This week and next I'm presenting excerpts from my new book, The Year Before The Flood (Lawrence Hill Books). One of Amazon's categories for it is "21st-century history," which I like.
It's a memoir of the last year New Orleans was whole, 2004-05, the way I saw it when my wife Constance and I went to live there for ten months. (We returned to New York in May 2005, though I came back to New Orleans for a visit three weeks before the city went underwater as of August 29.) It's not that deadly publishing category, the "Katrina book." (For that matter, I don't call what happened to New Orleans "Katrina." It wasn't a vengeful goddess that took the city out, it was a social and infrastructural failure.) The book is about the music, from Fats Domino to Dr. John to the Nevilles to world-class local bands like - I don't want to mention just one or everyone'll be mad at me, and there are so many -- to Lil' Wayne, but there's a lot of death in it, too, because murder and music were both in the air, all year long.
It's got multiple narrative threads, but one of the ideas it proposes is that it's a mistake to ignore hiphop when we talk about New Orleans music, just as it's a mistake to talk about New Orleans hiphop as if the rest of New Orleans music didn't exist. This excerpt covers our getting to town.
I had never bought a car before, nor had I driven anything but an occasional rental in over twenty years, but we were going to need a car to get around. In Long Island City I signed a commitment to make seventy-two monthly payments on a Saturn SL2 (four years old, forty-four thousand miles). Not that I had previously known what a Saturn was. Nor did I quite realize that in effect you have to buy a car twice, the second time in payments to the insurance racket. I was going to receive all of ten monthly paychecks from Tulane, but I figured I'd sell the car at year's end.
I spent an unbelievable number of hours putting stuff in boxes, padding the boxes out with bubble wrap, taping them shut, numbering them, keeping an inventory of what they were, and stacking them up. I shipped more than half my CDs, all the books I might need to refer to in a year of writing and researching, all my negatives and slides, and a lot of other things I might as well have left at home.
We drove in our newly acquired Saturn from Manhattan to New Orleans, spending two nights en route. It was a good car, but I really screwed up by not noticing that it had no radio antenna. It could pick up FM signals in town OK, but once we got out in the country, we could go for miles at a stretch without hearing anything at all. To me, a car is a radio on wheels. Highway driving without radio? Unthinkable. A car radio is your best way of understanding what you're driving through.
Alas, my Saturn was radio-impaired. I would put it on "scan," which sent it stepping through the frequencies until it locked in on a signal. Often it would be silent for twenty minutes or more until, passing a town, it found something. Suddenly out of nowhere a loud voice would snap on, startling us with the proclamation that Jesus had our backs as we waged spiritual warfare in the crusade against secular humanism. I left it on as a kind of early warning system that we were near a town.
Coming into Birmingham, the radio locked into a welcome funky-music signal. As I blearily followed the directions to the historic-Tutwiler-Hotel-where-Tallulah-Bankhead-had-once-stayed-now-owned-by-Hampton-Inns, I heard for the first time the song that would mark our year in New Orleans. I could tell from the way the DJ hit it that it was the new jam in power rotation. It expressed the inner torment of a man trying to decide whether to obey the no-hands rule in a lap-dance club:
Unngh! I like it like that
She workin' that back
I don't know how to act
Slow motion for me, slow motion for me...
Every aspect of the vocalist's diction had a musical function. That, back, and act rhymed, with act snapping on the upbeat. I don't was one word. The words "I like it like that" recalled the 1961 record of that title by New Orleans R&B genius and fuckup Chris Kenner, later a big hit for the Dave Clark Five. Its Ls were juicy both-sides-of-your tongue laminal American Ls, not tip-of-your-tongue frontal British Ls, and the vocalist milked them for all they were worth. The Ms outlined a subrhythm all their own. There was a funky Latinesque guitar loop behind it; the producer, I later found out, was Danny Kartel (Daniel Castillo), a guitar-playing Honduran-Nicaraguan kid in New Orleans with an appropriately hip-hop capitalist nom du disque. It was scientifically calculated to move at the same velocity as a slow-grinding stripper's big ass. It sparkled.
I know a great radio record when I hear one. "Slow Motion" was the new release by New Orleans's Juvenile, but that part I just quoted--which was the whole appeal of the record--was by Soulja Slim, who had been murdered in New Orleans ten months previously and didn't get to see his hit happen.
Unngh, I like it like that. Our temporary new home was coming into focus, via a dead man's horniness.
The next morning, the last leg of our drive was through 150 miles of thunderstorms. I drove most of it at eighty miles an hour. I had told myself I wouldn't drive that fast, but everyone else was going at autobahn speed, even in the rain. Like religion, politics, and music, driving in the United States has become more belligerent in recent years. Despite the increased probability of carnage if you crash at a higher speed, it's easier to flow with the traffic than to have Hummers and semis whipping around you constantly, hurling blinding sheets of water onto your windshield, while a suicide-jockey motorcyclist darts around between you. A small truck passes with FEAR THIS painted on its back, and a verse citation from Revelation. A giant chemical tank roars past with the cautionary MOLTEN SULFUR painted on its side. Isn't that the stuff that spews out of volcanoes?
I-10 runs mostly through forest from Jacksonville to San Antonio, but to get in and out of New Orleans you have to cross water. Coming in from the east, we drove on a thin ribbon of concrete set atop thousands of pilings, a viaduct called the Twin Span that bridges a five-mile segment of the 630 square miles of Lake Pontchartrain. It didn't rise way high above the lake but sat right on the water, giving you the dreamlike sensation of driving on the surface of the lake. I don't know if there's a psychological term for the fear of being trapped on preposterous structures, but the only thing I can compare the feeling to is when I was working temp on one of the higher floors of the World Trade Center on a windy day, when the building swayed and the water sloshed in the toilets. Once in a while a vehicle will go out of control on the Twin Span and careen off the lane through the barrier, sinking horribly down into Lake Pontchartrain and drowning the occupants.
As we crossed the lake there was sunshine and blue August sky all around, but directly overhead a tiny squall was shooting lightning and pounding hard rain down on us, making for highly localized weather drama. I had forgotten that the radio was scanning, but suddenly, blam! It locked in on a frequency, making us jump with the sudden blast of sound. Welcoming us to our new temporary hometown as we drove through our personal mini-storm was the musical smirk of B. Gizzle:
I want it, you got it
Don't make me have to go in your pockets
It went on:
It's game time, and I'm ready to play
Gimme my remote and my remote is my K, I spray with it...
My K. Meaning, my AK-47.
It seemed to say: welcome to New Orleans, Ned and Constance. Keep your hands where I can see them.
[Photo: Twin Span, facing out of town. Courtesy Constance Ash.]