New Orleans blues – literally, blue – through the eyes of the songwriter (and former member
of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band).
BY JAMIE MCLEAN
sitting in my seat and looking out the window of the plane as we were getting
ready to land. The city of New Orleans was blue.
No… not blue
like when your girlfriend runs off on you, or blue like you can’t pay the rent,
or blue like the day Ray Charles died.
It wasn’t even sky blue or Carolina blue or baby blue. It was that funky, shiny, unnatural,
construction site blue that only a million tarps covering every god-damn roof
in the Crescent City could project. I’m not talking about a house here and a
house there. I’m not talking about a
neighborhood here and a neighborhood there.
I’m talking about flying into a major city in the United States and seeing the whole fucking place
covered in tarps. I vividly remember
sitting in a dressing room before a show in New York a few years ago with Anders Osborne. He said “The best city in the world is New York City but the best PLACE in the world is New Orleans.”
It’s hard to argue and I couldn’t agree more. Sorry Cleveland.
Sorry Tulsa. New Orleans has got its own groove and it’ll never
That’s why it
was so sad to look out of that plane window and see such an amazingly unique
city so down and out. N’awlins has more
soul, originality, heritage, vibe, juju, voodoo, essence, funk than
anywhere. Its got parades, saints,
sinners, Louis Armstrong, brass bands, big bands, rock bands, funk bands, second
lines, the best party you’ve ever been to at a funeral, reds and yellows and pinks
and whites for the Mardi Gras Indians, and now its just that fucked up, shiny, unnatural,
construction site blue.
The problem is, that
isn’t the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen.
I got my luggage
(Fender Stratocaster and a backpack) from baggage claim and waited for a cab in
that thick, warm, sticky Louisiana air.
I was eager to get back to my place and sort out the life I’d left
behind since Hurricane Katrina hit 4 months prior. As we started down
Interstate 10 towards the city things looked better than expected. Some of the restaurants and stores had power,
signs for the casinos and strip clubs were up and you could smell fried shrimp
po boys. “Back in the game!”
But as we got
closer to the skyline of the city and the Superdome came into view all I could
see were those damn tarps again. This
time they were UNDER the I-10 overpass.
WTF? These tarps were no longer
patching roofs. They had become
roofs. Interstate 10 had become a tent
village like something out of Slumdog Millionaire. People who had nowhere to go were setting up
shop under the highway. This was the
same highway the locals were forced to march down by police as they set off for
a “safe haven” at the Superdome. Now it
was home. The interstate had become a
refugee camp and the side roads had become automobile graveyards filled with
thousands of abandoned cars that had taken on too much water and sand from Lake Pontchartrain.
The next day I
drove around the city with my friend Ian to check out some of the different
As we headed towards
the levees it felt like we were on the set of a movie. NOTHING looks like THIS. Ya know?
Dirt and mud were everywhere.
Trees were up and out of the ground and had splintered like they were
matchsticks. Windows were blown out
everywhere you turned. You could drive
for miles and never see another person. There were boats on top of houses. There were cars up in the trees. There were waterlines marking each and every
house we passed. Some of them were lucky
and only got it up around the windows.
Some of them weren’t as lucky. I know that a few months ago there were
Mardi Gras beads and old photographs and saxophones floating in these
neighborhoods. Some of those photos were
one of a kind shots of Professor Longhair or James Booker. Some of those horns belonged to the Dirty
Dozen and the Rebirth and the Hot 8. I
know there were bodies floating around these neighborhoods. One of them was probably Irvin Mayfield’s
father. God bless him and thank God I
didn’t see any of that.
I asked Ian what
the spray paint was all about. There was
now spray paint on every house in New Orleans.
I’m not talking about hip NYC street art or some ill prepared graffiti. It was very organized and every house had the
same tag on it. Well… almost the same
tag. Each house we passed had a big X
spray painted on the side of it. The
kind of X you’d see on a pirate’s map marking the spot where the booty was
buried. I could tell you one thing. There sure as shit wasn’t any treasure
In each corner
of the X was a number. The first group
was a date. 9/3 or 9/16 or 9/22. This was the date that the National Guard
broke in the front door of the house like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A second group of numbers labeled which unit
came to search the house. Generally
these groups of numbers were all pretty similar. The dates and units were all about the same
depending on the neighborhood. It was the
final number that really got me. Usually it was a 0. People prayed for a 0. Every now and then it
was a 1. As you got closer to the levees and the poorer neighborhoods you’d see
2’s and 3’s and 4’s. These were body
counts. These were body counts spray
painted on the front door of every house in New Orleans. These were body counts spray painted on the
sides of every house in a major city in the United
Was it fucked up
that people had to live under 1-10? Sure. Was it fucked up that Fats Domino had
to canoe out of his home while his piano floated away? Amen. Most people saw
this on the news and thought about that time they got too shitfaced at Mardi
Gras with their buddies and felt bad and maybe gave a buck or two and then
turned the channel. But at the end of the day, New Orleans now had boats in the
trees, cars on top of houses, major history washed away, abandoned
neighborhoods, abandoned citizens, and body counts spray painted on the sides of
To actually get
there and see this with my own eyes was far and away the most fucked up thing
I’ve ever seen.
Now the water
has finally rolled back and the Saints finally won the Super Bowl and Mardi
Gras has a little less blue and whole lot more red and white and yellow and
black and gold and pink and orange and green this year. The soul of that city
will never die and I’m proud to have been a member of Dirty Dozen Brass Band
and to have called New
home. I’d like to think a little bit of that soul, funk, and blues has rubbed
off on me and my music.
And I’m not talking
about that funky, unnatural, shiny, construction site blue. I’m talking about that when your girlfriend
runs off on you blues, that can’t pay the rent blues, that ain’t got no home
blues, that “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” blues, and that
day that Ray Charles died blues. Amen.
Jamie McLean was a member of Dirty Dozen
Brass Band and has recorded and performed with Dave Matthews, Norah Jones,
Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Widespread Panic, Dr John, North Mississippi
Allstars, Blues Traveler, Taj Mahal, Black Crowes and many others. His latest
album Completely is released on April 13 although prior to that date you can
download the album at www.jamiemcleanband.com and “pay what you want” for the digital version. He kicks off major national
tour on April 10 – tour dates at his website.