A Sad Salvation

At SXSW, you couldn't hear the bad news over all that music

Another good keynote candidate would have been Jonathan Adelstein, one of five FCC commissioners and one of two Democrats--and the only man at SXSW who had any real power, who could effect any substantive change. "Give him some love," Toomey had said the previous day of the guy who will try to stop FCC chairman and son-of-Colin Michael Powell from allowing fewer companies, including TV networks and newspapers, to own more media outlets. He was introduced as "a member of the cavalry riding to the rescue," the man who was going to stanch the bleeding that began with the 1996 Telecommunications Act that uncorked the limits on how many radio stations a single company could own. (Before '96, Clear Channel had but 40 outlets; now, multiply that figure by 30.)

As Adelstein reminded, after the act was passed, more than 2,100 of the United States' 11,000 radio stations changed hands "and many were sold to former competitors." Seems the Supreme Court's "uninhibited marketplace of ideas" is destined to become a mini-mall run by a couple of billionaires. No matter how noble Adelstein's intentions--and coming to SXSW to check out bands and solicit opinions from Regular Folk is pretty damned noble--he's still the eunuch in the whorehouse, as one colleague pointed out during the session; Powell will likely get his way.

"The game isn't over in consolidation," Adelstein said, by way of soothing the nerves of the couple dozen SXSW-goers who showed up for his Saturday-afternoon session to ask questions and state their grievances. And, indeed, the FCC is asking for comments from the public about the deregulation issue, which Powell wants decided by June of this year; so far, the commission has received some 15,000. "But 285 million people are affected by it," Adelstein said, and recent studies indicate more than 70 percent of the American public have never even heard of deregulation, which will lead to what Adelstein called the inevitable "loss of voices and viewpoints."

Bang on a drum all day: Abbos Qosimov came the greatest distance--from Uzbekistan--looking for the most.
Bang on a drum all day: Abbos Qosimov came the greatest distance--from Uzbekistan--looking for the most.
Jay Farrar played SXSW. At 8 p.m. Score one for Jeff Tweedy.
John Anderson
Jay Farrar played SXSW. At 8 p.m. Score one for Jeff Tweedy.

Look only at the fallout from Natalie Maines' remark last week from a London stage, when she said she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as President Bush--a subject of much discussion during SXSW, especially during Friday afternoon's Activism and Protest panel. Immediately, Dixie Chicks songs were pulled from radio stations across the country, first by KJ97 in San Antonio--a Clear Channel station, in that corporation's hometown. On March 12, Maines issued a statement on dixiechicks.com in which she explained that Bush is "ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S." and that her "comments were made in frustration"; two days later, she had backed off entirely. "My remark was disrespectful," she wrote, which didn't stop hundreds from destroying thousands of Chicks CDs in Louisiana on Monday. "I love my country," she added in case anyone doubted her--especially, oh, Clear Channel's CEO and founder Lowry Mays, a good friend of George W. Bush's.

"September 11 set non-president Bush up so well for this," said R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, who sat alongside Toomey, X's John Doe, Woodstock vestige Wavy Gravy and the MC5's John Sinclair on the activism panel. "To protest has been unseemly, like stomping on the graves of the dead." So instead, Darryl Worley's flag-wavin', ass-kickin' "Have You Forgotten" rockets up the country singles charts, while pop protesters--among them the Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Chumbawamba and John Mellencamp--have been forced to give away their offerings on their Web sites. "Between Infinity and Clear Channel," Mills muttered, "I don't even know how you'd get a protest song on the radio."

"When people are apolitical in moments like this, the politics seem more highlighted and more potent," Toomey insisted, ever the optimist. "There are always political songs, even when people are asking, 'Where are the political songs?'... But the Internet can't fix everything. It's a gathering place, but we own the airwaves."

Save for the Saturday-afternoon anti-war protest that began on the Capitol steps and proceeded south on Congress Avenue, there was little talk about what's likely to come in days; hell, half the people marching Saturday were just SXSW attendees trying to get from one party to the next. Ted Leo, the Billy Bragg (or Joe Jackson?) of New Jersey, had "No War" on his guitar in shiny duct tape, but it was unreadable from 20 feet away. Then again, you ain't gonna find many pro-war folks at a music festival where former Dallas Cowboy and current NORML honcho Mark Stepnoski is scheduled to be the guest of honor at the High Times party. You dropped a bong on me, baby.

What makes SXSW special, all these years later, is that for a few days in March, you can be around people who speak the same secret language. They're excited when they see Steve Wynn, ex of the Dream Syndicate, standing in a club; not only that, but they'll start debating his band work and solo stuff, trying to decide if it's better to be "important" or "good." And not only that, but they'll have a story about Wynn, like the time a friend loaned him a guitar before a gig and a place to crash after. It's a place where every other band sounds like the end of a Neil Young song. It's a place people still get excited about Liz Phair, the Meg Ryan of rock who manages to make old songs sound like demos. It's a place where the Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players, with its little-girl drummer keeping the beat in someone else's back pocket, generate buzz. It's a place where power-pop bands get the Knack and keep it. It's a place where 50-year-old men dress like 34-year-old men dress like 17-year-olds in vintage shirts just off the rack from Urban Outfitters. It's a place where Billy Bob Thornton, the Lenny Nimoy of his generation, can't bullshit the audience, which walked out on him quicker than the Jews from Egypt. And it's a place where comebacks are possible, if not always likely. Ask the Jungle Brothers or Concrete Blonde or Presidents of the United States of America or the Yardbirds, all of whom generated as much interest as a checking account.

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