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From the cover of Our New Orleans: 2005 (Nonesuch Records)

FIELD STUDIES: Existential Soundtracking
[14 April 2006]

Our own living soundtracks, whether metaphysical or regional, can offer much-needed perspective when making sense of personal and public tragedies.

by Andrew Gilstrap
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"Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws."
— Songs: Ohia, "Farewell Transmission"

One day I got word that a friend, we'll call him James, was in the hospital. Paralyzed from the neck down.

None of us knew it, but he had been taking methadone treatments to kick a heroin problem. He also had prescriptions for some heavy-duty pharmaceuticals. Somewhere along the line, we were told, narcotic crosscurrents of who-knows-what-at-the-same-time triggered a psychotic break.

He went to his neighbor's house and burst through the glass of her back storm door, ran the length of her house, and crashed out the front door. He crossed the street, climbed atop a five-foot-tall fence, stuck his hands in his pockets, and promptly swan-dived headfirst into the pavement on the other side.

It's impossible to cover every musical flavor that New Orleans — and, by extension, the Gulf Coast — has to offer (even Trent Reznor found inspiration there for a while), but here are some discs that I've always enjoyed.

Dr. John, Goin' Back to New Orleans (Warner Bros., 1992)
Rating: 7
Already known as an ambassador for New Orleans, Dr. John enlisted folks like the Neville Brothers, Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt for this 1992 love letter to the city's music. Full of heart, Goin' Back is a joyous tribute to New Orleans standards that's one of the most festive history lessons you'll ever hear.

Professor Longhair, Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology (Rhino, 1993)
Rating: 8
Not only can you credit Longhair for helping to create the popular sound of New Orleans, but one listen to classics like "Tipitina", "Bald Head", and "Misery" proves that rock 'n' roll and R&B also owe him eternal thanks. Rough-edged and rollicking, his Latin-flecked piano playing bubbles with both fun and hardship.

Beausoleil, The Best of Beausoleil (Arhoolie, 1997)
Rating: 8
Beausoleil is a fun band, but it's also a historian and keeper of the faith when it comes to Cajun music. This collection draws from the band's more traditional output for Arhoolie (although you can't go wrong with Rhino's Bayou Deluxe, either), showcasing top-shelf musicianship and sheer joy at playing. If the Chieftains had been born in southern Louisiana, they'd be Beausoleil.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Funeral for a Friend (Artemis, 2004)
Rating: 6
After founding member Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen's death, the band recorded this affecting tribute that could, these days, just as easily be for the Crescent City itself. Equal parts jazz, gospel, and funk, Funeral isn't laid out like a jazz funeral, but this collection of hymns covers every bit of the emotional spectrum.

In the ensuing days, those of us who knew him pieced together the story as best we could, culled as it was from snatches of conversations with his family and nurses. Stunned, we guiltily traded stories of warning signs we saw only in hindsight: the glassy eyes here, the furtive exchange of handshake drugs there.

I went to see James in the hospital only once, and it was about all I could stand. He couldn't speak, his vocals cords still healing from the rough insertion of a breathing tube by the paramedics. It was a short visit, with my not saying very much. As I was leaving, James looked me in the eyes and very clearly mouthed the words, "I'm in hell".

Needless to say, I wasn't quite equipped to deal with this, so I spent the night careening down random county roads, playing the darkest songs I could find in my car's random pile of CDs. It didn't matter if the songs I chose were about death; they just had to be brooding, dark, accusing, or fatalistic.

For sheer apocalyptic momentum, there was the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" or Led Zeppelin's take on "When the Levee Breaks", songs that steamrolled from the speakers and obliterated anything resembling higher thought. Hendrix's "Red House" evoked fond memories of watching James singing the song nine-eyed at a blues club years back.

