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.
We’ll Always Have Austin
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

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