Old habits are hard to break. Five weeks into this column and I’m already back writing about music. It’s unavoidable. As you read this on Thursday or Friday, I’ll be on either Day Two or Day Three of my annual pilgrimage to the South by Southwest Festival in balmy Austin, Texas.
What is South by Southwest – or just SXSW? Well, it's the finest music festival of its kind, bringing together hundreds of the nation’s finest “independent” bands to perform for four days in clubs and parking lots and restaurants and record stores and any place where you can stick a microphone and a pair of speakers along Austin’s 6th Street entertainment corridor (sort of like Maple Street in Benson, but 100 times larger).
To most reporters, SXSW is the king of the boondoggles, an opportunity to escape their private wintry hell for a week to work on their pre-spring suntans and consume large quantities of Lone Star, breakfast burritos and curry-ketchup-smothered hot dogs all the while “reporting” on the latest yet-to-explode rock bands that next year will either be a musical guest on Saturday Night Live or serving you a skinny-chai latte.
If you’re really covering it (as I will be for The Reader, along with writing stud Chris Aponick) SXSW is a grueling test of physical endurance akin to a marathon. A typical SXSW day goes like this: Three hours after passing out, you wake up to douse yourself in coffee and file the coverage of the previous day’s activity, then it’s off to 6th Street at 10 a.m. with iPhone in hand (to both track band schedules and Tweet your every mundane move). You hit the first party of the day held in one of the clubs you were in the night before, where you’re handed a free cocktail to chase away your hangover.
You reinsert your wax-encrusted earplugs and watch your first band of the day – an act that you’ve been told you “absolutely should not miss,” but who sounds like every other band you saw the day before – a mixture of The Cure and Jesus and Mary Chain and a trip-hop beat. (OK, I promised myself not to bore you with that sort of inside baseball, but felt I had to throw a bone to the 12 readers who followed me to this new column).
The pain begins at around 1 p.m. For some, it’s centered in their feet or knees, but for me (maybe because I’m 6’2” and 210 pounds) it’s all about my lower back – a growing knot of agony that radiates just above my hips and extends all the way up to my shoulder blades.
Because despite all efforts to bring together the best-of-the-best to make your music-listening experience truly golden, there’s one thing that SXSW does not have – a place to sit down. To make room for the hordes of humanity (last year, more than a quarter million) every club and venue clears out all chairs and bar stools. Who knows where they go. I like to think there’s a giant warehouse on the opposite side of Lake Travis filled to the rafters.
Having nowhere to sit means standing all day long, non-stop. Sounds like a small price to pay for such a good time? It’s not. And it’s not just an “old-guy problem,” either. I’ve talked to folks half my age who by Day 2 are in as much agony as I am.
Why not have a seat in one of the fine restaurants that Austin (supposedly) is also known for? Oh no no no no NO! And miss my only chance to see The Frip Fraps at The Yim Yam Room? Are you out of your mind? That's why street food is so popular at SXSW. People can grab a hot dog or slice of pizza on their way to the next venue and not miss any of the action.
By 5 p.m. I am at permanent half-mast, desperately looking for a wall on which to lean. If you were to see me in profile, I’d look like the letter “S.” Despite gobbling handfuls of ibuprofen, my back still feels like a chamois being twisted of every last drop of water. As I walk along 6th Street staring down at the pavement I pass people with bad feet limping on bloody stumps and people with bad knees who can barely walk at all. Occasionally I see a Lobster Man, someone so thrilled to escape his Seattle rain hole that he hasn't worn sunblock, and now after eight hours of standing in the blazing sun (because outdoor day-shows have nary a patch of shade) he has turned into a walking blister.
As the sun sets at around 7 p.m. the streets become jammed. Now even that piece of curb that you grabbed for a quick sit only a few hours earlier is taken by some greasy hippie. The night turns 6th Street into an orgy of noise and sweat and stink and zombie-movie frenzy as drunk or high people dart from one club to the next in a vain attempt to see every act possible.
By 10 p.m. you end up at the mammoth outdoor club called Stubb’s figuring at least you'll be able to sit down on a railing or a stair, but no. There’s always a bouncer yelling “You there! Get up, cur! No sitting here!” like a whip-carrying slave driver in The Ten Commandments.
As 2 a.m. rolls around you begin to realize you’ve probably done some sort of permanent damage to your body. The smart ones make their way back to their hotels, the rest are headed to the late-night parties. Once back at home base, you collapse on your bed and bend into a fetal position, waiting for the pain to subside, only to be awakened at dawn to do it all again.
Everyone has a strategy. Me, I've asked my masseuse Carol for yoga poses to help stretch my back throughout the day, though I might look a bit silly doing a "Downward Dog" at Mohawk Patio.
Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org