Monday, June 21, 2010

episode 10: renewal

For 90 minutes last night the only sound in my house was the din of the TV and the hypnotized silence of four viewers glued to the set, interrupted only by the occasional weep or gasp.

The season finale of Treme was emotionally gripping.

Frankly, draining.

Intimate stories of heartache and anger counterbalanced by lightness; visions of feathered people, stoic buildings, and abandoned vehicles emerging from shadowy hues; everpresent sounds of poignant guitars and rejoicing horns. David Simon went solo on the script for this one and he created a monumental sendoff to what has to be the most illuminating season of television about this fragile city. ("Sure was better that K-ville," was the first thing my wife said as we snapped back into the real world.)

We didn't need a cliffhanger to bring us back for more next year. The few lingering questions - Will Janette flee the Big Apple and dart back to the Big Easy? Will Creighton get his jazz funeral? Will Annie get wacked by Sonny or find comfort with Davis or both? - could easily go unresolved in order to make way for new themes, a la The Wire. But the changing of the seasons raises the question of renewal, of what directions the screenwriters will take the show in as they move it forward, and it's a testament to the show's effectiveness that so many New Orleanians have an opinion on this.

Here's mine.

The Treme team are masters of evocation. The words, the music, the cinematography are beyond captivating; they're capturing. The show is a fictional keyhole into intense realities and like all art it can condense the really real in a way that allows viewers/readers/listeners to make connections we would otherwise pass up or take for granted. The connections in season one are all about intimacy: between families, friends, strangers, the city they share, and ultimately between the creators of the show and a subject that is so clearly meaningful to them.

Treme stays close to the ground, offering such a revealing close-up of emotional connection that we walk away each Sunday evening knowing more than we ever knew about this city and its people. But there is a disconnect happening as well, and it is not at the ground level, or even at the local level, but at a much broader level.

The impact of Katrina on the lives of New Orleanians is immeasurable but the root causes and lasting effects of this impact are not. Katrina was a systemic failure of institutions before, during, and after the flood. Long before August 29, 2005, government agencies laid a pattern of neglect from lost wetlands to shoddy levees to the massive reduction of FEMA in favor of Homeland Security. Dysfunctional school systems and the insecurities of service work ensured that black New Orleanians were more vulnerable to the failed response of the flood. And do I need to even address that particular failure, or can I just point to a few anecdotes like, oh say, the fact that tens of thousands of people were stranded outside the Convention Center for five days while a military commander prepared an armed attack mission to deliver water? Or the fact that the troops and the megacorporate winners of no-bid contracts could not be effectively deployed to help Americans because they were fighting Iraqis? That the city police department is so infested with corruption that there are currently eight federal criminal investigations into officers' actions in the immediate aftermath of Katrina?

Fast forward to operation Deepwater Horizon (or are we stuck on pause?): Governmental deregulation once again leading to corporate gluttony and, go figure, another massive crisis to give those in the Gulf a sense of shared purpose through cultural and material loss.

These institutions shape the lives of New Orleanians not because we live in some isolated babylon but because we are Americans who happen to have paid the dearest for the ceaseless expansion of this dysregulation nation since 9/11.

The impact of 9/11 couldn't be portrayed only through New York's financial 'culture' or Washington's political culture because the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were (intentionally) emblematic of the far reach of empire. The deregulation of Wall Street generated a financial crisis that changed all of our lives. Katrina, too, can stand as a lesson to all Americans, not only because of the possible eradication of a singular place, but because it was itself an ominous sign of trouble at home, in your home, wherever you are, whether or not you can walk down the street and order a po-boy and dance at a second line.

Of course, the Treme team has no responsibility to make these connections. And it's not as if the characters walk around in a vacuum: there are city councilmen and insurance agents and good cops and bad cops too. But this team is so abundantly capable to make this case to the American people; to harness the power of dramatic fiction that they use so effectively in intimate settings to situate these day-to-day experiences at the subterranean level of global connections without sacrificing the ground-level closeness.

Before Treme aired I read somewhere that Simon thought his story of New Orleans would resonate with audiences unfamiliar with the city because Katrina was a bellweather for the financial crisis, a foreboding sign of institutions run amuck. This piqued the interest of New Orleanians (OK, maybe just me) because part of the brilliance of The Wire was its capacity to show how institutional corruption effects the lives of policemen, politicians, dealers, dock workers, and school kids.

