Before there was ever a SXSW Music Conference in Austin, there was a yearly gathering in New York City called New Music Seminar. For one weekend each summer, the Marriot Marquis Hotel near Times Square became Ground Zero for an ungodly alternative music clusterfuck.
Industry insiders sat on orchestrated panel discussions that dissected the screwy nuts and bolts of the biz. Credentialed seminar attendees schlepped fat plastic bags of free swag provided by indie record labels and alternative music rags. Bad bands randomly passed out crappy unsolicited demo tapes to uninterested label execs. There were live shows, DJ and MC battles, expensive drugs, exotic parties and naked people with guitars. (Not to tryin' to see all that, Gibby.)
It was the success of this NMS template that later inspired similar industry-driven festivals all over the country, including SXSW.
August of 1986: Theatre Gallery owner Russell Hobbs and a ragtag gang of Dallas music freaks figured we would go crash the party. There was an aesthetic connection there, right? The local press here would have you believe that we were revitalizing Deep Ellum in the likeness of Andy Warhol's Factory. But our neighborhood was really an invisible art colony inhabited by spastic caffeine freaks, kicked-to-the-curb black sheep trust-funders and unsightly street people.
TG was probably as close to a NYC creative vibe as the Dallas countercultural arts scene would ever get. It wasn't uncommon to hear Boogie Down Productions' "Criminal Minded" or the first Beastie Boys album blaring over the PA between bands. We were showing work by Keith Haring and Ron English in our art gallery space, and even brought in controversial performance artist Karen Finley to stick canned yams up her ass. We always gave props to the Big App.
It seemed like little subversive arts communities were starting to pop up in major metropolitan areas all over the country. Hobbs wanted to see how our scene compared to what was happening in New York, and he really wasn't all that impressed: "We were doing more of an earthy art and rock scene, and the seminar was geared more to the DJ/club scene," said Hobbs recently. "I really shouldn't have been too surprised to find that New York City was on the same wavelength as the Starck Club crowd."
Hobbs and I, along with Jim Heath, TG poster artist Richard Hoefle, and a handful of others, were still anxious to deliver the message of our experience to anyone who would lend an ear. The only real obstacle was that we didn't have much money; this meant sharing one hotel room and jumping lots of subway turnstiles. At two C-notes a pop, none of us could afford to buy an official badge to the seminar.
Upon arrival, Jim Heath and I decided to walk around all night and get a feel for the city. The two of us were looking at this trip from a musician's perspective; he was just getting his Rev. Horton Heat act going; I was a member of Decadent Dub Team. Both of us were about to be featured on Island Records' The Sound of Deep Ellum compilation album. I was also managing Rigor Mortis, who had just signed a deal with Capitol Records.
Preparation has never been my strong suit. Imagine trying to deal with all of this without the benefit of business cards or a cell phone. No NMS badge, no swag to pass out, no real meetings on the agenda, and no way to network with new people. I had nothing but the sheer determination of will...to smoke dope and hang out, anyway.
'Round two o'clock in the morning, Horton and I walked by the Lone Star Café and spied a tour bus by the loading ramp. Turns out it belonged to Asleep At The Wheel. Bandleader Ray Benson invited us aboard and rolled up a fat doob.
"Hey you guys, " Benson said, passing the twig my way. "We're supposed to have these all-access passes to some deal called the New Music Seminar, but we're not gonna be here, so do ya'll want 'em? Just go to the registration desk and tell them you're with us."
Oh, yeah. We could do that. Shit was on.
Jim Heath: "Ray Benson has always been a super sweet guy, and I was also friends with Tim Alexander, their piano player. We knocked on the door of their bus, hung out for a while, and then went back to their hotel room. Ray said, 'We've got three passes waiting for us, just tell them that you're Asleep at the Wheel.' When I showed up there the next morning, I tried to act very 'Western Swing', whatever that is. As soon as the lady gave me the passes--and I had just told her that my name was Ray Benson--I turned around and there was (Austin writer) Joe Nick Patoski, who said, "Hey, it's Horton!" I looked back at the lady who had this confused look on her face, but luckily she just shrugged it off. I think that those passes were worth about $250 each."
