Within four hours of deplaning, I completed my work for the week. This was a problem for me, because I’d had little experience with traveling to exotic places of leisure, and, as they say, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. But, what was done for playing music was done, and I was hell bent on celebrating my first major label session in one continuous haze, all yellowy frills and noisemakers attached. Having taste for neither adventure nor crowded areas, I made it a block away from my hotel, of which I remember the gist of the look but not the name or location, before settling at a modest and weathered tavern, of which I remember the gist of the look, etc.
It had a customizable jukebox, a bar, and more chairs than people; the speakers sounded the opening track from Dr. John’s Gris-Gris, 1968; and, it had a green, glowing machine that discharged cold Jagermeister. I selected an empty seat from many at the bar between the jukebox and the Jager, and, at once, I felt at ease and at home away from home, but I nevertheless armed myself against the disappointments of cliché as the man behind the bar approached me:
“It pleases me very much,” I said, casually pointing my finger at the ceiling, “but I thought a record like this might have worn out its welcome in this town by now.”
He, a rocker with a long, scraggly ponytail protruding from a bandana and a couple of teeth missing due to hellraising, replied curtly, “Some things don’t get old. What do you want?”
Touché, Bandana Man. “Budweiser and a shot of Jager, thanks.”
I drank slowly—partly because I didn’t have much money to waste, and partly because I didn’t want to get too drunk to keep myself alive. Despite my genuine good nature, I could not escape being a stranger—a Mardi Gras douche bag—amongst the locals. I drank it all in without comment, this birthplace of American beauty, as it can only be done by listening to the soundtrack of ordinary living: a conversation about work, the clinking of glasses, a middle-aged couple dancing to the funky Meters, complaints and confirmations. What can be seen in person can also be seen in pictures, but what can be heard requires physical presence. Getting a feel for a place requires letting its atmosphere seep into the pores: experiential osmosis. That’s why I needed not venture from that little pub; it was New Orleans in microcosm.
Bandana Man: “You’ve been here for three hours. The charm of this place normally wears off after two drinks. When are you gonna check out the city?”
“I have an internal arrangement that says I can’t leave a bar until I hear a bad song. At the rate we’re going, you’ll have to throw me out.”
For the next three hours, the Bandana Man and I drank slowly and talked music from our respective sides of the counter. Around eleven o’clock, a tired, older man walked in to Fats Domino falling “…in Love Again” and sat down quietly at the far end, three stools away from mine. The Bandana Man acknowledged and served the man quietly; we abstracted ourselves in the music. Around one in the morning, the tavern’s crowd peaked at twenty or so folks all but me familiar to each other and dwindled down again in the next hour. I sat, anonymous and satisfied.
The tired, older man removed himself from his seat and put fifty cents in the jukebox, and The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” lights the room on fire. Bandana Man lets out a reckless whoop and cranks the volume; my reverie molested, my eyes bulging, I choke down my fifth shot of Jager. Bandana Man approaches the no-longer tired and no-longer older man and they face off on either end of the counter. Looking each other in the eyes like two poised gunslingers, they, in perfect time, pound out Keith Moon’s drum solo on the counter. After the breakdown, their snarling, surly faces relax into a good laugh, they shake hands, and the man becomes tired and older once again. He settled up his tab and left.
Later, as my reserved speech became profoundly slurred, a nerdy-looking black man wearing glasses walked in and sat, as had the tired, older drummer, in the seat at the far end. He, more talkative than the last man, engaged me in conversations about the origins of jazz music and educated me on Professor Longhair and James Booker. I, lively in drunkenness and rapt in attention, fraternized with bandana man and the few remaining patrons until the nerdy black man removed himself from his seat and put fifty cents in the jukebox. The room wakes up to The Who once again not getting “…Fooled,” and, astonished, I witness the event of hours before again, this time at five o’clock in the morning, between Bandana Man and the no-longer nerdy and no-longer black man.
After twelve hours of celebration, I decided to break my bad song rule and stumbled back to my hotel.
The next four days brought the myriad sights, sounds, and smells of a lazy town on a drunken bender: the taunting temptations, and the laughing, nameless faces phasing in and out of sensation. Every night ended in the morning at that same little tavern, the entrance of which scaled fifteen concrete steps. One of the other musicians on the session joined me there for a drink, and we mulled over the possibilities for why the tavern had been elevated in construction. To protect against flooding, we guessed.
