Like many Europeans, I grew up with a myth that originated somewhere in the American Southwest. My first encounter with it, as a child in the Netherlands, was a toy revolver with 'Texas Ranger' engraved on its silver barrel. I also sported a cowboy hat with 'Arizona Kid' on the band. Then the landscape of cowboys and Indians arrived with Laramie and Bonanza, television horse operas set in a timeless Western zone. I knew of certain cities—Laredo, San Antonio, Tombstone—but had no clue where they were.
Later, songs by Elvis and Chuck Berry about Route 66 and other magical places added to the mystique. As an adult, I caught performances by Kinky Friedman at the Lone Star Café in New York. He had a getup—oversize Stetsons, outlandish boots, big cigars—even more histrionic than my Arizona Kid gear. His zany tunes about Dallas or Houston or Austin didn’t make these cities seem any more real than Tombstone in the movies, but he invested them with an attractive combination of farce and glamour.
It was in a state of considerable excitement, then, that I headed for Texas. It was, in a way, like taking a trip to the other side of the rainbow, to a place that had only existed in my imagination. The first stop was Austin or, to be more precise, the Hotel San José, on South Congress Avenue, opposite the Continental Club, a place soaked in rock ’n’ roll mythology. Before the hi-tech boom transformed South Congress into a strip of fancy restaurants, boutique hotels, and upmarket stores selling cowboy boots, this had been a stretch of honky-tonks, room-by-the-hour motels, juke joints, streetwalkers, drug pushers, and rock dives.
Some might lament those seedy days, but I felt quite comfortable at the San José as it is now. Nostalgia is part of the fun. You can rent iPods filled with golden oldies and DVD’s of legendary Texas movies like Hud and The Last Picture Show at the reception desk. You can sit in your elegantly minimalist hotel room, turn up Janis Joplin or the Sir Douglas Quintet, and pretend you’re in rock ’n’ roll heaven, 1969.
Before I arrived, I had called James McMurtry, one of Austin’s most interesting rock musicians. I told him I had never been to Texas before. "Austin ain’t Texas," he drawled. The second time I spoke to him, over the phone from the San José, he had just been out hunting deer around Archer City, the setting of The Last Picture Show—written by his father, Larry McMurtry, from the novel of the same name. (The novel that became Hud, also by McMurtry, is titled Horseman, Pass By.) After shooting deer, he said, he’d be on stage at the Continental Club, around about midnight.
Austin prides itself on being an exceptional oasis of liberalism in Texas. But Texas liberalism, if rather beleaguered, is not an eccentricity. Walking around the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas is a touching experience. For there, among the Disneyfied kitsch (a life-size, moving doll of LBJ telling corny jokes), is a record of achievements that puts today’s politicians to shame. It was this Texan, after all, who signed the bills giving poor Americans better education and better medical care, and all Americans civil rights.
There isn’t much of that spirit left these days, even in Austin. The best that Dave McNeely, who writes for Texas Monthly and the Austin American-Statesman, could do was point out some of the surviving places where "old Austin" once thrived: the Scholz Garten, where politicos and freethinkers alike gathered to drink beer, or Sixth Street, where many of the rock venues are, or Barton Springs, an idyllic spring-fed swimming spot that campaigners have long been trying to stop developers from wrecking. He showed me around his beloved State Capitol, a splendid 19th-century edifice in red granite that is higher than the Capitol in Washington, D.C.