Searching for the Soul of Austin
From the outside, nothing about Eddie Wilson's near-north Austin bungalow would indicate that a prime architect of the city's mystique lives inside. Once through the door, though, the whole fantastic story becomes plain as a giant javelina sucking on a six-story jug of tequila.
Over the fireplace, in the living room where Wilson jokes that prior to remarrying his ex-wife he spent five divorced years cavorting as Austin's "fat Hugh Hefner," there hangs a painting of the Armadillo World Headquarters, the venue and "beer garden of Eden" he opened in 1969 and sold to a partner in 1976.
More so than any other place in the Texas capital's history, the Armadillo was where Austin got its merit badge in cool. Just for starters, it was the epicenter for the rise of redneck rock, the sacred place where cosmic cowboys like Waylon and Willie united the hitherto-warring tribes of rednecks and hippies. Next to the painting, on the mantel stands a Day of the Dead shrine to Doug Sahm, another Armadillo regular and perhaps the one man who truly mastered every single style of Texas music from gutbucket blues to conjunto. To the left is the 'Dillo's old piano, played by everyone from Fats Domino to Johnny Winter to Mose Allison to Van Morrison.
The idea for Austin City Limits—the brand name that indelibly stamped Austin as the "Live Music Capital of the World" to a generation and counting of PBS viewers, and the driving force behind Texas' largest music festival today—was hatched at the Armadillo. Indeed, ACL's raucous Gary P. Nunn theme "London Homesick Blues" famously choruses "Take me home to the Armadillo..."
While you are taking this all in, Wilson is regaling you with tales of this bygone Austin. He explains how people were able to smoke weed with impunity there; powerful men like Bob Bullock liked to ogle the coeds in their halter tops and faded cut-off Levi's. And Wilson also shows you a picture of him goosing a youthful Ann Richards. The heat wasn't gonna come down on the fat cats' playhouse.
In the study, amid thousands and thousands of books and Burton Wilson photographs and psychedelic Jim Franklin posters and other lore, hang five paintings of giant armadillos prowling rolling bluebonnet prairies amid towering Lone Star longnecks. Yep, Wilson's club inspired that whole National Beer of Texas, "Long Live Longnecks" ethos too.
"Cheap pot, cold beer and cheap rent," Wilson says in his courtly, old-school Texas rasp of a voice. With his snow-white mane and goatee and piercing eyes, he looks for all the world like a potbellied Mark Twain. "That's what got it all started here and now we're running out of all of it."
Well, maybe not the beer, but the point is well taken. Eddie Wilson's Austin, the one people flocked to from all over Texas and the nation to come join, where people could share $60-a-month rent houses and while away their lives hanging out down by the water and partying, is buried, if not dead.
Sure, you can still find vestiges of that magic in places like the Continental Club on South Congress and the Saxon Pub on South Lamar, and Wilson's own Threadgill's restaurants, and the other pockets of freakiness that dot the city from the North Loop to deep East Austin, not to mention in farther-flung outposts like San Marcos and Martindale, but by and large, Austin is coming more and more to resemble places like Dallas and Houston, the cities so many adopted Austinites fled in disgust.
And at the same time, Texas' larger cities are getting cooler and more livable, much "less suffocating," as Wimberley journalist and Willie Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski puts it.
As Wilson approaches 70 and battles lung cancer, he is wondering what will happen to his legacy and the city he worked so hard to craft in his image. It's been 30 years since the Armadillo met the wrecking ball. Wilson says he watched as a loader tipped remnants of the old stage into a dump truck. He swears he saw the glitter Doctor John once tossed in the air twinkling among the foam, dust, floorboards and mortar, but nowadays that seems less like an omen of great things to come than a coda to an era that will never return.
Today, where once the Armadillo rollicked, there squats an utterly sterile, suburban-looking, glass-sided office building. It's as if Austin had declared an official intent to abandon its good-timing days, sober up and get in the hamster wheel with the rest of the rat race, to mix rodent metaphors. Austin officially decided to barter its imagination for a bid at Houston- and Dallas-sized stacks of cash.
"What's even more ironic is that was initially a bank. And it failed," Wilson says. "That piece of real estate was the first flip in Austin, and I believe it flipped twice or three times before the thing got built and failed."
