Almost Famous

Almost Famous: The Austin Texas Soundtrack Circa 1985, By Kristin Gorski. Annabelle Magazine, Issue #12, 2006.

Zeitgeist, the aptly named Austin, Texas band first introduced me to the word and concept of “the spirit of a time.” Back in 1985, I found their first album in Guadalupe Records on what is known as “the Drag,” the main stretch of shops, cafes, bookstores and hang-outs for the University of Texas. Guadalupe Records was a bit dark and crowded with music, images on posters and album covers stapled and pinned up everywhere. It oozed grunge before grunge became its own scene. The aging hippie clerk was an appreciator of all music, a temple attendant, a gatekeeper. Under his watch, the store felt somehow sacred, and my friends and I spent hours soaking up the vibes, looking for adventure that new music held, growing up in evolving and newly discovered greatness.

Zeitgeist’s album was in a local music section, under “recommended.” I liked the band’s name and the album’s title, Translate Slowly, enough to buy it without hearing it. I listened to the album on my 8-track/turntable stereo system, speakers placed in the corners of my room, angled for optimal sound. Every song was so good, so fresh. Each riff, each guitar chord, the blend of male and female leads, all expressed musical genius to me. The warm central-Texas air, sprinkled with magnolia and occasional deafening crescendos of cicada screams, blew past me as I lay on my bed, eyes closed, soaking up the sounds. No one I knew had heard of them, so my pioneer bravado increased dramatically as I described their inspiration to anyone I could grab the ears of. They were my band—mine. I discovered them, and while many others in the general public began to dig their sound and herald them as leaders of the “New Sincerity” movement of post-punk, none of my immediate friends took to them as I had. I alone understood what Zeitgeist wanted to say, and they understood what I wanted to feel.

The members of Zeitgeist were John Croslin, main songwriting, lead vocals and guitar; Kim Longacre, lead vocals and guitar; Cindy Toth, bass and violin; and Garrett Williams, drums. After the release of Translate Slowly, they began to build a sizeable following. Their hallmarks were the Croslin and Longacre harmonies, the band’s musical integrity, their lack of pretense, their overall quality, and the music they created.

In the mid-1980s, all kinds of live music permeated Austin. Joe King Carrasco, creator of “nuevo wavo” and Tex-Mex Rock & Roll, played nationally and had snatched big record deals. Austin’s annual Aqua Fest, a family-oriented celebration stationed along the banks of Town Lake, featured local ethnic music prominently each August; a world of truly Texas music bloomed during nights of Polish, Czech, Mexican, Country & Western, and Rock & Roll culture. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s road manager lived next door to us throughout my high school years. Austin City Limits played every Sunday night on our local PBS station, though I was too young to appreciate the show fully at the time. The parents watched it, and we wanted live stuff, when we weren’t watching the still-infant MTV.

Local Austin venues like the Continental Club, Club Foot, Raul’s and Liberty Lunch launched many a punk, post-punk, new wave and ska bands. We tried to get in to as many as we could, as some clubs let in under-agers with hand-stamp prohibition. Bands like Secret Six, Doctor’s Mob, Wild Seeds, the True Believers and a whole wealth of ephemeral musical gatherings experimented freely and openly in these inexpensive, accessible and creative venues. I saw Billy Idol at the Austin Coliseum. I stood the entire concert, defending my spot directly in front of the stage, which I’d run to as soon as the doors swung open hours before show time. During one of his fistpumping routines, some of Idol’s sweat flew onto my face. I felt touched by the gods. I knew this foretold something special in life for me. This experience became a huge part of my evolving teenage mythology. Out of this, I realized something huge. My friends and I were an integral part of live music. The bands wanted us there. That’s why it was so easy for us to get in. They came to see us just as much as we came to see them.

