All the Camels in Texas
“No. Austin ain’t in the desert” The taxi driver shouts, over a half open window.
“Oh. I told my daughter I was going to the desert. She asked me to take a picture of a camel for her.”
The taxi driver laughs as the night air is sucked into the car.
“I told her there weren’t any camels where I’m going. She said ‘I thought camels lived in the desert’ It was hard to explain.”
“The desert’s further West.” She says as we gain speed on the freeway, surrounded by the red and golden lights of the other cars as they pass in the darkness. “Oh we got everything in Texas. Desert. Swamps. You name it. But not here in Austin.”
“No camels.” she says, laughing again, only less this time. More forced and tired.
I can just about make out the glinting of her eyes in the rear view mirror. Bright and thinking. Her voice is hoarse. As if she’s been talking too much or shouting the day before. I stop talking and look out the window.
A gas station passes in a blur. Then a motel and a closed down Diner.
By the time I reach my hotel it’s almost 9 o’clock and the bar is empty. I head over with my guitar and bag, sit on a stool and order a bottle of Modelo.
“Modelo? Seriously? What is it with Mexican beers these days. What’s wrong with American beer?” asks the barmen.
“Nothing.” I say.
He slams a Rolling Rock on the bar and sticks a lime in it. “See, now it’s Mexican?”
I didn’t want a lime. But I really do like Mexican beer. It’s usually good clean lager with no surprises. I haven’t got the energy to argue though. The guy’s obviously some kind of arse hole. I’ve been up for something like twenty three hours and my plan was to drink one, maybe two beers and then go to my room to sleep. But the barman is such a prick I guess I’ll have to go out now.
I down the beer quick as I can and pay without tipping. Then I head to my room to dump my bags. Standing in the stillness of the hotel room, the grey air conditioners white noise is like a lullaby. I’m moments from calling it a night and passing out. But I just can’t do it.
I’d travelled 5,000 miles, and it’s only gone nine. I gotta stay up till at least midnight or the jet lag will linger for days. And I can’t afford that. Havn’t come out here to sleep.
I order the taxi on my phone and then head downstairs to the bar.
“I’ll have a tequila please.”
He reaches for a colourful bottle of tequila and pours.
“You got any American Tequila?” I say, joking, and immediately regret it.
“What? Where the hell are you from anyway? Australia?”
“Yes” I say, “Australia. Exactly”
I pay for the drink and get it down fast before heading outside. I’d rather wait outside than sit there any longer.
It’s warm outside, in the dark. Not hot, but warm. Warmer than the hotel lobby. When the wind blows there’s a chill to it but it’s like a summers night back home.
America is loud. Wherever you go you can hear it. At the entrance of a hotel it’s as loud as anything. The white noise. It sounds different to home. The factories and the highways and the air con extractors and everything else. It’s louder than home. Home is pretty much silent.
The taxi arrives and I’m already wondering if I made a mistake. Maybe I should’ve just gone to sleep. Already feeling the tequila.
“Will?” Asks the Uber driver.
“I can’t take you all the way to 6th street.” She says, looking at the app on her phone. “It’s too busy downtown. They’ve closed the roads.”
“No worries,” I say “Just take me as close as you can get.”
We start moving. I ask the same question I asked the other driver. I know the answer but I want a second opinion.
“No it’s not in the desert.” she answers “Desert is east. Not too far. Where you from?
“England” I say.
“You here for the festival?”
We drive back towards the city. The yellow skyscrapers twisting like monsters on the black horizon. I tell her my daughter asked me to take a picture of a camel. I already told the other driver. I don’t know why I’m telling her too. Just making conversation I think, and the truth is I miss her so much. Even though I’ve only been gone a day.
“So, you in the music industry?” she asks, twisting her head around to look me in the eyes for a split second.
“Yeah, I’m a singer songwriter, from the UK”
“Oh really? I sing you know. I toured the world in a gospel choir.”
“Really! So you’ve got quite a voice then huh?”
“Oh. it ain’t like it used to be.”
“You still sing?”
“Not much. Not since my daughter was born. You have to grow up at a certain age I guess.”
She’s right. I probably should’ve grown up by now.
I watch the skyscrapers getting bigger in the distance until we are driving past them. And then, eventually amongst them.
“So this is a close to 6th street as I can get” She says. “That ok?”
I nod as I get out of the car. “Now ya’all enjoy South By. And good luck!”
Over the next week I’ll get drunk in a hundred different bars. I’ll watch some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen play their newest songs with everything they have. I’ll go to parties organised by some of the biggest names in the music industry, and I’ll speak with their CEO’s and try to tell that I’m an artist, amongst the white noise, without letting my lack of self confidence throw me to the ground. In two hours I’ll be on a rooftop terrace listening to “the next lady gaga”. In less than ten minutes I’ll be stepping out in to the smoking area of a bar - and the first person I’ll speak to will be the presenter of one of the biggest music radio shows is Denmark.
In three hours I’ll be struggling to stand up. Waiting for an uber to take me back to the hotel. Strung out and fucked up. Not sure why I came here, and glad I did all at the same time.
This is South by Southwest. Where the holders of the dreams go to sprinkle shit on the floor, and the dreamers go to search it out, and sniff it. Eat it if they can. The strangest place on earth, at least for a songwriter from nowhere. Meetings that would take a hundred years to happen in person… here they happen in the street, outside the pizza place at 3am.
And of course, everyone tells you how great it used to be, how you missed the heyday. But I heard that all my life. About everything I ever loved. Glastonbury festival. The city of Paris. Everything good was better before I arrived. In fact it’s so common a theme I could be forgiven for thinking it was my birth itself that ruined all the good shit.
But it’s not what things used to be that bothers me, it’s what it’s becoming. That’s the scary bit. The 10 second videos of pure rubbish. The photos where everyone pretends to be happy. The filters. The lying to each other. The constant lying to each other. That’s the bit that gets me the most. Why are we all expected to lie to each other these days? When will it stop? How can I burn it down before my daughters twelfth birthday?
Oh well. These are questions for another night I think to myself.
I close the door of the taxi and step into the noise outside. If America was noisy outside the hotel this is ten times worse. A band playing in every bar. In every beer garden. In every hotel lobby or nook or cranny you can think of.
“Ya’ll be careful” she shouts before heading into the night.
It’s so loud.
Two thousand artists and bands, searching for something that wasn’t there before. Gambling. Trying their luck. Heading for one city. Searching for people. Searching for someone who knows someone who knows someone. With a big sign on their head saying “I’m a dreamer too. Help me if you can!”. Searching for the thing that hasn’t existed for them yet, but they have read about, that they are sure must exist somewhere but is impossible to find.
South by Southwest. Five thousand miles from home. Searching for camels in Austin.
A poem for paid subscribers:
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial