Thanks to the H.E.B. grocery chain, the “Keep Austin Weird Fest” had its 8th annual go-round. Viewing photos of people (I think) arrayed in various versions of weirdness, I began reflecting on Austin’s claim as a home of the weird.
My impression as a long-time Austinite is that most people, especially newbies, think Austin has always been a hotbed of funkiness, live music, and zany characters. The truth is that Austin’s longer history has been that of “Sleepy College Town, U.S.A.,” by which I mean laid back, unexciting, and not especially unique, at least not in the “weirdness” department. Admittedly, we’ve had folks like “Bicycle Annie” who eccentrically pedaled an apparent mental disturbance along the public streets, but every town has an Annie or two. I wish it weren’t so, but their plights remind us to feel gratitude.
Even the not-so-weird festivals like South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festivals are of recent vintage. Before they came along, the most exciting event for many years was the Austin Aqua Festival – an event that took our minds off of August heat and humidity. The big draws were the noisy drag boat races on Town Lake, but there were also skiing contests, water parades, beauty pageants, and a “Battle of the Bands,” a competition among our decidedly “unweird” local bands.
Aqua Festival entertainment also featured a showcase for local citizens to perform their talent on a stage before a local audience on the shores of Festival Beach. After all these years, I’m still awed by how persuasive my guitar teacher – Austin’s legendary Wayne Wood – must have been to get me on that stage with another student, Claudia, co-sufferers of fourth-grade girl timidity. Needless to say, our fellow-Austinites did not get even a whiff of weirdness as we performed the popular folk hit Green, Green in our matching gray skirts, white blouses, and saddle shoes. We oozed apple pie in small town America.
Back in March, 2000, American Statesman humorist, John Kelso described what he remembered about “old” Austin, defining “old” as being the 1970s and “before cappuccino and dot-com were in the vocabulary” of Austinites. He waxed nostalgically about times before the onslaught of national chains: “Where Wendy’s now sells square burgers on S. Lamar Blvd., a trashy little combination beer joint and live music club called the Split Rail once attracted a mix of hippies and cowboys, brought together by an appreciation of country rock and getting loaded.” Looking back on pre-1980s Austin, he said: “Sixth Street had clubs, but they were mostly beer joints with jukeboxes, pool tables, and personalities . . . the major smog problem was the cloud of pot smoke that wafted out back of Spellman’s, a long-gone hangout on West Fifth Street.” The good old days.
Responding to Kelso, Ben Wear (a 1971 graduate of Austin High and long-time transportation columnist at the Statesman’) wrote a piece entitled, “Austin’s good old days really weren’t that good.” From his “true old-timer’s perspective,” he said, “Austin in the 1960s and early 1970s was pretty laid-back. But, it was also really, really boring . . . pretty much Omaha with trees.” My own memory corresponds with Ben’s on several points, including Sixth Street: “. . . aside from those seedy . . . bars Kelso looks back on with so much fondness, Sixth Street night life was mostly confined to the Pecan Street Café and a corps of transvestite prostitutes who hung out on nearby corners.” About Austin dining establishments, Ben noted, “There were maybe 20 restaurants worth mentioning, about half of which served Tex-Mex that all seemed to be cooked by the same guy.” Kelso’s “off-the-wall Austin,” Ben concluded, is a “mythical place” that began with the decision “to turn an old armory south of the river into longnecks-and-longhair heaven.”
Ben and I diverge a bit on the college bar scene. He remembered the “. . . Hole in the Wall on the Drag and a couple of uptown places called the Blue Parrot and Rick’s American Bar where you could listen to a guy named Bernie sing while playing a white baby grand.” But, he neglected to mention the Chequered Flag (a.k.a. Castle Creek) on the corner of 15th and Lavaca where you could hear Michael Martin Murphey, B.W. Stevenson, and Willie Nelson, and the dance clubs on East Riverside catering to college students beginning to populate the area. And Ben never found the Hungry Horse on San Jacinto where a local band, where a local group called Jabbernow convinced us they were channeling Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and a bit of Young on Thursday nights. Very laid-back and unweird.
Reflecting on the “Keep Austin Weird” movement, I wonder what Austin we are really striving to keep? We’ve witnessed our open areas being paved over by restaurant chains, malls, and other developers into a sad Starbuckian sameness. Sure, we want to keep our Split Rails, Armadillos, Hungry Horses, and the other local venues that make Austin special, but we let most of them slip through our fingers long ago when we took the exit ramp from the boring Sleepy College Town route to zip along the big city fast lane. But, the further that Austin has traveled in search of something that looks like progress, the less weird it has become.
Now, with a few exceptions, all we have left are a bunch of people dressing up as if it were Halloween and calling it a weird festival. No one seems to realize that the Austin worth keeping has already left the building.