Edinburgh’s most majestic songwriter loves a bit of jazz. He also likes to write witty & exciting three-part travelogues in America
PART 1: HAPPY LANDINGS
I arrived in New Orleans to a stifling heat and no rain, despite what the forecast had predicted. Retiring to the smoking area for a wee snout I discovered a discarded packet of Marlboro Lights. Initial signs were good. After a long wait the bus came to pick us up. The sign telling us which stop we were at wasn’t working and the bus driver hadn’t heard of my destination, but with a little help from a friendly Cuban lady I managed to get to the apartment. The room was very clean and it was late by the time I arrived so I decided to get an early night and in so doing beat the Jet Lag.
I woke early on Saturday and headed straight into town. After a decidedly suspect breakfast of fried oysters and grits (a disgusting porridgy substance) I made a beeline to Bourban street. The parade was in full swing, the French facades and balconies teeming with revelers in bright clothes, and occasionally not so much clothes, flinging long strings of cheap plastic beads at each other, which seems to be the done thing. Music poured out of every doorway and it wasn’t long before I was chilling in a bar with a cold beer listening to some hard rocking blues played by a way wood looking rabble of rogues begging us for tips so they could keep their kids in beer and cigarettes. From there I made my way down to the Mississippi where a gigantic steamboat greeted me. They apparently did tours but I was more interested in the airboats. Yes – you can go down the Mississippi on an airboat after all. You shall go to the ball! Gentle Ben bitches!! I booked the trip for Thursday, by which time my Mardis Gras hangover should have mellowed.
I inquired with a local busker if there were any open mic nights and he told me there was one at a bar called Check Point Charlies. He warned me it was rough but when I told him I was from Leith where trainspotting was based he said I’d be fine. After a little more music I headed west with the aid of a tourist map I’d picked up to hit Lafayette cemetery where easy Rider was partly filmed. It was a long walk through hoards of revelers, crossing the road practically impossible with all the garish floats laden with elaborately costumed dancers pumping out obnoxiously loud rhythms. But hell, this was what I’d signed up for.
By the time I got to the cemetery it was closed, so I’m going there today instead. The parade finally died down and I managed to cross the road and hit a live jazz bar where I enjoyed the greatest burger I’ve had in my entire life. Hickory sauce with crispy bacon and a melt in the mouth patty cooked to perfection. From there I headed back to the French Quarter only to be trapped once again by a second wave of floats. All I wanted to do was get the bus but this was impossible. No access due to party. And it never ended! I followed the whole procession all the way up the main drag – Canal street – until I was pretty much home by the time I could cross the road. Approximately 3 miles later! So I cut my losses and decided I might as well hit the hay.
Yesterday I headed straight for Check Point Charlie and the area where I’d been told the best music was to be heard. Sure enough it was hipster paradise with boutique coffee shops, gay and lesbian bookshops, real ale bars. But it had a good feel so I spent most of the day there going from bar to bar to keep out of the rain which had started in earnest. I was told that the sign in time for the open mic was seven o’clock. By which time I was told there was no open mics while Mardis gras was happening. So I guess I’d shot myself in the foot there. Oh well. The bar was cool at least. A regular Bukowski dive full of the shadiest dregs of society. A sign on the bar read “Danger – Men drinking”. I felt right at home and soon got chatting to a couple of the local ladies who kept me in drinks all night. They said they liked me but they didn’t trust me. I guess you’ve just got to take what you can get. The night dissolved into an alcoholic blur and I can’t remember much after the sambucas. Needless to say I’m not at my best this morning and so apologize if my writing is a bit sloppy. But I’m ready for another day. A nice breakfast and a walk to the Easy Rider cemetery should sort me out. As far as the food goes. Keeping it simple seems to be the way forward. Until next time – happy fuckin’ Mardis Gras bitches!
PART 2: MARDI GRAS
After finishing up in the library I headed back to the cemetery only to find it closed again. And apparently for the whole of Mardis Gras. So I guess I wouldn’t be spending it taking acid there like in easy rider. I was hungover and desperate for some scram so I got myself a tuna sandwich and a bucket of cola. Still didn’t feel right as I crawled my way back to the French quarter. Coffee didn’t work, hair of the dog didn’t work, and by this point I felt so full of liquid I would burst if I took another drop. So I opted for one of my own unique hangover cures – a nice feelgood film at the cinema. It was another long walk and the film wasn’t on for another hour but I could wait. The film I saw was Fighting with my Family – an unlikely collaboration between Stephen Merchant and Dwain “The Rock” Johnson about a female wrestler from Norwich who makes it big in WWE. A very inspiring, life affirming and funny true story. Just what I needed. I decided to get the taxi back into the city, I’d had enough of walking. Ann Macintosh had recommended a club back on Frenchmen that was apparently good. After some fish I went in and was greeted by the sounds of dixieland swing. Played more than competently by a mixed bag of lively musos of all ages. It was OK, but it still wasn’t the magic I was looking for and it wasn’t quite enough to lift me entirely out of my delicate state and start dancing. So I caught a bus home and decided to live to fight another day. And fight I would have to. It was Mardis Gras!
