Doing South By Southwest, The Straight-Edge Way

Or, how I quit drinking and still learned to love SXSW, in Bigger Than the Sound.

AUSTIN, Texas — There are some things that just seem to go with booze. College. The Super Bowl. Doing your taxes. And the South by Southwest festival .

(Note: This installment of Bigger Than the Sound is intended for readers aged 21 and over!)

I’m not condoning intoxication; I’m just speaking from experience. After all, I’ve been coming to SXSW for a half-decade now (that sounds much more impressive than “five years”), and have been stone-sober most of the time. Except in 2005, that is, when I hit it hard, stayed up late, drank a ton, made terrible decisions, got booted from private parties, smoked about 56,000 cigarettes, got lost in the outskirts of Austin and, somewhere in there, saw some bands.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of sobriety and I know my life is better because of it. (My problem seemed to be that I always tended to drink like it was SXSW, even it was, say, just a normal Tuesday night.) But, to be perfectly honest, being sober sort of feels antithetical to the whole South by Southwest experience.

This is because SXSW is supposed to be a party, a nonstop, 15-car pile-up of late-night shows, even later-night parties, and crippling hangovers the following morning, when you start doing it all again. You never have to pay for a drink, either because you’ve made pals with some sloshed executive with a corporate card, or because you’ve weaseled your way into a sponsored party (my 2005 SXSW was co-sponsored by the good folks at a certain gigantic record company and Sparks malt beverages, if memory serves me correctly). You can eat tacos or smoked meats whenever you want. You never take showers, and you usually end up taking off your shirt at some point. Nothing ever starts before noon, because the previous night didn’t end until that morning. In short, SXSW is rock and roll, and you are expected to behave accordingly.

Case in point: Please allow me tell you about my SXSW 2005. Keep in mind, much of this is based on foggy memories and/or second-hand accounts of my actions. But I know that for something like 96 hours, I partied hard, and I think I spent about $8 doing it.

There was the time I wound up the hotel room of a major-label rep with about 25 other people I did not know. The rep had a bar in his room being tended by shirtless Asian men (I remember this seeming weird). There was much boozing and dancing, and I think someone lit a comforter on fire. Not surprisingly, said rep would part ways with the label shortly after returning from SXSW.

There was the night I ended up at a Vice magazine warehouse party in the middle of God-knows-where (seriously, I could never find this place again in a million years), where I drank waaaay too much. I sort of remember the Go! Team playing, and I sort of remember insulting some distinguished older gentleman, and I definitely remember being kicked out of the party and sent wandering down a dusty Texas road in search of a cab at around 3 a.m.

There was also the free pair of jeans I somehow finagled out of the folks running the Levi’s Fader Fort. And the time I managed to insult the Wallflowers during an interview when I asked Jakob Dylan if he was still relevant (his response: “Well, we’re touring in May, if that’s relevant”). And the feat of eating only BBQ for a week. And the fact that I didn’t shower because the bathtub at my hotel was filled with cans of Lone Star beer. It was pretty epic.

Of course, re-reading all this, it’s also pretty embarrassing, not to mention a little sad. Perhaps SXSW ’05 was actually the greatest waste of my life.

Not surprisingly, I gave up drinking about three months after returning from Austin. And I’ve managed to have a blast at each South by Southwest since, though for strictly mature, “rock critic-y” reasons like seeing Daniel Johnston play live, or checking out the Flatstock poster sale.

Still, the only time I really miss drinking is when I’m at SXSW, although I know that had I continued to party like I did that week, I’d probably never have met my wife and I might not be here writing this right now.

And also, being sober is definitely the best way to get as much out of the festival as possible. The beauty of SXSW lies in discovering the undiscovered, wandering off the beaten path, going against the grain — and, come to think of it, teetotalling is about as “against the grain” as you can get down here in Austin.

And while I have fond — if not exactly clear — memories of SXSW ’05, I’ve probably actually had a better time every year since then — or at least a safer time. Try hitting SXSW sober sometime — you might be surprised by which version you like best.

Questions? Comments? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com

MTV News was all over the South by Southwest festival this week, with blogs, articles and video on all the gigs, the artists and the scene!