Now that everyone’s all of a sudden an expert on New Orleans music, violent distortions of the city’s sonic history are being promulgated by pundits in faraway cities. The general consensus among the cognoscenti is that the city’s music is merely a soundtrack for licentious tourists. Even the self-described “Dean of rock critics” Robert Christgau dismissed New Orleans music as an exercise in nostalgia, an observation formed on the basis of a visit to a recording session by an out-of-state artist and a set at Preservation Hall. It’s as if a critic went to see a Saturday night cover band on Bleecker Street and made sweeping pronouncements on the New York music scene based on that observation.
New Orleans music, at least up until the point where the culture was scattered across America by Katrina, is as varied as most other contemporary music, because it’s the product of the life experiences of the people who make it. New Orleans musicians have listened to, been influenced by, and play every aspect of American music from bluegrass to hip-hop. They play tourist music for tourists, not themselves, so if that’s your impression of what the music here is all that proves is that you’re a tourist.
There are certainly characteristics of New Orleans music that are found nowhere else, such as the second-line rhythms and brass band arrangements and playing techniques literally handed down generation by generation through the family structure; or the wacky sense of humor that permeates a culture where even the most dysfunctional members of society are accorded respect based on their musical gifts. New Orleans has always been cut off from the rest of the south, a self-contained empire of the mind. Though some groups and artists have built successful international touring careers, far more were content to live and work in the city that appreciated them for who they were. Right along with the fabled “Spanish tinge” that Jelly Roll Morton identified as a central element of the New Orleans sound is the mocking humor that runs through the works of Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Ernie K. Doe, and one of the city’s most rabble-rousing eccentrics, Davis Rogan.
Rogan had just completed a prototypical New Orleans album when Katrina hit called The Once and Future DJ, a reference to his alter ego, DJ Davis, who promoted brass band and hip-hop as a longtime radio personality on WWOZ and leader of the off-the-wall brass band All That.
The record is a rambling rumble through the streets of New Orleans, populated with characters from in and out of town. The principle character, of course, is Davis himself, waxing poetic about his car, his neighborhood and his love life, hurling invective (there’s a particularly angry song about WWOZ), and offering his idiosyncratic version of Zappaesque humor as social satire. It’s hard to imagine the opening track, “Godzilla Vs. Martin Luther King,” emerging from any other cranium. As ever, Davis is surrounded by some of the city’s top musicians and gets outstanding performances out of them. It’s classic New Orleans R&B in spirit but everything from Charlie Parker to Sun Ra, from Todd Rundgren to the White Stripes in execution. Rogan’s inscrutable, mercurial personality is the only unifying element, an often unsettling alternation of thrown-away lines and manic rants juxtaposed with wry, apt turns of phrase, translucent metaphoric turns, eye-opening descriptive passages and extraordinary overdubbed vocal harmonies. His fevered mind seems to be turning over clever ideas almost faster than he can process them, channeling Brian Wilson, Al Kooper, Steely Dan, NRBQ and the Bonzo Dog Band alongside Fats Domino and Eddie Bo.
But the song everyone’s talking about is “Hurricane,” written before Katrina but with an eerie tracking of the major themes and catch phrases in the storm’s aftermath. The song is steeped in the carefree, whistle-past-the-graveyard spirit that New Orleanians have long exhibited in the face of imminent disaster, a kind of defiant innocence that makes the ultimate irony of “Hurricane” not the fact that it was written before Katrina, but that it would be that much harder to write today in the face of all that’s gone down.
“Hurricane” (song structure is a jump blues with a shout chorus).
Well you’re standin’ on the corner with your um-be-rell-a in your hand/ Standin’ on the corner keepin’ out the pouring rain/ Um-be-rell-a won’t help ya when they hit you wit the hurricane/ I’m gonna buy me a pirouge lash it to my balcony/ It’s a little boat baby enough room for you and me/ When the water comes to meet us we’ll float on out to sea / (chorus) Well they’re all evacuatin’ (I ain’t goin!) Some folks ain’t waitin’(I ain’t goin!)/ Open up the highway try and get your car to go/ Folks are stuck in traffic got no place to go/ But I’m chillin’ in my house I won’t say I told you so/ My house outlasted Betsy and it stood through Camille/ When they built my house they were building houses for real/ I’m stayin’ on the premises so I can be here to deal/ (chorus) Well I got me my water (I ain’t goin!)/ Camp stove and a shotgun (I ain’t goin’!)/ You can do what you oughtta (I ain’t goin!)/ But ahmena stay here some/ I’m stayin’ in New Orleans with a cold drink in my hand!