|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008|
All right, it’s not fantasy, unless Mardi Gras is fantasy, and it’s a reprint from Challenger #1,
but I can’t help it: in any Louisiana-based fanzine themed on music,
Fats Domino and New Orleans must get their due …
" ... Ain't this some shit?"
The speaker was a middle-aged, well dressed black man, one of several. As he spoke he looked towards one of his companions, another black man of about his age: short, stout and dressed in a powder-blue leisure suit and yachtsman's cap, leaning against the side of a late-model Rolls.
"Ain't this something, though?" he repeated. "Wonder if the Beach Boys had to go through this," he snorted.
The short man didn't say anything. The look on his face – disgust and resignation – did the talking for him.
Maybe some detail is in order here. Where we were was the access road outside of the world's second largest room, the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, which loomed over us like Everest. When was the Saturday before Mardi Gras, and the night of the Krewe of Endymion parade, which very shortly was going to proceed inside of the Dome – already we could hear the muffled drums of the leading bands. How we had gotten there was explained by what we were leaning on – a brand new Mercedes and a fairly new Rolls Corniche, the latter with an engraved plate that read FATS on the side. What we were there for was explained by the massive display tower, 10 stories tall, about 100 feet from us:
Which also goes something towards explaining Who: the short stout black man, with the disgusted look on his face, described earlier was none other than the aforementioned Fats Domino, member of the rock'n'roll Hall of Fame, seller of 85 million sum-odd records, predecessor of Elvis and Buddy Holly, certified music legend.
Which leaves only Why, and that's a story and a half. Why I was there at all was due to my friend Rick Coleman, music journalist, "r&b scholar" (according to Rolling Stone – honest). Rick's tight with the Fat Man, see, and Fats had invited Rick – and sorta invited a guest – to come along and see the show. It was likely to be an impressive one, and I prevailed on Rick to let me come along.
Which led us to the Fat Man's house over on Caffin Avenue in the heart of New Orleans' exclusive Lower Ninth Ward. That's a joke, son ... the Lower Ninth Ward is a vast area, some parts slum, some parts merely working class, but none exclusive or even upper-middle class. Fats is rich – no surprise, since his sales during his heyday were in a class with the Beatles or Elvis – but he lives in the Lower Ninth because that's where he grew up and that's where he's most comfortable; his old friends and his old haunts are there.
And there he lives, in a double shotgun house that would be indistinguishable from hundreds of other double shotguns along the avenue if it weren't for the gold and black trim with foot-high letters that spell out FD along the front of the house. (A shotgun, for those of you who aren't familiar with New Orleans' architectural peculiarities, is a house perfectly suited to the long, narrow lots characteristic of the city. It's a house built in a straight line, with one room after another, front to back – if you fired a shotgun through the front door the pellets would go out the back. A double shotgun is exactly what you'd expect – two shotguns in the same frame.) Fats' family lives directly around the comer (the two lots are joined) in a much larger and more elaborate house, probably the most impressive modem house in the Lower Ninth. But Fats, himself, for personal reasons, lives alone in the modest shotgun double on Caffin, with his elaborate kitchen, musical instruments, and sofa made from the rear end of a '57 El Dorado. It's comfortable middle class, not the over-elaborate luxury we've come to associate with rock stars, which may explain why Fats, unlike most of that breed, is approachable, accessible and friendly.
So Rick and I sat and cooled our heels on the El Dorado sofa and watched Fats' entourage – mostly old friends from the 'hood – get his equipment and clothes ready for the evening's performance. And finally we piled into the vehicles – the Rolls and Merc, both of which Fats parks outside on the street (the local car thieves know better). And that led our winding way to the Superdome.
And that's where we stopped, and where we began this story. Because outside the Dome, our less-than irresistible force came in contact with a (mentally) immovable object – the mind of a New Orleans Police Department officer. Or, more precisely, several of them. Several who'd been set to guard this approach to the Superdome – which was, in the event, the only omen we could use – and who just weren't going to let us through the barricades because they didn't have orders.
We pleaded. We remonstrated. We sorta-threatened, although that's not a good thing to do with men who carry guns and who are well known to be unreluctant to use them.
And mostly we waited, in a sort of resigned standoff. The policemen behind the barricades weren't moving, and neither were we – we were staying parked out in the middle of the access road that surrounds the Dome like a belt. Not that we had anywhere to go – every parking place for miles around was taken.
