“I think he’s spraying the place with Lysol,” Dub Brock says.
Brock—who performs under the name Bobby Lounge—is standing in the country near McComb, Mississippi outside a house that is a classic piece of naïve art. Every slat in the fence that surrounds the property has been painted black with a white outline, and the paving stones that form a “Family Circus”-like trail across his lawn have all been painted with a fan-topped white window. Bricks that lean on each other like fallen dominos line the roof’s borders, and ceramic tiles cover it. Brock points out that the gray on the ground isn’t dirt; it’s faded carpets, and he says the sections of metal railing that are held together with plumbers’ clamps in front of the house are new. Over the door, three sections of railing form a lookout point, but there’s no obvious way to get there. Brock, his manager John Preble and guitarist Brian Stoltz are waiting as Bernard gets the house ready for visitors.
After a few minutes, Bernard invites them in. On every visit before this one, he has introduced himself as “Montay,” and he doesn’t explain the change. Instead, he warns them to be careful crossing the paving stones in the entryway into the cocoon-like interior. The inside is black with white accents, just like outside, and just as every exterior surface has something attached to it, so do those inside. The ceiling has a black lattice on it from which Bernard hangs wine glasses, fans and decorative colored grass—Brock says there used to be a lot more grass at one point—and one wall is covered in secondhand stereo equipment blasting the audio to accompany the static-y All My Children he picks up with a rabbit-ear antenna. There’s a row of four answering machines from the ’80s — all black — on a counter, but there’s no phone in sight.
As Brock, Preble and Stoltz are leaving, Bernard complains about being short on money and needing a job. Brock suggested he make some small pieces, things people could buy, and he would know. In 1982, his house was an art environment, too, and his neighbors didn’t appreciate it any more than Bernard’s do (“jealous people” vandalize his house, Bernard says). In the 1980s, Brock did art on bed sheets and hung them from ropes strung between his house and the trees in his yard. There was also a sign: “Everything for sale, $35.” He says he did it for privacy as much as anything else.
The journey from neighborhood blight to the toast of NPR, which did a story on Bobby Lounge before his appearance at Jazz Fest this year, has been a long one. He first performed as Bobby Lounge in the early 1980s, then because of a twist as unlikely as something in his songs, he disappeared, becoming a legend on the strength of a tape that became the Louisiana equivalent of Dylan’s Royal Albert Hall bootleg. His return to the stage came at the 2005 Jazz Fest, which brought him notoriety, and his performance brought him close to a new challenge: Success.
Brock still lives in his own environment, though a more private and tasteful one than the outdoor gallery he once erected. He now has a fence, and the foliage obscures his studio from the road. The studio itself has just enough walls to keep the ceiling off the floor. “I like to be able to see from one end to the other,” he says. He proudly points out the chair that was once on a Zulu float; it has zebra-print upholstery and horns poking up from the ends of the armrest and the back of the chair. The sitting area at the back has a brick-colored floor, the accidental result of his attempt to mix “the perfect terra cotta.” He had a pail of paint that he kept doctoring, hoping to get the color just right, but it sprang a leak one night, covering the floor with the imperfect terra cotta. He has learned to live with it.
The rest of the house more or less flows together, with art hung from the studs. There’s a baby grand piano with a white crackle finish that he uses as a planter, though Preble plinks a few keys when walking by to show that it works. Brock’s working on a new song, “Apalachicola Fool,” so he sits at an upright piano lit by pink flamingo Christmas lights and starts pounding out boogie-woogie with a hint of the Caribbean. It’s powerful, and all the more impressive for how offhanded it was. He hums the melody quietly until he gets to the resolution of the chorus, when he finally sings the title. “It’s going to have lots of good words,” he says.
On two walls are two of his paintings, one bordered with a leopard print and inside the border are Leopard Woman and Dog Youth. “My own private mythology,” he explains, one that includes many incarnations of Elvis and the Amazing Pizza Boy. His painting and aesthetic flirts with folk art, but, from the early 1980 until the mid-1990s, New Orleans fine art gallery director Arthur Roger represented him, and though his work looked primitive, he has an MFA. In fact, he teaches art these days, but he doesn’t paint much, dedicating his energy instead to music.
