“Mardi Gras is kind of like the ’60s,” says the Radiators’ Dave Malone. “If you remember it, you weren’t really there.”
Thus, Dave’s recall of his hard-livin’ early days is a wee bit cloudy. Only the essential facts survived.
“It’s very fuzzy, my memory…but I remember female breasts,” he decides. “I remember being very impressed with that, that you could just come to the big city and see tits right there. I remember that.”
At the time, Dave was a junior high student in tiny Edgard, Louisiana. Papa Malone was an Air Force man, so the family had moved often. David was born in New Orleans, and then was shuttled off to Michigan. It wasn’t until the family settled in Edgard, during Malone’s adolescent years, that he got wind of this thing called Mardi Gras.
Dave made his first Carnival forays with the family of a neighbor lady who let he and brother Tommy rehearse in her house (older brother John had commandeered the Malone’s living room for his own band).
Besides breasts, the spectacle of the fearsome Lucky Dogs made quite an impression on young Dave. “I don’t think I had ever seen a foot-long hot dog before.
“And that was probably my first introduction to the famous Mardi Gras game, ‘Where Can I Pee?’ I remember bladder problems distinctly.
“Other than that, being amazed with the fact that someone would smash your hand for a little worthless trinket. I didn’t think that that was too cool.”
By the time he was in junior high, Malone had already gotten the hang of over-indulgence. “It was, as Rickie [Castrillo] at Tip’s would say, like ‘letting all of the monkeys out of the box,'” chuckles Malone.
After finishing high school in Edgard, Malone moved to New Orleans. Brother John attended Tulane at the time, “and he lived with all his hippie friends. I just thought that was cool as shit. We all went to Mardi Gras dressed up like a bunch of muldoons, taking things we shouldn’t have.”
Dressed up like a bunch of what?
“Muldoons. That’s an Edgard word. It means ‘an extreme fool.’ I throw these things out and take for granted that people will know what it means.”
Once he started behaving like a muldoon, there was no turning back.
“Every year I was way into it. We’d catch as many parades as we could. At one point my brother John had a house right on Freret, so we’d stand on the roof for the Freret parades. I always lived in the Uptown area, so I was way into it.
“Then my kids came along [Malone has two; his son plays bass for local pop-rock outfit The Boondoggles]. You had to do it then—the kids-on-the-shoulders-for-three-hours thing.
“Now I pretty much avoid [Mardi Gras Day parades] like the plague, to tell you the truth, because I’m playing practically every night. And I’m not the kind of guy who sips cocktails and plays the gig—I’m an Irish kind of drinker.
“Reggie [Scanlan, the Rads’ bassist] still likes to go out and catch the [Mardi Gras] Indians and catch photos. If I have people in town who are just really adamant about it…like last year, D.B. Sweeney and Kyle McLauglin [actor pals of Malone’s] were at the M.O.M.’s Ball. They were trying to get me to go out and do stuff, but I was just too pickled.”
The M.O.M.’s Ball is one of the reasons Malone is generally too spent to party on Fat Tuesday. The Rads have been the house band for the fabled M.O.M.’s [Mystic Orphans and Misfits] Ball, held on the Saturday before Mardi Gras Day, since its inception two decades ago. The association dates back to the Radiators’ first regular gig—Wednesday nights at Luigi’s, a pizza joint on Elysian Fields near Robert E. Lee Blvd. [now the site of a Bud’s Broiler]. The M.O.M.’s Ball evolved from the Luigi’s cast of characters.
The event, which is definitely not open to the public, tends to get a little out of hand. A few years ago, “Women hardly had any clothes on,” remembers Malone. “They were dancing like crazed people. It was very paganistic. By the end of the night, people were fornicating in the bathrooms and outside on cars…it was wild.”
While the Radiators’ other Carnival season gigs don’t usually feature public sex, costumes are almost mandatory. Keyboardist/vocalist Ed Volker has one custom-made each year. Guitarist Camile Baudoin is generally in drag, and Malone has been known to don a curly blonde wig. One year at Tip’s, he dressed as a cow, with a Stratocaster slung over his udder.
