Kanye or Not, We’re Still Playing (continued from Part 1)
At the end of the muddy expanse where artists load in, there are two tents with a few folding chairs scattered about. Underneath those two tents are Fader higher-ups working a really hard job where everyone needs something from them every 30 seconds for the past five days straight at least, but really there was the lead up to all this shit in their office for months on top of it. Lots of production staff, walkie-talkies, and laminates. This is where they take their smoke breaks, so you can find them there to take that time away from them too. There’s a little grove of a VIP to the right if you’re behind the stage facing the crowd, where you’ll find most label folks, PR creatures, writers of good favor, sponsors, and the odd musician. This is the playpen where I heard the news about the lack of a special guest the day before.
In the shared artist tent, opposite the VIP area, across from the loading area, I plug in the electric kettle, rustle up some tea for my throat, and set about rolling another joint to undo all the work the tea is doing. Why do I feel so fucking crazy? I’ve been asking myself this out loud for an undetermined annoying amount of time. Alan, never having been the judgy one in the entirety of his life, finally falters, lovingly;
“Dude, I told you not to take acid last night!”
OH FUCK I GUESS A LOT OF THINGS ARE FALLING INTO PLACE NOW, THAT’S NOT GOOD NEWS.
I took acid last night? I took acid last night! Why in the fuck would I take acid at all? I’ve taken acid exactly once in my life more than five years ago. What the fucking fuck?
Regardless of whether Kanye is Going to Play or Not, This is What Happened the Night Before: An Interlude
I didn’t drink all day Friday. We didn’t play on Friday, I wasn’t in a free beer lounge on Friday. I smoked some weed, I took some naps, I went for a walk, I saw a couple sets around town. I read a book for a while. I didn’t drink all day. Sam Velde, the dude who introduced me and Don, the singer of our brother band Obliterations, yada yada yada, calls me downtown around five. I’m feeling so great guys! I haven’t had a drink all day! I proceed to drink three to seven margaritas. Why? We make a beeline for more mutual friends. We are in the main cut of the main cut, and we are headed to Red 7 (I think it was Red 7) to see Ceremony. The show isn’t as crowded as it should be, but by grace of scheduling and mish-mashed line ups, people bounce around from set to set. No crowd is guaranteed to be there for your set, even if the room was full twenty minutes beforehand. There are people there, and they play the new stuff with all the good sounds and the thinking, then a couple old ones, with the stomping and the yelling. The bartender at Red 7 knew the bartender at the bar I worked at in Brooklyn. We’re all longhairs? Tequila! A bunch of it! Too much tequila. Old friends. Lots and lots of old friends. (like, eight?) Feels pretty safe, right? All in the heart of Texas; Californians and New Jersey folks, together! But I’m not safe around myself when I don’t have anyone or anything to take care of aside from me.
I’ve been a tour manager exactly once, and I liked it. You wake up 30 minutes to an hour before the act, be sober enough to drive, make it to soundcheck, get the house lights proper, get the stuff, sell the merch, get the payout. I like things in that vein. It’s the same reason I produce videos, ’cause I get to put everything in order. Growing up with a scene that encourages community is a great thing. I had hardcore, so I had to make zines and try to book shows and make fliers because what if the thing you like dies? Then where do you go? I’ve never really been the thing that gets to be taken care of (with the ginormously huge exception of being a middle-class straight white male who grew up in a two-parent household with love). I generally take care of myself so I can do my job, whatever that happens to be at the moment. That’s why the system broke down on that night. I’m the talent unicorn now, and I’m going to have the rock guy tequila, with my long hair down, and when it comes time to say no to a Xanax covered in LSD (yep) I’m gonna say yes because I’m a rebel, motherfucker. Following this thought process, I made some unpopular executive decisions.
