BE NICE OR LEAVE
by Vincent Abbate
Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
I haven't spent this much time outdoors in years. Eight hours a day soaking up daylight sure beats staring into a monitor. With scorched grass underfoot, I stare up into a creamy blue sky. Up there, a prop plane trails a "Los Hombres Calientes" banner. I'm sunburnt. Mother Nature dissing my 30-grade sun block. Feels good. My eyes are closed often, or caressing the heavens, or following the movements onstage. At eye-level, people. Not crowds. People. I see them shaking their butts or restocking their festival feedbags or hanging back in deluxe collapsible lawn chairs. I study their tattoos and piercings like it's the story of a generation. My generation? I dunno. Most of them are younger. Some older. Some have come from abroad. So have I. I'm a first-timer.
So Brian and Dave were wrong. They'd scared me into believing I'd wasted the price of a transatlantic plane ticket. That was up in Oxford, Mississippi, on Amos Harvey's front porch, three days before the festival. Friends for a chilly night of beer drinking and passing joints. "Prepare to do battle," one of them had told me. "It's so crowded you won't even get close to anybody you wanna see. It's just a horde of white kids with nothing better to do." I uh-huhed them, but inside their words had stung. My friend Ralf and I planned to attend all seven days of Jazz Fest, and now the recurring thought was, "Damn them. Why did they have to tell me that? Let me make up my own mind." Dave insisted the only place to salvage the festival was inside the gospel tent. He'd spent all his time there. "You'll experience things you've never felt before."
He was right about that, at least. The crowds at the Fair Grounds had indeed bugged me at times. All those silly people who couldn't go a day without their cell phones. Imagine how messed up Woodstock would have been with cell phones. "Hey dude, you shoulda come up with us, we're making history here. Hear that? That's Jimi playing, man. Far out." I'd sought refuge with the Lord three times. Each time I came away crying, though you couldn't always see the tears. The Mighty Chariots' guitarist pulverized my soul to the point where I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I did something in between. I wasn't doing cartwheels for Jesus, but it moved me.
"Festival feedbags here! How you gonna clap?"
The walk to the Fair Grounds from where we illegally park each day takes fifteen minutes. We pass baseball cap hawkers and kids with coolers of lemonade and the first of the crowd-controllers. They've got the crowd control thing down at Jazz Fest. Hundreds of hired hands direct auto traffic in the shade of primordial trees, funnel people onto the grounds safely and are there at every turn to keep us revelers from getting flattened by maintenance vehicles. Flag and whistle me all you like, I say, as long as you keep the bathroom lines moving.
The same kids who'd been hawking mama's lemonade for a dollar a cup early on are set up in band formation on our way out. Pounding out the beat to "Rock and Roll, Part 1" on overturned plastic paint pails while an older pal squawks out the melody on a rusty trumpet. "Da-da-DUH, da-DUH, da-DUH..."
"Who made that song anyway?"
"I'm tellin' you."
The discussion breaks off where everybody shouts "hey!", suddenly transported back to the '86 playoffs at Madison Square Garden.
Isn't the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival about music? A large portion of the thousands who've come appear to have confused the event with a 10k walk. From food stand to chemical toilet to the next band they "might check out" and back again. And the choices are difficult, no question. Cowboy Mouth against Zawinul Syndicate, Corey Harris versus the Dirty Dozen, I don't know where to go either. You make your choices, cut your losses, tell yourself you'll be back next year for the rest. It's the American, "too much is never enough" school of thought. Give me ten stages, give me the Nevilles, John Mooney, King Sunny Ade and a half dozen more acts to choose from, and you know where you'll find me? On line, getting one of those frappé things. Gotta try all the flavors. Damn, my feet hurt.
"Festival feedbags here! Only three dollars."
Coco Robicheaux is nothing but a name in a glossy magazine until day one of the Fest, when Ralf and I flee the heat and crowds and find seats inside the air-conditioned Music Heritage Stage. Coco comes with stories about his childhood in the Ascension Parish, about the guy who lifted his wallet in San Francisco, then went on a crime spree under his name, and about his grandmother and her poulet noir. An "early Cajun surveillance device," he calls it. He uses words like hoodoo and gris-gris, plays "Little Black Hen" acoustic, and I'm hooked. In fact, I wanna be him: a Tabasco-slugging superhero, half Injun, half cowboy, taken as a boy by the loup garou, a demon-conqueror in adulthood. Later, Coco plays the song again outdoors with his seven or eight-piece hippie-looking band. He's so powerful up there, so cool and free, wind blowing through waist-length brown hair he'd worn braided and tucked under a snakeskin cowboy hat at the interview. The Louisiana Medicine man calls me to the earth. I find a space. Feel everything moving. Spirits rise from every blade of grass.
And then another voice calls to me. A woman calls my name. I look right. Her face is familiar. The mouth, the eyes. I recognize without instantly knowing. When it clicks, we embrace.