“I always put a mask on, but it’s kind of hard to sing with a mask.”
Wigs and udders, though, are no problem.
The Radiators will play Tipitina’s on February 10, House of Blues on the 11th, the M.O.M.’s Ball on the 12th and Tip’s again on Lundi Gras, the 14th. Also, Malone will join brother Tommy and the rest of The Sons (formerly My Three Sons of Bitches) for roots rock hijinks at the Howlin’ Wolf on February 24th.
The Clements Brothers
Dave and Cranston Clements are famous around town for two skills: guitar playin’ and story tellin’.
Over the years numerous bands have benefitted from their considerable talents. Currently, Cranston wields the guitar in Dr. John’s band, and Dave’s bass gives the honky-tonkish Wild Peyotes their bottom end.
Their stories, served up with trademark Clements wit, are the stuff of legend. Confine them to just Mardi Gras tales, and there is still no shortage of material.
As wee tykes coming of age Uptown, the Clements boys seldom missed a parade, much to the chagrin of float-riders. Cranston would hoist the smaller Dave, who is 15 months his junior, on his shoulders—giving him a better vantage point from which to menace floats.
“One time we’re begging for something and they were just looking at us with utter disdain, this masked royalty,” recalls Cranston. “They were looking down on the riff-raff and just ignoring us and throwing things to everybody but us. Finally David reaches up and grabs what he thought was a necklace. Well, the necklace was entangled, and he ended up pulling about 40 pounds of beads over the side of the float. That was a nice haul.
“Another time, I was about 11 or 12, I’m standing there begging these people to throw something to me, which they refused to do. Finally I noticed this can of beer sitting on the edge of the float. I jumped as high as I could and grabbed the can of beer, and when I came back down and hit the ground, a geyser of beer erupted from the can and landed all over this five-year-old kid standing next to me. I look up and the kid’s father is like a lineman for the Steelers. He’s about to wring my neck, so I ended up pouring the rest of the beer on my head to atone for my crime.”
It was around this time that the Clements boys decided to start returning fire at the floats. “Somehow we didn’t like the idea of just them throwing at us,” says Dave. “So we started chucking stuff back. I don’t know if we ever really hit anybody. I think one time we might have hit the King of Freret.”
There are, of course, assorted Mardi Gras misadventures from the Clements brothers’ days as professional musicians. Like the one about the “15-hour forced march” Cranston made one Carnival day with the Ivory Stars, a rag-tag Dixieland band, with a pair of inebriated teenagers pulling a huge wagon with batteries and amplifiers, chanting “the street is ours!” and mowing down all in their path.
Or the time Cranston got caught up in traffic and barricaded streets trying to get to a gig with Herb Tassin’s big band at the Fairmont. He was dropped off, wearing a tux and lugging an amp on a luggage dolly and a guitar, to navigate the final few blocks as best he could.
But the king-hell Mardi Gras story, the most over-the-top, outrageous, can’t-top-this tale, belongs to Dave. Cranston doubts that it can be told discreetly. Dave decides the unadulterated version offers valuable insight as to why his enthusiasm for the season has waned. And so…
The date is Mardi Gras Day, 1969. The opening scene is a large, grassy area along the River behind Audubon Zoo where concerts were held. Dave and some friends jammed in the park early that fateful day.
“Then,” continues Dave, “somebody gave me some acid.
“We came back by my mother’s house and I got an old coat of my grandmother’s. Then we headed for the Quarter.
“We get to the Quarter, and somebody had this giant stereo out on a balcony on Decatur. There was about 2,000 people jammed in this one block, just dancing and doing every conceivable kind of drug. You could hear it from blocks away. I thought the Dead and the Airplane were actually in New Orleans, and we had taken over the city. The revolution had hit! Drugs, sex, nudity, everything was legal! I thought, ‘At last they’ve seen the light. They’ve turned the city over to the freaks!'”
Back then, parades still marched through the Quarter. The sight of floats confused Dave even further.
