2012 was a weird year for me as a freelancer. I picked up some high-profile work in Austin. (Five Austin Chronicle cover stories!) I lost some work for various reasons — Adult Swim shut down the blog that I’d been working with, CultureMap and I parted ways, some of the nice behind-the-scenes stuff I’d come to rely on, like a quarterly Q&A for Hemispheres, got shifted to in-house. I didn’t pitch as aggressively as I did when I was first starting out, and so I didn’t land anything big and national this year.
I did do a lot of writing that I was genuinely proud of, though. Because there is no point to having a Tumblr if you can’t be both self-indulgent and self-promoting on it, here are ten things I wrote this year that I still like.
"[Y]ou can’t overstate the band’s importance, especially in its home state: As a multiracial group of five guys from the depressed border town of El Paso, they inspired an entire generation of kids in hopeless-seeming places like Laredo, McAllen, Abilene – they were living proof that their rock and roll dreams could come true, that it wasn’t just for white dudes in big cities. For Latino and Latina kids in shitty Texas towns, they weren’t just the Velvet Underground – they were Jackie Robinson." (April 10th)
Hive really opened up what they let me do in terms of live show coverage this year. When it launched, it had been mostly a boilerplate format, but they were more interested in letting their writers actually write in 2012. (Jeff Weiss did a killer essay on Outside Lands; Katherine St. Asaph has done a number of in-depth and thoughtful album write-ups.) I was really excited that I got to say something about At The Drive-In that captured what I saw that band bring out in so many of my friends. (The show, incidentally, would easily make any top-five list of “best live shows I’ve ever seen,” which is impressive for one you saw at 31 years old.)
“The hardest part of rooting for Tim Tebow in the playoffs is knowing how much you’re going to hate that guy when he’s the Republican nominee for President in 2036. If you caught yourself cheering when he torched the Steelers defense with an 80-yard touchdown pass to win the game on the first play of overtime — with a lot of help from Demaryius Thomas, sure — then be prepared to have that memory twisted against you as the esteemed Senator from Colorado replays it in every campaign ad to snatch the nomination away from Bristol Palin.” (January 10th)
I loved having the chance to write a weekly football column that looked at the game, the politics, and the culture of America as one big stew, and the fact that Tim Tebow emerged during the year I did it was very fortunate, since he is all of those things.
"Legion are the bands – metal and otherwise – that have come to Austin because of the mythology and campfire tales of those who made it. Beyond Gods and Empires, the band that founded the Texas Metal Collective, is just one of them.
The dream goes like this: You leave your opportunity-starved hometown to come to Austin. Your band gets booked at cool venues, starts scoring opening slots for buzz bands, and then recording and financial excess follow.
Here’s what really happens if you’re a band like Beyond Gods and Empires.” (August 10th)
So, this one actually didn’t turn out the way that I wanted it to. The editor and I never really saw eye-to-eye on what it should look like, and it ended up getting trimmed considerably before it ran. But that happens sometimes. What I like about this story is that it still talks about an under-served part of the Austin music community in a way that gave them the space to be celebrated as important. There are countless bands who come to Austin to make it, and most of them toil in obscurity in bars that don’t have a cool reputation, wondering why the so-called Live Music Capital has so little to offer them. A thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, maybe, but it takes a thousand monkeys, and most of them don’t get famous.
"Tejano—and its northern Mexican counterpart Norteño—looms large over the Valley. Where Austin has Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Valley has Esteban Jordan (dubbed “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion” by musicians) and Freddy Fender. The music is inescapable. Rock fans like Maldonado grew up with Tejano in the air at barbecues and at work.
Maldonado, 34, played in rock bands in the Valley for years before taking his chances in the rock-friendlier environs of Austin. The deck can seem stacked against Valley rockers. If you want to succeed as a musician, you have to move away. If you choose to stick around, you might as well become an electrician, because the music scene isn’t conducive to achieving rock-and-roll dreams.
But Charlie Vela, a musician who also hails from the Valley, didn’t move away or become an electrician. Instead, the 28-year-old opened a studio in the Valley for recording rock music. Vela, who lives in Edinburg, plans to prove that the Valley can be a home for indie-rock and Tejano, and perhaps one day create its own rock legends.” (March 5th)
I am just realizing the common thread to what I was interested in writing about in music this year — largely, it was underdogs from border regions who were determined to prove that they weren’t outside of the mainstream just because they came from forgotten places. It’s funny what you figure out when you look back with some perspective.
"You’ll hear this sort of thing from aspiring musicians all over the country, if you talk to them about Austin. It’s always been a part of our city’s mythology, but it’s only gotten bigger as SXSW continues to blow up, as ACL has established itself as one of America’s Big-Four music festivals and as Fun Fun Fun Fest has earned a part of the national conversation.
We have these major events that bring the attention of music fans from all over to Austin, and if you’re a band dude in Arkansas with a dream in your heart that you might be able to go somewhere and find a home for your music, it’s a myth you’re eager to buy.” (August 14th)
There were a number of disappointing things about how my relationship with CultureMap shook out, and one of them was that I never got to finish pursuing the conversation I’d tried to start with the Music For Capital column, which was about what Austin music looked like and where it was going right now. I was happy with the discussions that it started — especially around local hip hop — but it was meant to be a much longer project.
