Interview with Yuval Taylor, co-author of “Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music”

Originally published inTime Out Chicago, March 22, 2007

Fans of punk rock, early blues and modern country may not share many tastes, but they all have one thing in common: They like their music as “real” as possible. Yet as Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker’s new book Faking It reveals, that realness is an endlessly malleable concept—and one that local author and editor Taylor holds dear.

“I was really introduced to pop music through the aesthetic of authenticity,” says Taylor, editor of the Chicago imprint Lawrence Hill Books. “I grew up listening to classical music, and then when I was a teenager in the ’70s, punk rock happened. My friends turned me on to it, and I was trying to figure out what made this music so appealing. The answer was, it’s so honest. Since then, I’ve always been attracted to music that has this honesty, but at the same time I was always questioning it, discovering holes in it.”

Relying largely on the University of Chicago library’s vast musical archive, Taylor dug deep into the background of seminal artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Jimmie Rodgers, as well as better-known figures like Neil Young and Elvis. Along the way, he learned just how shadowy a concept authenticity can be.

Take the case of Leadbelly, an artist whom Kurt Cobain famously proclaimed his “favorite performer.” Faking It posits that a large part of Leadbelly’s appeal to Cobain and other fans lies in his image as an icon of musical purity and the embodiment of the blues, a convicted murderer who held his demons at bay with his guitar. In reality, much of the Leadbelly myth was fabricated by music archivist John Lomax, whose definition of authenticity was so narrow that he delved into all-black prisons in search of music “untainted” by white influence. By and large a thoughtful, gentle man with an admittedly violent past, Leadbelly allegedly resented Lomax’s insistence that he perform in a prisoner’s uniform and play only preapproved folk songs rather than the day’s popular tunes. Over the years, the Lomax-manufactured myth ironically became the standard for musical authenticity.

Sure to fuel arguments among music nerds for years to come, Faking It is filled with similar conundrums, from the simultaneous ascension of punk’s raw power and disco’s empty calories to the diverging career paths of John Lennon and Michael Nesmith. Taken as a whole, the book becomes a fascinating, complex study of the increasingly blurred line between actuality and artifice. And Taylor doesn’t see that line clearing up anytime soon. “In blues and country and folk music, authenticity was a strong expectation even back in the 1940s, that then infected rock and pop music. And now it’s moved across the whole culture.”

Taylor points to Ashlee Simpson’s album titles, Autobiography and I Am Me, as blatant attempts to create an immediate “connection” with her audience. And it shows up in most obvious fashion on country radio.

“[In] country music there’s a huge pressure from the audience to either be authentic or pretend to be authentic,” Taylor says. “When I listen to the country stations, I hear most of the singers making a very conscious attempt to prove that they are country. Real country is getting harder to find. Everyone’s growing up in cities and Nashville is full of people from Winnipeg, so they have to establish that they’re real country.”

So is there a solid definition of musical authenticity? Taylor isn’t ready to close the book on that issue just yet, but he says researching Faking It helped him cut through some of the ambiguity.

“It’s a Holy Grail,” he says. “You can never actually be completely authentic, but you can come pretty close to it. I think Neil Young does, Keith Jarrett does, Lightnin’ Hopkins does…. Whether that’s always a good thing or not is another question.”

Interview with author and poet Barry Gifford

Originally published in Where Y’at?, November 1, 2004


Barry Gifford is one of the finest rabble-rousers of modern American letters. Probably best known for his novel Wild At Heart, which was the basis for David Lynch’s Cannes-winning film of the same name, Gifford has written a slew of critically lauded novels, nonfiction, poetry and screenplays. His new book of poems, Back In America, has just been released by Light of New Orleans Press. It is one of the finest poetry collections of recent years, a bracing jaunt that takes the reader from Ginsberg to Vermeer to Billy Wilder and back again on a journey that fluxuates between laugh-out-loud and weep quietly.

You have a longstanding literary relationship with New Orleans, and the town comes up several times in Back In America. What is it about the city that keeps you coming back to it?
When I was a boy, my mother and I lived for a time at the old Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, now the Fairmont. After that, I visited the city several times over the years, and during much of the 1990s, I was frequently in residence in a house on Pirate’s Alley. I wrote parts of several of my novels there. As you know, New Orleans can be a lively as well as deadly place, so there is no shortage of inspiration if you are in the mood to be inspired. Having been raised both in the Deep South and in Chicago, this was the first time that I really wrote out of the Southern side of myself. Many of my stories also take place in Mississippi, where I also spent time as a child. I have been away from New Orleans for a few years now, but on my recent trip back I found it exciting and interesting again, so there may be a redux in my future.

What are a few “highlight” places you like to hit while in New Orleans?
These places change, but my first night back I usually go to Coop’s on Decatur for the rabbit and sausage jambalaya. I go to Galatoire’s for the remoulade sauce, Liuzza’s for the trash cooking, etc. etc. My main hangout is Tujague’s, where my father used to meet people when he had business in the city (it’s mentioned in the first chapter of my memoir, The Phantom Father). Other than that, I go where I need to.

You’ve published at just about every level of the game. What are some advantages to publishing with a small press like Light of New Orleans as opposed to a Harcourt Brace?
I began by publishing poetry with small presses and I am happy to continue the tradition. I enjoy the intimacy and the special care small press publishers tend to take with the few titles they publish. For larger books, I go to New York because they can pay me something. Josh and LONO may prove one day to be the exception to this rule. I hope so.

Does your physical writing process vary depending on whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction or poetry?
Not really, other than the fact that poems seem to come to me all at once, practically in finished form and it is my responsibility to stop what I am doing wherever I am and write down the words.

Kerouac and your friend Ginsberg are recurring themes in a lot of your work. Why do you think these guys have had such a lasting, era-spanning appeal to audiences?
Kerouac and Ginsberg were great inspirations to me and to many others of my generation, as writers, travelers and iconoclasts. I don’t write like them, but they help to show the way insofar as method and vision are concerned. Despite their difficulties with the established critics of their day (and after), they manage to get through to each succeeding generation and have become an industry, much to the dismay of the stodgier critical establishment. Sometimes the people know, sometimes they don’t. In this case, they seem to.

“September 11, 2001” is about as succinct and accurate an assessment of that day as I’ve seen. How have these “interesting times” affected your creative output?
Life for me has never been less than interesting. As Samuel Beckett put it, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

The book is dedicated to several popular songwriters like Smokey Robinson and Hoagy Charmichael. Will these folks ever be given their just due as genuine poets?
I’ve just given it to them.

I read an interview you did about the Lost Highway screenplay where you said audiences “have to bring something to the party. It’s not like lying back and being fucked. The film forces you to be involved.” Do you think of your poetry and/or prose in the same terms?
The truth is, I’ve never liked parties very much.

And speaking of Lost Highway, are there any more Gifford/Lynch collaborations in the pipeline?
That will depend upon what we put into the pipe.

In light of the many eulogies in this book, how would you hope to be eulogized?
The cowboy poet of yesteryear, Rex Lampman, copied this epitaph from a gravestone: “Here he lies, the Idaho Kid, the only time he ever did.” That’s the best I can hope for.

Movie review: “Everybody’s Famous”

Toward the end of my undergrad career, I finally got my act together enough to get involved with the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. I mostly wrote reviews of movies none of the other staffers wanted to see. It was a good time for the empire.

“Everybody’s Famous” review: Belgian waffling
Originally published in the Minnesota Daily, July 20, 2001

There is a certain group of American moviegoers that takes a misguided pride in seeing foreign films. These fetishists believe in the sanctity of subtitles, elevating the most mundane material to the level of art just because it was made on foreign shores. They will laugh uproariously at a French toilet joke that would be beneath them were it delivered in English. Belgium’sEverybody’s Famous was tailor-made for this audience.

A lackluster comedy with far less bite than its subject demands, the film focuses on Jean, a laid-off factory worker chasing a dream of musical stardom. Much of his ambition is projected on his teenage daughter, an awkward karaoke singer with very little talent and even less stage presence. When Jean is presented with the opportunity to kidnap Belgium’s number one pop star, he sets in motion a harebrained scheme to land his daughter on the top of the charts.

If this all sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably seen Martin Scorcese’s superb The King of ComedyEverybody’s Famous is basically a lite-comedy remake of that chilling film, and a strong affirmation of the superiority of Scorcese’s vision. Juicy topics like media manipulation, parental tyranny and the general lust for fame are just barely grazed. Rather than making a meaningful comment on any issue, the filmmakers seem intent on keeping the whole enterprise as inoffensive as possible. With such potentially explosive material, that approach simply doesn’t work.

Aside from some rather catchy pop songs, the film’s only real redeeming quality is the lead performance of Josse De Pauw, who conveys a haunting desperation despite the relentless optimism of the rest of the proceedings. In the hands of a lesser actor, Jean’s actions could easily seem disturbing, but De Pauw maintains a sweetness that overrides such concerns.

How, with all of its glaring flaws, was Everybody’s Famous nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar? The answer lies with its distributor, Miramax Films, notorious for high pressure campaigns that garner nominations for undeserving pictures (witness the five Oscar noms for the sweet but slight Chocolat). Miramax’s marketing is a god-send for the aforementioned foreign film fetishists and a slap in the face for those who believe that countries like Belgium are fully capable of producing schlock. Compare Everybody’s Famous to similarly-themed films like The King of ComedyDog Day Afternoon or even Jimmy Hollywood, and it should be evident that Americans can still do it better sometimes.

-Ira Brooker

Six Songs Defending the Indefensible

Originally published on MadeLoud, March 23, 2011

Any pop culture aficionado can tell you that the world loves a good bad guy. It’s why audiences walked away from The Dark Knight talking about The Joker instead of Batman, and why at least 90% of reality TV participants are truly repellent human beings. Things are no different in the world of music. Songwriters have a long history of lionizing anti-heroes and outlaws, but the six songs compiled below go a step further,offering redemption to some folks who are pretty much the definition of irredeemable.

The Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil”

Bad guys don’t get much badder than Satan himself. Despite its title, this classic rock staple doesn’t ask us to lend an ear to poor Satan’s plight so much as it demands that we celebrate his impressive résumé of evil. He is, after all, “a man of wealth and taste,” not just the grubby fallen angel portrayed by certain religious types. Narrated by Mick Jagger in sneering first-person, “Sympathy” finds a rather smug Devil rattling off highlights from his portfolio. These include the fall of the Russian Czars, the rise of the Third Reich and the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers. Interestingly, he usually stops short of taking direct credit for these unspeakable acts. He instead claims to have been “around” or “watching,” which would seem to point a finger at humanity for following his lead. Still, this Lucifer isn’t entirely passive. He ends his spiel with a threat that you’d better damn well give him that titular sympathy or he’ll “lay your soul to waste.”

Black Randy & The Metrosquad – “Idi Amin”

Ugandan strongman Idi Amin is perhaps the most reviled of 20th Century African dictators, which puts him atop a truly cringe-worthy list. As far as Black Randy is concerned, though, Idi is the ultimate party buddy. Thrusting his tongue deep into his cheek, the late punk-funk provocateur delivers his song as an open invitation for Amin to hit the town with him. (“You really are so freaky / With your medals and dashiki / Let’s go out to the garden / It’s time to light the tiki”) While the lyrics are obviously satirical – Randy name-checks Hitler and makes winking reference to Amin’s alleged cannibalism – the image of a regalia-clad Idi Amin strutting into CBGB with a doughy punk rock junkie at his side is fairly irresistible.

Victoria Williams – “Boogieman”

The Boogieman is one of modern mythology’s most nebulous villains, a nighttime nasty whose frightening powers are only as limited as a child’s imagination. But we’ve got the guy all wrong, says Victoria Williams on this truly strange standout from 1990’s Swing the Statue. When the soft-hearted Boogieman finds an orphaned girl while making his nightly rounds, he brings her to his home in the forest and “raise[s] her up real good.” He turns out to be a great father whose only major failing seems to be sheltering his adopted daughter too much. After he dies, the heartbroken, naïve girl falls in with a shady city-slicker who promptly impregnates and abandons her. The story ends with the sadder-but-wiser girl taking her own daughter back to the woods to raise her according to the Boogieman school of parenting. It’s the rare song that alleviates childhood nightmares even as it inspires a whole new batch of adult ones.

Randy Newman – “Rednecks”

The lines between heroes and villains were frequently blurred in the culture wars of the 1960s and ‘70s. To Northern liberals, for instance, an outspoken segregationist like Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia was an ignorant hatemonger presiding over a backwards, backwoods cesspool. But as the narrator of Randy Newman’s acerbic satire notes, that’s all a matter of perspective. Incensed by a TV talk show where Maddox gets mocked by the “smart-ass New York Jew” host and his scornful audience, the singer declares “he may be a fool, but he’s our fool.” He admits to some of the South’s racial failings, but in the same breath points out the hypocrisy of supposedly open-minded progressives who see all Southerners as “too dumb to make it in no Northern town.” As for the charge that the South is dedicated to “keeping the niggers down,” he notes that “the North has set the nigger free” – so long as that freedom is restricted to such wells of opportunity as East St. Louis, the South Side of Chicago and Boston’s Roxbury. The timeless moral, as is often the case in Newman songs, seems to be that humans are pretty horrible across the board, so it’s best not to judge.

Steve Earle – “John Walker’s Blues”

John Walker Lindh was one of the most fascinating figures to emerge the immediate aftermath of 9/11. When the California-raised 20-year-old was captured fighting alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan in late 2001, he immediately became America’s most despised American. Steve Earle’s controversial song doesn’t excuse Walker’s traitorous actions, but it does cast them in a different perspective. Singing from Walker’s point of view, Earle speaks of an alienated, disillusioned childhood (“I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads / But none of ‘em looked like me”) that gives way to a fervent embrace of Islamic theology. It’s not exactly a “there but for the grace of God” tale, but it gets at a universal ennui that makes Walker seem more like a mixed-up kid than a monster. Earle knows there’s a thin line between sympathetic and pathetic.

Sufjan Stevens – “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Dismissing serial killers and psychopaths as inhuman beasts is often a lazy way to avoid looking at the deeper issues behind their behavior. This disturbing track from the transcendent Illinois album is all the more effective for reminding us before John Wayne Gacy was a torture-killing pedophile, he was just another neighborhood kid. Stevens opens with eerily mundane images from Gacy’s boyhood: a drunken father, a playground injury, the neighbors who “adored him for his humor and his conversation.” After a horrifically oblique account of Gacy’s murders, Stevens muses that “In my best behavior / I am just like him.” The takeaway seems to be that even if our floorboards aren’t lined with rotting corpses, none of us is qualified to cast that proverbial first stone.

Album review: Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – “Grand Isle”

Originally published on MadeLoud, Apr 6, 2011

When people think of musical genres most likely to be vehicles for biting sociopolitical commentary, Contemporary Cajun probably ranks somewhere between surf rock and nü-polka. But when you’ve witnessed an endless stream of horrors and frustrations like the ones that have been thrown at coastal Louisiana in the past decade, even the most apolitical local artist can’t help but let the righteous indignation shine through. Taking their album title from one of the towns hardest hit by last summer’s BP oil spill (not to mention a smaller March 2011 spill that was barely reported on by the national media), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys let it be known that they have the bayou’s back.

Grand Isle kicks off with a spacey, pulsating tone that serves as an announcement that this ain’t gonna be the Cajun music you hear in Popeye’s commercials. The opener “Danser san comprendre (Dancing Without Understanding)” is all about universality. The accordion, guitar and fiddle blaze away as Riley’s vocals shift from English to French and back. It’s an ingenious illustration of the song’s basic concept: you don’t have to speak the language to dig the vibe. Things veer even farther off the trad-Cajun path with “Chatterbox,” a garage-rock-flavored stomper driven by New Orleans weirdo Quintron and his trademark “Drum Buddy” percussion machine. The intoxicating “C’est l’heure pour changer (This is the Time for Change)” isn’t quite as outré, but it’s no less affecting with its gurgling organ riffs and buoyant chorus.

Whether they’re delving into classic swamp pop ballads like “Non, je ne regretted rien,” mixing in a touch of country-western on “Grand Isle” or going for a straight-up tear-jerker like “Au Revoir,” The Mamou Playboys conduct themselves like the two-plus-decade veterans they are. Calling in ringers like Quintron, piano-slinger Jon Cleary and producer C. C. Adcock doesn’t hurt either. Grand Isle surefootedly covers a lot of terrain in the course of its twelve tracks, but the album never loses focus on what’s at stake on the Gulf Coast.

Actually, the average Grand Isle listener might not even suspect there’s any social commentary going on here (although the oil-soaked sea bird on the album cover is a bit of a giveaway). Many of the lyrics are in French, and the music is upbeat enough to pass as a party disc. But listen closely and it becomes clear that the Playboys’ tributes to the places and faces of the Louisiana lowlands are more than celebratory – they’re downright defiant.

Recommended Tracks: “C’est l’heure pour changer,” “Danser san comprendre,” “Grand Isle”

Album review: Charles Bradley – “No Time for Dreaming”

Originally published on MadeLoud, Jan 30, 2011 

Any musical revival movement has to allow for varying degrees of authenticity. The current neo-soul revival, for instance, needed folks like Amy Winehouse and Solange Knowles to ease in neophytes with a blend of old- and new-school sensibilities. Thus reassured, young audiences could feel more comfortable moving on to more straight-up traditionalists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, not to mention the ‘60s and ‘70s artists who were their inspirations. And now that music fans have a hearty helping of Dap under their belts, they might just be ready to delve into Charles Bradley.

Listeners coming into No Time for Dreaming cold might never suspect that this is a 2011 release. The 62-year-old Bradley’s shockingly overdue debut album sounds every inch like one of those forgotten classics from the early ‘70s that gets reissued only after a groundswell of crate-digger buzz. Released on the Dunham label, an imprint of the Sharon Jones-starring Daptone Records, No Time for Dreaming plucks former chef and handyman Bradley from decades of obscurity and gives him a vehicle that by all rights should make him a star.

Bradley’s breathtaking vocal command is evident from the get-go. On the ice-cold opener “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” he’s equal parts James Brown rasp and Syl Johnson smoothness, while the seductive “The Telephone Song” finds him sliding seamlessly into harder-edged Marvin Gaye territory. The impeccable Menahan Street Band matches him shift for shift, tweaking their sound subtly from the JBs-style proto-funk of the title track to the Staxx soul of “Heartaches and Pain” to the Booker T groove of “Since Our Last Goodbye,” all with just a hint of Afrobeat rhythm mixed in.

Revival records sometimes get written off as novelty acts for the nostalgia set, but No Time for Dreaming is simply too strong to fall into that trap. Sure, a song like the aching “Lovin’ You, Baby” calls to mind a lost Otis Redding ballad, but Charles Bradley is too adept to lean on cheap mimickery. These songs are distinctly his, and they sound phenomenal no matter the era. It’s obvious that he spent a good chunk of the last five decades studying and absorbing the greats of the genre (James Brown in particular) but he clearly respects those legends too much to simply regurgitate their style. Big ups to the folks at Daptone for recognizing a diamond in the rough and giving him the chance to make one of surefire best albums of 2011.

Recommended Tracks: “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” “I Believe in Your Love,” “No Time For Dreaming”

Some Kinda Love: Seven Odes to Inanimate Objects

Originally published on MadeLoud, Feb 11, 2011

The old line about looking for love in all the wrong places doesn’t just apply to singles bars and chat rooms. Some people will simply never find real love in the domain of human beings. For these select few, a lasting relationship might be as close as the local pawn shop, a mail order catalog or even their own garages. Love songs dedicated to people are a dime a dozen, but these seven songs capture the special connection between consenting adults and the literal objects of their affection.

