Monday, March 21, 2016

SXSW '16: Where Did It Go?

Events that lead off with deaths tend to be muted, and so it was for SXSW this year. Even before it started, the news that my old friend and former Rolling Stone editor and housemate John Morthland had been found dead at his home on Monday the 7th was on a lot of people's minds. Mostly us old folks, of course, those who knew him or passed his way. Although he apparently lived nearby, I never ran into him or saw him socially since I've been back. He was very private, very mysterious. Then, at the end of that week, news came that Louis Jay Meyers, a co-founder of the event who was also a musician, an artists manager, event promoter, and former head of the Folk Alliance had had a fatal heart attack in his sleep. This news came as President Obama was addressing the conference, an event I missed due to a Fresh Air taping.

So this was all history by the time my SXSW began this year, on Friday. I hadn't particularly prepared for the event, but I knew the first thing I would do: BANG! The Bert Berns Story had its premiere on Friday evening at the State Theater, and, having seen a rough cut some weeks back, I was anxious to see it on the big screen. The film had its genesis with a Fresh Air piece I'd done some years ago, after which I'd been contacted by Brett Berns, the producer/songwriter's son, to thank me for it. He talked about doing a full biography of his dad, which sounded great, but perhaps because I was still living in France, the topic faded out. Later, I heard that Joel Selvin had gotten a deal to write it, and figured the project was in good hands. Then, when it was turned into a documentary and Bob Sarles signed on to direct it, I got excited, because Sarles is good at what he does. The film, as expected, was pretty wonderful, and told the story of Berns' short but action-packed life -- music, gangsters, money, and the looming diagnosis of a weak heart due to childhood rheumatic fever hanging over his head -- in fine fashion. After the screening, various unsavory characters were spotted in the lobby.

Director Bob Sarles, right, at the premiere. Photo by telebob

I now know better than to attempt to attend most of the Interactive panels. They're mostly hype for a book or an app, anyway: one learns to read between the lines of the titles and descriptions. Last year, I'd gone to a couple of South Bites food panels, but this year they were more oriented towards technology and less towards discussions of issues, and a couple were pretty obviously "sponsored." Any time you see a panel entitled "The Future Of ______ " you can bet that the presenters have seen the future and it's them.

Sunday was the 12th annual Ed and Jon Breakfast, this year at Manuel's again, which made it a bit hoity-toitier than when it was at Curra's, and a lot of the people who RSVP'd didn't show (it being the first day of Daylight Savings Time might have had something to do with that) but it was a good time even with the smaller crowd. After that, I sauntered over to the Convention Center to pick up my bags and program books and check out the trade fair.

I've always been a devotee of trade fairs, and a quick trip around my desk shows various useful and not-so-useful things I've picked up at them, just as my closet has a few t-shirts for mysterious Taiwanese tech incubators and one from Adobe that, in a fine example of techie arrogance, declares "I know something you don't know." Well, don't we all? But that gets worn only as an undershirt. This year, though, the show was big, both in terms of exhibitors and square footage, although it was as enigmatic as ever in terms of just exactly what some of the stuff was. There was the usual film stuff, the gear pretty to look at, the services not of much use to me. Then there were all the apps for things some people might find necessary, less music sharing than in the past, more stuff of use to businesses. An aisle of future-of-food exhibitors had some interesting folks: a tuna-fish vendor whose product was guaranteed to have no mercury was pitching to pregnant women and kids, and gave me a can of tuna, which will come in useful, although the pitchman said he ate tuna about five days a week, which I thought excessive. Still, he's in the business.  There was also the mysterious Pico Brew, which claims, against all scientific evidence, to be able to make five liters of craft beer out of preassembled ingredient packs from a long list of brewers, in two hours. I don't have much experience making beer, but someone who does asked how you can do a second fermentation in so little time, and now I'm wondering, too. And something calling itself the National Hispanic Cultural Center turned out to be a front for Bueno Foods, who gave me a fistful of coupons and a very interesting cookbook. There were fewer enigmatic stands than usual, although Japan had a row of app developers whose products made no sense at all: "Your stuffed animals can chat with each other!" one booth proclaimed. It was a very long time ago, but I remember having a small menagerie and it never once occurred to me that they weren't chatting with each other when I was away. But then, I had an imagination. I do wonder how that may have changed when I see parents letting smartphones calm their little kids. But that's a rant for another time.

