Poetry in Motion

Bands inspire Thax Douglas. And, sometimes, he inspires bands.

April 2010By Comments

Photograph by Jamie Wiebe

When Thax Douglas walks into IHOP, they already know what he wants. He sidles into the booth in his uniform of a stained thermal shirt, puffy green coat, and a trucker hat covering the top of his wild grey mane. The young waiter says “Swedish Pancakes,” before Douglas can get a word out. The 52-year-old indie-rock poet is a regular here, because the art gallery he’s crashing at doesn’t have a kitchen. If he wants to eat, it’s IHOP or whatever dried food he can make in the microwave, since there’s no refrigerator either.

Douglas moved to Austin for a space on the floor of the Birdhouse Gallery. Kevin Foote, an old friend from Chicago, was looking for someone to tend to his gallery while he worked his day job managing the Buenos Aires Café. “Last time I was in Chicago I randomly ran into him at a friend of mine’s show, and we were catching up a little bit and talking about how bummed out he was in Chicago,” says Foote. He knew Douglas was couch surfing in Chicago, without a permanent place to stay, so he invited Douglas to live rent-free in the gallery in exchange for being there when Foote had to work. He sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag, with a Walkman for music and his trusty microwave. The art is all around him, including the installation piece next to his bed of a grapefruit filled with cigarette butts. During gallery hours, he sweeps his belongings into the closet, leaving no sign that someone makes it a home. “He’s become kind of the gallery mascot,” says Foote. “It’s definitely a quirky gallery and he’s definitely a quirky guy, so it worked out pretty well.”

It was a business move for both of the men. Douglas had been a fixture in the Chicago music scene for the past eight years. He’d amble on stage before just about every underground band in the city and read a poem inspired by their music. Most concertgoers seeing him for the first time would view him as a bit of a nutter. He’d take the stage unannounced, read one of his abstract, often disturbing, poems, and then walk off. He looked homeless, with wild hair, grungy clothes, and trucker hat often perched on top of his head. But then they’d see the bands he read for go on to fame and fortune. Wilco, Spoon, Bright Eyes, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. One after another, the bands Douglas read for turned into the indie-rock elite. Sometimes they’d take Thax with them to read at bigger and better venues. If not, there was always another unknown band in a tiny club ready to inspire a new poem.

Douglas’s poetry happened as a kind of midlife crisis. “The day after my 30th birthday was the day I wrote my first serious poem,” says Douglas. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m 30, I’ve got to do something!’” Douglas had dabbled in a number of other creative pursuits. In Thax!, the documentary about Douglas’s life, his mother lists off all the instruments he took lessons for, complaining that he never stuck with any of them.

Descriptions of Thax’s adolescence are always a bit anxious. His poems about his parents and his childhood are derisive and full of anger. But his father, also named Thaxter, says, “He had a relatively pleasant childhood, all considered, although sometimes he doesn’t remember it that way.” Douglas suffered from allergies as a teenager and adult, and he and his father blame them for his violent outbreaks and Douglas’s suicide attempt. “Some of the medicines gave him some problems and disrupted his personality a bit,” says his father. Douglas lived at home until he was 30, where he and his parents tried to control his allergies. “He had to restrict his diet quite a good deal, and so we were concerned about him and we kept him home longer than perhaps we should have,” Thaxter says. But when Douglas turned 30 his parents retired and moved to Wisconsin, and Douglas moved to Chicago on his own for the first time.

“I’d always planned on doing something artistic with my life,” says Douglas. “I thought I wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t have the talent.” With his parents no longer there to support his lessons and instruments, Thax gave up on music and turned his creativity elsewhere. “I’d sort of gotten into literature,” he says, “so I just wrote a poem and read it in an open-mic and got a good response.” He started out cycling through the styles of poetry popular in the ‘80s. “I was just starting out, so I was sort of doing what was fashionable among some circles at that time.” His poetry was always abstract, but he needed a subject for his inspiration. In 1997, when his open-mic career was running out of steam, he hopped on stage before a band and read a poem inspired by their music. And gradually a new career started to form.