“I became convinced that there was a Krewe of Cannabis that was going to meet up with the traditional Rex and Comus meeting, that they were going to turn the city over to the freaks. I was knocking people over trying to catch up, and ended up at Congo Square. I was milling around waiting for this big event to happen. I had long since lost my friends. I was running around, giving girls with their boyfriends big wet kisses on the lips, just totally obnoxious.
“My mother knew when we left that I was flying on something. Then at one point she saw me behind the Illinois girls marching band, mimicking the girls’ rifle movements. She sees this long-haired freak and recognizes her mother’s coat. That’s when she realized she would probably be hearing from Central Lock-up at some point in the evening.”
Dave learned the details of the next few hours two years after the fact, when some of the policemen who were involved pulled him over for a traffic violation and recognized him. They had quite a tale.
“Apparently I was catching up to moving cars on Rampart Street, jumping on the hood of the cars and waving at ’em,” says Dave.
“I attracted about eight cops. They started chasing me. They couldn’t catch me for 45 minutes, with me laughing my head off. Finally I ran up on this balcony. They thought they had me. But I jumped off a 15-foot balcony, didn’t miss a step, cleared a couple of police barricades like they were high hurdles. That really pissed ’em off.
“Finally they surrounded me in Congo Square. I started poking this one cop in the gut, trying to grab his billy club. Then I took all of my clothes off.
“That was it. They wrestled me to the ground, somehow got me to get my pants on inside out, and threw me in the back of a police car. They roll up all of the car windows, and empty two cans of tear gas into the back seat…which didn’t faze me, I was so high. And I remembered my brother got tear gassed at this big Washington D.C. demonstration, and he told me, ‘Don’t rub your eyes,’ so it didn’t really bother me.”
After a rough paddy-wagon ride to central lock-up—during which Dave thought the helpful policemen were simply taking him home, so he shouted directions at them the whole way (“no, no, make a left!”)—he ended up in a holding cell with “the usual Mardi Gras night motley crew of winos and guys who have been beat up. And I’m like Mr. Sunshine—I gave all of the money I had away.”
When a fellow prisoner advised Dave that he might aid his cause if he put his pants on right-side out, Dave opted to put them on his head, with his arms in the pants legs, and dance around, naked from the waist down, in full view of several female receptionists.
Around this time, his mother got the phone call she had been expecting. She took the bus to jail, discovered she didn’t have enough to spring her son, and so took the bus home again. Dave spent the night in a cell with a man who yelled about making chicken soup and repeatedly washed his pants in the sink.
Incredibly, Dave was released on his own recognizance the next afternoon, after he realized that the city had not, in fact, been handed over to the freaks.
“That was the end of my acid-tripping days,” says Dave, a quarter-century wiser. “And that was some of the last parades that I went to for a while.”
Since then, Dave has spent Carnivals costumed as a Mardi Gras Indian tepee, the driver of the car bomb that destroyed the Beirut Marine barracks (“that didn’t go over too good with my conservative friends”), Wynton Marsalis (“Johnny J., who I’ve been on the road with for 10 years, didn’t recognize me”) and a 300-pound Michael Jackson (“this was pre-child molestation days”).
Now Dave prefers to play at parties during the Carnival season, and wander around the streets a bit. “I’ve kind of run out of steam,” he says.
Cranston Clements will play with Dr. John’s band at the Krewe of Tucks bash at the Convention Center on Saturday, February 12. Dave and the Wild Peyotes are at Muddy Water’s on the 2nd, Pepina’s on the 11th and 17th and Mid-City Lanes on the 18th. And Dave and some pals will open their Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge (7612 Oak St.) with a Mardi Gras weekend-long party culminating in “Dud Fest” on Lundi Gras, with bands that couldn’t get any other gig.
After a six-year-old Hayward “Chuck” Carbo and his family moved from Houma to a house near Washington and Broad, they went to parades “every night they had ’em.”
But Carbo’s enjoyment of Mardi Gras would be interrupted by two major events he could not have foreseen.
The first was World War II. A 17-year-old Carbo volunteered for the Coast Guard; he served aboard landing vessels that participated in both the D-Day operation and the invasion of Italy.