"It’s not fair to expect that every other artist will engage his or her senior years with the same grace, flair, and elegance that Leonard Cohen has (in truth, those are attributes that he possessed in uncommon abundance even in his youth), but the fact that he is still here, still performing, still offering up three and a half hours of music a night, and still fundamentally in possession of everything that made him important in the first place makes the Old Ideas tour absolutely essential." (November 1st)
Another thing that I was very interested in writing about this year: aging, and the affect that it has on creative vitality. (I wrote an essay on Bob Dylan’s Tempest for Hive about this that didn’t quite get to what I wanted to say.) The reason I love music writing is because it’s such an open form for writing about anything that interests me. A review of a Leonard Cohen concert is an essay about the way that we look at old people, and about aging gracefully. A write-up of an At The Drive-In show is about border culture and common threads between disparate nowhere regions. This is all pretty obvious stuff (you can do the same thing in sportswriting, or literary criticism, or probably dance or tech or whatever else you care about), but it continues to make the opportunity to write about something that doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things seem very important to me.
"At Austin City Limits, meanwhile, the crowd is diverse in ways that would be utterly bizarre at, say, Bonnaroo. There are old people at ACL, y’all. Like, a lot of them. This is the one weekend a year where a whole lot of people from all over Texas — men and women in their forties, fifties, sixties, beyond — get out and see some music. They bring folding chairs and blankets, they don’t give much of a shit who’s going to be on which stage, they stake out a spot a good fifty yards away from the front, they drink beer all day long, and they have a damn fine time. There are parents with little kids, there are pill-swallowing teenagers, there are the seemingly-endless parade of 20-somethings who have made Austin one of America’s fastest growing cities, there are faces that are many different colors staring up at the stages — it’s a reflection of the city, and Austin is distinct from Chicago, from LA, from everywhere else that has a giant music festival that attracts thousands and thousands of people, which is pretty much everywhere these days." (October 15th)
I liked what we came up with, which is a very long, very rambly post that jumps from “check out how great Michael Kiwanuka and LP were” to “this is what Weezer and Neil Young mean to people in 2012” to “What makes one festival different from another in the contemporary American monoculture.” I’m really grateful to have an outlet that will let me write things like that.
"Here’s how you alienate the meager fan base you’ve managed to develop as an independent rock band struggling to make a career in the bleak-as-hell music industry of 2012:" (February 17th)
I’d always wanted to write one of those in-depth profiles where you spend more time than just a phone call or a cup of coffee with the people you’re writing about, and try to get at some of the things about them that they don’t want to tell you. I’m not sure that I accomplished that in this profile of the formerly-Christian band Quiet Company, but I am pleased with the results nonetheless.
"Obviously, I’m not a victim here (‘No one suffers more than freelance writer Dan Solomon!’), but this whole experience was eye opening for me. CultureMap is a not-insignificant player in Texas media, and the idea that a company would let go of someone they’ve worked with for a long time for saying, ‘Speculating about whether a girl who files rape charges is a liar without reporting any information that leads to that conclusion is irresponsible!’ while so steadfastly defending the article that does the speculating was a surprise." (November 26th)
The times I’ve felt most like a “real” journalist — whatever that means — are the times when I know that something I’ve written has ruined the day of people whose day deserved to be ruined.
The fact that I was a big part of this story — maybe too big, some people I’m disinclined to argue with, suggested — made it pretty uncomfortable. For a few days, my big face was on a lot of people’s Facebook walls, which honestly stops being flattering after the first five or ten and then makes someone like me want to hide under a bridge for the next 36 hours (which is how long it takes for the Internet to move on to the next thing). But I’m convinced that the story landed with people because there was a big white-dude-face on it. “Media company writes something irresponsible about rape” is dog-bites-man; “White dude affected” is man-bites-dog.
Anyway. I learned a lot from this story, and a lot of it is useful. I learned how to recognize when you’re being praised because people’s expectations are very low, and how to not let that go to your head; I learned that people in the media will outright lie if it preserves their narrative (CultureMap denied, in print, several times, that I sent them an email saying “I’d like to try to resolve this”); I learned that I don’t want to be the public face of much of anything, and that I definitely should not be invested in having an identity as a Feminist Dude. All of those are good things to take away from an experience like this.
"Shubin gets giddy talking about being a cop. ‘I couldn’t do it today,’ he says, but not just because he’s 59. ‘Today, everybody’s got a camera, and everybody’s got a lawyer. Steve Shubin would be fired in a month.’ He describes his days as a cop as ‘the best job I ever had,’ and that’s up to and including his current gig raking in a bazillion dollars by selling Fleshlights. Shubin gushes about it.
'If somebody needs their face slapped, they're getting their face slapped,' he says, talking about his style of policing – but, he laments, 'You can't do that anymore.' He talks about this stuff so openly, I almost wonder if he remembers that my recorder is on. 'I've killed people before. I've done everything. I have choked hundreds of people unconscious. Did I enjoy it? No,' he says – and when he explains why not, he says that it's because a person who's choked out poops their pants. Why'd he stop? The pay was bad. 'There wasn't much money in policing,' he says.
All of which is to say that Steve Shubin probably has a different perspective on the world than you or I do.” (May 11th)
I’m pretty sure that this profile of the inventor of the Fleshlight is the best writing I’ve ever done. It helped to have such a vivid character as Steve Shubin (who was not pleased with the way the story came out), but I really was proud of the prose here, and the fact that I was able to say so much about what is interesting to me about a culture that buys Fleshlights by the truckload. If 2013 involves me writing even just a couple of things that I’m as proud of as I am of “Pressing The Flesh,” it’ll be a very good year.