John M. Edwards remembers the bon temps of his college days in New Orleans, including live music, po boys, and cameos by Frank Zappa and Quentin Tarantino.
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At the Napoleon House—an atmospheric inn where the “Yats” (New Orleans elite) once hatched a nefarious plot in the inner courtyard sanctum to return their Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to the so-called Louisiana Purchase (brokered between the Little Colonel and Thomas Jefferson for only several mil)—I sat munching on a muffalleta (ham, salami, provolone, and olives on a pressed roll), drinking copious cups of café au lait spiked with anisette spirits. But what I was really here for was old absinthe, the liquor.
As a descendant of Mad Anthony Wayne, who saved the big white fat asses of both the Revolutionary Patriots and the Imperial Redcoats during a severe winter at Valley Forge by stealing cattle from the British, I had every right to claim familial heritage (albeit tenuous at that) also to the Corsican Emperor (entombed in Les Invalides in Paris). Both were enigmatic tricorn-capped figures wrapped in the shadowy cloak of the fake wars of enlightenment principles. Indeed, at first, many thought they were both one and the same.
Magnetic loci like The Napoleon House selling fine dining and drink are a dime a dozen here in the fertile Crescent City, birthplace of Dixieland Jazz and “A Streetcar Named Desire”; home of the Superdome (with its New Orleans Saints football team) and Café du Monde (with its beignets and chicory coffee); and musical venues like Tipitinas (starring Professor Longhair, The Neville Brothers, and The Radiators) and the Riverboat President (starring Men at Work, The Talking Heads, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood).
While enrolled at Tulane University as an English and History major, I was also in a pretty good band called The Dingleberries—a grotesque name if you know what they really are—which we later changed to High Entropy. The band consisted of Jim Cullum on vocals, George Biancardi on rhythm guitar, Dave (Surname) on lead guitar, Larry Polliti on drums, and yours truly on bass guitar. We practiced more than we played out, but we did manage some live shows at Der Ratskeller, Tupelos, The F&M Lounge, and The Quad.
What I liked best about the band was that they bent over backwards in allowing me to play whatever I wanted, ranging from “The Whipping Post,” by the Allman Brothers, to “She’s Not There,” by the Zombies. But my favorite tunes were my own original songs, such as “Arthritis,” within which I could wail on long bass solos, including a purloined riff from Albert Collins and the Ice Breakers: the theme to “Popeye.”
New Orleans has the largest number of bars per square mile of any place in United States. Almost everybody, except some college students cramming for final exams (these hipcats of course prefer toot), can be found almost every night at places like The Boot, Tin Lizzie’s, and Fat Harry’s guzzling fifty-cent highballs and one-dollar drafts, trying to pick up anything that moves in what is surely America’s largest party pileup. The only thing that beats it is Mardi Gras itself, and perhaps also Spring Break in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale. However, probably the best event in this Deep South den of iniquity, purported land of Les Bons Temps Roulés, is the annual Jazz Fest at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, where I saw Stevie Ray Vaugh and the Texas Flood, before the guitar maestro sadly perished in an airplane crash—they say so, at least.
Also a number of good bands played right on our campus: The Eurythmics, Mick Fleetwood, Joe Jackson, and Frank Zappa, whose dressing room I guarded. (After his show, Mr. Zappa invited me inside his dressing room for some cake). Also here, I saw gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who refused to talk about drugs, only politics, booed and razzed off the stage by an angry student body.
Now on to the unique food of New Orleans, influenced by Creole and Cajun cooking, such as “Crawfish Etoufé” and “Oysters Rockefeller.” Popeye’s Fried Chicken originated here, as did master chefs Emeril and Prudhomme. The two most famous restaurants are still Commander’s Palace and Antoines. One of my personal favorites, however, is Christians, staged like overt blasphemy in a renovated converted church, with a little spicy voodoo thrown in for good measure.
Everyone’s favorite haunt for Oyster Po Boys, washed down with local draft Dixie Beer, is Casimentos on Magazine Street, near a long line of nifty antique shops. Inside, with the turn-of-the-century tiles and pressed molded tin roof, you feel that you have walked into The Kingfisher’s private bathroom, but indecent décor aside, this is still the place to shuck oysters and let them slide down your throat—with a little hot sauce to kill all the icky bacteria. I have not been back to my alma mater since Hurricane Katrina ruined New Orleans for everybody, but I hear it is coming back. I’ve heard rumors that the French Quarter is completely intact: the tourists once again wander around Bourbon Street with “Go Cups” from Pat O’Brien’s (home of “The Hurricane”), asking for directions to The Dungeon, where the Grateful Dead got busted for drugs in the 1960s: “Busted down on Bourbon Street . . .”
Anyway, having lived in this mostly Catholic centrum in a mostly Protestant state for five years, I’ll never forget what this sin city used to be like. I haven’t a clue how many “Cannibal Specials” I scarfed down every weekend at The Camellia Grill, where Jimmy Buffet wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Now almost all of my skinflint fellow classmates are successful at something, whatever their chosen métier, be it BA or BS. One of my favorite drinking buddies in New Orleans became a very famous fellow indeed. One night outside The Boot, I met a dangerously funny guy with a well-timed burlesque delivery from Knoxville, Tennessee, named Quentin Tarantino, who claimed to be an (already) independent film director. If I remember correctly, I was even almost one of his roommates, except I showed up at his classic “shotgun” stoned and flubbed my interview. Also I don’t think he liked my friend with demonic red hair, “Chris from Rahway,” and maybe resented my instinctual glance at his girlfriend’s pert tatas. “Edwards, you are out of here!”
I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand up, not because I didn’t believe he was a genuine filmmaker but because this was so clearly already the case. His smile vanished when I insisted on calling him “Tarantula.” I think one of my then roommates, Chris Freeman, and I were supposed to be “introduced” in Reservoir Dogs, but we probably ended up immortalized on the cutting room floor instead.
Oh well, maybe next time.
Now let les bons temps rouler!
© John M. Edwards, 2011
John M. Edwards has traveled to five continents plus. His work has appeared in CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, Xtreme Travel Stories, Amazing Travel Stories, International Business Times, Literal Latté, Essays & Fictions, Smoking Poet, France Revisited, Europe Revisited, BootsnAll, Richmond Review, Tulane Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a number of travel writing awards. He lives in New York City. He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming annual Rotten Vacations.