September 2007 Archives
I was reading Andrew O'Hehir's film column in Salon today, where he mentions a new Katrina documentary screening at the upcoming New York Film Fest, "The Axe in the Attic." I can't tell much about it based on the synopsis offered on the film's website, but the following made me a little nervous:
"Drawn together by outrage, documentary filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small embark on a sixty-day road trip from New England to Louisiana, and ultimately into the Katrina devastation zone to meet evacuees who have lost their homes. They make the uneasy choice of integrating themselves into the story, 'because when you're two white northerners heading South, remaining behind the camera just doesn't feel like an option.'
Really? I'd think remaining behind the camera would be your first -- and possibly best -- option. I haven't even seen the film yet, so I probably ought to lay off, but that premise bugs me, as though it were somehow easier for Spike Lee to stay out of "When the Levees Broke" just because he's black...
At the same time, I kind of understand why you'd reflexively lean on your preconceived notions when trying to cover this. The Katrina story is so totally unprecedented, and therefore still so unknowable, that it's driven many who've been drawn to it for poorly defined reasons too deeply into themselves. As a result, many attempts at documenting what exactly went down here have ultimately been overwhelmed by the authors' sense of inadequacy in the face of its enormity.
I'm thinking specifically now of the deeply weird and beautiful-in-spots story that ran in the July issue of Harper's, "In the Year of the Storm" (thanks to Anne Gisleson of NOCCA and Press Street for giving me a copy and pointing out the subsequent blog discussion mentioned below), in which the author, Duncan Murrell, ultimately suffers what sounds like a near breakdown after taking on the self-consciously experimental task of living in New Orleans for eight months after Katrina.
I don't know where the editor was on that one, but if ever there was an instance of a writer who needed more hand-holding (not to mention better line-editing), that story was it.
Much to his credit, Murrell participated in
a sometimes painfully candid discussion about the piece on the Ward Six blog, where he 'confesses his sins' (his words, not mine) in writing the story:
"I had gone down to the city to take back a big story. I had ambition, I imagined the glory I would earn, this would be my title shot. Arrogant, ambitious, self-important. Yes. Therefore the best outcome, or at least the most just, seems to me what has happened to that article since: it's meant nothing. It's sparked no real conversations about anything. I think very few people have read it. Or maybe plenty have read it, but they haven't been moved to say anything about it. My phone does not ring. This bothered me, I'll admit it, but the more I think about it the more I think that this is right, this is the way it should be.
I've been changed, though, and that's good."
My friend called me today -- she was crying, having just left her office here for the last time. In a few days, she'll be headed north for good. "I'm really, really sad," she said, and she sounded like my 6-year-old niece, it was so sweet and uncomplicated. "I'm just so, so sad."
Goodbyes are always hard, of course, but it's hard to explain the mix of emotions that comes with saying goodbye to someone with whom you've shared the past few years in New Orleans. There's the straightforward sadness, of course, and also hopefulness and relief for the person who's moving on, but also a little jealousy that they're on the other side of having made the difficult decision to leave -- a decision which strikes me as forever unmade if you're still here, as though staying weren't actually a valid option but just prolonged procrastination. I hate that I think that way sometimes. I know plenty of people who, thank god, righteously refuse to. Those people may even resent my thinking it out loud. But there it is.
It was almost two years ago exactly that this friend and I stood in a converted church in St. Martinville hugging each other in tears at the precise moment when we both realized what the storm was going to mean for us personally: an endless series of long goodbyes. That was just a couple of days after the storm, before we were able to make sense of anything, and before we'd gotten around to worrying about the Rubik's cube that had been made of our material lives.
Remember the Rubik's cube? I've thought about it a lot over these past two years, because that's what this whole city feels like to me sometimes, like a scramble of different colors trying to find their way back to the right side of things. Getting to where you're going often requires getting lost in the meantime, maybe spending some time on the wrong side of things with people who aren't quite the same color they used to be. You used to park here? Well, now there are new neighbors with trucks there, and a ginormous trash pile over there, so now, you have to park over here. You work there? Well, now that office has moved over here, so now you have to work somewhere you're not used to. And your friends? All the red and green ones? They're all over the place. Some of them you are unlikely to see on this side of town again.
I used to get so impatient with the Rubik's Cube when I was little. I'd think I had the whole thing together, would check three sides, four sides, good good, I think I got it this time... then Bam, there's one single yellow square left on the otherwise red side. Shit. I'd get so tired of undoing my work that I'll admit -- and I can't possibly be the only one who cheated this way, can I be? -- I used to peel the stickers off and replace them to make it all work. And my sister would say, Oh my god, how did you do that? And I'd shrug with the dissatisfaction of having fooled only her.
The trouble was, the game was over once you did that, because somehow you screwed up the internal logic of the thing and made it so it would never really work again. So although you had yourself a perfect Rubik's Cube, you knew it wasn't perfect, really.
But maybe I was missing the point -- maybe perfection was not supposed to be the goal...you know, it's the journey, blah blah blah. Looking back on it now, I think I should have embraced that single yellow square.
All I know is that when this friend is gone, a really important sticker is going to be missing from my cube.
New Orleans funk and soul master Wilson "Willie Tee" Turbinton died yesterday - you can read the short news report here.
And if you do so, I highly suggest you scroll down and read the sweet and sad post "Willie Tee is Dying" by Steve Allen, a saxophonist who evidently played and recorded with him.
