One of the first times I played music in Austin was right outside of the Cactus Cafe. I was new to Austin, just a 21 year old kid playing guitar on the street, but the Cactus had already spawned a bubble handful of Texas music legends. I saved the quarters that I was thrown for busking on Guadalupe and used them to pay the cover charge to get into the Cactus to see John Hammond, Bill Monroe, Rory Block, and many others. Next to me on the drag I watched David Garza with Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom gather crowds that chased the band into the Cactus. A few years later my band The Asylum Street Spankers played a weekly daytime gig with the doors open to the spring air, students just a year or three younger than me spilling in and out of the spring air.
As the years past, I found myself at the Cactus time and time again, always nourished by the talent of the musicians and also impressed and grateful for the quiet, attentive and educated audience. I have talked to many other touring musicians and find that the Cactus is known for its great sound, great ears, and great history. For me, even though I was not a UT student, this was one of the most important elements to my professional education. This was a room dedicated to Song, a place people went to bask in poetry and melody, be healed, understood, and made whole. As much as Antone's, Austin's blues throne room was where I learned about The Late Night Voodoo Sex Ritual, Cactus was where The Story was told, where guitars became conch shells and the mystery was taught. Townes Van Zandt's songs still hold potent medicine, more than any of the books of the Bible for this mystic.
I was in the van crossing Texas on the way to a gig when I first heard of the proposed closing of the Cactus, and after the first wave of sadness a familiar despair set in, this was not the first club I have seen close, nor the first home I have lost. And I wondered of the battle of Art vs. Cash, and the sad history of that long war. So I went to the Town Hall Meeting that UT President Bill Powers called to address the budget cuts that include the axing of The Cafe.
I got there early, one of the first in the room and watched it fill up. Mostly older than student age, I recognized more that a few Austin pickers, making eye contact from across the room with brave smiles and bright eyes and talked with those who were close by.
Soon Bill Powers opened the conversation, this was the first time I had seen him speak, and he spoke as someone used to having to defend policy to crowds, not as one who enjoyed it, more that this was a necessary evil, that his job requires him to stand in pillory and take a few soggy vegetables in the face to appease the masses. In fact as he was questioned by the crowd he made it clear that he did not intend on requesting that the Union readdress their choice, and this was an empty exercise. It also became unclear if the club was being closed to save money (and not that much money, 66K is the number quoted to keep the doors open a year, about an eighth of Powers UT salary) or to be reopened as a venue that Powers characterized as being responsive to UT students wants and needs.
Anyone can play at the Cactus, by the way, all you have to do is show up early enough on a Monday night and sign up for the open mike. But I wonder what might take the Cactus's place, and I wonder who would benefit. I also wonder if this is about somebody on the Union Board who thinks they can do it better, and I think of all the others I have known that thought they could open a club, put on a show, and be the next big thing. I think that is a noble struggle, but it is always easier to talk about it from offstage, than to pull it off under the lights once the show starts. It is much more than a good sounding room and a PA. I don't know the rules of the Student Union, but I have seen musical events in several of its many rooms, sometimes while the Cactus had shows going, sometimes not, but it seems that if someone wants to provide their version of "what the students want" they could do so without erasing this storied room.
Although I feel righteous about all of this, I have no illusions about what my assertions of the importance of art and song on quality of life are worth to those who might decide (or have already decided ) the fate of the Cactus Cafe. It is the nature of song to be chased from the gleam of gold and by natural wisdom it grows best where it is needed most, away from such important things as money in inhuman amounts, and is best nurtured by those who afford little time for worldly concerns.