” bands, who combine hip/hop, reggae, and dance into a heady mix of fun; high among that group of artists is Dizzee Rascal (see also: Audiobullys, Roots Manuva, or The Streets); a “straight edge” performer in a ganja world who released one of my favorite albums of last year: “Maths + English”. Check out “Sirens”, or “Bubbles”, or the instant classic “Wanna Be” featuring the most excellent Lily Allen (“So you wanna be a gangster / tell me just one thing / whatcha know about bein’ a hard man / your Mom buys your bling...”), an improbable remake of a Paul Williams song from the ‘70’s movie “Bugsy Malone”.

He had a pretty good broadcast show, and he was the only one of the participants to bring on other artists he is promoting to do the first few songs of the set.

Austin, the home of SXSW, holds a place in the cultural milieu of Texas that is not dissimilar to the position a Democratic precinct captain would have in the George W. Bush household—Austin may be family, but they often get the last scoop of the mashed potatoes at dinner...and never the big piece of chicken.

It seems to be related to the fact that Austin is a giant college town in a State that values the “git ‘er done” guy far more than the average PhD...but whatever the reason, the city, much like West Berlin, is an island of liberal thought trapped within an Evil Empire of hyper-Conservatism—and that’s where this entire story comes together.

What I have attempted to do up to this point is to explain the importance of preserving Austin while demonstrating what can be done to protect even a deeply isolated outpost which finds itself under siege.

How does that apply here?

I’m proposing that we work together to help Austin secede from Texas.
Secede, you say?
Yes, I do.

How might this work?

My proposal would send clandestine agents into the Austin area to identify and organize potential supporters of secession, while at the same time introducing into Congress a proposal to establish Austin as a second Federal District; giving the city the same status as Washington, DC.

There is even a politically palatable way to frame the using the same scare tactics so popular amongst Conservatives—National Security.

Yes, National Security.

If we frame the argument correctly, we could convince the nervous that Washington might be the target of a terrorist attack at any time...and that it is imperative to our National Survival to have a backup location ready for Continuity of Government purposes.

That’s where our supporters come in...some are playing the part of “the nervous” to help spread fear about a potential attack, some represent interests who hope to benefit from a change in control—and of course, we hope to enlist the city’s saloon and bar community, a critical resource for changing public opinion in any Western society.

Augustana is a San Diego band that bears no resemblance whatever to 311 (it is reported they toured with Counting Crows, and it’s easy to see why) but I like them just the same...and I would think that they and Tift Merritt might be one of the better tours of the year, should they ever link up.

Despite the fact that they have quite a good group of writers there already, I seem to have a bit of a following in North Carolina (thanks to the kind folks at BlueNC); so if you’re reading this, be on the lookout for fellow Tarheel Tift Merritt. She has a pretty good alt. country band...and from the look of the beards on the band members I’m guessing they hail from the farthest Western region of the State—or UNC.

Now the key to our plan is the fact the Austin has plenty of available land surrounding the city (an entire state, to be exact)—which means from time to time we can use the Federal Government’s power of eminent domain to expand the District...until eventually, all of Texas is ours! (Insert evil laugh here.)

So that’s unusual but doable plan that uses West Berlin as a model for how to save an endangered city...and perhaps, eventually, an entire State.

Not to mention a small peek at some music that is worth your attention—with a final note. The SXSW organizers have a website operating that has video of the bands we discussed today and many, many more...which means a visit to will be time well spent the next rainy day.

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