Monthly Archives: September 2011

Saint Bernard Project

While I was in New Orleans I decided to give as much time as I could to a volunteer project that had been recommended to me by a friend of mine.

I did this because I felt it would be a better way to experience the real New Orleans, and learn a lot about it from all the different people I’d be working with. I felt I would learn a hell of a lot more about New Orleans this way than if I had of booked in to a hotel or hostel and boozed it up in the French Quarter every night scrounging for gigs and entertainment. I did do a lot of this however. Not so much the boozing, but I spent a lot of time in the French Quarter and I did investigate as much music possibilities as I could.

But in working for the St Bernard Project I learnt a lot about how N.O. had changed since Cyclone Katrina, the emotions of the locals, the history of the place, and how people live in the real N.O., and its suburbs and neighbourhoods, not just the tourist strip.

For those of you that do not know, some 6 years ago New Orleans was devastated by massive storm. Even after all this time, the scars are very painfully visible. Prior to the storm, New Orleans was a vibrant bustling city. In the St Bernard Parish, down past the 9th Ward, where I lived and worked and where the SBP is located, the population was 67,000 before the storm. It is now at around 20,000. N.O. still bustles, I should mention. It’s still vibrant. But there’s a lot more space, in population and commerce.

Many parts of New Orleans do indeed look deserted. Right behind the SBP office is a huge supermarket/shopping mall. It’s boarded up and abandoned. There just isn’t the people to shop there. All through the 9th Ward and the Parish are concrete blocks where houses once stood but were swept away. In the more central areas sometimes whole neighbourhoods have been abandoned, leaving behind empty house after empty house, with only a few in between with families in them. For me it was kind of fascinating and exciting. But for the locals it must be a painful and stark reminder of what once was.

As an Australian, the most shocking thing for me was how little the government has done for the people of New Orleans. It is as though the Bush Administration simply turned its back, and subsequent governments simply washed their hands. (That means YOU Obama,) Last Summer Australia had some of the worst floods in history. It is inconceivable to imagine the government doing nothing at all in my country.

It was just as inconceivable for the New Orleans residents prior to the storm, too. But now there is a palpable lack of trust and confidence.

Take for instance the story of the guy that donated his workshop to the SBP, that they now use for their office.

He was a fire-fighter by trade that ran a tool shop in an industrial part of the St Bernard Parish. Dyed-in-the-wool flag waving patriot. He was stuck on his roof for 4 days before he was rescued. As a previous government emergency service worker he had absolute faith that the United States government would rescue him. But it was in fact Canadian Mounties that finally came and rescued him, taking him to another roof with other survivors that had to wait even longer to be taken to safety. It destroyed his faith in the government.

Add to that the behaviour and training of the National Guard who were just young kids, given very high powered rifles, and whipped up by their superiors into a frenzy of paranoia. They violently enforced a curfew on the residents after the storm at a time when recovery work and rebuilding was critical.

It drove a huge wedge between the people of Louisiana and their government. And there are many, many more stories of the callous handling and lack of effectiveness displayed by the government.

There were many more horror stories as well. The infamous Super-dome chaos for one. I will spare you the details, as they are readily available on the internet if you want to know more. There were also stories you won’t find on the internet, such as the young recovery worker who reached breaking point when he discovered the body of a drowned 6 year old girl in a back yard. They couldn’t find her family. Maybe they had survived, maybe not. Nobody could tell.

The internet also can’t tell you what it’s like to work alongside these people, and where their hearts and attitudes are today. New Orleans has seen many disasters in its time, and has been wiped out before by fires and other storms. Certainly the force of Katrina was unprecedented, but the hearts of the New Orleans people are incredibly strong. They’re proud of their town, their culture and their community. New Orleans may well change, but that’s all it will do. Just change. It will not be destroyed. And change is just a part of life. New Orleans’ life has been very long.

