(As most of y'all know, I recently moved to Austin to work full on for SXSW. I've been coming to SXSW and enjoying the fruits of its loins since 1991 I think, and I recently decided that I'll reflect on some of the finer times I have had at said conference and in the end possibly tie it in with a good report of what it's like to work here behind the scenes after 17 years of revelry. And such. I don't know, you might hate this story. But I don't so here it is. And it's all 100% true.)
It was 1991 and I had just moved to Houston from Erie, Pennsylvania a year and six months previous. I was 19 years old and booking tours for small punk rock bands, thinking I was on a path to a whirlwind life in the music business. Round about the first of the year, one of my good friends from my hometown decided that he was going to hop freight trains and travel around the country for a year or so, and asked if I would meet him in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I said sure, and not really knowing what Mardi Gras was at the time, I showed up in town two weeks prior and crashed with a promoter friend of mine, Deborah Toscano from Devil Dolls (who incidentally is presenting a showcase at SXSW this year).
Deborah’s grandfather had left her a huge house when he passed, and said house became a flophouse for wayward punk rockers like myself. In fact I think by the time Fat Tuesday came around, there were about thirty of us there. But at the moment it was just me, my boy Mike, Jason - a roadie for NOFX, and Deborah and a bunch of her hot girlfriends. (Who would grow to hate us fairly quickly. Well, not Jason, anyway.)
You’ll see where this all ties in, in a minute.
So over the course of two weeks in New Orleans, we met a lot of people, including another promoter named Mary X. When we first met she told us about her HUGE Fat Tuesday event she was preparing for with headliners, L-7 and a few local bands. One of her openers had just canceled and in a drunken stupor I informed her that Mike and I had a band, and we would love to open up. Not sure where the name came from, but we told her we were called the Magnum 440 Honeybuns and we would be glad to open up.
For some reason she let us, I’m still not sure why.
By the time Fat Tuesday came around, we had recruited a bass player and a drummer, wrote a song about a homeless dude named Red and his old lady Catherine, who we had spent a couple days with down to the Quarter, and raided all the girls closets for things to wear on stage. Somehow we convinced the second band of the night to let us use their equipment and we got on stage dressed like homeless transsexuals. I remember that I had a pink bra on under a ripped Public Enemy t-shirt, a fishing hat and some stretchy pink and purple leggings on. Yeah, I was New York hipster dude fifteen years early, I know.
Mike had on some crushed velvet pants and no shirt or shoes and when the lights came on the stage he ripped into a raging version of “Smoke on the Water,” whilst our rhythm section just plodded away in some sort of 4/6 time or some shit and I rolled on the floor thinking I was Nick Cave.
All this lasted about 8 minutes. I fell off the stage, Jason NOFX dude started a pit, about half the crowd went outside to smoke, we said Thank You, Good Night and went off to find Donita Sparks to see if she thought we rocked. (Donita Sparks will be performing at SXSW this year as well, though I am sure her memories of this particular evening are not as vivid as mine).
O.K. Enough about New Orleans, this is about SXSW.
So we leave New Orleans and go back to Houston where we are informed of a huge music festival going down in Austin just a week or so later. Mike decided to stay in Houston and on Day one of SXSW 1990, we got back in my small Toyota Station Wagon and headed for Austin.
At the time, I had no idea what SXSW was. I had no idea what 6th Street was. I didn’t know there was a University called “Texas,” all I knew was that it was going down and we were going to be there.
It was like Mardi Gras all over again. The streets were packed, I think back then you maybe even could drink on the streets (I know we did), and to me SXSW was like the ultimate playground. We somehow found a schedule and decided that our first show would be the hip-hop showcase at what I think at the time was called The Sanitarium, though maybe it was Hip-Hop City, now known as Elysium.
We walked in at probably 7:55 p.m. with the first act going on promptly at 8:00. I’ll never forget this moment as it was quite possibly the worst show I had ever seen (save for the one we had just done ourselves a week or two prior in New Orleans).
