It was a very hot Louisiana afternoon. Thick with haze and humidity. The sound of my faithful luggage wheels clicking and clacking as I drag my burdens to the bus stop for the last time. I had said my good byes to my wonderful hosts, Rob, Jaimie and Denise at Camp Hope, cleaned up as best as a single man can clean up after himself and was heading home the long way.
My first stop would be my first show in New Orleans, then the airport, then Seattle once again.
It was hot, and I was dripping with sweat, and itching with the previous night’s msoquito attack.
The previous night I had ventured into the city to see some music. As it was my last night in Nola, I knew I had the luxury of sleeping in the next morning, so I took advantage of that. I went in to Howlin Wolf’s, a venue in St Peter’s St. There was a musicians conference in town, and they had all the acts playing at the Wolf’s. Each band had a modest set of 30 minutes, but it was a rich 30 minutes of the best shows they could possibly give. I walked in to witness a jazz singer, Latosha Brown. She played some old standards, but gave an inspirational version of Marvin Gaye’s Innercity Blues that made my hair stand up. I’m going to cover that song when I get home. After her set she was walking around the small crowd talking to folks and having pictures taken. I had to talk to her about her set so I approached her. For a goddess, or even anyone for that matter, she was sweet, unpretentious, very generous with her time and stunningly sexy. We chatted electric banjo briefly. I was stoked.
Then we saw a local girl and her big soul band, I think her name was Tanya Boutte’? Anyway, her show was slick and professional and had a groovy sound. Her guitarist was a live wire, jumping all around the stage in pure elation to the music. A great show. Something about New Orleans makes all women sexy, all shapes and sizes, and Tanya was in total control of her mojo. She was a big, sexy mama. I loved it.
Next there was the complete opposite. A long and lanky white couple form Wisconsin. The girl played guitar, and the guy played push button diatonic squeezebox, and he was brilliant. Like, virtuoso brilliant. They were called Copper Box, and are woth checking out in my opinion. They gave me a free CD and DVD. I reciprocated with my own. They were really nice, genuine folks.
Then I had to leave for the last bus to get home. This is when the mosquitoes found my ankles and feasted.
The next day, my last day, I got the same bus, in reverse.
“You movin’ house?” Asked the bus driver lady.
“No, I’m goin’ home. The long way.”
On my first day in New Orleans one of my co-volunteers at the St Bernard Project gave me a tour of the town after work. You may recall from previous blogs….
Incidentally, the St Bernard Project has asked me to explain to y’all about them and what they do. I will do that in the next blog, as they deserve special attention.
Anyway, part of this tour I was fortunate enough to receive, she introduced me to the owner of Big Shirley’s Soul Food Restaurant off Elysian Fields.
“This here is a musician, from Australia!” Announced Amelia, my tour guide. “And you gotta hear him play.”
Mike, the owner, was at first reserved, and fair enough. There’s a lot of musicians in New Orleans, and as I discoverd on my busking routes, while a lot of them are great, many are also not good. So we came to a reasonable agrrement: that at some point I would come in and play for him and if I didn’t scare away folks we’d go further with the idea of me playing there.
“You know I love this woman,” said Mike, ” So I know she ain’t lying about you. But I gotta make sure it’s right, you know?”
I didn’t get a chance to get there and play until week later. It was a Sunday, and the Saints, Louisiana’s champion footballers, were having an important match against the Chicago Bears. Mike had me play at half time. I ordered a Po’Boy and after lunch plugged in and did my thing on the old electric. Well, it’s a new electric actually, but the Airlines made sure it was old when I got home. I’ll explain in a later blog, especially if Delta Airlines don’t answer my email.
Mike and everybody in the place loved it so much, they had me continue playing over the second half of the match. This may mean nothing to you, dear reader, but believe me, to turn down the football to hear a banjo in New Orleans means something big.
I played for 3 hours, straight. I just opened up that vein and let it all bleed out. At the end we agreed, Friday night I would do 2 sets during dinner.
So I had a week to promote. I didn’t need much promotion. Everybody I’d worked with at the SBP was mad keen on hearing me, as well as some of the local folks too. So I laid down two sets to quite a reasonable crowd.
And here is what I notice about myself.
Melbourne has been so bad for me, spiritually, psychologically and musically. When you produce good music you get treated like shit. It makes no difference in my country, at all. They just don’t care. EVERYWHERE in the USA I have played, it’s stopped people in their tracks. People have applauded, offered me more gigs, handed over fists of money, bought CD’s and tipped me over 100% for them. No one has ever questioned my career or my talents, asking me what “my real job” is. It’s been so bad in Melbourne that I have been spiritually decimated. I have had my confidence and belief in myself so badly wounded that I just expect crowds to be hostile. I expect to be paid nothing, to be told to piss off, even to be literally spat on or attacked just for being a musician. In the US when I get up to play in front of people, it’s something I know I have to do, an ordeal I have to face, and I break out in cold sweats, and try to look away when singing so I don’t see the hate in people’s faces and the disgust.
