Saturday, March 16, 2013

To Sir With Love-- A Happy SXSW Reunion with the Man Who Schooled Me Good

Ashley and Me
Every March I'm a broken record on the topic of SXSW -- I love it, I hate it, I have serious FMS ('fraid of missin' something) but even worse anxiety if I try to brave the crowds and catch a show. But one consistently happy SXSW-related thing for me is that every year, for the past eight or so, I've watched Henry perform in some capacity. I can't recall if he's ever done an official showcase-- I think maybe one? Doesn't matter. Point is that whenever I start bitching and moaning about the traffic and the pretentious pussies and the pushy corporate jerk-offs that take over this city, these grumpy sentiments are always tremendously tempered by some other Bigger Thoughts About Music. 

I try hard to focus on the fact that, never mind the posers and the pecker heads, so many of the people who descend upon SXSW really do so out of a pure love for music. Sing it with me, people-- Music is the universal language and love is the key...

Okay, okay, enough of that. What I'm trying to say is that this time of year always reminds me of my personal history with music, and the power of the same, and how maybe a better anthem for me than that sap about about the universal language is Last Night the DJ Saved My Life. From the weekly 45s my otherwise miserable father brought home for us every week, to the DJs on WMMR in Philly that turned me on to Elvis Costello and Rockpile and all the rest of it and yeah, okay, some stuff I could've done without... all of that changed and saved my life. Gave me something to sink my angsty teeth and troubled heart and eager ears into. Taught me to remember you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might find, you get what you need. And also that one day we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny. And also the power of words, and how to turn phrases, and the mightiness of metaphor, and the pure inspiration of a broken heart.

This past week, I got to look back a solid twenty-four years, just about half a lifetime ago, and reflect on a time iwhen perhaps my greatest single Music Educator appeared in my life. I was living in Knoxville in the late 80's. I'd blown off my office editing job in favor of freelance writing, waiting tables, and getting way too wasted way too often. Somewhere in the midst of all this-- talk about good timing-- my former editor boss told me he was investing in a new little nightclub and did I want a gig slinging cocktails.

I did.

Big Red and Henry Mowgli (Popular Culture) & Me. Henry,  dad and I had our first date thanks to Ashley. You can thank him for more than your musical education.
This is how I wound up at the legendary Ella Guru's, named for a Captain Beefheart song. Ella's didn't last long as a brick and mortar establishment, but to those of us who had the honor and thrill of knowing it, it remains totally unforgettable. At the helm of the music booking was one Ashley Capps. This is the man who brought into my life acts like Lucinda Williams, Marsha Ball, John Hartman, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, Clive Gregson & Christene Collister, 3 Mustafas Three, Livingston Taylor, Sun Ra (and his orchestra), Koko Taylor, and so many others.  Ella Guru's is where I waited on Lyle Lovett (I was onstage singing badly when he and his very large band walked in, and being a gentleman LL told me I sang great, and the band tipped me incredibly). Ella Guru's is also where I had my 25th birthday party, sort of the first official date of Big Red and me, though honestly we were both too drunk to remember it. Boogie Disease played at that party, featuring the wonderful Brian Waldschlager

Ashley also taught me about acts that didn't play the club. Most notably, he called me in his office one day and said, "Listen to this," and proceeded to play me Leonard Cohen for the first time-- it was Tower of Song from I'm Your Man, the record that would become my soundtrack for love as I blasted a cassette version of it on my Walkman as each day I walked to the Post Office to drop off or retrieve (or both) a letter to/from Big Red, who lived far away.

Ella's is also where I began, oh-so-slowly, to hone my own stage presence, thanks to Ashley's generous heart and certainly not my skill set at the time. And it's also the place I left when I moved to St. Louis to be with Big Red. We returned the following summer for a couple of months, and I got my old job back. I was pregnant with Henry then, and carrying a big tray while trying to squeeze between patrons' chairs was a growing challenge. Still, I loved it. I remember the night one of the dudes in NRBQ sneaked up behind me and tickled me.

Surely Henry's exposure to music in utero, and that NRBQ tickle, and all the music Ashley introduced me to, had a tremendous impact on him. Of course so did growing up in Austin, going to shows as an infant and toddler and pre-teen and teen. And so did his mentors. And so did whatever pure passion he had (and has) in him for music. And all those gigs he played in backyards and clubs and in laundrymats and on bridges and, once, in a Taco Bell.

Popular Culture at Farewell Books. Hands down my favorite SXSW performance ever.
But I know, in my heart, that Ashley had a big say in who Henry has grown up to be. I took the knowledge he so generously gave me, and I passed it on, and it shows.

As for Ashley, he went on to form an entertainment company after Ella's closed. And this led to him putting on a little annual event you might've heard of-- it's called Bonnaroo. Seeing as that's his day job, I figured SXSW was a part of his work. Not sure why, but it only occurred to me this year to call him and see about reconnecting when he was in town. He said sure.

We didn't manage to have the long, luxurious lunch we talked about-- like everyone else attending SXSW Ashley got sucked into the vortex and I, overwhelmed by a single day of stuff, hid away from the rest. But Ashley did come out to catch Henry's short day set at Farewell Books on Wednesday. This made my heart soar-- to have the man who taught me so much about music see the amazing ripple effect his schooling has had on my son.

Thanks Ashley, for the amazing education, and for catching the show. Now get some rest. See you next year.

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