We come in the spirit of peace. We’re waving a white flag. We just want everyone to calm down and breathe. Because in your own ways, you’re all right.
Some of you say that the Jerry’s best playing happened in the heady days of the late ’60s — when his psychedelic ramblings sounded fresh and primordial at the same time. Sunshine poured out of the cracks in the cosmic egg. The exuberance of youth.
Some of you say that his playing only matured after being filtered through the dusty twang of the Workingman / Beauty roots revival. Then, Jerry achieved something profound and rare — something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since — a synthesis of the Be-In and the barroom. In the early ’70s, the case could be made that the Grateful Dead were the best bar band in the world.
And I know that some of you take issue with that. Some of you say, “Sure, Jerry’s a naturally gifted guitar player. But it wasn’t until he started getting into modalities, until he really took the time to make himself a better player in the mid-’70s that he fully blossomed as a musician.” And even those who make this claim have their factions, some preferring the sprawling jams of ’74, and some who swear by the wonderfully executed complexity of his “aluminum guitar” shows. And you know what: you’re both right. You’re all right.
You’re right if your heartstrings are tugged by the hard-won wisdom that comes through in his ’80s shows, especially on “Sugaree.” You can hear the darkness that was always there, even in the early days, come creeping in stronger. Sure, the hope, the beauty — they’re still there — but in the late ’70s and early ’80s Jerry was playing complicated stuff, influenced by parts of the world (and parts of himself) that he hadn’t investigated before. And, hell, you’re even right if you’re a fan of Rosebud and Lightning Bolt, Jerry’s last and, some say, most tonally rich guitars. By the ’90s his playing had gotten both more abstract and tender in equal measure — he was like an aging gunfighter in a spaghetti western. Yes, he would nod off from time-to-time, but when he was on it was like Miles Davis’ E.S.P.
But we’re here to tell you: you don’t have to make a choice. You can enjoy each of Jerry’s incarnations for wildly different reasons. And if you’re at a loss as to where you should begin, no worries. Mellow slow with these choice cuts featuring some of Jerry’s most iconic guitars, each representing a different phase of his life and career. And for goodness sake, keep your love light on and quit fighting.
The Les Pauls: “The Eleven,” 10/12/68, San Francisco, CA
Alligator: “China Cat/Rider,” 9/21/72. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
Wolf: “Weather Report Suite/Let it Grow/That’s It For the Other One,” 6/18/74. Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
The Aluminum Guitars: “Help / Slipknot / Franklin’s Tower,” 6/9/77. The Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
Tiger: “Sugaree,” 10/17/80. Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY
Rosebud: “Scarlet Begonias / Fire on the Mountain,” 3/22/90. Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario.
The term “coming out” has a curious etymology. George Chauncey, in his history Gay New York, traced it to the drag parodies of debutante balls popular in Harlem in the early part of the 20th century. The gay-rights movement came to define the term more firmly, marking it as the point in which one breaks from a life of dishonesty inside the closet to a life of self-acceptance outside of it. Several groups in the past few years have appropriated the term for their own ideological needs. Play around with Google and you will discover the stories of Republicans who come out in Berkeley and atheists who come out in Alabama. I don’t find these groups’ appropriations insulting but their stories do not include that one most touching and universal element of the gay coming-out experience. The moment a gay man or woman comes out is a moment of exhilaration but also a moment of sadness, marked by mourning for the lost time spent inside the closet. Straight people read coming-out stories because we all, straight and gay, mourn the missed opportunities, the unconsummated love and the misguided shame of our past. In his new graphic novel Julio’s Day, the straight Gilbert Hernandez uses the closet as an encapsulation of the many ways human beings both waste and make use of our short tenure on this earth.
Julio’s Day tells the story of a man whose lifespan spans the entire 20th century from 1900 to 2000, as if all one hundred years of his existence took place in one day. The book opens on the tiny black space of the baby Julio’s open mouth, pulling back panel by panel to reveal his cradling in his mother’s arms and then finally a studied symmetrical composition in which mother and child are flanked by Julio’s grandmother, father, uncle and two siblings. They are straight-backed, simply-drawn people, a humble Mexican family from an isolated town somewhere in the American Southwest. The tremors of history will reach this family and their neighbors, while internal discord and terrible disease will kill them off one by one. This Julio, quiet, gentle, and to the end of the novel a virgin, partner-less and childless, will stand as the great weight at the family’s center.
Everyone has compared the work of Gilbert Hernandez and his brother Jaime in their series Love and Rockets (in which Julio’s Day first appeared in serial form), to prominent examples of “Magic Realism” (this particular book is a retelling of One Hundred Years of Solitude). There is a key difference. Garcia-Marquez’s Buendías are extraordinary men and women, all at least a square-inch larger than life. Julio’s kinfolk and neighbors, save for one degenerate uncle, are decent men and women, children of a giant and beautiful if indifferent earth, drawn by Hernandez in engulfing whites and blacks. Some of them are heroes of their own tall tales; one neighbor serves as a nurse in almost every conflict the United States fights, even in her dotage, paying her own way to serve in the first Gulf War. But, by and large, their world obeys our own rules of science and they are destroyed by the forces of history and nature that they can neither control nor comprehend.
Only a bastard God would inflict such a series plagues upon one family, plagues Hernandez describes with brutal depictions of either diseased bodies or aging bodies. In one episode, Julio’s father sets off on a long journey, the reason for which is never explained, on which he suffers a blueworm infection which deforms his thin frame, transforming him into a tumescent grotesque. Julio’s sister falls in love with the town’s handsome young epileptic, who returns from duty in World War I with most of his limbs destroyed, and his mind rotted. The ghost of the handsome youth still visits her in dreams as her own body follows a more conventional course towards old age and death. In his youth, Julio falls in love with Tommy, a poor white boy. Tommy gets married and has a large family, but the two remain dear friends until death separates them. As they age from Adonises to relics, Hernandez always positions their bodies tantalizingly close to one another, their romance forever unconsummated. In death, longing, or disease, each member of Julio’s family suffers their own closet-like solitude through these one hundred years.
The final pages of Julio’s Day center on Julio’s great-grandnephew Julio Juan, a gay son of the late-20th-century’s sexual liberation. His life, objectively, is the happiest one any member of Julio’s family knows. And yet Hernandez’s melancholic tone, his stiff black lines and metronomic pacing, denies us the opportunity to celebrate the triumph that marks the end of this particular family’s line. His depiction of Julio Juan’s life during the AIDS epidemic does not indulge any liberal romantic notions. The out gay man, for Hernandez, is not privy to a wisdom that eludes the rest of humanity. Hernandez depicts Julio Juan’s existence outside the closet with the same simple lines and suggestive detail he uses to depict Julio’s long life inside the closet. Both figures follow their lives’ courses with dignity. Julio’s life, that of a gentle man whose heartbeat matches the gentle movement of the earth, is hardly a wasted one. Like Julio Juan’s, it contains its own species of love and connection, just as Julio Juan’s contains its own species of loneliness and loss.
