Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stomped: A Long Weekend In New Orleans

Saturday morning, I left my hotel in New Orleans and wound up walking nine miles, which, with the interruptions, took me about six hours. I did this because I'd heard that a guy I used to know, an artist and cartoonist named Bunny Matthews, much beloved in that city, wasn't doing too well, and I'd been told that his son runs a bakery called P&Q (pies and quiches) on Magazine St. and I wanted to find out what was going on. Although I hadn't seen Bunny in years, and, in fact, can't remember when exactly the day we spent together was, I did this out of a sense of obligation, because it was he who planted the seed of my severely ambiguous feeling about this storied city so many seem to love.

It shocked me to hear a guy who was so iconic to the city due to his Vic & Natly cartoons say such negative things about the place, but if anyone should know, it was him. He talked about how the more visible denizens lived in a past they refused to let go of, and a present they refused to acknowledge. He talked about musicians who were ignored while some who were very much past their prime, but available for Jazzfest appearances, were lionized. He introduced me to the concept of the Velvet Groove, the place you get stuck, but aaaah, what the hell, it was comfortable and you didn't have to change or confront unpleasant things.

And I thought about this as I walked up Magazine St. Boy, did I think about it. Just as I'd thought about it some years back as I sat with a friend in the French countryside and watched the first two episodes of Treme, a television show firmly anchored in that past so many (overwhelmingly white, as well as Not From Here) people cling to. Katrina definitely shook things up socially, and yet this show didn't seem to be addressing that in a constructive way. I was thousands of miles away, but my sense of poisonous nostalgia was twingeing mightily.

Magazine, which was preparing for a street fest called Art for Art's Sake, seemed to have been taken over by white Millenials, a great many of whom seemed Not From Here, and sections of it are lined with stores catering to them. Lots of tchotchkes for sale, lots of boutiques offering melanges of stuff including carefully "curated" "vinyls" (the current word for LPs), which seemed mostly ironic (you're seriously charging $3 for a scratchy budget-label album of fake Hawaiian music just because it has a kitschy cover? Why, I believe you are!), lots of souvenirs of a higher quality (because made locally) than you can find in the French Quarter. There was street art, but not of a particularly interesting sort, including one stencilled sign nailed to a power pole that said "Keep New Orleans Funky." Now, there's a Not From Here. Recent arrival, too, from the looks of it.

I kept walking. And, to be fair, every now and then, some funk appeared:

I didn't take many pictures, but the ambiguity of the curve in that portico was nice.
* * *

I'd driven straight from Austin -- nine hours -- and landed at an absurdly luxurious hotel, Le Pavillon, a historic and famous place, because Priceline had it cheap. Wow. And that first night, although I was fried, I had the front desk guy make a reservation for me at Peche, a restaurant that came very highly recommended -- and was within walking distance. I was grilled at the door as I tried to claim my reservation and reluctantly led to a table, where I was eventually served by a waiter who didn't seem particularly happy I was there and wanted to get things over in a hurry. (Days later, on Saturday, I got a voice mail for them confirming my reservation that night, so the door scene might have been because somehow they decided I was coming then; there's no excuse for the waiter). I didn't think the meal was all that: sinfully, I ordered hush puppies as an appetizer, and they were fine, but the smothered catfish was very unspectacular, and the sauteed brussels sprouts with chili vinegar the front desk guy insisted I order were good, but mainly because they inspired me to do essentially the same thing with a Chinese-style sauce when I got back. The highlight of the meal was the two women at the next table, sisters from Miami on their first visit to New Orleans. I guess I looked harmless enough (heh heh) and we had a great conversation about this and that. I hope they steered clear of Hurricanes; that drink isn't for humans.