I had some other takeaways from the trade fair. Like this thing. It has a peel-away strip for an adhesive on the back, and is made from some kind of rubber. I have no idea what it is.

Quarter added for scale. 

There were a couple of booths selling clip-on lenses for iPhones, and I was impressed with this one, and even more impressed once I bought it and took it home to play with. There's a wide-angle, a fisheye, a zoom, and a macro lens for extreme closeups which you get by unscrewing the fisheye lens.

A bit unwieldy in that it's hard to carry in your pocket the way your regularly-configured phone can be, but I believe it'll get some use, especially in the next couple of weeks. And out in the atrium of the Convention Center, Mazda, one of the event's sponsors, had a deal whereby if you signed up (I had, in advance) you could get rides within six miles of the event anywhere in town. Anticipating this, I'd parked in front of a friend's house in South Austin and taken Lyft (another sponsor) to Manuel's. Mazda got me back for free. (Which is good, because tricky Lyft was charging a 75% surcharge due to increased demand. At least it wasn't Uber, who, as I noted in January, charged me a super-premium rate with no warning, and who are now trying to unseat an Austin city councilwoman who -- horrors!! -- is trying to get them to do background checks on their drivers. Regulation? Libertarian billionaires will have none of that! Mazda also handed me this when I got my ID bracelet for the rides. Apparently the clip grabs your rearview mirror and your smartphone-cum-GPS fits into it.

Clip hidden on right by inept photographer

I had to sit out the Monday events -- none of which looked appealing anyway -- in favor of going over the copy-edited manuscript of the Bloomfield book and answering the fact checker's questions, but Tuesday afternoon saw me at the Rollins Theater at the Long Center for a couple of films. The first one was Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death By Audio, a most curious document. A couple of guys who made stomp boxes for guitars needed a space to make them in and found an industrial space in an odd corner of Brooklyn. Before they quite knew what happened, several of their friends moved into the space and they all worked on renovating it. Another bit of evolution was when they started putting on shows there, using word of mouth to get the word out. By now, this corner of Brooklyn wasn't so odd, and they helped make it so. Then, Vice Media announced they were buying the building (and the buildings of several other Brooklyn underground venues, interestingly enough) and served DBA with eviction papers. It seems (the film treads lightly here, for reasons those with a deep knowledge of Vice may understand) that harrassment and sabotage now entered the picture because Vice wanted them out quicker. At any rate, there was nothing they could do but plan a last month of concerts, evacuate the building, and document it as it happened. As soon as the impact of the film cleared, I found I had a buttload of questions, all revolving around a central issue: first, why didn't the DBA guys (this is a heavily male scene, apparently) talk to the other venues Vice was threatening? Why weren't they a sort of community all along? Not to get all 1930s labor union on them, but there's strength in unity, surface differences notwithstanding. Vice's inability to see that they were killilng birds who were providing them with golden eggs of content is perhaps understandable: it's a monster consumed with greed. But where was a sign of resistance, not only from the venue owners (the other venues only get a couple of minutes, if that, in the film, interestingly enough), but from the audiences? Are audiences so passive, so bent on being solely consumers, that a thriving music scene in their back yard means nothing to them? Do they just think "oh well, there'll be more venues?" DBA is gone and, um, that's the end of the film. Sorry to be all '60s hippie, but I was pretty shocked.

Then it was time to go outside and line up again for the next film at the venue, Orange Sunshine. This, speaking of '60s hippies, was about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the gang (there's really no better word for it) that first provided massive quantities of marijuana, hashish, and psychedelics to America's illicit drug consumers. I was quite excited at the prospect of this film: the Brotherhood was very tightly knit, and only managed to get busted rather late in the game. I had understood that part of its unravelling was due to internecine quarrels and betrayals, not to mention ongoing cooperation -- or did they? -- with organized crime. Well, folks, what we have here is a heartwarming tale of some hippie entrepreneurs who just wanted to spread the love and beauty they found in LSD. Of course, the story starts with two of them robbing a film producer of his LSD stash at gunpoint and then taking it to find out what it was. You kind of forget about that once the tale starts: these guys took insane risks and, because nobody was looking for these drugs (LSD wasn't even illegal yet), getting away with them. At one point, they claim, they were sitting on a ton of pure LSD: 100 million hits. But... There are other sides to this story, the outrageous outlaw aspect aside. They befriended and abetted Timothy Leary, an alcoholic renegade Harvard professor whose ego, far from being dissolved by his many acid trips, caused him to self-promote, equating himself with the psychedelic experience, much to the chagrin (never voiced here) of a research community who were on the verge of impressive discoveries about easing addiction, depression, and what came to be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I (and many others) hold Leary responsible for the swiftness with which the federal government declared the drug to be on the same level as heroin and cocaine. And, it should be noted, after the Brotherhood and the Weathermen helped Leary escape from prison, it was rumored that he threw some of the Brotherhood under the bus to save his own skin. This is never whispered in the film. It would seem that one day -- bummer! -- there was a huge raid on their complex and it was over. Now, they're just a passel of silver-haired lovable old hippies, talking heads in their own movie. And -- there's no denying this -- that movie is a triumph, technically: there are reenactments of a lot of the past feats that are so skillful they made me wonder how crazy these people must have been to film themselves loading kilos of pot into Volkswagen buses or going through customs inspection of antiques coming back from Afghanistan. But I would point you towards any of the several book-length histories of LSD and, in particular, the CBC-Saskatchewan documentary Hoffman's Potion, for a clearer and more reliable account of all of this.