Austin was In The House that year; or the "Big House" anyway. Patoski was there representing True Believers, who were doing a showcase at Lone Star Café in conjunction with the release of their debut album on EMI. Come showtime, Patoski would find himself at NYPD headquarters bailing a band member outta Oz.
Michael Hall (Wild Seeds): "Denny DeGorio, the Believers' bass player, was busted buying pot in Washington Square Park before their show. Tim Swingle (bassist for Doctor's Mob) filled in for him. The Mob opened; we were up next, then the True Believers headlined. They were the band everyone was talking about; and though Tim did the best he could, Alejandro and everyone thought they'd just fucked up their big chance."
The Austin contingency was prepared to make their mark on every level. The Wild Seeds even stacked up thousands of copies of the Austin Chronicle weekly newspaper inside their tour van for distribution at the show.
Roland Swenson: "At the time, I was part of an ad hoc group called the Austin Music Industry Committee. We had wangled a $10K budget from the Chamber of Commerce to do a promotion at NMS that year. The money went toward buying a stand in the trade show and registrations for people from Austin who were able to travel there on their own nickel. The rest of the money went to underwriting two showcases. One featured Bad Mutha Goose and Dino Lee's White Trash Review; the second showcase had the 'New Sincerity' bands at the Lone Star Café."
That first morning, Horton and I met back up with Hobbs and the crew and all of us piled into a single room at the storied Chelsea Hotel. After a quick bout with claustrophobia, I went walking up and down the halls looking for Sid and Nancy's old room. Instead, I met a slew of twisted oddballs in the lobby, including a bizarre bald guy with a white cockatoo on his head.
Jim Heath: "I remember the story you told us about the guy you had just met who lived there at the Chelsea and had a talking bird. I think the bird kept saying, 'Fuck Joe! Fuck Joe!' That shit was funny!"
It was certainly hilarious on a head full of sinsemilla, for sure. But time was crucial; we needed to bounce up outta there and go mix it up with the badge people.
Russell and Horton found the NY club scene to be more glitzy and stylized than what we doing in Deep Ellum. "We went to that show (Trouble Funk) at The Limelight, and the club was in an old church, " said Hobbs last week. "It reminded me of what was happening here at the Starck Club, lots of expensive clothes and all that. It seemed like everybody there was a VIP of some sort. Or they thought so, anyway."
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were still a baby band and had played at our venue the year before. "I still remember running into Anthony Kiedis at every single club that we went to," recalls Hobbs. "It was kind of a running joke. 'Oh, look! It's Anthony again. He's everywhere.'"
Keidis introduced me to his manager as "the new lead guitarist in Asleep At The Wheel".
Horton was thrown by the odd juxtaposition of seeing another one of his heroes in this bizarre context. "Going to The Palladium was kind of an eye-opener in a scary kind of way," said Heath. "We saw Art of Noise with Duane Eddy sitting in. That show was great, but the Palladium was really just an extension of the old Studio 54 years."
On the other hand, the Staten Island Ferry is essentially a giant floating parking garage. On the third night of our visit, Capitol Records rented the entire barge and hosted a private listening party for a handful of their emerging acts. I was invited by Rachel Matthews (the Capitol A&R exec who signed Rigor Mortis) to bring a handful of people along for the ride.
The general idea was that the ferry would take a lap around the island while everyone on board would check out five new bands and get drunk on the label's tab.
Tim Devine (Capitol Records A&R 1986-95): "A Capitol Director of A&R named Tim Carr put it all together. It was our big event for the Seminar that year. Labels would put on showcase nights during the week, and the idea was that instead of doing a show in a club, we wanted to do something outdoors. And, of course, that night ended up being insanely hot."
Russ Hobbs and Jim Heath passed up the opportunity to attend the Capitol excursion. My partners in crime on this evening were David Williams (Decadent Dub Team), a Dallas photographer named Jason Simons, and a weird guy that we nicknamed "Poodle". He earned this name because of his prominent and puffy mullet haircut. The guy always had great weed, so he was in.