From a distance, Austin still looks as beguiling as it must have appeared to its earliest settlers, even if today's western hills—so exquisitely violet in the setting sun—are studded with McMansions. Austin is easily Texas' most outdoorsy city. All over town, cyclists whiz past in far greater numbers than anywhere else, and at least on the south side of town, many suburban neighborhoods mesh well with the surrounding hills and thickets. Greenbelts and rocky, shaded creeks streak the city like veins of precious ore, and huge nature preserves and state parks are minutes from town.
The lake, a treacherous river in the old days, is more crowded than ever, but still an amazing downtown amenity, and Hippie Hollow has managed to hang on and is now officially Texas' only clothing-optional swimming hole. There's also Zilker Park and Barton Springs—in Wilson's vernacular, "our G-spot."
No, Austin is not a truly gorgeous geographical Shangri-La, like San Francisco, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Seattle or even Chattanooga, Tennessee, but it's pretty enough and easily the beauty queen of Texas. What's more, its violent-crime rate is a merciful fraction of those of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
While the music scene isn't quite what Austin's boosters would have you believe, it does have its moments, day in and day out, week after week. "I'll start on a Thursday at five o'clock at happy hour at Continental Club, and then go from there to the early show at the Saxon, and then maybe go over to the East Side to TC's, and then end up between midnight and 2 in the morning at Antone's," says Wilson. It's a concentration of reasonably compressed world-class talent Wilson can drive to in minutes. "My friend from L.A. tells me it would take him approximately 18 months to see that much world-class talent in L.A.," he says.
As an eating town, Austin was once home to little more than sausage wraps and brisket and breakfast tacos, nachos and guacamole—cheap fare to fill the bellies of UT students while leaving them a few extra bucks for partying. Today, that tradition of cheap eats lives on in the 2,300 hipster food trucks that patrol the city, and they offer much more diverse fare than what was available in the past. And while Austin has not yet caught up to Dallas or Houston in fine or ethnic dining, it has made strides, especially in high-end eats. UT grad and former Austin and Houston food critic Robb Walsh says that Austin has developed whole new foodie tiers in recent years. "Recently, some really good and really expensive restaurants have opened and been able to survive," he says, citing examples such as Uchi and Vespaio. "It's very competitive on that level, but you can make it now."
However, in many, many other areas, Austin is mired in an intermediate stage between overgrown town and true metropolis. To Wilson, the Austin of today is "like a good-lookin' chick who got knocked up and can't get into her britches anymore." What's more, a great many of the residents can't seem to see the way forward.
Austin is home to precious few top-rate museums and little in the way of high art or fashion. There is no international airport. Austin is America's largest city with no pro sports teams (though some would debate the amateur status of the Texas Longhorns). While the real estate market is a bargain to Californians, by Texas standards it is both costly and cramped.
Above all that, there's traffic, the "sheer hell trying to get around that city," as Greg Ellis, a former Dallasite and Houstonian and now the manager of Sundance Records in San Marcos, puts it. Austinites have a curious attitude toward their clogged roads. In a recent poll, 70 percent of them said it was their city's top concern, and a 2010 study conducted by Texas A&M's nationally renowned Texas Transportation Institute, one that used the latest high-tech GPS devices and even iPhone data to measure travel times, concluded that in all of America, Austin trailed only Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in average travel times.
Yet when you read the Austin American-Statesman's article about the study, there's this weird parade of denial in the online comments. Yes, traffic is bad, dozens of the commenters say. They will all admit that Interstate 35 is a nightmare from Williamson County to San Antonio, and that it does suck being America's largest city with only one interstate. They'll grant that Highways 183 and 290 are hell-paths, and that MoPac is an inadequate north-south conduit, and that major arterials such as Lamar, Airport, Burnet and Manor all have poorly synchronized traffic lights.
And yet still, even given all that, they will insist that traffic in Austin is "not as bad as it is in Dallas and Houston." (Others, like Wilson, just shrug it off and say things like "That's why you are supposed to smoke a joint in your car.")
That denial is typical, according to Julia Youssefnia, a 28-year-old accountant who graduated from UT and has since lived in both Houston and Dallas, and it's not limited to traffic. "Austin is a city with tons of problems—segregation, gentrification, problems with affordable housing—but most people there tend to ignore them," she says.
Indeed, some in the city seem to celebrate their woes. That's what makes Austin weird, they claim.
