Brent Grulke died Monday morning of a heart attack. He was 51 years old. The enormity of that statement leaves me gasping for breath, as if an incredible weight rests upon my chest, compressing my lungs. There are some accessible ways of describing Brent: he was the creative director of South by Southwest for almost 20 years, involved in all areas of the event while very specifically running every aspect of the Music Festival. Under Brent's leadership, SXSW grew from 500 bands to more than 2,000, evolving from a mostly national event to a prominent international phenomenon. Over the years, the Music Festival introduced international bands to the States, helped regional breakout bands expand their audiences into new territories, and broke new acts, all the while helping to resurrect, redeem, and/or reintroduce established ones. But this easy description of Brent is woefully inadequate.
It does no disservice to him to say that of all the different roles he undertook, including – among many others – Festival director, speaker, SXSW and scene representative, soundman, road manager, intellectual, producer, songwriter, music writer and editor, what defined him most was that he was a fan. Except that word is too tame. Brent was an enthusiast. An enthusiast for music, film, new media, sports, ideas, people, bands, conversation, arguments, and life, as well as any and all creative energies and forces.
I am rarely at a loss for words but I feel nearly speechless here. I'm stacking adjectives without getting at the wild energy and driving passions of Grulke, whose glint in his eye matched a wry, knowing, yet loving smile. He was body-and-soul devoted, a true force of nature defined by intelligence. When he got going, he was unstoppable, and his enthusiasms were not just infectious but addictive. It is impossible to understate his importance not just to South by Southwest or to the Austin music scene but to music and the greater creative community.
Legendary softcore porn filmmaker Russ Meyer used to divide everyone into those that got his joke and those that didn't. "I couldn't work with him," he'd say about someone, "he doesn't get the joke." The "joke" was a way of defining Meyer's world view, which was used to exclude some people as often as it was used to include others.
It's not unfair to say that Grulke had a somewhat similar sensibility – though in his case, it was never used for exclusion. In a way, he knew that the great cosmic joke is that things matter, music is redemptive, art is essential, and – to quote Leonard Cohen – "God is alive, magic is afoot." Brent lived hard and long, more than most and way beyond his 51 years. He was, if anything, too worldly and widely experienced, possessing a true and deep understanding of the cynical and cold world in which we live. But what he really knew – what was evidenced every day of his life and by every action he took – was that innocence, naivete, energy, chance-taking, and creative endeavors were the real action. Grulke believed that life had meaning, music: majesty, art: importance, and humanity: blessings.
I first met Grulke more than 30 years ago at the University of Texas. He was born in Nebraska but his family moved to Houston when he was in his teens. When I met him, I was a teaching assistant in a class he was taking. We went on to be colleagues writing at The Daily Texan and when the Chronicle started he began writing for this publication. After a time, it was quite natural that he became the paper's Music editor. He worked for SXSW from its inception in 1987, eventually leaving the Chronicle to work there full time. In 1994 he became creative director, responsible for booking, running, and coordinating the Music Festival.
Under his leadership the Music Festival grew in size, importance, and prestige. "He had a big vision for what it could be," SXSW executive director and close friend Roland Swenson is quoted as saying in Tuesday's Austin American-Statesman, "We used to tease him about how many bands he would book in a given year, and he would always hit that number."
Grulke's expanse of knowledge, institutional memory, and truly extraordinary and encompassing range of taste made him ideal for the job. He brought a lifelong enthusiasm for music to SXSW, as well as nearly three decades of involvement in and support of the local Austin music scene, and he always knew what was happening regionally and nationally during that time.
On the SXSW website, Swenson recalls, "The thing that made our work together so rewarding was that our vision for everything SXSW could become was very similar. He and I were almost always on the same page when it came to the tough decisions. We didn't have to explain things to each other, or argue very often. We just knew what had to be done. Brent balanced a lot of my shortcomings. He was gregarious, while I was shy. He could strike up a conversation with anyone, while I struggled to get to know people. He had a big vision, while I tended to get caught up in details. He was my travel companion on hundreds of trips around the U.S. and abroad. It was thrilling to see our work make SXSW thrive."
The above brings more of a human perspective on Brent, because little of what I've written addresses his personal impact, the countless friends who loved him and to whom he was a true and noble companion. Nor am I able to express the number of creative artists, filmmakers, musicians, bands, card players, SXSW staff and volunteers, writers, athletes, and industry professionals who were among these friends, all of whom he helped support and inspire.
And none of it gets at what he was like as a person. Calm in the midst of chaos, he was not just amusing, but amused. He loved and enjoyed people to such an extent that difficult situations often seemed to present him the potential for creative solutions. When he was loud, you had to hear what he was saying, but when he was quiet, you leaned in to listen. His presence was commanding, warm, and always welcome.
In so many, many ways, the world is a darker and sadder place without Brent. I should be telling a hundred stories. I should really be trying to get at the truth of Brent Grulke and his importance. But I am bereft and impaired, overwhelmed with suffering from such a personal and painful loss.
We offer all our love to Brent's beloved wife, Kristen, and son, Graham, as well as his brothers, Brad and Brian. To say Brent will be missed does not even begin to get at the dark hole that now haunts so many of our lives.