The people of New Orleans have always been economically challenged compared to their northern sibling states. Some people here are some of the poorest in America. And Katrina took away what little they had left. Insurance companies scammed out of paying up, and left people whose families had lived in the same house and neighbourhood for generations, with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their back. Even after the waters subsided, the clean up was obviously going to take money. Money to clean the mud, to repair walls, windows, and so much more. Many families simply left, and have yet to return. As I mentioned, many houses stand empty and abandoned, filled with ghosts and shadows.

The Saint Bernard Project is a volunteer project that helps to rebuild and repair houses whose residents could not afford to. When I volunteered I did a lot of painting, a lot of wall preparation, some insulation and other various construction jobs. I worked with people from right across America who had come down to simply pitch in. Some had experience, some did not. It didn’t matter. We gave our labour, and that’s what the SBP needed.

There’s actually a lot of these projects in New Orleans being run by Americans who are filling the vacuum left by the Government’s inaction. All of them are non-profit or volunteer programs. Each have a different angle.

Many of these Americans came to work in New Orleans and ended up staying permanently. As they say, people love New Orleans, and New Orleans loves ’em right back!

I really valued my time at SBP, and I will definitely be back to give them more of my labour someday. It’s probably the best thing you can do if you’re staying in N.O. for any length of time. You’ll learn a lot about the people, and if you stay aware of what’s going on around you, a lot about the Louisiana climate, flora and fauna. And you may pick a skill or two you didn’t have before. I recommend it thoroughly.

For further information, check out these links:

Other stuff in N.O. –


Do You Know What It Means

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.”

“From what”

“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.

Some links!!

Copper Box:

Tanya Boutte

La Tosha Brown

The Dry, Brown Grass of Home.

I have seen the ugly side of New Orleans.

It’s much the same as anywhere, really. Any where tourists herd to drink huge amounts of alcohol and lose their self control.

I can imagine that Bourbon Street hasn’t changed much in 300 years. I imagine it being exactly the same as it was then, only less neon, less non-degrading plastic in the streets, and less people. If I use my imagination, I can change the fashion of the people and the sounds of machinery and electronic music into the 17th century, when Jean Lafitte was tearing out Spaniard’s hearts and eating them in front of his crew, and he’d quietly slip up the Mississippi delta, dodging sand bars and currents only locals knew of, to sell his booty and make repairs in New Orleans. And to go whoring. The street is thick with drunkenness and debauchery. Live “Love Acts” advertised outside strip joints with full photographic instruction. Hungry touts and spruikers ever watchful for the vulnerable idiot whose money will be easily parted from him.

The pedestrian traffic is thick and blind.  Yet cars bully their way through crossroads.  Outside the one of the most high profile gay bars is the famous Traffic Tranny.  A transgenderian in a g-string and leather, with a whip, and a whistle, directing traffic with the utmost skill and authority.

A young boy, carrying a puppy and a stupid look on his face steps out from the herd in front of an oncoming taxi.  The Tranny’s whistle blows frantically, and the whip comes down, hard.
Slap! Slap!  Slap!
The boy jumps in pain!  The throng of people laugh and cheer, yet remain obedient.  This is an example being set here.  The tranny confronts him with a glare.  The boy glows red and looks very sheepish.

Order is returned.

The whistle is blown.  We may now cross.  She never speaks.  Only whistles.

(During the day, not my vid, WAY less people… but you get the idea…)

I walk past a crowd of tourists on a Vampire Tour.  Everything is True Blood and Anne Rice here.  During the night, New Orleans still hums.  Out into the darkness they all spill, the weird, the mythological, the flamboyant, and also the prey.  It has two populations, the day and the night.

“Are their vampires here in New Orleans?” booms the gothic clad guide.
“Well I’m not saying there is, and I’m not saying there isn’t, but consider this…”
As I walk past the tourists huddle, entranced.
“FACT!  New Orleans burnt to the ground in 1788.”  he bawls.
“FACT! Over 800 of the 1000 buildings were….”
“FACT!…”  the next part I can’t make out, something about not everyone dying.
“FACT!….” Lost, as I move on.

“FACT!  (Something something…)”

“FACT!”  I’ve lost him now.

I wander down to Jackson Square.  I’m not interested in working the bloated streets tonight, I just want to sit a while and play.

