South By Southwest, so the story goes, is supposed to be about beginnings. For me, anyway, this one was about an ending -- specifically, the musical career of Mojo Nixon. That's right -- after a couple of decades of celebrating trash culture, sticking it to the man and stuffing Martha's muffin, Nixon says he has nothing more to say.
Or maybe he isn't quitting after all. "How can I have a comeback if I never go away?" he wondered from the Austin Continental stage at his Saturday-afternoon farewell show. That wasn't the only question he put to the sweaty, beer-reeking throng of Mojo-hideen before him. A few more: "You know who sucks? John fucking Ashcroft! You know who blows? George fucking Dubya Bush! But you know who really, really sucks beyond mortal comprehension? Those fuckers walking around Austin with those stupid badges around their necks!"
Later, Nixon turned his attention to sexual matters, noting that "I'm so manly, I only fuck men these days," and that "I have moved on from pussy!" Of course, a few minutes later, after one of Allen Hill's Dancing Sisters collided with him on stage, he announced that if she ran into him one more time he would have to go change his Daisy Dukes, so make of his declaration in favor of manlove what you will.
Nixon was joined on stage by the Toadliquors, which includes the Houston Continental's Pete Browning on piano. They played like men who could both hold their liquor and had been drinking since late the night before -- simultaneously loose and on fire. The crowd frequently took over singing chores as Nixon moved through his lengthy golden shower of hits, which included "Tie My Pecker to My Leg," "Disney Is the Enemy" and "Elvis Is Everywhere." (Originally, of course, the anti-Elvis was Michael J. Fox. This year's model is all the people on American Idol.) And if anyone ever asks you what Mojo's last words from stage were, here's the answer: "Burn down the shopping malls." (These words were delivered in his encore, which followed an exhortation to the crowd from Houston's Allen Hill to give it up for Mojo. As usual, Hill was wearing his tux and tennies, but a little more out of the ordinary was the fact that his hair was moussed with peanut butter.)
"He has been on the cover of The Wall Street Journal, he has appeared nude in magazines, he has been in bad movies, been censored by Hustler magazine, three record companies and MTV, he played every possible music joint where nutjobs congregate in 45 states, he even played in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and did a three-week tour of Norway," said longtime manager Scott Ambrose "Bullethead" Reilly in a statement. "He has suffered death threats; he sang with Don Henley; he has even been an answer on Jeopardy, for God's sake. He was the captain of a U.S. Olympic team and debated Pat Buchanan. For us. He did this all for us."
And Mojo's own epitaph for his career? "I have debased your false icons, mocked the myths and tried to shine the light of truth and freedom on the Big Lies. I have done all I can."
Like John Prine and Todd Snider and a few others, Mojo is quite simply too funny for his own good. If his retirement takes -- and I doubt it will -- he'll be very much missed. Mojo welded punk energy and attitude together with blues and rockabilly sounds and topped it all off with a backsliding Pentecostal preacher's delivery. Seeing him as a teenager in 1986 left me feeling much the same way it did almost 20 years later: elated, more courageous about my convictions, and just plain glad to be alive.
Of course, it's easy to feel that way at South By, at least most of the time. You feel that way at the Linus Pauling Quartet's Satanidelic light circus of a gig in a converted theater balcony. You feel that way watching Chango Van Jackson cavort in drag in a tent in the volleyball pit of a cheesy faux Australian pub. You feel that way taking in Carolyn Wonderland on a Saturday afternoon on South Congress outside Gueros. You feel that way watching New Orleans jazz trumpeter/entertainer deluxe Kermit Ruffins, as he smilingly confesses that he dreams about a reefer five feet long, and when his band trundles through the exuberantly amiable "Skokiaan." And you definitely feel that way when you steep in the sinister, Cypress Hill-like sounds of Monterrey hip-hoppers Cartel de Santa.
You don't feel so good reading about what happened to Ozomatli. The multiethnic L.A. jam band finished their set on Sixth Street at 2 a.m. the way they always do at every show the world over: with a drum-led conga line that went out the front door to their van. Unfortunately for them, and the reputation of the so-called Live Music Capital of the World, this time they ran into two of Austin's finest, who were hell-bent on enforcing that city's draconian noise ordinance. A scuffle ensued, and now one of Ozo's members stands accused of felony assault on a police officer. (Allegedly, he conked the copper over the head with a drum.) Talk about harshing a great vibe
And another thing that kinda sucks is the embarrassment-of-riches effect. You can almost never be sure that you're not missing something tremendous around the corner. Where would you go if you had to pick between the Drive By Truckers, Calexico, Big Star, the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, British Sea Power and Akwid, all of which, among many, many others, played the 1 a.m. slot on Friday night? But when you start bitching about how much there is to do, it's time to just shut the hell up.
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I finally got to meet all my counterparts from the other papers in the New Times chain, and among several inside baseball-type conversations likely of interest to only us, we had one burning, after-hours debate of more general interest. Specifically, what precisely is the definition of crunk? Not the music, but the vibe. None of us could quite nail it, but one of our number was able to say that it was like porn -- that it couldn't be defined, but you knew it when you saw it. And we all agreed what it wasn't -- the Polyphonic Spree is the antithesis of crunk Even if you didn't have a badge, South By offers much more fertile opportunities for celeb-spotting than even the Super Bowl. I walked by Ani DiFranco on the Congress Street bridge, spotted a guitar-toting Michelle Shocked on Sixth Street in the early afternoon and rubbed elbows with Aerosmith's Joe Perry in the Driskill Hotel bar. Celeb count for the Super Bowl? Zero .Los Lonely Boys swept the major prizes at this year's Austin Music Awards, taking Band of the Year, Song of the Year ("Heaven") and Album of the Year. Not to toot our own horn, but shit, I'm gonna get out my spitrag and shine up my trumpet here -- yours truly was the first journalist ever to write them up. In June 2001, we likened them to baseball phenoms and promised that seeing them at their first headlining show in Houston would one day make a good story to tell your grandkids. Check out the story at www.houstonpress.com/issues/2001-06-21/playbill3.html/1/index.html. Self-love session over, trumpet packed.
Some of the wisest words of the conference came from Mark Cuban, of all people. In a panel discussion about the future of the music industry, the dot-com billionaire boy wonder owner of the Dallas Mavericks said that the music business is not in trouble, no matter what you might be hearing from the people in charge of the major labels. "I don't think there's a transition going on," he said. "I think there's four companies in trouble and everybody else is doing great."
While that's an oversimplification -- even the cooler segments of music retail are in trouble -- speaking more generally, Cuban is right. Independent labels are doing well, and a major point of the problem for the majors is this: People are buying too many different CDs and not enough of the same ones. The days of the blockbuster are on the wane. Part of it has to do with bootlegging, true, but a huge factor is the rise of diverse media. People are no longer all on the same page. People expect their favorite music to be more and more specialized now -- the one-size-fits-all superstar is no more.