That Helpless Feeling

In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, friends and family asked over and over again how they could help. They wanted to do something, but all my wife and I could tell them was that we didn’t know what we needed — really needed for resettling in the city, that is — and that we’d tell them when we knew. It wasn’t the answer anybody wanted, and it probably would have been kinder to give them something to do. If we told people we needed clothes or help getting our house liveable again, people could have done something. Instead, my vague answer condemned them to sit by and watch the flooding helplessly, just as we were doing.

A day or two later — I think. Time is tough to sort out reflecting on those days — we went to a town hall meeting in the small town in Florida where we waited out the floodwaters. Town leaders talked about how they couldn’t just watch those people suffering on television, and how they decided they had to do something. Person after person got up, filled with can-do spirit, and spoke of wonderful plans to help those poor people, little of which would actually help anybody. But, by being pro-active and user-friendly (and many other such equally empty phrases), they got around the feeling of helplessness, though they probably wouldn’t actually help anyone.

Even now, that feeling of helplessness is hard to deal with. We don’t want to acknowledge that we’re essentially helpless to start rebuilding until the feds can draw flood maps and nail down the money we’ll actually get so that homeowners can rebuild with at least a modicum of confidence.

That desire to fight helplessness, to do something, has led to many benefit concerts and CDs. Some CDs have higher profiles, the biggest ones being Nonesuch Records’ Our New Orleans and Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert, the live album taken from the concert by the same name in New York City. Many musicians had the same sort can-do spirit as the small town civic leaders in that they wanted to do what they could, without consideration for whether their efforts would actually do anything.

As an editor, this is where my life gets complicated because they send their CDs to me, hoping that OffBeat can do something that will help their CDs do something good. What do I do with such CDs? Engaging a CD such as Our New Orleans on aesthetic grounds makes the most sense because far more people are going to buy it for the music than for its cause. What about the, um… less artistically reliable? People with very, very good intentions, but … you know. Let’s face it — the enormity of Katrina’s devastation is such that it takes an incredibly deft songwriting hand to talk about it in a way that doesn’t seem like a diminution of the event or an exercise in settling, going with lines that don’t really say what the writer means, but they’re the closest to a distillation of the complex emotions the writer can manage.

This is also an instance where it’s particularly hard to separate the musician from the song. In music and poetry, particularly, there’s a whole cult of self-expression that merits a serious re-evaluation another day. In this case, not only does critiquing work involve questioning someone’s “self-expression,” but it means, bluntly, shitting on someone’s good intentions and desire to help.

Still, we need now more than ever face reality. Untruths are really not our friends right now, not even the small, harmless ones we tell each other out of kindness. In many of these cases, the songs, even if they were good and if they reached the marketplace, they’re unlikely to generate substantial money because people don’t want good messages in their music. Or, more specifically, that’s not why they buy music. If it were, socially relevant folk would be far more popular, and Utah Phillips would be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Live Aid, “Do They Know it’s Christmas” and “We Are the World” were exceptions that prove the rule, and the latter was carried on the back of a belief in the song’s writer, Michael Jackson, that now is hard to imagine.

The need to keep it real rationalizes talking frankly about the self-made post-Katrina benefit CDs, but I don’t have the stomach. It’s hard to feel judgmental about how people deal with helplessness. Some eat, a lot of us drink these days — I heard rumor that despite the reduced population of the city, alcohol consumption is more or less consistent with what they were this time last year — and some of us record and hope we make a difference. The writer of the faceless “Do You Feel What I’m Feeling?” would probably find journaling more productive, but so it goes.

Colin Dussault’s rewrite of Steve Goodman’s classic as “City of New Orleans – 2005” merits comment, though. Another singer re-wrote Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” as a Katrina song, and somebody must have written new lyrics for Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927,” though I haven’t heard it yet if someone did. It’s unlikely, though, that any of the others have as gripping a start as Dussault does. He and his band play Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” while a tape of Mayor Ray Nagin’s very public rage calling for “no more goddamned meetings” plays. Nagin’s meltdown was one of the rare moments in recent political memory when a politician actually said exactly what so many were thinking. For a moment, he spoke as a real person without any of the reserve that seems to accompany assuming the role of public servant. Why political discourse needs to be so bloodless and mediated is subject for further consideration, but the meltdown’s pretty exciting to hear again, and it goes on so long that it seems like it might be the entirety of the song. Eventually, Dussault starts singing and it would have been better if it had ended with Nagin. Dussault sounds like John Cafferty or some other Springsteen-sorta-soundalike, and his angry rewrite of Goodman’s lyrics aren’t sufficiently interesting, insightful or bitter. Not even a pretty good honky tonk piano can help “Bourbon Street is one big grave / thousands of lives could not be saved / due to our nation’s leader who has no brain.”

There are times when the best way to deal with helplessness is acceptance.