The banjo and amp fills the street again with reverb.  I am playing for myself and also my new friend, a volunteer from the Saint Bernard Project I am working on.  We’ve been walking around the French Quarter, people-watching.

As i play, the people watch me.  Some sit nearby for a while.  When they get up to leave they go to put money in my tip jar.  But I have none, and my case is closed.  They have to look hard for a place to leave it, but I don’t care.

Some people come up and excuse themselves for having no money, but can they sit a while and listen?  They like the music.  When they leave, they tell me the music is beautiful.
I don’t care.
Good bye, I say.  Thanks for listening, I guess.

It gets late and soon I will have no bus home.  So we head off.

The streets are filled with all manifestations of humanity.  Hookers, brawlers, timid school girls and macho boyfriends, darkness, and shadows.  Loud engines, sirens, mournful like a banshee.

I sit and wait a long time, over an hour.  A man speaks to me.

“I ain’t goin no mission.  I ain’t goin sleep at no mission.  Dey shuts at 10.  You gotta be dere at 10 or dey shuts you out.  You gots to not be drinkin’.”  He takes a swig of his whiskey hip flask.
“You got a light mister?”
I don’t.  I have nothing for him.  So  I just listen to him.
“I is gonna stay here tonight.  Right here, under dese lights.  Where you gon’be safe.  I ain’t goin no mission.”

I give him my ear until the bus comes.  I can tell he resents the mission, and they sound like hard cases, catholic welfare built on guilt that promotes the concept of worthlessness.  But there’s nothing else, and someone will always be left out of the mission on any given night.

The bus arrives.  At last. So tired.

A woman and her three charges, young girls, all get on the bus.  She is on the phone and has been abandoned by her husband or some such male figure.  She is angry as the car broke down and he said he’d fix it.  They are going to the end of the line, like me, and then must walk a long way, like me.  Two beautiful women get on the bus.  One is thin and white and tall and delicate, the other is shorter and brunette and round.  They sit next to the 3 charges, who are all falling asleep.  The youngest girl falls asleep on the brunette.  We all laugh quietly so as to not wake them.  She takes tender care of this stranger’s child.  She is careful not to shock her awake when she gets up to leave the bus.

The next day I check my emails.  What news from home?  Only hate and bile, really.  Recently I have been trying to do some promo online, through facebook.  Some generous friends have been trying to help me.  One of them has copied and shared a request I made to his friends, in the hope we can bolster some kind of fan base back home.

The response has been nil, other than hate mail.   This is Melbourne.  This is my home.  This has been my life, always.  The hatred, the jealousy, the corrosion.  One of the haters claims to be both a music producer and a martial arts expert.   They claim my music is shit, without ever hearing it.  Then they refuse to check it out when a friend rallies to the cause.  Then they finish up by thuggishly threatening violence.

I have walked confidently through the darkest streets of New Orleans and San Francisco and never been attacked.  I’ve played my banjo alone to the streets.  No one has attacked me.  No one here has ever attacked what i play.  They love it.

Today I was invited to a wonderful local couples’ home for their special Nola BBQ shrimp.   The key is, it isn’t BBQ’d at all!  It’s all in the hot lemon butter sauce.  It is exquisite.  Their hearts and minds are so open and warm.  They say New Orleans is about family.  They make me feel like i am part of that family.  They only just met me, and they have opened their doors and hearts to me.

The woman is a venue booker.  Her man is a percussionist.  She is energetic and passionate and real.  He is friendly and talented and his hand shake is soft but strong, like a friend’s.

“Play your banjo!”  They ask.

i do.

They are blown away.

“i never thought banjo would ever or could ever sound like that.  It’s amazing!”  they say.  She looks at me intently and says:
“How long you gonna be here for?”
Not much longer, a week or so.
“I have to hook you up!”

How green the grass is New Orleans.  How fat the shrimp.  How big the heart of the people that have seen so much taken away from them.

How meager the attitudes of my own people, how small their minds.

The Whistling Streets

A woman, dressed in silver, silver tiara and silver skin, arrives in the street on silver bicycle. She has an entourage of two hairy males.   She wanders the streets as they film the things she does.

