February 5, 2008
Every once in a while when you’re stuck in gridlock on the upper deck watching some dirty construction worker in the back of a pickup dig a booger out of his nose that looks like a chandelier out of a Dr. Seuss book, you might start to wonder … how did this happen? All these people? All this traffic? All this insane overbuilding? In short: What we got, they ain’t got? It’s not like Austin is tucked away in a scenic valley in the Swiss Alps or nestled in a cove on the French Riviera. For that matter, we’re a couple of shades uglier than most parts of the OC, and the surfing really sucks. The soil isn’t particularly fertile, the trees aren’t very majestic, and the temperature is only mild during allergy seasons. Why all the fuss, yo? Is this urban engine running entirely on hype? Well, yeah, sort of, but we do have a nice river (recently retitled Lady Bird Lake), some cool springs (cool enough to shrink your Willie down to a Bill) and some nice hills – especially if you like your hills liberally sprinkled with million dollar homes. Still, attractive as that trinity may sound, it’s not jazzy enough to spawn the 30-plus condo developments slated to remix the Austin skyline in the next 10 years. No, there’s something deeper and more insidious going on here in River City: nostalgia. Nostalgia because those condo buyers think they’re buying in to a scene – a scene that will be gone long before they crack the packing tape on their moving boxes. It will vanish just like all the scenes that preceded it to be replaced by something newer, more polished, and more expensive. In the same way the cosmic cowboys gave way to the new sincerity, which begat South by Southwest, retrobilly, post punk, shoegazers, and then the shitstorm of bands that made Austin the “Live music Capital of the World,” the current drummer-in-every-ThunderCloud clusterfuck will be squeezed out to more affordable locales. Like their sign says, Waco may just be what Austin was twenty years ago. Even if it’s not, Austin will never return to those halcyon days when condoms were used mostly for water-balloon fights, Ecstasy was free, pot cost something like $1.50 an ounce (but only if you wanted the really good shit) and every obnoxious garage band was sure to redefine the American musical landscape. Such is the stuff of legend … and legends (call them lies if you’re picky) are how condos get overbuilt. The big difference between the 1980s and now is that the musicians make less money – and that’s not even adjusting for cost of living. Sure, there are a lot more places to play. As long as there are trust funders with coke habits there will be venues to fill, but the days of the slacker musician are fast drawing to a close. Trying to scrape out subsistence as an original musician in Austin these days is like taking a vow of homelessness, and regardless of their pure intentions, those eager condopolitans who are plopping down a half mil for a chance to enjoy Austin’s “rich cultural diversity” aren’t going to have a lot of patience for any artistic experimentation outside the covers of a piano bar songbook. Whine about it all you want, the old scene is dead, but if you want a glimpse of what it used to be like, trot on over to the Parish Sunday night for the second, as of yet unsold-out night of the Reivers reunion. Back in the overbuilt Eighties, the Reivers were known as Zeitgeist, one of a cluster of bands associated with Austin’s new sincerity era. They’re all older now and fully schooled in the nuances of irony, but the smart money is betting they can rock it like they still believe. And who knows? If all those condos go bust we might just get the scene they spent all that money trying to exploit. Maybe the next big movement is the new irony, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.