On the Death of SXSW's Brent Grulke

Categories: Obituaries

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Much has already been shared on the death of SXSW creative director Brent Grulke, who passed away yesterday after a heart attack, at age 52. It's our modern way to try to console each other via links, texts, emails. Amassing and distributing information to make sense of death.

I was a music editor at the Austin Chronicle from 2006-2011, and though Brent and I shared hellos while passing each other in the grassy walkway between the Chronicle and SXSW offices, or nods at office parties, that was about as deep as our friendship got.

In my time at the paper, I heard numerous people talk shit about SXSW, as it grew in numbers and sponsorships. About how it wasn't fair that certain bands got picked to play, while others had to languish in obscurity. That it was a popularity contest. That they didn't really care about music, just money.

I suppose that could be said of any large-scale festival, but what Grulke and his partners did with SXSW over 25 years cannot be dismissed as a glad-handing popularity contest. They set the bar for festivals, and people are still trying to catch up to their model. I've been guilty of bitching about SXSW fatigue myself, but when it's over and everyone's gone home, I always have a pang of the blues. If you are a music fan, you feel it too, despite the mayhem that ensues during that week. And Grulke was a fan. He was the music editor at the Chronicle long before I was there, and before that, a writer at The Daily Texan, a paper that hosted many of the city's creative misfits in the '80s. He saw Austin music through many phases and trends and fads, and stuck with it.

My former Chronicle colleague Chris Gray wrote a nice little tribute to Grulke, but this 2001 interview is especially illuminating of the man's love and knowledge of music and, more importantly, Austin, the city he called home and changed in the process:

Back in the old days, the difference was that there were a lot of fanzines where people wrote about their friends and wrote about the bands that they loved. And that wasn't even very long ago. And it was a really organic thing. It wasn't someone saying, "You need to write about these bands," it was the same people that were a part of the audience. It was a scene, it was a community. Truth be told, if I went and wrote about a bunch of punk bands right now, they might be really energetic and really good. I saw it 20 years ago and I'm too old now to where their concerns - I'd be, "Well, what do you know, a bunch of pissed--off kids." Great, I'm glad, but I'm not going to identify with them the way that I would if I were 20.

Greil Marcus can identify with Sleater-Kinney.

Identify - I don't know if that's exactly right. Instead he can analyze them and decide why they're culturally significant, but that's an entirely different process. I can do that too, don't get me wrong. I like snotty 20-year-old punk bands as much as anybody. I'm glad they're around. That's sort of the difference now - I'm glad they exist more than, "Boy, this does something for me!"

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