I've come to understand that saying farewell to beauty is essential to loving Austin, living in Austin. So when last week's big news hit — the Cactus Cafe, slated for closure in August — I was not devastated. Hey, I've been saying goodbye for years now. Goodbye to Armadillo World Headquarters and Liberty Lunch. Goodbye to Clifford Antone and Bud Shrake. Goodbye to Las Manitas. Goodbye to those grand Shady Grove pecans on Barton Springs Road.
As much as I love the Cactus, I've been steeling myself for this moment for a long time. I was downright philosophical, in fact, as I shared the breaking news with Austin musicians who think of it as home. Then, on Monday, I drove down to the Cactus, caught a rousing night of jazz and folk and bluegrass by the Houston band Wheatfield, and came face-to-face with the intensity of my own denial.
Truth be told: The Cactus feels like home to me, too and it's not simply a matter of music. The Cactus, at its heart, is about closeness, about intimacy, about sitting so close to the musical campfire that you feel the fire-glow in your bones. The only thing prickly about the place is its name. You go to listen, to feel, to connect.
"When I'm onstage at the Cactus, I'm not a singer-songwriter showing off my craft. I feel like it's a relationship," says Austin's Sara Hickman, who has played the room for decades. "That audience is there to have a relationship with me, and I want to rise to the occasion and to be in relationship with them."
The Cactus devoutly has supported music grounded in lyric and language and story for more than 30 years. Its legacy is formidable. The legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt considered it his home club. Young unknowns named Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen launched their careers here. Yet the allure of the place is bigger than history and legacy, bigger than the physical space. It's about intimacy and community and closeness.
"The Cactus is definitely about family," says acclaimed Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, who worked sound at the Cactus for a time. "When I'm home, off the road, the first thing I do is look at who's playing there. It's like going over to a friend's house to hear music."
When you walk into the Cactus, you don't merely see a familiar face at the door, you shake hands with a heart-commitment that spans decades. Griff Luneburg, who books and manages the Cactus, began working there as a bartender in 1981. The core staff, Luneburg, Chris Lueck and Susan Svedeman, have invested a combined 73 years in the Cactus.
Between sets on Monday, I couldn't resist reminding Lueck that he has worked more years at the Cactus (27) than the legendary Darrell Royal spent coaching the University of Texas football team (20). Suddenly reflective, Lueck talked passionately about the Cactus family. He recalled how Van Zandt, wild as the wind, gave him "responsibility" pep talks — successfully insisting that Lueck return to college and complete the few remaining hours toward his degree.
Lueck, a man distinguished by thick forearms and a soft heart, recalled people who have met and married at the Cactus. He expressed gentle gratitude for the members of the Cactus family, doctors, who counseled him a few years ago upon learning he had a heart condition. And he remembered Hickman's first show in the room, how she passed out colored construction paper and invited the audience to create their own art.
"She totally won me over," Lueck says. "Me! A metalhead!"
I knew the Cactus Cafe before it was a music venue. I visited the first time, as a UT student, with my friend Richard Zainfeld, in 1976 or 1977 -- to play, believe it or not, in a UT bridge tournament! (I'm sorry, Townes.) There was little magic in the air that night; the Cactus was just another room in the Union. I can testify, from experience, that 30 years of music have brought magic to those walls.
Hickman now refers to that space as the Carnegie Hall of Austin — mainly for the way the staff nurtures a house ethic that honors music and craft and listening. At the bar, transactions are conducted in hushed tones, or sometimes with only eye contact. The bartenders know how to muffle the jingle of a cash drawer, how to shake a margarita with minimum intrusion. Everything is secondary to song.
The Cactus is not contrived. It's not about the hottest trend. It's simply a place that fosters intimate connection to song -- whether the artist is Guy Clark or Chris Smither or the Cowboy Junkies or Alejandro Escovedo. You're actually paying for smallness at the Cactus. There are only 150 chairs in the place. The sound is sublime. And if you want: You can sit close enough to the stage to feel a visceral heart-connection to the artist on stage.
James McMurtry likes to tease Cactus aficionados for their respectfulness. "It's OK to breathe between songs, you know," he said on stage not long ago, daring someone in the Cactus audience to break a bottle or misbehave. Yet a few minutes later, McMurtry broke into "Angeline" — "a song I played for the very first time in this room 20 years ago." When McMurtry's son, Curtis, joined him on stage, we could see and feel in this very small room the tenderness between father and son, with Curtis quoting T.S. Eliot and joking about his dad's grouchiness.
