New Orleans

Un-American

Hardy Jackson, American Citizen

There is political art, and there is art that is political. The former is art whose raison d’être is to make an argument about how society should be ordered or governed, the latter is art that has ideas and concerns beyond the political, but that has a content or context that is intrinsically political. In a blunt sense, an example of the first type is the visual propaganda of Socialist Realism, while an example of the latter is Goya’s “Disasters of War.” I’m a fan of Goya.

I’m also a fan of HBO’s new series “Treme,” and Ted Hearne’s CD Katrina Ballads , which will be released on August 31. Each is about New Orleans, the first not explicitly political but full of political argument and fury nonetheless, the second seemingly explicitly political but at it’s core a real work of art, a narrative of a disaster that most of us saw unfolding before our eyes but that is still difficult to accept.

The political idea at the heart of each work is what it means to be an American, and thus what is American and what isn’t. It’s a timely question, with a federal election coming in the fall and angry crowds and cynical figures tossing off claims here, hints there and floating “trial balloons” with hearts of burnt, compacted coal. As an American with an enduring love for this country, I always find the question easy to answer; an American is a person who embraces the values and ideas that created this country, and who accepts the responsibilities of citizenship that come with them. In terms of art, the America that is Goya can be seen in New Orleans, a city that has been a polyglot for centuries and out of which came so much of the synthesis, the originality, of this country and culture. America speaks English, French, Spanish and dialects thereof, America enjoys a drink and a party, America prays and mourns, America eats exotic spices and taps its foot to the mixed-race/culture beat of the Blues, Calypso, Spanish dances and French chansons. America is democratic, multi-racial, uninterested in the limits of blood and geography.

Un-America, though is the complete, ugly opposite. It makes absurd claims about the origins of this country in hope of spreading a pall of bland monotony across society. It ignores its own foundation in non-conformity and, under the desperately false claim of piety and moral righteousness it makes and worships idols of the most material sort; men, money, property. Its only joy is in following orders, and it resents anyone who might exercise the most basic American virtue of free-thinking, and, in a country built from the start on international immigration, both voluntary and forced, and an expansionary idea of geographic, for good and ill, it is obsessed with borders, with the purity of language and the purity of blood. It is a part of the country that we Americans accept in hopes it will join us in the true and good things, but that detests and fears us, and wishes we would go away. Except for brief moments when there is a political advantage or an easy sloganeering opportunity, it hates New York City. And it hates New Orleans.

Fortunately, Americans love New Orleans, and so does “Treme” and so does Katrina Ballads. The show will be back for another season, but the way it ended was totally satisfying and appropriate. It’s the story of a demolished city and demolished lives and the success and failure of trying to put them back together mostly against an indifferent government. Because that’s the way it happened. Katrina hit the city and the government didn’t look away, it never looked in the first place. Bush woke up the next morning and someone conveniently told him that they “dodged the bullet,” because it fit better into their imaginary view of themselves, their un-Americanness. Michael Chertoff claimed that everything was okay, because that’s what the filter of political governance allowed him to be told, Brownie did a heckuva job because to the un-Americans getting the sinecure is the same as doing the job, the personal achievement is the sole goal and responsibility. Heckuva job cashing checks and receiving benefits. Of course they never looked at New Orleans, because it is one of the quintessentially American cities.

People died, lives were disrupted, the city shambled to a halt. America looked on in shock, un-America didn’t give a shit. And yet people held on, put some of it back together, kept America alive in the city. The show shambled along in the last few minutes, wonderfully. Some of the characters, like Jeanette, did their best but didn’t have enough to overcome circumstances, some, like Creighton, could not re-dream their dreams, and imploded, some, like Sonny, were in love with a false, clichéd America, and fell apart. But others made it from one point to the next, like Batiste, Chief Lambreaux, and especially LaDonna. Batiste scraped together enough gigs to survive, Lambreaux scraped together enough of his tribe and enough will and enough family to take to the streets and keep the spark of the St. Joseph’s night parade. Lambreaux may not have enough screen time, and the tribal rituals may be unfathomable to non-natives, but he, and they, are an intrinsic feature of New Orleans, and the city needs their cultural, local uniqueness.

