Pop Moment

The lumbering frame of Henry Rollins was as ubiquitous in Austin during South by Southwest as barbecue and Shiner Bock, showing up on panels, haunting the Austin Convention Center, assisting rock legend and noted schizophrenic Roky Erickson at two ill-fated book signings that lasted only a few minutes before Erickson freaked out at the enormous crowds and fled. (Erickson refers to Rollins as "my bodyguard.")

And everywhere Rollins went, the former Black Flag vocalist attracted attention -- a living legend of sorts walking and talking among the masses, pumped-up and powerful though never too big to spend quality time with the little people.

But Rollins was attending the ninth South by Southwest conference not just as a mentor to espouse cynical words of wisdom, but as an entrepreneur promoting his business, another guy handing out his tapes to anyone carrying a briefcase and wearing a badge. Several years ago, he began the 2.13.61 publishing house, which issues (or, as is usually the case, reissues) fiction and non-fiction by the likes of Nick Cave, Exene Cervenka and now Roky Erickson. Rollins has also begun 213CD, reissuing long out-of-print albums by Suicide, Alan Vega, Nick Cave's old band the Birthday Party, Aussie noise-rockers the Mark of Cain and Adverts' frontman T.V. Smith. And somehow, Rollins has found time to start Human Pitbull, a private "label" released though London Records that has just issued the debut from the riotous grrrl band Die Cheerleader.

He's genuinely one of rock's last good guys, genuinely concerned with the art of rock and roll, not merely the art of the deal. Yet he has the wisdom of someone who has been around, who has jumped from an indie label to a couple of majors and seen how little difference there is between the two. 213CD's logo is a musical note floating above the pyramid seen on a dollar bill, art and commerce bound together in one simple image -- the whole message of South by Southwest itself, really.

Starting out... The man on-stage wears a cowboy hat, glasses, a studded jacket; he looks to be in his late 40s as he strums an acoustic guitar. Standing next to him is a woman who wears a tacky pink dress, white boots, and is also bespectacled. She's intense, her expression never changing throughout the performance. For 45 minutes, to a crowd of maybe ten people, the Harcourts play their simple brand of country gospel, sounding not unlike Hank Williams when he, too, sang the word of God.

About 100 yards away, as the South by Southwest music conference begins with its first panel, rock critics and music-biz insiders are gathered to discuss "A&R: Understanding the Process" -- or, what it takes for a young band to get signed to a major label as explained by the men and women who dictate what we hear on the radio. The Harcourts, this middle-aged couple from Saskatchewan, performs on what's called the day stage located near a giant trade show, the place where small labels and magazines and distributors and manufacturers come to hawk their wares.

The Harcourts are the very antitheses of South by Southwest: they do not come here to be discovered, only heard; they do not come here to be famous, only slightly less unknown. "When this life if over, you will ride the glory trail," they sang, the best advice of all. These are the very people about whom keynote speaker Bob Mould spoke in his lethargic address: they are passionate about their art, true to their vision. And they are unlikely to be co-opted by the music business because they will never be part of it.

Mould kicked off the ninth South by Southwest by telling thousands of music-industry insiders what they already knew -- that this is an evil business, a place filled with men and women quick to compromise the integrity and vision of the artist. He spoke of how quickly dreams can be dashed by one label deal gone wrong, of how easily a musician can be destroyed as soon as his or her work is co-opted for the sake of money. In the end, his was a speech filled with contempt for the industry, and like a tiny virus that would erupt into a full-on sickness, it stuck throughout the entire conference. "You can't rebuild a person once you've used them up," he warned, the voice of reason and experience.

South by Southwest is an insiders' hoedown, an invite-only celebration of all that is right and wrong with a music industry that is at once contemptuous of itself and quick to slap itself on the back (We suck, ain't we great!). It draws the up-and-comers, the has-beens and those for whom music is a passion but will never draw a paycheck. For nine years they've come to discuss how the music business does its business; they spread gossip and demo tapes with equal fervor, listen to panels by day and bands by night, and party until the early morning hours. They come here to question and then justify their existences, the artists and the businessmen and businesswomen locked in mortal combat to see who will profit most.

What unfolds at SXSW will, at some point, likely affect the casual fan. During this year's conference, the biggest yet, Soul Asylum previewed their new album for thousands at the Austin Music Hall; rudimentary all-gal punk-rockers Pork were signed to Elektra Records; Brit new-wavers Elastica and Minneapolis' Polara won over crowds of critics and tastemakers; Wilco's Jeff Tweedy emerged as the new Paul Westerberg, and God knows who else stuck in the mind of some young A&R rep hot to sign an unknown. After all, it was Veruca Salt's showcase at last year's SXSW that clinched their deal with Geffen.

This year, more than any other, bands with major-label deals and major major-label support dominated each evening: Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Guided by Voices, Bettie Seveert, Victoria Williams, the Mavericks, Wilco, Matthew Sweet, Robyn Hitchcock and Yo La Tengo were just a few of the acts who attracted the masses each night. Where it was once impossible to get into the smaller clubs, it was now relatively simple, everyone having been dragged off Sixth Street to see some Rock Stars play a couple miles away at the Terrace or the Austin Music Hall.

At the end of each night, critics would compare their notes. Soul Asylum and Junior Brown and Golden Smog (the latter of which featured members of Soul Asylum and Wilco) fared well; Friends of Dean Martin (a lounge act that was really alternaheroes Giant Sand) and Seattle's Presidents of the United States, not so. But all who witnessed Wilco's debut at Liberty Lunch the last night of the conference agreed: right now, there is no better rock and roll band in all of America. In a matter of months, Jeff Tweedy -- who played second string to Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo for years -- will be a press darling, and with damned good reason.

-- Robert Wilonsky


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