FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail