Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Mardi Gras, Fats Domino offers hope, pounding piano and friendship from a city I fell in love with when I killed Jesus in Lower 9th

The first time I was in New Orleans I killed Jesus.
That’s a long story.
Now whenever I think of that city, I think of Fats Domino.
Of course, the two incidents and the two main stars in my New Orleans dramas aren’t the same.
Fats helped invent rock ‘n’ roll.
Jesus, of course had plenty of other accomplishments, what with the water into wine and the other miracles of faith.
But I think the ignorant white trash who burned Beatles albums back in the 1960s call rock ‘n’ roll “the Devil’s music.”
Course it’s not the Devil’s music that came from my friend Fats down in New Orleans. It was equal parts tabernacle and temptation, boogie and bordello stomp, sung by a man with the voice only an angel could emulate. Or was he a devil in disguise?
Many have laid claim to “inventing” rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard. Chuck Berry. Ike Turner. Sam Philips. Elvis never claimed he invented it, even after he was crowned king.
Carl Perkins’ role in the “invention” of the music is under-appreciated, at least in part because he was seriously injured early in his career, allowing Elvis to leap frog. And in another part because Carl was humble.
Well, Carl said that Fats was the one who kept the rock flame burning while all others extinguished. His flamboyant showmanship didn’t become a self-indulgent caricature. Instead, the Fat Man just kept on making music.
And, as for the Devil’s music, well in one of the interviews I’ve been fortunate enough to do over the years, Fats said he was “lucky” that songs like “I’m Walkin’” and “Blueberry Hill” and “Walkin’ to New Orleans” allowed him to make a good living while still allowing him to stay true to his gospel and family roots. Not just in spirit but by living in one section of town, he hoped, for his whole life.
“Nobody lives forever,” he told me once. “Stay as close as you can (to the teachings in the Bible). That’s the main thing.”
A bit of Fats on the CD player (for I still listen to music that way) I was thinking about the day I killed Jesus and about the great and humble rock pioneer Tuesday, Mardi Gras, so I picked up the phone to call Fats to wish him a happy Fat Tuesday. After all, if anyone should enjoy Fat Tuesday, it should be Fats Domino.
Fats lives not too far from the Lower Ninth Ward, where he lived with his family in a colorful compound virtually forever, until Katrina. In fact he never would have left if it hadn’t been for that disaster.
It was his home, his part of town.
People who had all but forgotten about him were reminded first when authorities said they thought Fats and his family were among those washed away, and then later when Coast Guard boats rescued the whole clan from the second floor of the house.
While cultural historians have helped to restore the old office of the man who took New Orleans funk to the people, it is still in a desolate and unfortunate part of the city. The surroundings show the disgrace of abandonment, of ignorance and neglect of those who have been in power since and before the Hurricane.
Now, back to the first part of this New Orleans love story. How did the guy who loves and has befriended Fats kill Jesus in New Orleans?
Well, first of all I was still a juvenile, so it can be forgiven this “sin” that took place in between a couple of hours of jump jiving gospel music, chicken and sweet potato pie at a church in the Lower Ninth.
I was there again as something of a rebel. While I was good about attending church, I was (and remain) a “non-joiner.” So, I didn’t participate in the youth group activities, other than the night The Byrds played in the teen nightclub in the church basement. Our own cellar full of noise, I suppose.
Oh sure, I was a good student. And I was a good usher in the early service, primarily because the offertory came pre-sermon. We could collect, go downstairs and count, put it in the safe and head to the kitchen for donuts and coffee.
Yes, sweet caffeine. So while they were upstairs singing the praises, I was double dunking and enjoying the fruits and bounty. My Sweet Lord indeed.
The problem was that, despite my misgivings, the youth minister wanted me involved. There was a choir trip coming up around Easter time and she wanted me to try out for a play that was going to be the centerpiece. I looked at the script for “Christ in the Concrete City.” I still have it around here someplace.
Basically, the stark play put Jesus in a modern environment. The four –person cast had multiple roles.
I was typecast from the outset: “Tim, I want you to play Judas, Pilate and the Roman soldier who nails Christ on the cross,” said the preacher.
OK. Other people got to play Peter, Paul and Mary or whatever. I get to be the combination of history’s greatest villains. Appealed to the side of me who enjoyed breaking noses in soccer games in p.e.
Course, if you see me, you’ll notice I had my share of busted noses as well. Two in football and probably two or three playing soccer. Pleased to meet you, I suppose. And we all shine on.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with details, as this really is about New Orleans, but the play was presented throughout the South, in urban, black churches. We stayed in those churches and enjoyed the best food they had to offer.
My favorite performance was in New Orleans, as a matter of fact. For when I came to the line where I actually nailed Christ to the cross (he wasn’t played by anyone… merely a holy air space we played around), my line was “Down goes the hammer!” and I was supposed to drive my right arm down, invisible hammer driving invisible spike into invisible savior’s hands and ankles.
Well, the church kneeling rail was right up next to where I was killing Jesus, and as my arm went down, I caught the underside of my forearm on the rail. It cut my shirt and arm. Blood came rolling down my arm. Peter, Paul and Mary came over to look at me and see if I was all right. It had been an awful sound after all. I don’t think I cursed.
“Just got some of Jesus’ blood on me. It splashed,” I adlibbed, quietly.
Play was almost over.
Anyway, that was in New Orleans. I’ve been back plenty of times, though seldom have killed the savior again.
I’ve been there when I slept in my car next to the Mississippi and spent another night sleeping in an all-night showing of “Live and Let Die” in one of those old theaters on Canal.
Been down there to cover sporting events, like Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks’ prizefight in 1978.
Taken other business trips there and even have taken to enjoying family vacations there….. The last one, though, came about two weeks before Katrina.
I have no great claims on the city, other than that it is probably my favorite city in North America.
Of course it has had its problems, with violence and corruption. And it has been ignored. Many thousands who fled in the days after George W. Bush and the Corps of Engineers exercised due diligence in saving the city, have not returned.
Many more people died.
And now, much of the city remains in ruins.
So it cheers me to see that it is Mardi Gras and that the people down there are celebrating again. Of course the skin tone of celebrants is increasingly white, since large black sections of town were obliterated by the storm. Never to return.
Still it is Mardi Gras. The big blast before Lent.
So, I called Fats and asked what he’s been doing lately.
“Been playing a lot, you know, keeping fingers loose,” he said, with a laugh.
He also likes to watch TV, sleep and visit with his family and friends.
He’s got new songs he’d like to record, but, since he just turned 83, he may or may not have a chance.
Still he was glad to hear from me. “You call any old time,” he said.
“You going to party today, since it’s Mardi Gras?” I asked.
“Believe I’m just gonna lay down on my bed,” he said, again his soft laughter rising. “You call again, Tim. Anytime.”
On Mardi Gras, the great rock pioneer set down the phone in the city where I killed Jesus. And he went to bed.

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