Roxy Music – “In Every Dream Home a Heartache”

It’s not an easy life, being an inflatable sex doll. It seems like everyone you meet is only interested in one thing (well, maybe two or three). Everyone, that is, except Bryan Ferry. He’s the rare man who cares enough call you “my plain wrapper baby,” “disposable darling” and other sweet nothings. He’ll take you swimming in his penthouse pool and pledge his devotion with lines like “inflatable doll, my role is to serve you.” Bryan understands that love – even love with a mass-produced, vinyl-coated erotic toy – is a two-way street. When he moans “I blew up your body, but you blew my mind,” it’s obvious that Bryan Ferry treats objects like women, man.

Queen – “I’m in Love with My Car”

Pop history is rife with car tunes that could double as love songs – heck, that description fits half of the early Beach Boys catalog – but seldom has automotive passion been expressed as explicitly as it is in Queen’s 1975 power ballad. Drummer Roger Taylor takes center stage here, belting out a throat-shredding ode to his “machine that’s so real.” Where most of those old car songs played up the joy of cruising down the highway with a sweetheart at your side, Taylor believes three’s a crowd. “Told my girl I’ll have to forget her / Rather buy me a new carburetor,” he croons, noting that “Cars don’t talk back / They’re just four-wheeled friends now.” Most of the songs on this list come off at least a little tongue-in-cheek, but this one is delivered with enough conviction to make you wonder if this dude and his car might just find a way to make it work.

Lyle Lovett“Don’t Touch My Hat”

As this bouncy number from 1996’s The Road to Ensenada explains it, cowboy couture is more than just a regional costume. For a certain segment of Texans, it’s a badge of personal identity, and woe to the one who tries to come between Lyle Lovett and his lid. He’s not necessarily dissing the ladies when he warns the room, “If it’s her you want, I don’t care about that / You can have my girl, but don’t touch my hat.” It’s just that the hat has stuck with him longer than any woman has. And lest anyone try to get sneaky, he makes sure to let potential interlopers know about his astonishing hat acumen (“I wear a seven, and you’re out of order / ‘Cause I can see from here you’re a seven-and-a-quarter”). Anyone doubting the severity of swiping a Stetson need only look to the well-documented case of Stag-O-Lee and Billy Lyons.

The Mills Brothers – “Paper Doll”

As sad as it is to be in love with something that can’t love you back, it’s sadder still when you can only aspire to a love affair with an inanimate object. That’s the sorry situation the singer of this swing era staple finds himself in. He’s been hurt so many times by “fickle-minded real live girls” that he’s decided to “buy a paper doll that I can call my own / That all the other fellows cannot steal.” On the surface, songwriter Johnny S. Black penned a cute little ditty about sexual frustration, but hearing a man dedicate lines like “When I come home at night she will be waiting / She’ll be the truest doll in all this world” to a sheet of processed wood pulp suggests some disturbing issues lurking beneath the surface.

The Trucks“Diddle-Bot”

As sex toy nicknames go, “Diddle-Bot” is decidedly more silly than sexy. That doesn’t seem to dampen The Trucks’ passions any as they spin this bubbly 2006 electro-folk tribute to a lover who’s “not your Average Joe / He’s got three different speeds / Slow, fast and go-go-go-go-go!” Singer Kristin Allen-Zito does seem a little disappointed in her new friend’s lack of chivalry (“I was kinda disappointed ‘cause you promised me lunch / but all I got was a diddle-bot donkey punch”), but what he lacks in people skills he more than makes up for in loving generosity.

Nobodys – “I Love My Gun”

Despite the title, Colorado punk rockers Nobodys probably weren’t looking for an NRA endorsement when they included this story of a shopping mall shooter and his adored firearm on 1998’s Greatasstits. Clearly, the man has some serious issues, but he knows where his priorities lie. “I could lose my job and everything I own / I don’t wanna lose that gun,” he declares over a driving skate-punk squall. He may not have the strongest grip on right and wrong, but he’s sure that “I love my gun and it loves me.” In a world where real trust is hard to come by, it’s good to find someone whose aim is true.

Donovan – “I Love My Shirt”

There are many examples of great songwriting in the Donovan catalog, but this obnoxiously catchy novelty number from 1969’s otherwise excellent Barabajagal is decidedly not one of them. This is Donovan at his laziest, singing the repetitive praises of various items in his patchouli-reeking closet. “Do you have a shirt that you really love? One that you feel so groovy in?” he chirps in the opening line, then continues to drone on with similarly penetrating ruminations about his “comfortably lovely” jeans and shoes. Presumably a stab at some sort of beyond-dated hippie humor, the whole thing plays like a bad musical adaptation of Steve Carrell’s “I love lamp!” sequence from Anchorman.

Image from the film Lars and the Real Girl

Superdome

In 2010 the excellent, Chicago-based arts journal Make Magazine commemorated its fifth birthday by asking former contributors to submit very short pieces on the theme of “five.” Since my contributions to Make‘s second issue were two essays on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (which also marked a five-year milestone in 2010), it seemed appropriate to revisit the subject.

