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72 Hours in Austin, Texas

May 20, 2012

It’s not surprising that Austin, Texas is so satisfied with itself. No doubt it’s the best city in the whole state. Unfortunately, that distinction is a lot like being the prettiest prostitute in the alley smoking crystal meth. The rest of the Texas republic is a dump and that’s pretty much the way its citizens treat it. After all, “Don’t Mess With Texas” is a public service announcement pleading with Texans to quit shitting in their own bed. The last time I was there in the late 1990s  I was shocked to find that not only do people drive on the beaches, but it is also the local custom to throw all of the week’s accumulated trash out the window while doing so.

Granted, perhaps I’m slightly biased. In 1997, I was there visiting the family of a girl I was dating. It was Thanksgiving. A month later she moved in with me. Three weeks after that she went to San Francisco for the weekend and reunited with the father of her (latest) abortion. I never saw her again. It would be disingenuous of me to deny that perhaps this situation has left me forever unfavorably disposed to the capital of Texas.

However, I like to think I am capable of change. Sure, even while blinded by love, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Austin fifteen years ago. But I didn’t like Brussels sprouts then and now I do, so I figured I’d give it another try. After all, the Psych Fest had a fantastic line-up and it seemed that it would be a fine opportunity to reassess the situation.

I met up with two friends, one from St. Paul and one from Portland. Through AirBnB we rented a bungalow/shack in South Austin that was fully stocked with Texas memorabilia and Ayn Rand propaganda: a puzzling, yet oddly telling detail in this allegedly hip neighborhood in the midst of a massive gentrification. Not so long ago South Austin was a ghetto. Now, ramshackle homes stand next to gleaming modern ones. A local boasted that it is where the slaves used to live. Now there are coffee shops, vintage clothes stores and enough food trucks to satisfy a range of cravings from $5 donuts to West African stewed goat.

We arrived at varying times throughout Friday afternoon. By the time Portland showed up, it was time to get over to the venue. The Psych Fest’s 5th edition was stationed at Emo’s East and the Beauty Bar, a short walk from one another in an odd commercial wasteland. The Beauty Bar, which resembles a barn much more than a bar, was the site of San Francisco’s Moon Duo, who provided an excellent opening salvo for the festival (for us). We ended up spending much of the evening here. At the other side of the parking lot was Emo’s East, which essentially is a warehouse with the ambiance of a truncated roller rink. It is, sadly, exactly what I’d expect a venue in Texas to be: too big for its britches and mistaking misguided kitsch for personality. In a state that routinely confuses big for better, the sound system was massive, yet muddy.

While the proprietors of both venues were amiable and created a space conducive to the freedom one might expect from a festival dedicated to psychedelia, both the Beauty Bar and Emo’s East are devoid of personality to the point that you could be anywhere. To make matters worse, the neighborhood which hosts these emporiums is surrounded by section 8 housing, dilapidated, run-down stretches of big box box stores, bingo halls and flailing franchises. It is a essentially a ghetto. Since the venues, which can hold 2500 people between them, can only accommodate about 100 cars in their shared parking lot, concert-goers will likely get an intimate view of the rotting carcass of the American Dream.

With a little time to burn before Lotus Plaza, we tested our Frogger skills and managed to make it safely to El Pollo Rico across the street. This taco shack is apparently a cherished Austin favorite and as such our expectations were high … and therein lies the problem with Austin, it’s supposed to amazing, but in reality it’s nothing special. In accordance with that calculus, the lard-encrusted tacos were fine, certainly nothing mind-blowing. It is, however, possible that my taste buds were stunted from the infusion of carbon monoxide spewing from the line of pick-up trucks idling in the drive-thru, conveniently located right next to the stand’s picnic tables.

Despite the unfavorable conditions, I was hungry for more. The weekend promised to be a marathon, it would be important to pace oneself. Somehow we managed to extricate ourselves from the greasy picnic table. But there would more tacos that evening. Many, many more.

