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New Orleans Artists Speak Out

Musicians mourn the state of their city

September 2, 2005 12:00 AM ET

With eighty percent of New Orleans submerged under up to twenty feet of water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and thousands of casualties anticipated, the music world is dealing with the emotional impact and trying to imagine the future of one of America's most influential cultural centers.

"I've had, like, an hour's sleep," says New Orleans blues legend Dr. John, on tour in Minneapolis. "All my family is MIA -- I mean, most everybody I know. They might be anywhere. I'm praying hard." Wilco bassist John Stirrat, also New Orleans-born, now on tour in Spain, is struggling to believe in the city's future. "I feel like I've been punched in the stomach for days," he says. "My father's house, which is in the Metairie, is apparently underwater. It's like seeing the death of one of the truly unique cities in America."

Several artists -- like so many other residents of the nearly completely evacuated city -- are coming to terms with losing everything. Susan Cowsill, of roots rockers the Continental Drifters and a New Orleans resident for thirteen years, left most of her possessions behind. "It's just so surreal," she says from Tennessee. "They're telling us we can't go home for three months. I played Nashville the other night, and it was pretty pitiful -- it probably sounded like I was going to cry at any minute. I want to go home and start trying to help people!" Alt-country singer Shannon McNally, who sought refuge with family in Mississippi, says through tears, "I have no idea where many of my friends are. I'm a little numb. The best parts of New Orleans are underwater. And all those people that couldn't get out -- they're New Orleans." Roger Lewis, a founding member of veteran New Orleans legends the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, has lost his house in the Gentilly area and a family home in the Ninth Ward -- and has yet to locate one of his daughters. "I don't know if she's living or dead," he says from Memphis. "This can't be happening."

Most members of hometown roots rockers the Iguanas, who scattered to Houston, Memphis and Birmingham in the evacuation, have also lost their homes. "[On the news,] I saw the water up to the roof of the shopping center a block away from my house," says sax player Joe Cabral. "I definitely lost it at that point." Cabral, who is considering relocating to Austin, Texas, simply cannot believe that life in New Orleans as he knows it is over. "It's, like, I want to go to the coffee shop and say 'hi' to the guy I see everyday," he says. "I want to walk down the street and bump into my friends -- the people, the vibe. New Orleans is a special place, man, and you just can't replace that."

Blues rocker Marc Broussard, currently on tour on the West Coast, grew up outside New Orleans and is awaiting word from family. "My brother called me to say he had to pick up our boat and go fish my cousin out of his house," he says. "He said people are walking around with guns, and it's just like a guerilla war zone down there. I was just shedding more tears than I've shed in a long time. I have no idea what's going to happen. There are already parts of New Orleans that are as bad or worse than Third World countries." Kevin Griffin, frontman of local rock trio Better Than Ezra, says from Nashville, "A major U.S. city is effectively wiped out. We're trying not to think too much about it and just go day to day."

The vibrant club scene that defines much of the feel of New Orleans -- from music landmarks like Preservation Hall, to clubs like Tipitina's and Snug Harbor -- faces an uncertain future, to say the least. But the New Orleans music community is nothing if not determined. "As far as rebuilding and getting back to the city, I haven't talked to anybody who has not wanted to go back," says Rio Hackford, owner of one of the French Quarter's most eccentric venues, indie rock/burlesque haven One Eyed Jacks. "It's starting from scratch and building on what's the fucking backbone of the real, true music scene of fucking America. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and always will be. It's gonna be a mess for a long time, but it'll be a mess with some good tunes. The spirit of New Orleans, it runs pretty deep." Renowned producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan), who had his Kingsway Studio in the French Quarter from 1988 to 2001, is also optimistic about the scene. "As terrible as this may seem, nothing could ever kill the music of New Orleans," he says. "I have a feeling that the music community there will pull up its pants and get on with things. It's a part of the world that's seen a lot of hardship -- and yet a lot of beautiful music has come out of there."

With an entire city displaced, many musicians are resigning themselves to life on the road for some time to come. "As far as I can tell, my house in the Marigny is underwater," says Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio, who has lived in the city for sixteen years and is currently on tour in Seattle. "And with the looting, I'm worried I'll come back to my house being trashed, even if it's not flooded. The city's never going to be the same, which is amazingly sad. The band has talked, and since we don't have a home, we're planning on picking up some more gigs." McNally is also facing extensive time on the road. "I'm effectively homeless, so I think I'm going on the road. But I'm very lucky in that I have a lot of friends and family and places I can go." The Dirty Dozen Brass Band also plans to keep moving from gig to gig. "You gotta keep on keeping on," says Lewis. "We gotta make money to take care of our families, you know? Roll with the punches, that's all you can do."

Looking ahead, many are trying to remain optimistic. "I would never give up on that town," says Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, who has lived in New Orleans for eight years with his wife, a native. "I don't think we have any plans if not to try and help the city nurture itself back to what we know and love. It's your city and you love it, and you want to see it rebuilt and you want to be a believer." Says Mercurio, "Maybe the city will get a facelift. New Orleans has bounced back before. New Orleans has a really special place in people's hearts -- besides the people that live there." McNally adds, "It's a very powerful place, and I have to believe that, even if most of it gets displaced, it will bubble to the surface. I hope that the country realizes that it's the coolest city in the world."

Former Phish bassist Mike Gordon, who has played the city numerous times adds, "I'm very passionate about the city -- I've had amazing experiences there. We used to go canoeing on the bayou, go to Mother's Restaurant and see these hip brass bands that no one knows about. New Orleans is such a fuel for the entire country's music. There is such a looseness to the city and the people, a happy-go-lucky quality, throwing caution to the wind. I don't think the pure essence of the place can be wiped away by natural disaster." Pirner agrees, believing that the music that defines the city can now help bring about its return. "The music plays such a big part in what helps people survive adversity, so you can sort of envision street parades once the water's off the streets," he says. "It's very hard to imagine that the city's not going to come back in full color -- and the music's going to help people to come back."

"My heart's always gonna be in New Orleans," says Dr. John, summing up the sentiments of so many musicians tied to the city. "It ain't just the place, it's the whole culture. The music will survive; the people will survive."

Additional reporting by David Fricke, Lauren Gitlin, Brian Hiatt, Steve Knopper, Jessica Robertson, Charley Rogulewski and Gillian Telling

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