Time spent inside the closet, the book seems to argue, is not time lost. Each minute spent in solitude is a minute spent in silent contemplation of our own existence. “Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude do not get a second chance on this earth.” That line would have no place here. Hernandez’s book suggests that Julio’s family, despite all the time nature and history rob them of, do not need another chance to make anything right. They emerge as simple lines from the mud and disappear back into the mud, leaving behind nothing but the simple crosses in a cemetery. There is no need to argue for or against the value of their painful sojourns on this earth.
Back in my college days (oh, for the lightweight days gone by), I used to quote Dorothy Parker whenever someone asked me about my drinking habits: “I love to drink martinis, / two at the very most. / At three, I’m under the table. / At four, I’m under my host.” Then I’d usually wink or giggle (depending on how many I’d had), and say, “That’s why I always stop at three.”
The need to state my alcohol limit had more to do with making an impression than protecting my liver: one drink was a cop-out; two a good time; three a non-sloppy drunk time, where the drinking experience might be uninhibited but not so wild that it wasn’t fun. What I drank, and where I drank, was all about the face I put forward: a beer at the frats, a glass of wine with a professor, a Peppermint Patty shot at a party. (The theme: Catholic Guilt. The soundtrack: lots of Madonna and George Michael. The themed drink: chocolate syrup and Peppermint schnapps administered to the kneeled recipient by a friend wearing a priest’s costume and assless chaps.)
The art of drinking, and drinking in public, is all about codes — knowing your environment and knowing the art of conversation. If liquor loosens tongues, it also drags you out of the corner and into the culture of the bar itself. This is all beautifully captured in Rosie Schaap’s witty, compassionate memoir, Drinking with Men (Riverhead, $26.95), a meditation on learning how to drink well, wisely, and with eyes wide open. If you’re seeking a story of drinking gone wrong, you’re better off with Augusten Burroughs’ Dry or Mary Karr’s Lit, but if you want an elegy to good bars and a stiff drink, Schaap has you covered.
She writes about grown-up drinking, and each drinking story she shares marks a significant shift or conflict in her life. As a teenager, she’d dress like a Gypsy and offer tarot card readings on the Metro-North New Haven line for free beers; as an adult uncovering her latent spirituality, she’d find refuge in bars between stints as a volunteer chaplain at the foot of ground zero; as a married woman, it took a special bar in Montreal to feel her relationship coming apart. To be a bar regular, she says, is all about “adapting—and about enjoying people’s company not only on one’s own terms, but on others.” We go to bars to find ourselves in other people’s habits, and in finding other people, find ourselves. Three martinis or more, you’ll always find yourself under the sway of your host, and that’s the best part of bar culture.
Most persuasive in this book is the way Schaap openly acknowledges the shifting identities she experiences in each bar — how she slips into whatever mode or role helps her feel at home in a new place. The promise of the bar as communal watering hole is a fundamental part of the New York experience — and this town can promise as many different identities as drink choices. Schaap notes that in New York, “the rich have always been with us, and they have effectively taken over. . . . on this small island, less and less space is available to those who were, and are, responsible for so much of its identity and spirit.” Yet after reading Schaap’s book, I dipped into several iconic New York bars, sipping and eavesdropping and taking the temperature of the place, and it struck me that there is no better place to mix up your drinking identity.
The rules, Schapp notes, are always immediately apparent, the “ways to behave, and not to behave, and each bar makes its own demands. There are loud bars where conversation is not a priority…there are quiet bars, lit low and engineered for tête-à-têtes.” Institutions of fine New York drinking, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, and the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station seem to be the latter — low-lit bars where the plush seats are filled with suited-up men and well-heeled women all balancing martinis precariously on fingertips. Yet if there are tête-à-têtes, they’ve more to do with transit than intention: the hotel and train bars are meant to be enjoyed and then quickly abandoned for other destinations. Even if you linger, as I was tempted to, you become quickly aware that you’re not meant to settle in, and certainly not with strangers. Though your gin & tonic may be impeccably prepared, bars require openness to fit Schaap’s criteria of greatness. “If you don’t want to talk, you might as well stay at home and drink and not bother.” (And the high price point of each drink, unless covered by another solicitous patron, will surely discourage you from staying too long.)
If you take a slightly lower road, you end up at the wide wasteland of the happy-hour circuit, the bars in Midtown East and West where the lighting is slightly higher and the drink prices slightly lower. This is where I first started to see what Schaap was drawn to in her favorite bars: the friendships between the patrons, and the warm greetings by the bartenders that recognize them. At the Archive, a little place in Murray Hill where the happy hour red wine was perfectly quaffable, I found a gaggle of midtown lawyers, each clinging to his bar stools and ordering an elaborately named scotch or whiskey of choice. “Can you believe how expensive it is to drink in NY?” asked a red-faced man in a too-tight shirt, leaning across my chair to snatch his vodka-and-soda. “It’s a luxury activity,” I respond, and we clink our happy-hour drinks in solidarity. A frizzy-haired woman to my left swished a diluted cocktail between her teeth as she complained about her work week to the bartender, but even she declined a refill. “I’m going to surprise my husband tonight,” she snickered, and then added, with a low raspy chuckle, “I hope it’s not a bad surprise.” Such confessionals would be out of place at a fancier bar, but watching people ease out of the workdays can be your first instruction in how to drink like a grown-up. Schaap said, “I’ve come of age in bars,” and perhaps the post-work drink is how you first observe functional adults at play.
Being a solo bar denizen makes it far more likely that you’ll be drawn into conversation, into uncharted territory and debate with a fellow drinker. I was drawn to the Blue Bar at the Algonquin because of its storied literary history (besides being the birthplace of the New Yorker magazine, it was the site of Dorothy Parker’s famous Round Table, probably the place of more than three-martini lunches.) If there would be any bar to emulate a certain kind of aloof New York society girl, it would be here — sipping a vodka martini with a twist, as smooth on the lips as chilled silk. But this is a place famous for conversation, and so when a white-haired gentleman settled down into the chair beside me for a martini of his own, I imagined he’d take an interest in my book and strike up a conversation. Yet his first remark to me was not on the state of literary fiction or on the merits of New Zealand-sourced vodka, but rather a comment on the Tiger Woods and Lindsay Vonn hook-up. “Says something about the institution of marriage, or lack thereof,” he remarked, the first of his remarks that would lead me to discover he was a visiting South Carolinian, passing through on a business trip and determined to enjoy his evening cocktail despite the CNN feed. But the martini proved to be liquid courage; I asked him to clarify exactly what he meant, and we ended up chatting for an hour about faith, traditional values in American culture, and the real peril (if any) our country might be in.
