Premature Burial: Glen David Andrews’ Journey Back From the Dead

Ten years from now
Where will I be?
Will I be shining like a star
Bright as the eye can see?
Or will I can be kicking the breeze
Hanging on St. Philip Street?

Glen David Andrews, “Knock with Me, Rock with Me

Glen David Andrews was feeling no pain on a beautiful autumn evening in New Orleans as he sat on the porch swing outside his Uptown University-area apartment. Andrews, 33, was smiling and looking good—15 months out of rehab, in the best shape of his life and just about ready to go into the studio to make an album with producer Leo Sacks.

Glen David Andrews, suit, photo, Elsa Hahne, Golden Richard III, OffBeat Magazine, November, 2013

Glen David Andrews plays the 2013 Voodoo Music Experience on Friday, November 1 at 9:00 p.m. on the Flambeau stage. (Photo: Elsa Hahne and Golden Richard III)

In the old days, that look of satisfaction might have come from an artificial high, but ever since he finished an intensive program at the Boston-based Right Turn clinic, Andrews has been smiling away his demons with a combination of faith, family and the music that has been his constant companion and his saving grace.

Tonight he was visiting with his mother, Vana Acker, and his sister, Davanya Tabb, who came over to talk about Glen’s return to New Orleans after finishing his rehabilitation program. His neat, modest apartment features a bookcase with numerous volumes on Louis Armstrong, a Congo Square Jazz Fest poster of his cousin, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and a portrait of late Treme legend “Uncle” Lionel Batiste.

“I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life, and in my professional career the best place ever,” said Andrews as he sat down on a chair in his parlor across from his mother. He looked renewed, clear-eyed and eager to talk. He’s filled out that wiry, gangling frame with muscle tone from a workout program that is part of his rehabilitation and he exudes a calmness and sense of self-confidence that is a marked departure from the intense, overdriven personality he projected before his treatment. Andrews has put together a terrific band for both live performances and recording. The group gives him a consistency that was never characteristic of his previous work, when shows would change radically from week to week. In the old days, Andrews was always poised on the razor’s edge. He often seemed plagued by unspecified demons before a show, only to become transformed onstage as if the physical act of engaging the audience was somehow saving him from the abyss. His live performances took on the daredevil drama of a man engaging in life-threatening stunts. His genius at always managing to pull off the magic was central to the dynamic of his shows but there was always the sense that it was not sustainable over the long run.

“It used to be everything was always on 10,” he admitted. “Now everything is well rehearsed. The fact that we’re making this album and we’re on the cover of OffBeat, after where I was last year, it shows what can happen if you put your mind to it and get serious. It ain’t about what we used to do. It’s about what we’re supposed to do, and what we’re supposed to do is practice. There are no more relatives in my band. There are no personal friends in my band. I’ve got a vision. I’m trying to tell a story. I’m spilling my life out in the music and I need the right people to do that.

“Right now I have Alex J. Hall on drums, Barry Stephenson on bass, Ricio Fruge on trumpet, Josh Starkman on guitar and James Martin on saxophone.

Andrews has the band rehearsing on a grueling schedule that mirrors the intensity of his personal workouts. The group has developed a near-psychic rapport.

“You don’t see me directing the band no more,” said Andrews. “We know where we’re going. We know which song is next. We know who solos, we know how many hits, breaks and stops. We record every show and we listen to it the next day. I’m headlining a lot of different festivals and I realize I have the greatest opportunity. It’s time I step up to the plate and be the major musician I am, unless I want to be playing local clubs the rest of my life. I’m too good for that, my band is too good for that.”

Only last year, Andrews could be seen wandering the streets of Treme, a lost soul. During the massive second-line parade for “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, Andrews stood on the neutral ground holding a 24-ounce cup filled with red liquid and looking forlorn, a wretched outcast watching his cousin James Andrews lead the parade in which he should have by all rights been a central part. It had been a different story in previous years, when it was Glen David leading the second lines for events as varied as the “Aint’s” wake following the Saints 2010 Super Bowl victory or the march against violence depicted in the HBO series Treme.

But by mid-2012, that era of his life was over as he stood on that patch of grass in his own private limbo, an outcast on his home turf, waiting for a chance at redemption. Andrews, a habitual drug addict since he was a teenager, had tried rehab in the past but never completed treatment. Earlier in 2012, he had applied to Right Turn, a clinic run by former Del Fuegos drummer Woody Geissmann that specializes in treating musicians, and was waiting for a spot to open. In the meantime, his life was spiraling out of control. After a domestic dispute with his girlfriend, Andrews was arrested and suddenly faced a laundry list of trumped-up charges.

