Nude penthouse parties, speakeasies, gypsies: When you keep saying ‘Yes’ at SXSW
I have to be careful as I tell this. So pardon the occasional vaguery or redaction, but
it is only through secrets that the true story of Austin, Texas, can be told, and they must be handled with care. There’s a lot that you’re not supposed to know and, frankly, I’m not supposed to know either. These secrets, though, are what squirm inside the gut of the city, defining its constitution.
Work was my excuse to come here to SXSW for the first time, but what I do and where I’m from depends on who asks. I grew up in Boston but the industry took me to LA. I’m a seller at a digital media/events company, a writer at a music magazine, a bassist, songwriter, vocalist, whatever. Or, I’m just some guy hustling like the rest of us. Regardless, for me, it was fortunate that to get the most out of my experience, all I needed to know was the right time to say “yes,” and the right time to say absolutely nothing.
In Austin, metaphorically speaking, there’s this “thread” you can pull from the dark sketchy places that you’re not supposed to know about. It unearths itself, and weaves behind and into the full-blown corporate branded activations that have come to define SXSW in the last decade. You are allowed to transform just about any space in Austin and let it become, well, the best party you can think of. You just do you. If you build it, they will come…but keep it cool.
Los Angeles is about who you know. Boston is about what you know. New York is about what you do. Austin…seems to be about what you don’t know, thriving on the thrilling potential of not knowing – or at least, uncovering just enough to know there is so much more. Like lifting up a rock in a forest clearing and seeing all the bugs and worms that crawl out, knowing that they are swarming all around beneath your feet.
Walking around the streets of Austin during SXSW, the manifestations of this “secretive spirit” presented as “exclusivity” are apparent. Are you on the list for this showcase? Did you get your wristband for this branded activation? Do you get hooked up with a badge this year? Who do you know?
On the last night of SXSW, I stood on the roof of [redacted] downtown looking down a sheer drop into the sprawl of drunken revelry below me. Sixth Street was a river of humanity, the nightclubs like rocks in the stream creating whirlpools of people gathering as they waited to pass through the front door. The occasional cop car would float up stream slowly, lights flashing to part the mobs. The city had a hum to it. I felt grateful to see it from that view on such a night.
My feet itched from walking the streets in the rain the night before, travelling the gulf between music experiences that were almost unfathomable in contrast. My buddy who’d headed up A&R at a few different majors showed me his scouting ear at work when he suddenly grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward the back door of some dingy rock club off of Red River. He had somehow ‘heard of something badass’ through the utter cacophony of the street. It caught me off guard but I’ll be damned if his instincts weren’t spot on.
The door lead to a tiny back yard with a makeshift bar and a punk band ripping into a crowd that only had space to fit three deep. The lead singer was climbing the rafters while raising his fist in triumph in front of a backward American flag nailed above the door. Every single person was dancing and screaming. It wasn’t even trying to be authentic, it just was. The only thing to do was grab a Lone Star and start yelling.
Thinking back from my perch on top of the [redacted], I noticed that my left ear was still ringing from the shattering speakers. I traced our route from Red River, down Sixth and through puddles to the other side of Austin as we cut through the rain to make our way to the VIP lounge at Samsung House, a full-on branded activation with signage, LED lights, the most fashionable food trucks, and an exclusive set at SXSW by proven dance hall icons, Hot Chip. The converted parking structure held an audience of CMO’s, advertising agency planners, and many Industry faces I had seen before. Some were dancing like pockets of ecstasy. My friend and I debated if that was Sean Parker at the next table. The “seller” in me was impressed, speculating about the #socialreach and content that must be pouring out.
By this point in my rooftop reflection by the banister, I realized I had an empty drink and was probably coming across as moody so I headed back inside. It was a SXSW closing party hosted by someone with enough influence and/or money to own the entire top floor of [redacted]. I had to carefully navigate around a “disco bull”–a life-sized bull statue covered in reflectors like a disco ball. The trick was getting past the two drunk girls riding on top of it posing for new Tinder pics. There it was, the Golden Calf of Music in full expression right in front of me; festival beneath it and wasted women on top of it.
I tip-toed past the Jacuzzi and the circles of smokers to descend back down to the main floor. There was an affect to this party for certain. I felt that from the moment I walked in, and the finely dressed doorman gave me a look that told me I was lucky to be here, I shouldn’t cause a scene – which was tempting.