“I was very slow about actually getting into it,” says Douglas. “I didn’t really start writing poems for bands the way I do now until about 2001.” Bands gave Douglas inspiration for his poetry that didn’t limit him. “Doing it for bands was a real aesthetic coup for me, because bands are already abstract,” says Douglas. “I was able to be in a realm of pure abstraction while still writing about something that’s concrete and actual. I was pretty happy about that.”

As he grew more confident in his poetry, he started offering to read for bigger bands. Reading before bands gave him a larger, more captive audience than he could hope to have reading at an open-mic night. “I was doing it for a while just to get into shows, too” he says. His career change lined up perfectly with the rise of indie to the mainstream. He started gaining notoriety in Chicago’s thriving underground community, but he never really left the city.

“I just think the reason I haven’t been asked to go on tour is basically because I’m a big smelly old slob,” says Douglas. “I know that sounds rough, but probably if I was a beautiful young woman or something, I could be a merch girl and run up and do my poetry before.” He did go on one accidental tour, and it was a doozy. For 15 shows Douglas followed Guided by Voices and Spoon around the East Coast. He was homeless at the time and bought a bus ticket hoping to travel around doing readings in different cities. After one show on the tour, he decided to stick with them for a while. A few Spoon poems later, he realized touring wasn’t for him. “That can get boring,” he says. “I don’t like reading a poem more than twice.”

So he stayed in Chicago. He published his first book of band-inspired poetry, The Good Life, and continued to read before shows. But the support he felt at first started turning to resentment, and more and more critics began to make themselves heard. “I just got really, really sick of it,” says Douglas. “There’s so much negative nastiness.” He had been hearing for years about SXSW and how well he would do in Austin so when Foote made his offer, Thax decided to take him up on it. He moved to Austin last October.

“All the bands know each other here, there’s a kind of mutual respect,” says Douglas. For him, the laid back, uncritical atmosphere has made a world of difference in his creative process. “If you’re an artist, you have a right to be eccentric. And it’s easier to be eccentric here,” says Douglas. “In Chicago it’s too tough. If you’re worried about office politics all the time it’s hard to be creative, let alone eccentric.” And Douglas—moseying around Red River in his giant puffy jacket looking to meet bands half his age—is certainly eccentric.

The bands are also better to him in Austin. “It took me 10 years to have a list of my favorite bands in Chicago, but I think I’ve met almost as many great Austin bands in the time I’ve been here,” says Douglas. Mike Wiebe, the lead singer for the Riverboat Gamblers, took to Thax immediately.

“He reminds me of a couple guys I met in Denton,” says Wiebe. “I saw him in front of Built to Spill at Stubb’s and I was like, ‘Awesome! Finally! There’s some justice for awesome, eccentric, weirdo types.’” Wiebe invited Douglas to read for his new band, Ghost Knife. After doing two poems for Ghost Knife, Wiebe brought him on stage for the Riverboat Gamblers. Wiebe hopes that more people like Douglas will move to Austin. “I just like being around people who are doing interesting, cool things, and there’s no agenda in it, other than to make some form of art.”

Douglas does make art, but that doesn’t mean he’s without an agenda. “I thought there would be more career opportunities that would come along because of what I do, but it hasn’t happened,” he says. “That’s one reason I moved from Chicago. I think I hit a glass ceiling in Chicago so I was hoping here in Austin it might be different.” Douglas would like to see all of his poetry published one day, and his book is subtitled, “very hopefully,” Volume One, Number One. “I know nobody’s going to go, ‘Oh, you read for so-and-so, well, can we put a book of yours out or anything?’” he says. “That didn’t happen in Chicago, but it would be nice if it happened here.”

Whether he reaches success or not, he’ll still have supporters, mostly in the bands he reads for. Wiebe was so taken with Douglas’s Ghost Knife poems that he asked for permission to turn them into songs. “There were just lines and parts of the poems that connected and stuck with me in a weird way,” say Wiebe. “I tend to write stuff real kind of linear but it really felt right in a slightly abstract way, and I really appreciated it.”

And Foote believes in Douglas enough to house him rent-free indefinitely. “He can sum up a huge complex situation or performance, whether it’s something artistic or something political, he has the uncanny ability to sum it up in just a couple sentences,” says Foote. “He’s kind of like a teddy bear, this big loveable guy. He’s soft-spoken but when he does say something, it’s spot-on.”

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