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.