Poet’s pre­lude

chicago scen­ester Dou­glas now adds his own note to start of Austin con­certs

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - By Peter Mongillo

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.”

al­berto Martínez Amer­i­cAn-StAteS­mAn

Thax Dou­glas reads one of his works just be­fore in­tro­duc­ing the band Pas­sion Pit to the crowd at Stubb’s for a show in June. Dou­glas writes his pieces just be­fore he per­forms them, com­pos­ing in his spi­ral note­book, and says he al­ways asks the bands’ per­mis­sion to read.

Thao Nguyen AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Sixth Street and other mu­sic hubs in Austin have been largely wel­com­ing to Thax Dou­glas, who has read be­fore bands such as Wilco, with a New Pornog­ra­phers read­ing soon.

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