Last week, I took the bait and read a blog post by Michael Corcoran, former Statesman writer, bemoaning how Austin is, at best, mediocre. Joe Nick Patoski, also a writer (and not at all mediocre) had perhaps the best response, and a zinger at that. He said, "Mr. Corky's on a tear. Look out, Smithville - you're next."
I have been debating (if you can call an occasional thought in the direction of Corky's post "debating") whether or not to dignify MC's stupid post with a response. And if so, should I go all heartfelt with another love letter to Austin? Or should I get all New Jersey on his ass and rip him a new one?
I think I will, at the risk of coming across as mediocre, shoot for the middle path here, and offer a couple of thoughts before I get to the bigger point of this post, which is my invitation to you to be part of the greatness that is Austin, TX.
Regarding Corky’s shitty attitude about Austin, and his claim that New York and LA are the only cities that really count, I guess I want to know why the Corkster thinks that, to transcend mediocrity, we must produce award winning musicians and films here or else, you know, we just don’t count.
Really, Michael? REALLY? Are you not old enough, and have you not lived enough by now to understand that external validation does not greatness define? Do you not recall that John Kennedy Toole, damned as unpublishable, offed himself eleven years before A Confederacy of Dunces found its place in literary history (and yeah, okay, Toole did win a Pulitzer, but only after he was dead)? And meanwhile Suzanne Somers has been on top of the NY Times bestseller list? And knowing this, you still think the definition of not mediocre necessarily means mass public acclaim?
|Henry, the early days.|
I think maybe the problem here is multifold. Maybe Corky woke up one day, and realized he’s not going to get national fame, and so he decided to bitterly start swinging at the youth who populate this city, and do all sorts of creative things that, gasp, do not emulate SRV. So what? SO WHAT, CORKY? The point is, that here in Austin, there is something going on that, yes, is totally different than New York and LA. Something that doesn’t involve cutthroat competition and backstabbing and plastic surgery and constant namedropping. Something that is, to use a word that is overused and annoying, but in this case truly accurate-- authentic.
It’s true— I say this from experience— that making a fulltime living as a writer (which Corky was spoiled enough to have done back when he worked for the Statesman—uh, the Statesman? Can you say truly mediocre?) or a musician is damn near impossible here. But then, thanks to all the free content and pirating the Internet has fostered, it’s pretty impossible to do that anywhere anymore. So why take it out on Austin?
Now consider the other hand. Austin is a city where artists truly take care of each other. Did I once dream of a national audience? Of course I did. Am I losing my shit that I never found one and that I perform weddings to support my writing? Hell no. Because I've never stopped writing and here in Austin I have found a stunningly supportive audience for my work. This is what I love about this place—you can create a niche for yourself, you can work your art, you can explore and be creative and don’t have to paint yourself into some pre-conceived box of what “success” and “non-mediocrity” looks like as defined by New York and LA.
Now let's talk about mentoring. In twenty-one years here, I have had the opportunity to work with countless young writers, many of them exceptional. It is always a thrill to watch young talent find footing, to first stick toes in the water, and then to leap in and swim unaided. Do I give a shit if any of them go on to win awards and international fame? I do not. I'm just happy to have been part of their process of passion. Regarding music, which is Corky’s terrain, and which is a big focus of his Bitch About Austin for Attention piece he wrote, I have a personal story to share, one that nicely illustrates how awesome this city is.
I didn’t raise my son to be a musician, didn’t
insist this be his destiny. I did move him here when he was ten months old. And
I started taking him to shows pretty much immediately—at the Cactus Café,
Liberty Lunch, Chances, Jovita’s, the list goes on. I have pictures of him
onstage, age three, with Don Walser, Henry stroking his stringless toy guitar.
He took to the music and the music was so plentiful, and certainly not the crap
that Corky claims it to be.
|Henry, waiting for his record release, tears his hair out trying to understand what Corky's problem is.|
At twelve, Henry got his first real guitars—I got him an acoustic and his dad got him an electric. A friend got him lessons. None of us pushed him, but all of us were delighted to see the passion he found in playing. How many times did I have to listen to him play Hendrix licks over and over? Don’t ask. But at a certain point, a couple of years into it, he started experimenting more and developed his own style. He also took on drums, keyboards, and even the theremin. We kept going to shows. SXSW. ACL fest. Sparsely attended shows at tiny venues and massively crowded shows at bigger places. From these he built an internal library of sounds and experiences, and he experimented more.