But what I get back is something so totally different from back home.
I had to have two glasses of wine during this gig. I was so nervous, so conscious of every fault, every drop in meter, every fluffed note and cracked vocal.
After the first set, and the wine, I kind of arrived. People LOVED what I did. People entering the shop for dinner stayed to hear me play. AT the end of the gig, Mike and Suzette, the owners, thanked me, cooked me a huge meal and one wonderful local, Annette, tipped me what must have been over $50. She had given me a card, too, thanking me for my work at SBP, and saying how wonderful it was I had come all the way from the other side of the world to help a community I had never met. She said how much she appreciated it.
She had said to me that night -
“People come here and they love New Orleans, and you know what? We just love ‘em right back!”
At the end of the gig, a friend I had been working with offered me a lift to the airport. She had in fact offered me many lifts throughout my stay. So after I’d eaten, and we were ready to go, she and her friend were helping me with stuff into their car.
“Well Carrrrrl” (In America, you need to say the “R” in Carl prominently or they assume your name is Kyle,) “You don’t have to be at the Airport till the morning right?”
“Yeah, but real early.”
They looked at each other and concluded -
“Let’s get him fucked up!”
SO we headed to the French Quarter. Danger, Wil Robinson.
The first place we came to was a poky little pub with a proper trad jazz quartet playing, and they were fantastic. Much to my companion’s surprise, I knew the melodies to all the songs, and nearly exploded when they played the Tiger Rag. Being a tiger myself, it’s kind of like my anthem. But to them it was too mainstream, I suspect!
Two pints later we went for a Hurricane. A Hurricane is cocktail filled with seductive promise and leaves nothing but devestation behind. I drank it and held on.
We headed back to their place to catch 2 hours sleep before my hosts very generously offered to get me to the Airport. Sleeping was easy. Waking up two hours later was shocking, difficult and awkward. I had paracetomol for breakfast, changed my reeking shirt and we were off.
The USA is a land of magic. People here, even when they are being rude, are incredibly polite, and very generous of heart. In the USA, people want to see you succeed. They share your success. In my country they want to see you fail. They revel in your destruction.
But everywhere I went in the USA, I was struck by the attitude of the generation after mine. There was a ubiquitous sense that the country has indeed tipped over the edge, and is not just balancing on the precipice anymore. As I walked around San Francisco, Seattle, LA and New Orleans, I was constantly dismayed by the amount of homeless people. The lives that had fallen down hard and not been saved by any social safety net. The young folks I spoke to everywhere are simply waiting, resigned to the inevitable collapse of what was 50 years ago the world’s greatest nation, that has become victim to its over sentimentality, unable to adapt to change and riddled with corruption. Everyone I spoke to understood that they live in the world’s greatest plutocracy, and even for them, the next generation, to effect change would be impossible. Everyone was waiting for the end, and focusing on purely survival. The ecology is broken, the law is broken, the system is broken but on the faces of all the homeless people, as my colleague Phil Dean in Zeptepi sings in a song (ironically about Stalinist Russia) is the sheer will to survive.
And yet, in this collapsing, Caligula-esque republic, I thrived.
Ultimately I guess that Americans have music in their souls to a degree Australians simply do not. Unless they are born freaks like me, and thus outcast.
On the theme of surviving the collapse, I’ll leave you with this tiny fraction of remembered conversation I had during the prior night’s hurricane. One of my hosts had a gun. Not on his person, but back home. He was a liberal lefty too, so he didn’t celebrate his constitutional right to bare arms. But he did take advantage of it. I asked him why, and it was to protect himself when the shit goes down. (Also for hunting, but the main point that came up…I think…I don’t know, I was pretty drunk so I may be paraphrasing here, was that he had a gun in case of social collapse.)
Why? I asked.
“To protect myself.”
“The other people with guns.”
“Hmmm, I see.” I said, very circular! “But sooner or later, one of you is going to have to put down the gun and move toward peace.”
“Yeah, but who is going to protect the community of good folks against bad folks?”
“Well let me ask you this then – who is the bigger hero – who is the most courageous – he that has the gun, or he that has not?”
He thought for a second. “Yeah, but I’d rather be alive than courageous and dead.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s because you don’t have the BBC here, but Dr Who never had a gun, and he’s looked down the barrel of plenty of them.”
SO, 5am, the eye of the hurricane well behind us, we set off to the airport. Suddenly, there she was. Society in all her shiny, domesticated, sterile austerity. I was sobering up fast. I checked in, and that was that. All over.
I know what it means to miss New Orleans.
La Tosha Brown