The next day, I transferred to the hotel that was hosting the Ponderosa Stomp's panels program, the AC by Marriott, so I could see the day's panels, since I had one to lead the next afternoon. This new brand Marriott's introduced is excellent, although there are some glitches (really? Only four tissues for the whole room, packed away in a designer plastic bag? Glad my sinus infection's cleared up!), with a nice modern design to the room, and, as intended, a nice European feel. The conference started with Gene Terry, a fairly obscure swamp-rocker (swamp-rock, he informed us, was "White boys playin' black music damn good," which is an excellent definition) with an outsized personality that  was stifled again and again by his interviewer, John Broven, a retired bank clerk from England who's penned a number of typically British books about Louisiana music. By "typically British," I mean concentrating on records, and clueless about context. Once or twice Terry started to tell a story about his wild years in the clubs, only to be stifled by Broven going "Yes, yes, but I wonder if you can tell us about this record." Terry apparently recorded lots of them under the influence of adult beverages and seemed puzzled why Broven would rather talk about records than hear his stories. I wasn't, but then, I've read Broven for years. Troves of information, his books. Not so good on the feel. An American headed the next interview, as Todd Abramson led P.F. Sloan through the convoluted story of how he became one of the 1960s' more neglected songwriters, despite writing "California Dreaming," "Secret Agent Man," and "Eve of Destruction," among many others. Sloan occasionally picked up a guitar and showed us how things came to pass. He also claimed to have wrestled with an angel of God for 15 hours while writing "Eve of Destruction," so yes, he's a little weird. I took a bit of a break and returned at afternoon's end to hear John Swenson interview Chuck Badie, an important New Orleans session cat, about the late Harold Battiste, one of the heroes of that city (and, like many of its musical heroes, one who eventually had to leave in order to make a living), but Mr. Badie's accent was so thick I learned very little. 

I had been informed by my dinner date, Monica Brady, whom I know from The Well, that there would be a recurring theme in tonight's dinner, since her sister Patty was visiting from Maui. We headed to yet another James Beard Award-winner, Brigsten's. If you'd asked me, I'd have told you that this place had been there since nearly forever (although it hasn't), so traditional were its menu selections. There was gumbo (good, but a bit polite for my Cajun-trained palate), soft-shell crab, cochon de lait, and, for me, eggplant stuffed with seafood. All excellent, as was the company -- Patty is a firecracker, who'd come to town to see her parents and go to the Stomp, so, gentleman that I am (shut up) I offered her the plus-one that the Stomp had given me, which was a smart move: it was tons of fun hanging with her, and she introduced me to some miscreants I didn't know, who were hanging with miscreants I did know, some of them. 

But that's getting ahead of the story somewhat. The next day's panels started in Memphis, with Preston Lauterbach, author of two superb books so far (and apparently another on the way) talking to Howard Grimes, drummer on all those Al Green records, among others requiring a silky, laid-back percussive approach that became the sound of Hi Records. They were followed by Robert Gordon, another expert on Memphis, talking to J.M. vanEaton, drummer on countless Sun Records sessions ("The thing that changed music is when guitars and drums collided," another fine observation; thanks, J.M.) and with Jerry Lee Lewis for some time. Another fun session. Then Ann Powers tried valiantly to keep two divas, Brenda Holloway and Mable John, on topic to discuss their lives during and after stardom. I got to ask Dr. John about the song I used to play on the radio in Berlin, which is a forgotten feminist landmark, "Doncha Hit Me No More," and got the story of her writing it in a car  driving between gigs with Joe Tex, whose wife had complained to her that he hit her when he got angry. Do yourself a favor and play it some time. I had to miss the next panel, Joe Nick Patoski interviewing Augie Meyers, because I had to round up my panelists, five San Antonians from the little-known West Side Soul scene from the early '60s. I was real happy about how that went: the British record collectors who make up a serious percentage of the attendees at the Stomp seemed quite interested in it all, and the guys -- Manuel "Bones" Aragon, Rudy Tee Gonzales, Jack Barber, Little Henry Lee, and Rudy Palacios -- were tops. It was the last panel of the conference, and I think we went out with a bang. 