But Houston blogger Lou Minatti points out that so much of what Austin touts as being weird is actually ordinary. Bats under bridges? Houston has those. A large population of panhandlers, or "dragworms," as they are called in Austin? Both Houston and Dallas have them.
The one thing he grants is truly weird about Austin is the population's hatred of ease of transit, an antipathy manifested by residents' refusal to do anything to alleviate their woes. "More highways will make us just like Houston and Dallas!" is the rallying cry, and to be like those towns would not be weird.
But to people who have actually been to all three cities recently, it's apparent that they are already more alike than different. "I cannot truck people who say they don't want Austin to become Dallas or Houston, because it is," Patoski says.
Nowhere is that more apparent than downtown, where the past 10 years have been home to a crass real estate boom that would shame even Donald Trump. Austin's downtown was once home to much that was funky, family-owned and attitude-free.
That vibe has been vanishing, especially since 2006, when a strong ordinance dictating an unobstructed line of sight to the Capitol from pretty much all points was weakened to the point of near-meaninglessness. Ever since, high-rise luxury condos and hotels and glitzy shopping centers have erupted like enormous rainy-day toadstools. Austin's tall landmarks were once the Capitol and the Texas Tower—politics and academia. Now the city's skyline declares that Austin is really about flipping condos.
In a real estate developer-driven bid to weaken the Capitol Corridors ordinance, Austin Mayor Will Wynn stated that he wanted to have 25,000 people living downtown by 2015. And what kind of people did they want? Rich ones, as attested by the fact that the one true grocery store in the area is the Whole Foods flagship.
Like the city of its birth, Whole Foods is a lot more corporate and ritzy than it was in the hippy-dippy '70s, and Patoski believes that store is helping solidify downtown as a paradise for wealthy Bobos, to mangle the title of David Brooks' memorable 2000 book. "It's their theme park," he says of the flagship. "I've seen people moving into high-rises down there so they can be close to Whole Foods."
The kind of people who can afford to do their regular shopping at Whole Foods are not the bohemians Austin once drew. Instead, they are the people who can afford to live in the brand-new, 683-foot Austonian condo tower, now Austin's tallest building, where studio condos start at $500,000 (with $700 monthly fees) and prices ascend to a cool $8 million for a penthouse. At the time the project was announced, one of the developers reportedly stated that these would not be first or second homes for their typical buyers, but fifth or sixth, somewhere in the portfolio amid properties in the south of France, Manhattan, Aspen, Tuscany and Malibu.
Today, downtown Austin is cramped. It's hard to park. By and large, the people you see on a night out are alternately pretentious, thuggish (on skanky East 6th Street, where gang shootings and fistfights are becoming common occurrences) or douched-out, as on West 6th Street, which now rivals or exceeds Uptown Dallas as a spawning ground for vulgarian $30,000 millionaires swilling bottle-service Grey Goose. (While the exact number of douchebags prowling Austin was not tracked by the census and is therefore impossible to quantify, suffice to say that a production company recently found it fertile enough ground to announce they were casting a Texas-style Jersey Shore ripoff in Austin.)
By night, the one thing much of downtown Austin has in spades is vapidity, an affluent airheadedness that reigns everywhere where it is not supplanted by its cousins: lunkheaded testosterone head-cracking or the putting on of airs, depending on whether you are east or west of Congress.
Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich spearheaded the Keep Austin Weird campaign of the last few years. He says he's been encouraged by some recent developments in the city, but he did tip us off to one place whose mere presence would seem to toll the death knell of any city that claimed to be cool.
"There are these horrible bars downtown like Qua where they have, like, live sharks swimming under the dance floor," he said.
We thought he had to be exaggerating, but no, Qua really exists, on West 4th Street. It's got it all, including that stupid, meaningless name. It's got the velvet rope and the dress codes. It's got bottle service, and, yes, Virginia, there are in fact actual live sharks swimming under the glass dance floor. "They are fed fresh seafood (from Whole Foods) daily," notes the info page on Qua's website.
Downtown Austin, 2011: where even the nightclub sharks dine on Whole Foods seafood daily.
Molly Ivins wept.
