Poetry in Motion

Bands inspire Thax Douglas. And, sometimes, he inspires bands.
Poetry in Motion
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

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