It was 5:30 in the morning. I was squinting to distinguish my all-black wardrobe from the shadows, attempting to pack in the dark for Austin, soaked in wine. I couldn’t see what was socks and what was underwear. In three evil hours my lawyer, Mr. B, would pick me up in his silver Lexus to attend my 11th SXSW. “Who the hell in the music business wakes up at 7 a.m.?” Lawyers. The wine was reaching it’s apex.
Text message, 8:38 a.m.: “Mallman, I’m out front.” GAH!!!
I-35 leads straight to Austin. The directions to SXSW are simple. Get on 35W, don’t text and drive, Get off 35W. If you get to Mexico, you’ve gone too far. Every mile south was another middle finger’s distance away from what was the end of a white season in subzero hell. It was such a deep, bitter winter that sometimes I would walk outside and pee in the snow simply as a way to express my disdain for it. Mr. B asked what bands I was planning on seeing. I muttered some random acts I read about on Pitchfork the day before. “Ummmm, Parquet Courts? Phantogram?” Secretly I didn’t want to see anything. I didn’t want to be anything. The Smiths album finished. “What album is this, Louder than Bombs?” I put on another Smiths album.
Somewhere in Kansas we stopped for dinner. We were the only Lexus in the Golden Corral parking lot. Over dinner we talked some heady music business. “There is no guarantee of success.” “You gotta take things at face value.” Mr. B leaned over his bourbon chicken, “Mallman, don’t forget to pay me.” I pretended like I didn’t hear him, and walked over to stick my finger in the white chocolate fountain. A lady yelled at me.
A couple more hours drive, and we stopped for the night in Oklahoma. The man at the front desk of the La Quinta was named Chauncey. Our room overlooked the off-season pool and hot tub. “It’s not even empty! Why pay full price for a full hot tub you can’t even use?” he said. Just over the wall of the hot tub glowed the neighboring Applebee’s bar. “Once I was cut off at an Applebee’s in Grand Junction, Colorado,” I told him. “I don’t think I’ve ever been cut off at Applebee’s. I don’t think.” I asked him if he wanted to saunter over and grab some Mega-ritas. “Mallman, we’re going to be partying for four days straight, I think we can wait. I’m going to the treadmill.” I changed into my American flag t-shirt and climbed into bed. I’m as much of an alcoholic as any other cold-blooded American, but what if I attempted not drinking alcohol for the entirety of SXSW? Is that even possible? I put my head on the pillow and ruminated.
We were listening to Dirty Deeds by AC/DC. Mr. B knew all the words. I asked him why, and he told me “because it’s about murder for hire. It’s business.” Texas is beautiful. It’s one of my favorite states in America. I drifted off, thinking about Bon Scott found dead in a passenger seat, covered in his own vomit. I’ve never been terribly famous, but I’ve been terribly lucky, Luckier than Bon Scott in that right. At some point, the mythology of a Dionysian lifestyle got complicated into the formula of simply being a proficient musician. It lead a lot of us to maybe think we needed to be completely absorbed in substances in order to connect musically. And maybe some do.
A sober SXSW is easier said than done. There’s free booze everywhere. Someone’s always hitting you up to meet for a drink or five. The joke about SXSW in the business is that you should see all the bands you need to see before the day parties are over, because by then you’ll be so wasted you won’t remember anything you see after sunset. For many years I started calling it Drunk by Drunk West—certainly not the only one. But would Sober by Sober West be very rock and roll? Nope. It certainly wouldn’t be very bad ass. Would it be difficult? Yes. And that’s good enough reason to try anything. Once. So, it was decided. I would spend the entirety of the trip sober. Easy? I texted my drummer back home. “Yeah, right! Impossible!”
So we’d arrived in Austin. In my many years attending this music convention, it’s always fun, but it’s always the same. The musicians are the ones dressed in black. The suits are the ones in shorts. The hipsters and the groupies are dressed exactly like because, basically, they are. Ten years earlier I never would have guessed that the future of music would be a bunch of people standing in a concert venue staring at their phones, but that’s pretty much the ecosystem. Oh, and cops.
We spent Wednesday night on the East side. I saw a great little band in a dirty little bar. More guitars crossed the road than cars. Two kids were arguing about songwriting on a bench. I thought, “If SXSW was a planet, I’d move there.” My phone was abuzz with “Mallman, come to the Hilton,” and “Hype Hotel in 10 minutes!” Short bursts from my peers and acquaintances ordering me into the chaos. What are any of us even chasing? I felt at peace in my little corner of the East side. And most for better or worse, I stayed away from the bar.