The first, (and before this incident, only) time I ever took acid, I was dosed by my close childhood friend at the beginning of a camping trip. He put the tab in the Camelback he provided to me, then marched me to a waterfall to watch the sunset. (I’m not a “nature person,” and this is also the only time I’ve ever been camping.) Once it was dark, he told me it was time to go walk the four miles back to our tent, through the creekside narrows whence we came, which he explained, was known to scientists and enthusiasts as a “Riparian Corridor.”
“You know what lives in this Corridor? Mountain lions. Big Cats. One per mile. And their hunt begins at dusk. It’s dusk now. And that Cat? It knows we’re here. I need you to stomp as we walk and speak loudly and often, and we’re going to make it back.”
The acid went away for 30 seconds, like all the water on the shore just got sucked up, and the beach was pissed off about it.
“Oh word? You knew this going in? I’ve never even been camping, and you know it, cocksucker, and now you’re assigning me a task?
He nodded, still trying to give a purpose to the trip (and my trip): to shaman me into a life-lesson experience-memory (good work, dude, I remember this shit pretty clearly). He deflected my swears and re-iterated: “There’s a Big Cat out there.”
Holding on to a sliver of not-high self, I screwed up my face, and put on my Southern Belle voice. I would not be taught a spiritual lesson. Not in the fucking woods.
“Yeah, dog, it’s me! Murphy, the effeminate Cheetah! I’m fast and luxurious and I cannot be caught! Why? Because, darling, I’m too sleek and lovely!”
An hour and a half later, we made it back to the camp site. By then, I was about a half hour into my 10-year plan to position myself to run for President. I was 21 then, and I’m 28 now. I haven’t taken acid since.
Kanye or Not, We’re Still Playing (continued, again.)
In reality, I take the pill while everyone who actually does drugs and has a handle on their effects tells me “I probably shouldn’t” which from these dudes is…an understatement worth examining and then heeding. But I didn’t, and then I was the dude at the party getting too close to the bonfire. My buddy Andrew put me in an Uber, and I woke up on the sectional couch, having passed out face down thankfully not naked. All that comes back to me as Alan leans into the second d in:
“You shouldn’t have taken acid!”
Up to this point, the weird feeling in my stomach was ambient, formless, and easily assigned to pre-show jitters times 2,000 people in a festival tent. Now it’s all assigned to mysterious drogas chemicals made by a tie-dyed, gray-bearded bandito Santa Claus at the very best, and a Junior College chem professor at its most middling. LSD affects mood and perception a lot, and takes about 12 hours to leave your system. I took it at 2 AM (genius) and it is now about 11:30 AM. We play at 4:30. It will be jam-packed, because it’s already jam-packed now. Everyone out there still thinks Kanye is playing.
Now all I know is that I’m coming down from acid, and so it feels like I’m on acid again even though I’m probably not really on acid anymore, or wouldn’t have known it, but now I know it and I can’t un-know it, and now it’s time to get a ton of band pictures taken, and do a 10-minute video interview, which needless to say, never got put online, but has me staring into a bright light, taking my sunglasses on and off (yes, inside), while Don, Alan, and Danny hold it down and answer questions. I drag my hands along my face, and walk into the muddy zone where our van is sitting in the middle of an open space.
For the first time in a week, there’s no one within 10 feet of me. I drag my hands along my face some more, I call my Mom, I call my girlfriend again, I text friends acting like I’m more than fine, to try that out too. I’m the suburban dummy teenage princess, and there’s no one to shepherd me. I’m supposed to shepherd myself! I’m not the guy who gets a shepherd. I don’t deserve a shepherd.
Vince Staples has started, and the bass shakes me to my core. In reality, It’s pretty loud, but not that loud, and I’m just freaking out. He’s playing “Fire,” the lead track off his first EP, and all I can hear above the rumbling bass falling out of loud amps faced in the opposite direction is the terse chant, “Prolly finna go to hell anyway.”
Vince is killing it. You know what doesn’t really cross your mind when you’re playing aggressive music to small rooms and DIY venues? Crowd participation as anything aside from singalongs, stage dives, and pitting. I’d never considered asking everyone to put their hands up. What if they don’t put their hands up? I don’t always put my hands up, and I don’t wave them in the air at all, as a loose rule. The thing is, no one really pits, stage-dives, or sings along if they don’t know your music, even if they like that sort of thing. I forgot there was crowd interaction for strangers, and now all I can think about is whether I’m going to ask everyone to put their hands up.
I can still do everything in my power to be comfortable, which is a lot more than usual. I have a clean Hawaiian shirt on which belonged to both of my parents at some time or another, my standard blue Dickies that fit perfectly, and my new navy Gazelles. Oh cool, my shoes are covered in mud now. I run all the way back to the van, and then all the way back to the tent, as our stage time gets nearer and nearer. I put on my sponsored promotional shiny new Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, and sigh a sigh of consumerist relief that I’m still not proud of.
Eventually, I shove a banana in my pocket, and walk on stage, look out at 2,000 people, pull the banana out of my pocket, and pretend to answer the phone. About a second into the bit, I realize I’m using my first and maybe only chance to perform in front of this many people to do prop comedy. I violently toss the banana. This is the moment the production crew begins filming our set, but in my head they’ve been rolling the whole time, and won’t get out of my head until this set is done with me. Here’s an approximation of my line of thinking:
“I brought a banana on stage?”
“Get rid of the fucking banana!”
“OK The Bananas gone! Tell them your band name”
“Good work! First song! Wave the arms! Wave the arms!”
“Should we tell everyone else to wave their arms too?”
“Too risky! Act really sarcastic!
“Good, yes, OK”
“Now go stand on the wedge speaker and go talk to those guys!”
“Alright, those dudes are covered, now what?”
“Jump up and down a bit!”
“OK, now go check out the other side of the stage!”
“Hmmm, that’s both sides of the stage, got that out of the way early. Now what?”
“I’ll go into the crowd! Duh!”
“Fine. OK How do I get down there?”
“FIGURE IT OUT!!!”
“OK, oh shit, I’m down here standing on the barrier now, OK…”
“…Oh boy, security guard is totally holding my hand and wants me to stop this right away I bet”
“Shut up and be a rocker! Break all the rules!”
“10-4, brain! Time to front flip into the crowd! Surprise attack!”
“Fuck, that’s so many strangers touching me! Put me down!”
“Well, now I’m back on the friggin’ barrier again, guess I gotta finish the song here.”
“I really wish I could get back on stage without a boost.”
And so on and so forth for 23 minutes. About halfway through, the hangover really starts to show, but the wear and tear of hallucinogens isn’t all the way gone either. I’m watching the set online for the first time as I write this, and it’s good. That is not what I thought in the moment. The devil on your shoulder isn’t on your shoulder, and that’s not the voice that told me to get fucked up the day before. The devil on your shoulder is really the voice in your head with the bass in it, and that voice had its say throughout the set. By the time we finished I had decided that I was replaceable as a singer, irresponsible in all the wrong ways. Maybe the band didn’t need a singer at all. They’re lifers—what about a lifer friend of ours? Oh, fuck, I’ll be replaced by a friend. By the time we were two-thirds of the way through our set I was picturing different friends and composite charismatics, all of whom were eligible to take over for me as Sick Feeling’s new front man.
We finish, and it’s over. I’m mainly concerned with going outside and retching in the parking lot for five minutes. This is one of those shows where I puke before and after. When I finally look down at my phone I see three calls and many texts. Load in for our next show of the day was a half hour ago, and we’re due back in the thick of the thick of it. We’re on the road within ten minutes of the text, and I’m apologizing to anyone that will listen along the way.
I’m gonna double back and make sure it’s not Kanye.
