A Fest for the Rest of Us

Fun Fun Fun: The festival where malcontents become content

Malcontents become content at Fun Fun Fun Fest

Fun Fun Fun Fest 8 Day 2 in Austin 9311
There are bean baggy things to sit on. What's not to love? Photo by Jon Shapley

Friday night: Surely something offensive is going on

I’m wandering Fun Fun Fun Fest looking for something to mock, something to snark about. I’m cursing myself for accepting this writing assignment. I believe that festivals should be appreciated from afar, or, better, terrorized by packs of wild skunks.

Thing is, I always end up at FFF, the festival for the rest of us. Not without the wish for a small–roomed, intimate show, but end up I do. I resolve my internal conflict like any reasonable musician would: hopeful the needy band I love is getting not only a big paycheck but the kind of exposure a mere club show can’t touch.

The beer lines are so short I worry someone is losing money. 

Anyway, there are thousands of people here, so surely something offensive is going on. I look for kids in the stage of fashion development where they don’t really know themselves and they try outlandish things with poor results, or for grievous facial hair, or maybe a scantily clad hippie convulsing to a grating, repetitious beat.

Sadly, because it’s cold, or maybe because it’s dark, I come up short. Everyone is cuter when it’s cold.

I’m begging the festival gods for a Doritos Tower. I find a Smart Car painted with cassettes tapes. Instead of Ryan Gosling stealing everyone’s thunder, there’s a giant Twinkie in a cowboy hat roaming the grounds. Everyone loves a Twinkie.

There are bean baggy things to sit on. The beer lines are so short I worry someone is losing money.

This is the festival where the malcontents are content. The fact that there are enough of us now that we get our own outdoor music festival is either remarkable or horrifying. But the culture that birthed this festival is one to be admired: one of do-it-yourself manifestos, isolated buckings of the status quo and scrappy kids with big visions.

Fun Fun Fun Fest is the legacy of people who lived life on their own terms, because when you’re driven to create something grand, you have no alternatives. 

Most of all, this stuff of fun — it came from a lot of guts.

What kind of guts? Let’s see — there were the bands that toured relentlessly, playing small punk clubs and VFW Halls across the country. There were small-time entrepreneurs (who were really simply fans) with foresight to put out records by bands that only a handful of people had heard. Half-crazy folks who weren’t afraid to tell funny stories in front of a crowd that would surely boo them.

There were dudes and dudettes who’d sneak into drained swimming pools or abandoned construction sites and skate, artists who painted their visions on a wall while a friend looked out for the police. In short, people who lived life on their own terms, not just because they were passionate, but because when you’re driven to create something grand, you have no alternatives. 

Now we can enjoy the fruits of courageous souls at our own festival. And while I’m far from a crowd person, I begrudgingly admit to myself that, as far as gatherings with thousands of people go, this one is all right.

I scurry past an inoffensive indie dance band to the Black Stage. Flag is good, but the stage is high, and they are far away. I enjoy it enough to watch most of the set.

Saturday: Sparks is a good reason to be alive
Saturday, I return. I’m no longer worried about anyone losing money, as you can’t do a two-step in any direction without bumping into a kid in a hoodie. Doesn’t matter; today is Television day. The Television of my 1970s NYC dream.

My friend and I approach the stage just before the band goes on. We step over disinterested kids reclining on the ground. Everyone is two feet away from the person in front of them, so we’re weaving around people who don’t seem to notice the band has started.

The sound person at Television has apparently studied at the Lawrence Welk school of audio engineering, all the better for the many conversationalists in the crowd. 

The sound person has apparently studied at the Lawrence Welk school of audio engineering, all the better for the many conversationalists in the crowd.

We get as close to the stage as possible but remain unmoved. Five songs in, after listening to a couple try to convince the guy beside me he looks like a young Stephen Dorff (“Who is that?”), I turn to my friend and say “Body Count?” She nods enthusiastically and leads the way out of the crowd.

As I dodge teenagers, I remember that this is the Television that inspired so many ‘90s bands to look at their shoes. I’m only slightly disappointed — in the kids who weren’t paying attention, in the fact that I’ll probably never hear Marquee Moon live in my lifetime. It’s okay. I have the records.

Back at the Black Stage, Body Count reminds me of what I love in a rock band. They are energy. Confrontation. Ferocity. Kids are crowdsurfing, and two Courtney Love-haired wannabes in front of me pick a fight with a beard. This is entertainment.

If Sparks had its own dinner theater, I’d go every night. 

A hustle to the Yellow tent. Sparks is the reason to be here. Today, Sparks is a good reason to be alive. Dozens of Austin musicians among the crowd stand rapturously for over an hour. Another band I never thought I’d see, Sparks reaffirmed why I love music so much. If Sparks had its own dinner theater, I’d go every night. 

Back at the Orange Stage for MIA, no one’s sitting any more. Gaggles of girls dance, joyfully unencumbered. Closer to the stage, the boys are dancing, too. I marvel at a dance party for one, behind the sound board, away from the crowd, almost to the back bar. She means business. Dirty, dancing business. I want to be that free.

Sunday: “This one is about how there are so many different types of feminism.”

The triumphant return of Kathleen Hanna. I’m glad so many people got to see Hanna’s band, The Julie Ruin. I’m glad so many people heard her introduce a song with “this one is about how there are so many different types of feminism — because there are so many different types of women.”

I’m grateful this is a place for a lot of people to hear big ideas. A place where ideas can spread and grow. We musicians have so many new venues for our voices to be heard.

But I wish I’d seen The Julie Ruin in a club.

Friday night redux: Fucking badass motherfuckers or, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Peter Case
I can’t help but think back to Friday night. As I walked away from the Black Stage, Flag’s singer, Keith Morris, raved to the audience about underappreciated Los Angeles power-pop band The Plimsouls.

Peter Case comes from the culture that FFF was founded on, blazing a power-pop trail since the mid ‘70s. 

He tells the story of how he met the band in the stairwell of an LA recording studio sometime in the early ‘80s. They’ve been friends ever since, and they are “fucking badass motherfuckers.” The band’s frontman, Peter Case, is playing tonight at the Cactus Cafe. Keith tells the crowd they should go.

I’m already headed out. I pass Snoop Dogg, (“We miss Tupac. Yeahhh!”). I exit the grounds and drive north on Lamar — past the tree in the middle the lake, past the high school football field where flag girls wear purple sparkly outfits. I go the wrong way down a one-way street on campus, where students are ballroom dancing on the plaza in front of the Tower.

When I arrive at the Cactus, Case has only a few songs left. I settle into a sturdy chair made of real wood and watch a master — a lifer, as those of us of a certain age say. He comes from the culture that FFF was founded on, blazing a power-pop trail since the mid ‘70s.

Most important, he writes damn good songs. These songs are hard-earned and born out of having no alternatives. It’s an honor to sit here with 30 other people and hear him play them.

The kids can have their festivals. I’m happy here.