Impressions: New Orleans
by Stephen Rahaim
I'm a recent émigré to New Orleans, and News Flash for a new guy!, this town is brimming with bottom feeders, vampires, washed up scenesters, former denizens of faded music movements, and recovering dot com'ers, . Things got ugly where I was and now here is where I am. There's a few things that I've looked forward to about moving here, and a few peculiarities that I've noticed in the short time I've been here. Strange as it may sound, they seem to run together.
St. Charles, the grand avenue of society, culture and history, all fringed with strings of plastic Mardi Gras beads made in Malaysia hanging from the live oaks, now appears to have more joggers on the streetcar tracks, ever-sinking into the uncut grass, than a history of carriages carrying southern gentlemen and ladies. The French Quarter, seemingly sinking into a sea of absurdly priced daquiries poured from a nozzle on a cart by a pimpled kid for the throngs who stroll to soak it up, but buoyed by the music that rolls out into the street. Tulane University, clustered into a neighborhood whose charm is splattered with a swamp of upturned streets and mud from a broken sewer line, and butting up against Audubon Place a private gated community that houses old money ghosts and rock stars alike. Old boy networks running the town that don't so much spit in the eye of municipal democracy as offer it a drink while they elbow each other with a chuckle over the not so hidden fact that they never intend to make one, although you'll pay for it anyway, eventually.
It's an amazing thing to get caught in a cross wind, a particular spot on the street where you can hear three or even four bands melding together into that singular song of the Quarter. A jogger with an MP3 player and sports bra pausing in front of the Columns hotel, where Mark Twain might could'a taken an eye full. Magazine Street, narrowed by time and space until one day it's just another one way, but oozing more soul over its elusive curb then ten Midwest post-industrial stress towns combined.
One of the things I was looking forward to was the chance to see a band I was introduced to by a beat up cassette they put out several years back -- Royal Finger Bowl. I find out they have a regular Tuesday night thing at El Matador. Their two albums drove me across the country twice and I've been thinking that the live show would be great. I'm not disappointed. I find El Matador to suit my expectations and the band warms up quickly (there's a sousaphone solo over the Ozzy house music which lights up my and the bartender's eyes) and there's some nice guitar work that I didn't expect. The first set is tight and I'm so glad to be sitting where I am and drinking down one of my last $20's.
Then things change, well, run together. A woman in clear glass platform shoes that should have gold fish in them comes in with an entourage and European kisses, I've yet to see the socialites of the night scene. The good size for twenty-five, small for fifty Matador starts to fill up a little bit. A guy comes in, local enough and buys a bottle of Budweiser… and I should have know just by the fact that my eye caught and followed him, he'd be trouble. He's down next to me in the booth showing an empty pack of cigarettes before I can avoid his breath.
"I'm here trying to pull my rig in here, ya know what I mean?" spittle question mark.
"What kind of rig are you lookin' to pull in here?" Don't hand him a cigarette, don't hand him a uhhh…
"I'm Dave Shaw, man, from the Alarm…" it just rolls off his tongue as if it should always get him a drink a wink and a private favor. "I'm scoutin' a place to pull in for something regular where I can get it back on, really put it up right." Spitting British all over my T-shirt. I've been doin' it up the street for ten years at…"…some slurred place I've yet to visit, thankfully, in the Quarter.
"Don't get me wrong this is a great place your runnin' here, I could make it happen here, but I gotta get a sense of the sound. I gotta hear the band, and I see the speakers but I gotta hear this place fill up I don't know if these boys can fill it up… Come on in Son let's here it!" not bothering to move his head from my ear when then shouting to the band.
So washed from the eighties British wave/blues non-movement, Dave continues to tell me that the Matador is fabulous, a fucking dive, perfect size for what he wants to do, and not big enough for his sound to really expand the way it needs to. That the band is two years ago too old, lyrically evolved for what he hears in this town, a toss of a lot better the turn table farters that are running the scene in England, that the front man for Royal Fingerbowl isn't hittin it like he should…" Like Elvis man, that's too jazz, like Elvis man, this place is like Memphis to me and I can do Memphis, and what do ya need those fucking drums for in a dive like this. Aaaah there's the drummer, shhhh shhhh it's alright Son!… it's alright. Hey boys, Mr. Love is here, I'm Mr. Love!"
The clincher comes when he, being who he is and all, finally awkwards the band into letting him play a song, and no one in the entire bar is happy about it. The lead singer seems to suffer it to make some point that is completely lost on everyone, I hope its far more psychological then letting this drunk pick up his guitar and his show out of some sense of dues to be paid and homage to be laid to someone who has already been there. And if it's just to shut the guy up so they can continue the set, than I say, straighten your spine up and be direct about it.
Mr. Love proceeds to lick out his Sometimes I feel like a Something or Other blues with a bottle wobble stomp in his flip flops and detunes down to D in the middle of his solo. This is all in obvious spite to the fact that the band feels from the first measure it's gone on more than one something-or-other too long and throw the tempo up a couple notches beyond what he's capable of tonight. In the end it's a bit pathetic, and the lead singer has received causal condolences for what seems to have been an inevitablity since this guy walked in the door.
So my question became, how many other refugees and soul clingers does this town harbor? Are these the vampires that I was looking forward to encountering by surprise. Those out there who need that step up by crapping in other people's oatmeal, or that fall off the curb, stage or ladder to finally hit rock bottom and, God willing they have the fortitude, start rising again.
It seems New Orleans has a bottomless cup for those who need to soak up what ever they have convinced themselves constitutes this place. People who need to rain on other people's parade to pick themselves up, people who need excuses and tools for suffering to pull themselves out and up, and People who need to get by and get by and let a few years roll down the river.
I may very well be more of a refugee then an émigré, but the other evening showed me something of what need be done and avoided to spin that up rather than down, to get to the "Alright'naw…" I hear tossed from bicycles to front porches down Camp street . When I'm walking the dog past a two hundred year old house that's being trimmed and opened up for the season, which backs up to the guy who cuts imaginary grass with a forty-year-old Toro lawn mower, and sits next to the pink multiplex full of hipsters and tonic; which is to say, when I find myself in the cross winds that swirl in this town I'll just lift my nose to take it's scent, and let it blow on; knowing that once I figure out what I think this town is comprised of, I can take up that full cup and let a few years roll down the river.
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