Bands set up all over the boat. The honorary "Skipper" was Paul Shaffer; who, at the time, was still best known as "Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records" from the film This Is Spinal Tap. On this particular night, the diminutive sidekick was decked out in a sailor's suit and wrap-around shades. I doubt that he was really steering the boat.
Roland Swenson (SXSW): "It was a warm afternoon, and after sailing around lower Manhattan for a few hours the metal ferry began to feel like a frying pan. To make matters intolerable, they ran out of beer. The Reivers performed in the bowels of the ferry, where cars were usually parked, and it was like listening to a band inside a tin can."
The Reivers were introduced to the crowd by Shaffer, and the band actually turned in a nice set, all things considered. Our intimate group of merry pranksters was already familiar with the band from their appearances at Theatre Gallery under their original name, Zeitgeist.
Lead vocalist Kim Longacre was just trying to keep her bearings: "I remember it being hot and muggy and feeling like Mexico: diesel fumes; being an outsider, wishing I knew the language," she recalled.
Because their debut album for Capitol was still unreleased and they were still breaking in a new name, I got the feeling we were the only people on the ferry who were familiar with the band. Shaffer clearly had no earthly idea who he was introducing.
"I was a little wigged finding out that the stage was built over a stairwell. I'd played on lots of stages by that time, but playing on a boat feels different," said Longacre, who lives in Austin. "Not like it was ferociously pitching and rolling or anything. I got vertigo, but it was fun. Paul Shaffer was really short, and uninterested in us. Actually, I still have his Captain's hat somewhere."
For some reason, the start of The Reivers' set seemed like a appropriate time for the Dallas crew to munch on gobs of magic mushrooms. We passed around a big bag of nasty fungi, and a half hour later I was bent over in digestive crisis mode. I needed a clean bathroom and a few precious minutes of privacy; neither were easy to find once that boat left the dock.
I'll spare you the details. Just know that taking a dump while tripping can be either quite profound or very disturbing, depending on the circumstances. I learned a lot about life that night; not all of it useful or pleasant.
Tim Devine: "Besides New Model Army and The Reivers, Fetchn' Bones also played that night, along with the Grapes of Wrath. Once you got on a boat, you were on it for the night. When we ran out of beer it started to get ugly. People were hanging over the edge of the boat to get fresh air. Everybody was complaining, after a couple of hours they all just wanted to get off that thing."
Back on deck, the beer was toast and the hired Mexican food was growing fungus of its own underneath the orange heat lamps. Not sure why I needed to experiment under the circumstances; we all know there is no good Mexican food in Manhattan, right? This was cruel and unusual catering: this stuff was radioactive mush. An hour out on the water and anyone not looking for something cold to drink was scrambling to find safe haven in a clean stall.
The ongoing cycle of life.
Kim Longacre: "It wasn't fun once the beer ran out. I think we'd actually considered purchasing some before loading onto the ferry, but we thought surely our own record company will see to it the band is "beered" sufficiently. Good lord, it was on every rider we'd ever had."
"The food ran out so quickly that I didn't even remember it," recalls David Williams, via email. "Nor all the puking. Just no way off the damned boat. It seemed there was no way to get your bearings, even against the Manhattan skyline, and therefore no way to sort out just when the voyage of the damned might end."
The next band up was New Model Army, who performed on the front bow of the ferry. The moonlit skyline, bridges and twin towers of the World Trade Center provided an exquisite backdrop behind the band as they did their thing.
God, the mushrooms were really starting to come on now.
It looked like there were about 500 people along for the ride. Roughly 50 of them were standing with us watching the band. The rest were all gathered in the main waiting area; projectile vomiting, screaming and starting a new model army of their own. College radio DJs and expense account label execs gnashed their teeth and shouted hostile obscenities at anyone within earshot.
As the manager of a Capitol recording artist, it wasn't the best time for me to sit and talk business with my new peer group.
We were off on some "mutiny on the bounty" shit, tripping badge pirates trapped like rats on a boozeless cruise to nowhere. Few viable choices here: either go with the sea change of motion sickness, or dive headlong into the freezing black tar sewage of the Hudson River. Unlike the miraculous rescue of an airplane full of people yesterday morning, we were boat people in the exact same spot--only stuck like Chuck and straight shit out of luck.