The very last two scenes of the season were breathtaking. As the funeral service for LaDonna’s brother, Daymo, proceeds, the narrative unobtrusively drifts back to the city the day before the hurricane hit. The combination of the character’s blithe confidence and what we have seen of the aftermath is expressively unsettling, filling in the sense of disequilibrium that many of them have inhabited during the previous episodes. We also see just what happened to Daymo, or rather, the unfortunate mistake that puts him in jail, where, once the storm hit, he was doomed. Doomed because in a country where the governing institutions were either indifferent or hostile to the citizens of New Orleans (the police not only prevented citizens from passing through and into public property but apparently murdered some as well), a young black man in jail has already so completely disappeared from America that his physical death comes as some kind of afterthought. But seeing Daymo, alive and unaware of what is going to happen to him, is eviscerating and moving. And then, the Treme neighborhood brass band ambles back home, playing “Didn’t He Ramble” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and the parade breaks up, people chatting, shaking hands, making plans for later. Life goes on, because people are going to live it, and civilization continues because Lambreaux takes his tribe into the streets, Batiste cadges gigs all over the city, and LaDonna tends bar, a place people can gather where there is literally a roof over their heads. I’m looking forward to seeing more Treme, but nothing more needs to be said. Music brings people together and makes ritual, and so civilization.

Hearne’s Katrina Ballads is political by way of context and inference. It’s a song cycle with text for all ten vocal pieces taken from the public record, things like Anderson Cooper’s contentious interview with Senator Mary Landrieu, statements citizens made to journalists, appalling displays from Barbara Bush and Dennis Hastert, and of course “heckuva job.” It’s a marvelous, deeply impressive work, full of musical skill, knowledge and an understanding of people and events that goes so far beyond the blather of politicians and pundits that one is again left to puzzle why it is that artists are not running things (and another in a series of terrific releases from New Amsterdam this year – their list of itsnotyouitsme, Matt Marks, Corey Dargel and William Brittelle CDs must be the envy of every record company). It’s also a deeply American work, not just in the superficial sense but one possible only because of the accumulated history of American music.

This is contemporary classical in a theatrical style, supporting ideas and emotions with music that is right for the words and the moment. Hearne describes it as a fusion of styles, but I think it makes more sense to call it a polyglot style, one that makes the music quintessentially American. There are elements of gospel, show music and rock, for example, but there’s no sense of pastiche, no awkward dumbing down to give this populist appeal. It’s a balancing act that many composers try and few succeed at and I admire how well Hearne accomplishes it. It can be boiled down to how he sets the words and how he chooses and selects his singers. Working with found text is hard, the elements of diction, phrase length and rhythm that make words singable are there only accidentally. He’s set them so that they sound both musical and natural, every word clear, and there’s some quality of Harry Partch in it, especially the challenging scanning of “Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu.” The musically radical elements of the piece are the most surprising and satisfying, a demonstration of how appealing music can be made out of all kinds of parts.

It works from the start; the first sound is the strings of a piano, strummed like in Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp, and then Abby Fischer sings “New Orleans is sinking,” and in that moment one can hear how well this is going to work. Along with music that uses bits of accessible styles as a point of common experience without every pandering or sounding phony, singers like Fischer balance the color and richness of their tone with a direct, clear understanding of the words they are singing. The music has a pop appeal without being pop, without vapid “cross-over” formulation, and the singers are uniformly fine; Fischer, baritone Anthony Turner, tenor Isaiah Robinson and soprano Allison Semmes express themselves unselfconsciously in the classical vocal tradition, confident of the beauty and appeal to all listeners. There’s a rigorous, even ruthless sense of craft underlying the work, with a combination of the just-the-facts selection of the texts and clear, forceful music that never editorializes or underlines the easy and the obvious. The salient example is “Brownie, You’re Doing A Heck Of A Job,” with Hearne himself handling the vocal part. The phrase is now an idiomatic expression, a way to damn laziness, incompetence and indifference with sarcastic praise, a way to remind whoever says it or hears it what that indifference wrought. Hearne sets and sings it as a riff, playing around with it like a scat-singer, the entire lyric just that phrase. It’s musically hip but one never forgets what it’s about. Instead of trying to tell us what the words mean he simply gives them to us in musical form and trusts that we’ll know. It’s the difference between political art and art itself.

