We’ll Always Have Austin

I arrived at UT as just another clueless freshman from the provinces. More than forty years later, I’m happy to say that I, my friends, and the place we call home have all grown up. But not so much that we can’t still appreciate that lost golden age of cheap rent, good music, and profound countercultural time-wasting.

June 2010By Comments

Harrigan, third from left, at nineteen, striking an album cover pose with his friends in a South Austin cemetery.

Austin: It was grok at first sight.

This would have been the summer of 1963, years before I acquired a hippie vocabulary sufficient to describe the soul-claiming properties of Texas’s modest little capital city. I was fourteen, and my Explorer Scout post was in the final leg of a hundred-mile canoe race. It began somewhere up on the Highland Lakes and followed the Colorado River to the finish line in downtown Austin. The actual paddling was done by my older brother and two other competitive-minded scouts. My place was on the support team, eating potato chips in the backseat of a pursuit car driven by my mother.

On a steep and winding two-lane road just west of town, she pulled into a turnout and parked the car on a high bluff overlooking Lake Austin. Far below, we could make out my brother’s canoe struggling forward on the green water. We yelled and waved at the paddlers; they exhaustedly waved back. But my pretend interest in the canoe race had already been eclipsed by what can best be evoked by another word from that long-ago lexicon: a vibe.

I don’t recall if I saw the city itself at that moment. There was no skyline then, nothing but the state capitol dome and UT Tower to be glimpsed beyond the treetops. What I saw were steely limestone cliffs accented by fissures and overhangs and shallow, inaccessible cave openings. Every irregularity in the rock cast a seductive blue shadow. Scrubby greenery covered the tops of the cliffs and the unending ranks of hills beyond. In the summer stillness I could hear the echoing sound of the canoe paddles slapping water hundreds of feet below.

The city of Austin, I would come to understand, is tuned to the pitch of the landscape I happened upon that day. There was nothing all that spectacular about those limestone canyons, just enough to impress a boy from the flat and humid coastal plains. But that’s Austin for you: not grand, not goading, just quietly beguiling. There are plenty of places that are more exciting and excitable, places that rouse you to wonder or stir you to accomplishment. It has crossed my mind in the past 44 years that I should have lived in some of them. But something in my nature responded to the welcoming torpor of Austin, responded so decisively—or so lazily—that I could never make a case for leaving.

I arrived from soporific Corpus Christi three years after that canoe race, one more bewildered college freshman in a madras shirt and scratchy polyester slacks. The city was just getting over the shock of the Whitman shootings, and there was a sense of other dark things patiently waiting to be revealed by history. I sat in polite attendance at a speech by Stokely Carmichael, congratulating myself on what an open-minded white boy I was. I went to rallies decrying the Vietnam War, but since I read only the movie reviews in the newspaper, I had no precise idea what was troubling the angry speakers who kept grabbing the microphone. I met a guy who claimed he had gotten high by smoking banana peels, but at that point his unlikely declaration represented my only firsthand acquaintance with the drug culture.

The big changes began to hit Austin soon after. Suddenly there was no longer any such word as “slacks.” There were no more Beach Boys—style surfer shirts. You went to class—on those rare occasions when you went to class—in cutoffs and water buffalo sandals and the blue work shirts you bought at the Academy Surplus on sleepy little I-35.

I wore the costume, but I was unsuited and ill prepared for a reign of chaos. I had the soul of a rule follower. At a time when rock was igniting the world, my puerile musical tastes (the Brothers Four, the sound track to How the West Was Won) were alarming even to me. The riots, the rallies, the angry hooting of the redneck clientele at Hill’s Cafe, on South Congress, as we trooped in and picked up our menus (“Look at them goddam hippies!”): It was all mostly theater to me. I lingered at the edges of the whirlwind, too proud or too afraid to be drawn in. And what I remember most about those years is not the tear gas on the streets, not the ecstatic licentiousness in which I was too meekly reserved to play a part, but the staggering, unconscionable wasting of time: hour after hour, week after week, sitting on the floor of whatever falling-apart West Campus house I happened to be living in, watching other people smoke dope, watching them string beads onto necklaces while Frank Zappa or Buffalo Springfield or Steve Miller endlessly, feverishly emanated from the cheap turntable.