Then, for a moment, it appeared that the ferry was actually heading towards a dock area. Dehydrated, irate passengers yelled out "Let me the fuck off of this thing!" and "My head is on fire!"
Poodle was losing his cool; railing on about how "we could be seeing Nitzer Ebb right now!"
Jesus, what a fuckin' beating. Nitzer Ebb. Please. I'd rather die.
Poodle was down with all that shiny bullshit; the disco haircut, the blow monkeys and plastic/latex bims who spoke like aliens. Now he was stuck on a floating parking garage with a bad case of IBS and head full of dirty spores. I kept hoping that somebody big would just tackle him and take his ass down.
As the boat got closer to the dock, I could see that industrial/performance art group Skinny Puppy had erected a bizarre stage set. Our rank vessel crawled to a stop about ten feet from the mooring. The hostile and captive audience was made up of people entirely unfamiliar with the band. They weren't particularly into the bleeding babies, rabid animals and graphic scat props.
Wasn't exactly Beatlemania, ya know what I'm sayin'?
Jason Simon: "Paul Shaffer just got this hideous look on his face when Skinny Puppy started playing. I happened to be walking by him and he was just mortified."
Roland Swenson: "The ferry approached the dock at Staten Island, and everyone was ready to bail and take another one back to Manhattan. The crowd was quite surly by then; jeering and chanting 'We hate Skinny Puppy!' Eventually, we made it back to Manhattan, and the party became known in legend as 'Capitol Punishment'."
Kim Longacre: "There was Skinny Puppy, playing on a dock that we couldn't get off on. I remember the cries of despair; not because they'd wished the band hadn't stopped, but that the ferry had pulled back out of the slot with all its prisoners, without re-supplying us with even a couple of cases of water. Sigh. Major label deal; we were supposed to be in good hands and yet, there were none on deck that night."
As the set came to a close, SP lead vocalist Nivek Ogre threw a TV set into the water. I knew what he was thinking: "Maybe I can electrocute everybody on the barge and wipe out half the business in one grand artistic gesture." Or something like that.
The boat people were not impressed. As the ferry shifted back into reverse and headed out for another lap around Manhattan, tortured passengers were heard screaming, "No! NOOOO! Please God, NO! Let us off of this thing!"
Me, I made my way down to the garage area to go look for a new place to puke in private. We were on the water for another hour before finally being granted parole. People trampled over one another as they fled towards the exits. It felt good to finally stand on precious solid ground.
The 1986 New Music Seminar was a sort of tipping point for everybody involved. The festival was in its seventh year and priorities had changed. What was once a venue to showcase unsigned artists had now turned into a promotions vehicle to break artists who had already signed a label deal. The next year, folks in Austin saw an opening and seized the moment.
Roland Swenson: "One of the reasons Austin had such a large presence that year was that the founders of the Seminar were announcing the inaugural 'NMS Southwest' to be held in the Spring of '87. A few months later they backed out of the deal. At that point, my cohorts and I decided to just do it ourselves, and thus was born SXSW."
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Tim Devine: "SXSW in Austin is more funky, just by the nature of the geography; NYC has always been an underground club-intensive, downtown experience. People enjoy going down to Texas because SXSW is more about seeing a band in a used clothing store, or somebody's backyard. You really can discover something you've never seen or heard before."
In 2009, the New Music Seminar in New York is long a thing of the past. South By Southwest prepares to enter its 23rd year, and the music industry continues to scramble for a workable new business model. Austin still seems like as good a place as any to brainstorm while slaughtering your brain cells. I'm so there in March.
Russ Hobbs: "Everybody is looking for something new and important right now. Something profound. We were looking for the pretty much the same thing back then, too. To me, the trip to New York just validated that we just needed to listen to our own intuition, and not follow in other people's footsteps."
In the end, it became apparent that what we were doing here in Texas wasn't just an empty exercise in derivative appropriation. If the ongoing success of SXSW is any indication, then we've usually been ahead of the cultural curve and not behind it.