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"Devils and Dust"

This essay appeared in the October/November 2006 issue of Giant magazine, accompanying a 12-page photo essay by Larry Fink.

(Photo copyright Larry Fink, 2006. Via artnet)


Words by Ben Goldstein

Nearly eight months after Katrina made her devastating landfall, it was still the only topic of conversation around the city. Talk-radio hosts cried out in anger: What happened? Who has the rebuilding plan? Where’s the money?

In the mayoral election, where incumbent Ray Nagin ran against 21 challengers, few people knew who to vote for. There were more than 1,600 dead, tens of billions of dollars in damages, and residents demanding true leadership. No candidate looked like a savior and the election ended in a runoff. Nagin took it by 5,329 votes.

I went to New Orleans to accompany the acclaimed photographer Larry Fink on an assignment to document the reemergence of the city’s music scene. I’d first heard about Larry in the fall of 2001, when his exhibition “The Forbidden Pictures: A Political Tableau” — featuring the famous image of a George W. Bush look-alike groping a woman’s breast in a low-lit milieu of rundown decadence — drew tremendous post-9/11 controversy and was abandoned by The New York Times Magazine, which had commissioned the photos.

Of course, by that time, Larry was already something of a legend. He’d shot high fashion with sly humor and the sport of boxing with mesmerizing elegance. His photographs of high-society gatherings and his more modest-living neighbors (collected together in the 1984 book Social Graces) were joyous, insightful records of the ways Americans present themselves.
 “There are things which really stimulate me to make the best pictures because their energy and my energy are in syncopation,” Larry told me. “What we found in New Orleans was so deeply perfect for me because I love the music, I love the swampy heat and sensuality, and I love the kind of risqué, laid-back energy New Orleans has. Even with what’s happened, it still has the same kind of lassitude and that sense of pleasure and depth.”

Larry gets off on bodies, gestures, and expressions. Moving among jazz bar crowds with his fingerless gloves and handheld flash, stalking and interacting, he looked like he’d be equally comfortable at a backyard barbecue or in a war zone. In all ways, he’s a people person. Everybody wanted their picture taken by Larry. They trusted him.

We hung out at a Thursday night Zydeco dance concert at the Mid City Lanes Rock ‘N’ Bowl, where white cowboys danced alongside Creoles in one of the few truly integrated rooms I’ve ever seen. The lanes are on the second floor. The first floor had been gutted and the building’s side doors were missing. The outside walls wore a six-foot-high waterline, an unsettling reminder that we were standing in what was formerly an uninhabitable wasteland.

Bourbon Street, Rampart Street, funky Frenchmen Street — they all remain lively hotspots, drawing both locals and debauched visitors, but some of the windows are still covered in plywood, and some of the first-floor storefronts are still gaping holes, making tentative advances toward recovery.

Art Neville, the 68-year-old co-founder of the Meters and the Neville Brothers, took us from one of his houses (which made it through the hurricane relatively intact) to another (which didn’t). During his cane-assisted journey down Valence Street, Neville complained about the “Katrina crud” in the air — presumably a mixture of mold, dust, and bad vibes — that gave him a cough which never left his lungs. Nevertheless, he was still living on the same street he’d lived on his whole life. His brothers had long since scattered across the country.

Neville’s loyalty to New Orleans is admirable and tragic. It calls attention to all the music legends that Katrina had driven out when it first hit in late August 2005. Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint were among the displaced. Nearly every notable New Orleans rapper — Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne, and Master P among them — had been “washed out of town,” as Offbeat magazine’s publisher Jan Ramsey put it.

The Lower Ninth Ward remains ravaged. It was a desolate ghost town when we passed through, and rebuilding it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s political agenda. Larry offered his opinion: “When you live in a country where everybody is on the take and on the make and on the slant, and there’s so much corruption, it’s not only incompetence, it’s the fact that absolute greed creates a coagulated social situation.”

We must acknowledge that New Orleans will never look the same. It will be reconstructed differently. Many buildings with historical and personal legacies will be lost forever. But if it’s any consolation, no amount of physical damage could ever destroy the birthplace of American music. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Native Americans, Europeans and Africans were drawn to — and celebrated in — the open market of New Orleans’s Congo Square. It’s a culturally loaded location that trumpeter and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis pays tribute to in his new composition “Congo Square,” which he debuted in his hometown in April. For hundreds of years, New Orleans has been the womb that has given birth to our country’s indigenous sounds, which have developed in the form of jazz, blues, and rock & roll, and spread throughout the world.

In this way, New Orleans is indestructible. And at the root, its sounds still flourish. We saw it everywhere. The brass bands at Donna’s and the second line parades marching in the streets. Friday nights outside of Vaughn’s, where you can get your hair cut and eat red beans as a jazz soundtrack is improvised inside. R&B and Cajun at the Maple Leaf and funk at Tipitina’s. Zydeco in a bowling alley. The notes from Art Neville’s piano, ancient and newborn at once.

“Life is a gift, and rhythm is its bloodstream,” Larry told me.

Rubble still covers the sidewalks, but our music lives.

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