“So you come all the way to Austin and you want to write about bats, huh?” She gives me a slanted look.
“Well, yeah. I’m really more of a poet than a journalist, see, and this whole thing with Austin and bats seems real interesting to me.”
“If you really want to see them, don’t watch from the bridge…that’s where all the tourists hang. Take the trail past the bridge down to the river and see them follow it down. They make these awesome circular motions and fly in columns.”
That’s what I’m talking about. The best vantage point to see the largest urban colony of bats—Mexican free-tailed bats to be specific—in North America. 1.5 million of them. All roosting under and inside a bridge. All headed out to dinner at the same time. Sundown. An amazing spectacle. An epic symphony of flutter and echolocation in one of the greatest music cities on earth.
“But don’t get too romantic about the whole thing and touch one if it’s on the ground or near you. They are bats after all, and there is such a thing as rabies, you know.”
April is incredibly helpful. She stopped by my table on her way out of the restaurant and introduced herself with, “Hey! Another awesome party of one!” and high-fived me. I can’t help but talk to her. She’s part quirky indie woman and part eccentric biker chick (Schwinn, not Harley), but she has class and sincerity and an affable Texas drawl and tells me the food here is really solid. “The kind of place that most folks might look past because they’re in Austin on crazy 6th Street and they’re like, ‘I’m hungry and need a bite to eat’ and they’re not expecting much because it’s 6th Street, but then they come here and get their ass kicked.” She’s right about both things. The food was delectable and 6th Street is indeed crazy. Crazy like Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis or even St. Catherine Street (Montreal’s touristy party grounds) minus the over-saturation of adult entertainment and freezing weather, of course. Austin is straight-up desert hot, a formidable 99 degrees at 11pm on this summer night. I’m thankful for zero humidity.
By the time April leaves me, I have a list of things I need to check out and a possible connection to illicit substances I’ll consider, but ultimately pass on, opting instead for tasty local brews and the occasional hard stuff. Oh yes, she also tells me about roller derby before she goes. Apparently there’s a decent scene in Austin. The first thing I learn in Austin is that as cool as roller derby girls are, they’re not so excited about bats. The second thing I learn is that neither is 6th Street.
When I wake the next day, I faintly recall standing next to what looked like an exact replica of the Batmobile amidst the din on 6th Street and taking a very cheesy photo. But when I check my camera and find no such thing, I realize that the vehicle and the moment may have been dreamt up in some highly revelatory state of fuzziness. 6th Street on a Friday night can do that. It’s sort of a hotbed of college-era fun and decadence. The roads are closed and the kids run free, although it’s important to note that it’s not all college kids who go to 6th Street. An old friend/mentor who teaches at University of Texas at Austin points out that students there “are too busy to party,” which may indeed be true, but overall it seems to be the place where college kids hang out until they graduate to other parts of the city.
Because I stand no chance of finding bats during daylight hours, and an ill-conceived jaunt to Lady Bird Lake (right behind my hotel) yielded no results other than lots of paddleboarders and kayakers seeking bliss, I plan a day of checking out some of what makes Austin Austin. I start with the enormous Whole Foods mother ship on Lamar (where it all began for those guys) and make my way over to the world’s greatest record store, Waterloo Records. Completely independent and what store manager Paul Mason refers to as the “lynchpin for the scene,” Waterloo almost inconceivably stays open in trying times for “physical” music retail outlets by doing it the old-fashioned way: Providing a quality human experience. It has a great, knowledgeable staff who will talk with you before and after you listen to any cd you want in the store (through quality headphones), it offers consignment deals for just about anybody without discrimination (“There’s no gulf here between major and local artist,” Paul says, and the way music is organized in the store—alphabetically without marginalizing the locals in some corner—confirms this) and it has miles of vinyl, which is, after all, non-gender-specific musical jewelry. It shines in the soul.
Waterloo is the afternoon’s conduit to another Austin musical tradition/institution: Austin City Limits. The award-winning concert series and longest running music television program in America has moved into The Moody Theater, a remarkable space that functions more like a giant recording studio than a typical music venue. The tour backstage, around the stage and above and below blows me away. The place is rich with history as evidenced by house photographer Scott Newton’s amazing images (36 years of rock and roll), and its entrance is adorned with a tall bronze statute of Willie Nelson paused and in mid-conversation with the city he partially put on the map.
When the show at The Moody starts, it’s not yet sundown and I’m swimming in the regalia of this strange musical playroom in our country’s house. Right in the middle of Blues Traveler’s set (it’s 90s nostalgia night), John Popper sings, “The stars at night are big and bright.” Clap clap clap clap. And right on cue, everyone shouts, “Deep in the heart of Texas!”