And so we stood – Fats and his entourage looking more and more put out, the cops looking more and more stubborn, and me getting alternately bored and nervous – because I could hear, and clearly now, the sounds of the parade as it approached the Superdome from Canal Street and finally, indeed, could see its leading elements enter the Superdome, blocks down the street from where we stood.
Which started me thinking as to whether or not we were going to miss the party inside ... and what that party was going to be like.
You see, Endymion is one of many Mardi Gras parading organizations – called "krewes" in a deliberate misspelling – whose activities are at the heart of every Carnival. Endymion isn't the most socially distinguished krewe going--in fact, unlike groups such as Comus and Proteus, which are limited to old families and old money, Endymion is open to just about anyone who can pay the (considerable) expenses, and is mostly composed of what might be called well-off tradesmen – plumbing contractors, carpenters, and the like: blue-collar guys with white-collar incomes.
All of this makes for a somewhat more déclassé social experience, but there are compensations. The parade is one of the most elaborate in all Carnival: gigantic floats with moving figures, brilliantly lighted and decorated. (And designed by former fan artist Dany Frolich).
And while most krewes end up with a formal society ball, with all the trappings, including society orchestra, presentations, tableaux and excruciating boredom – Endymion is somewhat looser. Oh, they've got the all the ersatz-royalty accoutrements of the older krewes – queen and court, white tie and formal gowns, but the ball – called the Endymion Extravaganza– tends to be more unbuttoned and much looser, featuring a concert by several bands – four in this case, the Beach Boys … and Fats, who at the moment was still waiting to see if those paragons of mulish stupidity, the members of the NOPD, were going to let him in to do his thing inside the Dome.
And finally, glory be, it happened. We don’t quite know what – just that somewhere, ahead where all the action was, some honcho of the police department must have gotten his head out of his butt long enough to realize what was going on and cleared our little party to proceed – which we did for several blocks, finally halting at the rear entrance to the Dome itself, where I had my first case of sensory overload of the night.
It’s a common thing during Mardi Gras, a season of glorious sensual excess in every way, shape and form – sounds, sights, smells. At the vast portal that leads into the Dome interior, the leading elements of Endymion were already proceeding: small floats, automobiles with smiling, waving beauty queens with Pepsodent smiles and silicon tits, accompanied by portly guys in tuxes, men on horseback, and, I swear to God, a phalanx of Shriners in their mini-bikes and lawnmower-engine go-karts. All of this, combined with the roar of machinery and the blare of the marching bands, the rhythmic tramp of feet and the acrid smell of diesel from the buses parked nearby, was overwhelming. I just stood there and soaked it in.
For a few minutes, until Rick and I were approached by a beautiful young woman, dressed in a formal brocade gown and holding a walkie-talkie. “Are you guys with Fats?” she asked. I guess she approached us since, perhaps being white, we seemed a little less intimidating to her. We responded affirmatively.
“Are you in his band?” she inquired. I shook my head. “He’s a writer,” I replied, “and I’m … I’m his photographer.” Which made sense, since I had Rick’s photo bag around my shoulder.
"Ooohh ..." Her eyes widened. "Are you the two from Rolling Stone?”
Now, if there's one thing I've learned in practicing law, it's to roll with the punches and never correct a misapprehension if it's in your favor...if you can do so without lying. And so I used maneuver #7 – the noncommittal shrug accompanied by the you-guessed-it smile. I had no idea if there were going to be guys from Rolling Stone present, or what they'd look like if there were, but what harm could there be in making hay while the sun shone? Which brought the expected reaction, a combination of cooperation, friendliness, and obsequiousness.
Certain institutions do that. Finally, though, she was interested in making a good impression: she realized that there had been a screwup, Fats was more than a bit annoyed, and that this could get into print, and if it did, she'd better make sure she didn't get the blame. So she schmoozed, and I didn't try to stop her – I was idly wondering if I could get a date out of it. I didn't, but it was pleasant enough, and finally we were waved back into our cars – the next and final (short) leg of our journey was beginning.
We slipped behind a high-school marching band and in front of a duke's float and dashed sideways into one of the service tunnels that honeycomb the Dome floor. We proceeded along the tunnels and finally halted in front of an alcove – which, it turns out, lead to the VIP suites for the performers. Inside, it was quieter – but you could still hear the muffled thunder of the parade somewhere outside.
The suites were beautiful separate rooms for each performer and a large common area. Each artist had his or her name tacked to the door – Fats at one end, and over here, Al Jardine & Mike Love ... Jesus, that brought back memories.
I used to adore the Beach Boys...still do, as a matter of fact, even though they haven't produced any worthwhile new material in a coon's age. But to me, they'll always be part of my youth.
None of the Beach Boys were here yet; they were riding in the parade. But the door was open, and through it I could see the large portable wardrobes that held their stage and street clothes.
Now, I'm a great admirer, and collector, of Hawaiian shirts, which along with blue jeans, are the great American contributions to couture. I wondered aloud to Rick just what kind of Hawaiian shirts the Beach Boys would have. Exquisite, no doubt.
"One way to find out", I said, and hoping that none of the Beach Boys security goons walked in, I pushed the door open and walked over to Mike Love's wardrobe,
reached in and pulled out a particularly magnificent specimen – all tropical flowers and birds of paradise. Yeah, I should've guessed. Rick obligingly photographed me.
We exited that dressing room, feeling like school kids who've gotten away with something, when my eye caught the door on the opposite end of the room: Beach Boys Cheerleaders.
The door was slightly ajar. I knocked – no response, and I didn't expect one – the cheerleaders were on the float with the band. Did I dare enter? I pushed the door open with the toe of my boot and entered the sanctum sanctorum.
the lure of the forbidden – my pulse was pounding, my heart
sounded like thunder in my ears ... I stepped into the middle
of the room and absorbed the vibrations ... the thoughts of the
lovely Beach Boy cheerleaders changing clothes in this very room
... the wardrobe cases were open ... the costumes hanging, jammed
into the racks on hangers. A bit of red sequin caught my eye
– I reached forward and drew forth a magnificently sequined
halter top: and posed for Rick holding it while leering lasciviously,
a brutish satyr defiling the temple of the Muses of Rock'n'Roll
Since Fats and the rest of his group were still lounging about, I decided to check out the progress of the parade.
One of the remarkable things about the Endymion Extravaganza is that the parade actually comes inside the Dome, and threads its way through the formally-attired masses on the floor. I walked onto the floor and again had one of those sensory-overload experiences: the music, the lights like stars in the vast darkness, and most of all, the giant floats – we were through with the small preliminary floats that carry the krewe officers, these were the real things – moving like dinosaurs or battleships through the sea of humanity. Naturally, me spectators were so eager to compete for beads, cups, and other worthless plastic trinkets thrown by the float riders that they casually risked death by pressing right up to the floats as they moved through the crowds. As far as I know, nobody got run over; for which we must, I guess thank Fate, since the crowd's good sense was utterly absent. Also unfortunately absent was the practice – common amongst wymyn at Mardi Gras – of displaying the female mammary appendages in exchange for an extra-generous throw of beads. Must have been the formal gowns.
The floats themselves are beautiful, many double-deckers, all gorgeous with lights and full of moving figures ... the members of the krewe layout a bundle for this stuff. Several of the floats were segmented – that is, two or three normal floats linked together, which made for an interesting time maneuvering through the Dome. After the better part of an hour spent watching the parade, I returned to the dressing rooms, to arrive just in time for a semi-historic moment in rock n' roll history: Fats Domino meets the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys have been around since Day 2 and Fats before Day l – ere Elvis was, Fats walked the Earth. The BB's knew Fats well and worshipped him – Al Jardine had actually asked, shyly, if they could meet him! Unfortunately, Fats has a somewhat more circumscribed world view and is a bit hazy on anyone who came after him (almost everybody). He asked Rick "The Beach Boys – are they a white group?" Yeah, Fats, you could put it that way. I think the only whiter group is The Four Freshmen!
But anyhow: the picture below is a commemoration of this historic meeting between the resplendently-attired Fat Man-the epitome of N.O. R&B, and the greatest exponents of Califor-nai-ay Beach Music. Lost in this blaze of musical talent was Steven Seagal, action-picture star and supposed former CIA hit man (although Spy viewed the last claim with some skepticism) – wandering around the suite trying to look macho. Some people were paying him attention – not too many, though. I was having an amusing time discussing Mr. Seagal with some of the Beach Boys band members when I unfortunately missed Fats' exit to the main stage for his performance. I therefore had to find my way backstage myself, promptly lost my way and found myself clambering over catwalks, compressed stadium seating modules and Ghu only knows what else in an attempt to get there. But I managed to avoid death and saw an opening in the backstage curtain. I went through and found myself with a number of others – including Rick – watching backstage while Fats and the band went at it.