After getting myself decent, I went downstairs to await Patty and her friend Julee, who turned up in a spectacular convertible (which would have been ideal had the temperature not plunged into the 60s that day) and we headed over to the Rock 'n' Bowl, the venue for the Stomp concerts. I went next door to a New Orleans landmark, Ye Olde College Inn, which is a whole lot better than its name would imply. I could only get a seat at the bar, but that enabled me to observe the wild mix of (white) people in the place, from the bellowing guy recounting wild tales of the late Frankie Ford's gay adventures to the impeccably dressed woman in her 80s who sat next to me ignoring me until the bartender couldn't answer her question: what time the Tulane game started tomorrow. She then acknowledged my existence and asked me, and when I told her I didn't know, either, I ceased to exist. I had a fantastic wedge salad with blue cheese dressing (I know: weird, huh?) and a huge oyster po-boy, and then went to the Bowl, where the Swamp Pop All-Stars were half-way through their set, and Gene Terry came on and proved that he may be an oldie, but he's still a goodie. Next up were three divas, Betty Harris, Brenda Holloway, and Mabel John, which was a bit of a disaster: Betty had lost a lot of range and hated the band (the Bo-Kays, no less), Brenda had a tendency to go flat, badly flat, stop and yell at the band, and start again and go flat, and only 85-year-old Mabel showed any class by doing her set well, singing on key, and only erred when it was the end and Dr. Ira Padnos, the guy whose organization puts the whole thing on, was walking onto stage and getting ready to thank her and get ready for the next act when she launched into a gospel number that seemed to last for about 20 minutes. I was exhausted, so I found Patty and Julee, said good night, and stepped into the shuttle back to the hotel. 

* * *

So that's how I wound up with Saturday's daytime off, and my walk up Magazine. Monica had suggested a walk up St. Charles, returning in the streetcar, but we'd already driven that street a couple of times and the stately trees and magnificent mansions lining it gave me the creeps. Anyway, I had to find P and Q. I'd promised a friend here in Austin a gift, and passed a gift shop that had just the thing in the window, but I pressed on, not sure how much further I had to go. Here and there, there were things that weren't ironic or superficial: this place sells posters with this observation on it:

Don't argue with Bu!

After a mighty hike -- which I have to admit felt pretty good -- I found the bakery and had a short conversation with the Matthewses, who were going off to see Bunny the next day, so I sent my regards. The news wasn't very good (and has gotten worse since then with the introduction of lymphoma into the mix), but I felt Bunny needs everyone who cares to tell him so, so I did my bit. Now to find something to eat and pick up that tchotchke for my friend in Austin. Which, as it turned out, meant walking almost the entire length of Magazine again, but although it was after 3, when most restaurants aren't serving, I found a place I'd passed on the way up, which called its food "Caribbean tapas," which had made me shudder. Well, surprise: it's actually superb (and that wasn't extreme hunger talking) and again I got into a tableside conversation as a black couple dining next to me had delivered an entire grilled flounder, which the man ate. I was astounded at that much food (me, I had a salad with shrimp in it) but he got most of it down. I forget what his wife had, but we started talking because she was curious about the Stomp wristbands I had on, and he turned out to be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so some French got talked, too. After lunch (no, I don't remember the name of the place, but it's the only Caribbean tapas joint on the street), I headed to that St. Charles streetcar. Whew.

That night's Stomp show was amazing, or the part of it I saw was. I was bushed, and, since I thought she needed my plus-one listing in the records to get in, Patty met me at the Ye Olde, where I had a light dinner at a table in the window. (The strategy worked: they put me in the window when the place was heaving, but by the time we left there were plenty of empty tables). And I got there just in time for what I'd come to see: The West Side All-Stars, the guys from my panel. After a bit of a shaky start (they hadn't performed together in years, but had had a couple of rehearsals at the hotel) they got into the groove and held it bulldog-tight until the end of the set. 

All the All-Stars, almost: r-l, horn section (didn't get their names) Rudy Palacios, Jack Barber, Little Henry Lee. 
They were as surprised as the audience was ecstatic. It's rare to see a genuine unknown at a gathering like this, something nobody has heard of that knocks their socks off, and when most of the people doing the sock-knocking are in their early to mid 70s, it's a genuine pleasure. 