Five hours later, we were the only Lexus in the Chili’s parking lot across town. Mr. B said “people with Lexii just love lava cake, Mallman.” (Lexii is plural for Lexus, I garnered.) But dammit, the Chili’s closed at 11:00. He suggested we go somewhere classier. I made him take me to Denny’s. “There will be rock people here, trust me.” But the Denny’s was full of pimps. A helicopter flew over. I ordered a glass of milk. We sat at the counter and looked at our phones. Such and such a writer or rapper or guitarist was twittering about such and such a band at such and such a showcase. I felt like I was skipping class, and that made me feel young again. The pie was microwaved just right. I made up impossible crimes and Mr. B figured out ways to defend them so I could walk. There were most likely 25 potential clients in the Denny’s alone.
Thursday afternoon brought cloudless sun and dopamine. I saw a man playing Beatles songs on a street corner and I threw all my pennies in his open guitar case. I saw a crowd of Gaga fans dance to silent Dubstep in a bar parking lot for free tickets. A man asked for his picture with me. I don’t think he knew who I was, but I didn’t ask him. An advertisement read, “It only takes one song to launch a career.” I must have heard 3,000 careers being launched in one afternoon alone. I remembered my first South by, seeing 100 versions of myself: The crazy faced Mark Mallman of Portland. The red eyed Mark Mallman of Boston. The even more devoured in illusion Mark Mallman of Champagne Urbana. Two hundred hotheaded ingenues in vintage black and sunglasses lined up for the piano apocalypse. Three hundred of the next big thing clomping up the road. I saw dozens of bands playing to nobody and a huge crowd of people around a guy playing some buckets in the street.
I sat in an empty steakhouse and ordered a brilliantly blackened red fish. Outside was a mirror maze of the same three people over and over. “Can I get you something to drink?” This was the kind of bar where they keep the Patron on the middle shelf. I ordered a club soda with lime and secretly cheered. Small victories.
I walked past an endless lines of neon shoes and sunglasses attached to people. A man pointed his fingers at his own head like a gun and fell against the wall. A minute later I saw the grim reaper on a dirt bike. I looked at my phone and even that was dying. The Starbucks line rivaled the line for Coldplay the night before—probably a lot of the same people. Sincerity outnumbered originality. A gutter punk asked me for a dollar. I gave him a dollar. “I like your boots,” he said. His worn shoes were still barely clinging on him, but not his teeth. “I need some boots for running when I jump on the train.” He was drunk. I pointed at his feet and said, “Think of it like this, eventually the train is going to cut your feet off and you won’t have to worry about boots.”
I met my buddy Gus from Marathon 4 in front of a bar called Bikini’s. Gus was all dressed in black, which meant he plays music. His positivity was off the charts, and pretty soon we were laughing our way past a bunch of shit we didn’t care about. Gus needed to go to his van to take care of something. I didn’t ask, but I went along. The van was parked down by the river—seemed legit. “We slept in hammocks last night.” He told me. I said I like the sun in Texas, and that I preferred Peru to America. “Have you been to Peru, Mallman?” He asked. “Peru isn’t one of those places you need to go to in order to prefer it,” I said. Then we waited for a guy named Dr. Steve. I didn’t ask.
I left before the doctor arrived. Mr. B told me to meet him on 8th and Neches, but when I got there a homeless fight was in progress. “Pick me up on 8th and Trinity it’s the homeless apocalypse down here.” I watched the cops calm things down from a block away, and mistakenly flagged down three of the wrong ‘Lexii’ before Mr. B’s.
We grabbed some Pho, then headed to the Totally Gross National Product party across the freeway. We walked in during Pony Bwoy. It was Minneapolis without the vortex. Next came Cloak Ox, then Lizzo, then Har Mar, then Deathsquads. All the friends were there. Sean Anonymous was buttoned up to the neck, all backpack and horn rims. Koo Koo Kangaroo leaned handsomely against the upstairs wall. Channy and the Polica fellows were scattered about. Har Mar ordered a drink from the bar in a Sade T-shirt. Mr. Dave Simonett smiled in a cool jean jacket. The lights went Life Saver colors as our little family danced on. The crowd became expansive, and by the end of the night the club was wall to wall.
Walking back to the car, my feet were mad at me. “Dammit, if I only hadn’t made this promise to stay sober all South by! A Stella would be so perfect right now.” I said. Mr. B laughed, “Well, there’s a six-pack waiting in the fridge.” I was checking out my sunburn in the passenger mirror. “You bastard. I’ve made it half way, I can do this. Right?” He was silent. I was silent. My ears were ringing, and I was thirsty.
Read more of Mark Mallman’s SXSW tour diary this weekend when a new installment is posted to the Local Current Blog.