Keeping The Beat On The Street
The Season Three’s premiere episode of Treme seems ripped from today’s headlines over a year ago by a guy who’s not even from here.
Confrontations between new, gentrified neighbors and the music culture (and perhaps an amplifier-chasing lawyer or two looking to shake down the club owners) are front and center in New Orleans today, with a new noise ordinance on the table so stringent it would eliminate the jukebox from the city and ban any instrument played any louder than pianissimo behind an open door. Complicating that is a move by the Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who as lieutenant governor was a champion of tourism and music, to shut down music venues all over the city for failure to strictly adhere to licensing requirements unenforced for decades. Find the way to pay up for your licenses through the city’s Byzantine labyrinth of licensing agencies—and don’t forget your “mayroyalty” permit, which is issued solely at the mayor’s discretion–or stop the music. Banker character C.J. Ligouri would be proud of this shakedown. The scandal over the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership scandal is still with us, with a fourth defendant pleading guilty just last July. A grand jury indicted an NOPD officer just last month in the shooting of unarmed and allegedly uninvolved Wendell Allen during a minor marijuana raid.
Once again, many people’s favorite carpetbagger David Simon drops one onto the city desk and stands, arms-folded, the story nailed perfectly. Corruption, rogue police, crooked gentrification schemes, the battle over music: tell me again why you think Treme is irrelevant?
Watching the last episode of Season Two Saturday night with my son, he noticed what all of those who first viewed it last year did: Do Watcha Wanna was written as coda, so many plot lines tied up, so many happily ever afters. The joy that swelled over Kermit’s horn beneath the credits was tempered by the sad moment that closed the show when Davis plays Pops’ Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, the feeling so many of us had that the ride appeared to be coming to an end. Those of us who lived it, who know David Simon’s career, understood that whatever HBO and Time Warner had in mind the author of The Wire was not about to let the story of New Orleans die in a Production Code re-write fairy tale, everyone off to sweet dreams in their twin beds with one foot planted firmly on the floor. Khandi Alexander’s umpteenth Emmy-worthy moment in the DA’s office and her husband Larry’s tasty-canary smile as he announced that they would not sell the bar but move back to New Orleans returns as the familiar postdiluvian conflict of too many family members in one house, exacerbated by the high-handed treatment of Alexander by her high-Creole in-laws. Wendell Pierce’s surrender to his “job-job”, bar-band leader traded for the trenches of the high school band room where the next generation hone their embouchures, all put to risk when he confronts the police during the second line for Kerwin James of the New Birth Brass Band in 2007. Hidalgo tries to worm his way into the money tree that was the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership racket after Ligouri has dropped him like he’s hot because of his connections to Oliver Thomas. New revelations of police misconduct, Oliver Thomas in his prison threads, the incompetence of the recovery: episode authors Simon and Anthony Bourdain drop us right into the thick of 2007, when the ugly recovery was in full, foul-smelling bloom .
A quiet high point of the show was Terry Colson’s visit to Indianapolis, portraying the painful dissolution of families over the question of whether to stay or to leave. We see this same story playing out in Janette’s toss off line to D.J. Davis (Steve Zahn) as she collects her mail—“I’m in New York now”— and Delmond’s return to New Orleans, the success of the record that former Orleanian Wynton Marsallis says “isn’t really jazz”. (I hope everyone relished the moment when the two men who dissed Delmond in Season two over “Dixieland” and “minstrel show” came fawning over during the record release party). Colson’s is the most poignant and insightful storyline in Episode One. From his first step into the house—“in New Orleans, I live in a trailer”—and into the kitchen where one of his sons wears an Indianapolis Colts’ jersey to the private conversation with his wife over her relocation of his children, the moment when he tells her she never really understood New Orleans. It’s a story everyone who has dragged a spouse or SO over the border has worried over or lived. Colson has shown that he gets New Orleans deeply, more so than the average ranch dweller out by the lake or in Metairie. There is the scene last season when he dresses down the officer for an unnecessary arrest, “Let Bourbon Street be Bourbon Street”. The episode’s end is so perfect, an answer to everyone who ever asked “where are all the real people?” Colson is real people, just a hard-working uniform with a mortgage and a divorce, and the moment when he encounters Nick Slie of the local Mondo Bizarro theater troupe, dressed in a vaguely Renaissance costume on his brightly lit bicycle, and tells him “don’t ever change” is not just a glimpse into the character but into the soul of everyone who came home and stayed.
(A moment of indulgence please, to mention a toss off line between the Deputy Chief and Colson noting Lt. Guidry’s transfer. Colson nemesis Guidry was played by accomplished actor and Chalmette, Louisiana native Micheal Showers, who tragically drowned in 2011).
Lt. Colson and Toni are joined in their respective story lines by a new character, investigative reporter L.P. Everett (Chris Coy), based on real-life investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, and later in the season by another character based on local activist and community journalist Karen Gadbois of The Lens, according to Dave Walker of Nola.com. This promises an escalation of the focus on crime and corruption but don’t expect Season Three to be The Wire Goes to New Orleans. Simon has made clear in the past this was an entirely different story with its own purposes. “The Wire”, BoT contributor Sam Jasper said to me, “was about futility. Treme is about hope.” I wish I had said that. Hell, David Simon probably wishes he’d summed it up so neatly. Treme is so fundamentally different in other, subtle ways. The city itself is a character, its places not just settings but characters that drive the story. The longshoreman’s bar and the restaurants in The Wire where deals are made are just a place to act out a script. Consider the scene from Season Two when Hidalgo is sitting in a booth at the Crescent City Steakhouse cutting a deal. The difference between this scene and any similar moment from The Wire is Hidalgo’s remark that they could just as easily have met in a suburban steakhouse. Conversation pauses and the two other characters look at him as if he has just spilled Heinz 57 down his shirt. Or almost as bad, simply picked up the Heinz 57 bottle. . Hidalgo’s misunderstanding of the city is revealed in a line only possible in one of the claustrophobic booths of the Crescent City, the restaurant serving up the line. The first episode also made clear that this season won’t be all cops and robbers. Expect a full tapestry of characters and their stories, from the most public and ugly moments to Toni’s tendered-eyed glimpse of her blossoming daughter with her Bywater-musician boyfriend. Hope is what buoys us through the bad moments, that glimpse in the trailer of Antoine and Desiree’s (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) new home falling under the backhoe of the period’s incompetently random demolition of both blighted and sound houses. Hope and music, if it is truly possible to separate the two.
D.J. Davis’ perfectly tragi-comic venture into the walking tour business reminds us how much the city lost before the storm, through neglect and greed—themes I expect to see prominent in this season—and how clearly people realized this when they woke up in an upended landscape, realized how dangerously what remained was at risk. Those battles continue today with the furor over live music and street arts, and a movement to line the industrial strip of Marigny and Bywater along the river with high-rise condos on land bought up after the storm by the very people who were helping to plan the new riverfront park those buildings will overlook. (Mr. Hidalgo, C. J. Ligouri on line two). The art shop headlines of Season Three run into those of last week’s Times-Picayune, and hopefully Back of Town and the rest of the Treme posse’ can help Americans remember through these beautifully drawn stories that so much is still at risk, so much undone, so many not yet perfectly healed. We still have so much to lose. And we are still here.
The Davis scenes remind us that however today’s real life battles turn out, if all that is left standing of the history of music in New Orleans is the Selmer clarinet mural on the side of the downtown Holiday Inn, we will always have Treme.
— Wet Bank Guy