Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Cactus Manifesto

By Peter Blackstock

I've been trying to live with this idea for a little while now, the notion that some folks at the University of Texas think it's a good idea to shut down or repurpose the Cactus Cafe.

I've endeavored to be open-minded about their perspective. First and foremost, the budgetary concerns. This economic downturn is very real; its effects cannot be denied. Simply saying "But don't cut the Cactus, it's too important!" isn't a good enough response, because any entity that might end up on the chopping-block will be valuable to someone. This is simply the nature of dealing with a bad economy; tough decisions sometimes have to be made, it's not fun, and inevitably some things will be lost. I don't see any avoiding those realities.

As such, the fundraising effort spearheaded by Save The Cactus Cafe has been the logical approach. If whatever dollar-amount that UT claims to be saving by shutting down the Cactus can be matched by community donations, then the economic motivations automatically become a non-factor for the university. Exactly what the precise dollar-amount may be seems to have been a source of confusion, with figures ranging from $122,000 to $33,000 having made the rounds (complicated by the inclusion of the Informal Classes program in the university's cuts, and the citing of costs on a biennial rather than annual basis). Regardless, if the folks behind Save The Cactus can raise the appropriate funds to replace any stated savings from the proposed Cactus actions, then the university can't legitimately claim fiscal concerns as the reason for any changes.

OK, then -- what about the matter of the venue needing more student participation, and/or a need for the Cactus to present more student-oriented programming? This one hasn't really held water from the outset. As for students participating in the operation of the Cactus, I believe that the venue has in fact historically hired and involved students in its operation. Should an increase in student involvement be desired, clearly that could be accomplished without closing or repurposing the venue. (Not to mention that closing or repurposing the venue would in fact be depriving any students of the opportunity to be involved with one of the nation's foremost music venues of its kind, a stature that has been realized thanks to the considerable efforts and knowledge of Cactus booker Griff Luneburg.)

If the desire is to present more student-oriented music programming, the Union needs only to reopen the adjacent Showroom, which operated for years in the '80s and '90s as the Texas Tavern and specifically presented more student-oriented entertainment. The Union has plenty of space and opportunity to utilize for such a purpose; there's no legitimacy whatsoever to any suggestion that the Cactus is the only room in the building which could address such desires.

Finally, there's the matter of community interaction. Some comments from UT personnel have expressed a viewpoint that the university must cater primarily to its student population, with the community necessarily a secondary concern. I can buy that up to a point -- but it's not as if this is a one-or-the-other choice. There is plenty that the Texas Union does to cater specifically to students; having one room that also caters to the Austin community hardly seems an overstepping of bounds, particularly given that the Cactus has become one of the university's foremost examples of positive interaction with its community (as evidenced by the considerable public response to UT's initial announcement). This one just comes down to common sense, it seems to me: There's just no way you do away with the Cactus on "university vs. community" grounds.

So, what ground is left for the university to stand on?

Frankly, I don't think there really IS anything left. None of the arguments made by University Unions executive director Andy Smith, nor by student government president Liam O'Rourke, nor by student affairs vice president Juan Gonzalez, nor by UT president Bill Powers, ultimately stand up to careful scrutiny. Each of these people -- especially Powers, as the university's public persona #1 -- needs to simply admit they made an error in judgment. There's no harm in that.

To do otherwise would be to admit a willingness to toss a living and breathing cultural and artistic institution onto the scrap heap, without justification. Is this really a legacy that any of these people wish to have in their name? For what purpose? For what need? For what possible good? What is left for an argument that closing or repurposing the Cactus somehow makes any sense?

I'm asking those questions quite honestly, because if any of them can give me an answer -- taking into the account the answers already examined above -- I'd really like to hear what those responses would be.

As for my part: I graduated from the University of Texas in 1988 with a B.A. in History and a minor in Journalism. Though I received a top-quality education from the many hours I spent in the classrooms of Bates Hall and Parlin Hall, and Welch and RLM, and working for The Daily Texan in the basement of the communications complex, and interviewing athletes over at Memorial Stadium .... there was one place where I learned more about what would become my future career than in any other room on campus.

That room was the Cactus Cafe.

It was while I was at UT that I decided to shift gears from pursuing a career in sportswriting to trying my hand at writing about music. In the long run, things worked out pretty well; after a decade or so of covering music for various daily newspapers and other publications, I launched my own magazine, No Depression, which for more than a decade was acknowledged as the primary journalistic voice for American roots music.

A great deal of what we surveyed in No Depression overlapped with the kind of education I received at the Cactus during my Austin years. Of the 75 issues we printed during our 13-year run, I suspect that at least 25% (and quite possibly more) of the artists who appeared on the cover were artists who have performed at the Cactus Cafe. As for the number of artists we covered somewhere in the magazine's pages over the years that have played at the Cactus, it would undoubtedly be well into the hundreds.

Simply put, what I learned about songwriting and performance in that exceptionally fine-tuned little music room was immeasurable, and invaluable. I discovered artists who amazed and enlightened me, I watched local up-and-comers gradually develop into major talents, and I witnessed legendary troubadours creating art, and history, right there on the spot, in that very moment.

The first show I ever saw at the Cactus, in the summer of 1985, featured two of those legendary troubadours; it was a double-bill featuring Butch Hancock and Townes Van Zandt (who, rather than performing separately, shared the stage with each other on this night). Townes has been gone for more than a decade now, but Butch still carries on his legacy; every year on March 7, Hancock gathers up a bunch of his friends and hosts a Townes Van Zandt tribute show at the Cactus -- the place that Townes declared, in an autographed poster that hangs upon those hallowed walls, to be "my home club."

Home. That's what the place feels like to me, too.

The past couple of years, I've made it a pilgrimage of sorts to return to Austin in the fall and attend a football game at Memorial Stadium. After the game ends, I find a certain comfort in exiting the south end of the stadium and walking westward down 21st street, past the Alumni Center, past the little building where the student-radio station began broadcasting during my UT days, past Gregory Gym where my dad took me to see basketball games before the Erwin Center was built. Past Perry-Castaneda Library where I spent many hours studying as an undergrad, past the perfectly picturesque Littlefield Fountain and up the South Mall where I used to stretch out in the afternoon sun between classes, past the orange-lighted Tower that has been an inspirational beacon to me since the first time I laid eyes on it back in 1969.

As I walk up those Tower steps and turn left toward the West Mall, my final destination is resolute: I'm headed to the Cactus Cafe. I'm going home.

Please, Mr. Powers et al.: Do not simply give away this home, when there is no logical reason to do so.


  1. What's really infuriating is how LITTLE money they're willing to scrap the Cactus for. $33K? Really? Divide that by the 24K members of the Save the Cactus Facebook group and you're talking a little over a buck a person. Okay, not all of those people are going to give, but still … 10 bucks a person, maybe? Easily done. Chrissakes, just allow a fundraiser!