After a long wait on the bus mixing with a little of the local color I arrived back on Canal Street – New Orlean’s main drag. And the carnival was in full swing. Garish floats crowded with the kind of black and white make up that made Robinson’s jam so controversial and tossing out endless plastic beads, plastic cups and occasionally foam footballs to the greedy, eager hands of the punters below. As it was Mardis Gras I felt I had no choice but to instantly start work on my next hangover. My first beer came at 11am with a delicious roast beef po-boy and from there I had no choice but to follow the parade wherever it took me. Crossing the road was out of the question. Imagine a kind of massive game of snake only more colorful and a bit more drunk. So I snaked my way from bar to bar realizing it was impossible to get back to the French Quarter. I was almost back at the cemetery when the crowd finally relented and I was able to cross the street. Now, more than a little buzzed off the beer and jack Daniels and coke slushy. About half an hour later I was back in the French Quarter where I found a smoking bar. No beer. Just smoking. And the infamous Coyote Ugly bar from off of that film. Complete with slender, scantily clad glitter bunnies bopping on the bar. Like the port of Leith on steroids. I chose not to enter. It scared me a little. Instead I opted for another bar back on Frenchmen where there was some decidedly mediocre blues playing. I was starting to get a little disillusioned with this town. So I took my slightly drunk self up a few buildings and wham! Dixie land in overdrive. Smells like Teen spirit was being blasted out on horns by an all dancing, all rapping gang of eager young ne’er do wells. Energy and vibrancy buzzed off the stage and put all the other acts I’d seen up to that point to shame. And yes I felt my foot tapping, my hips swaying, my arms flailing and before I knew where I was I was dancing. Music this good is so infectious you have no choice. And it just got better! The next band mixed up popular melodies with wild improvisations that always landed perfectly on harmonies so tight there was barely air between them. All delivered with such effortless joy and what can only be described as psychic communication it kind of made me just want to smash up my guitar and give up the whole sorry show. But instead I decided to dance. The saxophonist particularly impressed me. Not that he was the best player. That was definitely the man mountain of the bastard bellows trumpet player. But the saxophonist just looked so crazy.
He was on the stage before anyone else bouncing about like a kid on too much orange juice and candy. A tiny guy but with muscles so well defined he’d put Bruce Lee to shame. In his little white wife beater. He spent the first few minutes of the gig staring angrily at the crowd while periodically glaring at his phone. But pretty soon he was bouncing and glowing like the rest of his merry gang of renegades. A star in the making mark my words. The music kept going but I couldn’t. Drinking since 11 had took it’s tole and 12 hours later I was ready for my taxi home. But New Orleans had finally delivered – and it was contemporary – who’d have thunk it?
Today it’s ash Wednesday and things apparently get a bit religious. Holy water for beer then I guess…?
PART 3: ALIGATORS
Ash Wednesday turned out to be a bit of a non event and besides a few church goers with a dirty cross daubed on there foreheads there was nothing much to report. I spent much of the day just eating and drinking and wondering around the city. Only this time I had my bearings a little better and wasn’t spending quite as much time asking people for directions. I wound up back on Frenchmen eating a burger, enjoying a couple of beverages and listening to some sweet gypsy jazz. All very pleasant. The only thing that tarnished the experience was the constant tipping that is required of you. It seems the whole country is built on tips. I haven’t checked my bank account since I got here but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be pretty. I decided to turn in early as I had a big day planned for Thursday and wanted to be at full power. Riding the bus home I noticed that not many white folks take the bus outside of Mardis Gras. And there you go Mira – that’s my comment on race!
Thursday I started out early with a shower then headed to Canal for an Ihop breakfast of bacon omelette. Not bad. They really do like cream and cheese here though. I had a couple of hours to kill before my air-boat tour so I went for dessert at Pinkberry. I heartily recommend their cookie cream ice-cream. Perfect comfort food. A little wonder down the river front later it was time to catch my bus out to the swamp. It was a little late in coming but we got there. The buildings thinning out as we crossed the river, a couple of the dilapidated houses looking like they came straight out of a horror film or maybe To Kill a Mocking Bird. Coupled with the anonymous stores and retail complexes ubiquitous to the American landscape. When we got the docks I was in hog heaven. Gentle Ben in full effect! Air-boats everywhere. I was on 15 so I made my way and boarded. A seat right at the front. The guide was an incredibly lively fellow, dancing on the spot as he rapped out the names of fishes and plants and Louisiana delicacies. There was no room for shyness apparently so I tried to chip my awe in. Although my comment on the cemetery being closed ‘cus people were pissing on the graves didn’t go down as well as I’d hoped. As we hit the open water he opened up the engine and pretty soon we were flying along just like in that beloved 80s children show, barely skimming the shore. We slowed down as we entered the narrow bayous. Trees I can’t remember the name of looking like they were dripping furn from their branches. You know the ones. You see them on TV all the time.
Then we slowed and right in front of us 2 alligators. A big one lazing on the shore and a smaller one in the water. Why was the smaller one in the water? Because he was stupid according to our all knowing guide who was merrily screaming at him and chucking marshmallows for him to eat. It seems most marshland beasts are fond of marshmallows. This being the preferred bait for every creature we came across. A thoroughly delightful couple of hours marred only by the fact that my face was now burning due to the deceptively strong sun. Our tour guide seemed to enjoy himself the most though. His enthusiasm was infectious. I would say he was only doing it for the tips but he never even asked for any. I gave him one anyway.
Back in the city I decided to celebrate my new found knowledge of Gators by eating some. Gator poppers. Deep fried balls of alligator very popular with the locals apparently. Tasted like chicken. I also tried another local delicacy – red beans and rice. Not bad at all if a little filling. Then I was off to the cinema to see Captain Marvel. The latest in the Marvel film franchise. Purely for the sake of me being able to say I’d seen it first. I won’t say too much about in case there are any Marvel fans in the audience. Suffice to say it does most of the things expected of a Marvel film.
This morning I got the laundry done and my delightful host gave me a lift to the shop for some well needed travel equipment and to a well known seafood restaurant for the still elusive boiled craw-fish. They were no longer elusive and quite delicious. All I had left on my food checklist now was the famous fried shrimp po-boy. Which I think I’ll have tonight. I’m afraid this will be the last entry as tomorrow I’m on a steamboat and Sunday I head home. So, for those of you who have bothered to read them, I hope you have enjoyed my little adventures and see you back in blighty!