Thursday, June 28, 2007
We've got something to believe in...
If you were a real Texan and not a pretender, you might understand. You might know the words to Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues”, the part that goes“'Cause when a Texan fancies,/he'll take his chances, / chances will be taken.” Or perhaps you’d know Guy Clark’s song "L.A. Freeway", especially the chorus: “If I can just get off of this LA freeway Without getting killed or caught I'd be down that road in a cloud of smoke For some land that I ain't bought bought bought.”I've never been a fan of what programmers at CMT would call country music, but I consider myself a fan of what I call American music. A fine distinction, perhaps, but the music I ignore is the Tin Pan Alley sort of country music, Nashville pop. As someone drawn to words and writing, I've always been a sucker for songs that tell a compelling story regardless of the musical setting and you can find those artists in just about any genre.
As we executed our move to New Orleans, Clark's LA Freeway resonated in my head for months. The tale of a couple uprooted by a man's dream so closely mirrored my own: the escape from the "LA Freeway" sameness of Fargo, the singer's words to the song's Susanna "don't you cry, babe/Love's a gift that's surely handmade/We've got something to believe in/Don't you think it's time where leaving."
That song is at once hopeful and plaintive, mixing a look back, thoughts of what will and will not be missed, with a glance to the uncertainly of tomorrow, "down the road in a cloud of smoke/to some land I ain't bought bought bought." It was a perfect mirror of all of the emotions swirling through me at the time: hope, sadness, uncertainty, nostalgia (both for New Orleans and for the place my children had grown as small children) and, ultimately, resolve.
Somehow that post referencing Texas songwriters led to an email from a gentleman named Clay Eals, who was writing a biography of singer/songwriter Steve Goodman. Goodman, who was a fellow traveller of that country/folk scene (but was in fact a Chicagoan and good friend of fellow Midwesterner John Prine), penned a number of popular songs. One everyone in this city knows, although they likely associated it with Arlo Gutherie: "City of New Orleans".
Eals' biography promises more than just the musician, looking at Goodman's long battle with leukemia. The musician's life is an instructive one for people struggling to live in New Orleans. He fought his illness for fifteen years and went on to write dozens of wonderful songs (including "You Never Even Called Me By My Name", an unofficial anthem of The Abbey bar on Decatur when Texan Betz Brown was the owner).
Living in New Orleans feels so many days like the life of someone who's been in a horrible accident, or diagnosed with a wasting disease: a burden you can't let overwhelm you lest it kill you faster. Every time you step out into the heat you can't help but think of what lays around the corner--ruined and abandoned homes fronting streets collapsing into ground churned to pudding by the floodwaters. The city is run in part by people who've flocked here to profit from the promised billions of relief that never seem to arrive.
Then you see a debris pile. A lot of Orleanians think flat tire or mold spores when they see those piles of debris, but I see another person coming home. Or perhaps its someone with a sense of adventure, striking out into our own bit of the 21 Century Wild West, either to make their fortune or just to help. Maybe that house is being gutted by college kids who have decided to spend their vacation roasting in a respirator gutting a stranger house instead of baking in the sun of Yucatan.
Life gives you lemons, I say make whiskey sours; any other outlook down here would be as fatal as a terminal disease mixed with a terminal attitude. Better to be home than a sad expatriates like the ones in the Goodman song Banana Republics made popular by Jimmy Buffet. I think Steve Goodman should have a statue somewhere in town. If writing "City of New Orleans" were not enough, his life should remind us how to face a life-and-death struggle with the best possible medicine: beautiful music and lyrics, some "words we can dance to and a melody that rhymes."
Katrina NOLA New Orleans Hurricane Katrina Think New Orleans Louisiana FEMA levees flooding Corps of Engineers We Are Not OK wetlands news rebirth Debrisville Federal Flood 8-29 Rising Tide Remember Steve Goodman Clay Eals
Most of those piles are modest compared the ones I saw back in the day when there was no power and I wasn't supposed to be in town.
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