The Replacements' "Unsatisfied" did the trick just for the way Paul Westerberg's throat-shredding repetition — "Look me in the eye and tell me that I'm satisfied / Are you satisfied?" — begins to sound like a defeated mantra. Richard Buckner's "Roll", despite its having nothing to do with death, satisfied with its sepulchral piano chords and funereal pace, not to mention a line like "Is your armor ever heavy?" and its escapist sentiment: "We could rent a car tomorrow and roll through all the thoughts we keep." I think James would have liked that one if I'd ever thought to introduce it to him.

No surprise, though, that the most devastating moments came from Townes Van Zandt. A man plagued by demons of his own, Van Zandt had a way of crystallizing despair to its essence. "Nothin'" set the scene perfectly — "And if you see my friends / Tell 'em I'm fine / Ain't using nothing'" — its bleak spiral finally blossoming into dark thought: "Sorrow and solitude, these are the precious things, and the only words that are worth remembering." Heck, even "Pancho and Lefty" seemed written just for me when the line "The dust that Pancho bit down south / Ended up in Lefty's mouth" came around. After all, what was my inattention to the warning signs emanating from James, if not a betrayal as a friend?

Unfortunately, I was way behind on my metal at the time; since God and I weren't exactly on speaking terms that night, I could have used some blasphemy. In the end, I found the local pub, put some serious strain on the Guinness tap, and abused the pinball machine, my mind so frayed that I didn't know whether to yell at the bartenders to turn the music up or turn the damn stuff off.

Shortly after, they took James out of state and into his parents' care. We thought of him often, in that helpless way of people on the fringes. Finally, word came back not too long ago that he'd died. It had always been a question of when, not if, and I think we all agreed that he was better off.

I've been thinking a lot about James lately, and I'm not even sure why. Spring's coming in; neighbors are tilling up their gardens in preparation for it, and on my drive home, I can see high school girls sprinting on their toes to their boyfriends' Camaros and muscle cars. Hopefully those budding relationships will play out better than the Drive-By Truckers' "Zip City", where the 17-year-old narrator guns a muscle car that echoes his brooding, leaving only a crying girl and lacerating relationship advice in his wake.

Not to get all "Circle of Life" on you, but maybe it's only natural to reflect on loss as you're coming out of the cold winter months and life is kicking back into gear all around you.

This was hardly my first encounter with pain or death. Pretty much every old person who ever left a mark on me is gone, some of them after horrible, chemotherapy-plagued bouts with cancer, but at least those deaths came at the end of solid lives that followed an acceptable arc. James's situation was just cruel and stupid and tortuous, and any way I looked at it, I couldn't see any sense to it. Pretty much all I had that night was music; having absolutely no musical talent of my own, I could only seethe and listen.

Musicians, on the other hand, have always been able to channel their pain and confusion and appreciation into songs. Recent years have seen worthy tributes to the dead (Rainer Ptacek, Van Zandt) and the sick (the celebratory Sweet Relief benefits for Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt), as musicians either said goodbye, tried to cope, or just lent a hand. Years and years ago, the Commodores gave us "Night Shift" with the passing of Marvin Gaye and a host of songs, such as PJ Harvey's "Memphis", said goodbye to Jeff Buckley. In many cases, especially with artists taken in their prime, it's a way of saying, "They mattered, and even though we have their music, here's another way to help remember."

But what to do when a whole city, such as New Orleans, has been battered to within an inch of its life?

Admittedly, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks, the state of the Big Easy's music was the least of anyone's worries. But now, as New Orleans hobbles back towards being a shadow of its former self, and hopefully then on to complete resurrection, musicians are starting to make their voices heard in support of a city that has, at one time or another, cradled nearly every original American music.

And for the most part, they're angry. Just as James's death had me focusing my anger on the man upstairs and deciding he had a lump of coal in his anthropomorphized chest, the response to Katrina gave artists plenty of targets for their outrage. Whereas my crisis was a bit metaphysical, the songs responding to the response on the Gulf Coast had plenty of tangible flesh-and-bone-and-red-tape targets.