Katrina Ballads is an act of bearing witness to a collective memory. It lays out what happened on a timeline and tells us how we got to “Treme,” to a demolished America. Hearne is a thinking, feeling human being, so he does have his own view of things, but he keeps intellectual and emotional directives out of sight. The act of making the piece is his main statement, and while there is a feeling of rage throughout the work, his control over his materials, his expressive power and his fluid handling of elements of style from Cowell to Partch to Bernstein, Berio, Gil Evans, Meredith Monk and Ben Johnston makes it supremely musically compelling. These are powerful, integrated songs with no hectoring or lecturing, songs that meet the listener as an equal and with sympathy. The subject has an intrinsic political context and the music cannot be free of that, but all Hearne does is remind us of what happened and what we saw and heard, each step of the way. He reminds us how incomprehensible it is, still, that the government of this country was fundamentally indifferent and uninterested in the drowning of a great American city and its people, indifferent because the leaders of that government were themselves fundamentally un-American, and he reminds us with each impassioned note that we, who care and are moved by Treme and Katrina Ballads, are Americans, and that we will, hopefully, endure. Katrina Ballads and “Treme” are great Americans.

UPDATED: Fixed Video

UPDATED AGAIN: Added link to Cowell’s Aeolian Harp

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“All On Mardi Gras Day” and “Wish Someone Would Care”

The season finale of “Treme is tonight, the last two episodes have prepared the story for the kind of anything that David Simon’s shows have pioneered, the anything of life going on, regardless of what happens to individuals. The last shot of the last episode of season four of “The Wire,” the intersection outside Bunny’s house and the ordinary traffic going through it, coming at the end of a season that was almost unbearably emotionally wrenching and tragic, is the perfect example of both the technique and it’s power. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a way of looking at the world that defines the narrative; life is rarely fair, the world goes on in spite of it all.

And so Mardi Gras went on, and it was mostly desultory, hesitant, forced, not a lot of real pleasure. Creighton sums it up; starting off in costume and putting “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” on endless repeat, then coming home early, turning off the stereo, finally spending the night sleeping on the porch, to the shame of Toni. For him, it was the last chance to make everything normal again, or if not normal than to give the possibility it could be normal again. But it can’t; he not only can’t finish his novel but can’t bear to face the subject, Lambreaux is deliberately kept in jail for Mardi Gras, LaDonna’s family’s mausoleum is ruined from the flood, Janette’s guerilla cooking if washed away in the rain. Creighton can’t see any more future, and can’t face the past that is haunting him everywhere in New Orleans.

But life goes on, and while there may not be hope, there’s possibilities. Arnie Reyes comes and actually fixes LaDonna’s roof; it may not be Mardi Gras, but the episode after has three simultaneous parties, and they are the kind of fun you want to have, Antoine is someone how working it out both with his gigs and his girlfriend and LaDonna, and Lambreaux is going to parade with his tribe, and although it appears the police are at first threatening him, it seems they’re actually trying to find a way to make it work. The hint of possibility is on the night of Mardi Gras day, when Delmond is driving with the girl he met at a party, and he’s brought up short by real Indians, in full regalia, in the streets, appearing out of the darkness like birds of paradise. They’ve been there too long to ever go away.


“Meet De Boys On The Battlefront”

This second episode of Treme felt like a bit of a let down from the opening one, for one specific reason, the appearance of the street musicians Sonny and Annie.  Their two scenes were odd and seemed misplaced and even superfluous.  There may be a reason for them, yet unclear, but they seem pointless.  Sonny comes off as a complete prick, which I don’t think is intentional, I think he’s meant to be justifiable aggrieved, but the context in which he is a prick is a combination of music and authentic New Orleans-ness.  The problem is that the scenes are overplayed, and the music the two play is frankly mediocre.

Being a prick is perfectly fine for a character, but an interesting thing contrasts Sonny and Davis; the same group of naive young tourists Sonny insults are then directed by Davis, with total sincerity, towards what Sonny would consider an authentic New Orleans experience.  They have a great time and come off as attractive characters.  The connection also demonstrates that Davis, despite being a fuck-up and a jackass, has better taste in music.  The second scene, placing Sonny and Annie in a dull and aimless conversation in a bar, is a cipher, and ends up with the attention literally drifting to the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, who are wonderful in every way that the younger pair are not.  It is the street musicians, placed in the context of a show that begins with Coco Robicheaux, who are musical misfits.