While I kept certain things close to the vest — my name, my occupation, my exact age, and my disagreements with most of what he said — I felt like I had wiggled under his skin for even just a few minutes, the alcohol having momentarily smoothed out our political differences. The bar-side chat can let you be as elliptical as you want to be, and perhaps the rule in New York bars, especially the iconic ones, is to “fake it ‘till you make it.” You order by gesture, and you make small talk that keeps the comfort level steady. For anyone afraid to drink out of their comfort zone, Schaap’s experience is beyond comforting: she treats the bar as “a leveler. Because as long as you can be here, be present as they like to say in therapeutic circles, be present in this bar, in this space, drinking and talking and listening, acting and reacting, you’re good.”
If the biggest takeaway of Schaap’s story is how each bar is one tier of the drinker’s comfort zone and confidence, then her experiences give me hope for drinking as a constant act of reinvention. The teenage Schaap, surrounded by “men in wrinkled suits and loosened neckties” begging her for a tarot reading, found a new sense of power. And while drinking at the Algonquin didn’t make me a writer, it did make me feel the rhetorical confidence that comes with a stiff drink and a persuadable companion. Yet even in her favorite bar spots, Schaap explains how much of her status as a “regular” was performative, meant to take her into a new community and place. “I was in the borderlands, neither here nor there, old enough to see that I was too young for the bar car, even though I desperately wanted to be there.” In the pursuit of a place to be, Schaap found her gift for capturing the voices and stories of her fellow drinkers, and found her voice as a writer glass by glass.
My last stop for the experiment, in tribute to Schaap, was far from a den of glittering cocktails, but rather a place of limited options and limitless cheer. Joining a friend at Jimmy’s Corner, one of the great dives of old New York, gave me the sense that the trappings of a great bar are only as good as the comfort you can extract from it. “A bar gives you more than drink alone,” Schaap says, “It gives you the presence of others; it gives you relief from isolation.” The walls of Jimmy’s are plastered with pictures of regulars and famous visitors alike, and though the beer choice is limited — under 5 choices on draft, about 8 options by bottle — and the tables wobble, I’m right at home. The alchemy of a cold Budweiser can be as powerful as that of the smokiest bourbon, and if this is a bar in Schaap’s wheelhouse, “no baloney here, no BS, no airs or fripperies,” I can see why she likes the atmosphere.
Patti Smith, Mountain in Iceland, 2006
I decided to attend the opening of “Dark Paradise” after my friend declared, matter-of-factly, that “Patti Smith is as close to God as we will ever get.” Curated by Tim Goossens at the Clocktower Gallery, the collaborative exhibition features works in various media by Nancy Holt, Joan Jonas, Antony, Zipora Fried, Thiago Rocha Pitta, and Patti Smith. There are two broader themes mutually shared between all exhibited artwork: first, the melancholic loneliness of landscape, and second, the duality of heavenly elements in a hellish milieu or, conversely, the demonic details in a heavenly environment.
The latter antithesis aptly explains the show’s title, but it also summarizes what makes the artwork supreme: it is honest in its presentation of both light and darkness, good and evil. The curator successfully accentuates the coexistence of contradicting energies in sublime landscapes. Landscape is often viewed as either ominous or soothing. Joseph Wright’s Dovedale By Moonlight and Cave At Evening both serve as eidetic imagery of a predominantly threatening element in the depiction of landscape. While Hans Gude’s oeuvre — for instance, the painting Efoybroen, Nord-Wales — shares a melancholic loneliness with Wright’s work, it certainly manages to evoke a soothing feeling in the viewer.
The power of the exhibit results from a context in which the two feelings coexist. Zipora Fried’s contribution eloquently marks this ruminative symbiosis. Fried’s mixed media photographs are enriched by layers of color that essentially fictionalize their reality. The artist’s creative methodology achieves an effect that neither pure photography nor pure painting could: the portrayal of a nebulous ambiance. The viewer wonders whether she is seeing an idealized reality or the fictional paradise.
This ambivalence is also present in Thiago Rocha Pitta’s video installation, O cúmplice secreto, which stands out due to its vivid visuals and dominating proportions. The video (see below) resembles a dystopian dive into the waves of Rio De Janeiro, and each viewer can choose to either swim playfully through the projection or else drown in its trippy chaos. An abstract object looms in the foreground, never revealing its identity.
Goosens’ articulate statement clarifies: “All the works in the exhibition exclude human figures and, independent of scale, evoke feelings of an undefined presence of the past or of a world still undiscovered.” Hence, the alienation the audience ought to feel — due to the jarring absence of the human form in the exhibited art — should be counterbalanced by its awe and fear of a larger implied deity in the art. The audience might sense the liminality of an environment that is moving in a new direction. The curatorial provocation is that it may remain in transition forever, never fully becoming paradise or hell.
Liminality marks the peculiar status of confusion and disarray that defines those who find themselves in transition. A similar notion of liminality appears in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Rather than existing on the median, the novel’s quiet protagonist, Stravrogin, is either pious or evil. This duality gives the character a distinct and conscious charm, which makes the reader empathize with him even if he is not a benevolent character.
A continuous theme throughout the novel is Stravrogin’s quest to find God. Yet Stavrogin’s lack of remorse for his inappropriate actions becomes apparent briefly after he is introduced, through his kissing of a married woman. It is vital to recognize Stavrogin’s abundant charisma, which balances out and take the focus away from his numerous sinful actions, which include biting a politician’s ear and pulling an eminent man by his nose, among many others.
By encompassing demonic characteristics, yet yearning to find God, Stavrogin illustrates the possibility of attaining harmony between “good” and “evil.” Stavrogin proves that the simultaneous existence of both is viable, maybe even more pragmatic than the pursuit of a middle ground. His intentions and actions, are of an extreme nature: he is morally always an outlier, never close to a median. This extremeness gives his morally-nebulous actions an air of acceptability — when he is good he is great.
Kirillov, one of the most earnest and conscientious figures in Demons, says of Stavrogin: “If Stavrogin believes, he does not believe that he believes. And if he does not believe, he does not believe that he does not believe.” The way the reader chooses to interpret Stavrogin is similar to the agency one may feel at the exhibit: the degree to which a visitor will perceive “Dark Paradise” as a paradise depends primarily on her approach towards “Romantik” themes of natural landscapes.
As for Patti Smith, unfortunately she was not present at the opening, allowing us to interpret her selection of photographs — some of which were taken during a 1981 trip to French Guiana, others included references to her personal influences (Rimbaud, Woolf) — without clarification of why she was intrigued by her subjects. God doesn’t have to provide explanations anyway.