Well dressed portly aging couples wander along the street in endless processions of bewilderment. They give nothing, but stare and wonder. From across the street they take photos.

They are taking photos of me.

I sit on an upturned plastic palate, balanced precariously.  I am filling the street up with the reverb of my banjo through a small amp.  It plays blues, and jazz, and then meanders with my thoughts, off the path, blown with the cool breeze that has replaced the stifling heat of the day.

The human tide swells as the night goes on.

The street is not generous today.  It won’t even give me garbage.  The air is thick with paranoia and alien glances.  I play on, watching.

A man approaches me.  but I am feeling tired and jaded.  Too much rubber-necked open mouthed gaping, and not enough human warmth.  Is this where I am told the truth of  things?  Is where the lines of territory are drawn?  Is this how the street works?

No.  This is going to be another magical New Orleans encounter.

This guy makes chairs, out of scrap wood.  They are comfortable, and in their own way, he explains, saving the world, by saving the trees.  He is a professional arborist.  He tells me how the street works.

By now, if I was crap, I would have been shut down.  See that guy over there, by the book store?

I look over and see a thin man with folded arms.

If I was crap he would have shut me down.  If I wasn’t creating a positive vibe.  If I was creating bad energy, I’d have been shut down.  But, the man tells me, he can tell I love the blues, and i am just playing out my heart on this New Orleans street, and I’ve come from half way round the world to do it.

(Incidentally, half way round the world is as far as you can be away from anything on any given world.)

He pulls out a harmonica and we play the blues for a long time.

Then we talk.  While we are talking, another band of minstrels show up and respectfully ask if we are having a break or if we’ve finished with the space.  I give it to them.  I have been playing a long time, and only made $4.  I am tired.

I ask if I can jam with them, but the look on the guitarist’s face says I am not welcome.  I know that look.  It comes from my home town.  But anyway, I am tired.  So I bid my new arborist friend goodbye, we pack up and I leave.

Two girls offer me whips.  I examine their handiwork.  They are good whips.  Perhaps I’ll get one.  But not tonight.  Tonight I only made $4.  They tell me every purchase comes with a free sexpresso.  It is like coffee, but has sex in it.

The streets are crowded.  It’s like summertime Surfcoast every night here.  Rubber necking tourists every where, each of them thinking that all the music on the streets they walk past or take photos of was specifically provided for them and covered by the cost of the Contiki holiday package.

I walk a long way to the bus stop, through the narrow New Orleans streets filled with narrow New Orleans houses.  At the bus stop a man offers me a cool drink.  It came with his Philly Cream Cheese Steak Sandwich, but he doesn’t want it.

Neither does anyone at the bus stop.

Eventually, after a long time, the bus appears.

“Have you heard of the Mardis Gras Indians?”  Said the Arborist, earlier that evening.

“This place was originally inhabited with the Indian tribes here.  And when their land was being taken and all that genocide and christianity was happening, a few of them went into the swamps, and some way, way up into the Appalachian and Black Mountains, way deep where no one could find them.
There they mixed with the outlaws, ‘coz the outlaws were in the swamps too, and the Cajun peoples.  And their music all mixed.  If you listen to Cajun music, and also to bluegrass and all that music from these parts, you can hear the Indian in it.  You’ll know it when you hear it.  Now I’ve told you you’ll recognize it.”

“Being white is a shameful thing, I’ll agree with you.” He said, “but consider what was happening in those swamps.  They got together and they shared their music.  You know, they sat down and they ate together, and they showed each other their music, the European showed ’em theirs, and the Indian showed ’em theirs.  Now you don’t do that with people you want to kill and wipe out, do you?
You can hear the Indian music in that music, if you know what to listen for.  When you hear that song, O Death, or them Cajun scales, you can hear it.”

I heard it.  I may have paraphrased his information for the purposes of this blog, but I heard it.

Big Easy Days

The days are hot, and the work is wholesome.

They are grateful. Everybody i meet respects what I am doing, and they tell me, at every opportunity. It doesn’t seem like a big thing to me. Just stuff to do.

