Down and Out Then Back up Higher New Orleans

One evening in late 1980, my pal Jimmy Burke, just returned from
the oil rigs of Alberta, called and said, “Hey Tom, do you want to
go drinking? I have four thousand dollars!”
mardi-gras
Being young and enthusiastic — and, erm, thirsty! — of course I
said yes. After a night of many and varied bacchanalian ramblings
around the bars of downtown Montreal — culminating in four guys
crawling into a closet at 3:30 AM at the Hotel Lasalle and finding
a case of warm beer, a bunch of oranges and a pecan pie – Jim
and I decided to go to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

The first part of our travels was fun, while our money lasted. I
saw the ocean for the first time in Fort Lauderdale. We were in
Washington the weekend of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
We visited artist friends in Manhattan and encountered
assorted burned out Vietnam vets, escapees from suburban
life and “others” on the road. I’ll leave the others to your
imagination, but suffice it to say it was an expanding
experience.

To be honest, I had no sense of direction in my life at that time.
I was elated just having escaped the school system in one piece.
All I wanted to do was get on stage and sing and play my guitar.

Driving around the Southern states gave me many opportunities
to do that, and the receptions I received were generally
enthusiastic, and occasionally ecstatic. One afternoon in
particular, near Mobile Alabama, I got up in a crowded bar and
played a 45 minute set and received a standing ovation.

I played Ray Charles tunes (Hit the Road Jack and Georgia on My
Mind) and some requests…old folk and blues classics, an original
tune or two perhaps. Some cosmic coincidence inspired me to play
‘Time in a Bottle’ by Jim Croce, and the manager was over the
moon. He told me after my set that he had the lyrics framed in his
home and that he loved what I was doing and would I like to play
there. Pal Jimmy chimed in enthusiastically that we lived in a van
and for some crazy reason that put the kibosh on the gig in Mobile.

I soon found that, despite my musical aspirations constantly being
stoked by traveling in the land of Elvis and Louis Armstrong and all
the great blues men — and the inspiring fact that the world from
which they sprung was still there — palpable in the air all around
us — I was becoming despondent at my lack of progress.

Enter the Black Angel

It was March 1, 1981, a Sunday morning, two days before Mardi
Gras. As you may know, Mardi Gras — or Fat Tuesday — is the last
great hurrah before forty days of lent when good Catholics the
world over give up all the things they’ve been indulging in day
and night the rest of the year.

It was 7 AM and I was sitting in Jackson Square. The night before
I had sat in a bar and listened to the Al Davis band. Al was a
trumpeter, and had a sax player, a Polish chap, whom he
introduced repeatedly as “The World’s Greatest Saxophone Player”.
In the one set I saw he did two seven minute solos and while he
played nobody could doubt that he really was the greatest
saxophone player in the world.

But here I was the next day slouched over on a bench…looking
at my feet, feeling despondent. Where was I going? What was I
doing? Why wasn’t I making any progress in my ‘music career’?
Suddenly, I heard a soft voice behind me, saying, “Hey baby,
play me a little song on that guitar”.

It was a preposterous request, given that I was so obviously and
dramatically communicating to the world my unresourceful and
depressed state. And the voice gave no indication of anything
but positive expectancy. So I turned to tell its owner to bug off.
(Well, that’s a bit mild compared to what I was actually going
to say.) Didn’t he realize that I was feeling bad? That I was in
no mood for anything positive?

Then I saw the face of the man standing there at my shoulder.

He was open and smiling and kind. He was fairly old… probably
in his sixties, which seemed ancient to me at that age. And he
was black, with tight white curly hair. He had probably seen a
lot of hard traveling but nothing in his features betrayed any
signs of bitterness.

A voice inside me said, “Listen to this man. Whatever he tells you
to do, do … watch and learn” It was as though a master had been
sent my way to give me instruction in the art of street performing,
and something altogether more.