“My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”
— Thomas Pynchon, 1997
In the days of 4G wireless networks and Twitter, when virtually every moment of a person’s life can be tracked online and many people offer up that information freely, it’s a rare thing to come across a public figure who not only doesn’t buy into the idea of constant communication, but takes themselves in the opposite direction — completely out of the spotlight. The term “recluse” seems like a dirty word, a slur — “private” or “introverted” seem much fairer ways to describe someone than a word that suggests agoraphobia — but that’s how many would describe artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Marcel Proust, Harper Lee to J.D. Salinger.
Some say that the “recluse” is an endangered species, but to my knowledge, there’s still one artist who is keeping the idea of the private public figure alive: Bill Watterson, writer and illustrator of the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
Depicting the adventures of a precocious six year old and his tiger best friend and syndicated by the Universal Press Syndicate in 1985, Calvin and Hobbes had a solid decade of unprecedented success, running a total of 3,160 strips long, collected into 18 books, and appearing in nearly 2,500 newspapers across the country. For Watterson, who from the very beginning was averse to the attention Calvin and Hobbes brought him, the personal triumph of writing a successful comic strip was at times overshadowed by the burdens that came with it.
“As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 2012 compilation of all his work weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”
Whereas others have relished such a spotlight, Watterson shrank from the publicity, sure that neither he nor his work would not survive what he saw as the curse of celebrity.
“Calvin and Hobbes will not exist intact if I do not exist intact,” Watterson told the Los Angeles Times in 1987 when he was 28 years old, new to success, and still unused to the attention it brought him. “And I will not exist intact if I have to put up with all this stuff.”
“This stuff, however,” wrote the reporter, “is the stuff of which cartooning fortunes are made. Sweat shirt sales. Greeting cards. Robin Leach Calvin and Hobbes toys, a profile in People… and pitches from hustlers sniffing fresh meat for a marketplace monopolized by Peanuts and Garfield.”
There were plenty of hustlers — not only businessmen dangling potential millions of dollars of paychecks in front of Watterson and UPS, but the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were even attempting to woo Watterson to give up film rights with trips to Skywalker Ranch — but Watterson wouldn’t budge. The man was nothing if not staunchly dedicated to his personal ethics, and licensing his characters was simply out of the question. “If I’d wanted to sell plush garbage,” Watterson told the Comics Journal in 1989, “I’d have gone to work as a carny.”
“I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes,” Watterson said in the same article. “The world of a comic strip is much more fragile that most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens.”
After years of fighting, Watterson finally gained full rights to Calvin and Hobbes in early 1991, thus ensuring that toy company’s dreams of Spaceman Spiff underpants and stuffed Hobbes dolls on their shelves would never be a reality. But Watterson’s ethical battle still wasn’t over — in fact, it would last well beyond the final Calvin and Hobbes panel he drew in December of 1995. This time, it would come in the form of reporters, and the ethics in question were theirs.
Hundreds of fans have undoubtedly made pilgrimages to Chagrin Falls, Watterson’s small hometown to the east of Cleveland, seeking him out even as he made it clear that he wanted to be left alone. And since he more or less disappeared in mid-1990 (his last known public appearance was at his alma mater of Kenyon College in Ohio where he gave a commencement address entitled, “Some Thoughts On the Real World From One Who Glimpsed It and Fled”), dozens of journalists have made the same trip.
The Plain Dealer sent a reporter in 1998 and again in 2003; the Washington Post sent someone in 2003, as did the Cleveland Scene. All the reporters hoped to score that elusive golden interview with the man behind the Calvin and Hobbes, and all found that Watterson proved harder to find than anticipated. The reporters went back to their newspapers more or less empty-handed, little more to show for their trip than a possible sighting from a distance or a brief conversation with Watterson’s mother.
When a private figure becomes so beloved, the line between diligent professional and obsessive fan can quickly become blurred. Author Nevin Martell, for example, talked to Watterson’s friends, colleagues, and family for his 2009 book Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. Years of work resulted in a fairly complete memoir of Martell’s fandom but yielded no interview with Watterson himself, who rebuffed the request for one through his intermediary in many such cases, former UPS editor Lee Salem.
For Joel Schroeder, the director of the documentary ”Dear Mr. Watterson” (which will be screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April), the decision not to contact Watterson was fairly clear from the days of pre-production. After reading Martell’s book in 2009, the choice became even more obvious — respect Watterson’s privacy. Don’t even try to reach out.
“Our choice not to pursue Watterson for an interview was the right fit for our film,” said Schroeder. “When we went to Chagrin Falls, for example, we did not pursue interviews with his parents, we did not drive past his parent’s house. It was a hands-off approach. And the reason was to try to be clear and communicate that [Dear Mr. Watterson] is not about the sensational idea of trying to track him down. It is really about the impact he had through his comic strip.”
In 2010, former Plain Dealer features writer John Campanelli sent email questions to Watterson, not very hopeful that he’d get a response, and struck gold when Watterson wrote back to him with six succinct, yet personable and funny answers, breaking the near complete radio silence he had skillfully maintained over the preceding two decades.
“Because your work touched so many people, fans feel a connection to you, like they know you,” Campanelli wrote in his email to Watterson. “It really is a sort of rock star/fan relationship. Because of your aversion to attention, how do you deal with that even today?”
“Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist,” Watterson answered. “How I miss the groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms! But since my ‘rock star’ days, the public attention has faded a lot. In Pop Culture Time, the 1990s were eons ago. There are occasional flare-ups of weirdness, but mostly I just go about my quiet life and do my best to ignore the rest.”
There comes a time in the dogged search for such a private person that the focus of the quest turns away from the sought and back to the seeker — the goal isn’t to find the person for the sake of listening to what they have to say, so much as finding them to gain the glory that comes along with that. For all the journalists rejected, it’s easy for new ones to imagine that there must be someone able to break through Watterson’s solid exterior; it could be anyone! But Watterson, for one, has said most of what he seems to ever want to say. Pushing any farther, at least when it comes to personal details, is asking for a slap on the wrist — or, worse, anger from an idol.
It would take me less than an hour to get from where I live to Chagrin Falls or Cleveland Heights, where it’s rumored Watterson lives now. I asked people who run in a literary and graphic novel circle if they knew anything about Watterson — novelist and short story writer Dan Chaon, comics writer Derf, and journalist Anne Trubek knew little of his whereabouts and had never met him. I gathered names and contact information of local business owners, jotting down numbers with very little intention of ever actually calling or visiting them. I considered going to Cleveland Heights and sitting in a coffee house, keeping an eye out for a thin man with round glasses vaguely reminiscent of Calvin’s father, just to see what it would feel like. I quickly decided not to. I felt sleazy just thinking about it.
