When we last heard from bassist George Porter, Jr.—the man who was in on funk’s ground floor with the Meters and has since developed into one of New Orleans’ busiest session players—it was via a letter sent from Istanbul, Turkey in July. At the time, he had been on the road as a member of former Talking Head and current Latin music explorer David Byrne’s band for three months, and was having something of a tough time. Even in the Meters’ heyday, the band was never on the road for months at a stretch. The time away from home, friends and family had started to wear on Porter, whose history includes road-related bouts with drugs and alcohol—and a successful struggle to keep those episodes in the past.
Porter slipped into town for a precious few days in early August, but the visit wasn’t much of a break. He spent a couple days in the studio with Black Top’s Hammond Scott, working on a new Grady Gaines album. A day was devoted to catching up on paperwork. He performed with Snooks Eaglin and with his own band, Running Pardners.
Post-Byrne, Porter’s schedule doesn’t get any lighter. While on the road, he’s been fine-tuning demos and lyrics for the next Running Pardners project, and will need to shop it to labels. (“Definitely I’m not going to do anything with Rounder,” he says of the company that released the first Running Pardners album. Among other beefs, he was unhappy with Rounder’s Meters Jam compilation.)
As for the Meters, whose periodic reunions have been the source of much joy for funk lovers, Porter says, “That looks like it’s on hold until next year.” He says the plan is to do another album “as soon as myself and Art [Neville] can make ourselves available, I guess.” Porter says a deal is in place, but no contracts have been signed. Barring any new developments, don’t expect to see the Meters live until Jazz Fest ’93.
But first Porter must fulfill his obligation to Byrne. The tour comes to New Orleans for a September 26 show at the Municipal Auditorium. Then it’s off through North and South America until at least mid-November.
The current trip is something of a deja vu: Porter didn’t get to spend much time at home when daughter Katrina was an infant because of the Meters’ schedule, and he’s missed much of granddaughter Ciara’s first year because of the Byrne opus.
“I get to miss all the babies growin’ up,” he laments. “But in November I’m home to stay, until (Ciara is) walkin’ and talkin’ and probably (until she’s) goin’ to school.”
Apparently, he doesn’t envision many more long tours after this one. “I’m definitely goin’ think twice about doin’ em.”
What has been the toughest thing about the long tour?
Just bein’ away from home. I kind of remember back in the days that a lot of things that a lot of the times got me in trouble was just that I didn’t like being away from home. The druggin’ and the alkin’ [drinking] and stuff had an instrumental part in just gettin’ rid of the loneliness, you know?
In the letter (to OffBeat) you said you had thought about getting away from your 12-step program. Were some of the other guys in the entourage tempting you?
The band is a real clean band. Nobody does any drugs in the band, but everybody does some drinkin’ [laughs]. So it’s always…I’m generally pretty much by myself, ’cause I don’t do none of the above anymore. They go out and see bands play and stuff like that, and I’ve never been interested in going out and seeing other bands. So I don’t get to do none of that.
Ara (Porter’s wife) has said that she was calling you every day at one point.
Yeah, that got to be very expensive [laughs]. The first month I was out, the phone bill was $1200, the second month it was like $900. I think the third month it was considerably lower, but still above four or five [hundred]. Way too much.
But you needed the phone calls.
That kept my sanity. I wasn’t carin’ how much money I was spendin’, as long as I stayed alive and stayed healthy.
You carry one of your books, your AA book or NA book?
Yeah, I carry my NA book I carry with me all the time, a little blue book. It has the whole NA program and all the steps, and toward the end of it it has letters from different members, testimonials.
Did you find yourself referring to it a lot?
I found myself needing to do readings to get rid of some of the anger. I had started to get angry about little things—I knew I was getting in trouble when I started to find myself getting angry about things. That’s part of the thing about staying honest with yourself. I was getting hungry, ’cause I wasn’t eatin’ the kind of foods that I wanted to eat, so I wouldn’t eat, I’d just eat fruit and stuff. Bein’ lonely, hungry and angry, that’s like, you know, you’re gettin’ close to bein’ in trouble.
How did Byrne first come across you?
I think it was at Tramp’s in New York City, he saw me with the Meters. I didn’t meet him then; I never met him until they called me up to do the sessions [for Byrne’s current Uh-Oh album, released earlier this year]. I still don’t know the reason why they called me, ’cause I kinda thought, when I started hearing the material he was doing, I thought there was dozens of bass players in New York that could handle it, you know?
You’ve never asked David why he chose you?
No, I just say there’s some things best not known [laughs].
Before Uh-Oh, you worked with Robbie Robertson. You recorded Storyville with him, did Saturday Night Live with him. You seem to be on a hot streak as far as working with established solo artists. That’s a good trend.
The only bad thing about it is that if you have a band, the individual musicians in your band kind of suffer. I can’t expect them to sit around and wait for me until I come back. The chances of me having a band when I come back may be very slim.
What would you prefer to do down the road, work more with guys like Robertson and Byrne or do you want to work toward establishing your own band?
I think there’s room somewhere in there for both things to happen, because I would not want to remove myself from the record industry. As an artist, your fees usually go up higher than as a professional sideman, the fees are somewhat dictated within the structures of a union. When you are a recording artist that still has that label of being professional sideman on it, the fees are better than just a sideman.
Who else would you want to work with?
I really would like to, because we talked about it years ago, I really wanted to try to get in touch with Paul [McCartney] when I was in London, ’cause we hadn’t touched bases for 10 years now. For a while, we used to keep in touch with each other quite often. But that was still in my “getting bad” days, so I [don’t] know if I did anything that ruined it, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to him to find out if I had.
Any tinge of regret on Jazz Fest days (this year’s was one of the only Jazz and Heritage Festivals that Porter has missed)?
No, not really. I think that my choice to do this tour has a lot to do with building on a future music thing. I love, by all means, doing production for Jazz Fest [Porter stage manages at the Fest, in addition to performing]. But I’m a musician/producer, and I think it’s in my best interest to open as many little doors as I possibly can. And I think working with David is opening one of those doors.
Are you happy playing this type of music?
Musically, it sometimes leaves me kind of empty, only because, of all the players on stage, I probably have to be the most consistent nightly because of the structure of the music. A lot of the bass lines in that kind of music, there’s no room for variations. It’s pretty consistent, so I have less time to stretch out. On some of the Talking Heads songs, I can stretch out a little bit, ’cause they’re a little more funky. All the stuff that has the mambo kind of beats, all that stuff, the bass lines have no variations. There may be only four or five songs a night that I can play differently.
So it’s not the greatest challenge.
Yeah, right. But then I think it may be a greater challenge—discipline. One of the things as a bass player/artist, I tend to get to do what I want to do, whether it’s right or wrong. I get to change things and go where I want to go. Jamming sometimes lacks consistency. That’s the reason why I think a lot of the players that play with me like the gigs, because they’re always on their toes, ’cause they never know what I might do. You can’t be lazy on this gig.