Monday, August 23, 2010

New Orleans

Our next stop on the tour was New Orleans for the Blues and Jazz Fest, which was a pretty prestigious gig for a small club band like ours. We, of course, were a warm-up act. More like the warm-up for the warm-up act. The headliners were supposed to go on at ten, we were scheduled to go on at seven. Two or three full acts before the headliners.

I woke to the warm moist gulf air, speeding down the highway towards the French Quarter. This gig was a bit of a treat for us, we were going to stay in a real hotel room in the Quarter, as opposed to some motel off the highway. It was still early morning and as usual everyone in the van was quiet. During the drive I hadn't said much, brooding. My brother and sister were right about one thing, I could find myself standing on the side of some windswept road while the band could go on to find themselves on the threshold of a career. I busied myself watching the fleeing scenery to distract me from my thoughts. Even though Texas and New Orleans weren't that far apart, you can tell Texas is part of the southwest, dry, hard, and the vegetation is scraggly, while New Orleans is verdant. Every quarter mile was looking more and more stereotypically like my conception of Louisiana. There were the trees with moss hanging off them. From the back, Mitchell read a monologue from a guidebook.
"The moss are actually lichens with white flowers that are slowly killing the tree." We passed an ancient ruin covered with moss, its cement wall blackened and weathered. The way the window was shaped, in a cross, made me think it had once been a church, or maybe a Spanish fort replete with ghosts, guns and gold. I let all the images burn in my romantic imagination where they glowed with a pirate light. There were some mausoleums on the right, and more guidebook discourse from the back, "all the graves have to be above ground because New Orleans is six feet below sea level." The van rounded a curve as we whisked passed the Superdome, thoroughly ending my romantic visions of the past.
"The Superdome..." Mitchell read.
"Hey, let me see that guidebook." I said. Mitchell passed it forward and I leafed through it. "It looks pretty complete, chock full of information."
"Yeah, it is.." he stopped as I rolled down the window and threw the guidebook out. "And boring. You act like a tourist and you are a tourist."
"You act like a tourist and you are a tourist?" He said, mockingly, as if the words were something alien. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"We‘re explorers, not tourists."

After we checked in at the motel, the boys went to take showers and get cleaned up, I went to the bar to have a beer, it was cold and one of the best beers I‘ve ever had. We were supposed to meet 'the girlfriends' for breakfast later. 'The girlfriends' didn't travel with us to all the gigs, just the bigger ones, or when the boys got lonely, they'd never been to New Orleans before and they all were excited about seeing the city. Of course they couldn't travel with us in the van, so they were coming separately.

New Orleans was like Jim Morrison, swampy mystery and a controversial history, like the flowers slowly killing the trees. But New Orleans was a double-edged sword for Morrison. After one trip he said he enjoyed the city's sights and sounds, and visions of Victorian spaceships. But it's also where The Doors had their last concert, where Morrison pounded the microphone into the stage until it splintered and Ray Manzarek said he literally saw Jim's spirit leave his body.

I wanted to see the Mississippi before anything else. I wanted to lose myself in its mysterious waters, to stand on its shore. As I wound my way through the French Quarter it occurred to me that these were the stones of the steps that Indians and pirates had walked, where Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson had made war plans, the same quays where Abraham Lincoln landed and watched the riverboats load and unload cotton, and of course where the darker history of slavery was plied. I went over the top of a rise and before me lay the Mississippi. It looked like quicksilver from where I was. I watched the boats skating across the water like insects that never break the tension of the surface or they're engulfed and drown. There are certain geographical sights that impress upon you their sense of history. Iconic locations, that when you mention them they conjure concrete images in people's minds, triggering a sense of awe and adventure, which have been drawing people to them for centuries. Places like the Amazon, the Seine, the Alps, the Nile, the Rhine, and the Mississippi. It's dark, lapping waters that flow through America from top to bottom, the waters that inspired Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams. I wondered, do these places naturally inspire awe in us, or is it the history we inscribe on them?

I'd told Ian that being out on the road touring was accomplishing something. But was it true for me? I knew it had been at first with the rehearsals, then the gigs at 'The Place,' I knew I had accomplished something, but the night after night routine without anything new happening? I could see the far away end of the tour, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but where would that leave me? In whatever city the tour ended in? Or wherever the very finite money I would have left over would take me? Or with no prospect except to return to the life I'd known before. That would be nowhere. Could I somehow become part of the band? Or would it become every man for himself? The waters of the river lapped at these murky thoughts.

