Music is My Mardi Gras

Lately, I’ve been going through one of my Missing New Orleans periods. It’s inevitable for anyone who’s lived there any time at all because, really, there’s no other place like it, and I think the hot weather stirs the memories (cue Louis Armstrong’s “(You Don’t What It Means) To Miss New Orleans” or Tom Waits’ “I wish I was in New Orleans (in the Ninth Ward)”).

Scratching the itch, I watched Les Blank’s documentary “All for Pleasure” about New Orleans and it’s year-round carnival mindset, including a lovely section on how cook crayfish during which the cook pours a shoebox full of cayenne pepper in the boiling pot, and there’s a brief bit where this all-American guy’s looking out his window at a bunch of happy drunks wearing green bowlers for St. Patrick’s Day, and he turns to the camera and says something like, “You know, there ain’t no place in the world where you can do that. Where you can just drink beer in the street and throw your cans in the gutter. It’s a place where you can feel a little bit free.” And he says it with such love that, even though it’s absurd, if you’ve lived there and seen pretty much, well, everything, and accepted it with a shrug, warts and all, you can’t help but feel your heart turn ever so slightly.

Also, nothing ever gets done down there. The place is falling apart. It’s a lousy place for ambition and worse for consistency (excepting certain traditions, for which there are no exceptions…like hangovers for Lent). So, for an ambitious artist who finds himself working harder and harder and sometimes wondering why and why, you have to have a Mardi Gras for the soul. And, coming up on my first-year anniversary of playing guitar, I think I’ve found a little Mardi Gras I can carry with me.

That is, when I play guitar–and granted I still don’t play and probably never will play well–the world just kind of goes away…and can just fuck off, man. The other day, a buddy came over, brought his Ibanez with a Gibson/humbucker set-up, and we tried a couple songs, had some laughs, told some stories (some of which we’d both told before but listened through again), and then at some point we tried playing “Police on My Back” by The Clash, and suddenly, when we hit that chorus (“Monday, Tuesday…”), we both fell into the same rhythm pattern automatically, and it was like…groove. And we both sat back and went, hey! Like good drugs, you immediately want more.

It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to be good. Nobody’s starting a band or looking to make money. I’m a professional writer and a semi-professional photographer, and, believe me, that’s enough pro art for anybody. But it’s nice to synch into that moment and feel the flow. Which really is what the blues is all about and what I bought the guitar to learn.

It’s one thing to have music in your ears. It’s another to have it in your hands. It’s your own little Mardi Gras, and it’s all for pleasure.

Meet the Oysters

Tennessee Williams said there are three great storybook cities in America: New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, and, as usual, Tennessee was exactly right. I’ve been lucky enough to live in New York and New Orleans, and every time I visit San Francisco, I want to move there.

I recently found a 20-year-old postcard of the French Quarter with a fading blue arrow drawn to one of the buildings. I had sent it to my parents to show them where I was living. In a postcard. On the back, I’d written: “It’s better than New Jersey.”

I only lived a year in the Big Easy. The economy was wretched, and I was back in radio, a notoriously uncertain industry. “Good morning. We’ve changed our format. You’re all fired.” Yet, that year left me awash in images, like a bucket of slides dumped on a light table. Put a loupe to any one of them, and a story begins.

Here we’re looking dueling oyster bars. A New Orleans oyster bar means they pluck ’em fresh from the Gulf, and they’re still alive when the guy behind the bar slips the knife in the shell and pops ’em open right on the bartop. I preferred the Acme to Felix’s. The Acme was unpretentious, down home, had great red beans and rice every Monday, and was where I first encountered oysters in their natural state. It was Mardi Gras, and I’m certain I’d never have made it through without a couple margaritas, but there they were, six of ’em lined up in front of me. No plate. Just shells and a fork.

“What do I do with with them?” I asked the oyster barman. He looked at me like, you poor Yankee bastard. Then he patiently explained that you take little sauce from this tin, a little sauce from that tin, a little horseradish, put it on the oyster, then tip that shell up and let ‘er go.

No, really. What do I do with them? But I’d had a few drinks, so, what the hell. I wasn’t sure whether everyone at the bar was going to laugh at me or not, but I did as instructed, and the taste was…fresh oysters on the half shell, pungent and sharp and beautiful. If you don’t care for oysters, I’ll never be able to explain it. If you love oysters (and there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground), you will know. You never forget that first time.

I immediately ordered another half-dozen. And a margarita. And I slipped an Acme Oyster Bar matchbook in my pocket.