In the mornings I walk through the hot sun and haze. A tortoise on a stick sees me and falls into the black water of the canal. It’s 8am and I am sweating. A lot.

In the evenings I sleep at the end of a long line of hundreds of beds, all empty. I indulge myself by not being very neat. Luckily I have only a little stuff, so the spread of chaos is small and easily stopped.

In the evenings, when I get home, they make me a banquet. My hosts have thick Louisiana accents. I love it. They get me to say things in my accent, and laugh with delight. It’s mutual.

The banquet they make is just for me. I feel embarrassed! Southern hospitality they call it. It seems like a big thing to me! I want to do the dishes, or something, but I have to be sneaky. They won’t have it!

Everyday, I eat to much. I worry. All the weight I lost in Seattle and San Francisco I gained double in new Orleans. They say it’s a New Orleans thing that they talk about what they’ll eat at their next meal before they have finished their current one.

Tonight I went to the French Quarter by myself, to dip my toes in the water. I played a long time, in a quiet part. People gave money. A group of kids said I played great. I filled the narrow streets up with my electric banjo through a portable battery amp. It felt good. A guy collapsed across the street from Alcohol. An Ambulance came. I left.

At the bus stop a man asks me if I know any songs on that thing. I tell him we’ll find out, and pull her out. I play him Joplin. He asks for Beverly Hills Hill Billies. I play it. Neither of us are satisfied. He asks for blues. I play him Dust My Broom and Built For Comfort. He is stoked.

He says:

“You gonna do real well here man, if you play like that!”

I’ll see if he’s right on the weekend.

Coming home, it’s dark. the dogs shout at me, define our respective spaces. I nearly stepped on a huge frog. I get down and apologize to him. I tell him his camouflage is too good and i hope he forgives me.

It’s nice to meet you, Mr Frog.

24 Hours

No sleep.

San Francisco to New Orleans.  Exchanging the West Coast for the South.  Swapping planes in Dallas.  Sleeping on the floor near the bin while people watch me drool.

Louis Armstrong airport.  A statue of the guy blowing his horn.  An airport named after a musician.

A woman in a thick Cajun accent gives me directions to getting on the bus.  It is late.  I play the new banjo, checking her over for faults, bruises.  She is still in tune, but I don’t trust the baggage handlers.  they keep putting her face down.  She hates that.

The bus arrives and takes me just short of Downtown.  It’s Sunday, September 11.  That most memorable day, when that great event occurred in American history.  yes, Bob Dylan’s first NYC concert, 1961 (thanks to Gary Foley on that trivia.)

Next bus arrives, and the transition is smooth.  the driver is crazy.  Crazy good.  he is singing at the top of of his voice.  He sings to the poeple as they get on “Shake it shake it baby, Get your groove thaing on!  Woow!”  they get their groove on.  A little girl engages him in conversation as she embarks.  She has an owee, on her knee.  He is genuinely concerned.  She is satisfied.

More people get on.  More singing.

He gives me sage advice about my connection.  He tells me the ticket will be four thousand and seventy one dollars and ninety cents.  Nawww he just messin wit me!  We all laugh.  I’m too tired for witty replies.  I just let my eyes hang out of my crusty head.

Next bus.

Takes me to the end of the line.

I get off and it’s hot.  Fields and canals.  Bugs chirruping.  I consult my map.  I walk.

I walk and walk and walk.  Rolling luggage on one hand, banjo in the other.  One foot after the next.  Back straight.  Eyes forward.  Into the unknown.  Dogs stare at me.  I smile and sniff the air.

I come to my destination, the Camp of Hope.  It is a huge old school house, the modern kind.  And it is utterly empty.  Not a soul anywhere.

I consider my options.

I could easily and comfortably sleep outside tonight, wrapped in clothes to protect against mosquitoes.  But first I go through a procedure designed to exhaust all my options.  I make calls to fax machines and voice mails.  None of them are interested in what I have to say.  then my phone sleeps the sleep of the battery dead.  I prepare for the night.