I don’t recall arguing the great issues of the day. What was there to argue about? Everything was stultifyingly self-evident. The war was a criminal imperialist enterprise. Johnson, and then Nixon, were its evil masterminds. Godard’s abrasive, unwatchable movies were works of genius. The 3-D image of the Stones on the cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request was far-out. I should have been climbing the walls, for within my breast a little baby bird of ambition was starting to flutter, but there was a kind of security in that lassitude that I seemed to need. The stasis I felt seemed to be confirmation that my life hadn’t really started yet, nothing was yet officially at stake. I could safely reside in this cocoon of  boredom until I worked up the nerve to stand up and declare myself.

Austin, of course, can be its own kind of cocoon, as generations of cheerful dead-enders can attest. I came of age as the city itself did, during what we can now arguably regard as the Golden Age of Austin. It wasn’t much more back then than an overgrown, self-infatuated college hamlet. There was no traffic. There were always parking places in front of the feed stores and department stores on Congress Avenue. There were only a handful of movie theaters, each with a single screen showing 50-cent matinees, though it was easy enough just to sneak in through the back door. The water in Barton Springs had not yet been debased by nutrient-rich runoff and had an arctic purity, so startlingly clear you could not believe what you were seeing. Rent in the ramshackle, roach-infested housing our integrity demanded we inhabit was $45, $50 a month. The city itself was more or less self-contained, spilling modestly over Edwin Waller’s original 1839 plat but still largely held in check by hills and creeks and other natural barriers. There was a Chinese restaurant, Lim Ting, way out near Ben White Boulevard; otherwise it seemed the only thing to eat in the whole city was chicken-fried steak.

But the joint was jumping. If you came here from Corpus Christi or Lufkin or Corsicana or Midland, Austin was Paris in the twenties. The city had an offbeat pulse of energy that was intoxicating. In an instant, you went from being a lonely, misunderstood soul in your provincial town to being just another face in a heaving hive of outcasts.

The place to go at first was the Vulcan Gas Company, a psychedelic hellhole located in an old dry-goods store downtown. Its specialty of the house was hard-core, electrified blues, a kind of music I tried earnestly to like but just found belligerent and screechingly loud. You would drop a tab of acid, or, if you were me, you would not, and sit on the concrete floor listening to Johnny Winter or Bubble Puppy while staring enraptured at a light show of throbbing paisley shapes. The light show was like an elaborate and endless version of the blistering images you saw on a movie screen when the film burned up in the projector. Why this was considered entertainment is a mystery that still haunts me.

I was more receptive to the Armadillo World Headquarters, a venue that was not nearly as claustrophobic and which was likely to showcase music born out of the great hippie-redneck détente of the early seventies. Listening to Willie Nelson, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Freda and the Firedogs, I could sometimes even hear the lyrics, an important consideration for someone who had just determined his mission in life was to compose obscurantist poetry. Planted cross-legged in my cutoffs on the floor, feeling the sticky spilled beer against my bare legs, I would stare at Jim Franklin’s stunning painting to the left of the stage. It depicted the blues artist Freddie King, his face contorted in creative rapture, nailing down a decisive note on the neck of his guitar. Just at the moment the note was presumably sounding, an armadillo was bursting from the bloody center of King’s chest. This explosive coronary embodied everything to me that was great about Austin. The armadillo was Austin’s shy and absurd totemic animal, and even its timid spirit could not resist the harmonic magic that caused it to rocket out of its hiding place.

Austin was inspiring, but if you didn’t watch yourself, it could be suffocating too. The place had a native smugness, an insistence on its own laid-back wonder. It had enough of just about everything—music, eccentric culture, politics, scenery, scandal—to make you think you couldn’t do better elsewhere. It was an incubator for itself; it kept a jealous hold on your dreams.

I was one of those who never made a break for it. I’m not sure why. After college, after a few years of dispiriting and low-paying jobs that would obviously lead me nowhere, it would have made sense for an aspiring writer to move on to someplace where aspiring writers moved on to. But I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know anybody except my fellow tadpoles in a slowly stagnating pond. I didn’t have any money or any understanding of  how anything more than a bare-subsistence income could be acquired.

But there was something else that kept me here: a feeling that if I left I would leave too much of my identity behind. All of that wasted time, all of that half-passive participation in Austin’s licit or illicit pleasures, had turned out to feel like a kind of sweat equity in a place that might just be on its way to finding its full expression. I was such a long way from being fully formed myself that the idea of starting over in another locale was terrifying. It could only mean moving from one holding pattern to another. I knew Austin, I knew I belonged here; it was just a matter of waiting for the two of us to grow up.

