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Ex-politico sees Austin as the City of Light

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Former Austin City Council Member Max Nofziger's new album is called 'Songs of Love and Dance.'

One day, Max Nofziger had a vision.

This hovering image did not entail the public policy puzzles that often mesmerize the former Austin City Council member. Instead, it paired the Live Music Capital of the World with the City of Light.

"South Austin is Montmartre," the Travis Heights resident states bluntly. "Think about it: Montmartre sits up on a big hillside. You look out and see Paris downhill. That's like coming down South Congress Avenue from Oltorf Street. You look down and see Austin."

The one-time flower vendor — "locally famous from South First to South Congress," as Nofziger likes to joke — sees other parallels.

"It was cheaper to live on Montmartre," he says. "All the artists went there. And a lot of artists and musicians have lived in South Austin because it is affordable."

Ohio-born Nofziger, 64, has not forgotten the persistent draw of social life. After all, Montmartre's multi-domed Sacré-Coeur Basilica also attracted such artists as Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh.

"The nuns there grew grapes and sold wine," he says. "So it became something of a party place."

Nofziger's basilica twin? St. Edward's University and its 1888 Gothic Revival Main Building, which dominates the South Austin skyline, if only from some distance.

The bewhiskered Nofziger, who can be spotted smiling like a Cheshire cat at various South Austin watering holes, first ran for City Council in 1979. He served three terms from 1987 to 1996.

"My patience wore out," he says. "I still can't sit through meetings."

Nofziger now makes music with the Harmony Brothers and will soon release a solo album, "Songs of Love and Dance."

"It reveals my romantic side," he says of his songs. "What do people expect of me? Political anthems? Folk songs?"

The music supports his day job — public policy — something he discusses endlessly with a gang of buddies who formerly gathered at the South Congress site of Texas French Bread.

"That was our clubhouse," he says of the corner spot that now hosts a Wahoo's Fish Taco outlet. "Sometimes I was there three times a day. This little group of friends just coalesced there. We tried to play softball in the park. Apparently, we aren't a bunch of jocks. Before anybody got hurt, we decided, ‘Oh, music is something we can all do.' "

When TFB closed, the group searched for a new clubhouse, settling on Dominican Joe Coffee Shop at East Riverside Drive and South Congress.

It doesn't take much to get Nofziger going on politics. He doesn't support urban rail. He feels the Austin-owned electric utility should transfer less money to the city's general fund.

Perhaps his biggest bugaboo these days is the wood chip burner that will cost Austin Energy $2.3 billion.

"That was like dropping a cement block in a full bathtub," he says. "The single worse decision that the council has ever made. Think of what we could have done with $2.3 billion."

But back to creative daydreams. He first made the Parisian connection last year when a friend visited the City of Light. A fan of composer and Montmartre resident Erik Satie (1866-1925), Nofziger read up on the artist's colony that clustered on the Parisian hill. Then he looked around him.

"There's a drummer or bass player on every block," he says. "South Austin was ahead of the curve in accepting difference and creativity. These areas (both) attract people who color outside the lines, new thinkers. A lot of them were criticized. But Paris has long been a cradle of freethinkers. Austin is a relatively young city, but it's seen far and wide as a magnet for creative people."

He admits that East Austin is the hot creative frontier and agrees that South Austin might suffer from too much tourist love, like Montmartre. If few artists in South Austin have hit the big time, Nofziger says "just wait."

"The artists on Montmartre weren't famous at the time," he asks. "It wasn't until much later that people realized what they had done. I think a similar thing is happening now. Who are the artists in South Austin who are laboring in obscurity that will be discovered?"

He rattles off some of his South Austin faves: multi-talented A.J. Montrose, singer-songwriter Michael Notarthomas, musician Don Harvey, sculptor Jim Talbot, singer-songwriter Cindy Pitts and Shiva's Headband's Spencer Perskin.

"They have received some measure of recognition," he says. "But in 20 or 30 years, people will still be talking about them."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com