For years, Brock has had a secret life. While most people knew him as Dub Brock, painter, since the early ’80s friends also knew him as Bobby Lounge, songwriter and piano player. “I had an opportunity to play here in McComb and decided I wanted to be somebody other than my real name, some other personality,” he says. “I was sitting around with some friends, and I said, ‘I think I’m just going to be Bob Lounge, just a generic lounge singer.’” Someone suggested “Bobby Lounge” and he liked that better.
Bobby Lounge is “my outrageous side,” Brock says, laughing. “I think I used to try to be more outrageous when I was younger and had more energy. Now I just want to sort of blend in and have an ordinary life.”
That tension between the ordinary life and the outrageous life is just one of the cruxes that makes his songs intriguing. “Take Me Back to Abita Springs” is a travelogue every bit as wild and inventive as Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” a song that involves singing Siamese twins, a voodoo priest, a Chinese communist and the Queen. In the end, Lounge sings the inscription on the traveler’s tombstone:
“I have traversed the world in search of my elusive dreams,
Let my life serve as example for what idle pleasure brings
And as my demise shall be soon forthcoming it seems,
Place my body beneath local landscape verdant and green
And on the plastic tombstone ever let my epitaph read,
‘Home at last, in Ponchatoula’”
It sounds like a warning to learn from his bad example, underscored by the town on the tombstone being wrong. It should be Abita Springs. The lyric seems cautionary, but when his piano whips the song back to the rollicking chorus, it’s clear the singer wouldn’t change a thing.
“Take Me Back to Abita Springs” is from Lounge’s first album, I Remember the Night Your Trailer Burned Down. His new album, Ten Foot Woman, sets his tall tales in more domestic circumstances—at home, in the store, and in towns like McComb, Franklinton, Hammond or Mandeville. He sings comically exaggerated tales of exploring, ummmm, more personal boundaries on an album that could be subtitled Northshore Gomorrah, a place where people do the damnest things on Saturday night and sing the hymns they know by heart on Sunday morning.
In an era when the media has so thoroughly focused attention on big city existence, Brock’s music and art focuses on life in the small towns where the dividing line between the town and country is a fluid one, a place where there are fewer social and professional reasons to conform so many people don’t. “I like all that eccentric stuff,” Brock says. “I have friends and we collect stories about all of that, and cherish it. Because, you know, it’s pretty unusual, or pretty interesting, anyway.”
The sense of place not only gives Brock/Lounge his subject matter, but the details that bring the songs to life. In “Take Me Back to Angola,” he sings about colorful things he’d like to do in Howard Brothers, a discount store chain that once existed in northern Louisiana and southern Mississippi. “That used to be one of my favorite places to go,” he says, “and the one in McComb was kind of a lone place, and behind it there was like this thick, green jungle. The clientele was never disappointing, especially in the hot summertime. I used to do this painting that I called ‘The Pentecostal Women at Howard Brothers.’ You know, [in] the Pentecostal religion, they have the big beehive hairdos because they don’t cut their hair, and they don’t show any skin on the arms or legs or anything. It seemed like they were always at Howard Brothers.”
Writer Ben Sandmel has been one of Bobby Lounge’s biggest champions for exactly this reason. “People are saying the whole country is becoming bland and homogenized and regional culture of all sorts is being diluted by mainstream media,” Sandmel says. “And particularly southern culture is threatened. To find somebody like this—a totally individual voice who represents regional tradition thriving in what everybody’s bemoaning as a time of mass assimilation—is a beautiful thing.”
Sandmel first heard Bobby Lounge when he was at a party six or seven years ago with Marcia Ball.
Their hosts played a tape of Bobby Lounge playing piano and singing. His playing immediately reminded Sandmel of Jerry Lee Lewis and his gospel fervor. “I was completely blown away, completely amazed,” Sandmel says. “The combination of talent and the combination of traditions. There’s this continuum of southern roots music—blues, gospel, jazz, country—and he embodied all those traditions, but his lyrics are completely unique.” Sandmel heard elements of surrealism and Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers in Lounge’s songs. He and Ball were so amazed that they made their hosts play the tape another two or three times that night and have sung his praises ever since.