Austin’s growth spurts have been something to behold these past few decades: Dell, IBM, Freescale, convention hotels, sushi restaurants, high-rise downtown condominiums, movie studios, crushing traffic, artfully rustic wineries, thousands upon thousands of networking hipsters with badges around their necks swarming into town for South by Southwest or video-gaming conventions or screenwriting conferences or social-networking seminars. The city that was once merely a modest provincial haven is now a premier destination. Austin’s famous alternating current of energy and lethargy has been transformed into a steady buzz.

The surprising thing is, I like it even more now. One of the reasons I don’t bother to join in the carping about how much better Austin was in the old days is because in looking back I know I’ll reencounter my old sluggish, formless, uncommitted self, the boy who caught the Austin vibe only to learn that it was a live virus, a strain of excitement that could mutate over time into terminal inertia. But in the new Austin the excitement feels genuine and lasting. For all its sprawling growth, its civic posturing (“Keep Austin Weird,” “Live Music Capital of the World”), it’s a real city now, edgier, less complacent, more demanding. The city that in the past could seduce you into a lifelong slacker’s sleep is slowly gaining the power to jolt you into definition.

For most of my life, when people asked me where I was from, I would naturally craft an answer from the landmarks of my childhood: I might say Oklahoma City, where I was born and lived for five years; or the West Texas plains, where I lived until I was ten; or more likely the Texas coast, whose salt air and unrevealingly murky inland waters forever reoriented my imagination. But after living almost all my adult life in Austin, after writing almost every word of my professional writer’s life here, after marrying here and having three children here and two grandchildren, maybe it’s time to declare that Austin is not just my longtime home but my default natural place.

I remember one night, decades ago when the city was still new to me, when I allowed my friends to shame me into at least taking an inside glimpse at drug-induced reality. By this time my caution had become an obstinate pose rather than a conviction, and I knew I owed it to myself to see what this historical moment was all about. Otherwise I would be the armadillo who forever did not rupture forth from Freddie King’s chest.

The drug might have been acid, it might have been synthetic mescaline. I don’t think any of us really knew. Whatever it was, it was mild enough. No outright hallucinations, just an awareness that the borders and contours of every person and object I saw had a pulsating quality of expansion and contraction, that nature was coloring itself outside the lines. We piled into somebody’s car, and some nondesignated driver conveyed us in deep nighttime through the Austin streets. We walked into a UtoteM—an early iteration of 7-Eleven—and stared in wonder at the products in the aisles, at the lightbulbs and bottles of aspirin and racks of candy. We felt like archaeologists who had stumbled across the commissary of a previously unknown civilization.

A few hours before dawn we found ourselves trespassing in a housing development under construction above the lake, not far from the bluff where I had stood during that canoe race. We walked into a house site where the framing had just gone up and gazed in wonder at the empty open-air spaces that would one day be living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms. We were filled with cosmic insights about the transience of life and the mysteries of the time-space continuum, insights that the bourgeois suckers who were going into lifelong debt to build this bogus materialistic refuge could never fathom. I spotted a carpenter’s pencil lying on the foundation, picked it up, and wrote on one of the studs, “By stealth of night we came.” I remember guffawing at my wit. My drug-expanded mind somehow regarded this lame gesture as the greatest act of creative vandalism ever perpetrated upon a clueless world.

Every now and then I think about that house, with my scrawled sophomoric message hidden inside it, the cryptic wisdom that probably no one ever even noticed. That house has become my own secret time capsule, even though I have no memory of exactly where it is located. How many families have lived there in the past forty years or so? How many generations have passed through it?

Over the decades I’ve made my modest mark on Austin, though nothing commensurate with the colossal mark it has made on me. I’ve contributed to the economy by buying bogus materialistic refuges of my own, I’ve sent my children through the public schools, paid taxes, contributed to this or that election or initiative, served on boards, even helped raise money for the creation of statues—Philosophers’ Rock, at Barton Springs; Angelina Eberly shooting off a cannon on Congress Avenue—that were designed to become part of the everlasting iconography of the city. I am a minor aging burgher of this place, though still with a counterculturalist’s innate suspicion of the whole idea of civic-mindedness. If I have encoded myself anywhere, though, it’s in the framework of that unknown house on what was once the edge of Austin, in the sealed-away handwriting of a young mind ablaze with anarchy and exuberance.

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