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The Expert Outsider

June 12, 2010

“These guys are intent on getting it right,” Elie said of Simon and Overmyer. “They have a real knowledge of the city, and also something that I daresay most (locals) don’t have. (We) learned about the effects of the flooding by living through them, which means you suffer from the imperfections of memory. David and Eric learned about much of this from reading about it, meaning the chronology. They can put the facts in chronological order and into perspective.”

I was recently re-reading this article and the above quote jumped out at me. It reminded me of the discussions we’ve been having about outsiderness vs. insiderness, “from here” vs. “from elsewhere”, who has the right to tell our story, who even knows enough to tell our story.

It reminded me, really, of Antoine’s friend and benefactor, Koichi Toyama.

Koichi is not from New Orleans. He did not grow up in a jazz family. He never marched with St. Aug or Mac 35, never sat in a ladder along a parade route, never had a second line pass by his front stoop, never played his horn on the street corner for spare change. He didn’t “fall in love with the city and move here” either. He has visited only as a tourist. His knowledge of the city and of jazz comes primarily from books and records. He doesn’t know what it feels like to be a person like Antoine, to live in a place where music is not just entertainment but an intrinsic part of the environment, ubiquitous as the humidity, almost literally part of the air you breathe.

And yet he is truly a scholar of New Orleans jazz. He rattles off musician’s names like a fantasy baseball player quoting stats. Name a tune and he will tell you the label, the lineup, the recording date, and how he felt the first time he heard it. He’s stayed up late studying til he can puzzle out solutions to historical oddities like a photograph of Louis Armstrong playing a trombone (“slide trumpet!”). He knows the music so well, from book-learning, that he often has to correct Antoine’s memory, Antoine who has learned it merely by living it.

He knows what most tourists do not, that the sazerac is the definitive local cocktail — yet he lacks the experience that would tell him that a corner bar in the 7th Ward is probably not the place to order one. As an “outsider” (for lack of a better word), he is inherently one step removed. No matter how many books he reads or records he listens to back home, he’s not really a part of the thing he studies. There is always a gap that he cannot quite cross. Like an anthropologist, maybe. Or a journalist.

Which makes him a perfect stand-in for David Simon. His character dramatizes the expert outsider role that Simon can’t entirely shake. No matter how many books or records or films a person consumes, there is going to be a gap between knowledge learned and knowledge earned, between the book-smart student and the street-smart master. I think what makes Treme special compared to previous shows about the city is that Simon is acutely aware that this gap exists and spends his days focusing on narrowing it as much as possible.

I’m aware that there are degrees of outsider-ness: sixth generation born and raised here, just born and raised here, not born but raised here, lived entire life here, grew up here and moved away, moved away but came back. And there are even degrees of outsider-ness within the city; I’d argue that Simon or Overmyer or any other writer on the show probably has more theoretical and real-life experience with something like North Side Skull and Bones than a person like Davis McAlary’s mother, no matter how old her Uptown money is.

Toyama-san is there to remind us that one can be a knowledgeable, passionate, respectful lover of New Orleans while still being, by and large, an “outsider”. And every once in a while, that outsider can teach a thing or two to those of us who like to define ourselves as “from here”.

A funny aside: While working on this post, I googled “Koichi Toyama” just to see if the name had been swiped from real life, like so many other names in the Lovecraft Simon Mythos. And the search turned up this Koichi Toyama. A street musician and nihilist turned fringe activist and would-be anarchist politician, who gained notoriety by posting foul-mouthed YouTube rants in which he called for the destruction of the Japanese nation and blasted American culture, among other things.

He’s the exact opposite of the fictional Toyama, the dapper, polite, respectful lover of America’s greatest cultural export.

He’s actually a lot more like Creighton.

  1. liprap permalink
    June 12, 2010 8:20 am

    Tom Sancton’s Song For My Fathers recounts, in one passage, the people from all over the world who ended up at Preservation Hall in the late ’50’s-early ’60’s as what he calls “jazz pilgrims”, soaking up the lessons and the music from people like George Lewis and Papa Celestin – and among them is a Yoshio Toyama from Osaka, who could apparently play trumpet so well, he could nearly out-Bunk Bunk Johnson. Yoshio’s wife, Keiko, played banjo.

    They’re illustrations of how, time and again, music is pretty damn universal and can bridge some seemingly insurmountable gaps when we all least expect it.