He was hardly alone. Even before all the schools for kid rockers started popping up, there was a growing contingent of young kids playing amazing stuff. I started a series of Teen Rock Concerts, held at places like Stubbs and Emo’s. My goal was not to falsely encourage my son, to instill in him a sense that he was a rock god in the making. In part, I wanted him and his peers to understand the performing side of musical passion. They had a very hands on approach—they had to do the marketing, and see how the money was divided up at the end (doorman, sound guy, venue rental), and how little was leftover for them. They didn’t care about that much—the point was, they were playing, and they were passionate, and they were learning at a very young age something it seems like Corky still hasn’t learned: an opportunity to do what you love is a priceless thing. (Reminds me of that Billy Bragg lyric about how sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn just what it would take a child a night to learn.)
There is such greatness in pursuing passion. Wait, do I sound too corny and too sappily heartfelt when I say that? Well sue me, but I speak the truth. I’ve barely eked by, financially speaking, as a writer/performer here, but the support I’ve gotten for my work—for the PRIVILEGE of being a writer—is far beyond the pale.
Back to Henry. Over the years, he found informal mentors in James McMurtry (Hen grew up with James’s son Curtis, another amazing musician) and Jon Dee Graham. And then one night at a party, he met Kyle Ellison, brother of Sims and former member of the Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets. Kyle and Henry got to talking, and Kyle took Hen under his wing, and worked with him for years to produce a record that soon will drop and which recently debuted on The Thing in San Antonio.
I’ve watched my son, and have been amazed and proud of his progress. But neither of us has ever wasted any energy thinking about “the day he’s famous” or “the day he gets nominated for the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame” (one of Corky’s criteria for non-mediocrity). The point is, he found what he loves, and he found it here, in Austin, Texas, and he was able to grow it and is able to live it thanks to all the members of the old guard who took the time, simply because they could, to foster his passion.
I ask you—is that fucking mediocrity?
One more thing about Corky, before we move on to the bigger point here. You know, if I were a better person, I’d invite Corky out to spend a weekend with me exploring this town. I’d show him My Austin, and introduce him to my friends, and take him to my favorite little haunts and then, at the end of it, I’d dare him to continue calling our town mediocre. But really, I don’t have that kind of patience and I’d sooner buy him a bus ticket to LA or NY and let him see for himself how much he misses this place.
That said, I now want to tell you how you can
help continue to foster the greatness of Austin, and to help some great kids do
even greater things. Over at McCallum High, there is a Chamber Guitar Ensemble,
made up of students passionate about what they do—and who, okay, okay, happened
to be five-time winners of the UT Brownsville National Guitar Ensemble
Competition. This year, they’re hoping to attend the annual Guitar Foundation
of America International Convention and Competition in Charleston, South
Carolina. And yes, it takes money to do this.
|McCallum's Chamber Guitar Ensemble|
As part of their fundraising efforts, they are holding a benefit concert on Friday, May 18th, at the McCallum Arts Center. The show will feature the ensemble, as well as Mother Falcon. If you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Mother Falcon, let me tell you you are missing out. I know several of the members of the band, and have known them since they were little. I’ve seen them play a massive show at the Power Plant. And last December, I was strolling down Congress the night of one of our countless non-mediocre free music events, when I came upon MF playing in front of the Frost Building. Then up marched the Minor Mishap band and the two groups joined forces to do a rollicking, tuba and strings enhanced version of Burning Ring of Fire. Mediocre? Hardly.
I feel really sad for Corky, that he seems to
not understand the magic and the gift of living in Austin. Maybe he just needs
a nap or something. Meanwhile, for the rest of you who do get it, please attend
the concert. And if you can’t attend the concert, you can still make a donation—every
single dollar helps so even if you only have a buck or two or five or ten, I’m
asking you to kick in to make this happen. Besides sending the kids to SC for
the conference, you’ll be doing something much bigger—demonstrating, once
again, that Austin, TX totally rocks it when it comes to supporting and
fostering the arts.
|Mother Falcom at Seaholm Power Plant with McCallum Strings|
Corky—I’ll see YOU after school on the playground.
Tickets for the benefit concert will be $20 at www.mactheatre.com and at the door. If you can’t go but want to donate, please contact Andrew Clark