How I lived the 'Slacker' life in 1990s Austin: The cast was a wide circle of friends
Pop quiz: How many members of the "Slacker" cast did you know personally?
If you lived in Austin circa 1990 and were immersed in the city’s creative communities, fair chance that your total is equal to or greater than the count of about 20 I recently tallied when looking through a list of cast members on imdb.com.
That was the nature of Austin back then. Was it a small town? Not exactly. The 1990 census put Austin’s population at 465,000, nearly double what it had been in 1970 when my family moved here. But that 1990 figure was less than half the 2020 census count of nearly a million.
Yet if you ran in certain cultural circles, Austin really did have a small-town feel. “Slacker” was the launch pad for an entire filmmaking scene here, and there was a lot of overlap with the city’s music community. That’s how the movie became a personal touchstone for me.
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Let’s start with Glass Eye, one of my favorite bands from that era. Singer-songwriter Kathy McCarty, bassist-producer Brian Beattie, keyboardist Stella Weir and drummer Scott Marcus formed the band in the mid-1980s, releasing brilliantly offbeat records such as “Huge” and “Bent By Nature.” They were at their peak near the end of the decade, right when “Slacker” was being hatched.
Director Rick Linklater apparently was a fan, given that three of Glass Eye’s members ended up in the film. Weir and Marcus appear in one of the most memorable scenes: They’re waylaid on a downtown street by a woman trying to sell them what she claims is a Madonna pap smear. (That was Teresa Taylor, who’d been a drummer for the Butthole Surfers at one point.)
Later, McCarty gets her star turn. She plays the daughter of an eccentric revolutionary who treats a burglar in his house not with fury, but with compassion, taking him for a walk and regaling the young man with his own philosophies on the human condition. McCarty’s ties to Linklater continued with 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” in which she sang Daniel Johnston’s “Living Life” over the closing credits.
I knew Glass Eye’s members somewhat well, but I’d developed an even closer bond with Poi Dog Pondering, a ragtag band from Hawaii who’d traveled across the mainland in 1987 and eventually settled in Austin. Their arrival here dovetailed almost exactly with Linklater’s venture, and several members ended up in the movie.
Two of its members, visionary bandleader Frank Orrall and mesmerizing harmony singer Abra Moore, share a humorous scene early in the movie. Down-on-his-luck Orrall gets his money eaten by a USA Today vending machine, so he asks passerby Moore if she has spare change. “You’ve got a strong back, get a job!” she chides him.
Poi Dog bassist Bruce Hughes and drummer Sean Coffey also have brief appearances in the film. So does Eric Buehlman, who was part of the band’s road crew and became known around town as the Honky Tonk Man for his lively impromptu vocal cameos during Poi Dog shows.
And then there’s Patrice Sullivan, who was married to Orrall at the time and played in an alternative-rock band called Hundredth Monkey. She’s among the carload of friends at the very end of the movie who drive up to Mount Bonnell and toss a handheld video camera from its cliffs.
'Sometimes I wonder if that even happened'
Sullivan’s Hundredth Monkey bandmate Greg Wilson also has a brief role, billed in the script as “Anti-Traveller.” Wilson soon moved on to other musical projects: He was an original member of Spoon, then ended up in the mid-'90s punk-pop group Sincola.
Wilson recalled his bit part in the film in a Facebook post last year. “Sometimes I get nostalgic about my movie star days,” he wrote, with tongue in cheek. “Sometimes I wonder if that even happened. The days when I could show up for a shoot and get catered a cold bagel and a warm Shiner Bock just because I was me.”
He concluded by noting that the film’s production company had just emailed him to say they’d sent him a $101 royalty check. “Fellow Slacker stars," he added, "if they haven't found you yet, they want to send you some mailbox money.”
Some of the parts my friends got were fleeting. Jean Caffeine, a punk-turned-country singer who’d recently moved to Austin from New York, didn’t get a speaking role; she’s the woman who got hit by a car near the start of the film. Heather West, who eventually became a prominent Chicago-based music publicist, got a few seconds and a few words onscreen as she walked past a rambling conspiracy theorist.
West eventually walks into a living room where some friends are discussing politics. The most vocal of them is Ron Marks, known to those in Austin’s club scene at the time as the bassist of ultra-cool alt-rock trio the Texas Instruments. These days he’s a tech expert who many friends (myself included) often rely on for computer advice and assistance.
One of the film’s most colorful characters is played by John Slate, who’s billed in the credits as “‘Conspiracy A-Go-Go’ Author.” He’s the guy who encounters a woman in a bookstore and excitedly unloads a litany of JFK assassination theories on her. I’d known Slate since our McCallum High School days, though he was more a friend of a friend than someone I knew well myself. But we often converse in the comments section of Facebook posts these days.
The cast member I knew best was Wammo, a local musician and DJ who was my roommate right around the time “Slacker” hit theaters. He plays a bartender at the Continental Club in a scene near the end of the film, kicking everyone out at closing time after hardcore band Ed Hall has performed.
The scene ends when a woman at the bar, played by Marianne Hyatt, links up with a guy who was also at the bar. I knew Hyatt because in real life she was Wammo’s girlfriend. Wammo and I were roommates for just a few months; he got kicked out by the landlord for doing Hyatt’s laundry in our shed. (Shouldn’t that have been a scene in “Slacker”?)
I left Austin in the fall of 1991 for Seattle. As it turned out, “Slacker” had a small role in helping me get a job up there. I was interviewing with a daily newspaper and an editor asked me about “Slacker,” which had just been released nationwide. I told them that, yes, I knew a lot of people in the movie, and yes, Austin was indeed a lot like what the film portrayed.
They asked me to write a story about the film, and that’s how I got my first byline in the Seattle Times. (Amazingly, the 30-year-old article can be found in the paper’s web archive today.) That byline helped me land a regular gig at the rival daily, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
I didn’t know Linklater, who sets the tone for the film with a memorable opening monologue from the back of a taxi, but we had enough common acquaintances that it felt like I did. I got his phone number from one of our mutual friends and, before leaving Texas, I left him a voicemail that summer, asking if he could send me one of those “Slacker” bumper stickers I’d been seeing on cars all over town. I’d hoped to put one on my car before I drove out west.
As if Linklater were a slacker who had nothing better to do than mail me a sticker.
"Slacker" 30th anniversary screening & reunion
The event, part of the Paramount Theatre's Summer Classic Film series, is at 7:30 p.m. July 13 at the Paramount, 713 Congress Ave. After the movie screens, writer/director Richard Linklater will lead a Q&A with members of the cast and crew. Tickets ($11) and details at austintheatre.org.