Musicians tell their favorite Mardi Gras stories
With Carnival season approaching, we’ve once again asked some musicians to tell us their favorite Mardi Gras stories. The stories we got range from the heartwarming to the fanciful to the downright raunchy; we wouldn’t expect anything else. And all are, of course, absolutely true—but then, who can really tell at this time of year?
“11 a.m. Mardi Gras day. I’m parked in Bywater for the long walk to Frenchmen Street with my mom, ex-husband and my three-year-old daughter, all dressed in honor of Frida Kahlo. On an industrial, elevated, exposed large sunlit concrete slab attached to the warehouse by the railroad tracks, were two young beautiful utterly naked bodies making the most beautiful love like a stage set. She had long hair and he was handsome and passionate on top of her fucking. They were oblivious to the world. I was awed at the beauty of vicariously watching them be so raw, and horrified for my daughter’s memory bank to protect. I hope they remembered to restrain for Ash Wednesday.”
“The one that always sticks in my mind is a drug-laced tale; at least it was on my part. At the little house I used to have on Conti, it was known that I would take in friends and friends of friends. The one that sticks in my mind is Lester—just Lester, because I’ll never remember his last name. He just knocks on my door one day and said he was a friend of Matt Piucci’s, who I’d been playing with in Rain Parade, and that Matt had told him he could stay there through Mardi Gras.
Turned out that Lester was the first Deadhead that I ever got close to. One thing leads to another and he pulls out a sheet of acid. We got blasted to the brains, and ended up in my father’s bar on Bourbon Street. We stopped at Acme Oyster House first, and wound up with these oysters that we carried back to the bar, just holding them in our hands. I hadn’t realized that there are some things you just don’t do when you’re on LSD and you’re from somewhere else, and eating oysters is one of them. So I look at Lester and he’s walking around to my left, and around to my right, and just getting this look of horror—his LSD mind just couldn’t comprehend the idea of eating raw things out of a shell. So finally he said, ‘Look, what if we just split one?’ And I said, ‘Man, you don’t want me cutting into that thing and you seeing what’s inside.’ So that’s not something that happens in most peoples’ lives—a Deadhead wanting to split an oyster with you.
I was in the car with Dayna Kurtz the other night and she said, ‘This year I’m going to be a local and do Mardi Gras right.’ And I had to tell her that’s an unachievable goal—you never do it right. The problem with a three-ring circus is that your attention is always focused somewhere, and Mardi Gras is like a 75-ring circus. So it’s like Jimmy Ford says: ‘You always get it right next year.’”
“One of my more interesting Mardi Gras experiences was actually on the road. I was out with Terrance Simien in Park City, Utah for Mardi Gras 2002. It was while the 2002 Olympics were going on and of course a few months after 9/11. The town was completely flooded with people from the Olympics but also under lockdown. An intense atmosphere and everything was closed in the evenings except one all-night bar. It felt like a nice chill hideaway, the one place that was open all night. So I stayed there all night, and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere in the morning—I had been given a free ticket to see Picabo Street blast downhill, but there was no transportation. So there I was stuck and tired, and I went back to our condo house. I was sleeping in an upstairs loft and a couple hours after I crashed out, smoke filled the room. I’ve had no sleep, been out all night, the smoke alarm’s going on, and I’m starting to panic—good God, the place is on fire! Turns out Terrance was making a gumbo for Mardi Gras day. The smoke from the room nearly killed me but when I finally woke up a couple hours later I think that gumbo might have saved my life.”
“The noise of retching is as ubiquitous as any other sound during Mardi Gras. But I have to say that this was the only time that there were distinctly divine overtones, like a chorus of angels or something. Even the ensuing splatters on the rocks held some sort of holy mystery.
It was Mardi Gras of 1994, and I was on a break from my typical 12-hour shifts of playing at O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Pub. There was no place I could wander to get any real peace, but a short jaunt to the Moonwalk at least held the promise of some peaceful water to stare at, insofar as gazing at the Mississippi could be.
And that’s when I saw the nauseated guy crouched on the rocks. He looked as though his toga party had completely deserted him, since he was clad in a flowing white bedsheet. The poor hippie wannabe—with his long hair, beard and sandals—clearly couldn’t deal with the revelry going on around him.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I handed him my water bottle. ‘Um, dude… you can use this to rinse out your mouth if you want.’ The man looked up and gave me a weak, watery-eyed smile. Even as he tried to sniff the last of the bile back up his nose, his eyes looked at once so peaceful and so world-weary that I decided I needed to help him out a little bit.
‘I’ll be all right,’ he said at last. ‘Let’s just say that I’ve been through worse. But… those evangelists in Jackson Square make me sick. Seriously. They make me throw up every year.’ As he reached for my water bottle, I noticed his hands. You could have dropped an M&M through the holes in them. I discreetly looked in my purse to see if I had any Neosporin.
He told me his name, but I quickly forgot it. It was some name I’d commonly heard whenever I played in Central America. He seemed like a really smart fellow, so I don’t know why he was coming to Mardi Gras every year if the religious nut jobs made him barf all the time.
And just like that, he bid me goodbye and wandered off, right across the surface of the river. I felt bad that the guy couldn’t even swim.
I swear, some people just can’t handle reality.”