She's the ex of one of my best friends, someone I'd seen often in Paris and for the last time at dinner four years ago in New York, just before they'd split. Or just after. (There was tension; I think it was after.) What are you doing here? We wonder at the needle-in-haystack coincidence of finding each other in this mass of people thousands of miles from where either of us lives. She mentions a boyfriend, then calls him over. He's pudgy, shirtless, has a cell phone. I welcome him warmly into the fold. Coco will not allow me to begrudge this lady her happiness on behalf of my friend. There are enough tortured couples in the world. You guys are smiling and beautiful. Let's dance.
The Fest peaks and valleys over the length of its ten days. Midday hours are often slow going. Picture me hot, drinking iced coffee, sprawled out and listening distractedly to the music at Congo Square. Sometimes I like that easy groove, like when Henry Butler plays the piano. But it's usually around three or four, when I allow myself to switch to beer, that the party kicks into gear and I join it. We skank to Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, funk out to Galactic, trip to Roy Rogers; the Wild Magnolias are simply a blast. Nowhere is there a trace of hostility. Instead, generous strangers with spray bottles send cooling mists your way. Evenings we're in the Quarter, mostly, though the frat-house feel of Bourbon Street really does not impress me. That's where Dave's hordes of white kids with nothing better to do are at their least attractive. George Thorogood at House of Blues? Expensive, but a must. As is the R.L. Burnside show at Tipitina's. Music hits harder in clubs than it does outdoors: Burnside and Thorogood (and Benoit and Mooney, too) drive me to the hot, sweaty, rock and roll places where people drop confetti on, buy beers for and offer rides to complete strangers. Like Cindy, Joe and Phil.
The Burnside concert is over. The crew at Tipitina's is unceremoniously kicking us out. Galactic is playing a separate, sold out show at two a.m., you see. Of course, if you're buying T-shirts ... while Ralf is busy consuming, I straggle near the bar, and catch wind of a dilemma this trio from Chicago is in. New Orleans has three Tipitina's: Uptown, French Quarter, and At The Ruins. Cindy, Joe and Phil are at the wrong one. The Uptown club's door people had ripped their tickets without checking. Now, they wonder if they can't still catch at least some of the Radiators at the Ruins. Uptown's crew calls ahead and initials the tickets stubs for them. Now they need a taxi.
"We can drive you." It's nice of me to be offering, especially as I'm not doing the driving. I blame the music. Getting me to love humanity. Anyway, our passengers are excessively grateful and touchy-feely about it. Cindy takes the hump and shares her Jack & Coke with me. Phil zones out. Joe, riding shotgun and running off at the mouth, annoys the hell out of Ralf, who speaks only a bit of broken English. Worst of all, nobody knows where the club is. It's Convention Center Blvd., so look for the convention center. No, it's near the casino, let's go there instead. Hey, there's a cop! Phil suddenly wakes up and flags down a patrol car, returns saying we've got a police escort. Ralf doesn't understand, the cop gives up on us, we are clueless again.
We get them to the right Tipitina's eventually, and Cindy suggests we all meet the next day at the gospel tent (more gospel fans!) for the Mighty Chariots. We don't find them until one day later (they buy us a round and invite us to use their condo apartment on Lake Michigan), but I do get that otherworldly blast of guitar on "What a Friend I Have in Jesus" which makes me laugh-cry. You were right, Dave.
We run across Coco Robicheaux twice more in New Orleans. Outside the Louisiana Music Factory, a record shop on Decatur Street, we notice him unlocking his bicycle. (A superhero on a bicycle? Where's your winged horse? I haven't yet discovered that my hero is a TV spokesman for Popeye's fried chicken.) I approach him, affecting as local a tone as possible, and ask him if he'll take a picture with my "visitor from abroad". He agrees, throws his arm around Ralf's shoulder, hops on his bike and is off to his next in-store.
Finally, on the eve of my thirty-fifth birthday, we decide to see the man do his thing one more time, at his regular Wednesday night stint at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. As soon as I'm inside I know I'm supposed to hate Margaritaville (star cult) just as I'm supposed to shun the House of Blues (corporate entity) and the watered-down Jazz Fest itself (Sting's appearing? Can't be any good.) But I love the festival, feel unified inside House of Blues' one world decor, and ride a wave of Jimmy Buffet's six-dollar Bahama Mamas to a warm, peaceful, coconutty island where I can gray at the temples without having to apologize to anyone. Not even the waitress throwing me some definite negative mojo.
"Where you guys from?"
"He's from Germany. I'm from New York."
"But I live in Germany now."
Snap. Mr. Robicheaux launches into "Little Black Hen," telling his now-familiar routine about gris-gris and his grandmother. I collect the two-inch-long pink and blue bomber planes that arrive atop each fresh cocktail. I sip and I savor.
The bombers are lined up in a row on my desk now, reminding me of two fine weeks between youth and death.
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