Fun Fun Fun Fest is my favorite Austin music festival. I’ve known the guy who runs it for awhile – he was one of the first promoters to take a chance booking Okkervil River. But the last time we played it, it was somewhat of a disaster for us. The festival had relocated to a larger, more generic-feeling location and a months-long drought in Texas had led to an insane dust storm. Backstage, the crew scuttled around or zipped in and out on carts, all of them wearing long sleeves and long pants, bandanas pulled up over their mouths and noses to keep the giant gusts of grit out. Everything you touched crunched. When a big gust would kick up, the low sun would turn into this blotted-out hazy smear of orange. Everybody was excited because Terence Malick was there with Ryan Gosling and a film crew, doing some kind of movie about musicians and using the festival as a backdrop. It was the secret wish of every band at the festival (besides maybe Glenn Danzig) to have their touching pre-show ritual or their before-walking-onstage moment of tenderness immortalized in the B-Roll of a Terence Malick film.
I arrived for our set late and somewhat frazzled. In the confusion, the “runner” who was supposed to pick me up at La Quinta never showed. I didn’t have time to see if my gear was making any sounds. Waiting for the runner who never came to pick me up, I had sat in dogshit. I was grumpy. When I charged out onto the stage, the adrenaline pumping, the crowd cheering (or maybe they weren’t cheering; in my head I imagined them cheering), the first thing I did was slip on the powdery layer of dust covering the whole stage and fall flat on my face. It’s hard to recover from a move like that. I staggered to my feet like I meant to do it. Through the wavering curtain of dust, the audience looked a million miles away. I could barely see them. Scarier, I couldn’t feel them, and when you can’t feel an audience you’re not going to play a good show. I could dimly make out a sea of drab tan cloth, of hats or hoodies, of bandanas and wayfarers and aviators. We lurched unevenly into our set. I still couldn’t feel anything. I grabbed the mic in my right hand and yanked it off the stand, walking to the front of the stage to see the audience better and sing directly to them, then I realized I’d detached the cable from the mic and that the mic I was holding wasn’t plugged into anything. Frantic, I dropped to my knees and crawled around onstage, looking for the lost cable. The band kept playing, looping an instrumental section while I crawled around. I jumped back up, determined to try again. I broke a string. I broke another string. With two strings broken, my guitar began slipping painfully out of tune. Flustered, I decided to stop using it, and just began slapping on the back of it like a drum to keep time. Then I looked down to see that my guitar-drumming had split the guitar open in three places, giant splintery cracks running the entire length of the instrument.
I’m not sure if other singers can relate to this, but every now and then I have these moments where I think maybe I shouldn’t be playing music, maybe I never had any business playing music in the first place, maybe I don’t belong here, and maybe I should stop. This was one of those moments, maybe the most overwhelming of those moments. By the time I got offstage, I’d decided it was time to break up Okkervil River and that I should never play again. I was deeply despondent, in that kind of black mood where you yell at people who come up and try to make you feel better. Fortunately, my longtime Austin friend Mike Booher stuck around for awhile even though I yelled at him and, at an interval, he suggested we abandon the festival and go get dinner far away from the grounds.
In the car on the way to the restaurant, Booher and his friend Elizabeth put on some songs from the Ted Hawkins record Watch Your Step. I had never heard of Ted Hawkins before, but Booher explained to me he’d been a street performer whose big breakthrough record on Geffen had been released shortly before his death at the age of 58. I was sitting in the back of the car, still lost in agitated thought, when Hawkins’ song “Sorry You’re Sick” suddenly took over my brain and it was all I could pay attention to anymore. It’s not that the lyrics had anything to do with me or with what I was thinking (the lyrics themselves are phenomenal though, the best and kindest and most problematic articulation I’ve ever heard of the relationship between an addict and an enabler); rather, it was the sweet tone in Hawkins’ voice that struck me. There was something deeply comforting about the way Hawkins’ sang, and his song did to me what a lullaby does. It immediately, forcibly calmed me down. My brain stopped whirring. My hands unclenched. I was suddenly fully present, glad to be in the back of the car, watching the headlights on the road, with my friends. I can’t think of a recent occasion where music – especially music I’d never heard before – had a more immediate and powerful effect on my emotional state. I went from angry and fatalistic to completely, uncomplicatedly happy within the course of two minutes. I still wasn’t sure I should be playing music (I’m still not sure), but all of a sudden that didn’t seem like a big deal. Everything in my life seemed small and manageable, and Hawkins sounded so sweet, and I thought about how kind my friends were. I’ve bought Hawkins’ record since then (I also really highly recommend his last record The Next Hundred Years), but I’ve rarely listened to “Sorry You’re Sick” again. I guess I’m worried it might lose its power with too much repetition and I feel like I’m going to need it again.
*This isn’t strictly just 2012; it includes some 2011 stuff I just couldn’t leave out.