Like his visual art, Brock’s piano playing is only partially self-taught. His family had a piano when he was growing up and he picked up melodies by ear, then slowly learned to add bass. In junior high school, he took some piano lessons from a teacher who told him, “You ought to roll your bass, just roll up an octave every now and then,” he recalls. “That was really kind of a breakthrough.”
The gospel influence Sandmel heard in Lounge’s playing did, in fact, come from the church. “I grew up in the First Baptist Church in McComb, and I definitely had that background,” Brock says. “We sang all the old hymns, and I loved them. At some point, I got exposed to black gospel, and I realized that it was sort of like white gospel; it was just jazzed up a bit. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I think I could do that.’ I can play a lot of hymns. In fact, when I was learning to play, I would play hymns by ear.”
On Ten Foot Woman, he sings “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior,” dedicating it to the survivors and victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“All we had up here after the hurricane was public radio, and we didn’t have lights for about a week,” Brock says. “I was just sitting around in my underwear in the heat listening to public radio, and I heard some people down I think at the convention center and they were singing ‘Pass Me Not, oh Gentle Savior.’ And I was thinking, ‘That’s the perfect song to sing about the hurricane.’ Plus, it’s a beautiful song.”
When Sandmel heard the Bobby Lounge tape, he didn’t realize that Brock had largely shelved what briefly passed for his musical career. He played primarily at parties for the fun of it, and played once at the Contemporary Arts Center in the early 1980s. It was one of his first professional gigs, and it was opening for a punk band—he doesn’t remember its name—and the audience wasn’t particularly kind. The response was disheartening for a reluctant performer under the best of circumstances, and then his health started to fail him. “The way I felt was totally different than the way I ever felt before,” he says. “I went to doctors to try to find out, and they started to intimate that I must just be kind of nuts.” In 1985, he was finally diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which he has battled ever since. “I became a recluse. My social life dried up, which I was glad for because I didn’t have the energy for it. I didn’t feel like doing anything.” It got bad enough in 1996 that he went to a clinic in Tucson, Arizona that treated his condition with nutrients and supplements, which seems to do have done the job. He still tires easily, but, he says, “I feel much better. In fact, I feel better now than I’ve ever been since I’ve had it.”
During the years that Brock was ill, his manager and friend John Preble distributed copies of a cassette of Bobby Lounge recorded in Preble’s house, and those tapes took on lives of their own. Sandmel passed a copy to Kenny Bill Stinson, who’s a big fan, who in turn played it for songwriter David Egan. C.C. Adcock tells a story of bonding with his brother and father over a drunken day spent listening to Bobby Lounge. Others had tapes and copied them for friends as well, building the Bobby Lounge legend in the process. While some people got it, others didn’t. Sandmel remembers passing it to music journalists David Fricke and Kurt Loder, who got it. Preble played it for David Byrne, who didn’t.
Sandmel also passed a tape to Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, which led to Bobby Lounge being booked to play the festival in 2005. “I had to really be nudged, and coaxed and begged to do the Jazz Festival for the first time, because I still had that memory of the CAC performance,” Brock says. “I just didn’t really think that I was Jazz Festival material, and didn’t know if this was going to go over.” They re-recorded some of the old songs and put out I Remember the Night Your Trailer Burnt Down to coincide with the Jazz Fest appearance, and when he played the Blues Tent, the mystery and word-of-mouth that surrounded Bobby Lounge led to a full tent. The show opened with an introduction by Professor Calvin Tubbs—the guidance counselor at Blaze Starr Community College, he says—that was as full of tall tales as Lounge’s songs. Then Lounge was rolled onstage by a woman in blue scrubs that he introduces as his personal nurse, Gina Pontevecchio. He was in what he called an iron lung, though it’s nothing more than a steam cabinet spray-painted silver with a few knobs and dials attached. Then he climbed out of the cabinet and, while Nurse Pontevecchio read a book, pounded out a set that prompted Fricke to write in Rolling Stone, “Chugging beer in obvious perfect health, he turned into Bessie Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Flannery O’Conner [sic] and Bob Dylan (the lyrical-surrealist edition) all at once, playing blazing barrelhouse piano and belting outrageously vivid blues from the far fringes of Southern life.”