“Some of my favorite Mardi Gras memories include my dad taking us down to Canal Street to see Bacchus. We lived in the suburbs. I remember seeing Glen Campbell ride by one year and my dad was a huge fan. That was in ’74 and he had to sneak us in a bar to use a bathroom.
In junior high I put together a little traditional Dixieland band with some guys in my middle school, which was John Quincy Adams Middle School in Metairie. I asked the band to give me the numbers of the parade captains, and the first one I called was Anna Marie Soto who led the Krewe of Rhea in Metairie. I was so nervous picking up the phone to dial—those seven numbers, just to say ‘We’d like to know if you’d consider having us play your parade.’ The first question she asked was ‘How old are you and what’s your fee?,’ which was something I wasn’t ready for. There were six of us in the band, I said $75 and she said ‘Consider yourself booked.’ So all of a sudden I got a paying gig for the band; we’re only in middle school and we get to ride in the back of a Cadillac convertible. We only knew three songs, so we just played them, over and over. And during the parade I met a guy named Bruce Hirstius, who was standing there folding his arms and saying, ‘My daughter wanted me to come hear you play, you sounded pretty good. I have a little Dixieland band and you should come see us rehearse.’ So that was my first chance to get a paying gig, then go in and see how the rehearsal process goes and see how people figure out songs and how musicians deal with each other in a respectful way—that all came out of Mardi Gras and Bruce was the same guy who directs the Saints band in the Superdome, and I wound up doing parades with him for many years after that.”
“One year we were playing d.b.a., and this was before Frenchmen Street was the iconic music spot that it is now. There was basically d.b.a., Snug Harbor and Spotted Cat, not much else, and it hadn’t become the spot that all the tourists know about. We had a show there before Katrina, I believe the year was 2000, when there was a blackout during our set. The power went out all over Frenchmen Street and stayed out for about an hour and a half. And as soon as it happened, people spilled out onto the street and started partying. I remember looking out and it looked like Bourbon Street on a Saturday night, which was something you just didn’t see on Frenchmen Street yet. There were so many people in costumes that we hadn’t seen, because we were all in the clubs—people just took the party out into the street. Then the lights came back on and we went back into the set, and everybody went back to what they were doing. Just singing and drinking and carrying on.”
“It has been exactly seven years since I arrived in New Orleans and moved into a shared house on Montegut Street with the one friend that I had made here on a visit the previous spring. What struck me about my first Mardi Gras is the seemingly infinite number of ways that folks celebrate the holiday and the season that leads up to it. There simply is no adequate way to describe the diversity of activity and celebration taking place throughout the city on Mardi Gras Day: the big uptown parades, the Indians at Second and Dryades, the ceaseless Lundi Gras shows, the Bourbon Street Awards, the revelry of St. Anne in the Marigny.
What also struck me is how eager New Orleanians are to share their Mardi Gras with outsiders and locals alike. I cannot count the number of balconies and galleries, courtyards and front yards that I have found myself on or in, after being graciously invited by someone I met only minutes or hours earlier. There are myriad ways to do and see Mardi Gras, and I am lucky enough to have experienced the holiday from several different angles already. One year I played an afternoon show with the band Cha Wa to a packed audience who just could not get enough… they never stopped dancing so we never took a break. Undoubtedly the longest set I ever played. Another year we stalked the Indians as they emerged from Sportsman’s Corner and then made our way to St. Charles to catch a glimpse of Rex for the first time.
But it was my first Mardi Gras that set the baseline for all that followed. My now wife—who was still living in Texas at the time—had come to visit for what would also be her first Mardi Gras. We woke up early to the sounds of horns blowing and the occasional one or two bars of drums beating as band members and costume-clad revelers made their way to gather with the Society of St. Anne. We headed toward the corner of Royal and Kerlerec Streets outside of the R Bar, where we would join the most joyous, colorful gathering of humans I’ve ever witnessed. All the stories, myths and legends that I had heard about, Mardi Gras could not have prepared me for what we had just stumbled upon—and become a part of. This was not mindless partying or a drunken caricature of a tradition whose meaning had been long lost. This was pure, palpable, positive energy and we couldn’t get enough.”
“Here are my favorites. Playing banjo while riding on top of Rex’s Streetcar float as Tom Saunders with this sousaphone had to duck getting knocked off the float by tree branches from overhead.
Marching in the Krewe of Clones in the 1970s where we pushed my three-year-old daughter dressed as Baby Ignatius in a grocery cart as we threw out plastic hot dogs. My husband dressed as Ignatius’ mother.
For one of my Mardi Gras costumes the ’80s I had sewn brown satin donuts to a white Grecian flowing frock with a long scarf around my neck. The only person who got who I was is Becky Allen. I went as ‘Isadora Duncan Donuts.’
My musical friends Barry Foulon (banjo) and Danny Rubio (tuba) formed a marching club in the ’70s and dressed as red beans and rice. They called themselves the Krewe of Pharts!
Come to think of it, there was one story while I was playing banjo and singing at the old Houlihan’s on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. We were performing in the bar/oyster bar area. The group was a quartet with Barry Foulon on banjo, Maynard Chatters on trombone and Neal Tidwell on tuba. A college age girl came in with a friend, collapsed to the floor with her back to the brick wall right next to me and proceeded to throw up all over herself as we played ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ I even took a picture of her! I must admit no one ordered the oysters for the rest of the night!”