SXSW Brings Out The Fan In Us

Among the jaded industry professionals at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference were some genuine music lovers.

Editor in Chief Michael Goldberg writes

AUSTIN, Texas -- Every year at the South by Southwest Music Conference, I hear the same thing: music bizzers, old beyond their years, bemoaning the death of SXSW.

It's not the same anymore, they say. A lot of the "really cool people" didn't come this year, they say. You can't discover any new artists anymore -- it's all just showcases for major-label acts, they say.

And every year I feel like I'm at a different conference than they are (SXSW RealVideo or Quicktime excerpt).

Here's Neil Strauss, writing about this year's SXSW in the New York Times: "The atmosphere was like Bourbon Street in New Orleans after Mardi Gras but when even the die-hard revelers have gone home, leaving the streets dirty and desolate."

Every year I go to SXSW and have revelations. I hear something new, I see something new. I come back home feeling more excited than ever about new music.

"You're such a fan, Michael," R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe said to me a few years back at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York.

I took that as a major compliment. 'Cause it meant that one of the artists I admire could see how much I care, could see how much his band's music means to me.

I remember, when I was younger, trying to distance myself from the fans. I was a professional journalist. I was doing my job. Sure, I loved music. Sure, I would go out and buy albums by my favorite artists the day they hit the record stores if the promotional-review copy hadn't arrived. I just couldn't wait to hear their new songs. But all the same, I was a cool, jaded, cynical, sarcastic music journalist. Different from those fans.

This year, I've come to embrace being a fan. My thinking began to change when I read the lyric to the Sleater-Kinney song "The End Of You," in which Corin Tucker sings, "I am not the captain, I am just another fan."

But it was at SXSW, when I found myself waiting hours to see a favorite artist, Beth Orton, that it really sunk in. Yeah, I mean, of course I'm a fan. Why else would I have pictures of bands I like taped to the walls of my office? Why else would I be waiting and waiting and waiting to see Orton?

I've come to see SXSW as a kind of elixir for the soul and spirit. This year, I found many reasons to think and feel that, even as aspects of our culture and society seem as dark and downright evil as ever, there is hope. I'm a man whose life has been inspired and shaped by music, and devoted to it in return; this year, again, I felt reborn at SXSW.

It started with a Japanese punk band, waiting in the Denver airport to board a plane to Austin. I don't know their name. All I know about them is the eagerness, the innocence and the energy that seemed to glow like some luminous bubble around them.

When I got to Austin, I rendezvoused with my senior writer, Gil Kaufman, and our Austin-based correspondent, Deborah Wolfinsohn. We pulled out the long, long list of Austin clubs and the lineups at those clubs. Too many bands to see. Too many conflicts. I mean, technology has come a long way, but it can't put me in two clubs -- located across town from each other -- at the same time. Was it going to be Grand Mal or Beth Orton? Sparklehorse or Lucinda Williams? Tom Waits or Queens of the Stone Age? And what about the Donnas? And Lo Fidelity Allstars, and Rob Swift, and Inspectah Deck and the Freestylers?

This is the kind of fan I am: On Thursday night I spent two and a half hours standing in Antone's, watching a couple of acts I had no desire to see (Chuck E. Weiss and David Hidalgo's new band, Houndog; actually, both turned in great sets) so I'd be close to the stage when the remarkable Beth Orton finally came out.

On his first, self-titled solo album, Robbie Robertson, the former leader of the Band, has a song he wrote called "Broken Arrow" -- so romantic, so touching, it can bring a person to tears. "Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow?" he sings. "Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain?

"Do you feel what I feel?" Robertson asks a lover in his song. "I wanna breathe when you breathe."

If you are reading this, if you have sought out an essay about music on a Sunday when you could be out at the movies, or hiking, or hanging with your lover or doing any of a million other things, I think you feel what I feel, at least some of the time, about some of the music you listen to.

So you can understand how, when Beth Orton sang, in a voice so touching it could melt the coldest heart, "She cries your name ... how long can this love remain?" I felt dizzy.

I can't tell you why her singing those words was so affecting, or why, when she sang, "This will pass, it's gonna pass," sadness washed over me.

Not by choice, but by accident while I was at SXSW, I ended up talking to some fans about the music that moves them. Early Thursday evening, the webmaster of a Spacehog website was standing right next to the stage at Antone's, in front of where Beth Orton would perform. I noticed this young woman -- she looked to be in her late teens -- about an hour and a half before Orton was going to take the stage. What was someone in a Spacehog T-shirt doing listening to blues-rockers such as Chuck E. Weiss and David Hidalgo? Why, the same thing I was doing -- waiting it out for Beth Orton.

Once, when I was 18, I waited in line for eight hours so I'd get a good spot on the arena floor to see the Who (back when Keith Moon was still alive, when Who's Next was a new album).

I love fans who want it so bad they'll wait hours and hours. I asked the Spacehog woman what she was doing there, and the expression on her face, the flash of bliss I saw as she explained that she was there to see Beth Orton, was so awesome.

On Friday night, I opted to see Sparklehorse and reluctantly passed on Lucinda Williams. The

next day, at an afternoon party held by David Byrne’s world music label, Luaka Bop, I met a music fan who'd chosen to see Williams instead. She had attended Williams'

keynote address, a speech in which Williams lashed out at the corporate music business,

saying she feels the business has made it terribly difficult for her to pursue her art all these

years. As Byrne himself acted as DJ, filling the club with his favorite sounds, this fan and I talked about the artists who move us. She mentioned Patti Smith and

Gillian Welch. And of course Lucinda Williams.

I know, of course, that Lucinda Williams now has many, many fans. After all, she topped or nearly topped the biggest music writers polls - the Rock 'N' Rap Confidential/Addicted To Noise International Music Writers Poll and the Village Voice's The 1998 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll -- this year. Still, for me, colliding with someone else who spoke the same way I might about Williams, made me feel part of a community, made me feel that, yes, there are others like me.

That Saturday night, Gil Kaufman and I went to see Tom Waits. Gil's eyes glaze over when he talks about Tom Waits; Waits really speaks to him. Gil can be a pretty cynical guy -- he can detect a lying artist's representative 3,000 miles away -- but he is a real fan. During Waits' performance -- his first public performance since completing his amazing Mule Variations album -- Gil was transfixed; he was transported. I kept glancing away from Waits to check out Gil's reaction. He was practically in a hypnotic state.

If you're a real fan, and I hope you are, artists such as Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams and Sparklehorse and Beth Orton take you places you've never been before.

I feel sorry for those grizzled young bizzers choking on their sarcastic remarks and biz-talk clichés.

There was an after-hours party Saturday night. Spin magazine was celebrating the launch of its new website. Hundreds of people crammed in a huge, unfinished, industrial basement space.

After a while, I lost track of time. Maybe it was 3 a.m. Most of us were in a severe state of sleep deprivation. Then came the blast of pop-rock as the Flaming Lips crashed into "She Don't Use Jelly." And for a little while, it seemed like everyone forgot about their jobs, their responsibilities, the importance of networking at music gatherings like these.

We were all fans, all transported by the Lips.

Near the end of their set, I headed for the cool blast of early-morning Austin air, and strode along Sixth Street, past the closed clubs, bars and tattoo parlors, toward my hotel.

I left Sixth and passed a man-made waterfall and pond on my way to the hotel's back entrance. And, as the clock approached 5 a.m., I tossed a penny into the pond and made a wish.

Now I make another wish. For all those bizzers to have a chance to feel what I feel. For all those bizzers to remember what it is to be a fan.