The party held a blend of the approachable and inapproachable, and the camp they fell into was mostly defined by what drug they were on. Women with thigh high boots leaned back on furry couches, legs crossed showcasing their thighs. Men with pocket squares watched them from afar, unwilling to break their confident persona. Chatty fashionistas bounced around the distinctly modern furniture to sneak in and out of bathrooms together, appearing all the more invigorated every time I saw them. Naked cocktail girls covered in body paint trolled the floor with beverages illuminated by flashing lights.
This was also a Burner party. DJ’s were posted up in front of the floor to ceiling windows spinning those brooding, dark grooves that have been emanating from the Playa ever since the inception of Burning Man. Belly dancers and Russian models dressed like birds were mellifluously drifting in circles in almost every room. Their beautiful limbs poking and flapping to the pulsing beat.
I drifted back to the movie theater room, which had previously been silently screening pornography. It was on the other side of the floor so the walk took me past a body airbrushing station where a pretty, normal looking girl, likely a digital media planner, was having roses painted on her thighs. A man with quilted pants, eyeliner, and dreadlocks was playing with his whip to the combined concern and delight to the crowd around him. I spun past a man with a helmet, two pairs of sunglasses on, and a tutu brandishing a cane. This was a man on a deep trip, prepared for anything.
Opening the door to the theater, I stepped into a distinctly different vibe. Calm bodies were laying in a circle on couches and on the floor around a Persian man I had chatted with earlier in here as he drifted in and out of sleep. Now, he was awake and alert but still serene, sitting cross-legged with a setar resting on his lap. He started strumming without any pomp or circumstance; stirring the room with his notes.
When the time felt right, he began to sing Phrygian incantations of quivering sustained notes separated by the occasional microtone. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood what they meant. Rapt, I crept down to the floor and took my shoes off, crossed my legs and listened, eyes closed letting a deep peace creep into my heart. It was a peace I hadn’t felt since SXSW began – maybe even since longer ago. The stress dissipated out of my shoulders. Thoughts of the meetings and follow-ups and client dinners and events that had dominated my calendar and psyche seemed so small. The pressure and noise of it all. The weeklong buildup of toxins in my bloodstream. It all melted in the pureness of the setar player’s intentions.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that a yogi woman who could have been anywhere from twenty-five to sixty-four years old was openly weeping. The setar player crawled over and hugged her and you could feel the room sigh. We in the crowd did the only thing we could do after such an experience: express our gratitude for the reminder of why we each had given our lives to music in our own way.
[Ed. note: We later tracked down the artist, song and lyrics.]
We are all different parts of the same body,
For they’re created of the same clay.
Should one organ be troubled by pain,
Others would suffer severe strain.
To be careless of people’s suffering,
is to not be of a human essence]
I stepped out of the theater in a daze and was quickly swept up by my friend [redacted] who I’d come with. Our crew had left and we were the remaining stragglers–it was time for the after-after party.
Quickly, we were downstairs and out onto the street, walking over to a car and driver the leader of our new group had left waiting for him while in the party. What stuck out most about our new friend was the giant incisor tooth he had dangling at his chest on a twine necklace. I wondered if it was for fashion or meaning or both. He exuded confidence that was as assuring as it was untrustworthy. He was Hollywood-handsome with a loose, gruff Texas disposition. He liked to joke about violence.
We sped through the now empty streets of 4am Austin, our new friends hooting and hollering in the back seat. The car came to a sudden stop when Tooth Necklace exclaimed ‘arrright this spot right here’, ensuring we were a disorienting distance from our actual destination. After strolling a few blocks and turning a couple of corners into sleepy, dark neighborhoods, we stopped at a building with the words [redacted] painted on the wall above a vibrant portrait of a woman with a beaming third eye. A slight chatter bled through the walls.
Tooth Necklace leapt onto the stoop and turned around holding both hands out. I was startled by the sudden seriousness of his tone. ‘Alright boys’ he stressed, ‘a couple of things you should know about this place…First, absolutely no pictures. They don’t take too kindly to that. Second, just be cool and kind to everyone. We’re just here to have a good time.’
Without a beat, he turned and decisively knocked on the metallic outer door. Very quickly, a lithe Moroccan looking man with a Pork Pie hat poked his head out. He and Tooth Necklace whispered a few things and we were waved in shortly after. As I walked through the doorway, the Moroccan man tied back shut the large rope that locked the door and looked up at me. His gaze was kind, but deeply probing. I felt welcome, but conditionally.
