May 24, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.Wendell Pierce slide-synchs along with actual New Orleans musicians at the airport. (Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)
Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes, than to own the whole state of Ohio.
--Lafcadio Hearn, 1879
Hearn's quotation, voiced by John Goodman's Creighton Bernette, rings eerily true in the post-Katrina New Orleans of Treme. Episode seven of the first season gives us two dead bodies, police brutality, closed businesses and the double dealing of an election season. And yet, the unique artistic spirit that defines New Orleans persists, on the backs of those determined to honor its traditions in spite of the natural and man-made disasters.
To talk about some of those artistic expressions (HBO's full playlist here), I'm joined once again by Josh Jackson of WBGO.
© 2010 WBGO
May 17, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.John Goodman's Creighton Bernette (left) and Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary: kindred spirits, in a twisted sense. (Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Skip Bolen/HBO)
Pot for potholes
Hos for schools
Always for pleasure
Break all the rules
Episode six of Treme begins and ends with outlandish political satire. Davis McAlary's self-amused campaign for city council launches, and launches the show, in earnest, parading down a wide avenue in a flatbed pickup truck blaring music, giving away CDs, and slapping strippers on their butts. Meanwhile, the whole Bernette family dresses as sperm as the Krewe du Vieux parade courses past, its highlight a giant float of then-mayor Ray Nagin in bed nursing an outsized nocturnal emission.
It must be with a bit of a wink that the writers of Treme made John Goodman's Creighton wary of Zahn's Davis; they seem like kindred spirits as New Orleans apologists with loony streaks. Their aims aren't the same; the Krewe du Vieux simply lampoons major political figures, while Davis' council run is at least half-serious. But they're certainly more akin than Creighton wants to let on to. Davis' platform can't possibly win (especially if he wants to legalize illegal drug sales, as we learned from season three of The Wire), but it can act as a gadfly, speaking out on topics other candidates won't touch with absurd humor. If anger is occasionally a proper response to injustice (a la Creighton's "f--- you, you f----- f--s"), humor has just as much potential as a community statement.
Enough of that. Josh Jackson of WBGO joins me again via email to talk about the episode's music (full playlist here), and whatever else comes to mind.
© 2010 WBGO
May 10, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.L-R: Actual New York chefs Tom Colicchio, Eric Rispert, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang crash the fictional New Orleans restaurant of Janette Desautel. (Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)
So you know when, in episode five of Treme, those four big-time chefs come in from New York to eat at Janette's restaurant? She makes a point not to "out New York" them, but still hits them with artful Southern cooking: sweet potato andouille shrimp soup, rabbit kidneys wrapped in bacon lardons, crawfish and grits, lamb, etc. Janette impresses those guys, and they seem loose and relaxed. It seems to me to be saying something to the effect of "we do it our own way here" — but still at a very high level, objectively speaking.
Well-stated. Negotiating the line between New Orleans and New York has its rewards, whether you're a big chief, a big chef, or Louis Armstrong. Negotiating your way through a plate of grits and grillades versus a pastrami sandwich is helpful to understand the difference.
Oh, hello again Josh Jackson of WBGO. You know, I can see a theoretical parallel scene in my head: Delmond is going to show up in a later episode with a bunch of New York jazz musicians, and they're going to be really impressed with the local talent.
They should be. Connecting to the music of New Orleans can be a powerful experience. On that note ...
© 2010 WBGO
May 3, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.John Boutte performs the Treme theme song and prominently in episode four as well. (Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)
We're only four episodes into Treme. But one idea that keeps recurring: everyone is ultimately doomed, and everyone manages to crack an occasional smile in spite of it all.
Insurers' greed, correctional incompetence, municipal utilities failure, corruption, death of loved ones, physical injury, resentment, racism, relationship drama, parental guilt and the federal government's crocodile tears greet every character at every turn. But for nearly everyone, playing, hearing or being around music enables some sort of familiar grin. Davis' madcap songwriting, Antoine's gruff incantations (to LaDonna in particular), Albert's Indian rituals, Sonny and Annie gigging, Toni and Creighton's Christmas music, Jacques' kitchen radio, Delmond's sheepish encounter with jazz greats and so forth: whether transmuting their emotions or escaping from them, music is there for people. Even the visual sequence behind the theme song juxtaposes images of hurricane destruction with an upbeat, good-mood tune.
Part of this is the character of musical theater, sure: everything gets filtered through song. But it's especially effective for Treme. There's powerful, unmitigated grief in the show, met by bureaucratic mess. And if you think about oil spills, erosion, global warming and inevitable future hurricanes, nothing seems to be working in Louisiana's favor. When faced with the mortality of your entire culture and community, the humor tends toward darker shades of black. New Orleans just so happens to have great music as a way to work through that.
Again joining me to talk about the music is WBGO's Josh Jackson. HBO's full playlist is here.
© 2010 WBGO