Rudy Tee tells another whopper

Rudy Palacios rocks out with help from Manuel "Bones" Aragon
The guys left the stage to wild applause and yelling, and a feeling that there was some more mileage in this thing. I hope so: I'm going to see if they want to play SXSW. 

I snuck out soon afterwards, said good-bye to Patty, and clambered on the artists' shuttle back to the hotel. I was very heartened by the Stomp, although the cohort of eligible artists is thinning, and the event only occurs every other year. Thanks to Dr. Ike and the crew. Like Arnie, I'll be back. 

* * *

I still have those ambiguous feelings about New Orleans, though. First, just about everyone I saw from there was, with the exception of the woman in the restaurant, white. Oh, I know I could have changed that, but I had no reason to go into a black neighborhood, and yes, New Orleans felt segregated, albeit in a strange way: most blacks and whites get along just fine, at least in the sort of circles I run in, and yet I sense that that's because the black people in that situation tend to be of an economic or social class that's middle-class and/or artistic. More worrying are those people in those fine houses on St. Charles, my fellow diners at Ye Olde. There seemed to be a bubble there, a bubble of class and money. Katrina displaced a large number of long-time black New Orleans families who, once out, opted not to come back, and tradition aside, it might well be that outside the bubble they saw opportunities and had ideas that New Orleans' velvet groove hadn't prompted them to have. In addition, a lot of the black people who stayed are angry, and the post-Katrina years have only fed the flames. Monica's story about the guy she knew who had his phone, his money, his credit cards, the groceries he was unloading in front of his house and his car itself taken from him by young kids one afternoon was hardly unique: as I walked back down Magazine, I heard a woman on the phone who was walking behind me: "Honey, they don't know where my jewelry is, and they don't know where my money is, and they ain't no more to take." This has always been a problem (remembering Bunny's story about the local TV news crew who went to Marie Laveau's grave to shoot a piece on crime in that cemetery being relieved of all of their equipment mid-shoot by some teenagers), but it's gotten worse. I can't help feeling there's a connection between this and the aged Tulane fan at the bar, implicit if not explicit. 

I dunno. It's worth thinking about. Patty told me there's no way she'd move back, although maybe Maui is a bit of an extreme distance. Another friend of mine has kept cordial relations with the city while living in Los Angeles. Me, I had to wake up on Sunday and drive to another part of Louisiana, so I waited outside the hotel with the usual riff-raff (Miriam Linna, Lenny Kaye, Roy Head, Barbara Lynn) waiting for the valet to come with the car. If anything draws me back to New Orleans, it'll be the Ponderosa Stomp. 

* * *

One reason I drove in with an Igloo cooler and some blue ice packs in my car was to stop in Cajun country and buy some meats. I drove as far as Henderson on Sunday -- just a couple of hours -- and after getting set at the motel (and an MSG-laden bowl of gumbo at the Landry's across the parking lot) I set off for a place in Scott called the Best Stop, whose stuff had been recommended to me, in hopes of getting some boudin and a couple of stuffed pork chops. After noting that everything there had MSG in it, I was actually hungry enough to order a link of their boudin, which didn't taste much like boudin and had a heaping helping of the toxic substance in it. Sweating and with my tongue aching, I went back to the motel to drink as much water as I could honk down. Fortunately, Pat's was just down the road for dinner, Pat's is still Pat's, and Dot the waitress is still Dot the waitress, so I finished the day just fine. 

And the next day, I drove to Eunice and filled the ice chest with LeJeune's finest garlic sausage, some tasso, and a five-pound ponce (sort of like Cajun haggis, but not) and then discovered much to my delight that Kermit LeJeune, who's been running the joint for 34 years, is still with us (but he was eating lunch!) and still the warm, friendly guy he's been since I first met him 25 or so years ago. It was an upbeat ending to the trip. Now I have to find someone to help me eat the damn ponce, because Mrs. LeJeune gave me her recipe. Shouldn't be hard. 

The gold standard; accept no substitute.


  1. Geezus, Ed. Thankfully I had a better time at The Stomp and NOLA than you seemed to have had.
    Read about it here...gustavandsonjaeat.wordpress.com


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