Austin’s Sixth Street might get the tourist attention, but any music lover who’s spent time in the city knows that the real home to Austin’s famed live music scene is Red River Street. Sixth is where a person goes to hear someone bang out some Stevie Ray Vaughan covers; Red River is where all of the artists who’ve emerged from the city’s vibrant music community over the past fifteen cut their teeth, made their bones, and—given the wide range in audience capacity of the various venues on the block—often returned for their victory laps.
The growth of Red River in importance neatly parallels the growth of Austin’s population (and the explosion that has become SXSW), which means that to a great many residents and visitors, Austin’s live music identity is Red River. The street has become perhaps the most important live music destination in Texas, and one of most vital music districts in the entire country, alongside world-famous locales like New Orleans’ Frenchman Street and Beale Street in Memphis.
In recognition of this importance, last October the City of Austin declared the stretch from 6th to 10th streets the Red River Cultural District, an area spanning from what was once Emo’s to what is now The Mohawk. And this week, as the Austin Music Commission met to determine their goals for the Red River Cultural District, one of the objectives listed—alongside a block party ribbon cutting ceremony, a volunteer day clean-up event, and the development of a neighborhood association—was a proposal to build a statue of Danzig, riding a dragon, to welcome visitors to the Red River Cultural District.
This suggestion came from James Moody, who helped found rock club The Mohawk, the booking agency Transmission Entertainment, and Fun Fun Fun Fest (which had a high-profile falling-out with Danzig in 2011), as well as the non-profit Austin Music People. Guess it’s safe to say that Moody must be over his beef with Danzig, the former Misfits and Samhain frontman who currently oversees the metal band that bears his own name.
To be clear, Danzig is not an Austinite, or even a Texan—the diminutive vocalist was born in Lodi, New Jersey, and his most well-known experience in the Lone Star State is probably the aborted Fun Fun Fun Fest appearance. And while Moody was almost certainly being a bit arch with his insistence on adding a dragon-riding Danzig statue to the district’s list of future goals, the suggestion does reflect something telling about the character of the Red River District, whose future is uncertain.
While many of the clubs and venues along Red River have been and continue to be upstanding members of the Austin community, the notion that all of their work in building a late-night scene in the city might culminate in ribbon-cutting ceremonies, volunteer days, and a neighborhood association feels just a bit off. Volunteerism, milestone-marking, and local organizing are all good things, to be certain, but a neighborhood that’s famous for preserving the bar stool Johnny Cash sat on the night he played one of the dingy clubs, whose iconography included smutty Frank Kozik Flintstones parodies, whose longstanding stalwarts include places like “Beerland,” and whose reputation is built, at least in part, on punk rock deserves those parts of its legacy to be considered when planning for the future, too. Yeah, it’s a good idea to clean up the trash, but if it’s all ribbon-cuttings and neighborhood associations, with no room for the sort of dumb rock-and-roll fun that a statue of Glenn Danzig on a friggin’ dragon would represent, then what exactly is the culture the Red River Cultural District is celebrating?
To extend the thought-exercise, it’s worth asking, as Austin continues to grow and change, does the live music district that rivals any in the nation risk coming under threat? The idea of a sanitized future for Red River is a distinct possibility, given the city’s future plans for the neighborhood. Perhaps the area’s most iconic venue, Emo’s, closed its doors on Red River in 2011 (it reopened in a different form on Riverside Drive later that year), and venues like Club DeVille and Headhunters have shut down in the past year. Red River Street, through downtown, runs alongside Waller Creek, the site of Austin’s planned Riverwalk. While the Austin Riverwalk is unlikely to challenge San Antonio’s for supremacy anytime soon, the people behind the development certainly aim for the Waller Creek Riverwalk to have the sort of tourist appeal that its neighbor to the south enjoys. But if you build a tony attraction in the heart of a neighborhood built around Beerland and sloppy punk rockers, something’s probably gotta give.
This has been a fear that business owners along Red River have held close for years now—part of the reason there is a Red River Cultural District is to give clubs the chance to market themselves together and establish that what they’ve built is valuable—and it’ll be unresolved until the future of the Riverwalk is written, and the expected corresponding rise in property values and rents plays out.
In other words, Red River—one of the state’s most significant music destinations—is a neighborhood very much in flux, with an uncertain future that can’t be guaranteed by ribbon-cuttings and volunteer days. But a statue of Danzig riding a dragon is forever. Whatever fate may have in store for the block, a monument like that would capture the many years it’s been the city’s home for rock-and-roll in a way that no murals or neighborhood associations could match.(image via flickr) (update: an earlier version of this story identified James Moody as a member of the Austin Music Commission. He is a founder of the non-profit Austin Music People, not a member of the city’s commission.)