And that, to my surprise, was the end of my movie-going: two in one day. Unlike last year, when I missed a couple I dearly wanted to see, there were very few films clamoring for me to attend them. There were a couple that looked like knockoffs of Twenty Feet From Stardom, the blockbuster about backup singers from a few years ago, a film about the fabled Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke that I missed a couple of times, the Miles Davis biopic, which friends who saw it at the Berlinale weren't so hot about, and some mildly interesting non-music flicks. The descriptions of all of these films was beyond awful: reading the review of Midnight Special in the New York Times, it sounded way more interesting than that SXSW description made it out to be. And yet, you sit in the theater watching the promotional slide show and wonder who'd want to watch some of this. I probably missed something, but I didn't hear any buzz, so maybe not.

Which left the music part of the festivities. I no longer go see live music, at SXSW or, for the most part, anywhere else, which is, again, a matter for further discussion elsewhere. But as SXSW's original panels coordinator, back when it was just a music event, I'm always up for the panels and the music tradeshow. The film/interactive tradeshow closed early on Wednesday afternoon, so I figured it'd reopen on Friday. Wrong. For the first time in its 30 year history, there was no music tradeshow at SXSW. It used to be that at least the national exhibitors -- Brazil had a huge presence this year -- would swap out their tech guys for their music guys and just change the focus. Some of the gizmo folks would stay on, and organizations promoting their music scenes -- New Orleans was always predictable -- would promote their showcases, give away CDs, and otherwise loll around. Not this year. What this means is not only that the worldwide music industry is broke, but that the export agencies of the various foreign countries see no sense in promoting the music other than via live showcsaes. Of course, when you're Italy and the best you have to promote is a band called Moustache Prawn, maybe that's for the best. Moustache Prawn?

That left the panels, most of which were squeezed into one day, Friday. As usual, I went for the history-oriented panels, and unfortunately I missed Tony Visconti's keynote (I missed Michelle Obama's, too, the protocol for attending which was announced at about 3am the day of the speech), and I understand he was very pessimistic, as one would expect from a veteran of his stature. I did, however, get into town in time to catch a panel on Ardent Studios' 50th anniversary (some neat stories, but you kind of had to be either a studio nerd or a Memphis music nerd to really enjoy it), another on the Ramones, which was uncharacteristically dull, one on British punk, which was much better, and finally an onstage interview with Dion by Richard Gotterher, which was hilarious. At the end, I thanked Dion for distrupting my childhood and left.

Friday evening there was a memorial for Louis Meyers, which was like a homecoming. In fact, I resolved to skip my annual ritual of wandering around the Sunday softball game because everyone I knew who would be there was here. The mayor read a proclamation, there was some funny video, and everyone wandered around talking to each other until the venue evicted us. I walked across town to the bus stop and, well, although I went in the next day for a short while, my SXSW was over.

Kind of a muted affair, like I said.

* * *

A week from this evening, I'm taking one of those brand-new BA non-stop Austin to London flights, and connecting in London for a hop over to Barcelona, where I'll spend a couple of days and then head to France, where I'll explore part of the Languedoc region I've never seen and then head to my old home of Montpellier for a few days' exploration and wine-hunting. Expect a bunch of blogging when I return -- I can't feed pictures from my phone or my camera into the iPad Pro I'll be taking to keep in e-mail and web communication -- and it should include a bit of food porn, too. 
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