Features

Blind South By - Day One

SXSW 2013

By Will Butler

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Three days ago I read an article on NPR by Andrea Swensson titled, "The Reasons I'm Not Going to SXSW This Year." Her gripes were valid: long lines, an obsessive and pervading cover-everything syndrome combined with the corporate clusterfuck that in 27 years the festival had wholeheartedly embraced do not a friendly festival make. Through all of Swensson's skill as a writer, it was a sad piece to read. The jaded musings of a tired critic are never compelling, or even useful, but worst of all, in it I saw the reflection of my own cynicism. Then I started to think, well, how could one most enjoy this sputtering tilt-o-whirl of a festival? Three specific things came to mind: Ignore the schedule, do it on the cheap, and stay well-sauced. So, three days later, here I am, sitting on a balcony at 3 AM in Austin, TX. To be entirely clear: I have no badge, very little money, no place to stay, and no plans.

Also, I'm blind.

To understand this, you need to understand what I see. On a good day, and depending on light conditions, I see about 20/300 from my left eye and about 20/400 from my right eye. If you're not familiar with optical refractions, well, my vision is not good. I've got little to no peripheral vision, and my rods and cones are so shot that at night I'm pretty much useless. I adapted to this over about the last three years, when my vision really started to go south. I've got a weird pair of glasses and an arsenal of tools to magnify and block out light, but situations and dark bars are largely unpredictable and difficult to navigate. Six months ago, at the behest of my family and a few particularly convincing U.S. customs agents (did somebody say strip-search?), I shouldered the universal symbol of the blind man: the long white cane. So there's that. I say this so that you don't question my legitmacy; There are a few things that I see and many more that I don't. Let's not let that slow us down though. I have $220 in my pocket and $25 in my bank account. After luckily catching a ride to Los Angeles with friends, I found myself sitting on a curb in Santa Monica at 7 a.m. Monday morning waiting to be picked up by a stranger.

Strolling down dirty old Sixth Street, the center of the gross, Mardi Gras-esque action in Austin, I realized, as I sometimes do, that there are some places where blind folks just aren't expected to be. Particularly large crowds, hectic circumstances, and places of general fun and enjoyment. You can feel people gawking, questioning, seeing their own fear in your misfortune. The saving grace: Blind guys part crowds like Moses at the Red Sea. Even the most disgusting newlyweds will split ranks if they see you coming. The cane is a symbol that can't be ignored; even wheelchairs move. Being treated specially is weird, and uncomfortable at first, but it's for a reason, and I think it's fair. Deep down everyone feels the same pain, and the courage it takes to walk out the door in the morning. So, with this in mind, to really harness all the pity and good will of mankind, what's the first stop at SXSW? Pitchfork, obviously.

Just kidding. Not that I didn't try. When I got to the door to the P4k showcase at the Mohawk, I think the security guards quickly sized me up as about a 4.8 (they've got a fine critically trained eye, those guards). I'd like to think the doorman was Ryan Schreiber himself. Maybe the photographers had requested no disabled people, or maybe it was just the fact that I had neither badge nor wristband. Either way I was not going to party with Kitty, Yoni Wolf, or the bros from DIIV.

Luckily Ian Port, SF Weekly's charming and scholarly music editor, stepped outside to give me the low-down. Of course, it was crowded as shit and Marnie Stern kicked ass and everything else kind of boring, and so after some chit-chat I convinced Port to ditch out on P4K and have a beer with me. This is where the drinking begins, not to end, hopefully, until Sunday morning. Port and I strolled to Valhalla, a surprisingly comfortable and un-crowded bar just down the road, and imbibed. He even fronted me so that we could actually go to the back room and see Social Studies, a terrifically underrated SF outfit who always strike me as if Beach House were stuck jamming with Ratatat. And that's when I remembered I am, in fact, here for the music. And there'll be plenty of that! I'm going off-the-beaten-paved sidewalk, stumbling around drunkenly, already impaired eyesight fluctuating along with my blood alcohol content; hopefully things will get weird. At the very least, the theme of the week is Blindly Going Where Everyone Has Gone Before.

 

If you're looking for Will this week, tap #SxBlindGuy into Twitter, or find him here - @willkbutler

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