The rest of the episode is very strong, weaving the reality of society together through details, how people work, play, bargain and fight with each other, how they build their own systems and subcultures, independent of the establishment that exists to protect a few and disappoint the many.  This may be the fundamental idea in the show, and of course the subcultures are created via music.  It’s not shallow sociology or hipsterism, again it goes back to the origins of society.  The eruption of brief violence is surprising, but not gratuitous.  There’s no apology for it, but the reason for it is clear, and it has to do with opposing forces of destruction and construction, the latter ending the show in a truly incredible moment when Chief Lambreaux and the one member of his tribe he has found start rebuilding their ritual with two tambourines and ‘Shallow Water.’  It’s like the last scene in Nights of Cabiria, the one where the fragments come together into something indescribably beautiful.

“Do You Know What It Means”

Ah, Treme.  As the date drew nearer, and the accumulation of promotional articles and reviews built, I was looking forward to the premier and also was a little wary.  The Wire was one of the best narrative dramas I’ve ever experienced, in any form, and David Simon clearly is a brilliant story teller.  So I was excited about his new work, and especially about a show about New Orleans.  And while I was expecting something solid, I wasn’t thinking that the show could possibly be the equal of that extraordinary trifecta on the network, formed with The Sopranos and Deadwood.

I think I was wrong.  The first episode was engrossing and more than a little moving.  At one point I noticed that it had already run past an hour and felt a sudden rush of hope that it would go on all night!  I’ll leave the recaps to others, but I will be following up each episode with my impressions.  What Treme showed me last night was:

People: Simon is well know for his outrage over how public institutions fail society, but he only feels that outrage because he cares about people.  All people.  He’s a true American, not a fake, in that way.  Treme is full of people, and the institutions seem like they will be in the background.  The show’s focus on people, with their charms and failings and cares and values, is deeply humanist and ethical.  People are not disposable, no matter what institutions tried to tell us in 2005 and what they still say.

Also, unlike almost every movie or TV show, a lot of these people, if not most, are black (The Wire and Oz , shows about drug crime and prison, also had heavily black casts.  Think about that).  At this point in American history, in this country which was founded and built as much by African slaves as it was WASPS, there are still those with public voices and public power who seek to to avoid seeing that blacks in America are as American as everybody else.  Even more so, because of the

Music: Of course the show is full of music.  It’s about music in a way, but not in the sense of playing a lot of the sounds of New Orleans.  American popular music essentially comes from that city.  The Rock and Roll Museum is in Cleveland, but the music would not even exist without The Crescent City (would the same people who suggested New Orleans be abandoned also abandon Cleveland?  Wouldn’t go over well with ethnic white voters, who seem to still run the country of the imagination).  Put marches, church hymns, work songs and French and Spanish dance music into that city and you get blues, jazz and everything else (which includes a funny and exquisitely perfect use of a snatch of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s Symphony No. 2.  Gottschalk helped create American classical music out of New Orleans!).  The best place to hear it is in that odd New Orleans ensemble, the brass band, which is meant for the streets and plays a totally unique and beautiful combination of all the musics that went into that city.  Those bands tell the story of American music every time they play.  And on Treme, they get to play a lot.  Music is the

Language of the show: like the language of Baltimore, you can’t always understand it, but it sounds like the language of someplace you don’t quite know but that is totally familiar.  And the characters all have their own language, their own ways of talking that help mark them as real people.  It sounds both stylish and true, and having people speak in their own voices is deeply engrossing.  It also show real care for America, the place made up of many colors and many languages, where the vast majority of people live in cities and enjoy seeing all sorts of people on the streets.  The other, imaginary America that seems to show up most often on TV is the place full of angry white Republicans, a distinct and insane minority that for some reason must be heard.  As usual, it takes the artist and their imaginations to show us how things actually are, outside the simulation of the Media-Political Industrial Complex.