Fricke also took note of the theatrical nature of Bobby Lounge’s show. “I had this idea that people are going to get tired if I just keep singing one song after the other,” Brock explains. “I feel like I need everything that I’ve got. I need theatrics, and piano playing, and singing, and storytelling and jokes. I want people to be entertained. I’m not a musical purist by any means, and I guess I do have a sense of the theatrical, and I like that.”
Before Jazz Fest, Brock kept his identity a secret, but when Fricke’s review ran, the accompanying photo shot during the show was noticed by McComb residents, including a writer for the McComb Enterprise-Journal, who approached Brock about writing the story of his identity. “By that time, I felt much less nervous,” he says. “It had been a hit, so I thought, well, it’s inevitable. But all that mystery turned out to work to our advantage.” A story in the paper soon announced that the enigmatic Lounge was actually Dub Brock. After Jazz Fest, he was also confident enough to return to live performances and scheduled shows at the House of Blues and Tipitina’s. Unfortunately, those shows were scheduled for last September and October and were cancelled in the wake of Katrina. He played one show at the House of Blues this winter, but Jazz Fest 2006 was essentially a relaunch.
“Listen to her voice,” Brock says. He’s in his studio and he puts a CD of Blue Lu Barker singing “Don’t You Feel My Leg” on a small portable player he has in the corner. The recording comes from late in her career and her voice is almost gone. “Listen to that,” he says to Brian Stoltz, “Isn’t it great? That’s almost pure tone.” He and Stoltz met through a mutual friend, and when Brock recorded Ten Foot Woman, Stoltz accompanied him on two songs, the murder ballad “Muddy River” and Bessie Smith’s “Moan You Moaners.” While his experience recording with Brock/Lounge was almost disturbingly quick—one take on each song and done—it also gave him an opportunity to think about Bobby Lounge and the question of his musical acumen. Like Brock’s visual art, there’s a folk or naïve element to Bobby Lounge that’s part of his music’s fascination. Every song, for example, is in C.
There’s a sense that, as is the case in the best naïve art, the music is a pure expression untainted by notions of art and craft.
“He gets lost in the music,” Stoltz says. “He’s not counting bars and he’s not looking at time. He’s playing the song and just like the old blues guys, if they’re singing something and get behind the beat a little bit, they stretch it out and carry it into the next bar. I find that refreshing, that you force the structure to work around what you’re singing rather than try to get your vocal or your story to fit in the structure.”
According to Ben Sandmel, “If you go by the train of thought that folk art means untrained or unschooled, self-taught, unorthodox and not influenced by trends, then I’d say his music is in that vein. If you’re an aspiring commercial performer, you’re not going to do every song in the same key. In a lot of his playing, he’ll break traditional structure to make his words fit. He’ll take a 12-bar blues and make it into 14 or 15 bars to make the words fit.”
Arthur Roger saw a naïve element in the rationale for Brock’s art. Someone who sold work for $35 clearly wasn’t thinking about getting rich, and someone painting on bedsheets and hanging them outside isn’t worrying about his legacy. “There was no motivation other than compulsion and a love of doing what he was doing,” Roger says. He recalls everything Brock touched being a possible canvas—lockers, furniture, even magnolia leaves.
At the same time, there’s a definite art consciousness behind the songs. “Muddy River” may be set in south Mississippi, but it’s firmly in the folk song tradition of telling oft-told stories, distinguished primarily by regional differences. “Ten Foot Woman,” the album’s closer, literally takes the bawdy blues tradition Blue Lu visited on “Don’t You Feel My Leg” to an extreme. The comic “I Don’t Care” and “Take Me to Angola” are exercises in artful phrasing, contemplating wrong, if not horrifying, deeds in carnival barker language that makes them funny, tipping his hand to the listener that he’s not serious. Art critic Terrington Calas once wrote of Brock’s visual art, “He is, paradoxically, a ‘knowing’ folk artist, an insider/outsider.” The same can be said of his music as Bobby Lounge. “He celebrates the folk art aesthetic in his art,” Preble says.