The space was overridden with voodoo and Catholic iconography. Skulls and feathers interspersed with statues and felt portraits of virgins. Odd trinkets and various crystals adorned every shelf and table. Milling around the room were a variety of people who felt like they belonged to another time. A man with long golden hair falling from beneath his black cowboy hat. A woman with leather pants and a Navajo patterned parka leaned back on a cushioned bench. Hands twirling hair and nursing cocktails.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned toward the bar where introductions were being made to the man serving drinks behind it. He was incredibly calm as he shook my hand slowly, locking eyes. This was his space and he made that clear. He had dark hair, pale skin, and a crescent necklace that must have had some connection to the incense powder he was tending, as he would periodically pass it over each smoking globe.
I felt another tap on my shoulder and we stepped in deeper, passing the large tables and benches shaped from split tree trunks, ducking under the low hanging chandeliers until turning a corner where a man greeted us, holding open a black curtain. Behind the curtain was a tiny room with an ancient looking table in the center of it. Edison-era light bulbs poked up from an upside down chandelier on the back end of it, illuminating a large mirror resting on the table. The kind of room you’d expect Doc Holliday to be leaning back with a hand of cards out in front of him and gun on his lap.
At the seeming head of the table sat a man who appeared to be in his late fifties. He was gruff, weathered, and appeared strong. His hair was pulled back to a tight bun and his long beard scraped against his tattooed chest as he pulled his chin down to stand up and shake our hands. He didn’t give me that same long, drawn look the others did on my way in. I suppose once you’re on the other side of the curtain, you check out. That was good because I didn’t want this man to read me and risk any chance of crossing him.
We squeezed in behind chairs to sit down at the table and were introduced to the group around us. A man with a curled, waxed mustache, round black-rimmed spectacles and a leather cowboy hat. A girl with a painted face sitting on the lap of the man with the tattooed chest. A man who was named after a food product. Across from me was a younger man, a boy even, leaning back against the wall coldly staring out at everyone around him. His cheeks were drawn and his large nose was poking rat-like out of the black scarf that he had draped over his shaved head. He was wearing a black leather jacket and a black dress underneath. I could tell by his eyes that he did not like any of us, let alone trust us.
I warily kept my eye on the rat nosed kid as we enjoyed some merry conversation with the rest of the room, behind the comfort of a closed curtain. I thought of the contrast between this table and the steakhouse table I had sat at almost eight hours earlier that night for a client dinner. I thought of the ‘authenticity’ that I write about in my SXSW sales presentations. Was this dark, sketchy, speakeasy one of the fountainheads that powered that flow? A tug of that thread? A manifestation of that secretive spirit presented as exclusivity?
My night came to an end shortly after the rat-nosed kid accosted someone who had newly walked behind the curtain and the elder man with the tattooed chest leapt up and yelled, ‘we will NOT have a problem here’. I lingered for a bit, but that was my cue to leave.
The sun was rising as I walked the required few blocks before calling a car so as to keep the location discreet. Amidst the red clouds and growling dogs, I thought about the absolute oddity of what I had experienced the whole night. Was this the core of the “weird” Austin is trying to keep? Was that the same weirdness that brands come to SXSW to tap into and become part of?
Austin seems to be a place where you can drop a shelf anywhere you think is good, toss some liquor in it and call it a bar. No hassle. Throughout my week, I had been to bars and clubs all over the outskirts of the city that were built in warehouses, on empty lots, or just in backyards. I didn’t see any ‘A-Rating’ signs on outside windows or liquor licenses posted behind hostesses. Just gruff people protecting the entry to places that seemed to be the pure result of what everyone wanted to do. Either the city itself is more lax or the people just don’t give a fuck.
What’s vexing about SXSW is how so many, myself included, uproot themselves to travel to Austin and ogle at each other. “What’s Samsung doing?” “What’s SPIN doing?” “What’s Fader doing?” “What’s Hype doing?” “Who’s playing at what showcase?” ‘Where’s Kanye?” It’s all dropped on top of Austin like a circus that packs up and leaves as quickly as it came. A circus that’s both performers and audience.
Waiting for my ride, I saw one of Austin’s black birds screaming at me in a tree with its feathers plumed large, as they tend to do here. That’s when something clicked for me. I thought back to a high school biology class where I learned that certain species of blackbird were considered by some ornithologists to be the most colorful in the world. It’s just that their color palette is dominantly ultraviolet; we humans can’t see them. This whole week, I’d been hustling between showcases and meetings, and client dinners, and open bars, and these crazy blackbirds were screaming at me the whole time from trees and power lines.
I had just thought all the noise was driving them to madness, but, no. These birds were part of Austin. Crazy, dark, and prone to aggressive tendencies, but screaming at you with a confidence that can only come from possessing such immaculate colors. Austin, TX, in the occasional sheen in the right light, tells you there is more, but you will never see it all. This is a city about what you don’t know.