It's fitting that the supermarket chain that white people like most was born and bred in Austin, the Texas city that white people like best. Austin is easily Texas' milkiest big city, and the inner core is getting more ivory by the minute. It's curious—Austin is Texas' most progressive city, and it's hard not to imagine that its residents wouldn't speak highly of diversity as a concept. (Indeed, President Obama enjoyed his greatest Texas margin of victory in Travis County, though he took both Dallas and Harris counties, too.) And yet the stats don't lie: Austin is 8.8 percent black, Houston is 18.7 and Dallas is 20.7 percent.
The Hispanic population of all three cities grew between 2000 and 2010, but in Austin, that growth has been tempered by a simultaneous gentrification of the East Austin barrio/black neighborhood, both just across I-35 from downtown. According to U.S. Census figures, the Hispanic presence in Central East Austin declined by 9.3 percent, and that of blacks by 27 percent. (Both groups have been pushed to the burbs.) At the same time, the white population boomed by 40 percent.
Many of those white people are hipsters, but to Patoski, that "hipness" comes at a dear price. "As hip now as East Austin appears, what made it cool was the black and Mexican ethnic aspects, and that is now basically gone," says Patoski. "They've run it all out."
This odd phenomenon has been replicated in other progressive cities such as Portland and Minneapolis. Attracted by stuff white people like such as farmers' markets, bike lanes and hipster culture, they flock in from slightly stodgier yet much more diverse cities like Houston and Dallas. Once ensconced in their ivory bastions, they look back at the chaos and hurly-burly of the places they left behind with smug self-satisfaction.
Writing on the website Newgeography.com, Aaron Renn wonders if they have earned the right to such snobbery. He believes that what they see as progressivism could also be interpreted as "White Flight writ large." Say you grew up in the suburbs of Dallas or Houston and would love to be in the middle of the action of the big city, but places like Oak Cliff or Houston's East End are just a little too real for you, with their methadone clinics, police sirens and 24-hour cantinas.
In Renn's view, that's where places like Austin come in. Why move to or stay in the suburbs of your square city to escape minorities and get slammed as a bigot for doing so, when you can move to some hep place like Austin and win praise for your progressivism?
"They often think that by moving to Austin they have done something great for humanity," notes Youssefnia.
Smugness about their monochromatic progressivism is just one aspect of "Austitude," a collective municipal narcissism shared by so many Austinites. To them, Austin is better, smarter, friendlier and utterly unlike everywhere else in Texas. Austitude is very prevalent not only in Austin but also in California, a prime source of migrants to Austin since the 1990s tech boom.
Tell Austinites that you live in Houston, and some will actually say to your face, "Oh, I'm so sorry." Delia Swanner, a Houston native now living in California, says she is sick of hearing Californians—even ones who've never been to any city in Texas—tell her Austin is the only place in Texas they'd consider living.
Other manifestations of Austitude drove Judy Masliyah right out of town. Back in the 1990s, Masliyah, a California native and designer of quirky, retro clothing, met her soon-to-be-husband Glover Gill in Los Angeles. Gill is a Houston-bred, then-Austin-based musician and composer whose tango-infused keyboard work appears in Richard Linklater's films. They would seem to be the perfect Austin couple, and Masliyah followed Gill there and set out her designs. At first, Masliyah enjoyed Austin somewhat, even if she chafed at Austin's creative-class hive mind. "I just really hate being told what's what, this expectation of what I am supposed to like or believe," she says.
Those misgivings turned to terror once Masliyah and Gill tied the knot, and it suddenly dawned on her that she might be living in Austin for the rest of her life. "I would have to somehow identify with it," she says. She says she "lost it" after a fashion show she put on. "After it was over, one of the models said, 'I really love your clothes. If I lived in New York or L.A., I would wear them.' That was just it for me," she says. "Austin is just for show. They want to have all this stuff like fashion shows, but only so they can say they can. Nobody wanted to wear it, but they wanted to say they had it. They weren't there, but they still wanted to act like they were there."
Later that day, Masliyah told Gill she couldn't live in Austin anymore. "So we started this half-and-half thing, living in both places. (She now owns the My Flaming Heart boutique on Main Street in Houston.) "And it's not that I don't like it there, but it's complicated my life so much, and his life, but I'm totally willing to do that. I don't have any snobbery against Texas. It's just Austin that gets under my skin."
I'm not from here / but people tell me / it's not like it used to be / they say I should have been here / back about 10 years / before it got ruined by folks like me."