Imaginary Cities

There are real places, imaginary places, and places where our experience of reality is enhanced by how we imagine those places to have been, or to be. We tour those invisible cities of the mind by walking their actual streets and placing a layer of knowledge and imagination on top of the sights we see. We also move to places which spark the dreams we have for our lives, hoping to make a fantasy life into something real.

If we never make it to such places, or never succeed in them, we can still read about them and hear about them. New recordings from Sondre Lerche and Joe Henry sing us tales of places which are real and imaginary at the same time, Williamsburg and New Orleans. Superficially, there may seem to be a large gap in ambition between the two records, “Heartbeat Radio” and “Blood From Stars,” but the difference is in the personal direction the two musicians take – the results are comparably grand and wonderful.

Sondre Lerche is very much a first person singular musician, not only with everything sung from an “I,” but the sense that it’s actually him, not the singer playing characters in his songs. This makes it easy to accept how incredibly unfair he is, both to his peers and himself, with the opening track ‘Good Luck,’ which is five minutes and fifteen seconds of arguably the greatest pop music made since the start of the rock era; a sweetly muscular, soaringly grand song which builds in layers from shimmering guitars, a rolling Bo Diddley beat and a brilliant string section solo extending the end. On top is Lerche’s dry, clear tenor and his immensely appealing rueful good cheer. The song has everything one could ask for in great pop music; charm, wit, energy, a great beat, a great hook, a bridge that’s out of the ordinary enough to be pleasantly surprising and a real climax. It’s worth the price of the record alone.

It’s no criticism to point out that few will be humming the melody, though. Lerche is an excellent melodist, fitting his lyrics seamlessly and naturally to his tunes, and he can do this because he is an excellent singer, with range and solid pitch. While too many contemporary pop singers are extremely limited as singers, forcing their music into predictably short, clipped phrases and tightly compressed melodic ranges, Lerche can sing wide intervals and long phrases with ease and so can make melodies with a breadth and depth which are uncommon. A good singer should have no problem with the A-B-C#-D-A octave arpeggiation he opens with, but contemporary pop music is so dreary in part because there is so little of this open, generous vocal sunshine brightening the landscape.

After this spectacular opening, “Heatbeat Radio” satisfies. Lerche is a Norwegian transplanted to Williamsburg, a neighborhood which over the last decade has drawn young people from all over the country and the world seeking the comfort and excitement of a place where art, music and fashion are happening, where they will be understood by like-minded peers and dream great things. Call them Hipsters, but they are this generation’s version of the kids who used to head to Greenwich Village, or San Francisco. Williamsburg grows in their imaginations long before they ever face the reality of living there, and Lerche’s is a Williamsburg of the mind, where the girls are lithe and pretty and the boys are charming, sweet and mature in an age-appropriate way. He captures a joie-de-vivre and sense of human capability beyond those on display in “Bored To Death,” and a fundamental optimism which, though it’s at odds with the reality of development in the neighborhood, renews this dream with each song. The album is unswervingly good-natured but not simplistically sweet. There’s a rough sense of the narrative of a charmed, youthful life, but the last third of the record takes a subtle, darker turn. In the wonderful ‘I Guess It’s Gonna Rain Today,’ an understanding and acceptance of failure creeps in, and Lerche expresses a rueful self-awareness: “Oh, the fine line/between street-smartness/and a smart-ass. Oh, the skipping beats of confidence/and the drum-roll/that you thought you could play.” Not everyone who moves to Williamsburg to be in a band can actually play music, not every girl appreciates your charm, and accepting these means seeing there is reality to enjoy along with dreams. The songs which follow, ‘Almighty Moon,’ ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Goodnight’ have an added sense of weight, toughness and maturity in contrast to the exuberance which preceded them and from which they developed. They bring the album to a completely satisfying close, consolidating the explosive dazzle of the first track into a fully realized emotional journey. “Heartbeat Radio” is not perfect; while it is full of great songs, music and details, not all the details are great – the pedestrian bass line of the witty ‘Like Lazenby’ threatens to pin the music to the ground, and the lyrics of ‘Words & Music’ alternate between fine metaphor and weak, elementary school rhymes. It doesn’t need to be perfect, though, when it’s enduringly joyful.

