SXSW 2004: Austin Translation (Day 3)
Day Three: All Walter Under the Bridge
Friday March 19, Austin, Texas: We have met the enemy, and he is awful nice. Today's public interview with the fearsome Walter Yetnikoff, who presided over CBS Records in the turbulent bad old days from 1975 to 1990, features a Good Walter who has made peace with sobriety and buried a lot of the bodies so far from home that he doesn't seem to remember where they went, why they were buried, or for that matter who they were in the first place. "I've become a do-gooder," Yetnikoff comments at the end of his hour-plus at the microphone. "I am now the man I never wanted to be."
The occasion is the publication of Yetnikoff's new memoir, "Howling at the Moon," and as the day approaches afternoon the room fills up with the curious, the eager, and the angry. We might well be all three. Yetnikoff was one of the masters who escorted - one might say sold - the old great labels from the hands of dedicated fans and founders into the grinders of international industry.
Yetnikoff is a craggy man who wears his generation like a winter coat. He takes obvious bad-uncle glee in offending politically correct sensibilities - let's not get into it now - and is open and honest about the past as he remembers it. With the exception of "Tommy Scummola," at whom he takes several swipes, he seems at peace with most of his past rivals. He does Michael Jackson imitations, backhands investigative journalists for being unable to find drugs in the music business, denies that he was ever aware of payola, talks openly about Clive Davis light and dark, and both ribs and worships the last of the erudite CBS record heads, Goddard Lieberson. It's not as well-measured and full of guffaws as Thursday's Little Richard keynote interview, but this is fine showmanship.
In passing, Yetnikoff also gives us glimpses into a legendary age of the anything-goes music business, when the rules were being written and the tombstones ranged unattended at the outskirts of town. It's deep, it's dreadful, it's bad and it's wrong, and something about it is sexy as hell.
The panels overall are pumping out information as fast as curious pens can take it down. There isn't much grandstanding, as these things go. Instead there's a lot of earnest grappling with the promises and threats of the future. For once, and just a couple of years too late, musicians are understanding that it's time to take things into their own hands.
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Outside in the afternoon dappling of sun and overcast, Austin is alive with corporate flings, large and small. The Noughties are a time of rational thought on the tail of dotcom excess, and many of the daytime private gatherings are workingfolk affairs, catered with sensible salads rather than exuberant sides of beef. By which I mean, of course, that there are surely platters slathered with the reapings of greed and debauchery, but I didn't get invited to those ones.
Any excuse to see longtime favorite Jennifer Marks is welcome, and Ariel Publicity gives us one with a day party on 6th Street; one of the constant ironies of a conference like this one is that there is never nearly enough time to listen as widely as I'd like, or as well. So we settle for a few stolen moments in spritely acoustic mode. Jennifer is a songwriter of wry depth and honesty, and the taste follows into the warm afternoon. A few doors down Jessy Moss is as sultry as you can get in snug searing pink, and she is ramping and boasting Eminem-style, looking both haughty and vulnerable and talking the kind of trash you'd love to tidy up.
That Year's Model: It's just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right. The big long-line hotseat shows are scattered all over town round midnight, and they include outings by the B-52's, The Church, Mission of Burma, Little Richard, The Posies, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Time warp? It seems so. Since I live in 2004 and don't much like crowds, I slip off to Elysium for the New Orleans buzzband Telefon Tel Aviv. Nominally a duo and actually more like a five-piece ambient dinner party tonight, Telefon adds and twists dreamy elements in engaging slacker slouch, perking up into noisy texture now and then and fiddling about with no apparent purpose for the rest of the set. I want to climb up and stretch out on the stage to digest dinner, which I mean in a very good way.
Austin's I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness start with a brisk snap so clean and melodic that I'm instantly hooked. Their three guitars dance and drone and slap in tight formation over perky rhythms, and the styling feels honest and sounds true. It's a New-Wavey kind of dish, looking back to the taut days of The Cars and The Feelies. One song veers creakily close to U2's I Will Follow, but the rest borrows without lifting and puts the yesterday-once-more lineup in the clubs this night into interesting relief: someone, at least, was listening back then, and bringing the good noise up through the years.
The room is packed and adoring at the Rounder Records showcase, and I peer in for a song or two by Grant Lee Phillips. It's all a little too Jackson Browne for my restless shoes this evening, so rather than fret in a happy party I take myself on a trundle down the main 6th Street drag. I'm looking for Mary Lou Lord, who has an indoor showcase somewhere. But don't be fooled: her home venue is big and wide and wild.
For years Mary Lou has set up shop across from the Driskill Hotel, interrupting her busking now and then to pop in at an official SXSW event. This year she's playing can't-catch-me with the Austin cops who can, as it happens, catch her. But before they do there's a loving throng in attendance, and she comes alive outside in a way I have not seen her kindle indoors. Waist deep in the Big Muddy she is a flirting alert siren, waiting to sound.
Lalo is probably the only lead vibes player in town for the week, and even if she weren't terrific that would be reason enough to drop in for the set. Happily enough, she is terrific, which is no news to those who heard her lately on NPR's Weekend Edition. On my way over to a sweaty closer by Ted Leo/Pharmacists I find that the police have given Mary Lou the waggly finger (she'll try again before the night is through, though). Ted Leo has always struck me as Joe Jackson Lite, and I've never decided whether that's a good thing or not. The jury tonight says if you have to go somewhere, it's a pretty good place to go.
SXSW - www.sxsw.com
I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness - http://chosendarkness.com
Lalo - www.lalovibe.com
Ted Leo/Pharmacists - www.tedleo.com
Jennifer Marks - www.jennifermarks.com
Jessy Moss - www.jessymoss.com
Grant Lee Phillips - www.grantleephillips.com
Telefon Tel Aviv - www.telefontelaviv.com
Mary Lou Lord - Mary Lou Lord