Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Log 511 April 10 2016 I take in a piece of Americana: a Texan Motor Show full of hot rods and vintage cars, and rock and roll bands, and lots of noise

Steve Wertheimer
(picture by John Anderson, Austin  Chronicle)

Yesterday I attended an event that I think could be called a piece of real Americana, or to be more precise, of Texicarna. It was the annual Motor Show in Austin, Texas. It is an event I witnessed a few years ago, on what I remember was a stifling hot day as we walked across the hills on the outskirts of the city, on which vintage cars from all over the United States had been gathered to be admired by the populace.

I am not interested in vintage or any other cars, but my son has an interest in this event because it is staged by a man he has known ever since he moved down here 12 years ago, a man who owns a famous Austin nightclub, the Continental, and who helped Ben and his band, Grady, in many ways over the years.
This man, Steve Wertheimer, could also be described as typically American, a self-made capitalist who moved into a depressed area of the city when he bought his nightclub, and who has since, by judicious investments in this and that, not only become extremely wealthy himself, but has been agent for uplifting the entire neighbourhood until today it is a thrusting, successful area for business and entertainment.
The stereotypes that would spring to mind for me of such a man would be mostly negative ones. But Steve, a restlessly energetic man, sort of defies most of those stereotypes. He is, of course hard-headed in business, as which businessman isn’t, but if his nightclub is anything to judge him by, there seems to be a real human being operating in that effervescent body. The Continental, as I have written many times, is still a grungy sort of dark hole entirely suitable for its mission, as laid down by its owner, that of playing live music on every day of the year, opening at 4 pm, and playing until closing time, usually around 2 am. Or maybe 3 am, if the gig is rocking.  He sticks to that mission so punctiliously that every Christmas Day there is a traditional gig by one of Austin’s favorite musicians, Dale Watson, who for four or five hours without a break just keeps playing some of the thousands of songs in his vocabulary until any reasonable man would be more likely to collapse than to keeping singing on.
There are said to be 150 such clubs in Austin that have live music, but certainly the Continental must rank among the top three or four: it is a music scene that enables Austin to claim it is the music capital of the United States. But the city is increasing in size --- up to 950,000 from 250,000 in 1970 --- at a rocketing rate, accepting as many as 100 new residents every day who, some say, are threatening to overwhelm the traditional Austin life style, of which music is probably its central core.  There are certainly still many wonderful musicians, great bands, in Austin, superb instrumentalists of the jazz, rock and pop variety. And Steve Wertheimer is one of those who bestrides this world ---- and I think I could use this word --- relentlessly. Anyway, since he got his start many years ago in a nightclub run by an old black man, now deceased, he has recently opened a smart new club named C’Boy’s Heart and Soul after  C’Boy Parks his ancient benefactor. It’s the sort of gesture that one might almost expect from a millionaire who  in his struggle to the top has managed to stay more or less a regular  guy (underneath that ruthless business exterior).
As Steve said, quoted in the Austin chronicle, "I think of him every day," of C'Boy. And the newspaper concluded. "Help people.  That's what Henry Wertheimer (Steve's Dad) and C'Boy Parks taught their boy Steve. You help people to help yourself. Fill a room with music and folks who love it, and sometimes it becomes a palace. You've just gotta walk through that door." I like that: it describes more or less how I feel about the Continental, which I have visited dozens of times.
So Steve’s motor show is part vintage cars, and part music. Vintage car guys, hot rodders,  love to make a hell of a racket as they whoosh, rumble and vroom  their engines while the car remains stationary, but needless to say in a show mixing cars with live music, some timetable must be established to allow the sublime to make its itself heard alongside the whooshers and swooshers.  In this environment the bands are as loud as the cars, and the audience, accustomed to the racket of American life, seem to eat it up. In fact, in the evening, at a musical gig attached to the Motor Show that took place in the Austin Speed Shop, I am told that one of the world’s loudest bands was playing as  a vintage car was wheeled into the auditorium, whooshing,  roaring and snarling so loudly that the music was completely drowned out.
I suppose similar events must take place in Canada, but when I remarked on how many overweight people were in attendance, whoever was with me remarked simply, “This is Texas.” That is the response given for almost everything down here. Texans think of themselves as exceptions to whatever rules govern the rest of the country, but to be fair to the state,  interlopers like me are more likely to remark on the obesity, the redneck politics --- “the odious Ted Cruz,” as I saw the Presidential aspirant called in a European journal last week --- the serving of food on greased brown paper, even in popular restaurants, the roughneck boastful posture so often adopted, than we are to remark on the magnificent art galleries, the multifarious universities, the splendidly effulgent public buildings, all of which are equally marks of Texan life.
Well, to get back to the Motor Show. I am sure events similar to this are held in Canada as well, but I am never likely to go to them, and I was astounded by the evidence of the devotion obviously lavished on the restitution of worn out old cars that, when restored, shine and glisten in their new paint, their spotless, gleaming, usually silver, engines, to such as point that I began almost to think of them as works of art. Certainly they are evidence of lives spent in which probably every spare moment and every spare dollar is devoted to the task. Some of the old beauties were for sale, with price tags for a 1931 roadster, for example, of $65,000, a rather impressive sum to pay for a vehicle the actual use of which must be minimal.  From restoration it is usually just an object to sit in the museum and be looked at.
And in the surrounding tents, where the businesspeople who serve this underground industry had their stalls, the things that people have made a hobby or a business of saving, and converting into cash are of almost indescribable variety. One item that struck me was a totally rusted out old chassis from a 1930s car, no wheels, no steering wheel, no seats, sitting on a tow truck with a price tag of $2,000. Imagine getting it home and beginning the task of converting it into an exact copy of its original designation! Imagine the bits and pieces required to make the thing whole again, pieces that must have to be bought from these small-time guys running their own businesses, each one specializing in a particular part, this one the number plates, this one the carburetor parts, this one the piece that ran along the outside of the car joining the axels to the engine pistons, and so on ad infinitum.  There were lines and lines, tables groaning under old licence plates, dating right back to the first plate ever issued in Texas in 1917, now up for sale for $550 each.  I even noticed some authentic 1932 equipment, listed as “brand new”, the part having been manufactured recently. Wow! I really do find it tough to get into the minds of these sellers and buyers,  prostate before their immense hobby.
Well, it takes all kinds to make our world. The whole exhibition was lined with food stalls, dozens and dozens of them, not unexpectedly purveying what is customarily called junk food --- chips, burgers, beer ---the impact of which seemed to be clear from the immense pounds of wobbling flesh being carried around.
Well, we are far from immune to that Canada, either. But maybe we carry it off with less bravado than the Texans. Which is, I suppose, what makes them unusual and noteworthy on this continent.

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