A Fan’s Notes: Remembering Brent Grulke

The SXSW creative director died last month at the age of 51. "GrulkeFest," a concert honoring his memory, takes place in Austin Saturday. 
Fri September 7, 2012 7:00 pm
Jason Cohen

I was a Brent Grulke fan before I ever knew him.

The official obituary for the SXSW creative director, who died of a heart attack last month at the age of 51, said he was inspired to move to Austin and attend the University of Texas in 1978 after reading Jan Reid’s book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock . By the time I moved to Austin to attend UT in 1990, Brent had played that very role for me.

The so-called “New Sincerity” bands, among them Glass Eye, Doctors Mob, the Reivers, Wild Seeds, and True Believers, were all I knew of Austin besides Darrell Royal, and much of why an R.E.M.-obsessed Jewish kid from Philadelphia could someday think of calling Texas home (though I also had copies of Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and Steve Earle’s Guitar Town ). Grulke was a friend, fan, road manager, soundman, coach and shrink to those bands, all of whom will pay tribute to him—along with Fastball, Sixteen Deluxe and Wannabes Saturday at ACL Live at the Moody Theater for what has been dubbed “Grulkefest: A CELEBRATION OF BRENT / 1961-2012.”

Unbeknownst to me, Brent was the co-producer and liner notes writer of the 1985 compilation Bands on the Block , which I used to play on WNUR, the Northwestern University radio station that was my whole college existence. When I saw the Reivers live in Chicago, he was probably behind the soundboard. And he co-wrote “I’m Sorry, I Can’t Rock You All Night Long,” the 1988 not-really-hit by Wild Seeds, the band fronted by Texas Monthly ’s Michael Hall.

For me, however, he was just an editor I needed to impress in 1990. I was a journalism grad student looking to catch on at the weekly Austin Chronicle , and he had just been put in charge of music coverage--kind of a bummer, from my perspective, because I had been prepped by mutual friends to talk to Michael Corcoran, who I knew from his article about the Austin music scene in SPIN. But “Corky” (also now a Texas Monthly contributor) had left town.

There was no reason to worry. As an obsessive music fan and fan of music journalism, Brent was quite familar with my sole outlet outside of Northwestern’s college paper- the independent magazine Option, which had given me my first assignment after shooting down my pitch to interview none other than Glass Eye. Glass Eye was one of my favorite bands (Austin or otherwise) so that first conversation with Brent in the Chronicle’s cramped office near the University of Texas campus contained what was, for me, a massive revelation.

“No way!” I found myself exclaiming. “You’re married to Kathy McCarty from Glass Eye?”

The marriage didn’t last, but Brent’s regard for Kathy’s music did. When, after his death, I found myself looking at the Google+ profile I didn’t even know he had (Brent never used Facebook or Twitter) it turned out the second to last thing he ever posted was Glass Eye’s video for “Christine,” along with the plainspoken comment: “Just Listen.”

The song’s opening lines: “Time has stolen you from me....”

The Chronicle and SXSW being sister organizations, Brent did work for both, and so did I part-time for several years. He eventually became the top guy on the music side, credited with transforming SXSW into the huge event and international phenomenon it is today. This is why his death was news in Pitchfork, Billboard and the New York Times .

At one of the many gatherings the week Brent died, one friend of ours, Ron Marks of the band Texas Instruments, went so far as to argue that SXSW was the single thing that saved Austin’s economy, bringing it both tourists and its huge creative-class cache. Another, former Daniel Johnston manager Jeff Tartakov, said the communal grief reminded him of nothing so much as the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan almost exactly 22 years earlier (which was the week I moved to Austin, as it happens).

Because of Brent, it was always hard for me to buy into a certain segment of the Austin music scene’s malevolent, conspiratorial perception of SXSW, even though I knew that they were also businessmen. Brent was Brent. When he wasn’t getting flown to the Olympics by the British government (the last big trip he took) or getting VIPed at festivals in Barcelona, he was still the same goofy but ragingly intelligent (and often drunken) guy I went to shows with at Hole in the Wall or Liberty Lunch, or talked about post-modern fiction with.

“Brent was a true and loyal man,” Austin musician Jeff Smith of the Hickoids, who co-produced and released Bands on the Block , wrote in an email shortly after Brent died. “It would have been easy for him to turn his back on many of us as the importance of his job grew, but he just wasn’t that guy.”

When I moved away from Texas between 1993 and 1995, leaving all my stuff in storage, Brent’s house became my Austin home. For two weeks in the summer of ‘94 I slept on his bedroom floor (since that was the only room with air conditioning); in ‘95 I lived there for a good six months while looking for a place to buy. My cat, a vicious calico named Paddy, would regularly joust with Brent’s own hellbeast, a little grey thing by the name of Butch, costing both of us sleep.

I also wrote what was then my greatest journalistic feat, a Rolling Stone cover story on Courtney Love and Hole, at Brent’s dining room table. Courtney didn’t like that story, but when the Lollapalooza tour came to town, Brent and I somehow wound up taking members of Hole, Pavement and Elastica back to his house, where Elastica’s Justine Frischmann haughtily examined Brent’s CDs and then demanded, “Where are your Wire records?”

(If you’re not famiilar with Elastica

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