“Even though Austin is the coolest city in Texas, you all still can’t help but do that, can you?” he responds. People smile and laugh agreeably—at which point I remember the bats and run outside. Too late. It’s pitch black (and still incredibly hot). A couple mingles about Willie Nelson, smoking one cigarette together and occasionally landing rogue kisses on each other’s necks.
After a second night of meandering about 6th Street, I wake with a hangover that is more smoke and dry heat than alcohol related. A wonderful surprise: An old friend met me in Austin and we made our way over to The Mohawk post-gig. The Mohawk is a rock club situated on the east end of the downtown grid. The farther east you go, the grittier and more “indie” the city gets. It’s sort of like LA in that way…if you consider “gentrified” a sort of aesthetic grittiness, I suppose (see Williamsburg, Brooklyn). The thing is, Austin’s indie scene seems more blue-collar and less privileged than the scenes in other cities. Like the folks in the bars actually have jobs and get their hands dirty. Perhaps that too is changing though, with rising rents and costs that juxtapose an infrastructure that has historically been kind to musicians. (“Austin’s changed/Show me something that hasn’t,” Alejandro Escovedo sings on a new tune.)
I ponder all of this while writing and exploring a bit at BookPeople, one of the country’s best independent booksellers (Seeing a trend here?). I also catch up on bat ephemera. Did you know that a colony of bats the size of the one in Austin can consume up to 250 tons of insects every night? And did you also know that bats have been poetry’s muse for centuries now? “Together, they are more than plural,” Amanda Jernigan writes, “the planet’s darkest song, a tongue, /a serpent muscling air apart, / …the last confession of the world / Conceive of each one singly, if you can.”
And then D.H. Lawrence, that sometimes saucy man, wrote, “A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches / Where light pushes through; / A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.” When I look up and ask the two young women who work at BookPeople about my much sought-after subject, they too direct me toward the bridge. “But they’ll only come out if they feel like it,” one of them says quite indifferently. “They’re finicky like that.” I note this quality as a fondness for well-timed entrances in my notebook and scurry off into the stacks.
So, besides bats, there are hipster-ish rock bands (wearing cowboy hats) hanging around in (East) Austin. But the country rock and singer-songwriter storytelling the city is known for is here as well. And James McMurtry’s set at The Oasis complex on Lake Travis is evidence of that. The Oasis is definitely built for tourism. Its views of Texas hill country are well known by locals, cabbies and folks far and wide.
Here is a slice of Austin that combines sand and champagne. Here is a laidback kind of Hamptons-in-the-desert vibe, revved up by McMurtry’s baritone swagger and 10-pound cowboy hat (Or is it gallons?). The view is enough to mess up one’s understanding of measurement systems.
As the sun is going down over Lake Travis (Lakes in Texas?), a seaplane circles overhead. Scads of guests pick up their cameras and point toward the scene. The sky is ripped open and this shadowy figure darts here and there as if guided by some magical code. “Isn’t this a good one?” the woman next to me says.
“It looks like a bat to me.”
“That’s a little weird…but I like it,” she says.
“The thing about Texas is that we have to have the biggest of everything,” says my very gracious and learned host as we make our way around the city. It’s my final day in Austin and I’m thinking, what’s better than a guided tour of its neighborhoods to actualize the imaginary Austin I’ve been creating in my head over the past few days? When I see the capitol building, I understand what Randy means. “Exactly like the nation’s capitol…only bigger.” The University of Texas at Austin campus is big too, as is its student population, a colony of over 53,000 reduced now to a fraction of that number taking summer classes. Randy and I talk about education, race and gentrification, the search for something authentic in a city, which ultimately leads us to a fine interior Mexican food experience (as opposed to “Tex-Mex” or “exterior”). Yes, there is still a considerable amount of segregated communities here. No, Texas is not really a state of only blondes.
The U of T campus is a treat unto itself. The Harry Ransom Center, which is every writer/reader’s dream, constructs innovative exhibits incorporating manuscripts of every kind (Hemingway, King James Bible, etc), and The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library & Museum is a walk through history. To see this side of Austin is to understand what a scholarly place it is, a spot of thinking and making things happen. So much of the country is informed by what happens in Texas. And therein lies a deep irony, because Texas always seems to want nothing to do with what goes on in DC, the country and anywhere else besides Texas. “Do I contradict myself? I am large. I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman says.