The second interruption was considerably more pleasant. After the war Carbo moved to Indiana for a while, but soon returned to New Orleans. He decided to put his smooth, mellow baritone to work. He and brother Chick hooked up with an early version of long-running gospel group the Zion Harmonizers, and then split to form the rival Delta Southernaires. They secularized and became the Spiders, one of New Orleans’ most renowned R&B vocal groups.
The Spiders spent a lot of time on the road (and missed a lot of Mardi Gras) on their way to racking up numerous national hits during the 1950s, including “Witchcraft,” which was later covered by Elvis Presley. Original copies of some of those 1950s Imperial 45s—namely “Witchcraft” b/w “Is It True?” by the Spiders and “Poor Boy” b/w “The Bells Are Ringing,” released under Carbo’s name—now command steep premiums from collectors.
Carbo’s singing career tapered off in the 1960s, leaving him with more time for Mardi Gras. He and some friends would rent a flatbed truck, round up a drum kit and a couple of horns, don costumes and conduct their own single-vehicle Mardi Gras Day parade. “We didn’t have any particular route—just drive up and down the streets,” recalls Carbo. “We’d all sing as we were going along. The juice [beer] made us happy to sing. Whenever we got to a place where a lot of people congregated, we’d stop the truck, get out, enjoy, then get back on the truck and go to another neighborhood. ”
His later Carnival participation was more formal: he rode in Zulu for half-dozen years, beginning in the mid-’70s.
“I’d always admired them,” says Carbo of the Zulu maskers. “When I was young, that was our main thing—to wait for Zulu. I just fell in love watching them. I imagined myself on one of those floats, with the costume and make-up on.
“It came to pass that a friend of mine that was working with me [at a lumber company]—coincidentally, he was a white dude that belonged to the Zulu club, and asked me to come in, a black dude—he sponsored me. He and I rode on the same float—’Mr. Big Stuff.’ That was the name of the float.”
He wore a grass skirt, make-up, black leotard, “and then we’d get the worst shoes we could find. And I’d spray ’em with gold paint. You didn’t want to look dressed up. My hair is pretty good, but I’d buy a wig because if you’re going to be on a float, you want everything to look natural.”
In the world of Mardi Gras barter, Zulu coconuts are among the most valuable items. Like most of his fellow riders, he decorated his own with faces done in gold and silver glitter. Was the frenzy of coconut-hungry spectators as strong then, as now? “Oh, man, they would slaughter you for a coconut,” laughs Carbo. He got all kinds of offers. “Women would say, ‘If you give me a coconut, I’ll show you something.’
“One Mardi Gras, I had been drinking a lot of beer, and I had become hungry. It was just my luck, we got to St. Charles and Poydras, and here comes a dude with a big box of Popeye’s chicken. And he said, ‘Mister, if you give me a coconut, I’ll give you all this Popeye’s.’ I said, ‘Well, open the box,’ and he opened the box and I saw it was real Popeye’s chicken. Man, I swapped that coconut in a minute.”
Carbo retired from riding several years ago—but his musical career has enjoyed a resurgence recently. Life’s Ups and Downs, a 1990 album for the British 504 label, contains the Mardi Gras anthem “Second-Line On Monday.” And Rounder Records released a well-received Carbo album, Drawers Trouble, last year (it boasts the Carnival-flavored “Meet Me at the Station”), and plans to record another with him in the spring. Also, Carbo has turned up as a backing vocalist on numerous projects, including Dr. John’s acclaimed Goin’ Back to New Orleans (that’s Carbo in one of his old Zulu costumes on the back of the CD booklet) and Charles Brown’s new Just A Lucky So And So.
Carbo says he still tries to make it out to watch his old friends in Zulu on Mardi Gras Day. “When I’m in the crowd for Zulu and the floats pass, a lot of the guys that were there when I was in Zulu, they recognize my face and always hand me coconuts. Five, six, seven coconuts. Some of them I give away—I just keep one for myself.
“I still love it. But I wouldn’t say as much as when I was a kid, because when I was a kid, I was so excited. Now I know what it’s all about. You don’t get as excited but you still like it.”
On Saturday, February 12, Carbo has the early, 8:30 p.m. slot on a bill at the Mid-City Lanes that also includes Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Iguanas.
Swamp blues guitarist John Mooney had been living and playing on the streets for several years before arriving in New Orleans in 1976. A local friend had long regaled him with tales of the Big Easy at Carnival, especially the music of Professor Longhair.
So Mooney’s first order of business was to catch Fess in action. The venue was unusual: a waterworks facility near the Orleans-Jefferson Parish line, the site of the Gator Ball, a shindig thrown by some of the people who founded the original Tipitina’s.
Shortly thereafter, Mooney attended his first parade, not expecting to be impressed. “Never having seen a Mardi Gras parade before…people who don’t live here go, ‘Oh, a parade, big deal.’ We parked like 17 blocks away. We’re walking towards it, and I’m still kind of blasé and nonchalant about it. As we’re getting closer, I’m starting to get a little more interested. By the time we got up there, I was like diving on the ground for doubloons, tipping old ladies over for beads…typical stuff. I couldn’t believe it—I was just completely overcome by it I couldn’t even believe what it did to me.”
What 17 years in the Big Easy has done for Mooney’s blues is give it a rollicking second-line undercurrent. Mooney worked his way up the ranks, from performing on the streets of the Quarter to a regular gig as second guitarist in a French Quarter bar. After the bar’s owner fired the duo for transgressions committed by Mooney’s partner, he found his way Uptown and fell in with the likes of John Magnie (now with the subdudes) and Leigh Harris, and began his local education in earnest.
In those days, he didn’t need to go out of his way to costume for Mardi Gras. “Probably the way I dressed would be considered a costume about anyplace. Living on the street, I wouldn’t say I dressed as normally as I do now. I don’t think I’ve ever really dressed as anything except for maybe a maniac.”
At one point he enjoyed playing amidst the maniacs at the Dream Palace (now Café Istanbul) on Mardi Gras Day. Now he takes the day off “because it’s such a zoo. It’s great, but if you’re playing downtown, you’ve got to be down there all day. And with my kids, it’s just too hard. I can’t take the kids down there all day.”
The Mooney brood includes a four-year-old boy, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, and another boy who is ten months. The oldest two have already taken a liking to Mardi Gras. “The first parade, he was scared,” says Papa Mooney. “He was cool until the first float came by, and then everybody started jumping up and down and throwing their arms in the air. He just [cried].
“The next year was better…he managed to last through a few floats. It’s such a sensory overload for a kid that it takes them a while to really understand what is going on. The last two years, he’s been great. And my daughter wears Mardi Gras beads all year round.”
Does their father still get off on chasing down throws?
“Well, you get me to a parade, you’re not going to see me hanging back. My wife, I think, prefers that I don’t carry the kids right up to the floats. It’s actually great with the kids—people like to throw stuff to kids. A couple of cute kids on your shoulders…I get more stuff now.
“There was one time, I got my son on my shoulders. I hung on to him with one hand. He caught some beads with both hands, I caught some beads with one hand, and at the same time managed to step on a doubloon with both feet”
The epitome of his pre-fatherhood Mardi Gras experiences, says Mooney, was an opening slot on a bill at Tipitina’s headlined by Professor Longhair. The late Big Chief Jolly also dropped by.
“There was just so many people. The club was packed, there were probably 500 or 600 people outside on the neutral ground and all over the street, and everybody is dancing. Fess was just so wonderful to hear. I haven’t seen it like that since, with the Indians and Fess playing and all the musicians down there and everybody partyin’ and dancing, outside, inside.
“It’s kind of hard to describe. I always liked Chief Jolly a lot, I liked hanging out with him—he was such a great spirit. Maybe I’m just not hanging out in the same places these days, but it was a whole different party atmosphere back then.”
John Mooney performs at the Howlin’ Wolf on February 5, Madigan’s on the 6th and 13th, House of Blues on the 8th and Carrollton Station on Lundi Gras, the 14th.