In my short tenure as a regular there, I came to befriend the cabbies and the ne’er-do-wells. We talked music like the resistance talks revolution; everyone was a player, and no one could truly articulate why or why not—the one certainty was that it was not for the money.
The night before the first day of Mardi Gras, a giant man with a shaved head and knee-high combat boots walked up the steps and through the open doorway. I was very drunk, rounding out day three of my hellish drinking spree, and he intimidated me. He and Bandana Man were friends, and Bandana Man had hired him to regulate the spirit of the little tavern amidst the friction of Mardi Gras outsiders. For example, a few college-aged boys walked in later that night wearing beads over Polo shirts. They were obnoxiously drunk, and they were obnoxiously loud. One of them put a dollar in the jukebox and started to complain.
“All these CDs suck!”
Hardcore Boots Man marched directly to the jukebox and unplugged it from the wall. Holding the cable in front of the young man, he said: “Lucky for you, the machine’s out of order.” The silence of the room pitted a staring contest between the four fraternity brothers and Hardcore Boots Man, Bandana Man, three rough-looking cabbies, and me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed smiling like a damned idiot. They finished their drinks and left. Hardcore Boots Man plugged the cord back in and played “The World Isn’t Fair” by Randy Newman. When the song finished, I had an epiphany and shouted too loudly at Hardcore Boots Man:
“Oh! I get it! I know lots of guys like you, cuz I’m from right around D.C.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hardcore Boots Man responded defensively. He still wasn’t sure about me, because I was drunk and wasn’t local.
“You know, man. Minor Threat, Bad Brains, uh, Henry Rollins, for Christ’s sake.” I pointed at the giant in his face. “Yer a punk!” Almost knocking myself out of my seat, I quickly shot my hands back to my chest, palms out, as if looking down the barrel of a gun: “No offense, or anything, cuz yer a real punk, and that’s pretty cool with me.”
After several seconds of silent deliberation, Hardcore Boots Man laughed, and he said to Bandana Man: “Okay, I think I kinda like this guy.”
We drank slowly—Bandana Man, Hardcore Boots Man, Rough Cabbie #2, and I—as the sun rose. Bandana Man’s shift was relieved at ten o’clock, and the four of us retreated to Hardcore Boots Man’s house a few blocks down the street. We fried eggs and talked easily about Mahalia Jackson’s childhood. Hardcore Boots Man showed us the room he was setting up for his son; he’d painted the walls yellow, and he’d left one corner blank to enable his child’s creativity.
“You know, I think he should be able to do what he wants with this wall. He can paint on it, draw on it, write words on it, whatever.”
He and his girlfriend had just amiably separated, and she was three months pregnant with their child. I imagined Hardcore Boots Man breaking a jaw to “Screaming at a Wall”; I imagined Hardcore Boots Man crying to “There is a Light the Never Goes Out.”
After a diner lunch, we ambled a couple of blocks to Rough Cabbie #2’s. He had a bottle of Canadian Mist and a rooftop view of the parades starting that day. We sat and passed the bottle between the four us in a cool January breeze. In three months, the water would wash through the streets and bury the human beings of New Orleans. For now, they gathered on the sidewalks to celebrate the Carnival.
Hardcore Boots Man: “Tripper, I want to show you something.” From his pocket, he produced a small rock painted turquoise. “The rock is worthless, but it’s seen a lot. I moved here from NYC, and I knew a guy there at a bar I bounced for—this guy was crazy, and he’d been everywhere. He had a story for almost every continent, and he gave me this rock right before I went to Africa. He said, ‘show this rock Mt. Kilimanjaro.’ I did, and I took it plenty of other places, too.”
He gave me the rock’s impressive biography, and then he caught me off guard: “And now, I’m passing it off to you.”
I coughed through a swig of Canadian Mist. “What? Man, you don’t want me to have that thing, do you?”
“Definitely. You’re gonna see a lot of cool stuff, and I want you to take this with you. Just pass it on when the time’s right.”
In no more than three days, the rock painted turquoise vanished into the realm of guitar picks and single socks—I just lost the damn thing. And when the hurricane hit, I remember watching the news channels in hopes of finding the faces of my nameless friends. I now like to imagine Hardcore Boots Man’s four-year-old son painting clouds high above calm waters.
Image credit: Bruce Soileau, SXC
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.