We have eyes to appreciate the icons that contribute to our local pride: murals that tourists take home on t-shirts, the buildings that compose our recognizable downtown skyline, the beloved local businesses that we would stand in front of bulldozers to protect.
But partly because so many Austinites are recent additions to the city, and partly because many of the most integral community architects work quietly behind the scenes, we don’t always know where credit is due.
Ben Livingston’s fingerprints decorate Austin and his musical sound has been heard literally around the world. A biographic tome could be written about his adventures and talents – and I would gladly volunteer as the first reader – but an exhaustive tale of Livingston’s life is beyond the scope of this Austinot article. Instead, my goal is to acquaint a new generation of Austinites with a neighbor worth knowing.
Leaving a Mark on the Continental Club
After an active era of bookings in the 1970’s, the Continental Club on South Congress degenerated into what Ben Livingston calls a “dark, closed dungeon of an out-of-business punk club.”
When current owner Steve Wertheimer bought the property in 1987 and met there to brainstorm his plans for restoring the Club, Livingston joined him. And on New Years Eve 1987, Livingston hired a crane to hoist the newly restored Continental Club sign up to its place at the front of the building. What many Austinites don’t know is that the commonly photographed Continental Club sign was repainted by Gary Martin, who also painted the P. Terry’s signs around town, and Ben Livingston restored the rest of the sign, including the intricate neon features.
All that to say that Ben Livingston and the Continental Club go way back. So it isn’t too surprising that Livingston has earned the privilege of utilizing the Continental Club Gallery during every SXSW since 2009. He single-handedly designs each year’s musical showcase himself, drawing from the wealth of friendships he has with locals musicians.
We set aside the last Saturday afternoon of SXSW 2013 to join Ben Livingston and his cohort at the Gallery. After a wait, we found a seat, grabbed a drink, and enjoyed the atmosphere. The hours were filled with mature sound and lyricism, courtesy of songwriters who have had enough of their own adventures to transform into storytellers.
The music of the band members and soloists who took their turn at the microphone lacked the angst that has become standard among younger generations. When I asked Ben Livingston about the positive nature of his lyrics, he didn’t mince words:
“It’s easy to find solidarity in negativity…sad, brooding cynicism and irony are cheap parlor tricks that seem clever and appealing on the outside. But one doesn’t have to go very deep to see that those characteristics or style are a cop-out that deny us digging deeper and making the best of most all situations. I like to think that I am presenting a reasonable alternative to the collective paradigm of suffering.”
Livingston says that his songs are lyric-driven. Those lyrics are opinionated and on the folksy side, filled with stories and the quiet authority of a man who feels he has something to say. The refrain of his song “Best Revenge” echoes, “Doing good is the best revenge / Living right is the best revenge.”
Besides the Continental Club Gallery, his favorite Austin venues to perform at are Cactus Cafe, Flipnotics, Threadgill’s North and Tom’s Tabooley. Livingston states that these are all “listening venues” that complement his style well.
More Than Music
Livingston’s performance schedule isn’t as full as it used to be, as he focuses on another passion: neon art. A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow with an active art career, his work can be found at the Austin Convention Center, Bass Concert Hall, and the University of Texas Performing Arts Center.
A “virtuoso kazzoist” who was cast in a Cherokee movie last year, a singer/songwriter and an acclaimed neon artist, Ben Livingston proves that no one needs to surrender their life to a unicolored path. Next time you walk by the Continental Club, look for Livingston’s “BENEON” mark on the sign and think of the ways that you can quietly leave your own mark in our community, using your own unique set of talents and passions.
Do you know anyone who has quietly left a major mark on Austin? Tell us about them with a comment below!