A tribute to Vulcan Video and one of the coolest Austinites ever
Back in the early 2000s, when I lived in South Austin, I probably went to Vulcan Video on Elizabeth Street about four times a week.
I did this for two reasons: to look at and often rent a vast array of movies, and to chat with Lance Hahn, who was an assistant manager at the store.
I had been going to Vulcan from the moment I moved to Austin in 2001. It was close, it was brilliantly curated, it was perfect for movie-dork lifers.
But when I found out that Hahn — a musician and writer whom I had long admired — worked at Vulcan, I just started hanging out there a lot. I am sure I was annoying. If he minded, he didn’t say anything to me about it. But more on that in a moment.
When Vulcan announced April 7 that it’s closing for good (following an at-first temporary shutter due to the coronavirus pandemic), I thought about the store’s impact on Austin in general and its film culture in particular. I thought about the resentment that can creep in when an institution closes, the absence of the physical place itself as a place to go. Remember going places?
But mostly, I thought about Lance. (I don’t think I can use the stylistically appropriate Hahn here anymore.)
Lance died on Oct. 21, 2007 at the age of 40, due to complications from kidney disease and hypertension. It’s a date I both remember like it was yesterday and which now seems so long ago I had to double-check it.
He was also the single coolest human beings with whom I have ever been friends.
I’ve thought about this often. I have interviewed a lot of people in the popular and unpopular arts. I have met many of my musical, cinematic and literary heroes in a professional capacity.
This is not to say we were close friends. He had plenty of those in Austin, and I was not one of them.
But we were friends in a “Hey, how you doing?” and “Can you give me a lift to this show?” kind of way. In 2003, he and the rest of his band, J Church, were kind enough to let me join them for a week of a monthlong tour, wherein I wrote about the adventures of their guitarist (who was a Virginia transplant like myself), his then-wife and their child, 14 months old at the time. (For those that remember the story, that kid is hopefully going to the University of Texas in the fall. Yeah.)
Lance wasn’t an Austin native. He hailed from Hawaii; spent 1989-2000 as a fixture of the San Francisco punk scene with the bands Cringer and J Church; and came to Austin in 2001 so his partner at the time, a woman blessed with the spectacular name of Liberty Lidz, could do doctoral work in linguistics at UT.
As a trio, J Church had already released six albums (one a double LP) and 42 (no, that is not a typo) singles, split-singles and EPs between 1992 and 2000. But Lance took a couple of part-time jobs and rebooted the band as a four-piece.
On the aforementioned 2003 tour, a fan in Arizona showed up with the entire J Church discography for Lance to sign. It took half an hour and was completely ridiculous.
So, Vulcan is where we would hang out and chat, where Lance proved not just to be wildly erudite, but absolutely, positively one of nicest people you could ever hope to meet.
This is important. Video stores, book stores, record stores: for a long time, these places were known for sullen hipster clerks who might very well mock what you were buying or renting. They could get away with it because they were the only game in town.
The word for it is “gate-keeping,” and not only is it an annoying way to live, but it’s an exceptionally bad way to do business. It’s a virtually impossible way to do business in the internet age, which is why folks like that are much thinner on the ground these days. At least in the retail environment; there seem to be a fair amount on Twitter. To the best of my knowledge, Lance was never that guy.
I am big fan of people who can talk about anything, and Lance could do that. Film? Well, obviously, everything from Bergman to trash. Baseball? In profound detail. Leftist politics and application of situationism to everyday life, where it is best applied? Absolutely. The ins and outs of zine culture? His occasional zine “Some Hope and Some Despair” is a classic of the form.
He did time in Beck’s band, he put out other people’s records on the Honey Bear label ... hell, he may have also been the most punk person I ever knew.
Like most musicians, his taste in music was catholic. J Church played a certain strain of unslick pop punk, but his interests ranged from free jazz to psych-era Animals to Steely Dan. When he died, he was working on “Let the Tribe Increase,” a long-simmering book on British crust punk.
I once walked into Vulcan, a copy of some movie I could only find there in my hand, to the sound of Hüsker Dü’s 14-minute acid blowout “Reoccurring Dreams” as loud as I have ever heard it. Then we talked about jazz musician Albert Ayler for half an hour.
I could go on for some time. Obviously, this has become not really about Vulcan; it’s about a guy who worked there.
Except it absolutely is. As Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson says in the wonderful-but-inaccurate movie “24 Hour Party People”: "Buildings create synergy. They concentrate creativity.“ Even on the retail level, I believe this to be true.
You need places that aren’t bars or restaurants that allow folks to shoot the breeze. Vulcan was like that, at its various locations over the years. Come for the movies, stay for the hang. You get too annoying about it, you get called a “punisher” behind your back. I am sure I had my moments.
This is one of the things that has made our current moment so difficult. You can’t leave the house to be with the other humans. You have to create community in other ways. But being in the building, creating the synergy isn’t one of them.
In 2018, Liberty Lidz showed up at a book reading of mine. I have rarely been so flattered by anything.
Earlier this year, Dirt Cult Records announced a 7-inch EP by An Uneasy Peace, a long-shelved project consisting of Lance and three other musicians playing absolutely savage hardcore. Guy’s been dead 13 years and wrote hundreds of songs, and there’s still more music out there.
I think about Lance all the time, wonder what he would think of this or that. Is that Vulcan’s doing?
I have no idea, but it sure helped.