The Wandering Scientist

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Tag Archives: Frenchmen Street

Impermanence of music

Written: August 16, 2016, in New Orleans, LA

About: New Orleans, LA

There is a certain bar in New Orleans. It is a hole-in-the-wall with a short bar, a few small tables, and a band crammed into a corner. In this respect, it is like many other bars in town. This one just happens to be among the best.

Yeah.

So come here. Squeeze onto a bar stool, or screw yourself into one of the diminutive tables. Order cheap drinks. Watch Frenchmen Street flow in and out of the bar. Listen to some of the best electric blues you will hear anywhere. And remember – you cannot take any of it with you.

Even though the guys playing this spot have been doing it for years, they do not really seem to think of themselves as a band. They do not have a stack of CDs out front. No Bandcamp or iTunes pages. The outfit that has got your heart and your throat in its cool hands does not even really tour outside these stained and peeling walls.

You can never listen to this music again, take it apart phrase by phrase and bar by bar, loop it over and over on your commute, or thrust the earbuds at your friends – “Take a listen to this!” The only way to share this music is to drag your friends to New Orleans, find this spot, and be there on the right night and at the right time.

Once the strings and drum skins are still, their music is gone forever.

Then again, maybe this music’s impermanence and immediacy are part of its power.

There is no divorcing yourself from the moment. If you miss a note, there is no chance of coming back for it. You have to be there, plugged into every instant. You cannot be listening to it with half an ear. This music will not compete for your attention with the glowing screen of your smartphone. No, you have to be right here, right now, so shake off your drunken haze. I know this whole place got your head spinning with a deluge of lights, alcohol, and music, a carnival of wide-grinning inebriated strangers looking for an experience.

So settle down. You have found the experience.

Uncanny New Orleans

New Orleans has uncanny powers. Things and events touched by this city seem to become more heavily symbolic and meaningful. It produces coincidences that are charming and mischievous.

It was two years ago that I fell in love with New Orleans. It’s odd to know the exact date, but I do. On December 24th, 2010 I walked into the Spotted Cat and saw Meschiya Lake perform, and my heart was marked ever since. Though I did visit it again soon after, I have not had the opportunity to go back there until just recently. I have been trying to go again, but nothing worked out. Until a peculiar sequence of events conspired to bring me back.

The first was my college friends having a combined birthday and end-of-the-world party at the end of December. Lake City is about thirteen hours driving from DC, which is reasonably manageable. The drive from Florida to New Orleans is even shorter. The drive from New Orleans to DC, however, is much longer. While I was trying to figure out how to complete this route, a friend of mine mentioned that she was staying with her parents in Knoxville, TN for Christmas, and that I would be welcome to stop over. Knoxville is almost exactly half-way between DC and New Orleans. It could hardly be located more perfectly. At this point, I simply could not refuse the trip. As scheduling worked out, I arrived in New Orleans on the 23rd of December. On the 24th, I was again at the Spotted Cat.

Preparing for the trip, I messaged my friend whom I had met that first time on Frenchmen St. While she wasn’t going to be in New Orleans, we were going to overlap for a night in Tampa, FL. So we met and had dinner.

The above coincidences are not that unusual, given that everyone travels around during the holidays, I have friends in many parts of the country, and I think everyone has parents in Florida. However, the last touch was much more precise.

A couple months back, my dryer viciously attacked most of my dress shirts, ripping off many of their buttons. I have only repaired one. So when the time came for me to pack for this trip, I only had two shirts suitable for dancing – a black one and a blue one, the latter being the shirt I wore two years. I brought both, then lost the black one in Tampa.

I have two black vests I like to wear to dances. The newer one turned out to be in dire need of cleaning, so I had to pick the older one. The same one I had worn two years ago.

While I did recently buy a new pair of dance shoes, they did not work out very well, and I had to revert to my old pair.

So when the time came for me to dress to go to the Spotted Cat, on the exact two-year anniversary of my first visit, I was down to a single choice of outfit. The exact same one.

New Orleans, Frenchmen St.

Dec 24, 2010

Over the Atlantic

This was my third time in New Orleans, and though I liked the city well enough the first two times, this is when I really fell in love with it. The first visits were confined to Bourbon street, which is a fairly terrible place. I like terrible places, so it worked out. But it just never felt quite real. Kind of like Disney World without the Disney – fake toy houses filled with vicious drunks and naked girl with daddy issues. A compacted, storied Vegas without the excessive blinking lights everywhere.

It’s not too bad for my scene, actually, and the music is good. I appreciate any place where people feel free; and here they are free in base and awful ways. Drinks are expensive, but you can hear what you’d normally only hear on records. Solid jazz and smiling musicians. But the Disney park feeling creeps even into this. The music is exactly what you’d hear on the records. The Preservation Hall – reputedly one the best spots for jazz – is a goddam museum. Everything is covered in plexiglass, and it’s not even dusted that often. Old musicians hunched over their instruments, belting out St. James’ Infirmary for the millionth time to a crowd wearing shorts and flipflops, accompanied by glossy maps of the French Quarter advertising the best spots for po boys and gumbo. It’s a TV special – none of it is real. It’s got all the grit and zeal of a Civil War re-enactment. It’s as authentic as Williamsburg.

