Since so many of New Orleans’ finest scattered after Katrina’s hell-bent wrath and destruction, sometimes the easiest way to locate a musician is on the road. Recently Dan Willging caught up with a few displaced musicians and business owners at the relocated Voice Of The Wetlands benefit extravaganza that featured Tab Benoit, George Porter, Cyril Neville, Anders Osborne, Chief Monk Boudreaux, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone and Waylon Thibodeaux in Vail, Colorado. The friendly staff of the Rock ‘N’ Bowl also made the long haul, selling their world famous Rock ‘N’ Bowl ware and chatting with whoever stopped by.
Basking in the warm October Rocky Mountain sunshine, a smiling, relaxed John Blancher [owner of the Rock ‘N’ Bowl and Ye Olde College Inn] looked as if he could pass for a Colorado native, except for the fact he was adorned in his easily recognizable Rock ‘N’ Bowl garb.
What happened to you and your family during the hurricane?
When the hurricane hit, I was in Lafayette, Louisiana. My wife is from that area and we stayed with her sister, and with my mother, my two sisters, my son and daughter and their children. We all went together and left Sunday morning. It’s the first time I evacuated personally since I owned the Rock ‘N’ Bowl. It became obvious that it was going to be bad but it was worse than I was expecting, of course. The storm was going to be a bad storm and I thought if the 17th Street Canal doesn’t bust, we are back in business. My son and I actually started to acquire some generators to go back in, not so much for the Rock ‘N’ Bowl, but for our restaurant, Ye Olde College Inn. We figured that if we were up and running, there would be people wanting to eat. So we had everything loaded up and were ready to come back the next morning. We were up at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning and watched Fox News and then we saw that the levee had broken.
Were you surprised by the mega-impact of the storm surge?
The storm surge was expected; I expected it to be bad. But I didn’t expect the 17th Street Canal to give.
In looking back, we had some serious problems in the city of New Orleans. We had some serious infrastructure problems. We had serious political problems and while I knew they were bad, they were worse than I thought.
A lot of things started becoming evident to me, politically, and maybe I was just going through my life with blinders on. I didn’t think things were as bad as they were. But I am cautiously optimistic. We’re getting an opportunity here, but I still don’t know if the powers that be understand what needs to be done and what the priorities are. It’s just pure folly to try to run people back into the city and even to try to re-establish neighborhoods. It all sounds good and we have to keep maintaining our culture and everything. But if we don’t have a city…? Some things need to be done first. You need to build the levees first. Otherwise, why repopulate and do it again? New Orleans can’t withstand a hurricane one. Until we get our levee situation stabilized, it is just stupid to try to rebuild until you do the infrastructure first.
The only reason why America, in general, has an nterest in rebuilding New Orleans, really, is the port. We move goods up and down that river. It goes beyond that. It’s our farmers growing their wheat, and their soybeans, their rice, and their cotton and they are coming down the river with it. And strategically and militarily, it is an important position and has to be held. There must be a city of New Orleans.
I do believe that the government is going to do their best. It is in their interest to restore us but they can’t afford to keep restoring us. First things first: build the levees. I think the second thing is we need is to make New Orleans the greatest port in the world, with the infrastructure to make that happen. If you do that, we’ll have money flooding into it and there will be jobs. We don’t need more fast food joint jobs.
What has made New Orleans so unique is that you have so many cultures coming through that port and it created this mesh of all music forms. As long you have that port, we are going to keep that up. All these cultures came through New Orleans: you can’t ignore that there are French, German, Caribbean and Irish. There is no denying how important the black contribution and African rhythms and Caribbean rhythms have been, but it was that and it was so much more too. It was never all English, all French, all German, all Austrian; there was a synergy of all these cultures that brought this music together and that will happen again.
Do you think it’s safe to go back, or will you have to plan your vacation just to be an evacuee somewhere?
New Orleans has taken a severe setback. Even if we do things right, it will be 30 years before we are ever back to where we were. I’m saying 30 years because when I was a little boy, it was 1969; I guess I was 16 when Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast. I went there a week after. Some neighbors got trucks, and some water and stuff and we all commandeered a convoy to go bring the people water, food and clothing. I saw the devastation. That was 1969 but I remember how Biloxi, Pass Christian and Gulfport looked in ’69 before the hurricane hit. It wasn’t rebuilt in many, many areas. It still wasn’t rebuilt in the year 2005. The only thing that was saving the Gulf Coast was that those casinos were pumping some money into it. But now you go away from the shore and there are countless homes that have never been rebuilt in the Gulf Cost and the hurricane that destroyed them was in 1969. I am looking at some other opportunities. But we will definitely be back in New Orleans. We’ll definitely be reopening the Rock ‘N’ Bowl.