Magically, there was a taco stand in the parking lot behind the Beauty Bar. Their tacos were far superior, and came with the added bonus of not having to risk one’s life crossing the street for the privilege of dining in a mist of car exhaust. I downed several of their chicken concoctions throughout the evening in a manner reminiscent of Ignatius Reilly’s prodigious ability to devour vast quantities of hot dogs. It seems I had acquired a parasite since touching down in Texas, which considering the nauseating state of the city’s water supply made a disturbing degree of sense.

After staying up well past 4 a.m. on Friday night we managed to get ourselves up for brunch.  Apparently, most of Austin had the same idea as the lines were long at most recommended places, even though it was already past one in the afternoon. We ended up at the Bouldin Creek Coffee House & Cafe. It is a vegetarian restaurant, a shock to us at the time, but not an unwelcome one. Their spinach omelette was not only a minor revelation, but also efficiently soaked-up the toxins of the previous evening’s escapades.

sightseeing downtown: an Austin geisha lets it all hang out

We rented bikes upon our arrival, but had not yet used them so we took them for a spin, leaving South Austin and heading over the river for downtown and the capital. The bike trails and parks are quite impressive, but unfortunately they led us to 6th Street, a tacky commercial tourist zone where Austin “keeps it weird” in the most innocuous and tedious way. First we made the rookie mistake of stopping at Jackalope for a drink. Obviously, the name should have driven us away, but the Zombies were on the jukebox, so we went in. Apparently, mixing drinks is a difficult task for bottle-toking Texans, so it should not be astonishing that making a simple whiskey and lemonade was beyond the abilities of the Jackalope bartender. I can’t say we didn’t have it coming. The Jackalope – it’s the perfect name for Texas tourist trap.

Portland takes a Texas-sized hit from an avian aerial raid

From there we went to Easy Tiger, attracted to their ping pong tables and courtyard next to a stoned-in creek full of swimming painted turtles. In a matter of minutes I managed to smash my paddle into a pile of toothpicks, while Portland was showered with a Texas-sized pile of bird shit – an incident which I thought was particularly hilarious since we had just switched sides. That bird, I’m quite sure, had been gunning for me. I don’t think the winged creature had particularly appreciated my observation that Austin is essentially Branson, Missouri for hipsters.

The afternoon was slipping away so we headed back to our bungalow to get ready for the evening’s musical offerings. After hosing ourselves off, we were again thwarted with wait times of an hour or more at no less than three restaurants (none of which take reservations), so we ended up at a food trailer park in South Austin where we dined at Little Thai, purveyors of an unpredictably decent pineapple fried rice.

The fest offered several stellar acts on Saturday night, including Pink Mountaintops, Woods, The Telescopes, Olivia Tremor Control and the Black Lips. If only they hadn’t been relegated to the sterile Emo’s East, perhaps a degree of transcendence could have been reached. The weather was great all weekend and it’s a shame that the festival wasn’t outside. While it is unfair to judge Austin on the purgatory that is Emo’s East and the Beauty Bar, life in Texas is seldom fair, so somehow my conscience will have to deal.

the winding road to the top of Doug Sahm Hill

We rode around on our bikes again on Sunday and almost immediately stumbled upon an unexpected Austin landmark, Doug Sahm Hill, named for the legendary musician. Sahm was a child prodigy and shared the stage with Hank Williams in December 1952 at Austin’s Skyline Club. Sahm was 11. Hank died 13 days later. It was Williams’ last show. Sahm would go on to have a fantastic and influential career, cut short by a heart attack in 1989.

The Sir Douglas Quintet classic “She’s About a Mover” was once named the number one “Texas” song by Texas Monthly:

The third night of psychedelic offerings ended with a solid bang of Bombino, Thee Oh Sees, Meat Puppets and Brian Jonestown Massacre. Despite the lame venues, it was a fine, albeit narrow, festival.  A few short weeks later, it is now largely a blur. And like Doug Sahm, I doubt I’ll be going back to Austin again anytime soon.

Doug Sahm – I Can’t Go Back To Austin

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