The Year Before The Flood: The Ponderosa Stomp

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How can my two weeks of guest boinging be over already? I was just starting to get my blog on, and now it's time to bail. Thanks to Rob, and big big thanks to Xeni. I'll drop one last excerpt of the book on my way out the door. The Year Before The Flood replays the last year the city of New Orleans was whole, 2004-05. As such, it's about the way time passes in the city. (My previous book, The World that Made New Orleans, was about the unique space of the "Crescent City"; constrained from expanding by the swamp, New Orleans was dense and urban from early on.)

The party schedule gets intense. I write elsewhere in the book that New Orleans is "ruled by the year-long cyclical rhythm of festivals, saints' days, parties, and holidays. To relax in between, and to pay for everything, you have a job. It's a relief to go back to work after a big weekend." There's always another Sunday parade coming up. The whole year is modulated by the crescendo toward Mardi Gras, but then come what I heard a WWOZ announcer refer to as "the high holy days between Mardi Gras and Jazzfest."

It's something of a cliché that the past is always present in New Orleans. I used to think that was an overly romantic notion, even as I could feel its truth. Then I learned that cultural historians have a word for this: chronotope, which refers (among other things) to a community's concept of time.

Late in my writing project, I read a book that unexpectedly helped me get a handle on how time passes in New Orleans: Jan Assmann's The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharoahs, a cultural history that for the first time made the contours of ancient Egyptian history comprehensible to me. Come to think of it, it might not seem so surprising that Nilotic civilization should shed light on the Mississippi delta if you've been through Mardi Gras.

After reading Jan Assmann, I starting thinking about New Orleans in terms of cyclical time versus linear time. By that I mean: linear time is the time history takes place in, that progression of numbered years that's about to get to 2010. It's the scale of Christian philosophy, where there is a beginning, middle, and end. But cyclical time, in which each year is the same as the last, is pagan, and local; it's the time myth takes place in. And here's where I'm going with this: cyclical time relies on an elaborate schedule of festivals associated with the calendar to reinforce its timelessness, creating a rhythm that propels the year.

This excerpt from The Year Before The Flood samples the mythical year-wheel of New Orleans at the point known as the Ponderosa Stomp. (Note: in 2005 the Stomp took place in April, between the two weekends of Jazzfest, but in 2010 it will break out of its spot in the calendar rhythm, moving to an as-yet-undetermined date in the fall. Another note: the Mid-City Rock 'n' Bowl, seen above as it was in April 2005, re-opened after the flood but subsequently moved to a new location at 3000 Carrollton.)

Thanking you kindly, I remain Postmamboistically yours. We now join the 2005 Ponderosa Stomp in progress…

The fourth annual Ponderosa Stomp took place at the Mid-City Rock 'n' Bowl, a two-level bowling alley that shared a strip mall with Family Beauty Supply and Thrift City in a low-lying part of town. With a bandstand on the second floor, as well as a short-order kitchen and a bar, you could bowl, dance zydeco, eat an alligator po'boy, and drink beer all at the same time. In an overwhelming two nights going from five p.m. to five a.m. each night, on the main upstairs stage and another simultaneous one downstairs, the Ponderosa Stomp presented an astonishing array of still-surviving sexagenarian-or-more legends of the regional first-generation rock 'n' roll scene, including swamp-pop, old-school New Orleans R & B, and rockabilly, with no small presence from Memphis.

The downstairs area boasted perhaps the densest nicotine cloud I had encountered in New Orleans. The music was so much fun that I tried to ignore the air quality, but I wound up taking frequent oxygen breaks to join the considerable party of fellow airheads accumulating out in the Rock 'n' Bowl's spacious parking lot. Which is how I found myself talking to a tall, skinny, bearded guy who turned out to be Paul Cebar, the Milwaukee singer-songwriter. He comes down every year for Jazzfest. We hit it off immediately.

We checked out Dale Hawkins (Mr. "Suzie Q") from Shreveport. There was Ace Cannon–how great is that?–down from Memphis with a darn good little combo. The surviving members of Elvis's band–Scotty Moore on guitar and D. J. Fontana on drums–played the early Elvis repertoire, with Memphian Billy Swan ("I Can Help") filling in on the Elvis parts, though it's understood with a thankless task like this that the voice is only a cipher. The real point was to watch Scotty Moore, the guy who played the guitar part on "Blue Moon of Kentucky," cut #1 on A Date with Elvis, playing the part live in front of me. Behind him, D. J. Fontana showed you exactly what kind of drummer Elvis had: a solid one.

Up till now, the music hadn't even been very loud. But that changed. Cebar and I were hanging out downstairs when Link Wraycame on. One of the most influential electric guitarists for the later loud-rock generation, Link Wray and his Ray Men had an all-time hit in 1958 with the crunchy, distorted, proto-psychedelic guitar instrumental "Rumble." Wray was about to turn seventy-six, making him the oldest bona fide punk I'd ever seen. He wore a leather jacket, looking like a '50s juvenile delinquent turned denture-wearer. His only facial expression was a scowl. Part Shawnee Indian, he'd been living in Denmark for twenty years or so, and he sounded for all the world like a loud European art-guitar band, though of course the influence ran the other way round. Most people tune their guitars silently now with electronic tuners, right? Not Link Wray. He had his much younger second guitarist–his son, it turned out–play through the amp while he tuned out loud to it, with the amp wide open. He didn't even get it close to in tune before he kicked off the first number, which was a timbral excursion into the harmonics generated by thick-gauge metal strings at high volumes.

"He's like your ornery grandpa who won't turn his amp down!" laughed Cebar, who by now I seemed to have known for years. Despite rocking out, Wray brought his domestic drama onto the stage with him in the form of his chunky, longhaired Danish wife, Olive, who stood onstage with him, bizarrely holding a plastic tambourine in the air and whacking it amusically against the heel of her hand the entire time, like something out of This Is Spinal Tap.She had been doing this since 1997, when she debuted as a tambourine nonplayer alongside Wray on The Conan O'Brien Show.

I'd known "Rumble" forever, but I'd never seen Link Wray play before. Nor would I again; he died a little more than six months later. He went out distorting.

I hadn't had this much fun in . . . well, maybe since Mardi Gras. Upstairs in front of the bowling lanes, I saw Classie Ballou, from Baton Rouge and now living in Waco, playing a Gibson SG just like mine. I'd never heard of him before, but I recognized the riff he played when he started doing "Just a Little Bit," It was the guitar lick the Beatles used at the beginning of "Birthday." Classie Ballou was the guy who came up with that lick, playing with Rosco Gordon on "Just a Little Bit." Herbert Hardesty, best known as Fats Domino's longtime sax man, was onstage with him.

And up came Rudy Ray Moore, better known as Dolemite, the dirty-talking comedian from party records and, later, blaxploitation films. He came onstage looking like a pimp from one of the lesser southern cities, resplendent in rhinestone-studded shades and ceremonially encrusted walking cane.

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( Photo: Dolemite at the Stomp )

"I ain't gonna get no pussy tonight!" he shouted. Now there's an icebreaker for you.

"You know why I ain't gonna get no pussy tonight?" Pause. He pointed out a guy in the front of the audience. "Cause you done ate it all up!"

He sold Dolemite souvenir walking canes from the stage for ten bucks. You know I bought one, handed the money right up to the man onstage. It's been a personal power object for me ever since.

And then it was time for the surprise hit of the evening.

"How do you perform solo when all your hits are based on overdubbing your own voice in octaves?" asked Cebar, still laughing, as I cracked open another beer. Brenton Wood went for the higher octave when he came out to sing "The Oogum Boogum Song," "Gimme Little Sign," and "Baby, You Got It."

I had always thought of Brenton Wood as being from Los Angeles, but no, it turns out he was born in Shreveport before moving to Compton as a child–the LA-to-L.A. migration that so many New Orleanians made during the years of white supremacy. He was great, plus he played his album tracks. Brenton Wood's hits were on an independent label called Double Shot, which had only one other hit group, and a one-hit wonder at that: Count Five. Presumably because the label owned the publishing, Brenton Wood recorded a version of the Count Five's hit.

Which is how it happened that a sixty-three-year-old black man from Shreveport in a brown pinstriped zoot suit came to sing "Psychotic Reaction" in a bowling alley in New Orleans, complete with double-time freakout break. On guitar was Alex Chilton, a Memphian living in New Orleans, whose brush with permanent-rotation supermarket immortality was singing "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby" with the Boxtops), and on keyboards was Mr. Quintron. Cebar and I were howling. When Brenton Wood finally left the stage, we shouted, "Do 'Oogum Boogum' again! Do 'Oogum Boogum' again!" in unison at the top of our voices.

He did "Oogum Boogum" again.

I was getting hoarse. My bronchs were on fire from the intense tobacco haze. Lady Bo was starting up–Bo Diddley's female second guitarist for many years, she was the first woman to be regularly hired as a musician by a major rock 'n' roll group–but I was done.

I pointed the Saturn back to the Irish Channel and wheezed my way home.

I would have to miss Blowfly.