Now, Treme is not The Wire and it shouldn't be. There is no romance of distinction for Baltimore and that gave the creative team an almost blank-slate on which to inscribe politics at the everyday level through the lives of diverse characters. New Orleans and Katrina are too distinctive to permit that degree of interchangeability: Baltimore could maybe be your town or a town near you, and the devastating effects of bureaucratic corruption resonate everywhere, but New Orleans is not Indianapolis and Katrina is nothing but Katrina.

An unprecedented disaster and an exceptional place in the hands of great poets makes for compelling drama, but when all the 'otherness' of New Orleans creates an intoxicating fantasy world of local culture then the opportunity to challenge viewers about the state of the nation is lessened. I worry that Post-Katrina New Orleans could become just another fantastical storyscape of fundamentalist bigotry or backwoods vampirism in the eyes of viewers who might feel more connection and proximity to the characters if they saw how their lives were shaped by the same forces.

It's not a fair comparison, of course, and the surreality of black men in feathered costumes or crowds of mourners dancing in a graveyard does not have the innocuous, cartoonish, fringe quality of Mormons or bloodsuckers. But neither is New Orleans an imaginary museum of curiosities - a thing apart - because it is tied to America and the world through connections that are not readily visible. I say make more of an effort to uncover them, for the sake of New Orleans and for the sake of good drama too.

There are signs that the creative minds at Treme will complicate things in this subterranean direction. Regardless, I'm looking forward. But until then I'm signing off. I've got to write a book and that requires me to move off of the blogosphere and onto the word processor. See you in season two.

Monday, June 14, 2010

episode 9: precipitations

The heat is rising on Treme as we gear up for the season finale next week. Two plotlines that will be familiar to some are taking centerstage:

- Did professor Creighton Bernette kill himself? The trauma of Katrina was too much for some New Orleanians to bear, among them documentary filmmaker Stevenson Palfi. And Bernette's character is based on the similarly overweight and ferocious Ashley Morris, who died in the aftermath of the storm (though Morris died of a heart attack, not suicide, and he was in Florida at the time of his death in 2008, while his wife and kids were home in New Orleans).

- Is chef Janette leaving the Big Easy for the Big Apple? The topsy-turvy world of post-Katrina sent  as many diehards a-packing as it brought YURP's a-coming. But Janette's dilemma is one that predates Katrina: do those "only in New Orleans" moments make up for the city's dysfunctional infrastructure? The question is particularly cutting for those in the music and restaurant industries who prop up the local tourist economy but are essentially service workers and are the last to get paid. ("Would you rather have a funtional economy or a 4-hour lunch?" asks Davis. "Is your check from the tourism board in the mail?" Janette shoots back.)

But rather than deliberate these developments, I'm going to precipitate future ones... for next week is shaping up to feature the most alluring and mysterious topic in Treme: Indians!

As I've said before, Mardi Gras Indians are African Americans who dress in elaborate handsewn costumes and parade through the streets, singing chants and facing off against one another, on Mardi Gras day. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux of the Guardians of the Flame tribe couldn't mask on the first Mardi Gras after Katrina because he was in the lock-up for punching a cop in the face instead of bowing down to those who protect and serve.

Confrontations between police and black Indians go way back.

Mardi Gras Indians channel the fierceness of the American Indian warrior in symbolic battles ("humbugs") over suits ("who's the prettiest?") and verbal sparring matches using idiosyncratic words ("Indian talk"). But historically humbugs were not limited to the symbolic realm. Until the 1940s or so, rival tribes from the Uptown and Downtown neighborhood met at an in-between site known as "the battlefield" where there was often bloodshed. One of the fiercest chiefs, Brother Tillman, was sometimes jailed during Mardi Gras to maintain order. (Lambreaux, anyone?) The violence dissipated around mid-century, some say because of police crackdowns and many more say because chiefs decided to redirect their disputes into the symbolic realms of masking, chanting, and talking.

Tootie Montana was the most celebrated chief of this new phase of Indian warfare. Tootie was The Chief of Chiefs. And he was The Prettiest. He worked days as a lather, preparing the moldings and frames for plastering, and then he worked nights and weekends sewing the prettiest suits ever to grace the streets. He had help from his wife Joyce, daughter-in-law Sabrina, and son Darryl, who was named Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in the 1990s when his father threatened to retire. But Tootie masked until his death at 82 in 2005 because he was fierce and hardheaded, earning the admiration of future chiefs who would always show respect by kneeling in front on him on Mardi Gras day, even if his unbending determination caused friction at home (as shown in the film Tootie's Last Suit).

