Thursday, August 9, 2007

On the Scene: Ten Days in New Orleans

Entertainment Weekly
On the Scene: Ten Days in New Orleans

Aug 8, 2007, 05:14 PM | by Vanessa Juarez
Categories: Music

EW's EDITOR'S NOTE: EW's Clark Collis and Vanessa Juarez spent 10 days in New Orleans to research a piece for the print magazine (which hits newsstands Aug. 10). Here, they share their thoughts on the experience.
When our managing editor suggested — nay, demanded — that we spend two weeks in New Orleans researching a story about the recovery of the music scene in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe, two thoughts sprang to mind. The first was: "What the hell has gotten into Rick?" The second was: "Who cares? Let's get ready to party!" After all, it had been almost two years since the hurricane caused the levees to breach. Presumably, New Orleans was as good as, well, new. Otherwise we'd have heard more about it, right?

Well, no. What had gotten into our editor, during his own fact-finding trip to the Big Easy a couple of weeks before, was the realization that in New Orleans things are, as a wise man once said, pretty f---king far from okay. And, once we'd arrived in the city, it didn't take us long to agree. You don't have to be a Woodward and/or Bernstein to notice on even the most cursory of drives through, say, the Lower Ninth Ward, that the area looks like it was hit by a hurricane two weeks, and not years, ago. True, houses no longer actually lie on top each other as they did after the neighborhood was flooded, but some three out of four homes in the Lower Ninth remain unoccupied — and nearly all still bear the gruesome marking that indicate whether the National Guard had found bodies inside.

The Lower Ninth is where you will find the house of rock 'n' roll legend Fats Domino (pictured), which has been renovated. But many other musicians who used to live here — and in other, similarly still devastated neighborhoods — currently dwell in other cities or in FEMA trailers. The latter may sound cozy, but, as we discovered upon entering one, are cramped and fairly hellish. And with recent reports of people getting sick from exposure to formaldehyde, conditions in these aluminum boxes are officially unsafe. One retired trumpeter who has been living in a trailer since Katrina told us that, at first, he joked that his new living quarters were so narrow he could only eat spaghetti. He went on to inform us that he had long since ceased to find his living situation even remotely humorous.

In fact, these dispossessed musicians must also dwell in a place inside their own heads, which can be every bit as suffocating and depressing as their physical quarters. As Bethany Bultman, founder of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, told us, “Everyone — myself included — is suffering from post-traumatic stress. Stress-related stroke. Stress-related heart attack. They’ve all increased since Katrina, they’re everywhere.” Many of the stories we heard were certainly tragic. We also heard tales of anger and hope and resilience. Actually, we heard a LOT of tales. Everyone had a story and everyone knew two or three — or ten — other people whose histories they recommended we hear. Initially, two weeks had seemed like an extravagant period of time to get our story, which you can read in the issue on stands this Friday. In the end — despite having the pleasure of chatting with such legends as Fats Domino and Cyril Neville and Irma Thomas as well as a host of less well known local musicians — it, perhaps inevitably, felt like we were only scratching the surface of this problem.

So, New Orleans is no longer the party town of legend? Au contraire. If you want to have a good time, the birthplace is jazz is still very much the place to go. Most of the tourist-friendly areas like the French Quarter or Frenchmen Street survived the disaster relatively unscathed. Our (corporate) credit cards got a severe workout as we caught great shows at such venues as the Maple Leaf, Preservation Hall, Tipitina's and Snug Harbor (try the gumbo — it's sensational!) While the city's musicians may often be having a grim time in their personal lives, they remain determined that you should have a good one. One, indeed, that you will never forget.

It is fair to say, though, that New Orleans itself does feel fairly forgotten, with the eyes of the media long since having turned to fresher stories. Perhaps that's just the way of the world. But it makes the fact that, as New Orleans icon Dr. John described it, one of America's greatest cities now largely resembles a Third World shantytown no less of a disgrace. If there were only some ways for you to help...

In two words: You can. It’s easy. Just go down there and hear some terrific music. Or check out the amazing architecture. Or get blind drunk on Irish Car Bombs at a Bourbon St. karaoke bar. A tourist dollar is a tourist dollar — and none will be turned away.

Or you can help in a more direct fashion. There are many many not-for-profit organizations assisting musicians in New Orleans. Charity workers who were kind enough to answer our multitude of questions include representatives of the Tipitina's Foundation, Renew Our Music, New Orleans Musicians' Relief Fund, Sweet Home New Orleans, Music for Tomorrow and the Musicians Village. It may be true, as we were told by one relief worker, that what musicians really want is a hand-up, not a hand-out. Right now, however, they are in desperate need of both.

(Go directly to the magazine article to get the links for the above Charities and Help Organizations.)