—James McMurtry, "I'm Not From Here"
Austin boosters can say all they want about the nerd chic of the new tech sector and the reflected Hollywood glamor of the city's growing film industry, but the jewel in Austin's crown of cool has long been the music scene. And oddly enough, Austin has the shortest musical history of any big city in Texas. As late as 1963, Austin's pop music scene consisted of touring old-school country bands and cover bands working the frat-house circuit. The Austin of that time had a lot in common with Baton Rouge—both were formerly Confederate state capitals and seats of learning. About all that was different was the rainfall and the fact that chili ruled Austin and gumbo Baton Rouge.
Around that time, Kenneth Threadgill, a fiftysomething country music lover and former bootlegger (and proud owner of the first post-Prohibition beer license issued in Travis County), started welcoming an autoharp-toting, ballad-belting Port Arthur wild child by the name of Janis Joplin and her UT student crowd of folk music-loving proto-hippies to Wednesday night jams at his redneck roadhouse on North Lamar. Wilson, also a Threadgill's regular at the time, maintains that Threadgill's ability to calmly host both rednecks and beatniks served as a template for his Armadillo World Headquarters.
Mescaline and LSD swept through Austin right about then, giving rise to the lysergic sonic tsunami that was the 13th Floor Elevators, the city's first nationally known rock band and still Austin's most dangerous. By 1969, Wilson was managing Shiva's Headband, another psychedelic Austin band. Since Shiva's had trouble finding a place to play locally, Wilson had to open one himself. He bought a former National Guard Armory on Barton Springs Road and renamed it the Armadillo World Headquarters.
There followed a decade or so of Austin's glory years, where Willie's Django-infused gypsy country finally found its spiritual home and where Waylon's high-octane, cocaine-amped West Texas honky-tonk stomp coalesced, all in front of howling crowds of "headnecks in cowboy hats" and the scantily clad foxy hippie chicks.
Wilson wants it known that the Armadillo was not just a hippie club that became a cosmic honky-tonk. Blues guitar master Freddy King tore it down there on many a night, as did international stars such as Jimmy Cliff and Van Morrison. And it wasn't all shades of popular music. "No one ever gives us credit for all the bullshit we did. We had ballet once a month for 10 years, musicals, folkloric groups from around the world," Wilson remembers.
In 1976, Wilson sold out to a friend, and the club marched on to the early days of Texas punk. Around that time, Patoski detected some ominous minor-key music amid the carefree parade. "I remember in the mid-'70s seeing a banker snorting coke and going all on about Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. I knew it was over then," he says.
But it wasn't, quite. By about 1981, punk was on the march all over town, and Austin was hip for a whole new generation of disaffected kids from all over Texas, albeit these with mohawks and Day-Glo hair and piercings. Dallas' Jeff Liles was chest-deep in the punk scene. "I lived there when Club Foot was happening, and Raul's was happening, and Club 29 and all those great venues. It could not be beat back then. Oh my God, Austin was the shit back then. That was before the whole concept of alternative music. Classic rock was on its way out, and punk, alternative and new wave were this brand-new thing, and Austin was a really cool, subversive place to live."
By the middle of the '80s, some of that punk scene would evolve into a new wave sound, something like a slightly twangier take on the Athens-jangle rock scene that gave the world REM. At the same time, Austin's bluesy retro-rock scene was going great guns under the auspices of iconic late club owner Clifford Antone. The major labels signed lots of Austin-based acts in the '80s from both the new wave and blues camps, with the latter winning out in sales in the form of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 1987, South By Southwest was launched. Its original goals were to fill up downtown bars while the UT kids were away on spring break and showcase local bands, and boy did it ever succeed, at least at the former.
Since its inception, SXSW's trend has been toward bigger, grander, louder and more. Today, there are three SXSW festivals—the original music confab and others for film and tech. The emphasis on regional and, to a lesser extent, unknown music is long gone, as some 2,000 bands from dozens and dozens of countries are spotlighted. Huge established acts now perform regularly, and it has sprouted a glitzy layer of B-list celeb scuzz on top; it is now the kind of event that is apparently proud to allow the likes of Perez Hilton to host day parties.
