In the year 2011, there are still plenty of people around who saw James Booker and Professor Longhair perform on multiple occasions, or who caught the Dirty Dozen 20 times at the Glass House. But not many in this group has the writing chops to equal Michael Oliver-Goodwin.
Oliver-Goodwin has been an accomplished journalist for 40 years, and along the way has written on film and music for The Village Voice, Rolling Stone (where he was the mag’s first film critic), Creem, The New York Times Magazine and so on. This kind of resume requires deep life experiences, and he’s paved the way for this by living his entire life in the three capitals of American Bohemia: first New York, then San Francisco and finally New Orleans (he currently splits his time between NOLA and Oakland).
Heaven Before I Die deals almost entirely with his time in New Orleans. He first visited in 1977, and almost immediately became part of the city’s pool of cultural explicators by assisting Les Blank as an interviewer on the film classic, Always for Pleasure. A Jew from Queens, he writes at length about race relations, and these self-conscious moments are sure to make some people squirm as he intended. Nonetheless, most of this 475-page book is an apolitical account of the hundreds of music events—Mardi Gras Indian practices, trad and modern jazz performances, church services, parades— that have made him and the rest of us love New Orleans like no other city.
My faves here are the James Booker obit first published in The Village Voice, and a piece comparing the Mardi Gras Indian rituals to traditional practices in Trinidad (Oliver-Goodwin is a Trini obsessive as well, with an encyclopedic knowledge of calypso and a Trini wife). I’ve known Michael for 25 years, and must mention as a conflict of interest issue that one of the book’s 42 chapters deals with my music. Nevertheless, I think I can be objective here and say that this work is on the very short list of great books about New Orleans music. Oliver-Goodwin simply was present to write about too much good epochal stuff to be ignored.