Superdome

People say I smell of bleach. Me, I can’t smell it. I’ve been working with cleaners for so long I can’t smell much of anything anymore. Chemicals burnt all the little hairs in my nose down to nothing long ago. But I still smell this place every day.

It’s hard to describe. Not quite a smell of sickness or filth or even death. Just a smell of … people. Humans. For five years I’ve been doing everything I know how to do to wipe it out. Poured gallons of bleach, sprayed whole cases of Lysol, wore a dozen mops down to the stick. Nothing kills it.

People say they can’t smell it. They say it’s in my head, that five years is long enough to kill off any lingering odor. They even say the place smells fresh and new ever since they hung that fancy new banner last winter. They can say what they want. I still smell it. Some days it’s barely detectable, and I imagine it’s finally going away for good. Other days it’s the only thing I can smell.

People say I smell of bleach. Me, I can’t smell it, but sometimes I wish like hell I could.

Originally published in Make Magazine, Issue 10, Fall/Winter 2010/11

St. Gabriel’s Morgue

Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I caught the first available Amtrak train from then-home of Chicago to my former home of New Orleans. I spent a week exploring the city, watching the recovery and talking to people who’d been there for the worst of it. I started writing this story on the ride back to Chicago, influenced heavily by my own interviews and those I’d read in the local news outlets. I was also reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian at the time, which probably played a part too. “St. Gabriel’s Morgue” was previously published in Hair Trigger in 2006 and on Normal Words in 2008.

St. Gabriel’s Morgue

If we did not all know him by name, we certainly knew his face. There was not a body in the barroom that did not fight back a tremor upon recognizing that too-broad visage, features spread wide like pulling the edges of a rubber mask, thick black eyebrows under loose red curls, fleshy lips that pulled down at the corners in a permanent, half-hearted frown. We did not know his exact age, but whatever it might have been he seemed somehow older than the actual tally. Broadly built, not tall frame, skin tan and tough, pigmented in a way that had inspired more than one late-night conversation as to whether or not there was any black blood in him. We would not have been surprised either way, as in these parts east of Ponchartrain nearly every man is either a sun-baked white or a time-bleached black, largely indistinguishable, and anyway most of us ceased worrying ourselves over such things long ago.

So we did not know his name but every man in the room knew for damn certain his occupation. One of those jobs that makes the bearer a well-respected pariah. For that reason, as well as the unsettling gravity with which he carried himself, he drank alone most evenings, hunched over near the end of the bar. He had been drinking particularly alone for the past six weeks. We had all of us been hit hard by the storm but we knew he would have it harder than most. His very presence was a grim reminder, but what was not a grim reminder at that time? Even the television, screen black for weeks except for Saints games, reminded us by its absence of what we were avoiding by leaving it off.

And so a shudder rippled through the room the evening he finally took to speaking. He started slow, his voice a forceful bass that split the nightly unracket of no TV, the only background noise the jukebox turned low, scrolling through a half-heard country-western album.

“Michelob,” he growled, holding a tapered brown bottle at arm’s length. “Michelob. For years now I drank Dixie or I drank nothing. But Dixie, they brew Dixie here, from Louisiana water. And you gentlemen will forgive me if I no longer trust Louisiana water. So now I drink Michelob, from St. Louis, Missouri. And my God, it is awful stuff.”

He swiveled the stool around, turned to face the room, looking to the ceiling as he rolled a crick out of his thick neck. “I feel for those people out there. Really, I do. If there was any way we could expedite the process, believe me, we would be doing it. But we just are not equipped for a thing like this. No mortuary in America is. Thank God for that, really, because I would hate to live in a place where death on this scale is something to be expected.”

He swept the room with hard eyes, smaller and blacker than any of us had ever noticed, dwarfed beneath those unkempt eyebrows. None of us met his stare. “Look away if you need to,” he sighed, “I have been waiting twenty-three years to speak my piece in this place and tonight I am by God going to speak it. I believe I’ve earned that right in the past month. Did you gentlemen know that we have had 842 individuals come through our doors in the past six weeks? ‘Individuals,’ that’s what the higher-ups tell us to call them. Words like ‘bodies’ and ‘corpses’ are too dehumanizing, they say. I can’t say I mind following the order, but I believe they are glossing things over a bit much. What we get in that morgue are not people. Most of them don’t even qualify as bodies. By the time we see them, they are just bloated, soggy slabs of meat. Would you like to know what’s dehumanizing, gentlemen? Spending seven days floating face down in toxic water in your own goddamned backyard without so much as a single rescue boat passing by. That is dehumanizing.”

