I don't care who said it.
It's simply hitting me, for the first time, how much of a curse it really is. See, my week kicked off with my finishing The Year Before The Flood and feeling drained.
Ned Sublette is a hell of a musicologist, and that alone makes this book a must-read: not only does his analysis of New Orleans brass bands and local music kick ass, he also has an even better look at New Orleans Dirty South rap, hip-hop, and bounce this side of Nik Cohn and Alison Fensterstock.
Where this book departs from his previous books, aka, Cuba And Its Music and The World That Made New Orleans, is in the inclusion of Sublette's experiences living in this city for ten months before the Federal Flood..which kick off with his discovery that the house he rented was where a young man had been murdered less than two years before Sublette and his wife moved in.
"Which house do you live in?" she asked. I told her the number. And she more or less said (we were speaking Spanish):Ummmm, who told you about that? The landlord ought to have known about how small this town really is...and actually, Sublette should have, too, but he got to know that with time and 20/20 hindsight, as most newcomers do. Because, truth of the matter is, this entire city is one huge notorious address - and Sublette takes on the violence and the crime running rampant here, along with an exploration of how the racism woven through the city's - and, indeed, Louisiana's - history culminated in the mass negligence of the population and its needs well before and up into 8-29-05 and its ongoing aftermath.
"Oh, that's the house where that boy got killed."
Where that who got what?
Friends, before you rent a home, Google the address first. It took 0.38 seconds to link to a picture of my front porch, transformed into an altar with flowers and handwritten prayers....
...Mr. Landlord kinda hadn't mentioned anything about this having happened when I rented the house. Well, why would he? And yeah, it would have affected my decision to rent or not. It turns out that this is a classic real estate problem, called "notorious addresses".
Mr. Landlord, who was younger than me, was a hard worker who was doing what I hadn't done - devoting himself to the accumulation of wealth. Besides his job in D.C., he owned this and another property, both of which he superintended himself. The next time I spoke to him, the next weekend he was in town, I brought up the uncomfortable subject of the killing and said, as politely as possible, it would have been better if we had learned about this from you than finding out about it on our own. His first response, which I thought odd, was: who told you about that?*
It'll make you wonder, if you live here, why you are even bothering in the face of all this madness....at least for a while. It's why, ultimately, there is no magic pill for turning life's lemons into lemonade - at least, not one without side effects.
There are no easy answers here, and the reality of that is enough to make me weak in the knees.
That's what this book did.
About the only thing about The Year Before The Flood that can give anybody any sort of comfort is embodied in the following:
"Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
- Author unknown (actually, I've just been told it's Plato who said it. Thanks, Karen)
Where Sublette's book shines is in the recognition of the community of music as a fount of renewal, rebirth and a reaffirmation of how much we are not on our own.
Postflood New Orleans compared only with two other moments I had experienced in my life: New York during its bankruptcy crisis of the '70's, and Havana in the Special Period of the early '90's - great music cities where there was creativity amid chaos, gloom, depression, and poverty. When you and everyone else in the band have lost your houses and music is what you have to survive with, you're going to play with some feeling. When a trumpet player drives six hours each way from Houston to make his weekly bar gig in New Orleans, the way musicians in Soul Rebels did, you can feel his commitment in every note. And the music was being listened to by people who didn't take it for granted. It had a big job to do to combat the depression everyone was suffering, and it rose to the challenge.*Let's hope we can keep being inspired by its example in these parts....and that that feeling can spread all over this country somehow.
*Ned Sublette, The Year Before The Flood