Suddenly two people arrive.  I introduce myself.  Thick Louisiana accent meets dry Australian.  They open up and I get coffee and a bed.

I sleep big.

Next day I wake up, and walk.

I walk and walk and walk, through the hot humid morning of Louisiana.  It could have been a childhood summer of mine.  The sun rising sharply, the haze, the sense that today was going to bring heat.

I get to the Saint Bernard Project office.  We officiate.  We car pool.  We build and prep walls.  It’s dusty, and fun.  My co-workers are two much older ladies.  One calm and quiet, the other energetic and emotional.  The quiet one is from Northern California, the other from Louisiana, and Memphis.  She survived “the Storm,”  she remembers.  She is a cancer, and has a huge heart right on her sleeve.

We build and sand and fill cracks with putty and talk about god and sex and politics.

The quiet one takes us to lunch.  We roll into a local restaurant (Willie May’s Scotch House,) one she is excited about going too.  We get a seat and it is packed.  We make an incongruous bunch.  A dirty, tall, white Australian, and two pretty, mature African American ladies with excellent hair.  We eat too much chicken and talk about Australia and the queen, and a little about god and sex and nuns and the storm.

After working the day, the Cancerian with the sleeve full of heart takes me on a tour.  We put on a CD.  My CD.

We are driving through the main street of New Orleans’ French Quarter.  Wattletree is playing, the opening track from the second BSoT album.  She is impressed. She is more than impressed.  She is ecstatic.  She raves about how good it is.  She pulls over and turns the stereo up so the people in the street can hear it.  I get embarrassed.  She starts to think about who I need to speak to, that my music is good and must be heard, it’s not just good, it’s beautiful and from the heart and it speaks to her and she says I need to speak to Allan Toussaint, (she used to date him,) and the she wracks her brains thinking about who else she can show it to.  What other producers she knows.

I think about the hell of Melbourne, the hate and animosity over the years I have had to face.  I remember the pain I had to go through to get that album done, the nastiness, the jealousy, the sabotage, and the sheer indifference in my own country.  I start to choke up.  I look away from her and stop talking so she doesn’t notice.

We are driving down the Main Street of the French Quarter of New Orleans and we are listening to my music and it is making this stranger jump for joy.  I feel like I have come to  somewhere sacred.  Like Ramses the Haitian she says to me – It is your  time!  It is your time!

I don’t believe her.  I don’t believe anyone anymore.

She takes me to the 9th Ward, near where i am staying and shows me the musicians houses.

“They gave these houses to the musicians” she says.
“What do you mean, gave?”  I ask, “You mean, they built them for the musicians or they actually gave them these houses for free?”
“They gave them for free.  Of course!”
“What??” I am incredulous.
“Sure! We honour musicians here.  They don’t make much money, but they are all always giving to us.  They feed our souls, and so we honor them.”

I am dumbstruck.

I am through the rabbit hole, falling…..

Ramses the Magnificent

Yesterday I had severe sleep deprivation. Severe.
I headed off to a cafe I had heard about that had live music, figuring I would not sleep, I would pass out that evening and leave it all till then.

So I headed off and discovered San Francisco!!

There is a secret here, that I am honour bound by a sacred code to never reveal. But the fact that I have found it has blown my mind and improved my already high opinion of the place. I couldn’t believe it. But there it was, at the end of a long road. Even though it was very reasonable, a local told me the classic line “You should have been here yesterday!”

That’s a hint for those in the know…!

Anyway, enough of that. So I went looking for this cafe and discovered San Francisco has trams! Not just kitschy tourist cable cars or vintage main street rattlers. Underground it has full proper Trams.

If there is one beast that can control the rapacious onslaught of the bus system, it is the noble tram. In San Francisco, you can get anywhere! It has the best Public transport system I have ever encountered. Such a relief!

So I caught the tram to the street where the cafe was.

Now, stay with me dear reader, because there’s going to be a lot of things that happen next that if you are from Melbourne will seem incomprehensible. Alien. So, believe me, every word is true, it all happened.