Growing up in Austin in the 1980s made me thrive, in part because my high school years apparently took place during one of the live music capital of the world’s most fertile musical periods. The Texas capital was interesting enough to offer challenges but small enough that everyone seemed to know everyone, so there was never too much trouble to get into. The city’s endless summer created a sweet, friendly aura. My friends and I swam under both blue skies and stars, drove around in convertibles loving the wind in our hair, and walked outside barefoot at midnight easily and comfortably from March through October. Austin was the caring mother growing her child in utero: a beautiful and clean city with natural springs feeding pools and rivers throughout it. The relaxed atmosphere, the inexpensive and high-quality lifestyle, a delicious mix of food, many places for young and old to play and create, all made Austin glow.

Accessible music naturally extended from this environment. Zeitgeist has been “my band” now for the past couple of decades. But soon after I first found them, something dramatic apparently happened. In researching this article, I discovered that they were not even Zeitgeist anymore. How had I lost track of them? In 1987, Zeitgeist faced a serious identity crisis. Another Zeitgeist, a choral group from Minnesota which had gotten to the name first, sued them for it. The new-age singers won the duel, and my Zeitgeist became the Reivers. I missed all of this as I returned to Austin many years after this shift. Their original name, the one that had captured my imagination and expanded my soul’s view of the world, was a more distant footnote than I had ever imagined.

The Austin music scene didn’t get it at first. Legend has it that people continually asked, “What’s a reiver?” Answer: it is the name of a William Faulkner novel. “Reiver” is Scottish for “thief.” Not as edgy-sounding as “Zeitgeist,” though rough in definition. “We’re the Reivers, okay?” Lead singer John Croslin reportedly announced to the crowd at the Reivers’ first show. The crowd listened and once again fell under their musical spell. Names didn’t matter; the compelling music remained unchanged. As the Reivers, they produced three additional albums, they toured extensively and their popularity grew.

In 1991, the Reivers split up. Croslin went on to play in the Make and the Fire Marshals of Bethlehem and to produce bands like Spoon and the Wannabes. Toth still plays in Austin bands such as like Violet Crown. Longacre appears musically on occasion. Williams, less so. A decade after the break, many band members from various 1980’s Austin bands played as “86ed” at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Awards. Zeitgeist/the Reivers alum Kim Longacre, Cindy Toth and Gareth Williams were among the members.
In 2002, the band reunited to play at John Croslin’s wedding.

Live music is a cycle of creation, destruction and rebuilding. It is about getting knocked down by so many things and deciding how many times you want to get back up. Zeitgeist had to jettison their extremely cool name and, largely, their recognition. They evolved and grew past legal squabbling which forced them to re-examine and recreate, not for themselves, for they always seemed to know who they were, but for their fans and the circling record companies.

The music scene in 1980’s Austin eventually reached its denouement. “The so-called New Sincerity was the perfect prototype of a scene because it was short-lived and over-hyped,” wrote Michael Corcoran in the Dallas Morning News. “The original Continental closed, the major labels chewed up and spat out the city’s best two bands (True Believers and the Reivers) and all the fans graduated from UT and either moved away or formed bands that might be part of the next big scene.”

When the Reivers reached the end of their time together, they moved on to other creative ventures. All focused on regular life beyond the stage and howling crowds but what remained was the soft tenacity that seemed to be part of this time’s magic. The musicians I most admired were extremely vulnerable on stage, no matter how big they were, no matter their ages. They poured it out for total strangers, no end in sight. In this lay their strength. They were always more than human, night after night, and for that, they were our heroes.

I longed to be so bold, as my small teen self looked toward whatever future meant. Many songs we listened to reassured that growing up always holds great uncertainties. But would our futures always be as shaky as our present felt? Where would my missteps take me? Would my heart pouring out ever be treasured by thousands? Would it ever be treasured by one?

I found solace for everything unanswered in lyrics from Zeitgeist/the Reivers’ Translate Slowly: “A lullaby to myself might mean nothing/But it helps all the same.”