So, I pulled out my guitar and played “Born to Lose”, a Ray Charles
classic.

“Born to lose
I live my life in vain
Every dream has only brought me pain
All my life I’ve always
Been so blue
Born to lose and now I’m losing you”

I did it with as much gospel soul as I could muster on a damp
Sunday morning. I was afraid he might say, “Honky, you ain’t
got no soul!” But said. “Come on. We’re gonna make some money
today.”

The first place he took me was LaLa’s grocery on St. Ann Street.
The street was empty but Lala’s was open. He indicated a spot on
the sidewalk right out front, and said, “Play a song”. As incongruous
as it seemed, I followed what my birdie had told me before.

Shut up and do whatever he says!

That’s right, play a song to an empty street. Why not? And, which
song to play? I thought of Hank Williams and one of the two songs
I could think of with a Louisiana connection. So I chose Jambalaya.

“Jambalay, crawfish pie, filet gumbo
For tonight I’m a gonna to see my machez amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayo”

Well, guess what? Very quickly a small crowd emerged from their
apartments above onto the balconies above the street, made
approving noises and threw down a couple of pocketfuls of
quarters. Suddenly we had a stake. With our first shot of winnings
we acquired two bottles of “wine” each…the kind of wine that comes
from a mickey bottle. One white and one red. I followed his lead in
this too. The white was called “White Port” and the red was
“MD 20/20”

If you’ve ever been to the deep South you’ll know I’m not making
this up.

So off we went into the outer edge of the French Quarter. We
quickly developed a routine with multiple variations. He would
single out a person or small group walking along the street and
greet them warmly extending his hand. If anyone took his hand,
we knew we had them. He would spontaneously issue a quick
whispered instruction to me based on his appraisal of the
situation. Depending on his reading of the person, the instruction
might be…”Play a song on the guitar”, or, “I’m gonna sing you a
song” or “I’m going to do a little dance”.

After a spirited performance…usually consisting of a verse and
chorus of a song, with or without harmonica or dancing, he would
fix our audient with a warm but firm smile, doff his hat in their
direction and say, “A little something for the kitty”—every time
with the exact same tone.

They would dutifully reach into their pocket and drop a few coins
into his hat whereupon he would thank them, and then in the next
moment he’d shift his gaze to their other pocket — you know the
one where the folding money lives – give them the saddest,
sorriest most hangdog expression you could imagine and say,
“I know you got more in there, I CAN SEE IT!!!”

This was a masterstroke of busking. I couldn’t believe his nerve,
and his dramatic flair, and I was amazed at how well it bumped a
person from a couple of quarters to a couple of dollars.

Our customer, still glowing from their personal mini concert and
the warm smile and connection they felt with my friend…would
reach into their “other” pocket and drop a bill or two into the hat.

So, off we went, deeper and deeper into the French Quarter,
stopping occasionally for refreshments, meeting more people
and picking up more “little somethings” along the way.

Before I relate the climax of our little tale, let me paint a picture
of the French Quarter at Mardi Gras. By this time, it is a non-stop
party. By early afternoon the crowds are teeming and surging…
and have a life of their own. There are constant parades and
pageants and distractions and literally hundreds of thousands
of thrill seekers out in force, in a very small area, making the
scene. To give you a feel for how thick the pedestrian traffic is,
let me relate two incidents.

I walked by a man on Canal street who was preaching the gospel
into an elecrified megaphone. In the course of two or three steps,
I heard something like, “And I say to you…that if you give your…”
and by then the sound of a boom box playing, “Celebration” by
Kool and the Gang (it topped the charts in February 1981)
completely washed away the loud sounds that were dominating
my ears just a second before. And a second or two after that it
was something else.

Okay, so now you know it’s noisy and crowded. Now let me
give you a sense of just how thickly concentrated the throng
was that day. By the time we were well into the Quarter,
moving required us to push sideways through the crowd.
I had my guitar pressed firmly against my body, doing my
best to minimize my width to facilitate squeezing between
the tightly packed people.
mardigras2007184

It would take perhaps thirty minutes to move one hundred
yards…if you can picture that you know it was very, very
crowded.