I found not the cafe, but another cafe, that had “live music” on the front in big white letters. It was around lunch time so I thought I’d investigate.

Thinking only of a coffee, maybe a sandwich, and a surreptitious assessment of the live music advertising at best.  But no sooner had I entered the premises when the girl behind the counter asked me straight out if I was here to play.

Well, not exactly.

Do you want to play?

Well, sure! Is this the place that had the open mic last night?

No it wasn’t. It was another cafe, with live music.

She rang the manager, who said she’d be there in an hour or two if I wanted to come back then, and she could tell me what the deal was. I got a coffee and went upstairs, found a couch and slept soundly for two hours, hoping I didn’t fart or have night terrors while unconscious.

Not good for business.

The manager turned up, explained the deal, took a cd and said she’d listen and get back to me in an hour or so after she’d had a listen, and then we’d see.

I went straight back to sleep.

She came back, raving about the CD, booked me there, on the spot, to play her other, bigger cafe the next suburb over. But the only time I could play was this week, so we couldn’t advertise or anything. She’d slip me on in the brunch hour, 10 am, the very next day, which was…er…is today.

(Can you spot the difference here between Melbourne and San Francisco?)

I woke up early, not having enough sleep again. I went down stairs and met my Chinese friend and Edgidio ( spelt his name wrong previously, there’s an extra bit in there, still very cool name,) the cook. I spent an hour two swapping English for Chinese.

The day before, inspired by my morning drug addled adventure, I went and bought an English/Chinese dictionary. It annoys me not remembering new Chinese words, and seeing them written down in Pin yin helps me retain them. In fact, one might say, it makes it Rong Ye!!!


So I helped Lin Pai and Edgidio with the morning chores, had some excellent brekky and headed off to my gig.

On the way, I met a man from Haiti. He was very well dressed, including a neat little Turban.

As I walked by him, he said to me with much excitement:
“Excuse me! I have to speak with you! You have the most amazing aura! I have something to tell you! Do you mind if I read your palm? You aura is huge! I’m sorry but I must speak with you!”

Now, I know what your thinking. You’re thinking wide eyed naive tourist falls for the oldest trick in the book. Well, maybe so. But I always try to have time for conversation, especially with the eccentrics. I always try to have time to talk about god with people, which I think is a cool subject, but unfortunately I only end up talking god with born again christians. (I don’t capitalise these words on purpose, note.) So if some guy in a turban stops me in the street to talk about my aura, sure, why the hell not?

He went on to say that in the next 24hrs, my whole life would change. I was going to be a famous musician (like, I am sure, every other musician he had spoken to that morning,) that the world was going to embrace my music. That in the next 24hrs there’d be a huge shift. that many people had come to San Francisco, but the gods had decided now that I was the one to be chosen to be lifted up. He went on for quite a while, stroking my ego and prophesying great wealth. He said I was going to be a king!

I told him, I was not interested in being a king, nor so much the wealth. I just want enough to fix a few things, and if he had a line to the gods, tell them to hurry up!

He said I was like Santana, who’d come to San Francisco to find “his thing,” and start the Santana band. He said I had a spirit like Chic Corea.

All of this I found had to dispute frankly.  And, that shit ALSO NEVER happens in Melbourne.

So true or not, it was a very nice lift to my morning! I gave him a CD, and he said he was very grateful, that he would pray for it and channel much energy into it and I would be lifted up.

24hrs he said.

I imagine he is listening to it right now, thinking to himself “Oh damn, that was the wrong guy, this guy is a banjo player! Oh no!!”

24 hrs he said.

12 to go. Hopefully when I wake up, I’ll be famous.

So I went to the gig and it was a huge success. The folks loved it and the girl there made me the best sandwich I’d ever had. It was a wrap, actually. And I made some tips. Not much. But some.

12 hours to go I guess….

On my way home, I spent $400 on a new bloody phone.

Here’s the cafe:

If you ever in this part of town, go get a coffee and tell them CC sent you!

You won’t get a discount or anything, it’ll just be nice.

Weird and wonderful things happen on the streets of San Francisco everyday, and I an loving it here.