When Death Comes to the Festival

AP Images/Austin American-Statesman/Jay Janner

On Monday, 26 year-old Sandy Le died in the hospital, the third fatality of last week's crash at the SXSW music festival. Another person, 18 year-old DeAndre Tatum, is in critical condition, and seven others remain in the hospital. The incident occurred shortly before 1 a.m. on March 13, when a drunk driver, chased by police, sped into a crowd outside Austin’s Mohawk Bar, on a closed-off section of road, injuring a total of 23 people, and leaving two dead at the scene.

Hours before the crash, I stood at the Parish, a downtown music venue, waiting for the Kooks to play. First up, however, was Claire, an electronica band from Munich. They seemed to personify every idea I had about what going to a music club in Munich would be like. Lead singer Josie-Claire Bürkle came out in a black, witchy outfit, with her midriff exposed, with her long blond hair in a slicked back ponytail. She sang overly mysterious lyrics in a low sonorous croon while dancing around, as colored lights lit up the stage. In between songs, however, her serious mask fell; her patter was full of a youthful exuberance. “We’re so excited to be here,” she told the crowd beaming. “You’ve been the most awesome audience!” She didn’t remember to give the band’s name until the end—“By the way, my name’s Claire, like the French name.” Then she bounced off stage.

Whether or not electro-pop is your thing, Claire’s performance was enchanting, and personified what remains the best part of SXSW: young, excited musicians happily doing their thing. The sheer number of bands is amazing—thousands of them, mostly undiscovered and unknown, most with an earnestness that peeps through the swagger. I always find the accompanying aesthetic alluring as well: leggy girls who wear overalls with lacy bras, women who manage to spend a day walking from one concert to the next, standing for hours in high heels, men in skinny jeans and with notable facial hair. People who look beautiful, even when they’re sweaty. For anyone over 25, it’s hard not to feel a little old and a little worn by comparison to the fresh-faced kids who really shouldn’t be smoking or drinking so much. I remember my first time going to the festival, being 22 and driving 17 hours straight from my small-town Iowa college to show up in time for the sets I wanted to see, figuring out how to see bands without paying a dime. It seemed easier to do SXSW for free then—we stood in lines, but we didn’t have any online RSVPs or required app downloads, now requirements for getting in anywhere for free. The iPhone didn’t even exist yet. Now I live in Austin, with bills to pay and a fear of getting a hangover. This is the third time I’ve covered SXSW as a reporter, always slightly annoyed that the demands of normal life don’t go away just because the hipsters have come to town.

The crash occurred at midnight, in one of the festival’s crowded pedestrian intersections, and by early the next morning, everyone seemed to have heard. I responded to Facebook messages that yes, I was okay, and wondered if I knew anyone among the dead or injured. The police close off streets for the festival and given the tens of thousands of concert-goers milling around at any moment, I always revel my chance to walk on the road rather than the sidewalk. Red River and 10th St, the scene of the accident, usually has a crowd.

Death in public spaces carries a unique meaning. Drunk drivers kill people every year, but these were the first deaths at the SXSW festival. The sudden tragedy came in the midst of revelry on a massive scale, and the festival’s corporate excesses suddenly seemed glaringly gross. Dan Solomon of Texas Monthly wrote a piece immediately after the crash hoping the rest of the festival would be more somber, noting that “while this incident appears to be the sort of outlier for which it's impossible to prepare, it's nonetheless also an opportunity for SXSW and the brands that sponsor it to consider the culture of excess that the festival, as it's currently set up, encourages.” A New York Times article titled “After Fatal Crash, Soul Searching for South by Southwest," said the accident “crystallized a question floating around the edges of the festival for years: Has South by Southwest become too big and too rowdy, and has it lost the original spirit of what it intended to be?”

