When the University of Texas at Austin decided to close the Cactus Cafe, its legendary, 150-seat live-music venue, it sparked a months-long rebellion that drew campus and community into heated debates about art vs. commerce, the generation gap, and even the value of college football.
The impending closure of the 30-year-old venue, and the preservation campaign that ensued, was the biggest music industry story to hit “the Live Music Capital of the World” in memory. In “Cactus Burning: Austin, Texas and the Battle for the Iconic Cactus Cafe,” Austinite Michael F. Scully, himself one of the Cactus crusaders, tells this tale from its beginning to its unexpected end.
Drawing upon internal university documents, press accounts, social media postings, and his own interviews with key participants, Scully goes behind the scenes to present the strategies, personalities, and emotions that motivated participants on all sides. Readers are privy to post-struggle reflections from activists, university administrators, and longtime cafe manager Griff Luneburg, who otherwise has remained publicly silent since leaving the university’s employ in 2011.
Scully paints detailed pictures of public events - the meetings, marches, and the dramatic “Town Hall,” where hundreds of anguished Cactus lovers berated campus president Bill Powers. But he also reveals previously unknown details - of negotiations; of the contention that campaign leaders were “selling out” the cafe; and of the unknown impact of the complex Luneburg, the veteran music man whose beloved creation lay at the controversy’s heart.
Cactus Burning tells a story of community and love. Austin, like so many towns, is engaged in ongoing adjustments to change, loss, and the future. The battle for the Cactus Cafe reminds us that people cherish the distinctive aspects of their own communities. Occasionally, if pushed hard enough, they’ll resist unwanted change by banding together, raising their voices, hitting the streets, and making a difference. Austin’s story involved a beloved music venue. But Cactus Burning is a story for all citizens, everywhere, who care about their community heritage and want a voice in their own future.