South by Southwest.
What does it all mean?
Does anybody get anything accomplished there? Are careers made? Boosted? Ignored? Is it an invaluable chance to meet industry insiders and enhance one's working knowledge of the music business? An opportunity to see the latest groundbreaking pop, rock and roots acts while also catching the potential names of tomorrow?

Or is it a four-day, nonstop, brain-numbing whirlpool of food, alcohol, nicotine and bar chords?

I, myself, have just returned, and I can tell you in good faith that the event is 100 percent, ummm . . . I mean, the experience provides a tremendous, uh . . . well, it's just a bit hazy yet. Lemme lean my brain in closer to the heat of this desk lamp. Oh, nice and warm. I could almost fall asleep. Right here on this des

Sorry. As I was saying, I just got off the plane from SXSW '95, and it was a little of all of the above. So here we go: If there is one thing I learned, one absolute truth that seems to carry through year after year, it is this--at SXSW, everybody looks at each other. Not just glances, but those supposedly surreptitious, flash-bulb size-ups that take everything in at top speed. The reason for this is that everybody looks like he or she could be somebody. Tattoos, piercings, long hair, short hair, almost every possible version of "hip" rock "clothing" worn in almost every possible mix 'n' match combination. It's like Garanimals with the species tags gone mad.

There are musicians who look like booking agents, booking agents who look like label execs, label execs who look like roadies, roadies who look like writers. Whatever they look like.

I was walking down a deserted side street one afternoon and nearly ran headfirst into MTV's own Tabitha Soren. She looked like a Soho waitress.

But, of course, that's all part of the three-ring-circus effect that makes the thing interesting. And I want to stress that word "interesting"; I think the second-most-asked question (right after "What kind of beer do you want?") among SXSW attendees was: "Are you having a good time?" But the answer isn't simply yes or no.

SXSW is a place where, one minute, the stunning voice of blues legend Johnny Adams might practically move you to tears, and the next minute, you could find yourself in midcrosswalk, revealing your buttocks to a carload of college girls and hearing the phrases "Nice ass!!" and "Fucking pervert!!" screamed at the same time. I'm just saying, things like that could happen.

Or things like this:
I pulled in last Wednesday, though the conference didn't officially begin until last Thursday. Still, there were plenty of things to do, like gobble up the Hershey's Kisses that were only half-melted on my pillow at the swank Driskill Hotel. That night, I hooked up with my friend Mike. Attentive readers will remember him from last year's SXSW column; back then, I was seething with envy after he got to have dinner with Lee Harvey Oswald's daughter. This year, he bested me again by witnessing Austin's legendary acid casualty Roky Erickson spend five minutes trying to convince an 8-year-old boy to smoke a cigarette.

Mike and I decided to stay close to home, and commandeered stools at the hotel bar, where a fine man named Tom was jockeying drinks. And what a perfect Texan he was, a one-man chamber of commerce for the State Where Everything's Bigger. He had been a bareback bull rider at age 18 ("a damn good way to meet the ladies"); killed nine men in Vietnam ("I got over it. I had to."); and had a 20-year-old daughter, a 24-year-old girlfriend and a gut the size of a medicine ball.

"This is the greatest state in the world," Tom told us, and guzzling those big Lone Star drafts, listening to a no-name country band with a guitar picker hotter than an inch-long chile pepper, I had to agree.

Next morning, as I was learning that even the hangovers are bigger in Texas, my misery was gradually assuaged by a breakfast of Tex-Mex at a place named Las Manitas. Every year, this joint is jammed, and for good reason. Even if all the place served was beans, I'd eat there. Mid-enchilada, I looked up to see no less a celeb than ex-Texas governor Ann Richards, resplendent among the scruffy, ashtray-eyed rock crowd. She asked me if I was having a good time at SXSW, and I said yes. Sometimes you have to make those quick decisions.

The music's the thing, and that night I dove in, ears first. When you've got something like 160 bands playing in a five-hour period, it's not always easy to see who you want. Standouts: a passionate set by Kevin Salem and something named Friends of Dean Martin. For the latter act, I had no idea what to expect--and then it turned out to be Arizona's very own Giant Sand, doing lounge favorites.

Of course, in the case of Sand, "doing" is a relative term. "Moon River" sounded a lot closer to the moon than any river. One a.m. found me front and center for Laika and the Cosmonauts, a stunning all-instrumental surf band from Finland. If these guys ever come to the Valley (the band canceled a recent date), please go. This is the manic, reverbed soul of surf with the smooth hip of Neal Hefti and some magical Finnish quality thrown in. What a party it was; toward the fevered end of the set, a girl next to me shed a big, black overcoat to reveal a silver-lamā-fringed Nancy Sinatra outfit, stepped on the sound board and began go-go dancing like her life depended on it. I love show biz!

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