Williamsburg is not for everyone though, which is just a small loss. New Orleans is not for everyone either, and that is a tragedy. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is obvious enough, a government’s complete disregard for human beings who didn’t fit into their grandiloquently posturing, self-absorbed worldview, but at the core of it is the embrace or rejection of this very country. New Orleans, more than any other single point on the map and place in the imagination, is the essence of America. From it’s very first days, this country was populated by peoples of many cultures, languages and colors, here voluntarily or otherwise. Geographically, this country was first circumscribed then bridged by the Mississippi River, and New Orleans is the fecund mouth which birthed culture and commerce through it into America, a humid polyglot stew of English, Spanish, French, Catholicism, Voodoo, Blues, Jazz, whites, blacks and every color in between, standing as a rebuke to the fetishization of homogenization which those who came later to this country – the Protestant swaths swallowed up by the great plains and selfish, frightened demagogues like Pat Buchanan – anxiously cling to, dearly wishing to keep the map of this great and broad land niggardly small. Reject New Orleans, and one rejects America, while loving the city is as patriotic a thing as one can do.

Joe Henry loves New Orleans, and loves America. He’s made a musical career of describing the America of the imagination, putting together a blend of archaic, modern, rural and urban, white and black musical styles. At his best, he’s magnificent, and he seems to seek a sense of grandeur. Musically and lyrically he strives for archetypal metaphors and unified gestures that could stand as the paragon of American-roots music. It’s ambitious, and he has succeeded, especially with the fully-realized “Scar,” but he’s most often inconsistent, mixing powerful music with songs that don’t quite sustain the weight placed on them, which sound more constructed than played. “Blood From Stars” works completely, though, not only his best record since “Scar,” but a real personal masterpiece for Henry.

It’s a New Orleans record, intentionally or not, and stands as a companion to Allen Toussaint’s “The Bright Mississippi,” which Henry produced. That record is hampered by a self-conscious sense of trying to make a musical point, while this one is completely focussed around a musical core, and flows unerringly forward, like a raft heading down the big river. It’s New Orleans in the way it puts different ingredients together into a stew which comes out being it’s own dish. In the past Henry has gone from country to funk to rock to jazz on different tracks on an album, here each song is a mix of musics together, especially blues and rural funk, with touches of gospel, marches, jazz and rock. Henry carries this off through his songs and through the band he assembles, which includes Marc Ribot, David Piltch, Jay Bellerose and Levon Henry, with a wonderful cameo from Jason Moran opening and closing the album with the gorgeous ‘Light No Lamp When The Sun Comes Down’ (Henry has great taste in sidemen, previously employing Don Byron, Brad Mehldau and Ornette Coleman). The music lives and breaths, everything works together, the rhythms, harmonies and cadences seem ideal for each song and phrase and each song seems the ideal vehicle for Henry’s richly colored, warbley singing. He uses specific details which indicate his desire to make something clearly and powerfully American, his imagined America, but the details are just that; accessories which pull the whole outfit together, not arguments to make. The lyric “Of briar and roses” in ‘This Is My Favorite Cage’ points to a specific and important American tradition, but the song is Henry’s own creation, the detail merely conveys his context. Likewise the tango blues ‘Death To The Storm,’ which lays out Henry’s response to a real New Orleans musical tradition. As on previous records, he sprinkles samples in the background, and these bits of old-time music and Paul Robeson provide a sonic background for this imagined country. The record has a full, rich bottom and an insistent, serious tone, but Henry sounds liberated and light-hearted, even on the slow ballads, as if he’s found himself in a state of complete mastery of all the music he has worked to apprehend over the years, and this made his way to his true voice. This is nowhere more clear than on the incredible ‘All Blues Hail Mary,’ which begins with the greatest rural blues riff one is likely to ever hear, and maintains the blues feel and structure while eliding in enough gospel harmonies for the music to have the delicate tang of funk and fervor needed to match the lyrics: “All blues sing of love and death/and you as chances yet to take . . . All blues and grace by God/And I will have to learn the rest.” Henry’s disposition is darker than Lerche’s, the music much funkier and bluesier, but his sense of determination allows no despair. This is music which pushes mountains, tiny bit by tiny bit, until a country moves. [Watch/listen to a performance at KCRW here]