“I had to go through everything I went through to get where I’m at,” he reasoned. “I don’t care what people think because I know what I went through. I had to be crucified on my own cross. I accepted that months before I went into treatment; it just so happened I had to hit the ground hard. At the end of my addiction, I knew I was in an unhappy spot.”

Right Turn’s comprehensive rehabilitation program was the antidote Andrews needed, but when he returned to New Orleans, he still had to face his court date and potential jail time. The District Attorney chose not to pursue the most sensational charges, which were baseless but headline-grabbing, and Andrews eventually plea-bargained his sentence down to probation.

“All the major stuff I was in trouble for was quietly swept under the rug,” he explained. “I shouldn’t have been charged with a lot of that anyway. It doesn’t really matter who railroaded me; what matters is what I’d done to put myself in that situation.”

The sentence was a blessing in disguise because it barred him from associating with drug dealers, giving him extra incentive to avoid temptation. Ironically, it forced him away from Treme, the neighborhood where he grew up surrounded by music and an entirely different way of life.

Andrews moved in with his sister Davanya in New Orleans East.

“I knew he was serious when he decided to [enter the rehabilitation program] on his own,” said Davanya. “So when he was ready to come back out here, I let him stay with me until he could get himself ready to move out on his own.”

Andrews had been counseled about the difficulties he would face returning to New Orleans, but his family helped him through the transition.

“Everybody understood if I get in trouble what’s riding on that,” said Andrews. “I’m going to be the poster boy for ‘I told you so.’ I was prepared. I didn’t go into rehab to save my career or get out of legal trouble. I did it to change my life.

“If he would have stayed in Boston, I’d have supported it,” said mama Vana. “If he came home, I support that. I’ve prayed to God and I’m happy for him. I’ve prayed for him through many years of hell. They always say, ‘Let God come when you want him, but when he comes, come on time.’ I’m grateful for that. I’m proud of him for the changes that he has made, that he’s accepted it, that he hasn’t put the blame on anybody else. It takes a lot for somebody to do that. It is my hope and prayer that God will keep him in this place.”

 

Glen David Andrews, zombies, photo, Elsa Hahne, Golden Richard III, OffBeat Magazine, November, 2013

Glen David Andrews, zombie slayer (Photo: Elsa Hahne and Golden Richard III)

Staying in New Orleans East, far removed from his regular gigs and favorite restaurants like Maximo’s, where he often holds court, was tough medicine for Andrews.

“I needed to be in a safe environment for the first six months,” he said. “I was getting real antsy after the first three months. I wanted to move, but I sucked it up and stood the six months and I’m happy I did because it grounded me. Instead of rushing and making an irrational decision, I made a great decision to move into the neighborhood that I’m in now. I was going through a lot at that time and I needed to be in an environment where I could feel love. Sometimes I would have something on my mind and my sister was there to talk to me. I would go to a meeting; I’d ride my bike. I would do what I had to do. I’m still doing that now. My family never shut the door on me.”

Growing up in Treme, Andrews was surrounded by music. His mother, who still works at Zion Hill Baptist Church on North Robertson Street, made him attend services instead of the second lines.

“My early memory of growing up in Treme,” joked Andrews, “was that church is too long. I had to go to the second line.”

“He had to go to church,” Vana chuckled.

“That’s correct,” he responded, shaking his head and calling Vana “church lady.” “I missed a lot of good second lines. I missed the beginning of ’em, anyway. Once I went to school and went home, walking through the Sixth Ward, the Treme was still poppin’ at the time. There was a lot of second lines back then and they’d be all-day events. When you go to school in the morning people were already at the bar hanging out, waiting for the second line. Everybody in the neighborhood got involved—my cousins, our neighbors.”

Vana appreciated the second lines herself.

“I used to video all the second lines,” she said. “I had a huge collection. Katrina took it all. I don’t do it no more.”

Andrews and his extended family members played music all the time.