Frenchmen Street was different. The crowd packed the place – the Spotted Cat – wall to wall while a lone aging woman working the bar was slinging drinks all over the place. The crowd was mostly local – no obnoxious tourist t-shirts and flip-flops in this joint. There wasn’t really anywhere to sit, either. Chairs were an afterthought. And why would you want to sit? The band is right there. The dancers are coming. This isn’t something to watch half-mindedly while trading tips about hotel chain reward programs. This is a show to watch.

The musicians were different, too. All smiles and handshakes, weaving through the crowd before the show. There were no entrances. They simply took the stage and played. Their music leaned on the crowd, and the crowd drank it up. There was a bar filled with whiskey, wine, beer, and gin, but it was the band that got everyone high.

What made it even better was that the same thing was happening in another bar across the street. And another bar down the block. Abundance of good music – and the even more powerful vibes that carried it – was astounding. The whole place fucking vibrated. I drank my share of whiskey, and the place made it burn in a joyous hum.

You slide into a good dance. Rhythm, beat, connection, bounce – these are all the right things you want, but in a good dance, you simply get them. They are right here, manifested as your partner, and you take it all in your arms. A good dance takes no effort at all, even if it is fast and leaves you gasping for air on the last note. All you do is close your eyes, smile, and carry through.

I walked to the Spotted Cat from my hotel, which was on the corner of Canal and Bourbon. So to get to Frenchmen, I had to walk the entire length of Bourbon. Which was a bit like walking through some sort of trials. I had to go past all those awful bars that smell of vomit and cheap drinks, past the “Tits and whiskey” sign outside of the some strange sex show joint.

Side story – a couple years back, my roommate and I happened to be here as well, similarly driving cross-country from Florida to Arizona. We went to Bourbon Street for dinner, and camped out at a table on one of those famed balconies, eating and watching the depraved mess below. We just happened to be right across from one of those sex show bars, with a hype man outside howling at the crowd, trying to get people in. Most people come here to get a story about someone else (same as Vegas), so they limit themselves to merely getting embarrassingly drunk. Most tourists would never step inside a sex show joint, but some still do. Anyway, in the span of an hour, a handful people actually walked in. Inevitably, within minutes they stormed out of the place, past the ineffable hype man, and angrily left the scene. At one point, someone – I must assume, a performer – walked up to the door where I could see them. The woman – I’m fairly certain – was wearing something sparkling, and obscenely revealing. However, she inspired morbid curiosity rather than any kind of lust in me. I still have no idea what was going on inside, but I am decidedly curious. I need to figure out which spot that was.

Back on track. I had to walk the length of Bourbon Street until it lost all pretense of trying to look nice for the guests. I got to the part dominated by sleazy drink specials and bar flies. No jazz in this part, just obscene club music, something ridiculous that belongs in a cheap strip club. It smelled of piss and spilled drinks. It was an ugly scene. It was a party’s last desperate stand. Everyone who is left standing in the early hours of the morning is surveying the empty bottles and other similarly desperate rejects, deciding whether to attempt to mate or simply vomit and pass out.

Then there was the part that didn’t even have bars or stores or anything open to the public. People lived here. A few drunks stumbled past me, and some people who actually had to be somewhere – people who didn’t seem twisted. I was finally free of the fake Disney makeup; I was in the part of New Orleans that could pass for something like a real city where people merely lived. No one can live on Bourbon street. The madness would drive them to suicide sooner or later. This part also smelled a lot better.

Frenchmen street came up like a beacon. I could hear it before I could see it. The bars here weren’t as obnoxiously lit. Music and alcohol poured out into the streets. The first crowd I got to was definitely meaner by the look of it. Guys who were drunk and rough, swaying with cheap liquor in their veins, ready to defend something imagined but crucial against all comers. Now, this place had a ring of truth to it.

In a Jack on the rocks, the band was on. The dancers came through, and fairly quickly the cramped space before the stage was alive with lindy, blues, bal, and charleston. I love dancers. They’re always a refuge. As long as there is a modicum of space and some good music, a complete stranger will be genuinely kind to you. In no time at all, I’ve met at least some people, and was happily bouncing along to the thick jazz. Hundreds of miles of the road, lack of sleep, short scratch in the pocket – none of it really mattered in those minutes on the floor, and the minutes were strung together pretty tightly. I was inside a vortex. Time stretched out. The night flickered.

The place was so packed with the crowd and the dancers that moving on the floor became an intense exercise in traffic management. On swing-outs, the follows would be flying mere inches away from those watching. Spins had to be ever tighter and more controlled. No wide, broad moves. They had to be traded in for subtle, intimate weight shifts. I can’t help but think that this is how blues and swing are meant to be – no endless, bright-lit ballroom floors.

Dancing like this also leaves me wondering. What do the non-dancers think of people swaying slowly to blues? The close, tight connection of the dance is what makes it such a brilliant experience, but it can only be appreciated by those in the embrace. Everyone can appreciate a great swing-out, spin, or drop by merely seeing it. The blues is felt. This thought never stays long, however. After all, your partner and the music aside, the rest of the universe is utterly irrelevant when dancing the blues.

PS Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns – Lucky Devil.