Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, I was close enough to New Orleans to be splashed by the wake of her culture. Thus, I developed a pretty serious aversion to Dixieland jazz, brass bands, and funk. Later on, while visiting Dublin, I would see Irish friends of mine reacting to roundtable trad sessions the same way, cringing visibly at the pub as a bunch of old dudes with flutes and mandolins tuned up and launched into the opening notes of "Danny Boy" (later on, at a party, I would witness a room full of people shaking their heads in sorrow and hitting "skip" on a stereo that was blasting Johnny Cash's version of the same song). My hatred for the music wasn't really rational or based on anything ? it was purely rooted in overexposure. Musicians like Professor Longhair, Louis Armstrong, and Rebirth Brass Band never had a fair chance with me, starting way back in Kindergarten at St. Andrews Episcopal School, whose team was the Saints and whose song was, predictably, "When the Saints Go Marching In." My stance on New Orleans music was similar to the one I took on the writing of John Grisham
, a stance I learned from my mother, which is basically: "Don't even grace this shit by acknowledging its existence."
I actually copped that attitude toward a lot of New Orleans culture, even after living here for years. Mardi Gras? Gag me. Seafood? Eaten my weight in the stuff ten times over already. Chicory in my coffee? I'd rather drink melted tar. Second Lines? Done that. Hell, in fifth grade at St. Andrews, we had a second line parade for the fetal pigs that we had just finished dissecting in science class, marching them out into the woods behind the football field in little fetal-pig-sized coffins while "Saints Go Marching In" blasted over the P.A.
Why the hell did I move here, you ask? Jeez, good question. I don't even know if I knew, except that I had some vague idea that New Orleans would be a good place to become a circus performer, which is what I thought I was going to do for the rest of my life. And I did become a circus performer, stilt walking and unicycling at conventions and in parades. For the most part, though, I was just walking around New Orleans completely untethered to its culture. I was a vegan, anarchist-leaning punk rocker whose head wasn't in the game of New Orleans because it was stuck so far up my ass.
Then, of course, in the summer of 2005, a bunch of stuff you might have heard about happened that suddenly dislodged my (and millions of other people's) love for all the weird and beautiful New Orleans stuff that I'd taken for granted my whole life.
And that was true, most of all, for music. The catalyst for my love of New Orleans music came in the form of a tape that someone left in my car (I was living in North Carolina at this time, right after the hurricane) and two collections put out by Soul Jazz Records called Saturday Night Fish Fry and New Orleans Funk. The albums run the gamut from super famous songs like "Big Chief" by Professor Longhair and the Dixie Cups' spooky-ass version of "Iko Iko" to treasures from the sixties and seventies like "Check Your Bucket" by Eddie Bo. The picture on the cover of Fish Fry is a weird photo of Lee Dorsey laughing and pointing a gun at you. This was a somewhat disconcerting image to look at in the days of sensational post-Katrina media freak-outs about looters and violence in NOLA, but I got over it. I bought both albums and the tape lived in the deck of my truck pretty much non-stop through a month and a half book tour to the West Coast.
And that was just the beginning.
Soon I was totally obsessed with old soul and funk, specifically stuff from New Orleans. Eddie Bo, Lee Dorsey, Chuck Carbo, Betty Harris, Irma Thomas, Gentleman "June" Gardner, Robert Parker, Bobby Marchan, Jessie Hill, Huey "Piano" Smith, Allen Toussaint, blablablabla...
All my free time was spent aggravating my allergies by flipping through dusty piles of forty-fives in record stores and junk shops and thrift stores. A pair of used Technics 1200's were purchased and I started playing records at a bar in Asheville on Sunday nights. I'm not sure what it was that clicked in my head to suddenly change me from someone who didn't even have a stereo (when I was seventeen years old, in fact, I'd shoplifted a CD wallet from Radio Shack that held 32 CDs and, since then, I've just always had 32 CDs that were rotated by a sort of natural selection, with CDs occasionally getting lost and destroyed to make room for whatever people happened to give me) to someone completely obsessed with pop music that has been all but forgotten by most of the planet. I delved into the dorky spirit of record collecting, memorizing factoids about different performers, developing passionate opinions on things no one else I knew gave a shit (or wanted to hear) about, like how the Rolling Stones stole "Time Is On My Side" from Irma Thomas, or about who actually wrote "Pain in my Heart."
In this hyper-modern world, obsessed as it is with information, technology and communication, it feels sometimes like we're all just little blips of information, all plugged into one another and running around on the same circuit, like in that movie Tron. I've bought into it myself, becoming one of those people who have heart palpitations if my wireless connection (well, my neighbor's wireless connection, actually) goes down or if I realize that I left my cell-phone at home. Even entertainment has turned into this strange, disposable, e-based thing, with bands being reduced to faceless little iTunes logos that you click on and listen to without having to interact with the actual people and feelings and spirit of the thing.