“All of them played,” said Vana. “We always had a house full of kids. I wasn’t really thinking about, ‘He played better than anyone else,’ because they all just played as a group. They was all just a bunch of children. Benny Jones took Derek [Glen’s brother Derek Tabb] and showed him how to play the drums. Derek paraded one year with the Indians. Why did they play? Because all they saw in the Sixth Ward at the time was music. They was always interested in music ’cause they was around people playing music. Today, they interested in football because the people around are all interested in football.”

“You had a lot of musicians that lived in the neighborhood and we’d see them play,” Andrews elaborated. “You had my cousins James and Troy out there and there was always something going on, but the who’s who of New Orleans musicians lived there. I would run into Ernie K-Doe on the street all the time. We used to see Uncle Lionel parading around with his kazoo band, always clownin’ around. James and Troy always had music in their house. We grew up with music. You want to play a trombone; you want to play a banjo, like the Olympia Brass Band. Today they wanna watch TV or be a rapper. I just wanted to play music; that’s all I wanted to do. Just like my brother Derek, he was always bangin’ on something, always playing music.

“I feel like I caught the tail end of the revival of the brass bands in the ’80s. In the late ’90s most of the great brass players would sit down and play traditional in the [Preservation] Hall but in the ’80s I think I caught the last great part of the second lines. I was playing with Bob French. He was playing with the oldest institution in New Orleans, the 125-year-old Tuxedo Brass Band, with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong and all those people. I learned the history of the band. I always thought Bob French was a really great drummer.”

Though Andrews was generally indifferent about school (“I liked lunch a lot”), he loved to read, and when he started playing in more organized groups his songwriting talents emerged. One of his songs, “Knock with Me, Rock with Me,” has become the brass band anthem, with its call-and-response refrain “Gimme a dime/I only got eight.” The song describes the events that went down during a day in the life of Treme. And in a chilling moment, it references Glen’s cousin Darnell Andrews, who was murdered:

“Who that shot D-Boy, y’all? / Gotta get him, gotta get him!”

“Darnell was a really talented musician,” said Andrews, “but it was unfortunately the same story that’s repeated every day in the streets of New Orleans. You can do something productive with your life or you can get caught up in the streets and become a victim of it, which is pretty much what happened to him. Troy and I became close after that. I wrote the song for Troy’s band first, then the Little Rascals did it, but several musicians had to die before I wrote it. It’s a rallying cry, ‘Let’s get together and do what we got to do.’ But the whole song of ‘Knock with Me’ is a true story. It’s like all the new songs are true stories. From my experience as a songwriter, people want to hear your story; they wanna hear what you went through. It’s like Michael Jackson—he was really singing about his life.”

When Andrews returned to New Orleans after finishing the Right Turn program, several of his old gigs opened back up for him but he had to re-establish his audience, put together a new band and work on new material. Most of all, he has had to navigate through forces looking to set him back on his previous path. So Andrews has a security guard shadowing him at gigs and he leaves the club more or less immediately after finishing his performance.

“I have to deal with people who are trying to do something to make you react,” he explained. “People don’t want to hear it. There’s a certain element of people who just don’t come to d.b.a. on Monday at all no more. I work in that environment but I’m not part of that environment. The reality is everybody is not happy with your success. Some people just don’t believe it. And I have to wake up every day and prove it to myself. It’s almost midnight, so I’ve made it through just one more day.

“I have to stay humble, and sometimes when you stay humble you come out on top. I’m starting to see the benefits of living like this. One of the benefits is I’m a better person when it comes down to my family—I’m a better son, I’m a better brother, I’m a better uncle … I’m a better cousin. I’m more responsible to my band and everybody that’s in my band. I’m more respectful to people who come on a weekly basis. Even to someone who comes to my gig and has something negative to say about me. I was at a crime-stopping benefit recently and a guy walked up to me and he thought I was my cousin James. He proceeded to tell ‘James’ how he saw Glen David Andrews loaded and drunk: ‘I saw your cousin; he was fucked up out of his mind!’ All the time, he doesn’t realize that I’m Glen, not James! So I didn’t say nothin’. Inside, for about 20, 30 minutes, I was really pissed off. But then I thought about the bigger picture, which is: You know it’s not true. I can’t look at him as if he was an idiot because at one time, I was an idiot. At one time, I was an asshole.”

Andrews began writing new songs while in rehab and has been itching to make a new record but producer Leo Sacks counseled him to develop the songs slowly.

