Five years ago I flew into Texas, not knowing how long I would be here. Although I am generally bad with dates, I remember my arrival in the Lone Star state because it coincided with Austin’s South by South West music/media/film festival, which is running this week.
And I recall that on that fateful plane journey I met a woman who was chaperoning a teenage rock band from Wales. They hoped to be “discovered” at the festival; their parents were concerned that their ambitious offspring would self destruct in a maelstrom of coke-snorting and whoring.
“They’re great,” said the chaperone of her young charges, “really talented”. Unfortunately the only booking they had was 11pm on the last day of the festival, far from the center of town. I haven’t heard of them since, so I suspect they never “made it” but rather went back to Wales, cut their hair short and got proper jobs- although who knows? They would only be in their mid 20s now so there is yet time to fulfill that rock n’ roll fantasy… or perhaps they changed their name and actually did become famous, only I never noticed.
Of course, some people do strike it lucky and are discovered at South by South West, which for a few days places Austin squarely at the center of the media universe. A few years back a squeaky voiced Afghan war veteran named James Blunt played a gig here and shortly thereafter was propelled to international success on the back of his atrocious, weedy ballads. If I’m not mistaken, a singer named KT Tunstall, who had spent long years singing for obscure folk acts in my native Fife, also appeared at SXSW and was suddenly ‘hot’. Nor is it only the young and unknown who use this festival as a launch pad for their careers. The year after I arrived in Texas the geriatric extrovert Iggy Pop turned up to play some gigs with his reunited band of 1960s rock primitives, the Stooges.
People love overnight success stories like that of James Blunt, and the media love them too. They are simple as fairy tales, and seem to indicate that magic does exist. Far nicer to believe that than to concentrate on the years of frustration and misery leading up to that moment of bliss, or the countless acts that fail to make it and abandon their dreams in exhaustion and bitterness. And even those who do succeed frequently become miserable bores. I remember listening to David Gilmour, the guitarist from Pink Floyd moaning about the pressures of success. “Once you have a million pounds, you worry about losing that million pounds,” he said. Apparently it’s rather stressful. A nice problem to have, I’d say.
Since I have no interest in discovering the Next Big Thing and I dislike crowds I always avoid SXSW when it comes to town, preferring to hang out in Wal Mart and look at the T-shirts. This year however a few friends and associates will be here to give talks and seek contacts, so I think I will have to drive down there to look at all the men with weird beards and ironic hats and the women with horn-rimmed specs and esoteric tattoos for a bit. Who knows? Perhaps I myself will be discovered. As I reach for a cup of coffee, someone will say – “look at those hands!” And I’ll become a famous hand model. Or perhaps I’ll mutter some sarcastic abuse, somebody will overhear and then hire me to do voiceovers for movie trailers in my flat, dolorous Fife accent.
Well, probably not. And that’s not bad, since I’m quite fond of obscurity. I know this because last week I was recognized in public for the first (and probably last) time ever. I was in a shop, and the man next in line identified me from a profile a local magazine had run a while back. “Aren’t you that Scottish anti-tourist writer guy?” he asked. It was a weird sensation. I suggested he visit my website and then left the shop as soon as possible. Imagine that happening every day, everywhere you went. Hideous; and yet millions dream of it.
So if I’m not going to seek fame at South by South West 2011, what I will do this week is ponder the expectations of life in Texas I had five years ago, what I have achieved and what did not come to pass. Like Stalin, I have always been fond of thinking in terms of five year plans. Like Stalin, I have enjoyed mixed success. Unlike Stalin I haven’t killed anybody to make those plans a reality. And hopefully, neither has anybody performing this weekend. Although you never know: ambition can make people do terrible things.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.