Reconnecting with old friends is always a high energy experience. The gang of us, Peace Corps, world travelers, vagabonds, hippies, and seekers, converged in Thailand 35 years ago and Mike Sullivan, a spoke in that wheel, traveled to San Francisco from Austin several months ago to reconnect with our wild bunch. Ruth and I are now guests at his home next to the University of Texas. Mike is an old hand in this region with roots in teaching and a storied stint in our illustrious US Customs in El Paso, where he served as a stranger in a strange land. His astonishing stories are best reserved for face-to-face conversation and fall mostly into the category of “truth is stranger than fiction.” However, I will say that he told me that he would sometimes slip behind some unsuspecting, inebriated, northern-bound border-crosser and whisper in his ear, “Digame sus pecados! Tell me your sins!” This would often jog the religious subconscious into revealing unsuspecting truths.
We put our ears to the ground and eyes on the Austin Chronicle, the free tabloid with all that’s happening in town and pulled a couple of options for music out of the hat. Our first pick was Alejandro Escovedo who came highly recommended and was playing in the very hip and popular Congress area of town. We arrived pre-show and were told to wait outside while they cleared the club. We stood in line and listened to the band’s sound check that went on and on. I mentioned to our growing crowd peanut gallery that rather than stand in line and pay a cover charge, we should just go to the liquor store down the street, then come back and hang out in front. As it turned out, that choice should have been the path taken, as the music was hugely amped up in a small venue, and many people who are not as lucky as me with my hearing aids that have over-modulation limiters (love technology!), were covering their ears.
The band either wasn’t paying attention or didn’t give a hoot and we soon joined the flow of the once hopeful out the door. The night was warm, the crowds mingling everywhere were filled with fun, and we soon found ourselves wrapping our hands around cold glasses of some of Austin’s best margaritas made by our Guatemalan barista. Pleasantly lit and in the glow of the night we returned home to sit on the back porch telling stories, laughing, and howling like banshees until the wee hours of the morning. For those of you who forgot, I’ve included the link of an image of one banshee that none of us would like to meet or hear, as they are the harbingers of imminent death. In our case, however, our cries were the expressions of wonder and recognition that each spark of life we have encountered is rich in learning and opportunity. No screamin’ banshees near us. I don’t care how hot they are!
Day Two of Austin Adventure, and Mike brought us into the heart of the university campus to see bronze statues created by Pompeo Coppini on commission by the Daughters of the American Revolution. As it turned out, according to local legend, the DAR and the Texas Legislature was unable to pay for the elaborate statue project that their original plans included. Pompeo, unfortunately was bound to a contract, yet he had a twisted revenge reserved and his contracted statues held within them a darker coded message. Now, this is just twisted legend but a view of the illustrious George Washington from the front is this. The same image from behind out to the Legislature building shows him holding what appears to be an object of his body in his left hand as he gazes, from the artist’s perspective, derisively in their direction. Now bear in mind I got this from an inside university source.
Following this twisted tour we traveled to Zilker Park, one of Austin’s many green spaces where is found Barton Springs Pool, a man-made swimming area filled by pure water from an offshoot of the Edwards Aquifer, the fourth largest in Texas. Approximately 14-28 million gallons of fresh 68-degree water flow through this awesome collector of earth’s energy and resources. The Tonkawa native American Indians inhabited this area and used its waters for sacred purification until the Spanish explorers discovered it in the 17th Century. Mike assured us that a short time in this water would strip away any toxins and pull out heat from our cores that only close to 100-degree days can instill. We stood in a long line of decidedly non-sacred purifiers seeking entry until Mike took us slightly downstream, outside the fence area filled with those seeking a spot to bask with their dogs. I’ll admit that when we left I felt a tingling all over but I surmised that it probably was due to the presence of “hot things in little suits.”
Night time in Austin is something special. I wish I could tele-transport it home. Lots of fun energy and people finding their muses in a multitude of entertainment. We found ourselves at the Saxon Pub to hear Johnny Nicholas, a blues, country, master musician in a venue this time that though equally small, made the sound perfectly suited to each person throughout the play space. Here is a video clip of him playing that you will enjoy and perhaps use as a springboard toward future listening.
In the last video clip you will notice that Johnny is playing a National Steel Resonator Type Guitar, or just plain steel guitar for short. Tampa Red, in 1928, became the first black musician to record with the guitar which had been created in 1927, and it soon spread throughout the south among all the soon-to-be-great musicians, Son House, Bukka White, Blind Boy Fuller, and many others. Remember this guitar suited the technology of its time – no amplifiers, and a need to play crowded clubs with no mics and requiring strong vocal chords as well. It is said apocryphally that the all-metal fronts that vibrated out the sound so well could also stop a small caliber bullet – though there are too many factors to calculate this one! This guitar’s technology was very similar to the early phonographs that took the sound from the needle or stylus and transmitted it to a mica disc. The disc acted like a banjo skin and amplified the sound. You can see this simple physics played out on the National front from strings to the large circular metal circle disk which very effectively amplified the sound. Add a metal or glass slide to “fret” the strings and you get an even stronger vibration and sound amplification. Sol Hoopii Kaai, considered one of Hawaii’s greatest steel players, brought this sound into the Hawaiian culture and we hear its ubiquity in most of the music from there today.
As we travel from place to place, it is becoming more apparent that the interconnection of place, culture, and musical style, regardless of the type, share similar DNA. The further in we go, the more the links grow tighter, like brain cells bonding and sending out new branches, making memories vivid and strong.