Before Katrina There Was Rite Aid
Late afternoon, January, 1998, I sat on the stoop of a friend's shotgun house on North Bernadotte Street, Mid City New Orleans.
A cool breeze blew blaring horns and a second line rhythm from the parade ground of a high school a few blocks over. The band was warming up for Mardi Gras. Purple and gold flags had replaced Christmas lights. Fat Tuesday would soon roll, but it would have to roll without me.
I had a flight to catch in a day or two back across the Atlantic to London where I'd changed planes and hook a sharp right to Kuwait.
My future ex-wife, C.V. and I both taught at the national university there.
One of our distractions was collaborating on local amateur music nights. We belonged to one of these little theatres that seem to spring up in every Brit-heavy ex-pat community.
This little theatre would occasionally present a music night to raise funds for props and what not. Talented amateur or former professional turned English teacher musicians set the themes, rehearsed the tunes. Ex-pats would come to the theatre, smuggle in and hide under the tables their Rausch grape juice bottles of home made hootch and make believe that they were in a pub in that arid, Islamic, oil rich and alcohol free emirate, Kuwait.
I play about a half dozen different styles on electric and acoustic guitars. C.V. had (and wherever she is today probably still has) a pleasant voice so if there happened to be a country and western music night--we were there with a batch of tunes--I strummed; she warbled. Same went for Irish folk night. Or Jazz night.
That January while sitting on the stoop three houses down from Mick's Irish Pub, in those days when Kuwaiti born but New Orleans transplanted three-legger feline, Ken Shabby, was still hobbling around North Bernadotte and Bienville, a black and white lion king with a bat man mask, I lulled like a lotus eater in the pallid light of the setting sun, voodoo spellbound and buzzed on a beer. The boom shakalaka drums and the saxes and the blare of the trumpets sent a love letter straight to my heart, and I had one of those "It is the power of Marie Laveau that compels you" urges.
If David couldn't visit the mountain, the mountain would visit David. Yup. Mardi Gras would roll for me--sort of--in Kuwait. I picked up a copy of Broven's book--the best on the origins of New Orleans rhythm and blues to do my homework. I bought a few cd compilations.
When I got back to Kuwait, I made telephone calls--the band I lined up consisted of a French sax player, a British keyboardist whose strong left hand would handle the bass lines, an Armenian (kick ass) drummer, a British male vocalist who would also emcee the show, plus future ex-wife C.V. singing a whole lotta tunes. I broke out my Telecaster, borrowed an old tube amp, and we were in biness.
The bill of fare for the evening was of course red beans and rice, jambalaya and gumbo. I remember the set list: We played mostly Cosimo's studio standards: like "Iko Iko", Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and "Tipitina".
We did two or three songs by Fats Domino, some Lee Dorsey, Roy Byrd, Champion Jack Dupree, Little Joe Gaines, Ernie K. Doe, Dave Bartholomew, Lloyd Price, Jewel King (3 x 7 and I just turned 21. . .great tune), Shirley and Lee (C.V. did a superb job of imitating Shirley's naughty little school girl's voice. . .'feel's so goo-ood') and of course we covered Irma Thomas's "Time Is on My Side". When we closed with a reprise of d'Professor's "Go to the Mardi Gras", I passed out beads from a purple K and B bag.
This is the city I weep for: New Orleans--big city attitude with a small town heart where locals were drawn together, ignorant of ethnic haggling and racial partitioning, to fill their prescriptions and pick up a loaf of bread at the KB drug stores with the purple logo, drawn together by a rhythm heavy on the back beat called "second line" expressed nowhere on Earth with more finesse than during the Zulu Parade, drawn together in dozens of non-French Quarter out-of-the-way musical dens of blissful indecency, uncharted in travel guides, where the whiskey and beer were served in plastic go-cups.
And in hindsight, I can see from my own screwy and skewed angle that when Rite Aid bought out KB drugs, Zeus and the rest of the gang sent down from the mountain a potent portent to the city that possibly even Cassandra might not have seen coming. Only people who have ever called New Orleans home might agree with me--and only if they're really drunk.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps: the end for New Orleans really began on the day that "they" (as in the conspiratorial "who really killed JFK/Area 51/Freemasons rule the world they") started taking down the KB drugstore signs.