It has also become a Music Biz 2.0 event that is less about music than it is about corporate branding and data mining, according to Austin punk godfather Jesse Sublett. You don't think all those bands, those mounds of tacos and oceans of booze are really free at those day parties, do you? Sublett doesn't. He says when he saw the New York Dolls at a recent SXSW, he had to fill out an invitation that mined him for about 15 different items of information, and then, he says, he had to "watch Rachael Ray's fat ass bounce around to the Dolls. I mean, I'm glad she hosted the show, but come on."
Greg Ellis believes the 1990s were a horrible decade for Austin culture. MTV discovered SXSW, and suddenly the insider regional event became a destination for college kids who wanted to be like MTV's frothy host Tabitha Soren. And then Richard Linklater's Slacker came out. Ellis thinks it is an amazing film but that, like SXSW as presented by MTV, it made Austin seem cool for all the wrong reasons. "Slacker and SXSW established Austin as the place to be for the types of hipsters that you didn't want here," he says. "These were people who just wanted to he hipsters. That's not who you want."
Meanwhile, out in the northern suburbs, the rise of Dell helped kick-start the tech boom. "That brought in a lot of people who just thought Austin was a pretty place, or they came on a visit and liked what they saw, so then they wanted to make it exactly like the place they had just come from," Ellis says. "They wanted to turn it into the fuckin' East Bay. And it wasn't like that at all."
At the same time the Californians poured in, the surrounding suburbs filled in with typically Republican Texans, delineating a bright red ring around Austin's island of blue. "Nowadays you can't give a party in your own fuckin' home without suddenly realizin' that your house is full of fuckin' Republicans," Wilson grumbles. "Man! It's a disgusting state of affairs."
All those forces, all those tens of thousands of people who moved to Austin because it wasn't "like Texas" (as if people like Molly Ivins, Lady Bird Johnson and John Henry Faulk were not Texan) have conspired to erode Austin's unique sense of place. Eddie Wilson's Austin was like Texas, only it was Texas at its most laid-back, and it was proud of its provincialism and reveled in its native music.
Today, save for the old-timers, there's no Austin music that "sounds like Austin" the way the cosmic cowboys, retro-blues folks, and even the Austin punks and new-wavers did. The bands to have created national buzz out of Austin in the last five or 10 years—Ghostland Observatory, Spoon, Okkervil River, the Octopus Project—could just as easily be from Portland, Brooklyn, Toronto or San Francisco. Likewise, today's Austin City Limits could as easily be called Indie City Limits. But that's a national trend: Music everywhere is starting to sound like music anywhere.
And there's nothing unique going on in Austin. "Tell me what the cool venue is in Austin right now," Ellis says. "There's not one. There's nothing like Liberty Lunch or the Beach or anything like that anymore. You've got the Red Eyed Fly, which is OK, but it's a hellhole, really. And then you've got...um...Stubb's I guess is the coolest thing that you've got. And that's controlled by [corporate concert promoters] C3, and there you go. You wanna go see Primus at Stubb's? Well, that'll be $45. Lauryn Hill? $63. That's not Austin."
Given that there's no special sound to the rock bands there, and given that rents are so high, and given that there are so many musicians there that club owners feel free to pay starvation wages, it's worth wondering why bands continue to move there.
And maybe they don't. While it's impossible to take a direct count, it has seemed as if the trend has slowed in recent years in both Houston and Dallas. And Wilson thinks it just might start moving in the other direction.
"Because of the economics of the situation, we're gonna send a huge number of creative people in every direction just lookin' for a place to live," he says. "Hell," he says, "if I was pushin' 40 instead of 70, I'd probably be tryin' to find a piece in Fort Worth," he says.
Jeff Liles made the move back to his native Dallas from Austin in the early '80s and hasn't looked back since. A mover and shaker in the glory days of Deep Ellum, Liles has since helped establish an arts colony of sorts in a neighborhood called X-Plus, in the northern part of Oak Cliff.
Oak Cliff is different from the rest of Dallas, Liles says. (Hell, not too terribly long ago, it attempted to secede from Dallas.) It's across the Trinity from the rest of town, and the river clearly marks a delineation between the two. "There's a different mind-set. Most of the people who live in X-Plus hung out in Deep Ellum in the late '80s and early '90s and now they are married with kids," Liles says. "They still have creative inclinations, but family is the first priority, a day job is the second, but they still play music and they want to live in the midst of an arts community."