“I wanted the record to come out last year,” Andrews admitted. “I wanted it to come out this summer. I finally realized I needed a year of being sober. Then I needed six months to enjoy the benefits of that before I’m able to properly articulate my story. Now that I have an opportunity to work with Ray Bardani, who engineered everything from Luther Vandross to Ledisi, and to work with Leo Sacks, I’m gonna let these people do what they do and not rush this process.”

Veteran R&B producer Sacks saw Andrews earlier this year at Jazz Fest. Sacks, who produced Sing Me Back Home by the New Orleans Social Club in the first weeks after Katrina and who is completing a documentary on gospel sensation Raymond Myles, said that seeing Glen was “a revelation.”

“Glen is like an action hero leaping off the pages of a comic strip,” said Sacks. “Watching Glen in the Blues Tent, I was wringing wet from the rain, and utterly transfixed. Glen could have been Solomon Burke or Wilson Pickett or Don Covay, strutting and preening and prowling the stage like a charter member of the Soul Clan, back in the day on Atlantic Records, working each song from a whisper to a scream.

“I loved the way he testified to the comforts of faith, because I could feel the pain in his heart. And then he sang ‘Surrender.’ A song about being flawed and being deeply human. About the joys of accepting who we are, and situations we cannot change, and people we cannot control, but that we can always change ourselves. He sang about who the Maker truly wants us to be, and the freedom that comes if we truly surrender. That’s a big ‘if,’ and I could relate.”

Andrews wrote the song “Surrender” during his early days in rehab.

“I wrote it on the floor suffering the worst I could ever suffer, being in the final stages of a full detox,” Andrews recalled. “It was in that period of recovery where you experience suicidal nightmares. It’s at that moment where you’re looking for the doctor to come upstairs and give you something to calm you down. That’s when the light comes on in your head. I was just lying on the floor and crying out to God. It’s the most physically painful thing I’ve ever done in my life. But mental pain is worse. Mental pain is what makes you want to say, fuck it, give it up. Medicine can stop the headache but it can’t stop the thoughts. I had to have the will to get up and go to class and sit there for eight hours and then I had to work out for two hours. Two hundred days. I sleep a lot better now.”

Andrews has called on three friends for the recording who’ve undergone the same trials he’s had in kicking dope: Cyril Neville, Ivan Neville and Anders Osborne.

“All three of these people have been through the same thing I’ve been through over the last 10 or 15 years,” Andrews said, “and know it just as good as I know it. I didn’t want to saturate the record with special guests. I wanted to collaborate with people who have walked down this exact same path. Anders, Ivan and Cyril have all been on the same journey I’ve been on recently so I’ve got a personal connection with all of them. Cyril is one of the most underrated soul singers in the world. I’m putting Cyril Neville on the song ‘I’m Moving Up.’ He made his mark with the Meters. He is a part of soul and funk history. And he’s always been a personal mentor of mine.

I’m gonna put Ivan Neville on ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself’ to play an organ solo and sing with me. I got a song called ‘Lower Power’ with Peter Johnson who wrote a lot of stuff with Bonnie Raitt and who became a personal friend and counselor of mine in treatment. I’m gonna use Anders Osborne on that one. When you listen to Anders Osborne’s music, it went from dark reality to bright reality. That dude is singing about his life, how he went from the shitter to doing really well. I admire somebody who can stand up and say, ‘This is who I was. This was a part of me. This is who I am now.’”

Despite all the good things that are happening for him, Andrews is acutely aware that he’s only one misstep away from recidivism. Any trip through his childhood neighborhood has become a trial by fire.

“I went to church this morning and that was enough to get me through to walk through the Treme to pick up my car from the shop,” he says. “That’s not an easy walk for me, walking through the Sixth Ward. That’s a really hard walk from Bayou Road to Rampart. Of course I’m tempted. Anybody who’s got an addiction is tempted. If you’ve got a food addiction and you pass McDonalds, you want those fuckin’ fries. That’s addiction. But there’s no addiction that can beat the power of God.”

On his Monday night residency at d.b.a. Andrews is billed as “The Treme Prince”—but the neighborhood, the man and the city they are part of has changed forever. There is no place for the old Glen David Andrews in the new New Orleans. He is a reformed man in a reviving city that is crying out for the kind of leadership he can provide. Still, his story is unfinished; sobriety is a day-to-day struggle over the course of a lifetime.

“I’m just trying to make it through today,” he says, “and take tomorrow the same way when it comes. If I live another day to tell the story, that’s a damn good day. That’s the only thing that matters.”