And it was wonderful. Offstage, he's mostly a rotund, frequently-not-jolly old black guy. On stage, he's the same rollicking, freewheeling r&b pianist that was one of the great stars of the early rock‘n' roll era.
Sure, it's all the same stuff he was doing way back when. Who cares? It's incredible, exhilarating, strong and smooth like good whiskey.
But my position backstage wasn't too good, and my feet hurt from standing for so long, and I looked around for a better vantage point – and found probably the best one in the house, not excluding the King, Queen, and Court of Endymion, who were viewing the performance from a table directly past the footlights. The ceremonies earlier had made use of this large stage-prop castle with a long stair leading up to it – and while people were sitting on the lower steps, nobody was at the top, so I climbed on top of a speaker crate, and shimmied my way up – no mean feat for someone of my bulk. And once I'd scaled to the top, I got another of those sensory-overload moments.
Spread out beneath me was the entire scene, like I was a resident of Olympus: Fats and his band playing, the upturned faces of Krewe's court and guest superstars past the stage, the dark, roiling masses of the krewe members and guests on the wide Superdome floor (somewhere out there, I later learned, were Dany Frolich, designer of the parade, and John Guidry, chairman of Nolacon II, both friends of my youth); and on the perimeter beyond, the massive floats were drawn in a circle, lights still blinking, looking like they were a mile away, and beyond that, of course, the vast, dark spaces of the Superdome itself. I grooved on the whole scene, man.
Fats finished his exuberant, physical set by pushing his grand piano across the stage with his stomach and exiting to the wild cheers of the crowd. There was to be no pause between acts – the crowd, totally stoked now, probably would've rioted, formal gowns, white tie and all and the Beach Boys, occupying the other half of the large stage, started immediately.
Another part of my youth – earlier, to tell the truth, than Fats, an appreciation for whom I did not develop until somewhat later in my life – but for me, like I said before, the BB's represent the leading bards of the myth of the American Paradise – i.e., California, a land of sun and ease and topshelf babes, surfing and muscle cars, everything an adolescent could wish for.
Yeah, I know, maybe we know now that paradise might not, all things considered, have been totally paradisiacal, and is definitely not today, but when the legend outstrips reality, print the legend ... and all these years later, they're still printing it, and doing quite well, although as Rick pointed out, the original members no longer perform the very high harmonies on songs like "Hawaii" – too much wear and tear on the vocal cords. As a show, they were terrific, and the appearance of the Beach Boys cheerleaders were fully up to expectations: dancing, prancing, changing costumes at the drop of a hat, always getting a cheer when they'd run on stage ... of course, they excelled at "Be True to Your School,", natch: pompoms, cheerleader outfits, doing handstands and back flips.
What impressed me as well, though, were the lengths to which they went to capture, in their live show, the complex instrumentation of their mid-60's albums, the "Good Vibrations" period: kettledrums, wind chimes, an array of objects to produce "found" sounds, and the like. Generally party music, good time rock n' roll, but with a musical depth that is surprising, and comparable to the Beatles of that period. Makes me wish that Brian Wilson had kept growing as an artist instead of going wacko.
The sets of Fats and the BB's were about 50 minutes each. When the BB's were finished, so were we, although the Endymion Extravaganza was far from over: a local band, the Nobles, was to follow and play till the bitter end. Since it was past 2 a.m. by this point, we decided to vacate. However, when we got to the dressing room, we found our escape was going to be a little more involved: Fats had left without us. We had to get a cab back to his house on Caffin, but still beat him home: he'd undoubtedly followed the usual routine and retired to a local bar with his buddies.
I didn't care. I was blissful. And over all of the other Images of the eventful night, one took precedence: how, when Fats sat down at the piano in from of the audience, four decades seemed to dissolve like sugar in boiling hot cafe au lait. Once more he's 25, and it’s a boiling hot, humid, mosquitoey New Orleans night and he's playing in a joke joint about the size of your living room, which is packed to the rafters with about four times the number allowed by law ... and he's having an incredible time, and the music is pure magic: vibrant and rhythmic, and full of the joy of life.
And may all of us be the same when we're in our 60's.