The Cactus is Eliza Gilkyson leading the house outside after a fire alarm and playing an unplugged rendition of her father's tune "Bear Necessities," on the West Mall. It is Tom Russell riffing on Orson Welles and Charles Bukowsky. It's Gatemouth Brown taking a cell phone call on stage — and asking the house to help him give directions to a friend.
The Cactus is the pretty woman at the table in front of me who has made it very clear her life won't be complete until Loudon Wainwright III plays her favorite tune. "The Swimming Song!" she cries out throughout the night. "The Swimming Song!" Wainwright eventually plays it, of course. And when he's done, his fan rises from her seat, saunters onto the stage, and gives him a big kiss.
"Well, I can see the security is out in force tonight, Griff," Wainwright says from the stage. Everyone in the house cracks up — vitally aware of the connection between "Cactus" and "closeness."
Ray Wylie Hubbard recalls his experience on "The Dating Game" — really — in the 1960s and makes us howl with laughter. Then he talks about Rainer Maria Rilke and brings us to the deepest place of introspection. He demonstrates that Cactus connection is personal, musical, social, intellectual, physical. And in many ways: They mirror the kind of connection associated with "university."
"For a half hour after I heard the news, I kept asking myself, 'Why would the University of Texas close the Cactus?'" Cleaves says. "And then I thought: Isn't it part of their responsibility to integrate college with community, to have an interface with the community? What a perfect way to get nonstudents and nonuniversity people onto the campus. I think they're giving up a very valuable asset of their own, not just an asset to the larger music community."
Gilkyson, who probably has headlined more shows than any woman in Cactus history, agrees that the room is "one of the few places where the university meets the town." Her first thoughts about the closing were very specific: "First and foremost, I'm upset for Griff. He's put his whole life into this." But she saw the big picture as well.
"Griff is important because he helps us understand who we are as a group. Like Jody Denberg (longtime music director for radio station KGSR who left last year), he helps us find out who like-minded people are, and help us have a group identity," Gilkyson says. "The question before us is what can we do as a body to ensure that things we care about continue to have a booth in the marketplace. That's the question. As well as, 'Who are "we"?' anymore.
"Community is going out the window across the board, in all walks of life. I'm sure this is a wake-up call for all of us to attempt to make community wherever else we can. It's something we're going to have to be active about if we want to see the benefits of community continue to manifest in our part of the world."
When I was young — and intermittently broke as a freelance writer — a few of my friends gently challenged my affection for the Cactus. "It's a lot of money, going to those shows," someone told me, in the interest of responsibility. Why not save the cash, and invest in the material things I'd need to support a writing life?
Then and now, I've had a hard time explaining that a night at the Cactus is like a going to the world's coolest library, like going to soul-school. The Cactus is so much about conveying story, attaining intimacy in a quick and compact way, all the while connecting to philosophy, literature, spirituality, whimsy. What more could a budding writer want? So many years ago, I marveled how artists like Gilkyson cut through convention and touched the bone of truth. It changed my life.
The Cactus family remains hopeful. Thirty years ago, a younger generation bemoaned the loss of a funky listening room known as the Alamo Lounge and a few years later found a new home called Cactus. The latest news — that the UT Alumni Center might adopt it in 2011 — demonstrates that those who treasure the place are thinking about compassionate solutions. Still, I worry. As it's hard to imagine Babe Ruth in a "new" Yankee Stadium, would we feel Townes Van Zandt's spirit so vividly in a "new" Cactus Cafe.
After watching Chris and his staff shut down the room Monday night after the Wheatfield show, I took the familiar walk down the Texas Union corridor — passing kiosks marked "Starbucks" and "Quiznos" and "Wendy's" — and wondered about the future of the Cactus. You could see it coming. Really.
Outside, the university was quiet, blanketed in a gentle winter fog. The Barbara Jordan statue gleamed in the cool night air. Dew glistened on the leaves of centuries-old live oaks near Hogg Auditorium. I paused a minute, thought of timeless things, and imagined how nice it would be if we didn't have to say goodbye, at least not yet, to the Cactus Cafe.