Tootie's powerful presence came from his work with a needle + thread rather than hatchet + spear. But the police continued to harass him and other tribes, breaking up Indian gatherings ostensibly for stopping traffic and parading without a permit. This was especially true on St. Joseph's Night, March 19, when Indians take to the streets again to show off the suits that rival tribes may have missed on Mardi Gras day. Large crowds of African Americans in the streets at night is not something New Orleans police receive sensitivity training about. They tend to burst on the scene in great numbers, lights flashing and sirens whirring, hands on their billy clubs. (As they may also do during a jazz funeral in the Treme, after insensitive neighbors make noise complaints.) (Davis, anyone?)

This is precisely what happened on St. Joseph's Night 2005, when cops forcibly dispersed Indians from marching as they have done for a century or more. There was community outrage, and the issue was brought before a City Council meeting, where Tootie took the pulpit and gave an impassioned speech that situated the encounter within a lifetime of police harassment that dated back to Jim Crow days. He then collapsed of a heart attack and was pronounced dead, as his family and fellow Indians gathered around him to sing the Mardi Gras Indian prayer chant Indian Red. If there is ever a need to demonstrate the power of culture and music then this moment will quell any doubts, and it is hauntingly captured in Tootie's Last Suit as well as reporter Katy Reckdahl's piece, which like so many of her other stories linked from here, is proof that she is the city's best (only?) investigative journalist.

How will Simon and his crew treat Chief Albert Lambreax's return to the mask on St. Joseph's Night for the season finale? The only hint we have is the most recent episode's meeting between Lambreaux and Lieutenant Colson, who urges Lambreaux to keep the peace:

LAMBREAUX: Tootie died on the battlefield that day.
COLSON: But Tootie wasn't looking for battle.

Will the chief punch a cop? Kill somebody with a pipe? Or take the high road, like Tootie did, and preside with willful benevolence.

Simon should know what to do with this one. After all, my friends saw him out on St. Joseph's night this year, following the Indians with some cast members and ordering up some BBQ off a grille parked in front of the Sportsman's Corner. My wife and I had just left to take our daughter to bed so we missed him, but I can tell you there was no bloodshed or police confrontations to witness, just some amazing suits + songs to go along with the beer + BBQ.

Monday, June 7, 2010

episode 8: insinuations

The calendar works differently in New Orleans. The change of seasons is usually subtle and almost always very late. Even the holidays arrive late, starting on Twelfth Night and peaking on Fat Tuesday when the rest of the country is trying to stick to their New Years resolutions. It's the most visible example of how New Orleans is as much a Caribbean as an American city, relating to its French (Catholic/indulgent) founding that distinguishes it from the rest of the Anglo (Protestant/ascetic) U.S. Even after 200 years of American rule, Mardi Gras still rules the calendar for New Orleanians, and for a few weeks the entire city bounces along to the same soundtrack: a handful of songs that are rarely heard outside the city limits but are as familiar as gumbo to everyone within them.

All on a Mardi Gras Day is one of those songs. When Dr. John released it in 1970 it went absolutely nowhere - the insider references to parade rhythms and Mardi Gras Indians singing Tu Way Pocky Way would have been lost on a national audience - and the song wasn't even included on the Dr.'s greatest hits CD. But it's inescapable in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, spilling out of barroom doors and car windows as revelers walk through the streets of the city. A book and a documentary movie took the song's name. So did this episode of Treme and we hear it in the background as creepy Sonny indulges in a scene of Mardi Gras debauchery (that includes my wife Alex and friend Chris from the Skeleton Krewe as extras!). Mardi Gras music seeps through the whole show, insinuating itself into the lives of the characters just like Mardi Gras insinuates itself into the lives of New Orleanians.

Professor Longhair is the acknowledged king of the jukebox during Carnival season and, much like his piano disciple's Mardi Gras Day, the Professor had his own Indian-themed recording that became a Carnival staple even as it failed to get notice elsewhere. Big Chief was written and sung by Earl King on a 1964 single with a startling horn arrangement by Wardell Quezergue and a finger-bending piano riff that is required learning for every New Orleans pianist. The song is incidental to a restaurant scene early on in the show, but later Longhair gets name-checked by Creighton Bernette as the family goes about their Mardi Gras morning preparations to the sound of Go to the Mardi Gras, which Mardi-Gras-flag-waving Creighton suggests "should be our national anthem." 