I found the boys waiting for me outside the Court of Two Sisters. 'The girlfriends' had caught up with us, and they had all glommed together in the correct couplings. We walked through the wrought iron gate of The Court of Two Sisters, a large courtyard opened in front of us. There was a ceramic and iron fountain in the middle, musicians were wandering from table to table.
"It was a courtyard society." Mitchell said, reading from a new guidebook.
"Where'd you get that?" I asked.
"Store next door, a dollar and a quarter." He said, smiling broadly. I just shook my head.

As we looked over the menu, we were awestruck by the diversity and the quality of the food, omelets, quiches, aspic, mousses. We became instant epicureans, aficionados of food, detailing its lore and our favorite dishes. It was the first time in a long time we had eaten well. The boys loved the pate and aspic. The violinists, seeing a table of mostly couples, came over and serenaded us. It was the kind of gracious living I could get used to.

After lunch we were right back where we started, on the street in front of the restaurant. By now the quarter had awaken. The streets were crowded with people, alive and in motion. Bourbon Street was like the river itself, currents of people ebbed and flowed into sight and out. Swirls and eddies in front of the bars, strip joints, restaurants, and curious shops that lined the streets. There were mimes and shills trying to pull you into the strip clubs, while the main current pushed you farther down the street. The buildings were close together and ancient, with fancy iron railings surrounding balconies that were decorated with plants and beads. We moved down the street as a single entity with twenty eyes and arms reaching out from every direction trying to see everything, to experience everything, and absorb all the sensations at once. We followed the current down the street. Digging the sights, sounds, and smells as a group. We were a band that day.
"Let's get a beer." I said. I’d seen a few storefronts that sold twenty-ounce beers for a buck and a quarter. We each got the local favorite, Jax beer. I took a sip and almost immediately spit it out, "that's terrible." I said. I saw a homeless woman trying to cadge money for a drink from passersby "here baby," I said, handing her the beer.
"Thanks, honey." She said, her eyes lighting up at her new found bounty. She hooked her arm through mine, "want some company, sweetie?"
"No, thanks." I said, tearing away from her grip.

The good thing about the French Quarter, if you walk six feet you'll find a shop that has whatever you want, need, or desire, including Voodoo. Luckily, I saw a shop that had a hand lettered sign in the front window D-a-i-q-u-i-r-i. The lettering seemed deliberate, unsure of itself, like whoever wrote it wasn't quite sure how to spell daiquiri. Inside the shop there were about twenty soft serve ice cream machines. Each had a different flavored daiquiri stirring in it. From the relatively innocuous sounding, fuel injector to the more exotic like flaming-gorilla-tits. We quickly replenished our twenty-ounce beers with daiquiris. The boys were walking down the street, a daiquiri in one hand, their girlfriends in the other. Everybody was happy. I saw a couple of lesbians walking down the street and became enamored of young love. In the next instant I saw a group of women, each wearing a solid pastel colored dress with a silk ribbon sash slashing across their bodies, beauty contestants! I ran up to them and bowed, over exaggeratingly courteous, stepping easily into Morrison's persona.
"Hello, ladies!" I said, "where you all from?"
"All over!" They all shouted enthusiastically.
"All right!" I said. "You ladies wouldn't be going to the Blues and Jazz Fest tomorrow night, would you?"
"We are!"
"Come and see us," I said, pointing to the boys "we're a band, and we're playing there tomorrow. We're the opening act." They made some vague promises to come and see us and we continued floating down the street like flowers in a stream.

After another daiquiri, we had started running relays for more daiquiris. I found myself standing in front of the open door of a strip joint staring at a beautiful girl on stage dancing. I looked around, I was alone, people flowing around me. The band was gone, I'd become separated from the group.
"Come on in!" The shill said, "all the girls, all naked!"
"Do you like that?" A voice asked. I looked around. Alex had come out of the crowd and was standing next to me.
"Huh?" I looked around realizing I had been staring.
"I said, do you like that?"
"Sex is all I have time for" I said, smiling. She walked away shaking her head, and I went inside for a while.

