Leslie Cochran died today. Like many, many people who lived in and around Austin, Texas, for any amount of time, I had a chance to meet him on a couple of occasions. That was sort of his business, meeting folks.
That, and rocking a thong, stuffed bra, and high-heels.
For those outside of a certain Central Texas radius who are unfamiliar, Leslie was an Austin icon. He was a scraggly haired, goateed, cross-dressing downtown regular who was often homeless by choice, and ran for mayor three times. His best showing was in 2000, which happened to be about the same time I had gotten good and damn tired of film school, and went and found Leslie for a cameo in a fake documentary I was making with the multi-talented Don Swaynos. I liked Leslie. Leslie captured the good about Austin’s idiosyncrasies. But I always felt the re-purposing of his image by others undermined a lot of what Leslie was trying to do, and sold short much of the creative vibrancy of the town.
Leslie was hard to miss. His usual haunt was on Sixth Street, near Congress, a very busy part of downtown where thousands of people a day were unlikely to miss the six-foot-tall cross-dressing dude in a thong and big Guinness hat. He was a regular on Sixth Street during drinking hours, too, so University of Texas students (like myself, at the time) and other denizens crossed paths with him with some regularity. This guy seemed like one of God’s own prototypes to kids coming from conservative, suburban pockets of sameness all over Texas. Many of the UT students awed by his oddity belonged to the film school (like myself, at the time), so when it came time in our classes to make a documentary, the classroom screens were chock-a-bock with documentaries about Leslie. It was an easy, safe choice, and I got a little angrier each time I saw one.
There is a largely unacknowledged battle raging for the soul of Austin, Texas. Leslie was held up as the figurehead for the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, but the reality is that Austin really isn’t any weirder than a big high school. You’ve got your techies over here, your hipsters over here, hippies here, musicians here, indie filmmakers here, UT grads who wish they were still in college and won’t grow up over here. Before arriving in Austin as a musician and filmmaker, I’d heard the stories about how diverse, eclectic, and “radical” Austin was, artistically, socially, and politically. But I never fit in Austin, to be honest. I was a musician, but not one who wanted to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I was a filmmaker, but not interested in making navel-gazing dramas about me and my friends hanging out and churning through girlfriends. Like a lot of people there, people doing much more important and exciting work than me, I didn’t fit in a clique.
Neither did Leslie, though a lot of people sure wanted to claim him superficially. When he ran for mayor, he had actual positions on real issues, particularly homeless advocacy and police reform. But that was primarily overlooked, and it’s kind of a shame. You can either be weird, or taken seriously, but never both. That’s not confined to Austin, though. Not by a long shot.
But here’s to Leslie Cochran, a man who gouged a very unique, and very specific path through life. Safe travels.
(Sorry I don’t simply have a clip of it, but search to about 11 minutes in for Leslie’s cameo in our fake documentary. We almost couldn’t find him that day, but finally tracked him down, and he was more than happy to go along with our little joke of not actually letting him talk in the would-be documentary about him. He is pointing throughout to Shania Twain’s autograph on his dress)