He took a slow pull from the bottle, capping it with a grimace. Someone buzzed that the man was inebriated, but he had been in the tavern for less than half an hour and the bar in front of him held only two empties. His face contorted in what we could only guess was an attempt at a smile, an unnatural, ghastly looking manipulation. “Seven days. Do you gentlemen have any idea what that much time in the water does to the human body? Swells everything up, distorts, discolors. Half the time, we have no idea if we’re dealing with a black body or a white one. Black is a pretty safe assumption, I suppose, given the nature of the situation. But hell, sometimes we can’t tell for sure if it’s a man or a woman. And that is what we do, what we are paid to do. We handle bodies, we identify bodies. I myself have been doing these things for twenty-three years and some men in the lab have been there much longer. But a lot of these ‘individuals’ the animals found before the people did. The papers didn’t say a whole lot about the rats and the gators and the wild dogs, but I can tell you this much – the humans were about the only ones going hungry during this thing. That albino alligator missing from the Audubon Zoo – I wonder how many of the people he’s nibbled on in the past few weeks went and gawked at him when he was in captivity? Apologies, gentlemen, if I sound a little harsh. This job desensitizes a man, I suppose.”

That grotesque grin again, a few uneasy mumbles from the room. “But the rats and the gators and the dogs, they have nothing on the little creatures. Have any of you men ever flooded out an anthill?” Not pausing for a response, barrelling ahead. “It’s something to see. The ants, they seek out the nearest log or tree and swarm all over it. In just a matter of seconds you wouldn’t even recognize it as a log, just a squriming mess of ants. Well, of course you realize that, for a drowning ant, there is no difference between a log and a human body. I had a boy on my table only yesterday – yes, a boy, half of the floaters they’ve hauled in have been children under the age of fourteen, did you gentlemen not know that? – a boy of possibly six or seven who must have discovered one of these anthills. And I tell you this, I had my calipers out and I could not find an inch of skin on that boy that was not peppered with red welts. Not one single inch, top of the head to bottom of the feet. And I tried to tell myself that the boy was drowned already when the ants found him but I knew that they would not have bitten an unresisting corpse so thoroughly. And gentlemen, if the fire ants find you alive out in the water, you will certainly be dead soon, but not nearly soon enough.”

Another long sip. A table of three in the far corner near the pinball machine stood as one, eyes to the floor as they filed past the hard, broad face. He did not seem to care either way that they were leaving in the middle of his narration. “Good evening, gentlemen. As I was saying, the ants are hell for the living. But from my side, the crabs are even worse. The crabs, they teem over a body just as the ants do, but they don’t simply bite. They eat. They go for the softest areas first, like rats – eyeballs, noses, earlobes, fingertips, genitalia. The rescue workers – and is that really the appropriate term in this case, when everyone left is so far past rescuing? Scrap haulers, rag pickers. Garbage men. Perhaps that suits them better – the rescue workers tell me many times they have to scrape the ants off the backs of the crabs, then pluck off the crabs one by one, watching them wave pincers full of meat as they sink into the water. I cannot tell you gentlemen how many fleshless faces I’ve looked down on in the past six weeks. Think of it, men. There are people out there, even as we speak, being eaten by crabs. Eaten. By crabs. Is there any conceivable permutation of the universe in which that is an acceptable situation?” His voice rising at the end, the first time any of us had ever heard it above an agreeable rumble.

A man at the end of the bar rose, tried to calm the storyteller down, buy him a drink. Let us all get back to the half-pleasant nothing we were doing before he grabbed our ears. But the interloper was ignored, not even waved off as the litany continued, the jukebox sliding mostly unnoticed into R&B. “And so now we have protesters. We drive to work every day past little circles of people waving signs and demanding the release of their loved ones’ bodies. It’s a sad thing to see, no two ways about it. And as I said, I feel for these people. But when you get right down to it, there is simply not a whole lot we can do. We have 842 bodies – my apologies, ‘individuals’ – packed into that morgue and nobody knows who in the hell any of them are. As I think I’ve made clear, half of them you could not recognize if they were your own sweet mother. And they sure as hell did not show up at our doorstep carrying three forms of state-issued ID. People got washed all over town. Even if a body was found wrapped around a street lamp on St. Claude, he could have been washed over from Franklin, from Claiborne, from any goddamned place in the Ninth Ward. We just don’t know. We do not know.”

“Even some of what you might call the famous ones, we don’t know for sure. I’m sure all of you saw that picture, that makeshift casket on Magazine and Jackson where some good folks gave that old lady the most proper burial they could under the circumstances. Stacked up some fallen bricks around her, spread a tarp over top, painted a message on it: ‘Here Lies Vera. God Help Us.’ Well, somebody grabbed Vera up eventually. Casket’s gone now, just a pile of bricks. Her old husband doesn’t know where she went. I’ve met the man. Nicest old fellow you could hope to meet. And it breaks your heart to tell him you can’t really help him out. Yes, we probably do have Vera back there somewhere. She is one of the 842, I’d lay odds on that. But I wish you luck trying to pick her out from any of the others.. Let me tell you this too, gentlemen, while we’re on the subject. Those folks that buried Vera? They had the best intentions, but it was not purely out of respect that they put her in a box. They did what they did because Vera had been laying in that empty lot for five days and her body was putrefying into ooze. Vera was getting to be a health hazard and they had to take care of that. Because after five days it was fairly clear that no one else was going to. Again, harsh, I know. But gentlemen, this is as harsh a situation as any of us will live to see, knock on wood.” He rapped a thick fist against the bar.

