I arrive in Austin on a Friday afternoon, and there’s a guy at the airport to pick me up—he holds up a sign with only my last name on it, “BULL.” That guy’s my ride.
I find out a few things right off the bat: my driver, Jack, just bought himself his first Gibson (it was about time, he says); he used to play in a Mexican rock band (but he doesn’t speak Spanish); and he spent the night partying with LL Cool J. He watched LL’s show from the stage wings, he tells me, and he’d never liked hip-hop before, but now he gets it more. He says the women dancing on LL Cool J’s stage were fine. He says he’s not that young anymore, and he’s tired, but it was worth it.
Jack’s decked out in a black suit and a pair of well-worn cowboy boots, and there’s something of the reformed badass about his demeanor. It’s endearing. He says, “I used to dream about being a rock star and now I drive them around—it’s really come full circle.” And I guess it has, in a country song kind of way.
As we head out of the airport he points to a baggage carousel and says, “Look, it’s the drummer for Aerosmith.”
I settle into the backseat of the car and look over the brown landscape. It’s all spaghetti highways, pale blue sky, the odd ragged cactus. “I’ll get the air-conditioning going in a second,” Jack says. I just flew in from a snowstorm. I don’t mind the heat.
It’s my first time at Austin’s famed SXSW festival. I’m there to check out the premiere of Jeymes Samuel’s western, “They Die by Dawn” (coincidentally the same title as Samuel’s latest album with his band, The Bullitts). But Samuel isn’t here yet, so I head out with a few other ragtags to see the mayhem going down in Austin.
Downtown, a couple of frat guys hanging around some garbage cans—a buff one and a fat one—give us directions to 5th and 6th Streets, which are closed off for pedestrians. We are met by bar after bar after bar pounding sound at us. Each building is a music venue with its own show going on, and the erupting noise is cacophonous, intense. In juxtaposition, the throng feels warm and peaceful, even if it’s 15 people thick; it’s like we’re a bunch of cattle herded by Temple Grandin, all walking in the same direction nice and easy. The streets are full of sexy hipsters, and they left their irony at school—everyone looks all-out glad to be there. Food trucks serve up the requisite (and delicious) tacos and Fantas. My friend Cynthia, who is married to a Texan, texts me that I should try some fish tacos, so I buy one from a beautiful, buxom Mexican woman. A girl butts ahead of me and announces, drunk, “These are the best tacos! Of my whole life!” I second that emotion, on the inside. I eat my taco, watching the crowd. A man’s standing in a food truck all on his own, belting out his tunes. People pool around him and cheer when he finishes his set, picking up free CDs from a shelf. He’s good. All the street musicians are: the funk singers, the singer-songwriters, the mayonnaise jar percussionists.
I tool around an open-air thrift store looking for something to bring back as a souvenir. Girls sit in a row, selling crystals on hemp necklaces. Are these retro stylish necklaces, I wonder, or are they perpetually stylish to 19-year-old girls? I almost buy one out of nostalgia. They’re cute, the girls in their silver bling, smooshed between taco stands, down the dirt hill from some racks of secondhand plaid shirts.
Here’s a surprising fact: you can see the stars at night in downtown Austin, as clearly as you would if you were in the country. That’s why they call Texas Big Sky Country, I guess. I make out the three stars that stud Orion’s Belt.
Me and my small posse—a slip of a TV anchor and her video producer—try to get to the Fader party, but it closed at eight P.M. Eight on a Friday! Balls. We moan a little because we wanted free merch, but we steel ourselves to the inevitable: it’s time to call it a night. We make our way back through the streets, figuring we’ll grab a cab back to our hotel in the ’burbs.
SXSW bulges the city’s population to about four times its usual size. Logistically, what this means is that every single taxi is filled up with drunk tourists. There are zero cabs. A possible solution, if your Air B&B or your couch-surf or whatever is in the city limits, is to hire yourself a rickshaw driver—and those cyclists have some damn fine muscular legs. But they don’t bike out to the sticks. Fair enough.
The three of us wander all over town trying to track a cab. We squat fancy hotels. We call our hotel. I call my husband to see if he can Google us a limo number, maybe. We find ourselves at a commuter train station, quite by chance, and someone tells us we could maybe take the last train and get off and it could possibly take us to our hotel. A train shows up at exactly that moment.