Ward Lormand of the Lucky Playboys says he saw you in Lafayette and you talked about opening a Rock ‘N’ Bowl in Lafayette. He said you had a lot of damage [at New Orleans Rock ‘N’ Bowl] and you weren’t sure that the building would hold up.
I’m not sure. I will say this. I went and saw the property. Upstairs looked, almost everything, looked the same, except [looters] got in and busted my jukebox for the money, video poker machines, ATM. They busted my door down but they couldn’t get to my safe. But they didn’t mess anything else up. What I didn’t know is that they had eight feet of water downstairs and they were devastated. I talked to a couple of the tenants who tell me they will not come back.
They just feel so devastated, and to come back, many of them realized that you could open a restaurant, but who is going to be there to eat? Anyway, I think I am going to make it because I have to make it. I have invested my entire life there. I was trying to live the New Orleans dream. About eight years ago I bought a house on Canal Street. My son lives right next door to me on Olympia and Canal. My daughter bought the house right across the street from me on Canal. So I have my grandkids and with a streetcar, the Rock ‘N’ Bowl, we have Ye Olde College Inn, I was doing everything that I dreamed about.
But meanwhile we are in Lafayette and truthfully, I haven’t signed the papers yet, but I am buying a house and we are doing all this together. It is a family business and we all approach this thing as a family thing doing this thing together. We put an offer in and it was accepted for a house in Lafayette. All of us are going to live in five bedrooms. I am talking with the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and they are very interested in a Rock ‘N’ Bowl being there in Lafayette. And I am very interested and truthfully I think it is going to happen now.
So there will be two Rock ‘N’ Bowls?
Yeah, and actually for years I had have people who wanted me to do this elsewhere and I was so involved in my day-to-day business. Right now I have to look at the fact that New Orleans might be 30 years before it comes back. And so I am not going to give up what I’ve got, but it is okay for an old man like me, 52 and you are on the way out. My son is 29 and my son-in-law is 30. I don’t know if they want to last out their life for that deal. So we are trying to look at the bigger scale of things. I am not pessimistic. I really do believe that this is an opportunity.
I think a lot of people are looking at it as another opportunity. I know Mike West and Katie Euliss have already bought a home in Wichita. He lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, the worst place. He said that the house has been boarded up and normally they would get in there, rip the walls out and start all over but they couldn’t get in. And then the next hurricane hit.
When you are looking back, it seems to me in hindsight that those poor people were there because there were politicians who wanted them there. They wanted them in pockets. They wanted them together. They wanted them easy to reach, easy to corral. And if you look at state elections, and when I say this, remember I am a Democrat. At the same time, I am going to tell you, they are as responsible for this son of a gun as anybody. Every election seems to be 51-49 and it has always been swung by the poor black vote in New Orleans. So every politician in Louisiana knows that is how it happens. I mean you have to really screw up to be a Democrat in the state of Louisiana and lose.
But what they always had was enough money and administrators and really a lot of the black politicians and the Democrat politicians, they always had enough money to have five or ten dollars and a bus to get those people to vote, okay? But where in the hell were they to get those people on a bus to get those people out of there? I mean, that is what makes me angry. And the poverty, what I have seen now is that the poverty was a political manifestation of what was going on. That is how they controlled these people. These people were like, in many ways, herded like cattle in one area. Let’s keep ’em right here. Let’s keep ’em in a project. Let’s keep them where we can get to them. Let’s keep them where we can easily bus them and get their vote. And they don’t give a crap about those people whatsoever.
Anyway, they are not going back to New Orleans, because they can are going to find out that they get treated better someplace else. They can be treated a whole lot better. They are going to make more money. They are going to have a chance in their life. And I have heard this and maybe I am saying more things than I should but I have, but I have heard it expressed that the black people aren’t going back. I am going to tell you something: white people aren’t going back either. People were not happy.
If you look at me, I love New Orleans. I am a die-hard New Orleanian and I am going back. For me, the last thing I want is for New Orleans to go back to the way it was. Truthfully, I step back now and I wouldn’t have said this before this hurricane, okay? But I am going to say it: New Orleans has to change. I am hoping it makes a change. Truthfully, we brought it on ourselves. You can’t have these little political factions. The fact is that we have to live together and live next door to each other. And when we do that, we have to respect each other.