I’d rather stay a fan and admirer than just one of the politely rebuffed masses, yet another rejected journalist with the avid hopes of writing a sensationalist fluff piece. Instead of attempting to track down a man who clearly wants to be left alone, I’ll get back to rereading the 14.3 pounds worth of work that Watterson devoted a decade of life to producing — which is really all you ever need to know about him.
Amanda Palmer is a born performer. Even people who watch her recent and widely discussed TED talk/performance without having already heard of her or her bands should be able to notice this. The way she’s dressed, the way she struts confidently across the stage with her shoulders wide — she isn’t your average TED type; she’s used to being looked at and being onstage.
So it’s not surprising that she begins her talk with a short anecdote about the time she spent working as a street performer, accepting whatever donations people would give her — donations, she notes, that were pretty predictable in amount. Once her band signed to a label but had trouble making the companies’ suggested sales figures, she took to the streets (more figuratively this time) and launched a Kickstarter campaign that ended up making over a million dollars. The lesson? Don’t make people pay for music. You should “let them.”
She’s taken this logic to her shows and beyond, where she collects money, personally, from audience members (one of whom confessed he’d downloaded her band’s album illegally and wanted to set things right). She’s even taken this idea of letting people do things for her into other realms. Communicating on social media, she lets people give her places to stay, extra equipment, and so on. Palmer even tells us, proudly, that she let a poor family help her by allowing her and her band to sleep in their beds while the family slept together on the couch (since they didn’t have any extra room). This, she tells us, is “fair.” People have supported her so much when the standard industry practices failed her, and the lesson to be learned is that people “want to help,” if only we’re willing to ask for it. This might seem like a beautiful idea, but it’s probably not.
Artists have already criticized Palmer for calling for a different business model, one which they think devalues artists and artistic work by not requiring a set price and instead “lets” people pay what they want. Even artists without tons of fans might still deserve to make some kind of living, it seems. That critique is interesting and important, but it also misses the central character of what Palmer is advocating. Rather than just a new business model for artistic/cultural production, what Palmer is actually calling for, and living out, is a new form of exploitation.
What Palmer sees as people willing to help her are actually people who want to benefit, however tangentially, from her social capital. In a celebrity-obsessed culture, being famous has value, and it’s this value (not the supposed value of her music or art), that people are interested in acquiring when they let her come to their place or use their guitar or hand her money when she comes around with her hand out at a show. She’s right, people do want to help, but they don’t seem to want to help many other people as much as they want to help Amanda Palmer, the celebrity. This is why she made $60 as an unknown street performer and makes millions as a well-known band leader.
She, herself, is the product. She is the thing that people are paying to get access to, and in encouraging this model she is not only exploiting others but also exploiting herself. But what’s the problem with any of this? Isn’t it right to support an artist whose work you think is meaningful? Plus, how bad could it be when all parties involved are willing?
It’s the willingness that is so troubling, the willingness to waste their time and energy and money trying to acquire proximity to social capital. And while I do believe artists should be supported, this belief, ideally, would be because people value the art, not because they have some fetish about being near the person who creates the art.
What makes this form of exploitation particularly clever is that it doesn’t look like exploitation — it looks like happy people sharing a good time. On the surface it might even seem anti-capitalist, but when looked at more closely, capitalism’s power to infuse itself in all modes of social interaction, from sex to the grocery-store checkout line, is on full display here. And while there’s something refreshing and sincere about Palmer’s willingness to participate so vigorously on capitalism’s front lines, the sad part is that she doesn’t seem to realize what she’s doing. She mistakes her exploitation of others as a way for helping them, and the people she exploits, rather than feeling taken advantage of, might say they’re having a good time. But above all, we can see that Palmer is exploiting herself — that she’s all too happy to offer herself up as a product, which for a celebrity or a rock star, is not anything new or novel.
Of the many names assigned to the Jewish holiday of Passover, one of the best — maybe, most hopeful — is hag h’aviv, “the holiday of spring.” I spent this past week in Cleveland, celebrating the holiday midst evening snow and near-freezing temperatures, thereby necessitating some serious meteorological-temporal-phenomenological leaps to try and ring in the new, but by no means arrived, season. Though the Jewish liturgy and tradition speak to spring, for those of who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie, Passover often played the ironic foil, laughing at our seasonal affect from the depths of biblical eternity.
What always (truly) signified spring was baseball; you knew the weather was going to get better when kids skipped class for opening day’s afternoon first pitch, even if you wore the down parka only a few days before. It is thus fortuitous, and arguably a saving grace, that both Passover and Easter fall during the last week of spring training this year. The furious overanalyzing of the starting rotation, bullpen, and outfield, paired with final calculations of home runs batted into palm tree strewn outfields, can give those of us in the north some solace.
I’d like to argue, though, that there is more here than just a seasonal shift — that a more cosmic confluence exists between Passover, Easter, and baseball that enriches and enlivens why so many of us love so dearly this age-old American pastime. Here, I want to turn to the late Jacques Barzun, who died this past fall. A cultural historian and philosopher of education, Barzun would be limited, and made more bland, by the term eccentric.
I know of few thinkers who hold the range and depth of Barzun, but of the many subjects under his gaze, baseball played a famous, if minor, part. In his now classic essay, “On Baseball,” Barzun pulls off an incredible, Mariano Rivera-esque closing argument, in which he claims that nobody in the United Kingdom actually knows the rules of cricket, while nearly all Americans are steeped in at least a basic knowledge of baseball, the true realm of clear ideas. Of course, the vagaries and eccentricities of the baseball are numerous and almost schizophrenic in their presentation and quality, which Barzun gets at in the essay’s introductory paragraph:
The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don’t help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that takes effort on the part of the outsider . . .
Yet at the same time:
It is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities.
Regardless of the excitement one derives from tallying batting averages, there is much to be done here with Barzun’s focus on the rules of the game. The minutiae of the sport are often aligned with the general mud of “boredom” slung at baseball’s vestiges. It’s as if because there are so many rules, slowing the game, it can hold no interest — not so unlike many of the criticisms of the Passover seder, or Easter mass. What Barzun makes clear is that this is, in fact, an absolute inversion of the qualities inherent in baseball’s structures. The rules serve not to promote drudgery, but instead work towards an increasingly open temporal, spatial, and most importantly, social space.
The rules are the life of the game, but cannot exist without that life. Baseball and its rulebook necessitate human actors and human moods, the desires of the players and fans, and the game is so dependent on the existential condition it inhabits, these intricacies become parallel to our daily lives. In Barzun’s eyes, the drama of sport clearly motions towards the arc of the human condition:
The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how wise and just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle life asks for more than is needful in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched.