  2. Delta permalink
    June 12, 2010 9:08 am

    Maybe related, maybe not, but my husband and I have had this same conversation about cradle Catholic vs convert. He’s now just as “Catholic” as I am, but things crop up occasionally that I know from memory, and things crop up that he knows because he had to study to convert.

    Ray, I have loved reading your words for several years now. They never fail to make me smile/think/get angry/whatever.

  3. June 12, 2010 10:13 am

    Between Ray’s and Leigh’s references to Toshio I am tempted to take up once again the argument about “novelism” in film. The plutonium denseness of Simon and collaborator’s text is amazing, approaching the Joycean. Somewhere in my shelves is a book of Pynchon criticism I haven’t run across in a while. I hope I still have it somewhere because I suddenly want to find this article which argues for Gravity’s Rainbow as an example of the “encyclopedic novel”. Important examples are GR but also Ulysses and Moby Dick, long works that do not merely tell a story but which attempt to catalog a time and place, incorporating and tying together important aspects of culture and science (usually displaying an intricate knowledge of some one branch) into a tapestry that attempts to catalog a certain moment in human history and culture.

    While we are not getting an Alton Brown lesson in the chemistry of cooking (which would make it almost perfectly a film analog of this technique) or an engineering lesson in levee construction and fluid dynamics, we are getting an incredibly deep and dense schooling in and use of a musical mise en scene as ever present and as important to the life of the story as the governing weather of summer is to New Orleans.

    I have to go find that book (or in that great uncatalogued library I’m using now) because this is probably worth a post. We can carp that the transition from page to screen robs the auteur of some of the novelists tools or the reader of some of the long book’s pleasures, I think it substitutes others that more than compensate, that it is possible to write almost as dense as the best novels. Greg and I argued a bit in an earlier thread about direction of attention and gaze (my words, not his) but part of the pleasure of this is in the re-watch or in the dialogue here, the constant discovery of the tiny little details you missed but someone else did not: someone on the couch next to you watch, or someone posting here or an another Treme blog, and most of all not missed by Simon and team.

    Toyama the character meets Toyama the documented jazz sage from Japan meets Toyama the online ranter and you hit the pause button and everything in your head about the show and the post you just read and what you have to do this Saturday morning (but are not because you here) just freezes in a slight blur and you sit like Toyama before a house shrine to his ancestors in venerable admiration for what is happening on that little screen on Sunday nights.

  4. June 12, 2010 1:24 pm

    An excellent and enjoyable analysis, Ray.

  5. June 12, 2010 7:42 pm

    Read this this morning and’ve been thinking about it all day. Just as there’s a deeply entrenched “insiderness” there’s an equal and opposite gracious acceptance of outsiders who express their avowed New Orleansness genuinely. I didn’t so much fall in love with New Orleans, as I fell in love with New Orleanians.

  6. June 13, 2010 2:58 am

    [motions to bartender] Yo! Gimme one of whatever he’s having.

  7. June 13, 2010 8:03 am

    It’s important not to confuse the attitude some have toward tourists with a general disdain for outsiders (which I must admit you can find in some people). There is in many if not most people an open-armed acceptance of people who fall in love with New Orleans, outsiders like yourself. Or Ashley Morris. Hell, half of us are here because we started blogging about New Orleans because we wanted people to understand, to care, to want to save the city as much as we did.

    Yes, a John Boutte show at d.b.a. early on a Saturday night has done from 20 or 25 people to an S.R.O. crowd (half of whom are the sort of jazz fest poseurs who chatter through the music in the back and who I’d just assume be somewhere else if they won’t Fuck The Shut Up and Listen to the Music but there are probably 20 or 30 others who are there and listening intently because Treme has drawn them a little deeper into NOLA culture and music. I want to buy them all a drink.

  8. doctorj2u permalink
    June 13, 2010 8:54 am

    I agree Sophmom, New Orleanians embrace outsiders that love the city. They won’t be invited to join Comus or anything, but I am one of those 6 generations types, and I wasn’t invited to join Comus either. LOL! I think esp. after Katrina, outsiders that loved the city carried us over the line towards survival.

  9. June 13, 2010 12:32 pm

    Thanks. For me, finding y’all (meaning, mostly, the NOLA Bloggers) felt a whole lot like coming home. A 7th generation Atlantan and perhaps overly outgoing individual, I’d always enjoyed “popularity” but never within a peer group that felt like it fit, ’til I met you guys. For starters, you’d let me prattle on about New Orleans as much as I wished, but mostly, you are where I’d rather be, where I feel most easily myself. *sigh*


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