We ultimately end up underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge and join the crowds readying themselves for the evening’s spectacle. While waiting, we wonder if they’re going to reveal themselves because it’s past showtime (“They’re not unionized,” Randy leans over and tells me). Then slowly, one by one, like the letters of a story coming together on a blank page, they dart out into the evening sky, coming together in infinite streams of natural blackness, and finally this portrait of a city fascinated and defined by the quirky and the cool, the perfect place for musicians and artists in the world to create a functional community “more than plural” that is not a novelty but a necessity, comes into focus.
Late on a Monday night in downtown Austin, you can sit on a picnic table placed on the side of a quiet street and hear the sounds of dreams echoing off the sides of buildings. First there are two or three and then maybe ten or twenty. Pretty soon it’s a hundred. A thousand. Who knows? There might be millions of them. Strumming their wings to the beat of the purest aspiration the human soul can have. You can’t see them, but they’re there, making the heart’s migration each evening toward the nourishment each of us can’t live without. You close your eyes. They play on.
If you’re looking for and can afford more opulent accommodations during a visit to Austin, the only two places to stay are the Four Seasons Hotel and The Driskill. The former is the newer and somewhat slicker place that intuits your every need and is steps away from Lady Bird Lake. It’s all about relaxation and comfort–great pool, spa, fitness center, etc. And it’s the place Barack Obama has chosen for recent visits and fundraising events, so you know you can have some privacy if you really want to roll that way. For those in search of quirky luxury (and tons of history that will transport you), The Driskill is the place to go. Built in 1886, it served as one of the birthplaces of Texas government, according to PR Director Laura Pettitt, and has some things that go bump in the night, for those inclined to believe. Look for the spooky (“but benevolent!” I kept telling myself) painting on the fifth floor.
Austin is the live music capital of Texas and, arguably, the country if you’re into singer-songwriters of the country/alt-country variety. There are Stubb’s (with BBQ), Antone’s (with a record store) and the world-famous Continental Club, but there are also a few newer additions worth checking out.
Austin City Limits @ The Moody Theater
When ACL moved its show from the U of T at Austin campus to The Moody Theater just west of downtown, it designed a concert experience unlike any other. The sound in this 2,700-person capacity space is so good that you’ll feel like you’re literally sitting in a recording studio while the band is performing. It’s pristine. Every seat is a good one. And the facility has galleries and tours for folks interested in getting behind the scenes, replete with old posters and photographs of big shining faces of musicians who are undeniably happy to have played here.
This newer den of indie rock is a little slice of Brooklyn in Austin. It’s dark, real, full of inventive music and probably way bigger than it needs to be. But maybe it plans to grow like the rest of East Austin, which it nuzzles up against. The Mohawk is near a popular food truck trailer park for after (or before, or during) the gig—another burgeoning Austin thang.
It serves hot dogs and singer-songwriters and great sound. You can’t get much better than this. And I was lucky to discover my new favorite artist for the moment, Dana Falconberry (an Austin local by way of Michigan) on a recent visit. I urge you to discover yours. It may very well happen here.
Soleil (at The Oasis)
The Oasis, owned by Beau Theriot, is pretty much exactly as it sounds: A magical playground for adults in the middle of the desert. Soleil is the little sister fine dining space in the complex, but the food and service certainly don’t play second fiddle, except maybe to the staggering views of Lake Travis at sundown. This is a kind of regional paradise for sure, filled with big open sky, deconstructed crab salad (thank you to gracious GM Eric Leonard’s fine taste and hospitality) and miles of sunset before we sleep.
Shawn Cirkiel recalls a lot of time spent in the Bronx (where his father is from) and brings a lot of the city’s eccentricity and gritty charm to Austin’s downtown scene. His three restaurants–Parkside, The Backspace and Olive & June–offer different types of goodies for varying palates. Pretty tasty stuff. On Parkside’s raw bar menu, for instance, scrumptious concoctions of whatever fresh fish is available prepared via mash-ups/explosions of flavor (lime, avocado, tamarind, espellette, etc). Yum.
Texas BBQ done a bit upscale. Lamberts is across from The Moody Theater, so live music is on the mind here. It hustles, bustles and moves but still maintains a sweet intimacy that goes great with wild boar ribs.
This is the Tex-Mex spot that musicians who tour through the area frequent the morning after the gig. It’s open for lunch and dinner, but the breakfast tacos and laidback atmosphere make for a great rise and shine.
Interior Mexican food. If you don’t know what this is, get to know it. Seriously. Unless you’re from Mexico or you have family from Mexico, you probably don’t know what really good Mexican food is. This place is the real deal. Unpretentious, friendly and absolutely satisfying.