When I came out it was late afternoon and I soon caught up with Ian and Alex, they too had become separated from the rest of the group.
"Should we look for them?" Ian asked.
"No, when lost in a wilderness the first rule of survival is stay where you are. Besides, it looks like this guy is going to be doing something soon." We had stopped in front of a big guy wearing a beret, a blue vest with a pack of Kools in the pocket, and a saxophone. He was messing around with his equipment, muscling some big amplifiers into position. He hooked up his amps into a ghetto blaster tape deck that had a stack of tapes in front of them. We sat on the curb to wait for the others, watching the jazz guy set up his equipment. On the sidewalk across the street a shoeshine boy seeing the growing crowd, stopped and was hustling passersby for business.

The day was starting to melt into evening. Cool breezes were blowing in off the Mississippi, as the jazz guy started blowing his sax, an electric fuzz filled the air, or was it because of the steady stream of daiquiris? The music bopped and hummed in our ears. The crowd started to grow. Ian, moved by the music, cupped his hands and started jamming on a harp with the guy. He bopped and danced, sweating, following and filling in the jazz guy's leads. We were all into it, grooving, clapping, and laughing at Ian's exaggerated movements a satire of a rock star. The jazz guy seemed to be into it. He bopped to Ian's playing and even gave him space for a solo. In the middle of it, the rest of the band appeared, apparently resupplied and re-energized with alcohol. When the song ended Ian uncupped his hands, they were empty. He didn't have a harmonica!
"Wow! You were great!" We enthused, crowding around him. Almost leaving the jazz guy out of our praise.

After the jazz guy had finished his street side concert, we all dropped a few bucks in his sax case as he was taking down his equipment. It had gotten dark and the streets had changed. People were now dressed for the night, gone were the gawking tourists. The air had become chilly we ambled along letting the current of the crowd still carry us farther down the river, until we found ourselves in a darkened end of the Quarter. We realized we were all lost and didn't know how to get to more friendly environs. We found a well-lighted oasis and stopped to rest while Mitchell consulted his guidebook. Everyone was relieved it finally came in handy and that he had it. Ian noticed some street musicians playing under a street lamp, dressed in leather jackets, and strumming acoustic guitars an open guitar case in front of them for people's 'contributions' and 'donations'. They looked harder, more street worn than the saxophone guy. Ian went over to talk with them, I leaned against a street lamp farther down the street. I was tired and hungry.
"You kind of have the Morrison swagger." Alex said, sidling up next to me.
"I'm borrowing it, since he isn't using it."

From where I was standing I could see the whole intersection. On a side street I saw a drunk approach a cop, their body language was so distinct it was like a pantomime. The story wasn't that hard to discern. The drunk stumbled towards the cop. His lips, from this distance looked like they were moving in silent movie fashion, trying to make some point to the cop. The cop faced him and pointed in the opposite direction. The drunk submissively turned back the way he had just come. Ian and his 'harmonica' were jamming with the street musicians. Alex was talking with a couple of guys in biker jackets and the rest of the band sat on the curb, too tired to move. The drunk across the street was stumbling back towards the cop. Again, the cop warned the drunk off.
"What did they want?" I asked as Alex came back by me.
"Just some local creeps." I watched as the drunk approached the cop for a third time. The silent movie playing itself out, the cop turned around and knocked out the drunk with a single punch. The night suddenly had a surrealistically violent undercurrent. The guys who Alex had been talking to were hovering nearby sizing me up trying to figure out if I was her boyfriend and if they could take me. Alex was clinging to me, trying to look like she was with me as much as possible. The musicians weren't as tolerant of Ian's faux harmonica as the jazz guy was. Something in their demeanor was malevolent. Everybody could see it, except Ian.
"You better get him out of there." I said to Alex.
"What should I tell him?"
"You're tired and want to get back to the hotel, anything." Alex went over and whispered in Ian's ear while I kept my eye on the creeps watching Alex, and making sure the musicians didn't jump on Ian before Alex got him out of there.

The night ended sitting on a picnic table at the Cafe DuMonde, sipping hot chocolates and munching on beignots. The dark shore of the Mississippi only a few hundred feet away, those mysterious waters gurgling on, a void right in front of us.

(The Last Stage is available on Kindle, Nook Books, or if you would like a signed copy of The Last Stage they're available from my website (only $20!) at Jymsbooks via Paypal (, please don't forget your mailing address!)

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