The tune's path from obscure relic to (localized) national anthem is long and twisted. Longhair recorded it with his band the Shuffling Hungarians at their first recording session, in 1949, as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but the single was taken off the market because the session violated union rules. Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun "discovered" Longhair a year later playing at a house party across the river, and they released Mardi Gras in New Orleans as his first single for Atlantic Records. (Identifiable by the clave rhythm.) Surprise, surprise, it bombed. So the piano professor stripped all the local references from the lyrics and re-cut it as East St. Louis Baby, and when that didn't fly he went into his first of many musical retirements, working instead as a professional card shark.

But his Mardi Gras song kept coming around every year, so Longhair returned to the studio in 1959 and made a record under the name Go to the Mardi Gras that finally hit. (Identifiable by the parade beat on the snare drum.) This is the version that has inundated the ears of Mardi Gras revelers for 40 years, including jazz impresario George Wein, who heard the song in a neighborhood bar in the late 1960s when he was in town laying plans for the debut of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "Who's that?" Wein asked his protege Quint Davis. "It’s not anybody, it’s just a song that comes on every year at Mardi Gras," responded Davis. "You find that guy," directed Wein, and Davis obliged, eventually locating Longhair at the One Stop record shop where he was sweeping the floor. Davis put Longhair onstage at the first Jazz Fest and managed his career for his last, and most successful, decade. From that point forward, Longhair became enshrined in the New Orleans canon: the city's most iconic club was named for his song Tipitina and Go to the Mardi Gras finally became recognized as more than "just a song that comes on every year."

There's beaucoup Mardi Gras songs winding in and out of this episode - Al Johnson's R&B romp Carnival Time, The Meters' slinky Hey Pocky A-Way (a funk arrangement of the Indian chant Tu Way Pocky Way) - and Janette even stumbles through a solo take on Iko, Iko, yet another Indian chant made into a Mardi Gras standard, and the only one to become a national hit as the Dixie Cups' follow-up to Chapel of Love in 1964.

All of these songs are inextricably linked to this city's identity; they're all evidence of a musical style that I've always thought we should simply call "New Orleans Music"; and they all have deep histories and associations locally if not elsewhere. I'll end with one more, Do Whatcha Wanna by the Rebirth Brass Band.

Rebirth made their first record, Here to Stay, in 1983 when founding members Kermit Ruffins, Philip Frazier and Keith Frazier were still students at Joseph S. Clark High School in the Treme neighborhood. The record put the kids on the map, allowing them to tour outside the city a bit, but locally they were just another brass band until they recorded a single in 1987.  

Do Whatcha Wanna was a radical departure from the brass band tradition. It featured Ruffins singing a solo vocal, which had no precedent in a tradition identified with instrumentals and group singing, and further, Ruffins sang about life on the street - "do whatcha wanna... hang on the corner" - in a hip-hop way that broke with the respectable themes of spirituals and light popular tunes that make up standard brass band fare. The song became an overnight sensation when it beat out the latest rap records on a local radio call in show for eight straight weeks. Rebirth inherited the mantle of top brass band from the Dirty Dozen, who by then were on the road too often to maintain a regular gig schedule in their hometown, and Do Whatcha Wanna became the latest in a long line of songs that are, to paraphrase Ernie K-Doe, "internationally famous locally." (Make sure to purchase the version of the song labeled "Part 3".)

Do Whatcha Wanna provides the soundtrack for a party that draws Janette, Davis, Annie, Delmond, and others throughout the day. We also hear pianist Tom McDermott play a Mardi Gras standard of a different sort, If Ever I Cease to Love, the theme song for Rex, the elite carnival krewe that parades on Mardi Gras day, when the royalty are recognized as the "Kings of Carnival." Since 1872, the Rex parade has stood for pomp and circumstance, and their holiday ends with a lavish ceremonial ball where an eerily masked King sits at a throne alongside a debutante cherub as the exclusive membership bow before them one-by-one. An orchestra plays ballroom dance music along the lines of If Ever I Cease to Love, which is what greets Antoine Batiste when he arrives home from his Mardi Gras exploits and finds his wife passed out on the couch while the Rex ball beams from a TV set. "That might put me to sleep too," Antoine dryly observes before hitting the sack himself.

Some of the funkier Mardi Gras music puts me to sleep too, including two songs featured prominently as bookends to this episode, Chuck Carbo's Second Line on Monday at the top and Tommy Malone's Fat Tuesday at the end. But whether their tastes run hi-brow, lo-brow, or no-brow, New Orleanians dance to their own drummer on Mardi Gras day.