EDITOR’S NOTE: EW‘s Clark Collis and Vanessa Juarez spent 10 days in New Orleans to research apiece for the print magazine (which hits newsstands Aug. 10). Here, they share their thoughts on the experience.
When our managing editor suggested — nay, demanded — that we spend two weeks in New Orleans researching a story about the recovery of the music scene in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe, two thoughts sprang to mind. The first was: "What the hell has gotten into Rick?" The second was: "Who cares? Let’s get ready to party!" After all, it had been almost two years since the hurricane caused the levees to breach. Presumably, New Orleans was as good as, well, new. Otherwise we’d have heard more about it, right?
Well, no. What had gotten into our editor, during his own fact-finding trip to the Big Easy a couple of weeks before, was the realization that in New Orleans things are, as a wise man once said, pretty f—king far from okay. And, once we’d arrived in the city, it didn’t take us long to agree. You don’t have to be a Woodward and/or Bernstein to notice on even the most cursory of drives through, say, the Lower Ninth Ward, that the area looks like it was hit by a hurricane two weeks, and not years, ago. True, houses no longer actually lie on top each other as they did after the neighborhood was flooded, but some three out of four homes in the Lower Ninth remain unoccupied — and nearly all still bear the gruesome marking that indicate whether the National Guard had found bodies inside.
The Lower Ninth is where you will find the house of rock ‘n’ roll legend Fats Domino (pictured), which has been renovated. But many other musicians who used to live here — and in other, similarly still devastated neighborhoods — currently dwell in other cities or in FEMA trailers. The latter may sound cozy, but, as we discovered upon entering one, are cramped and fairly hellish. And with recent reports of people getting sick from exposure to formaldehyde, conditions in these aluminum boxes are officially unsafe. One retired trumpeter who has been living in a trailer since Katrina told us that, at first, he joked that his new living quarters were so narrow he could only eat spaghetti. He went on to inform us that he had long since ceased to find his living situation even remotely humorous.
In fact, these dispossessed musicians must also dwell in a place inside their own heads, which can be every bit assuffocating and depressing as their physical quarters. As BethanyBultman, founder of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, told us,“Everyone — myself included — is suffering from post-traumatic stress.Stress-related stroke. Stress-related heart attack. They’ve allincreased since Katrina, they’re everywhere.” Many of the stories weheard were certainly tragic. We also heard tales of anger and hope andresilience. Actually, we heard a LOT of tales. Everyone had a story andeveryone knew two or three — or ten — other people whose histories theyrecommended we hear. Initially, two weeks had seemed like anextravagant period of time to get our story, which you can read in the issue on stands this Friday. In the end — despitehaving the pleasure of chatting with such legends as Fats Domino andCyril Neville and Irma Thomas as well as a host of less well knownlocal musicians — it, perhaps inevitably, felt like we were only scratching thesurface of this problem.
So, New Orleans is no longer the party town of legend? Au contraire. If you want to have a good time, the birthplace is jazz is stillvery much the place to go. Most of the tourist-friendly areas likethe French Quarter or Frenchmen Street survived the disaster relatively unscathed. Our (corporate) credit cards got a severe workout as we caught great shows at such venuesas the Maple Leaf, Preservation Hall, Tipitina’s and Snug Harbor (trythe gumbo — it’s sensational!) While the city’s musicians may often behaving a grim time in their personal lives, they remain determined thatyou should have a good one. One, indeed, that you will never forget.
It is fair to say, though, that New Orleans itself does feel fairlyforgotten, with the eyes of the media long since having turned tofresher stories. Perhaps that’s just the way of the world. But it makesthe fact that, as New Orleans icon Dr. John described it, one ofAmerica’s greatest cities now largely resembles a Third World shantytown no less of a disgrace. If there were only some ways for you to help…
In two words: You can. It’s easy. Just go down there and hear some terrificmusic. Or check out the amazing architecture. Or get blind drunk on IrishCar Bombs at a Bourbon St. karaoke bar. A tourist dollar is a touristdollar — and none will be turned away.
Or you can help in a more direct fashion. There are many manynot-for-profit organizations assisting musicians in New Orleans. Charityworkers who were kind enough to answer our multitude of questions include representativesof the Tipitina’s Foundation, Renew Our Music, New Orleans Musicians’ Relief Fund, Sweet Home New Orleans, Music for Tomorrow and the Musicians Village.It may be true, as we were told by one relief worker, thatwhat musicians really want is a hand-up, not a hand-out. Right now,however, they are in desperate need of both.