What baseball has built into it’s very structure is an idea of the commons; that open, democratic, and deeply social space where these sometimes minute, sometimes tremendous dramas can play out and develop in space and time, “Being spread out, baseball has something sociable and friendly about it that I especially love. It is graphic and choreographic,” Barzun writes. And here, I believe, is the best and most venerable in both the sport and the religious rituals that serve to herald spring. When the rules are acted out as choreography towards a deeper commons, not as affectless limitations, they do good, and echo, if not necessarily bring physically forth, the eternal spring.
In a particularly memorable scene from Tina Fey’s now bygone NBC odyssey, 30 Rock, Liz Lemon dons a Princess Leia costume in an attempt to evade jury duty. “I don’t really think it’s fair for me to be on a jury, because I’m a hologram,” she calmly informs the jury clerk, who fails to dismiss her. The length that Fey goes to to avoid jury duty is the natural conclusion to the average American’s aversion to serving and observing the courts system. The average citizen doesn’t relish the thought of spending time in a courthouse, and generally won’t, unless forced to do so by the state.
For those who work outside the justice system, the American courtroom can seem as much an inaccessible, nearly fictitious space as it can a repellent one, our perceptions largely limited to Law & Order style television dramas, journalist’s accounts of oral arguments, or exaggerated novelizations of trial scenes. Those who do venture inside a courtroom are generally corralled behind a railing or partition of some sort, physically removed from the proceedings and judiciary and organized in pew-like benches reserved for observation. As scholar Linda Mulcahy writes in her article, Architects of Justice, this physical arrangement could easily be interpreted as a reflection of “the fundamental principle that justice should be seen to be done.” This warm and inclusive idealism has obvious appeal, but Mulcahy argues that the current reality of the courtroom is increasingly far from the depoliticized space it once aspired to be.
While space for courtroom spectators is reserved and clearly demarcated, it is also heavily surveilled and policed. In most courtrooms, officers of the court pace back and forth, watching the spectators more intensely than the proceedings. Mulcahy explains that “expectations about ‘sightlines’ within the courtroom provide a particularly good example of the panoptic ideal; how the heaviness of the idea of law as physical compulsion can be replaced by the simple economic geometry of seamless surveillance.”
The topography that enables the judge to survey and control the courtroom from an elevated position is a deliberate architectural choice, as is the obstructed view of the public, placed behind the litigants and jury. As Mulcahy writes:
Since the only person a member of the public is sure to have a clear view of is the judge, it would seem to be the case that the observation of justice is now limited to observation of the adjudicator rather than evaluation of evidence and the weight which should be afforded it. It is process rather than substantive argument that the public are encouraged to observe. In this way observation has become distinct from participation and viewing from accountability.
The very floor plan of a courtroom puts the public in its place. Beyond the space itself, the intense formality of courtroom proceedings can feel more theatrical than grounded in reality, and the law itself is shrouded in banal mystery for the average non-lawyer, possessing its own highfalutin vocabulary. Between the “legalese,” the adversarial nature of these proceedings, and the physical divisions of the courtroom, it comes as no surprise these spaces feel increasingly unapproachable to the general public.
In recent weeks, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have further amplified this inaccessibility by refusing to yield to the idea of placing cameras in their courtroom so that oral arguments might be televised for the public. While audio of hearings is available, the court remains a stubborn outlier when it comes to cameras. Despite her initial interest in introducing cameras, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has since adopted an elitist tune: “I don’t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is doing…very few of them understand what the process is, which is to play devil’s advocate.” She’s right, on one hand – despite a broadly demonstrated national interest in providing federal benefits for same-sex couples married under state law, most of us have not slogged through the briefs before this week’s hearings.
But while many may gladly rely on reporters to translate the events of the day, the monumental impact this argument (and many more to come) will have on Americans leaves the suggestion that few of us “understand” as a weak argument. The Supreme Court is the most striking example of hierarchical American courthouse architecture, from the forty-four steps leading dramatically to its entrance, to the massive red curtains that frame the courtroom itself. Given the weight of the historic legal decisions made here, and their subsequent influence, its grandeur and air of inaccessibility comes as no surprise. But as long as the large majority of Americans are unable to travel to the building itself to observe an argument, allowing cameras in the courtroom seems like a logical step toward the kind of transparency that the public should freely expect. A C-Span broadcast hardly seems like a bad place to start.
By my mother’s memory, my grandfather didn’t start writing poetry until after they came to the United States, just after the fall of Saigon. So his is the verse of expatriates: formal, eight-line poems haunted by dark nights, fluttering snow, and gold leaves shimmering on empty lakes. There’s a heavy sense of sorrow in almost every poem, his verse steeped in nostalgia and longing for a country that he’s since returned to only once.
I started studying Vietnamese about two years ago. After a few semesters, I was adept enough to try my hand at translation. It was a natural progression: Vietnamese is the language I should have spoken when I was young, and my relationship with my grandfather was one of the most formative and important in my life. In a family of doctors and lawyers and engineers, he and I were the only writers. When I was younger and we lived in the same state, I would read out loud to him. So this winter, I turned to his poetry.
These days, it’s not necessary for the literary-minded to be fluent in another language, and many of the works we read are in translation, though we don’t always realize it — their English counterparts having earned their own place in our canon. Usually, the works we run across are translated from Western languages, which means that things like nuance and rhythm can cross over without too much being lost. Of course, reading Neruda in Spanish or Baudelaire in French is a vastly different experience than reading either in English. Yet even in translation, generally, the shape of these works remain, due to the underlying similarities of the structures of the languages themselves.
But the age of Eurocentrism is (hopefully) nearing its end and literature from other countries will continue to be more and more available (once again, hopefully). Yet in reading translations of contemporary poetry written in non-Western languages, I’ve noticed that they often feel the same. In even the best translations, some lines seem to grasp for meaning, oblique and guarded, as if a thin but impenetrable film had been drawn over the text. Conversely, some lines are beaten into flat but angry and archaic cries, that don’t seem familiar here nor there. These poems feel… translated. They’ve lost their immediacy somehow. English just isn’t adequate — or it is, but we aren’t doing it right.
Part of this is certainly the colonialist history of the translation of non-Western literature. The works of Rumi provide an instructive example: though translations sensitive to the original text do exist, many are actually versifying from extant, older translations. When we read Rumi, unless we’re reading a Nader Khalili translation, or another writer who speaks Farsi, we’re encountering a text that has been run through several generations of translation and versification, a text that has undergone transformations in an effort to make it more accessible to Western readers. The Rumi translations by Coleman Barks are the ones most are familiar with, yet Coleman Barks does not speak or read Farsi.
Compare these two published translations of the same text by Rumi:
if you stay awake
for an entire night
watch out for a treasure
trying to arrive
you can keep warm
by the secret sun of the night
keeping your eyes open
for the softness of dawn
— Excerpt from Ghazal (258), translated by Nader Khalili
Don’t go to sleep one night.