The epicenter of that community is the Kessler Theater, a listening room and arts space managed by Liles. While Liles is an interested party and can come across as a (very confident) booster, Joe Nick Patoski vouches for Liles' claims. Patoski says that the Kessler is one of the best listening rooms he's ever been in, and he was shocked by the hipness of its environs. "Oak Cliff is now hipper, edgier and more affordable than east Austin is," he says.
Liles radiates pride when he talks about X-Plus. He says his neighbors are not "hippy-dippy people," but instead are just "really smart, intuitive people and they are trying to change things for the better." Such changes include more bike lanes and dog parks, created from scratch. "They really care about their surroundings, and they are really trying to preserve X-Plus and Oak Cliff as it always has been, trying to keep that snapshot in time, so it doesn't become like the rest of Dallas: overrun by empty buildings and development that's not even real," Liles says. The neighborhood recently scored big when it turfed out bidness-friendly city councilman Dave Neumann and replaced him with Scott Griggs, a liberal who fought to stop a Walmart from going in.
Liles doesn't know of any Austin artists who have moved to X-Plus, but he says they are taking note of the changes. Some even blaspheme their own hallowed hometown, he says. "I'm telling you straight-up, they enjoy playing the Kessler because there is nothing in Austin like the Kessler," he says. "All the artists who come up here love being from Austin. They are very proud of the fact that they are from Austin. But they come to the Kessler and they see this neighborhood and they say, 'Damn, this is the way Austin used to be. There is nothing in Austin this cool right now.'"
Meanwhile, Houston has at last apparently stanched the exodus of young rock bands to Austin, a stampede that began in the '70s and finally started slowing about five years ago. Ellis, a 35-year veteran of the music scene in the Austin area, Dallas and Houston, ventures to say that Houston's scene is better than Austin's right now.
"You can't live cheap [in Austin] anymore," he says. "There's no cool places to play. There's nothing really happening. It just doesn't have the appeal anymore. Certainly someone like Blaze Foley couldn't survive there anymore, though the argument could be made that he couldn't survive then either. But today nothing like that would even be embraced."
Today's Houston finds more rising young rock bands choosing to stay there than at any time since the 1960s. Fitzgerald's is back as a cutting-edge venue after years in lunk-core alt-rock purgatory. The Heights, Houston's own mini-Austin, is filling up with fun beer gardens and low-key restaurants, and there are other scattered pockets of cool in Montrose, the Museum District and the East End. Taking in a concert in Discovery Green can trick you into thinking you are in Chicago, only with better weather, and Austin so loved Houston's Art Car Parade they've attempted to steal the entire concept, just as they've attempted to steal the memory of its Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark/Steve Earle/Rodney Crowell songwriting history.
What's more, Houston is a city and proud of it. Masliyah loves living in the kind of city where it's easy for her to buy her dressmaking supplies and also to travel the world without leaving home. "The other day I went shopping at Phoenicia [a specialty foods store] and it was like I'd gone around the world," she says. Youssefnia also loves Houston's cosmopolitan atmosphere and realistic sense of itself.
"Houston has a strong scene and many hidden elements that keep it interesting," she says. "People realize the problems it has—the corrupt oil money, the sprawl, the pollution—and don't deny the problems like people in Austin do."
Back in Eddie Wilson's bungalow, the man is still railing. "I'm still an Austin booster," he says. "I've gotta be, but it's kinda like bein' in an arm-wrestling contest. You've just gotta persevere and hope that sooner or later the other side gives in."
He doesn't think that's going to happen, though. "Greed never sleeps," he says. "It never takes a day off. Everybody from the jolly side of life wants to celebrate, at least here, there and yonder, but greed can't afford to because it's always after what it is you've got."
He catches his breath. "When you run the cops and schoolteachers out of the town they are servin'...
"It finally happened," he continues. It has finally come to pass that Austin really and truly was better before you got there, and won't ever see such creative days again.
"We had 'em on the run for a while, but I believe they've taken over the goddamn front-end loader now," he says. "C'mon. Let's go on over to Threadgill's and have a beer. On the house."
Author Joe Nick Patoski holds a relic from the tail end of Austin's glory days: The Soap Creek Saloon was the soul of Austin's scene while the Armadillo was the heart. Today, Patoski believes that Austin has the same big-city problems of Houston and Dallas, while the two larger cities have both gotten less suffocating.
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