The train only costs a buck. It’s crammed full of drunks and lovers and girls holding hands, drinking beer out of glasses they’ve swiped from bars, and bearded guys asleep with fedoras over their faces and a rowdy dude in a red Millennium Falcon T-shirt.
I hold on to a seat and crowd the girls with their stolen glasses. I’m half tucked into a rack of fixed-gear bikes hung up by the door. Couples cuddle under the tangle of their hanging bikes.
They call our supposed station, and, miraculously, after trekking through some if-you-build-it-they-will-come fields, we find our hotel. We sleep.
Part 2: Dawn
The sun is bright. It’s hot. I don’t know how hot. Summer hot. Like 85 degrees, or 90, or something when you feel a fever coming. It’s amazing. I want to live here forever and never be cold again.
I borrow a cigarette from another media junket guy from L.A. We loll around, boiling, watching the SXSW crowds lump by in their low-key indie duds, cute as a page full of kitten gifs. I’m not being sarcastic. I want to pick them all up and smell their bellies, even if, like cats, they’d just squirm haughtily out of my arms.
Bulleit, in a moment of branding genius (get it? Bulleit and bullets and The Bullitts—three times a bullet!), is hosting the “They Die by Dawn” event, and they’re liberally slinging bourbon cocktails into plastic cups. I confess to having a little of whatever’s on tap.
People start pouring into the Viceland party scene.
We’re all here to catch the premiere of the 50-minute movie, “They Die by Dawn,” the story of four outlaws languishing in Langston, Oklahoma who, when they realize how much they’re worth dead, set a date to win the collective bounty on their heads. Bang-bang:
Last man standing takes all.
The first to take a couple of bullets to the chest? Blue-eyed Jesse Williams. It hurts to watch someone so pretty die.
Jeymes Samuel, multimedia (meta-media?) sensation—songwriter, scriptwriter, musician, producer, filmmaker, visionary, Jay-Z buddy and generally riveting raconteur—wrote and directed “They Die by Dawn.” The Londoner tells me he “bent time and space” to put the characters together in this film. “They Die by Dawn” is based on historic African-American outlaws who didn’t actually know one another, whose stories never overlapped. “This is like The Avengers,” Samuel says.
Sure, it’s like The Avengers, if The Avengers was a badass double-fisted showdown in a dusky pioneer shantytown with an all-star African-American cast.
The history of African-American outlaws is little known. It isn’t something you see in the movies; it’s not even something you learn about at school. It took an outsider to make this happen: Samuel’s movie is a moment in cinematic history, and everyone in the audience is aware of the milestone. The cast, including megawatts Rosario Dawson, Jesse Williams, Michael Kenneth Williams, Isaiah Washington, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Denzel Whitaker, Clifton Powell, Nate Parker and Erykah Badu (the saloon dame), were all wooed by Samuel personally to take on the project. His enthusiasm is infectious.
“There’s like 64 years of Old West, post-slavery, so how come you don’t see no man of color [in westerns]?” says Samuel. “That’s what interested me,” he adds, “to go and research these historical characters, the historical talent. It’s never been touched before in cinema. You do your research and you go back and you see all these beautiful characters and they’re all swagged outlaws.”
“They Die by Dawn” is historic, but it’s also just an out-and-out fun project. It’s cheeky, it’s kitchy on purpose. It’s Wild West at its best—the flick’s saturated with cigar-chomping gamblers, buxom femmes fatales and boozers doing time, all seen through grainy yellow Oakie lens. After Rosario Dawson’s man gets gunned down, a tear slides down her cheek, then dries in the desert sun.
The sound at the Viceland joint is a little tinny, but there’s possibly never been more game an audience. They hoot and holler the way audiences did back in the days when my grandma played piano accompaniment for silent movies.
After the Q&A, the pictures, the interviews, Erykah Badu—sporting a jaunty felt bowler hat—gears up to DJ the after-party. Meanwhile, Isaiah Washington’s leaning back against a wall plastered with movie posters. He’s been walking around all night with an unlit cigar (he smokes charismatically in the movie). I ask Washington if his cigar’s just an accessory or if he’s planning on lighting it at all. He says he’s going to smoke it. Later, outside, when there’s a good 20 feet of wilderness around him. “Why not now?” I ask. He tells me because the cigar’s got a very powerful smell. It’ll make a big cloud of smoke, he explains. I tell him cigar smoke smells good, probably people wouldn’t mind. He says, “Do you want to smell my cigar?” I say sure, and take a whiff.
It smells like caramel.