When Bobby Lounge was scheduled to play the Lagniappe Stage this year, he and Preble were concerned. Did it represent some sort of demotion from the Blues Tent? Was it a slight? Then the weekend before his Jazz Fest performance, an early show at Tipitina’s was only half full, so Brock started experiencing old anxieties. On the eve of his Jazz Fest appearance, though, he experienced an instant media blitz. National Public Radio ran a piece on him the afternoon before his show, and Chris Rose wrote a piece on him in The Times-Picayune that morning.
By the start of his set, the crowd was standing room only back to the entrance to the paddock, and the upstairs viewing areas were equally jammed. With little stage to speak of, the iron lung was parked onstage and Nurse Pontevecchio escorted him to the stage after Professor Tubbs’ introduction. Five minutes into the set, John Preble observed, “He’s having fun now,” and Bobby Lounge was on a roll. His piano sounded like so many barrelhouse piano players you’ve heard, but there were slight oddities, unusual bass decisions, slightly odd melodies—nothing extreme, but just off enough to obscure the set all being in C. He hit the right balance of comic songs and serious songs, so despite the laughs, the songs never became jokes. The songs were immediate, but the show was never simple. And the crowd got it. Most of it stayed for the whole 45 minutes, a rarity during Jazz Fest.
“That was just unbelievable,” Brock says later. “It felt great. I mean, it was the second time, and you know, I kind of still don’t believe it. All this has just fallen into my lap.”
For the first time, being a cause celebre hasn’t only meant notoriety for Brock. “Five minutes into the NPR story, we started seeing clicks [on the web site],” Preble says. In the week after Jazz Fest, they sold $12,000’s worth of CDs and merchandise at BobbyLounge.com, and Amazon sold nearly 500 copies. Business has slowed down, but they’re still doing business online daily.
Brock and Preble are also dealing with the question of what comes next. Bobby Lounge is getting offers to play festivals, and writers and disc jockeys around the country are slowly discovering him. An investor has approached Brock to talk about a Broadway musical. Deciding what’s right for a reclusive musician when every decision means becoming more public is a challenge.
“What has happened is really amazing,” Brock says. “I’m glad for it, but it’s still a little spooky.”
The Grand Piano
The well-dressed patrons at the bar in the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar didn’t know what they were in for. They were waiting to go to a wedding and saw the camera and lights surrounding the piano for the Bobby Lounge cover photo, but they didn’t expect an impromptu concert. Once Dub Brock put on his feather-collared jacket and sat down at the piano first played by Liberace in the 1950s, he became Bobby Lounge and played a 45-minute set.
“The Carousel Bar is a favorite of writers, movie stars and famous sports greats,” explains Bobby Kraus, who has been mixing drinks and following his customers for more than two decades around the 15-minute ride on the only bar in New Orleans that actually revolves while the bartender remains on solid ground. “After a few drinks, I’ve had a few customers swear that I have speeded up the bar,” he adds with a smile.
Both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote used to hide in the bar’s private booths and write of overheard conversations and exploits. Tennessee Williams often ordered a Sazerac, but his favorite drink was a Brandy Alexander.
In 1987, OffBeat contributor Jeff Hannusch ran into the founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, sitting at the Carousel Bar. Phillips, who discovered both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, drank Hannusch under the table. Jeff said their conversation lasted for three complete revolutions of the bar.
This spring, the Carousel Bar was the home to a series of Louis Prima tribute shows including a night with his daughter, Lena. On most Wednesdays through Saturdays, Rabadash Records’ John Autin performs with singer Julie Joseph. While most people think of the lounge’s rotating bar when they think of the Carousel Room, the piano bar has seen more than its fair share of action.