If you've ever read nola.com before, you're well aware of the ridiculous crap that frequently makes its way into the comments and blogs, so I don't need to point out what an uncharacteristically kind and well crafted message Steve Allen has left us with
If there was a permalink I missed it, so I'm reposting it here:
Posted by SteveAllen on 09/11/07 at 11:29PM
Willie Tee is Dying
Last night around half time of the Saints season opener I left the house and went to Touro Infirmary on Prytania Street. When I got there the guards at the desk told me visiting hours were over at 8:30. It was about 9:30. I persisted and they wanted to know if the patient was near death and if the hospital had called me. Yes, near death in the oncology ward, that's cancer, and no, no call. I told them I was his sax player, that he was Willie Tee, Teasin' You, Wild Magnolia producer, many other 'comebacks' and reinventions, a name that it would have been impossible for even a jaded New Orleans security guard not to have known. The officer went in the back and came out and asked what Willie Tee's real name is, which is Wilson Turbinton. He let me go up to the room.
This month's Offbeat magazine has an obituary for Earl Turbinton, Willie's brother in it. Since Katrina, Earl had been in a long term medical facility, first in Memphis and lately in Baton Rouge, because he'd had a couple of strokes and lung cancer apparently according to the obituary. Willie and he had an album several years back called "Brothers for Life", and now it looks like they will become brothers in death as well. Earl passed away and his service was 4 short weekends ago. Willie visited his brother daily in Baton Rouge. They were very close, in every way, bearing a very pronounced resemblance to each other, working together on and off for their entire careers, even starting a music academy for young people years back which evolved into NOCCA, The New Orleans Center For Creative Arts High School. It was something Willie never mentioned to me, having happened many years before we met. When we were together there was only time to talk about music, the music we were working on in the right now frame of reference. Improvisational ensemble music, as free and spontaneous as possible at all times, anything goes, and as little structure as possible. That was what playing with Willie Tee was for me. Just follow him, anywhere, 20 minute medleys, change keys, change feels, pick up different horns, constantly searching for new keyboard sounds, writing new grooves on the bandstand... the most challenging and fun musical experience I've had maybe ever. And we communicated so instantly and the flow just laid itself out in front of us so easily, it was like driving a Cadillac through the sky.
And now that ride is over? Willie looked small in the hospital bed. He was knocked out on pain medication, heavy stuff that Hospice can supply, which is the point at which a patient gets no treatment for their disease, just to be made comfortable until the end. I know about this intimately. Juanetz and Jack, my mom and dad both died within 3 months of each other. They were old and very sick, and ready to leave this world. Willie Tee however is 63. It would seem he has plenty more to give. He was invited to be an Artist in Residence at Princeton for a year after Katrina. Handy, since his home near City Park had been destroyed by the storm. Princeton did well by it's students, having the street genius around to exude musical knowledge in it's purest most direct form, no academic filter composed of 'concepts, theory, reflection and words words words, just the pure spark of creativity. Let the academics sort it out and theorize it in the past tense, if that's all they can do. Creation happens in the eternal now, and that's the only place it happens. You see the difference, yes?
Willie said pray to the Lord for me. On this subject I must watch my step not to hurt the feelings of my fellow humans who need every bit of hope and comfort they can get. There is a God, and God is all powerful, and miracles do happen, things that can't be explained in conventional physics. Sometimes the Big Guy seems interested in what we're going through, other times not so much. And I know from our perspective, living in this world, there could very well be a great deal we can't and couldn't understand, even if we could see what's on the other side. So it's probably is best not to come off cynically on this subject. Yet I find it hard to keep some thoughts to myself. Will it change anything, no. Am I registering a complaint, absolutely. Willie Tee just deserves some free and easy time right now. He should be sitting at the piano somewhere singing, not lying in the gown breathing through plastic tubing. That should be later, much later. Why now? Why is the spark being extinguished so suddenly and abruptly? I don't mean to challenge your faith, but can you explain that?
I went by the Hospital again yesterday afternoon and there was a hand written sign on Willie Tee's room that said NO VISITORS. I had just seen Paul, the owner of Sweet Lorraines, where we had played so many great sets, and he hadn't gotten in either, but he had spoken to Marilyn, Mrs, Turbinton, and she said they were making arrangements move Willie to a Hospice off of St. Charles somewhere near by. Marilyn didn't even come out of the room to talk to me, the nurse said she was upset.
And today, September 11th, while I was setting up my studio at my house, the radio announcer on WWOZ said they wished to extend their love and sympathy to the Turbinton family, and that Willie Tee had gone to join the Ancestors. I'm happy for him that he didn't have to just lay there in the hospital bed and suffer. He didn't say much to me the night I visited him there. Just "I feel terrible, I'm dyin', pray to the Lord for me, and I've been thinkin'." I told him when you get there tell 'em we're not too happy about this. Well he's there now. I have to say, I feel like there is a 'there' there. It is and always will be the BIG MYSTERY to us on this side, but I feel feelings and hear voices that come from there, my parents in dreams mainly and now Willie Tee too I'm sure will visit me. I'll sure be glad to see him and I hope he sends me some inspired sounds from time to time. In fact I know he will.
One of the privileges of living in post-Katrina New Orleans is that there are plenty of opportunities to marvel at the accomplishments of your friends who are busily working away in their various trenches -- in the new charter school system, maybe, or in a re-imagined kitchen in an old restaurant, or in their own recently bought/repaired/rebuilt home, sitting in front of a blank computer screen attempting to make some sense of the chaos.
Last week, three of the hardest-working sense-seekers I know published stories that made me especially proud to live in the same town with them. They're all well worth checking out:
Billy Sothern's book Down in New Orleans
Brett Anderson's series on Mandina's in the Times-Picayune.
Katy Reckdahl's piece for the American Radio Works' "Routes to Recovery" series.
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Rebuilding Gulf Culture after Katrina
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Elizabeth Zimmer on time-based art forms
Public Art, Public Space
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog