Bruce Springsteen paused before launching into "My City of Ruins" during a show at last month's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
"It's fucking crazy out there," Springsteen told the crowd. "It's like a teenage music junkie's wet dream."
SXSW, for those who are unfamiliar, is indeed a fucking crazy experience.
Not every year features a concert by Springsteen, who was accompanied by the E Street Band (and the mighty brass of the new E Street Horns), along with guest stars including Tom Morello, Jimmy Cliff, Alejandro Escovedo, Joe Ely and even Arcade Fire, who all came onstage for the finale, "This Land Is Your Land," in a heartfelt tribute to Woody Guthrie.
Forgive me, but I couldn't help boasting a bit about seeing that spectacle. Like the Boss, I was born "in the swamps of Jersey some misty years ago" (although I got out while I was young). My older brothers were nuts for Springsteen, and I spent a lot of time in high school listening to those songs about girls, cars, brotherhood and chasing dreams when I was still riddling out the meaning of life and all that stuff. Seeing the Boss in an intimate theater, playing his old stuff (including an epic performance of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," with a raucous salute to the late Clarence Clemons) alongside his new stuff was one of those moments that—as Bruce promised—"wake you and shake you and take you to higher ground."
SXSW—created by the altweekly Austin Chronicle—is loaded with that kind of thing. The music festival brings many thousands of bands and tens of thousands of music fans into downtown Austin for five nights of overcrowded bars, jammed dance halls and sonic overload. The streets, many of which are closed to traffic, are jammed with people drunk on music and Lone Star; every venue in town is booked with bands from around the world who show up to play hour-long sets in hopes of finding fame and fortune.
There's simply no way to experience more than a taste of any of it, but if you love crowded bars, electric guitar, sheer chaos or any combination of the above, it's where you want to be in mid-March.
My personal favorites from this year's trip—aside from the Springsteen show, which was in a class by itself—were the hip-swaying Alabama Shakes, the hard-rocking Heartless Bastards, the Latin-tinged Y La Bamba and the absolutely infectious JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. They've all been in my iTunes mix since I got back to town.
Springsteen came to Austin deliver the SXSW keynote address. He talked about his own influences: Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams and, of course, Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 this year. Bruce sang a few lines from the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and told the crowd it was the inspiration for "every song I've ever written." (And, in a beautiful bit of SXSW magic, it turned out that the Animals' Eric Burdon was in Austin that night and joined Springsteen onstage for a rendition of the '60s classic.)
The Boss joked that it wouldn't have been possible to have a SXSW festival when he was a teenager, because "there just weren't that many guitars to go around in those days. They simply hadn't made that many yet. We would all have to have been sharing."
Music, he said, brings people together and provides the soundtrack of our lives. "Pop's become a new language, cultural force, social movement. Actually, a series of new languages, cultural forces and social movements that have inspired and enlivened the second half of the 20th century, and the dawning years of this one. I mean, who would have thought that there would have been a sax-playing president, or a soul-singing president, you know?"
Springsteen talked about how it's personal for all of us: He shared his own musical journey and showed how the songs he listened to became the songs he wrote. He celebrated the astonishing ways that rock 'n' roll has splintered in so many new directions since he was a teenager—and said that no matter what you're doing with that guitar or keyboard or computer, it all comes down to "what you're bringing when the lights go down. It's your teachers, your influences, your personal history; and at the end of the day, it's the power and purpose of your music that still matters."
He concluded his keynote with a contradictory benediction: "So, rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears, and open your hearts. Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don't worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt—it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town—and you suck! It keeps you honest. ... Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. And when you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all we have. And then remember: Its only rock 'n' roll."
Words to live by.
How much of a political junkie am I? A few years back, when SXSW had wrapped up, and I had few hours to kill before my flight out of town, I walked over to Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson Library. (The idea actually came from my friend Charlie Levy, who runs Stateside Presents and has something of an interest in politics himself.)
One thing that really struck me (besides the animatronic LBJ robot) was the extraordinary list of things that got done in the Johnson administration.
As someone born in the mid-'60s, it's hard to imagine living in a country that doesn't have all the things that the Great Society brought us, from Medicare to school-lunch programs for poor kids.
And there's the part that liberals love, and conservatives love to hate: support for arts and culture. The National Endowment for the Arts. The National Endowment for the Humanities. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. PBS and NPR.
When LBJ signed the legislation creating the NEA and NEH back in '65, he said: "Art is a nation's most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish."
