May 12, 2009
The wench tending the Old Absinthe Bar on Pirates Alley in the French Quarter of New Orleans last week had already been fairly well schooled in Utah ways before the shadows of the two current pilgrims fell across the door.
There had been this invading army of red-clad University of Utah football fans who showed up for the Sugar Bowl early last January, it seems, and, although greatly outnumbered by enthusiasts of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, cut a most exuberant swath across the "Big Easy" party zone.
For the most part, they were not cut from the same cloth as Louisiana folk had come to expect from the land of Zion. There wasn’t one iota of piousness in this outfit. Rather, they were pretty much "in your face" with their gridiron loyalties and possessed a collective inability to pace themselves grog-wise that rivaled the ‘Bama bunch. Academic institutions being what they are, you’ll have that.
If the truth be known, our investigative team, at least the one taking mental notes to be chronicled later, had similar issues a time or two with over-participation in the liquid arts. He even delivered a glancing blow to the driver’s-side front quarter panel of a slow-moving late-model pickup truck while "strolling" Bourbon Street.
For the most part, however, the libations of choice served as table garnish for the epic amounts of shrimp, oysters, crawfish, and crab being consumed on a regular basis by "Team Decadence" during their stay. Although, upon arrival, they had New Orleans jazz, literature, and architecture in their crosshairs, ignoring the culinary arts was not an option.
Down at the Café du Monde, the many splotches of errant powdered sugar that had been piled high upon the beignets before ending up on the floor called to mind a wilder time, recreationally, on Park City’s Main Street. Thankfully, for most of the faithful, those days have come and gone.
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And that brings us to the wonderful chicory-based coffee of New Orleans and especially the latte served with the deep-fried beignets at the aforementioned café. The "Hurricanes" at Pat O’Brien’s you have to sample due to their notoriety, but there is nuance to a cup-of-Joe thereabouts that seldom shows up in alcoholic beverages.
The freedom to wander anywhere about the "Vieux Carre" with a drink in your hand, from the apartment occupied by Tennessee Williams when he applied the finishing touches to "A Streetcar Named Desire" to the "Faulkner House" a few blocks away, is pretty much all the subtlety one requires when the hotel room is close at hand.
The rules are different out past the Garden District near the end of the St. Charles streetcar line but, out there, the neighborhoods supply their own visual intoxications. This is Anne Rice "Interview With a Vampire" country where the Neville Brothers often hold forth at "Tipitina’s" and near where Snooks Eaglin, prior to his recent passing, brought true guitar virtuosity to Mid-City Lanes.
Finding old haunts of Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Buddy Bolden went well, although budgeting the time to locate the rental-mansion studio Daniel Lanois used to record Dylan’s "Oh Mercy" album didn’t pan out.
The grand prize blast-from-the-past last week, however, had to be relocating the old "Seven Seas" on St. Philip. Back during a couple of pre-and-post Thanksgiving French Quarter stops in 1966 it served as existentialist ground-zero for pilgrims wandering the then quite-dissident desert.
As many of its ilk, it now goes under another name and another vibe. Rumor has it that an old habitué and later barkeep and still later manager who went by "Little Joe" is now in Angola — not the African country but the Louisiana prison. Oh my, forty-some years in the blink of an eye.
The week ripened to a fullness with evenings at Preservation Hall and Snug Harbor book-ending time at New Orleans Jazz National Park and museum walks through the "Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll" and "100-years of Zulu."
Congo Square, where slaves were "allowed" to pound drums and recreate rhythmically, and Storyville, the famed red-light district where jazz first began to evolve, were also high points. Not to mention a one-on-one tour of WWOZ (New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Community Radio) and, after taking the ferry across the Mississippi to Algiers, a stroll down the Jazz Walk of Fame.
And it’s quite possible there was even a sighting of Stanley Kowalski having his way with Blanche DuBois on a back porch in Elysian Fields while Stella was away. But, then again, that vision might well have been absinthe induced.
It’s a town both hell-bent and holy, where devils and angels alike get their due and cameras, even under the protection of "gris-gris," cease to function in the presence of voodoo dolls. Just ask the Crimson Tide.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.