Ben Harper's latest, Both Sides of the Gun, includes "Black Rain", which accuses, "You left them swimming for their lives / Down in New Orleans / Can't afford a gallon of gasoline" before boiling over with a scathing indictment of those in power. By song's end, he even warns, "It won't be long till the people flood the streets and take you down". Traditionally, Harper's had two thematic strengths: reacting to abuses of power and examining our actions' effects on our souls. At his best, he can be absolutely spiritual and inspiring; he hasn't reached those heights in a while, and while the handful of protest songs on Both Sides of the Gun are promising signs of creative reawakening, they still fall short of a song like "God Fearing Man". Maybe the fact that Harper's responding to specific events and trends accounts for the difference.

One of the very first songs to come out of the Katrina disaster, and perhaps the catchiest, was the Legendary K.O.'s "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People", which used Kanye West's "Gold Digger" as a lush bed for protest:

Five damn days, five long days
And at the end of the fifth, he walkin' in like, 'Hey'
Chillin' on his vacation, sittin' patiently
Them black folks gotta hope, gotta wait and see
If FEMA really comes through in an emergency
But nobody has a sense of urgency.

Part of the spark that ignites K.O.'s track comes from the way it stands at the crossroads of several cultural phenomena. It not only borrowed its tagline from West's controversial monologue during a benefit telecast, but its use of the chart-topping "Gold Digger" (which itself lifted from Ray Charles's "I've Got a Woman") immediately placed its sound squarely in the mainstream. It sounded comfortable and fluid, but it was a visceral response released hot on the heels of Katrina, and its lyrics were far from soothing. On top of that, it benefited from the Internet's viral-like ability to spread information. The song became popular without ever being officially released, even ending up on several year-end lists.

TV on the Radio's "Dry Drunk Emperor" follows a similar vein, letting the tragedy in New Orleans inspire the following salvo directed at President Bush: "All eyes upon / Dry Drunk Emperor / Gold cross jock skull and bones / Mocking smile / He's been / Naked for a while." It doesn't sound overly impressive at first listen — it's certainly not as attention-grabbing as some of their past album tracks — but subsequent spins generate an appreciation for the plaintive guitar lines, the band's controlled vocal delivery, and the layer of electronic fuzz that descends over the whole thing.

Prince's gospel-tinged "SST" is a little more philosophical: "Which 1 is of value to U? / The 1 depleting the oil supply / Or the One that renews it / And keeps the peace." Like "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People", "SST" sounds playful and uplifting. It's full of guitar flourishes, funky bass lines, and a feeling that its vocals could turn hymnward any moment. But its lyrics are a tricky mixture of hope blended with disappointed and matter-of-fact accusations ("Did U have open arms 4 each and everybody U met / Or did U let them die in the rain? / Endless war, poverty or hurricane").

Its instrumental b-side, "Brand New Orleans", is less successful, rarely lifting its head from its mildly funky six-minute groove. One of the remarkable things about many post-Katrina songs, TV on the Radio's and Prince's included, is that they aren't throwaways. Prince may arguably be less scintillating than he was in his prime, but "SST" finds him working to put together a worthy track. Likewise, TV on the Radio's effort signals a band still on the rise.

Add other cuts like Stevie Wonder's "Shelter in the Rain", Mos Def's "Katrina Klap", the Dixie Chicks' "I Hope", and "Any Other Day" by Wyclef Jean and Norah Jones, as well as an upcoming Russell Simmons compilation, and it's obvious that the musical community will be sorting through the effects of Katrina for quite a while. It's probably fair to say that, in terms of the folk tradition, Hurricane Katrina may well be a legitimate heir to the Jonestown Flood.

Perhaps the most affecting musical artifact so far, though, is Our New Orleans: 2005 (Nonesuch), a tribute album benefiting Habitat for Humanity. Consisting mainly of vintage New Orleans musicians (heck, let's just call them what they are — members of New Orleans' musical aristocracy), Our New Orleans is the best kind of tribute: it celebrates the city even as it struggles, each song a reminder of why it's such a special place. Anger certainly has its place when Katrina is the topic, but not here.