What you most want will come to you then.
Warmed by a sun inside, you’ll see wonders.
Tonight, don’t put your head down.
Be tough, and strength will come.
That which adoration adores
appears at night. Those asleep
may miss it. One night Moses stayed awake
and asked, and saw a light in a tree.
— Excerpt from Ghazal (258), adapted by Coleman Barks
Setting aside the question of two subjective metrics, quality and accuracy, it’s clear that these translations, these representations of Rumi’s “Ghazal (258)” were written in different contexts. How many of these first translations were done under British colonial rule, under the weight of orientalism, under the weight of biases against the value of non-Western poetry? How many of these translations were done by academics who considered themselves correcting the “defects” in the original poetry? And how does this affect how we read translated poetry now?
Existing biases regarding the value of non-Western poetry are still prevalent today. Once, a poetry professor of mine held up two anthologies for our class: contemporary American poetry and contemporary global poetry. “One of these will be useful to you,” he said. It wasn’t the anthology of global poetry — that one, he said, was less valuable. And through whose fault is that? Translated poetry seems caught in an old age, a colonialist, archaic age, even though translations such as Khalili’s demonstrate a richness and freshness akin to contemporary poetry written in English.
My grandfather writes in a Chinese form, qilu, regulated verse with eight lines of seven beats each. It’s a small, compact, but ultimately dense, form — and it’s difficult to unpack. You have to unfold and unwrap each syllable in order to translate them into the English, the language I use for my own.
Take the title of this poem: “Thu Nhớ Bạn.” Thu means autumn. Nhớ means remember. Bạn means you, as an means of address, but it can also mean friend. How do you translate this?
“Remember autumn, friend?”
Or, “In autumn, I remember you?”
Or, “Autumn remembers you?”
Already, the meaning is unclear — the syntax of the sentence implies any of these titles, but a choice has to be made. If a poem is a bud, translation is guessing what flower it will bloom into.
I ended up translating the title as “Remembering you in autumn.” It’s clunky, but I felt it was as close as I could get to the original. English is a wordy, busy language that needs conjugations and connectors — Vietnamese dispenses with them entirely.
And what about cultural references? “Thu Nhớ Bạn” starts with a specific image, of a woman standing on the shore. When I called my mother about it, she could only answer with a story. “It’s about waiting,” she finally said. “It’s about waiting for someone to return, but they never do.”
What do you do when a poem references a history that you can’t possibly summarize in a few words? What do you do when a poem references a cultural legacy you can only barely begin to explain? In Nabokov’s Pale Fire, John Shade’s epic poem — which in the fiction of the novel does not carry the burden of translation — is elaborated upon in Kinbote’s extensive commentary, through which we begin to understand the story of Zembla. I was not writing of Zembla, but of Vietnam — but how I wished I could add my own lengthy appendix to each line.
In another poem, I realized that I was missing words for missing. I had translated the first seven lines fluidly, based as they were in impressionistic images, but the last line, dealing with the nostalgia and longing felt — the resolution, the crux of the poem — left me grasping for words. “Lòng hướng về sâu nhớ đậm đà,” my grandfather wrote. I called my mother again, this time over Skype.
“It’s a longing for your home country,” she said. “But it’s dense, it’s thick in your heart.” I put my hand on my chest and tried to imagine a tug. “It’s a pull. It’s strong.” A tactile missing. A missing so strong you can feel it in your blood. I didn’t know if I had the words for it. I read various versions of the line out loud, and each time, my mother shook her head. They fell short. If they worked in content, the form was off; if the form felt right, there was something missing in the meaning.
“My soul pulled longingly towards home.” I settled on that translation, trying to marry my own aesthetic with my grandfather’s formal verse, but even now the ache feels a little off. The terms we have for longing, I decided, while trying to translate my grandfather’s poems, are not sufficient. Or maybe it was just my own fault: having not experienced this specific and profound missing before, I lost the nuance in translation.
Ezra Pound famously translated a book of Chinese poems (that had themselves been translated from Japanese), Cathay, despite not being particularly familiar with the Chinese language. Though criticized by some for adding lines to his translations that had no basis in the original text, others argue that Pound wasn’t contributing so much to translation as he was to modernism. Certainly translation is a fine jumping-off point for this kind of experimentation — the original text provides a framework upon which language can be imposed and constructed. Because of the syntactic differences between these languages, there’s room for interpretation. There are different ways of seeing, but that difference must be acknowledged, or we risk slipping into misrepresentation.
I don’t know if my translations of my grandfather’s poems are mine now, or if they are still my grandfather’s. But I have to remember that poetry is poetry. In any language it ought to do the things poetry does: hush you, move you, retain its sonic prowess. I try to remember that translation is infinitely recursive. We translate these words into other words. Sentiments blur and change; the poem in Vietnamese is not the poem in English is not the poem in French. This is something to accept.
I would like to say that I have learned that translation requires sensitivity, and I do think it does. To give the reader the same experience in one language that she has had in another. But it’s more than that: the poem will always fundamentally be a different experience, and in that regard, translation is a wonderful liminal space for experimentation.
In translating my grandfather’s poems, I am representing him as much as I am representing myself. The ownership of these texts flips back and forth. There is no “true” or “right,” only truer and righter. There is no end point. We are always approaching.
Thu Nhớ Bạn
Ôm con thiếu phụ sợ thu về
Đơn nhạn lưng trời cánh mỏi mê
Vàng rụng cành trơ nơi biển bắc
Sầu đơm mây trắng khắp sơn khê
Tiếng than đâm thủng tường thương nhớ
Vách hận xây thành dạ tái tê
Trói buộc thanh danh tàn cuộc chiến
Hờn căm chưa trả bạn đâu hề.
Nguyễn Đình Nhạc
Remembering You in Autumn
Holding her child, she fears autumn’s return
A lone swallow tires in the midst of the sky
Golden leaves fall, bare branches against the North Sea
Sorrow hangs low, white clouds paint the mountain air
Grief pierces the wall of memory
Bitterness builds its numb enclosures
Bound into grief from the brutal war,
Revenge I can’t yet take: where are you?
[Translated by the author]
The bike ride from the old Emo’s location on Red River and Sixth Street downtown and the new Emo’s on East Riverside Drive is about 2.3 miles. The fastest route is to ride down Red River just past Caesar Chavez then scoot over to Rainey Street and keep going until you get to the walking trail along Lady Bird Lake. There’s a public restroom shaped like a modernist sculpture here if you need it. Next follow the gravel trail towards the I-35, weave through the parking lot beneath the 12-lane bridge, and turn up the pedestrian switchback that shoots you out along the highway feeder lane. As you ride across the bridge there’s a nice view of Lady Bird Lake to your left where you can make out the Longhorn Dam in the distance.