How did Charmaine Neville spend her first few carnival seasons? “Mainly it was go down and hang out on Orleans Avenue…which is what I still do,” she laughs.
“I remember being a kid, looking up at those big floats, all the people knockin’ you down for stuff, and thinkin’, ‘Boy, if I can get to be on one of those floats, and be up there throwin’ stuff to people and wavin’ and smilin’ at people…’ And I’m doing that now.”
Charmaine, whose band regularly packs ’em in at Snug Harbor with its mix of jazz and R&B, was Grand Marshal of a parade in Metairie last year, and rides atop the horse-drawn Coors beer wagon in Zulu. Self-restraint in such situations is not always easy. “You get so caught up into it, you throw all your stuff, then when you get where all the people really are, they’re going, ‘You don’t have anything to throw?’
“The guy who drives the horses always hands me one bead at a time, and tells me, ‘Now just throw one of them.’ And I remember as a kid thinking, ‘Why are those people just throwing one bead at a time? That’s terrible. They should throw the whole box at us.’ Now I know why.”
She has passed her Orleans Avenue habit on to her kids and grandkids. “It’s a great feeling to be out there on Orleans Avenue, waiting for Zulu to pass and the truck floats. Everybody ends at the Municipal Auditorium, so if you go on Orleans, you catch everything. And then later on walk down Canal Street and hang out there, just to watch all the people. My kids, when they were little, thought it was great, and now my grandkids think it’s great.”
Charmaine’s own adolescent Mardi Gras experience was cut short by her career as a professional singer, which started at 15. Parades became an obstacle that she and her father Charles had to circumvent to get to gigs at now defunct nightspots like Lu and Charlie’s, Tyler’s and Benny’s. “They did make you crazy,” says Charmaine, “but you always made it and you always had a great time and you were tired as hell, but it was wonderful. It’s still madness now, as much as we work during Mardi Gras.”
Given the Mardi Gras legacy that comes with the Neville name—her great uncle was Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and her father Charles and his siblings, in the Meters and the Neville Brothers, wrote much of the season’s soundtrack—does she experience additional pressure or pride during the Mardi Gras season?
“Never any pressure. Always pride. And a lot of feelings that I can’t even tell you. When I was working with the Neville Brothers and really masking and doing the Indian costumes and being with the Wild Tchoupitoulas and dancing with Big Chief Jolly on Mardi Gras Day… oh, those were great days.”
A decade ago, she and other members of the family would work double duty, performing with both the Wild Tchoupitoulas and the Neville Brothers band during Mardi Gras night concerts aboard the riverboat President. Visiting celebs like Bette Midler would stop by.
She treasures the time spent around the late Chief Jolly. “He taught us a lot about our heritage, and where the Indians first came into it.”
It was also Jolly who showed her how to painstaking affix the feathers of her Indian suit to the canvas with pliers and wire. “He said, ‘Don’t glue anything, because you’ll be dancing all day. People pull stuff off your costume if it’s not sewn on, every step you take something’s gonna fall off, and by the end of the day, you don’t have a costume on at all.’ I loved that part of Mardi Gras.”
Charmaine figures she masked Indian for five years before the time constraints of her own band’s expanding career made it impossible.
But the legacy of her masked past lives on. She donated part of one gold and green Indian suit to the French Quarter Hard Rock Cafe. It is her favorite; she took it on the road when the Neville Brothers opened for the Rolling Stones on their ’81 American tour.
“The last time that I wore it was that last gig [with the Stones] here, at the Superdome,” says Charmaine. “I love that costume.”
Charmaine Neville will perform at Snug Harbor every Monday in February, and also on Saturday, the 11th. Then on Lundi Gras, the 14th, they will (hold on) be at the French Market, from 12:30 to 2:30 in the afternoon, at Spanish Plaza from 8 to 9 p.m., and Snug Harbor from 9 p.m. ’til. Amasa Miller and Reggie Houston from her band will lead their own trio at a Friday happy hour at Charlie G’s on the 11th.