“Marigny Strolling” in the deep and dense foggy night with heavy moonlight on Frenchmen Street just behind the Vieux Carré. Stumbling and bumbling and rumbling, it’s New Orleans city bouncing from D.B.A to the Blue Nile music venues. It’s all smoke and beer and whiskey and sex and sax and funk and trombone. The band starts its third piece still on the first set. It’s Saturday night; everything clicking just right. Big man sousaphonist blows left and right, up and down, pumping the knees marching-style while blowing the hell out the brass. The crowd, hot and high and frenzied, swing forward, backward, left, right, it does not matter. Trombonist with cheeks puffing out like a blowfish about to explode like the “wafer-thin” fat man Mr. Creosote and The Meaning of Life. Drummer desperately tries to maintain pace wildly beating on Kerouac’s[i] “rolling crash of butt-scarred drums.” Trombone man puts down his brass to shout, “You got to wind it up” and something about Michael Buck while the crowd cares less about the actual words because it’s only the beat that means a damn thing.
The off beat with the cymbal hit 4/4 but the drummer just plays a series of hits like to a steady quarter note stream providing a conduit to a living breathing culture like the Ogou gives passage to the spirit world of gods and their lambs. Mobs of revelers balancing beers and cocktails spilling all over the place as a smoke hangs from the right side of my lips while a pretty one twirls like a well-balanced top from my left hand.
And it’s not about being cool, or dancing, or the repetitive lyrics, or Goffman’s[ii] presentation of self, or feeling as one collective connected to that proverbial something larger. Group reified consciousness is for amateurs who don’t understand, Marx’s[iii] capitalist opiates for Horkheimer and Adorno’s[iv] popular culture and Marcuse’s[v] one-dimensional man. Rather, it’s a sense of the sadness of the culture that makes you work hard to become aware of it. You battle with the culture knowing it’s not good enough for you while it rejects you and your arrogant sense of self-importance. Arrogance is lost in the screaming trombones and beating drums as is all sense of some core essence of self or claim to authenticity or thoughts that you matter or illusions that you are part of something more. No one here tries to rescue Simmel’s[vi] individual subjectivity from cannibalizing objective culture. It’s like surrender but not in Saul’s bullshit religious way to the externalized subjective thing they call God. The surrender has nothing to do with power or the loss of it, it’s about realizing the simultaneous destruction of the self to save the self, the creation of culture through resisting it, saving the world by realizing it needs to be obliterated. It’s about endless destruction to satisfy the human need for self-realization. The drummer beats and the trombonist trombones to funk and splash and shrieks and no one knows yet that there is something here to get. It’s as if the music makers teasing out that moment of it, the first wave will know and the knowing will know they know and they will move in a knowing way until it spreads and begins to respond. A cultural dance to commence between the makers and receivers, this dialectical creation of music as passageway to all that is frightening and history and mythical and reality. Here in down-and-dirty NOLA we reclaim reified culture and give it our own human identity.
The mood suddenly changes when the sweat-drenched face-clinching man with a long white t-shirt and baggy, saggy jeans demanding this frenzy stop if only for a moment speaks at the microphone. He’s got a story to tell. It’s of his friend, a guy named Shotgun Joe Williams[vii].
The police killed Shotgun Joe Williams. They shot him dead.
The people don’t know what to do but listen and try to feel what the man at the microphone says perhaps too many times but still somehow evoking that sadness and love for his friend now dead. And no one really knows except knowing that this has something to do with the culture and the music that is the voice of that culture. It gives new meaning to culture not as some unchanging noun handing off knowledge from one generation to another but as a pissed-off verb that won’t accept dying quietly into the unfriendly night. Culture here in New Orleans slaps you right in the face just like the hot sauce that squirts in your eye from the sausage in your jambalaya. But if you look for it, even in the music, if you purposely look for it, it’s as gone as the lover when the front door opens and the back door slams. It’s a subtle reckoning, sometimes Eliot’s[viii] whimper, other times Marx’s[ix] collective sigh, still other times the collective roar of an untamed species of human who say “ya, you right.” The culture moves like a jackass on fire – just like our second-lining – but with direction and purpose. It simultaneously responds to and produces all the collective sighs, feeble whimpers, frightful reckonings and ferocious roars. It is collective in its pure drive of sheer individual human will, but they ain’t willing together, they willing independently, they just willing the same thing. And that is the culture. You get in it by rejecting it, only then will it truly allow you into its labyrinth. The roaring and dancing and kissing and fighting it’s all culture, isolated individuals collectively responding in creative ways to their shared structural circumstances. And Shotgun said “ya you right,” he was part of New Orleans and the police killed him dead. But you can’t kill culture and you can’t kill Shotgun and the band man gonna make damn sure of that. He says:
He got killed by the New Orleans Police Department one day. The police stopped him as he was getting out of his car. The police shot him 17 times in full view of residents in the city’s Treme neighborhood in New Orleans. And when we got to the scene of the crime and we asked the police officers what happened, like what he did, what was wrong, they told us they owed us no explanation. They tell us that today. This case was still not solved so this song, ‘why did they kill him’ and we do this every time we do a show y’all, so, rest in peace.
He don’t wait for reaction just goes groove but with matchstick fire energy as vocals bellow out like Paul Revere on his proverbial horse, “Oh Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?”
“Why they had to kill him?
They had the nerve
To say they protect and serve
Oh why? …
Why they had to kill him?
They need to change their logo
Cause we can’t trust the po-po
And no one knows why just that it’s fucked up society run amuck and some folks ain’t gonna get married and take Disney World trips and build gingerbread houses and that anyway down here in Frenchman up the road and down the block of Treme in this swamp something new and rare is happening that goes beyond just this funk and beat. But like Calgone it takes you away and once again this New Orleans “it” is underway.
And the people are rocking. They don’t know Shotgun but at this very moment wanna shoot the bastard cop who shot ’em.
“Years done passed and now the case is on the shelf
The police they don’t investigate they own self
Thank you for destroying us and killing our folks
The police and your system is just a joke
It’s just all my thoughts and my feelings”
And that last line nobody cares cause everybody knows and the movement of the people and the movement of the band synchronize not because the band says so or because people try but only because they getting the movements of the culture that lies dormant in the deepest of souls.
Why did they have to kill him?
They have the nerve
To say protect and serve
Oh why, oh why
Why did they have to kill him
They need to change their logo
Cause we don’t trust the po-po
We say fuck the po-po”
And the crowd lily pasty white to charcoal black and every wonderful shade in between stick up their middle fingers like a fat boy defying his momma and the beignet she said not to eat and collectively scream with fingers in the air “We say fuck the Po-Po.”
[i] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997.
[ii] Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.
[iii] Tucker, Robert C. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1978.
[iv] Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.
[v] Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
[vi] Simmel, Georg, and Kurt H. Wolff. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. United States: Nabu Public Domain Reprints, 2012.
[vii] Sakakeeny, Matt. “Why Dey Had to Kill Him? The Life and Death of Shotgun Joe Williams.” Louisiana Music Winter 2012 (2012): 143-48.
[viii] Scofield, Martin. T.S. Eliot: The Poems. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
[ix] Tucker, Robert C. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1978.