It was a white rapper from Houston named Jeff Romeo. I had never heard of the dude, almost couldn’t believe he existed. He came out in a bright green and white parachute OUTFIT with a fluorescent green biker cap with the bill flipped up and proceeded to kick his ultra nasal raps while three black dudes danced behind him. Yes, dudes.
At one point he said to the crowd – that consisted of me, Mike, my friend Rich, the stage manager, sound man, and possibly his parents – “Y’all know this white boy can ROCK too right?” And of course we yelled “HELL YEAH!” At this point, the dancers had run backstage behind the curtain for a costume change. As the opening, sampled, guitar riffs kicked in, the trio of dancers emerged from behind the curtain in Bon Jovi wigs, strumming little plastic ukulele’s and banging their heads in unison.
It was then that we decided to walk outside and smoke a joint in front of the police station. After that we went back into the club and saw MC Overlord who I think also had male dancers, but killed it, and later that night I fell in love with the Cooley Girls.
Also later that night we realized that we had no place to stay, so we headed out some road, possibly 290, pulled over and slept in the car.
The next morning, like 7 am-ish, we were awoken by the police, who searched our car but didn’t find the dime bag or so of schwag we had stashed, and we went to some overcrowded breakfast spot and sat for a few hours.
That night we hit up the Cannibal Club and saw Happy Flowers play to a bunch of people I would later learn were quite “famous” on the Austin scene. There was the chunky girl with long black hair and tattoos who would go to shows in her lingerie. I saw Gibby Haynes pass by, caught my first glimpse of Tim Kerr in person, and wondered aloud why there were so many shirtless, white boy funkateers in this town? Could it be something they put in the water?
I want to say that later that night we saw Tripping Daisy (after Happy Flowers, how ironic), who I always thought sucked, and then went out onto the street to figure out what we were going to do for a crash spot. See, we had no money and once again made no effort to find a place to stay. I remember standing on the corner of 6th and Neches, feeling a lil run down and mopey, Mike was straight up angry at the prospect of sleeping in the car again, and I was basically informing him that we really weren’t going to have much of a choice.
Then all of a sudden a girl walks up to me and says “HEY! Didn’t I see your band in New Orleans? Didn’t y’all open for L-7?” I said “Yeah, hell yeah that was us!”
We chatted for a minute about how awesome our performance was and how most of the people there probably just didn’t “get it” and she then asked me what we were doing for the rest of the night.
“Why we’re coming with you of course,” was my reply.
She knew of a party up by campus, so we followed her there and saw some band who was a little bit too influenced by the Butthole Surfers. It was late and we were in a residential neighborhood, so of course the cops came. They didn’t just come, they barreled in 20 deep shining flashlights and causing a ruckus. Not sure how, but we all made it out the backdoor and down the street to the girls apartment and she graciously allowed us to stay on her living room floor, as the band The Buck Pets were actually staying on her couches and in her room.
Got up the next morning and basically did the whole SXSW thing again. Drink for breakfast and keep the party moving till it stops itself. That night we came back to the apartment where the girl, a couple of her girlfriends and the Buck Pets were playing cards. We lit up a bunch of joints, and basically passed out with our local friends having a drunken, screaming argument about abortion rights (seriously).
This went on into the wee hours and obviously pissed off her downstairs neighbors because at 7 a.m. said neighbor turned her music on full blast and started bashing the ceiling hard with a broomstick. That actually didn’t wake me up, what roused me was the sound of our hostess exploding from her bedroom screaming “YOU BITCH!” She then ran downstairs, yanked a metal fence post from the ground and began smashing out all of her neighbors windows. Of course the police were called, and again we made our exit before having to deal with them.
SXSW was over and we headed back to Houston with a story to last a lifetime.
(Coming soon, why I'll always have love for Jim Testa, my favorite rock critic/writer dude/guitar GOD).