I'm down with that. (And not just because I am lucky enough to moonlight on Arizona Public Media's Political Roundtable on Friday nights.) I don't mind a few crumbs of my tax dollars going to make sure that the arts remain accessible to everyone—that we have museums, galleries, public art, theaters and a rich cultural heritage that's available to the young and old, rich and poor. I want to have arts groups that can go into schools and inspire kids to dream of becoming painters or musicians or actors or filmmakers or writers. I don't want the arts to be limited to wealthy patrons who can afford it.
Arts funding has been in deep trouble here in Arizona in recent years. Conservative lawmakers, who frown at supporting the arts, quit spending general-fund dollars on the Commission on the Arts last year. They also swept up a $20 million endowment that was launched under Gov. Fife Symington III in the '90s, with the idea of developing a sustainable way of funding the arts that didn't depend on the general fund. Before it got snatched away, it was generating $1 million a year in grant dollars for arts organizations.
Although lawmakers last week agreed to renew the agency for another decade, the only support the Commission on the Arts now gets comes from a fee that businesses pay through the Arizona Corporation Commission, which comes out to about $1.3 million annually, according to Robert Booker, the executive director of the Commission on the Arts.
Those state dollars bring in matching funds from the federal government that support arts groups throughout Arizona—the Tucson Museum of Art, the Loft Cinema, Arizona Theatre Company, Arizona Opera and the like.
The cuts have been deep at the local level, too. The Tucson Pima Arts Council has seen its funding from the city of Tucson drop from about $700,000 to around $400,000, although TPAC executive director Roberto Bedoya has worked to replace the public dollars with private grants. It's not a sustainable model, but it helps get through the hard times.
You can grumble all you want about how you'd rather see money spent on pothole repairs than museums and theaters, but I'll make an economic argument: Having a rich cultural environment encourages new businesses to relocate to Arizona, helps local businesses and boosts tax revenues. Theater companies spend money on materials to build sets. Musicians buy guitars and drums from local merchants. Couples out on a date before a show buy dinner, helping restaurants keep their doors open. They buy drinks afterward, boosting bar receipts and liquor taxes. Ask the owners of downtown restaurants and clubs if they see a boost in business on nights when 1,000 people go to a show at the publicly owned Rialto Theatre.
The nonprofit Rialto Theatre Foundation—run by my good friend (and longtime Tucson Weekly contributor) Curtis McCrary—is one of the chief reasons that downtown is on the rebound. It's an anchor tenant that brings in the young and the old.
But the scrappy theater doesn't just open its door for big acts. It's there for local bands and good causes, whether it's raising money to aid the victims of the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting rampage, or helping musicians who need to pay medical bills.
All of which brings us—somewhat circuitously—back to rock 'n' roll.
Way back in 1946, The New Republic suggested that jazz was "the only original American art form." That was long before Elvis started swinging his hips, so I reckon it's safe to add rock 'n' roll to that declaration.
Rock's influence on our lives was on glorious display in our town in recent months as our museums and galleries went a little rock 'n' roll crazy. The Tucson Museum of Art hosted the dazzling Who Shot Rock and Roll? show. (Plenty of other local galleries joined in the fun, from Etherton Gallery's display of rockin' portraits by photographers Baron Wolman and Lynn Goldsmith, to a pop-up gallery that featured a wide abundance of rock photography by Tucson residents.)
The TMA show broke attendance records as we swarmed the museum to remember those times we saw our idols perform in front of crowds, or just sat alone in our bedrooms and listened to their LPs. I went down to the show a half-dozen times myself, always finding something new in those photos.
So, yeah: I've got no problem with giving the Tucson Museum of Art a cheap lease and some support from my tax dollars.
We at the Tucson Weekly have tried to do our part to support local music. We have been putting on the Tucson Area Music Awards since 1993, and our twice-a-year Club Crawl® puts dozens of local bands of all stripes and sounds on stages across downtown in the biggest musical festival this city has to offer.
This weekend, we'll be doing it again. The city fathers won't let us close down as much of Congress Street as we normally do, thanks to streetcar-line construction. But we're still going to have plenty of outdoor stages alongside indoor stages so that you get a chance to hear how our local musicians are taking their influences and mixing 'em up and bringing it when they get onstage. It ain't SXSW, but it's still a hell of a party.
So on Saturday night, let's get out there and drink some beer and dance in the streets. It's only rock 'n' roll, but we like it. Yes, we do.