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New Orleans Music Continued

So I'd like to thank Powell's for letting me do these blogs. Also thanks to my loyal and patient publisher, G.K. Darby, who set this whole thing up, and then nearly had an anneurism the other day when I didn't get these blogs done on time. He told me that he was going to kill me, then told me my first entry was great, then lopped off the last three paragraphs of it when he sent it into Powells.com. So, on that note, here's a slightly expanded version of how yesterday's blog should've ended, which means that between the two entries I'm probably giving you more obscure New Orleans R&B knowledge than you ever really wanted in your life.

Here we go:

The 45 is the opposite of the impersonal, un-interactive, faceless MP3 file. Dusty and warped, spinning on a turntable, sending a signal through a tiny metal tube into your bedroom speakers — you are like a little music-listening autonomous being. Each pop and warble on that vinyl exists only for you and no one can download that or check it out on MySpace, which is a rarer and rarer phenomenon these days. Hold a copy in your hand of the 45 "Don't You Just Know it" by Huey Piano Smith and tell me that it doesn't feel magical, like a little ticket into the past that you can redeem over and over again, a little telepathic message from old Huey himself, because he knew how important it was to communicate to you, fifty years down the road, the words:

I can't lose with the stuff I use
Don't ya just know it
Baby, don't believe I'm wearin' two left shoes
Don't ya just know it

Ah ha ha ha
Ay ay oh
Doo bah doo bah doo bah doo bah
Ah ha ha ha
Ah ha ha ha
Ay ay oh

And who the hell cares what it means? That, in fact, is part of the beauty. These days you can get on the radio and say shit like "Soulja Boy up in that ho! Super soak that ho!" (whatever the crap that means) and put out records with lyrics like, "When your pussy pop you cause fights in the club." But back in the day, all those R&B and soul singers had to come up with arsenals of bizarre euphemisms for whatever it is that they were talking about. And these people were every bit as scandalous as your typical nowadays pop star. Amy Winehouse got drunk and said what? Shit, check out the picture of Ernie K. Doe holding a giant cake shaped like a big ol' pair of breasts. Britney's sister's having a baby? Hell, you ever hear of Bobby Marchan? He was a '50s New Orleans singer and drag queen who managed to sign a record deal without the label figuring out that he wasn't a woman. In fact, if Huey Piano Smith (who was backing Marchan up on, well, the piano) hadn't kept laughing, the producers might never have wised up. Even after they did, they still kept the deal with Marchan.

And today we get to go back and marvel at these layers of code that singers were slipping into songs. Sure, the sex stuff is obvious. There are eight million veiled dances like the scratch, the popcorn, the dog, the cool jerk, the funky chicken, the funky penguin, the thang, the push and pull, the bump, the funky sissy, the humpback, the funky four, eight and even sixteen corners, the tighten up and the tighten up tighter, the funky robots. But then there's even weirder stuff hidden in the mix, like in the songs of Robert Parker, who seemed, more often than not, to end up singing about feet. Was there something more perverse than meets the eye in songs like "Barefootin'," "The Tip Toe," and "Steppin' Out"? We can only wonder.

The irrelevance of these lyrics to this modern world is what makes them so amazing. The world will never go back, and I wasn't even a part of the history that I'm eavesdropping on (being born in the Eighties and all), but that is, perhaps, why I take comfort in those 45s. Since Katrina, I've stopped being embarrassed by the things that comfort me. I came up as a card-(and u-lock)-carrying member of the bike-punk subculture, conditioned to loathe all things internal combustion. And I've certainly spit on a fair share of SUVs in my day. But, you know, truth be told, I actually really like driving around with the heat on, listening to the radio. It makes me feel slightly comfortable in a city where full-time-mental-freakout is now considered normal. Also, I like fried food (and have even gotten back on the seafood), and most of all I like blowing all my money on crackly 45s of goofy old New Orleans music.

So dooh bah doo bah doo bah, ah ha ha ha.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ethan Clark is the author of Leaning with Intent to Fall. His writing and illustrations have appeared in Maximumrock'n'roll, Bike, Stories Care Forgot, The Zine Yearbook, Chainbreaker the Book (forthcoming), and Punk House: Anarchist Interiors by Abby Banks & edited by Thurston Moore.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Leaning with Intent to Fall: A Memoir New Mass Market $21.00

  2. Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras... New Hardcover $27.50


Ethan Clark is the author of Leaning with Intent to Fall: A Memoir

One Response to "New Orleans Music Continued"

  1.  
    Burt January 29th, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Love the illustration!

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