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Sober by Sober West, Part 2: Mark Mallman finishes liveblogging his alcohol-free trip to SXSW

Photos by Mr. B.

Read Part 1 of Mark Mallman’s SXSW liveblog here.

Day 4

“A drunk man’s actions are a sober man’s thoughts.”

According to that phrase, on previous trips to Texas I’d thought a lot about dancing all night and eating jalapeno pepperoni pizza. However, this morning, a fried chicken bacon waffle sat in my belly like a deep fried shoe—useless fodder for my would-be hangovers of old. An NPR report reads, “Thousands of bands have come to Austin, Texas this year. For a lot of the bands the reason is brands.” Nieman Marcus party. Doritos Stage. Chevrolet stage. Spotify party. For the most part, they were all the same, just a different nightclub/mobile data corp/shoe company on the wall or door. I saw a girl in a neon summer dress staring at her phone. I saw a dad in a Hawaiian shirt staring at his phone. I saw two cops, standing side by side, staring at their phones. Meanwhile, with great consistency, the people on the pedal pub upheld the low level of integrity that pedal pubs have worked to establish worldwide.

The first day party had a taco trailer and free beer. Screwed into the door was a bright red sign that read, “NO CHILDREN.” Inside, young punks and old punks slam-danced like happy little children. “This song goes out to anyone who’s currently being a vegetarian; it’s called ‘Inhumanity!'” At the Hold Steady party, my old manager came over with some beers. I smiled politely. That devil Mr. B smirked. Son of Sam. Craig Finn sang, “I hope this didn’t frighten you.” I set the can down silently. Next came more free ice cream and beer on the patio at the Step Rockets day party. I had none of it. We walked south to see Koo Koo Kangaroo play at what producer Neil Zumwalde called, “The diciest gay bar in Austin, and I love it!” Afterward, a biker with a walking staff told Koo Koo, “You’re dancing on graves out here, man. If weird shit starts happening, you need to go see a voodoo priest!”

Random guy at phone charging station: “City of dreams.”

Random girl at phone charging station: “Word.”

In my heart, they got married.

mallmansxsw-childrenA woman stuffed a teddy bear down the front of her dress. It did not fall out the bottom. I was offered free craft beers, lemon drop shots, and whiskey gingers. I declined. The music was intoxicating in its own right. There was top-shelf indie glam, double-barrel aged witch house, triple-distilled bearded techno, artisan craft post-grime, and locally sourced cave-fermented premium death metal. On the street, I saw purple furry short shorts and sometimes just underwear. There were also Bible demonstrators. It was Times Square, sans Blade Runner. It was Las Vegas Boulevard sans Homeless Super Mario. Ever been to Mardis Gras? Ever been to Black Friday at the mall? Ever said “Oh, I love Destruction Unit. Oh, I adore Perfect Pussy. Oh, Lydia Loveless, she’s great!” but you never actually heard any of it? I’d never admit to it to you if I hadn’t. I hadn’t.

Night fell. I saw cops on bikes, cops in golf carts, cops on balconies, sunglasses cops, friendly cops, scowling cops, laughing cops, a scary circle of tough cops, cops and more cops. We were all very safe. We were all very safe? There were lines for shows, lines for food, lines for liquor. There were neon lines of LED spotlights like light sabers in the sky, lines to the room to do lines, lines from Kanye songs, lines used to get backstage or into pants or panties, to get fed, to get bled, to get! To get! TO GET! Forget about it.

On our walk back to the Lexus, I overheard someone say, “Finally all the kids are starting to sound like Nirvana.”

Day 5

Before a caterpillar turns into a moth, there is a middle period where it becomes a liquid, an elixir of pure metamorphosis. What would it taste like? Egg? Kahlua? Absinthe? Liquid Moth: 2 parts Kahlua, 1 part Absinthe, 1 raw egg, blended.

Text message received 10:06 a.m.: “Mark, you might the only sober person in this town.”

The human head is a geodesic dome that our inner child throws rocks at to break the glass because it’s mad that we surrendered becoming an astronaut or fireman for working in cubes and offices. This is why we party. A grey mist floated over streets of trash. I’d left these zombie streets at 2:30 a.m. and returned at 10:30 the next morning to find a carpeting of snack wrappers, flyers, promotional CDs, and beer cans. Even the bums were gone from dirty blanket alleyways. Is the metamorphosis of a drunk rock town that the party confetti turns into scattered pieces of garbage by morning? It sure smelled that way.

We made a quick lap around the city. Interns were dressing up stages for whatever candy bar, magazine, or fast food chain was having a party that day. “You know, I suppose I could b**** about how SXSW wasn’t all brand infested 15 years ago, but it’s a b**** of a career.” I said, “But if it weren’t for these same companies licensing our songs for advertising, I’d be sleeping under one of those newspaper racks right now.” Mr. B checked the time and asked me, “Hey, did your publicist get back to you about meeting for breakfast instead of lunch?” I hesitated. “I think it’s still pretty early for everyone.” He needed to get back to his busy law office on Monday, and I had to get back to my studio. So, I put on the Buzzcocks, he opened the sunroof, and we hit the highway.

Pete Shelley was singing about how he hates fast cars. He surely wouldn’t have enjoyed me and Mr. B on that drive. A group of motorcycle cowboys blazed the freeway beside us. I said, “They think they’re all Springsteen, but they’re just Bon Jovi.” Mr. B answered, “Same reason Tom Cruise makes contractual demands to ride a motorcycle in every movie.” I laughed and added, “Yeah, except for in Legend, ’cause that was unicorn.” When on the road, instead of measuring time in hours, I measure it in albums. Texas is a long state to drive on. Seven albums worth of flat, unwinding freeway and we stopped for a very late lunch.

You can judge the quality of a Chinese buffet by the condition of its sign. According to that rule, this one had a quality rating of “BUFF T.” With deep regret, I tasted a menu item called “mayonnaise and crab.” Light bulbs were missing in a pattern that suggested a secret code. Clearing our plates, the waitress said, “Are you finished? Did you enjoy your food?” with her voice, but her eyes were saying “Help, I’m being held prisoner by the maniac owner who keeps me in the wood shed behind the building.” I replied, “Indeed, excellent food here!” but my eyes were saying, “Dear god, I already feel my organs failing.” I doubted we’d make it past Oklahoma City. I pictured a small boy wandering the woods by the North Texas freeway to find a crashed Lexus with two emaciated skeletons inside and Blonde on Blonde playing on repeat. Never trust an empty restaurant.

mallmansxsw-milkBack on I-35, a storm approached. The sky went mute green. Traffic began to slow. “Good thing I didn’t get a car wash,” said Mr. B. Other drivers began to put their hazards on. Storm chasers passed us in a Scion. “Storm chasers are the only ones with their lights off?” I asked. “Weather junkies!” Lighting clattered all around us like a white cage. It rained all night on the drive to the hotel. Mr. B had only eaten a banana since the “BUFF T” so I suggested the nearby massive strip mall of exotic chain conglomerates. We were the only Lexus in the Abuelo’s parking lot. “Mallman, you can have that Mega-Rita now,” he said. I corrected him, “Mr. B, the Mega-Rita is only at Ruby Tuesday. I know I said Applebee’s before, but I don’t eat at chain restaurants.” He furrowed his brow, “I don’t eat at chain restaurants either!” The waitress came. I ordered a delicious milk. Abuelo’s is a chain restaurant. Afterward, Mr. B stopped at the QT for Jameson and mixer. I bought a donut instead.

We were not the only Lexus in the Hilton parking lot. I ate my delicious maple long john in the bathtub while Mr. B watched Forensic Files and sipped his nightcap. The best parts of life don’t make any sense because they can’t be reduced to a cliche. Alcoholics don’t become great guitarists because of the sauce. Heroin addicts don’t become brilliant songwriters because of the junk. Cokeheads don’t become awesome DJs because of the blow. In the music world, you begin to lose touch when you begin to believe your own mythology. I guess that’s why I decided not to drink for South by. Then again, what the hell did I know. I was just some dude eating a donut, naked in a bathtub, at midnight on a Saturday.


We were back on the highway by noon. “Hey Mallman, I think you should get sponsored by milk. Come back to SXSW next year and play the Milk Stage!” laughed Mr. B. I added, “Get the American Dairy Counsel on the horn. I’ll be the first artist to perform a concert in a 4,000 gallon tank of milk.” The temperature dropped steadily as we headed north through Oklahoma, then Kansas, then Iowa. I said, “Did you ever think about how internet cats aren’t even aware that the internet exists?” He replied, “Kinda like the Truman show but with cats? Hmm, that is weird.”

Soon, there was snow again, evil devil snow. At first, it filled in the spaces between rocks and dusted the fields. Then, as the day grew long, it began to pile up in drifts of doom. We listened to the Beatles anthology. I sighed, “So, The Beatles formed in 1960 and broke up in 1970. That’s just 10 years, man. In the time I’ve been going to SXSW, they had formed, conquered the world, and broken up.” Mr B. answered, “Yup. It only takes 10 years to go from zero to Beatles.” The instrumental version of Eleanor Rigby came on. I turned it up. It was the minor key soundtrack to a Minnesota border crossing. The staccato strings suggested an urgent return, some filmic climax. It was 23 degrees up in Minneapolis. I was mad at Minnesota like an abused child. Winter was like being grounded from life.

Text message received, 11:23 p.m.: “Hey, how was SXSW without drinking?”

Text message reply, 11:24 p.m.: “Easy. Wanna meet me over at Pizza Luce in an hour for a vino?”

I set my bags on the floor of my loft, walked over to my stereo, and cued up the Cure, “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” But I didn’t hit play. The silence was refreshing. I left the music off, and took a hot shower. With the steam rising, I reflected on the blur of day parties, the no booze, Mr. B, and this whole twisted puzzle that is being a 21st century professional musician. When I was a kid, my dad used to joke with me about fake monsters in the sky. He’d point up and say, “Look Marky, monsters! You can’t see them, but they’re there!” It was funny, but I think what he was trying to teach me was this: Demons, it’s up to us to define them. It didn’t freak me out or keep me up all night. It wasn’t even scary to me, these invisible monsters. It wasn’t scary, because it gave me freedom of choice. Looking back now, I can tell you precisely what the feeling was: it was sobering.

Read Part 1 of Mark Mallman’s SXSW liveblog here.