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New Orleans is More Than the Hot Fives and Wynton Marsalis

Letter from the Circle Bar

by BILLY SOTHERN

Gunshots down on Franklin,
11:45,
two boys from the Lower Ninth,
the coroner arrives.

There’s a blind man reading tarot cards
over there in Jackson Square.
He says the future is uncertain
but he don’t really care.

***

Everyone is drowning here
and everyone is free.
God protect these fools who build
their homes below the sea.

The Happy Talk Band, "Ash Wednesday"

People here in New York seem shocked when I tell them that locals at New Orleans’ Circle Bar, didn’t sit around listening to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives on the jukebox all night long. While their jukebox, the best in town in my estimation, wasn’t afraid to look back into the city’s past with Irma Thomas’ "Drip drop, Drip drop, It’s raining so hard, Looks like it’s gonna rain all night," pouring out of the speakers occasionally, the live music at the Circle Bar had a decidedly less anachronistic tone.

I moved from New York to New Orleans almost five years ago with the promise of cheap, old, beautiful, falling-apart homes and drawn to the city’s current and dynamic cultural life which I had seen glimmers of while visiting. While in the past month the media has focused on the city’s cultural history and its most prominent export, jazz, this reflects only a small corner of what many of us loved about the city.

There have been some honest assessments of local music tastes in the press. My favorite bit of reporting from the Times Picayune touched on the looting of the music section of the hated Lower Garden District Wal-Mart:

"They took everything – all the electronics, the food, the bikes," said John Stonaker, a Wal-Mart security officer. "People left their old clothes on the floor when they took new ones. The only thing left are the country-and-western CDs. You can still get a Shania Twain album."

It is true. There was not a single "new country" fan among any of my friends and neighbors. However, while there may be more traditional jazz fans per capita in New Orleans than anyplace in the world, New Orleans had many great musicians of all different stripes-from rockabilly, to alt-country, to klezmer, and many hybrids therein.

The Circle Bar played host to the city’s smart and eclectic rock scene and while the city’s music roots have passed a torch from Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, and others patron saints of New Orleans music, the bands I saw there on a daily basis reflected the Third World city that was laid waste by the storm in a present and immediate manner.

Luke Allen, the front man of the Happy Talk Band, could be found behind the bar at Circle Bar serving drinks pretty much any night that he was not elsewhere singing his songs or sitting on the other side of the bar. He’s a red-bearded character who wears a staff-issue Angola State Penitentiary hat and who hails from Salinas, California, "the home of John Steinbeck," he always explains.

In the post-punk tradition, he is a less-than-perfect singer and held a guitar on stage mostly to keep him from having to stand there bare, and so he could jam his cigarette between the strings and the tuners while he was singing.

Whatever his weaknesses – he would tell you that they are many – they are more than made up for by his songs about the city. I realized one night that almost all of the songs had an element specific to New Orleans. "Ash Wednesday" sings of flooding and murder in the Lower 9th Ward. "Forget-Me-Not" sings of losing your mind, getting picked up by the police in Bywater for murder, and waking up on the 3rd floor of Charity Hospital, a mental health ward of New Orleans’ public hospital.

The Happy Talk Band’s songs are of New Orleans: the Huey P. Long Bridge, being drunk and naked with a girl on the levee, Collins-mix and Methadone, and the melancholy jealousy of dating a stripper. Luke even has an eye for the city’s ubiquitous flora and commented on the angel’s trumpets blooms, the smell of jasmine in a woman’s hair when she walks in from the street, and the cat’s-claw vines that creep up anything that sits on the ground for more than a few minutes in our rich swampy soil.

When do you ever hear New York’s "it bands" singing about Bellevue Hospital or East New York?

The Happy Talk Band’s sense of place was mirrored throughout the local music scene, filled with people who fell in love with the city as one enters a deeply dysfunctional love affair. Many came to New Orleans like sailors drawn to the sirens and crashed against the rocks, but no less smitten.

But now they are scattered around the country. When I talked to Luke Allen on the phone from Lafayette, Louisiana, he mentioned that his upright bass player, Mike Lenore, was tending bar in a restaurant on the Lower East Side in New York, his drummer, Andy Harris, found work as a cook in Peachtree City, Georgia, and his guitar player, Bailey Smith, who was to marry his wife Emily in New Orleans last month, is trying find gigs with another New Orleans rock band, the raucous Morning 40 Federation (http://www.morning40.com/). Though the Happy Talk Band remains committed to staying together and telling the stories of its city, it is hard to imagine them either playing their beloved Circle Bar or coming to a town near you any time soon.

Here in New York, Alex McMurray (http://alexmcmurray.com/), who sang his strange and beautiful songs in gravelly tones at the Circle Bar every Wednesday for years, is now playing on the Lower East Side a couple times a week. I haven’t been but its hard to imagine where he is going to find a tubaist or washboard player with an ear for his sound in this town or if people will appreciate, or relate to, the drama of selling your plasma. Who knows, maybe his perfect tuba-washboard-rock will be the next big thing in the Big Apple?

In short, though everyone was always talking about leaving New Orleans for some other city to find work, decent public schools for their kids, or a music business that might allow them to stop singing first person non-fiction narratives about doing medical testing for money, these bands and musicians don’t make much sense living anywhere else because the real, sad, living New Orleans fed their art at the very same time as it was eating its young.

For my part, I have spent too many nights sitting half drunk in the Circle Bar staring up at the old florescent clock from K & B, a defunct, nostalgia-prompting, local drug store chain, listening to music about floods, poverty, and urban decay. Now, it breaks my heart that there is no one left in New Orleans to play these songs and that the rest of the country is forced to hear about these same horrors on the television in their living rooms while politicians claim that what unfolded was unforeseeable.

Too bad that Bush didn’t spent more time in places like the Circle Bar in his wild, younger years visiting New Orleans. Sure, he might have gotten drunk and obnoxious, but it would have provided a much needed education.

BILLY SOTHERN is an anti-death penalty lawyer and writer from New Orleans. He can be reached at: billys@thejusticecenter.org