We load in, we park the van. Can I get the van keys? I’m going to sleep in the van. It’s maybe 8 PM and we don’t go on until 11 PM. I gotta sleep in the van. It’s the last night of the last day, and if it wasn’t the night of the living dead before, it sure is now. Everyone who can get out of town on Friday does so. I stretch out on the bench behind the driver’s seat and think about all the faces I had the privilege of yelling at a couple hours ago. I close my eyes for maybe 15 minutes, but I’m still texting, bullshitting, whatever. What if it really turns out to be Kanye? I rub my face three times and drag myself back towards the fort.
It’s dark now, and the crowd backstage feels more like a scrum. There are more people, and the turnover is such that I can just move around in the dark anonymously; hardly anyone back there now was around when we played a few hours ago. The crowd is as it was: massive and beleaguered. They looked beat-up, as a whole, from the jump. Everyone in the City of Austin looks like shit by 9 PM on Saturday. It’s almost time for Hudson Mohawke, and the anticipation in the air feels a lot more like, I got here at noon and I’ve stood through a whole bunch of shit I didn’t know or care about, and I’m ready to see Kanye fuckin’ West, than, We’re about to see one of the top electronic acts out right now! Hudson Mohawke takes the stage, and for a brief moment, people light up a bit. There’s music! It’s all happening! And it does all happen, if you were expecting a good set from a headlining act. But people were expecting a lot more. And then there’s a pause. Someone’s coming. Sure enough, Travis $cott lopes on stage.
Here’s the thing: By this time, I’ve been told it’s not Kanye fifty times over. I’ve seen folks throughout the day working to secure other surprises because it’s not Kanye. I still doubled back to make sure it wasn’t Kanye. When I was granted access backstage again, that’s when I knew in my heart of hearts it wasn’t happening, even though I’d known it for days. This whole back area would have been cleared an hour ago at least, and I definitely wouldn’t be back in the shared artist tent rummaging for snacks like a tattooed raccoon. The crowd doesn’t know that. Travis $cott works with Kanye too, and this crowd can put two and two together, and so for them, It’s still all happening, but with the added air of, Hurry the fuck up with it.
So I watch something really weird: Two of the top artists on the come-up, one on the verge of dropping his first solo record in years (Hudson), and one in the middle of the best tours in the last decade (Travis, who was co-headlining the Rodeo tour with Young Thug at the time), struggle to please a captive audience. The crowd won’t give them shit, so they demur and give them their singles. Travis hurls himself into the crowd, giving them that, too. You can have my songs, you can even have me for a second. They just aren’t happy with this high-level free surprise concert. But they’re not leaving, you know, just in case. The throng is underwhelmed, and I can’t stop thinking about how full of shit this crowd is, and I can’t stop saying as much to anyone standing near me.
They play “All Day,” which dropped the week prior, and the was-just-standing-still-arms-folded crowd fucking loses it. They think they’re two seconds away from the Kanye performance they’re expecting. South by has gotten so big that even famous artists sometimes can’t get out of the shadow of even more famous artists. I leave quietly and alone, to go be in the place I’m supposed to be, playing my music with my friends.
It wasn’t Kanye.
We’re playing on the back patio stage at a bar that’s blessedly set up for music always, and not just for South by. There’s a creek that runs through downtown, and the back area of the patio has a plug to charge my cell phone, free water, and a set. There’s a nook right by the edge of the deck where the light hides you completely if you sit down. You can hear a dozen different bands, DJs, rappers, and singers all at once, muddled together, anywhere in Austin, at any given time during the week. The same is true now, but late into the last night, it’s a bit quieter, as everyone loses steam and people get the fuck out of dodge. I can hear the creek that’s next to the railing, and promise myself that I’ll stop being a total idiot and come to Austin when it’s actually Austin. My alarm wakes me up five minutes before it’s time to play. Our set is six songs instead of our usual 12. At 12 songs, our set is 20 or 25 minutes. After this 10-minute set, I head straight back to my napping corner, trying to control the things I can.