Poet Thax Douglas finds inspiration in the Live Music Capital
It's Tuesday night, and Antone's is packed. The eager crowd waits for the Dirty Projectors, one of indie rock's hottest bands, to start their show.
They are not expecting what happens next: Thax Douglas, a 52-year-old with a long, white beard and a huge belly covered only by a thin, dirty T-shirt, steps on to the stage. Looking a little like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, he steps up into the microphone. It's hard to hear him over the crowd. Some people look confused. Some yell. He speaks quickly, pointing a finger in the air:
"Dirty Projectors No. 3: Pouncing on that half of the universe left uncreated you chew it into life more satisfied than when you have to gnaw on the freshly killed half just behind you but you forget about that chewing what appears to be a savannah; this show was a dirty projection of what music in heaven must sound like."
Feeding on the crowd's excitement, his reading gets louder and faster as he nears the end of the poem. The crowd cheers.
"Thanks!" he shouts. As he hurries offstage, the music kicks into gear.
Douglas has become one of the newest fixtures on Austin's live music scene. He has read everywhere from Beerland to the Austin City Limits Festival. In a town that claims to have a monopoly on weirdness, he fits right in.
An outlet in Chicago
Thaxter Douglas moved to Austin last fall, not long before that Dirty Projectors Show. He came here from Chicago, where he was born and spent most of his life. Growing up, he was more interested in music than writing. During his adolescence he suffered from mental health problems, including what he describes as a "very serious" suicide attempt, for which he says he was treated with electro-shock therapy. Though he says the experience affected his memory, he downplays its influence. "It really doesn't have anything to do with where I'm at now," he says. "That was 35 years ago."
He attended college but didn't finish. He held two jobs throughout most of the 1980s and '90s: one as a clerk in a hospital emergency room and one transcribing TV commercials for an advertising agency.
In 1997, he organized a variety show that included performance artists, poets and music. Though he had experimented with writing poetry before, it was here where he first composed a poem in the style he currently uses.
"I knew the sort of poetry I wanted to write, but I didn't have an outlet for it," he says. "When I wrote a poem for a band as a novelty, I was very happy because I thought I finally found it." He kept writing, he says, because it was one of the few things he didn't find boring.
He became a familiar face in the Chicago scene, reading his poems — which he writes immediately before a band's performance — before scores of local and national touring acts, including Wilco and the White Stripes.
"As a viewer, you're constantly looking around for a symbol of authenticity, and Thax was part of that," says Los Angeles-based filmmaker Alex MacKenzie, who produced and directed a documentary about Douglas as a student at the University of Chicago. He thinks part of Douglas' appeal is that he was a mysterious figure to both bands and audiences. Douglas' poems, the most recent of which are posted on his MySpace site, often contain vibrant or strange imagery, such as pancakes bleeding syrup or asteroids sprouting "forests of joy."
Indie rocker Ted Leo, one of the many musicians interviewed in MacKenzie's documentary, is a fan of Douglas' work. "It's often oddly perceptive about what's going on in my own head," Leo says in the film. The film also documents Douglas' falling-out with Wilco, whose management, after allowing him to read before several shows, prevented him from doing so at a New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden.
Change of venue
After Douglas grew weary of the scene in Chicago, he had a short stint in New York, which he found too similar to Chicago and too expensive, before making his way to Austin.
Local musicians seem to be welcoming to Douglas. On a June night at Beerland on Red River Street, Douglas is scheduled to read before a bill that includes local power-pop outfit Literature. Standing outside before the show, Douglas, clutching his ever-present tote bag, makes small talk about venues in Chicago. After a few minutes of amiable conversation with the band, he pulls a small spiral notebook from the bag and writes a poem on the spot. The book is also full of doodles, abstract faces and patterns woven into the text. He shows it to the band members, who read it approvingly and thank him. Douglas says that he always asks a band's permission before reading.
Will Johnson, frontman of Central Texas rock band Centro-Matic, says he likes what Douglas adds to a show. "I really enjoy the curiosity and the pleasant tension it puts in the room right before the show," he says. "I think it's a nice sort of entryway into the music which is eventually to come." Douglas has read before Centro-Matic five times in Chicago and Austin.
Douglas reaps few financial benefits from his work. He divides much of his time between the public library and Birdhouse Art Gallery on Cesar Chavez, where he stays in exchange for watching over the space.
He hasn't been employed since 1997, living instead what he calls a "bohemian lifestyle." His income sources are occasional sales of his independently published book, "The Good Life," and large-scale reproductions of poems from his notebook, made with the help of Birdhouse owner Kevin Foote. He also gets infrequent donations from bands for whom he has read. Except for T-shirts from bands, his clothing is extremely worn.
"I've tried to look older for quite a while," he says. "When I get mistaken for a senior citizen, it's sort of a thrill."
The way Douglas lives, MacKenzie says, reflects his larger personality. "On a certain level he's incapable of compromising."
In a few weeks, Douglas plans on reading before the New Pornographers show at Stubb's, and has his sights set on returning to Chicago to read at Lollapalooza in August. A second exhibition of his giant-sized poems is scheduled for November at Birdhouse (the first was held in May). In between the big events, he loves to seek out new music. "I don't read blogs and stuff like that," he says. "I do it often enough that it's almost through osmosis."