Kicking off with Allen Toussaint's rollicking new take on "Yes We Can Can", Our New Orleans seems to cover the gamut of emotions and forces reinterpretation of some songs in their new contexts. "Yes We Can Can", for example, becomes an anthem of strength in the face of adversity, while the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's James Brown-quoting "My Feet Can't Fail Me Know" morphs in the listener's mind from a street dance celebration to a dark reminder that being fleet of foot may also determine one's survival. Dr. John's "World I Never Made" now sounds like a song written just for the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf region who are now spread and displaced across the country.

Soul queen Irma Thomas muscles her way through Bessie Smith's "Back Water Blues", a 1927 tale of flooding in the rain-soaked lowlands (with some inspired dirty blues guitar and watery piano fills). Davell Crawford's stately, spacious, and spiritual "Gather by the River" deftly turns troubles into healing, portraying the same waters that wreaked so much destruction as a medium for salvation. BeauSoleil's mournful romp through "L'Ouragon" gets right to the heart of the matter, remembering a devastating hurricane from 1898. Songs like these remind us far-away listeners that New Orleans' relationship with the river and water is complicated at best. No stranger to flooding (or other disasters) throughout its history, New Orleans also wouldn't exist without the same waters that threaten it.

But not every song is a direct commentary on New Orleans and its relationship with water. Wild Magnolias' "Brother John Is Gone/Herc-Jolly-John" is pure Mardi Gras boogie. Eddie Bo's unique piano-professor take on "When the Saints Go Marching In" is a far cry from the trumpet-saturated cliché we all know; instead, Bo vigorously illustrates the city's easy blending of sounds and cultures by mixing together Professor Longhair piano passages, a ghost of Caribbean backbeat, and bluesy flourishes. Carol Fran's playful "Tou' Les Jours Ç'est Pas La Même" is vintage Bourbon Street. Charlie Miller's "Prayer for New Orleans" is pure beat vocals and trumpet, evoking Gershwin's "Summertime" as it courts the saddest funerary tones. Most surprising of all, Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" emerges as a song of defiance, its sentiment of "Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away" sounding like a statement of pride.

In short, the whole album comes across like one of New Orleans' famous jazz funerals: it's rooted in sadness, but by the time it's done, you can't help but feel uplifted. Every song here is freshly re-recorded, most within weeks of the flooding — no archival pieces here — as if to say, "Yes, the popular image of New Orleans' music is stuck in one place, but listen: it grows, it changes, and it perseveres". Maybe that's why Toussaint's instrumental rendition of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina and Me" feels like the heart of the project. Consisting of dark, minor-key piano passages full of classical touches, it feels like it's taking the listener on a bittersweet walk through the city's ravaged neighborhoods.

Ultimately, everything that comes out of New Orleans from now on will be viewed through the lens of Katrina and the flooding, from sports to Mardi Gras celebrations to music. Perceptions will change over time; anger will always remain, but it will be complemented and balanced by songs of sadness and reflection, and more songs of perseverance and triumph. In that sense, Our New Orleans is an anomaly in the way that it skips the outrage and goes straight to the proclamation that the pulse of New Orleans still beats. Maybe new styles will come out of New Orleans, or maybe the same songs will continue to be reinterpreted, but whatever we get will be full of the human experience.

I know that my feelings about James's death have softened over the years, and that the songs I associate with him have changed; the soundtrack evolves over time. A lot of my anger has been replaced by acceptance and by songs that I think peek inside James's head, like Elliott Smith's "King's Crossing" ("It's Christmas time / And the needles on the tree / A skinny Santa is bringing something to me"). A concentrated effort to learn more about vintage R&B also led me to the joys of black gospel, and while my list of questions for God has only gotten longer over the years, hearing Aretha Franklin sing "Mary, Don't You Weep" or Clara Ward tear through "How I Got Over" will make the most hardened heart a little more charitable towards the Almighty.

We should all have soundtracks that grow as we need them.

[Thursday, 20.Apr.06]
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