The 2002 South by Southwest conference was a liver-chiseling, industry-weasel clusterfuck that was at once great, unbearable, lovely, comical and stupid.

If there was an overall theme, it was the same verse we all heard last year, and the year before that and the one before that. The message: Those with integrity need to develop a real go-getter’s insensitivity — need to become a kind of monster PR machine — in order to survive financially in this business. The message — one that is antithetical to art and song — was everywhere.

A panel of publicists told a roomful of doe-eyed band members (some with recorders going), fresh-faced kids and adults from as far away as York, Pa., or Tokyo, Japan, how to develop Web sites, how to write their bios, how to make their records; basically, how to subvert their art. And the kids soaked up every word as though it had been issued from the messiah. The Word of the Publicist.

It’s a message that says we’ll never see another Patti Smith, another Jim Carroll, another Kurt Cobain or any Godhead collective that managed to transcend boundary. Not when phony is accepted as the new real, an idea supported in the acknowledgment that subterfuge and graft are necessary components for success.

The real troubadours — the Chuck Prophets, The Brendon Bensons, The Mary Lou Lords, etc. — are lost in the shuffle, lost in the trade of artifice.

Hence, Courtney Love. The most memorable panel was Love’s live interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times business journalist Chuck Phillips, whose job, it seemed, was to keep Love from veering off into verbiage never-never land, which she often did.

Security was as heavy as the bag search for weapons was inconvenient. Marshals stalked the aisles like storm troopers. The ballroom was crammed with crash-site neck-craners and journalists. At least 40 photographers at the bow of the dais awaited Love’s arrival.

Love entered late, to no applause, and proceeded to blow her nose into the mic. The move was brilliant and self-mocking, an entrance that said, “Here I am! Old Snot-Nose is back!”

“I’m still a rock star,” she cooed at the stone-faced bunch, many of whom who were aghast at her forthrightness. “I’m not a lawyer just yet …”

Yet, Love’s big-lunged rants often morphed into wearisome self-referencing and gushy apologies to Pearl Jam for having not backed them during their Ticketmaster brothers-in-arms time of need. (“I’m standing there with a needle in my arm and was in no condition to help and I feel really bad about that now.”)

Rants ran the gamut: former junkstruck ways, how Universal is a conglomerate that “wreaked havoc by consolidation of the industry” to the real money-makers. (“Nirvana made more for Geffen than Titanic ever made for anyone.”)

Despite getting ripped apart in the male-dominated press, Love is a necessary harpy who’s fighting the good fight. Necessary because her PR skills — contradictory, shameless and brash as they are — are honed.

She was on-target about the death of passion in music as we know it. She’s championing the songwriter, the bands, the artists.

As much as SXSW advocates a kind of musical integrity on behalf of artists the world over, the one glaring and unbalanced reality is this: So many people make a living from the songs, from the blood of the songwriters, yet so few songwriters earn a living. So very few. And those making the coin — many of whom are in charge of and responsible for how we hear, see, ingest and read about the music we purchase — seem to look down the barrel of a gun at the songwriter.

Love’s point that major-label consolidation has squashed most concepts of artist development rings true. Yet Love wants to be on a major label.

If Love is the PR princess of punk rock, unafraid to toss punches, Mary Lou Lord is her polar opposite. Lord went the indie/DIY route after her 1998 major-label debut “Got No Shadow.”

The celebrated songwriter played her literate, twinkle-eyed pop songs and myriad covers (Pogues, Joni Mitchell, Elliot Smith, etc.) with a passion that surpassed nearly every show we witnessed at SXSW.

The bashful blonde in a red overcoat and black knit beanie busked a spot on Sixth Street just feet away from Austin’s infamous stretch of clubs. Situated in the portal of an apartment building armed only with a tiny guitar amp, an acoustic guitar and a PA powered by a car battery, she sold CDs at her feet (for “anywhere from $5 to $500”). Kids, mothers, dads, drunks — all stepped forth and dropped coin.

As with Hole, there was confrontation and ugliness too. In a stretch of 20 minutes we saw this: A fat homeless women stood inches from Lord’s face and shouted something incomprehensible for a minute or so, then walked away. A group of cell-phone-toting thicknecks strolled deliberately between the small crowd and the singer and shouted skyward for Skynard; three chubby nü-metal creeps in Limp garb yelled “dyke.” Once the crowd swelled to around 25 and more — once Lord was recognized —- the epithets stopped.

Thursday night, the Von Bondies brand of unjaded sparkle helped to ensure a line long enough (around the block) that the house was oversold. We couldn’t get in. That goes lengths to support our theory that the Von Bondies will, by the end of the year, co-opt all of Western Europe with the White Stripes.

As Courtney Love said, the Detroit garage scene is going to bury the Strokes in England. The Von Bondies were on many lips throughout the convention, a murmur nearly as syrupy as the one for NYC’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The singer/guitar/drum trio (a Rolling Stone pick for 2002) is unembellished with kitsch, resolutely free of airs — and very, very Detroit-ish. The band wielded the biggest SXSW buzz, and for good reason. A beanpole guitarist hero, a brilliant drummer and a front woman who can carry a show. The big, bashy songs can whack you like a meth-addled girlfriend and soothe you like a torchy Marianne Faithfull ballad.

Singer Karen O is equal parts Midnight Cowboy-era Brenda Vaccaro and Siouxsie Sioux — cherubic and oddly erotic, she can make her slight beer-gut sexy. She’s at once shy like a soused Ohio housewife doing karaoke and arrogant like a porn star/stripper. Her stilted-but-graceful moves over a staccato wallop and standouts such as “Art Star” were unforgettable. The few hundred packed to the front of the stage agreed.

After the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Detroit band Chrome Flies seemed downright mannered. Still, the guitar-driven five-piece offered up a set of occasionally catchy, well-rehearsed AOR-ready rock in front of 60 or so. Reminded us of one of those bands like the Calling, a band unknown in its local scene that suddenly appeared out of nowhere and sold 3 million copies of its debut record. SXSW is good for bands like this.

Another highlight was Brendon Benson’s set Saturday at the Star Time showcase. Detroiter Benson, a kind of Peter Perret (“Another Girl, Another Planet”) incarnate who looks like one of the 12 apostles, can get away with a line like, “Try to understand that an oyster can only make a pearl/From a grain of sand/But from what I don’t know/Makes a girl.” Benson’s guitarist, Zach Phillips, is a full-on rock ’n’ roll star, with moves like Mick Jones; all composure, attitude and energy. The band offered up sweat-inducing versions of songs from the latest and brilliant, Lapalco, and Benson’s criminally overlooked 1996 debut One Mississippi.

A Friday afternoon set by Departure Lounge in the convention center’s trade show was an odd juxtaposition. Their slow, elegant pop songs in the Auteurs/Lilac Time mode went lengths to tender softness in the harsh product-pimping corners of the room.

Detroiters the Waxwings were a no-show on Friday. In their 9 p.m. slot at Emo’s was San Francisco band Oxbow, an art damage/punk quartet whose singer exuded a kind of prison-whore/park bench-vagrant aura, complete with jailhouse tats, and a between-song banter like, “What? You don’t want to get too close? You don’t want my cock in your mouth?” He also pulled said member from his white briefs and simulated masturbation. He showed his ass. By set’s end he’d completely disrobed. The mostly-male crowd was enthralled. He also had his ears duct-taped shut. A symbolic gesture, perhaps?

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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