And here we were inching towards the middle of the French
Quarter. By now we were unable to stop anyone and sing for
them, and I wondered what he was doing, where he was taking
me and why. But I remembered the voice in my head, which
commanded me to simply follow him without question.

Finally we reached the middle of the intersection of Bourbon
and St. Peter…the epicentre of New Orleans. That’s where
Preservation Hall is…on one corner. And just over there is the
legendary Pat O’Brien’s…where the Hurricanes are so delicious
and potent, that few can drink three and walk without falling down.
Drinking four is simply out of the question.

So I’m standing there with my guitar squished up against me,
people all around, ten deep, one hundred deep, one thousand
deep in every direction. He looks at me and says, “Now”.

What could he possibly mean?

Just the fact that we’ve been busking in the French Quarter
during Mardi Gras seemed strange enough. Mary Mike, a
busker lady we’d befriended, had told me with firm authority
around Valentine’s Day that it was no use trying to busk during
Mardi Gras due to the noise and crowds. All the buskers knew
this and had retreated to other climes to return after the party
was over and done with for another year.

I thought back to the moment in front of Lala’s grocery earlier t
hat day. I had listened to him then and things had turned out so
much better than I could imagine.

So I pulled out my guitar…and let me tell you it wasn’t easy to
get it out of the case, which was squished beside me,
perpendicular to the ground. I managed to let it fall to the ground
and my friend, did I mention Thomas was his name?, managed to
convey to the people standing around that something noteworthy
was about to happen.

With my most plaintive and savage yell, I belted out the opening
lines of “Hey Now”, Ray Charles’ classic twelve bar blues.

“WEEEEEELLLLLLLL…did you ever wake up in the morning?
Just about the break of day…”

Now the people started moving apart, responding to the murmur
moving through the crowd.

“Reach over and rub the pillow
Where your baby used to lay…”

Now a circle was widening all around me and Thomas…he was
dancing and leaping like a flame and acknowledging the crowd…
every fibre of his beautiful being was saying “Look here…listen…
isn’t this amazing….”

“Hey now…hey now
It’ll make you feel so bad
That you lay right down and die”

Now someone reached into their pocket and threw a handful of
change into the circle which by now had firmed up…about fifteen
feet across. Very quickly others followed suit and the sound of
coins jangling on the cobblestones punctuated the turnaround
section leading into the second verse.. you know the “bump de
bump” guitar vamping between verses of a blues tune.

Okay, so I’ve taken you this far…now to the payoff pitch… or the
crystal moment. As I began the second verse..

“Then you put on a cry
Like you never cried before
You’ll even cry so loud
You’ll give the blues to your neighbour next door…”

…somewhere within that second verse, the people in the balconies
all around (and there were rows of balconies going up two and
three stories and around the corners of the buildings) got into the
spirit and threw their fistfuls of coins which created an even louder
jingle as they bounced off the cobblestones. As I entered the second
chorus…

“Hey now..hey now
You’ll get the blues so bad
That you wanna lay right down and die”

… I looked up and the crowd was buzzing and people on the
balconies had hurled their coins which were bouncing cheerfully
off the street and nobody was touching our money..they were
kicking the rolling and bouncing coins back into the centre of the
circle and the air was full of money falling down….coins and
crumpled bills turning in the light in slow motion…

That was one of the most amazing and unforgettable sights I’ve
ever seen…

And then the song ended – to applause — and Thomas and I
scooped up the money into my guitar case and went and sat
down somewhere and enjoyed a drink and a laugh. He asked
me to find him the next day but I never saw him again. Pretty
soon I was on the road for Vancouver where I ended up getting
a gig as a Leprechaun, but you know all that if you’ve been
following these ramblings.

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