Sometimes it seems like people come to the festival expecting some sort of county fair for music, and instead they get an international marketing conference. SXSW was always a place for little fish to find bigger ponds— films try to find buyers, bands try to find labels, and start-ups try to find investors—but now enormous mega-brands use the event to do, well, something. I’m never sure how it’s worth it to the companies, but I’ve become inured to downloading an app in exchange for a grilled cheese or limiting my drink options to the vodka sponsoring an event. Chevrolet, eSurance, and Subway were among the biggest sponsors this year, their logos plastered everywhere. T-shirts and coozies abound in exchange for email addresses; Oreos and Doritos seem to flow steadily. There’s the Marlboro Black Lounges for smokers, while VUSE branded itself as the “official e-cigarette of SXSW.”

The carnage from the crash seemed to highlight the more distasteful elements of the festival, and mainstream publications didn’t hold back in criticizing just how corporate SXSW has become. An Los Angeles Times piece excoriated the constant branding while the New York Times slammed the festival’s attention on the already-famous, at the cost of what made it famous to begin with: bringing fame to unknown indie bands.

Early Thursday afternoon, I walked downtown and could find almost no sign of the horrific scene that had taken place just 12 hours prior. I walked by the intersection where the car slammed into the crowd. The bars there were quiet still, with few people around, but I saw nothing to mark the space. As I walked on, into the convention center, around the other major pedestrian thoroughfares, no one mentioned the crash or the dead as we waited to see movies or waited in line for concerts. I don’t know what I was expecting, but somehow, I thought that the whole festival would feel different because something had happened, and people had died.

The festival organizers clearly wanted to make clear their concern for the tragic events. Initially press releases explained that though the festival would go on, events at Mohawk and nearby Cheer Up Charlie’s were cancelled. But by late afternoon the day after the crash, a new notice went out explaining that the shows would go as planned. By email and Twitter, they encouraged blood donations, and phone numbers for grief counseling. There was a prayer service at St. David’s Church downtown. Around 100 people showed up for the service; by evening the church was a music venue again. Festival organizers also started a new organization, SXSWCares, meant to raise relief funds for victims. “This is our number one priority – their care and support,” read the press release. “We are a community here that exists far beyond the 10 days of SXSW.”

But at this point, at this scale, SXSW isn’t a community. It’s just lots and lots of people—estimated at over 70,000—including revelers enjoying spring break, music lovers coming to find new bands, business people looking for new markets and new products.

With three more days left in the festival, people didn’t want to be somber. Bands commanded you to get excited, get pumped up, and the largely young, happy spring breakers went from show to show. Samsung kept offering free phone batteries and Yahoo continued operating its lounge. It seemed almost impolite to mention the deaths: this was not a place for memorial. Perhaps that’s inevitable at a festival about youth and talent.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, I went to hear North Dakotan Tom Brosseau played folk songs in the lobby of the Hyatt Place. Most SXSW showcases happen at official music venues, but with chairs pulled up around Brosseau’s stool, and people talking in the background, his set almost had the feel of a lounge act. In his late thirties, the singer-songwriter is blonde, thin, and clean cut enough to be a Mormon missionary. The audience here was older, heavier, and decidedly less glamorous. Stroking his 1947 guitar, he spoke in a quiet voice about his grandma, who’d taught him to play. “She said, behind every tree, a pretty girl,” he said. “But there are no trees in North Dakota.”

His folk songs were haunting and beautiful for the few dozen people in the audience. The woman in front of me wore sensible shoes with a long cotton skirt; during a pause in the music, she nudged her friend. “That’s us,” she said, pointing to the TV screens on the wall. CNN showed images from the crash before moving on to the missing Malaysian airplane. The audience seemed to notice, as did Brosseau. While he didn’t say anything about the incident, his songs were somber, and I stared at the TV long after Austin was off the screen.

Six hours later, at the Central Presbyterian Church, I sat listening to Typhoon, an ensemble band whose songs focus, with unabashed emotion, largely on the lead singer’s fight against Lyme’s disease. The band had been playing for 20 minutes or so when the church minister appeared on stage. He explained that the festival organizers had asked for two minutes of silence, that everywhere the music would cease in recognition of the victims. For two minutes everything was still, and everyone solemn. Then the band picked up their instruments and began to play again.

Comments

"It seemed almost impolite to mention the deaths: this was not a place for memorial. Perhaps that’s inevitable at a festival about money and profit."

There. . . I fixed that for you.

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