Across the river it feels like you’ve entered a new city where bicycles have yet to be introduced. Turn left on Riverside after passing a large apartment complex under construction. You’ll pass several more of these. There’s a wide sidewalk in relatively good condition —follow it for about a mile. Slow down at the bus stops where the sidewalk is marginalized and it gets bumpy. Eventually on your right you’ll see a chrome, windowless building jutting up behind a strip mall and adjacent to a full-service dog facility called Mud Puppies. This is the new Emo’s, or Emo’s East.
On Friday during this year’s SXSW I went to both Emo’s for the first time. The only apparent association seemed to be the old Emo’s posters above the urinals at the new Emo’s. Opened in 1992, Emo’s had been a longtime staple of Austin’s Red River music district before it closed down last year. Even though I’d never been there I knew that it represented the thriving era of musical and cultural proliferation that had gone on downtown. Emo’s had seen Austin, buoyed by SXSW, come into itself as the live musical capital of the world. And then it watched as the city outgrew itself.
Old Emo’s, now called The Main & The JR (although SXSW poster’s referred to it as Old Emo’s), was packed on Friday afternoon, with about a 20-minute wait to get in. A typical SXSW crowd — mostly young, mostly white, mostly hip — swayed and occasionally moshed to mostly young, mostly white, mostly hip bands. I could hear at least three shows going on at once. Tired festivalgoers sprawled across cratered beanbag chairs that caught the low hanging sun. They reminded me of cats. I sat along a bannister and drank a free promotional coconut water bottle as guys in black jeans and t-shirts carted amps back and forth.
After stopping by the Urban Oasis at Red River and Seventh Street for a free Nalgene (courtesy of Brita) and a couple poses in front a photo booth, a hot commodity at this year’s festival, I got on my bike in a rush to get to the new Emo’s by 7 pm, when doors opened. Even though I’d RSVP’d I still needed to buy a $10 ticket, and my friend Ken had convinced me that the line would be long. From what I’d seen downtown I assumed he was right.
The approach was not promising — as I circled around in search of a bike rack all I saw were a few high school kids smoking on the front steps and shaved-head security guards milling about and setting up railings, apparently for the lines they were also expecting. I locked my bike to a gas meter and went in for a closer look. The cavernous venue and deep, elevated stage evoked bands like The Offspring or Green Day. Other than a cordoned-off area for the sound technicians in the middle, the room was wide open with cattycorner bars selling $4.50 Lone Stars. Green Day did happen to be playing a show that night, but at the Moody Theatre, a similarly sized venue in a prominent location downtown that hosts Austin City Limits.
Feeling old, ridiculous and somewhat guilty for having coerced my friend into attending this all ages electronic music showcase that didn’t really get started for several more hours, I suggested we walk down to Lady Bird Lake and enjoy the sunset. Easier said than done. After circumventing some wire fencing and jogging across East Riverside Drive we got on a sidewalk until it ended 20 yards later. From there a well-worn trail in the grass alongside an apartment complex had to suffice.
On the other side of the street there was a very well hidden Dairy Queen and a number of parked semis. A new road had been paved next to an old road, which gave the illusion of a bike path. A recently razed area looked ripe for redevelopment, the trees contained in zoo-like fencing announcing their significance amongst the rubble. We reached the river and sat on a newly constructed storm drain, a sign of the coming lakeside redevelopment, which will include a boardwalk. The large, bright white Austin Chalk limestone rocks used to support the drain contrasted with the murky, trash-laden water below.
It’s possible to imagine that in a decade or two this part of Riverside Drive will have a thriving music scene and mounting cultural cache. The Mexican nightclubs will be converted into pop punk establishments. The seedy apartment complexes will be pricey condos. The Family Dollar will be long gone. Walgreens will probably still be there. There will be an expensive new bike path along the lake and probably even an urban rail along Riverside Drive. During SXSW the entire road might even be closed to traffic. Property taxes downtown along redeveloped Waller Creek and Red River Street will be prohibitive for low-margin venues, and what Emo’s has started will turn into the mass exodus that it has both incited and anticipated.
In February it was announced that another staple of the downtown music scene, the blues club Antone’s, which opened in 1975, will also be moving to East Riverside. It will occupy the space recently vacated by the Beauty Ballroom, which is shuttering for good after inhabiting the venue for just over a year after also relocating from a downtown location.
Back at Emo’s I heard a security guard lamenting another night of kids getting dropped off by their parents. Other security guards were removing the railings. Cars turned up and down the steep entrance to the venue. Cabs approached every few minutes. Bikes still didn’t exist. I felt impossibly far from the chaos downtown. My friend and I stood in the back of the crowd somewhere in the middle of the room, which was about a third full, on the edge of an arc of late-twentysomethings who’d make the trek to the show and were now clearly feeling out of context. I was transfixed by a girl dancing with a flashing hula-hoop. She was young and clearly in love with the hoop. There was a tall, muscular jock wearing a headband and sunglasses. He bobbed around in a sort of circle, marking his territory, which no one seemed particularly interested in challenging. A girl in a striped skirt-jumper thing rubbed a belly dancer-type belt along her backside for most of the night. It felt very strip club. Other than that, a stoner in a headscarf, and a guy wearing a neon glow in the dark hoodie, the crowd was young and nondescript. I related most to the bartender, who was more my age and as removed from the scene as I wanted to be.
In February Emo’s announced they were being sold to C3 Presents, the third largest concert promoter in the United States, fully setting the stage for the venue’s reinvention and the corollary transformation of the East Riverside area. As I rode home after midnight, far before the show ended, I passed through the East Sixth area and then up into the Cherrywood neighborhood, regions of Austin also experiencing drastic change, gentrification and redevelopment. SXSW seems to remind people in Austin how much they love their city when it’s not SXSW. The longer you’ve lived here; the more you anticipate the week ending. How many people will move to Austin after SXSW this year only to lament the changes a decade down the line?
The night before I’d gone to The Broken Spoke for the first time with some Austinites looking to eschew the bloated core downtown. Founded in 1964, almost 30 years before the first Emo’s, The Broken Spoke, located on South Lamar, is a dancehall that prides itself on honky tonk and country music. Picnic tables surround a dance floor that empties and fills back up with each song, as couples dance to waltz, polka and other boot shakin’ tunes played with TLC by the well-versed band. Middle-aged, stoic faced cowboys approach young women and ask them to dance, their gazes remaining distant on the dance floor but their moves in natural unison with the lucky lady. It’s a no frills place with cheap beer and trough urinals that challenged my manliness.
At almost 60 years old The Broken Spoke has seen Austin grow and shift around it to become an altogether different beast, where marathons are run, Segway tours are given, and houses morph into pulsing nightclubs. I saw a hint of this next incarnation during this year’s SXSW and I can’t say it didn’t scare me.