He stared down at the floor for a few seconds, then hiked the Michelob to his lips and finished it with a quick swallow. He set the bottle softly on the bar and did not motion for another. Several more men took the pause as an opportunity to slip out, offering quiet good evenings to the other patrons. The rest of us did not have to exchange a word to know that we were all in for the duration. The man behind the bar even turned down the volume on the jukebox, paying silent tribute to our barstool griot. For a moment it appeared as though the harrangue might have been finished, the storyteller staring blankly, murmuring, possibly chuckling to himself. But soon enough he looked up again, black eyes ablaze with some passion we had not yet seen.

“I spoke with two women the other day, two of the protestors. These women, lovely people both, they watched their mother die at the Convention Center. She had respiratory problems that no one in that particular pit of hell was equipped to handle, and she died there in front of her daughters and her neighbors and several scores of absolute strangers. And when they finally came to get the people out, these women were told their mother would have to stay behind. And now I have her. Their mother is one of my 842, one of the few we have positively identified, one of the few who came to us intact and unmutilated. And still we cannot hand this woman over to her own children for the burial she deserves. Because we need to follow regulations and procedures and address the needs of each and every one of our cabinets full of human jelly before we dare let this woman slip out of our sights. And that is something I could not, can not, tell her daughters. I only told them I sympathized with them and I would do everything in my power to expedite the process. Lord knows that isn’t nearly enough, but it’s all I have to offer.”

He stood from the stool then, a slow motion, unfolding his tensed muscles with a deep inhalation. We thought again that he had finished and was headed home to a restless bed, but he turned his eyes to the rafters and resumed, his voice calm and even again. “Something to consider, gentlemen – we haven’t seen the end of this yet. Our 842 bodies? Two dozen of those showed up in the last week. Six weeks after the storm. From October 10 to October 14, they found 32 new bodies in Louisiana. Six goddamned weeks after the storm. How in the hell is a man expected to deal with that? And they’re still coming. They will keep bringing me more every week, more shriveled children, more bloated grandmothers, more broken black bodies and rotted out white ones. And the protests will get bigger and bigger. They’ll shout and they’ll chant and they’ll sign petitions and none of it will get them one lick closer to getting their relatives out of that morgue. Those people want closure and they deserve closure and we cannot give it to them any more than we can just say the hell with it and torch the whole goddamned building and all our 842 goddamned ‘individuals’ and just try to forget this whole godawful business and start our goddamned lives over again.”

The dark eyes scanned the room again but it was clear that they were not seeing anything they passed over. “I have heard a lot of talk in the last month and a half about how badly the government let us down. And it’s true, they certainly did. Our government has failed us. But so has God. And man. And science and society and technology and history and money and justice and love and hope and faith. The only one who has not failed in all of this is nature. Because from nature’s perspective, this can only be one of her greatest successes. In three short days she reclaimed for herself a great swath of land we stole from her more than three centuries ago. But aside from nature, every element that could have failed has failed, and for now all we can do is deal with it, each according to his own means and situation.

“I don’t know what that entails for any of you gentlemen. Frankly, I don’t much care. For me, it entails 842 bodies stacked in a morgue. Eight-hundred forty-two filthy, decaying, inhuman individuals, each of whom must be identified and processed according to a system that was never designed to accommodate half the burden with which it is currently faced. And it entails also ignoring to the best of my ability those sad-eyed women with the protest signs who I see on my way in and my way out every single goddamned day. And it entails closing my eyes at night and fighting my way through noseless women and ant-bitten children and reeking puddles of every goddamned fluid that ever seeped out of a human orifice before I can slip into that miserable purgatory that has passed for sleep for six weeks now. And it entails coming in to this godforsaken hole every evening, watching every face turn away as I pass, as if I was the killer of those 842 and not merely the caretaker, and sitting at this goddamned bar drinking St. Louis riverpiss instead of my beloved Dixie, and listening to mindless chatter about stock cars and football and home repair because every man in the place is too goddamned scared to turn on the television and look what is happening square in the eye, just as every man in the place is too scared to look me in the eye and see the reflection of 842 neighbors who will never go home again, even if they had any homes left to return to.”

And on cue, we all looked away. Not one of us had yet looked him full in the face through the whole narration, but now we looked further away, down between the floorboards, straining eyes seeking out microscopic particles beneath our shuffling feet. And we heard that sad attempt at a smile creep back into his voice as it softened again, smoothing itself out into a mellow baritone heavy with exhaustion.

“I don’t know. A man has limits, you must understand. I suppose I never had much indication of what those limits were until all of this came down. But I tell you this, gentlemen: I am close. I am mighty goddamned close. It won’t be very long and you’ll come motoring up that mortuary road and you’ll pass me out there at the entrance, waving my sign and reciting my poems and demanding that we let those poor people out of that godforsaken building and simply let their folks give them a decent Christian rest.

“I feel for those people out there. Really, truly, really, I do.” He drew a breath in slowly and let it out through his nose. The place was silent for a few beats, save for some shifting in chairs and clearing of throats.

When we finally raised the nerve to lift our heads, he was gone.

Before the end of the hour, so were we.

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