"A Prince In Thin Disguise"

"I have been so lucky to spend even this little time with Allen Toussaint.

I’m grateful to Blue Rider for allowing me to present these amended excerpts from Chapter 28 of “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” to tell some of this story.

Allen was unfailingly gracious, elegant and musically curious.

We last shared the stage at the Civic Center in New Orleans in February of this year. As always, he was thoughtful, bringing a late Mardi Gras gift for my wife and asking after the well-being of my sons and my mother, who he had once visited on a trip around Merseyside.

He signed off every note and phone call the same way; “Looking Forward”.

I will miss him very much."

 

Chapter Twenty-eight

The River in Reverse

Allen Toussaint and I were walking across the lobby of a fine but nearly deserted hotel, located just across Canal Street from the French Quarter. An older gentleman had just entered the rear door and was coming toward us when he recognized Allen and stopped in his tracks. His grim expression lit up. He became elated and emotional, grasping and shaking Allen’s hand vigorously, as if his very presence were a sign that all was not lost in the shattered city.

“If you are back, then we are all back.”

I had never doubted that Allen was a prince in a thin disguise.

We had begun our work on The River in Reverse in Hollywood because we had no choice.

New Orleans was closed to us.

We all knew where this music belonged. We all knew where we should conclude our task, it just hadn’t been clear for a while how we’d get there.

Now A.T. was back.

In April of 2005, I had seen Allen for the first time since the New Orleans sessions for Spike in 1989. When we said our farewells on the show grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it was with the hope that we might find a way to work together again. Neither of us could have imagined the circumstances in which this would occur.

That was just seven months earlier.

Before Katrina.

Before what should have been fixed didn’t get fixed, and now could never be mended.

That was the city that Allen Toussaint had been forced to leave.

I’m pretty certain he didn’t do so willingly.

Or easily.

I’ve never pressed Allen on the details of his experience, but he has never been remotely bitter or self-pitying about the whole episode.

When I finally got up the nerve to ask Allen what he knew of his home and his studio.

The news wasn’t very good.

I heard myself say, “I’m so very sorry.”

Allen paused for moment, nodded his acknowledgment, and then added, “Well, the things that I had then, they served me well.”

If he was angry about what transpired, it did not disable him, rob him of his grace or his elegance.

Once Allen was safe and finding his way back to work in New York City, I went to Joe’s Pub on Astor Place to see him play the first of what would become a regular solo engagement over the next months. You have to remember that, up until this point, while Allen Toussaint’s songs had been recorded and broadcast all over the world, and musicians had traveled to New Orleans to discover his secrets, Allen himself didn’t find many reasons to leave town and performed mostly on festival occasions in the city. What everyone saw that day was a master songwriter awakening to a new set of possibilities. Allen may have lost his home and his studio and seen the rich pool of musicians on which he had always called scattered to other cities of refuge, but his songbook was invulnerable.

I just wanted those songs to be heard again, and then again. I was the one with the way and will to put those songs and their composer before a new and different audience. We wrote new songs together but Allen had already written so many lyrics that served the moment well, such as these lines from “Freedom From The Stallion” and could be from today’s headline as much as those of ten years past:

“They got men building walls to keep other men out

Ignore him when he whispers and kill him if he shouts”

 

The recording of “The River In Reverse” was begun at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, but we had booked our flights to New Orleans as soon as we heard that Piety Street Studios was reopen for business. We then found the one hotel that was accepting bookings from out-of-town visitors, while all the other functioning establishments were still billeting FEMA staff or filled with insurance assessors.

The first things we saw on the drive in from the airport were the eerie stacks of abandoned cars, caked in silt from the floodwaters, piled up under the freeway underpass. The streets of the French Quarter were almost deserted. There was little or no traffic on Canal Street.

On my way to the studio for the first session, I left the hotel early and booked a car to take me down into the Lower Ninth Ward. The driver was proud and a little wary that mine was a morbid curiosity but when I told him what I was doing in town his whole demeanor changed.

We made our imperceptible descent from a higher elevation. If this was what it looked like after three months, you could only guess at the horror of the first days and weeks. The foundations of whole blocks of dwellings were discernable among the smears of dried mud, but the houses on which they had stood had been erased, leaving debris everywhere. A barge was still wedged up on the levee as if another strong surge might have hurled it right over into the neighborhood. There were several half-collapsed, concertinaed structures that had been shifted out of place and left at a drunken angle. A dirty blue car had been flipped over and crushed by some ferocious impact. Another car and a refrigerator were perched up in otherwise bare trees, their branches bent out of shape by this unlikely, unwelcome fruit.

There were no birds.

The only sound was a chain saw that someone was running in the distance from a portable generator and a dull thud of the radio playing through the window of a parked vehicle a block away. A man was up a ladder tacking up wire to a post in an attempt to reconnect to something. The task seemed equivalent to placing a sticking plaster on a gunshot wound.

I could only imagine the darkness of night.

The driver turned the car around when my eyes were full and we drove quietly past the first signs of rebuilding and renewal, him keeping up a steady, positive commentary on the recovery that he believed was under way.

Allen had recently recorded a muted and melancholy transcription of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”. The very idea of him taking such a usually joyful and rambunctious piece and making it a more thoughtful and personal piece seemed to pull back a curtain on another time and place. The music suggested two simultaneous, superimposed realities. One was the brutal present, the other a memory of nobility and beauty. It was a trick of imagination, not a piece of reportage.

I had wanted to see these things with my own eyes, as the words I had written for “Tipitina and Me” had already imagined them.

Not a soul was stirring

Not a bird was singing, at least not within my hearing

I was five minutes past caring

Standing in the road just staring

 

Thought I heard somebody pleading

I thought I heard someone apologize

Some fell down weeping

Others shook their fists up at the skies

And those who were left

Seemed to be wearing disguises

 

I called this song “Ascension Day,” for reasons that must surely be obvious.

The sessions themselves were nowhere near as somber as all of this might suggest. Indeed, once within the studio walls, Allen’s evident relief and the New Orleans players’ joy at being back to work in the city became completely contagious. Our only problem was that we could not work too late, even if we wished to, as a curfew demanded we be off the streets by one a.m.

It was peculiar to see troops in sand fatigues manning barricades with armored cars better suited to Iraq, but just as unsettling to be driving out of one of the illuminated districts past a stretch of residential city blocks to which the power had still not been restored. The darkness seemed random and inexplicable.

“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” was the best thing we recorded at Piety Street, and it might be my favorite cut on the whole album. It was also the one time we were able to persuade Allen to the microphone to take most of the lead vocal, although Big Sam Williams very nearly stole the song from both of us with his trombone solo.

The song was glorious to play. As it said, “We’re covering up the pain.”

But you didn’t have to look very far outside the studio door to see what Allen had meant by his closing lines:

What happened to the Liberty Bell, I heard so much about?

Did it really ding-dong?

It must have dinged wrong, it didn’t ding long

In the spring of 2006, I was Allen’s guest at the first Jazz Fest following Katrina. It was an extraordinary afternoon in which to play even the smallest part. Then we got to reprise those songs over again as the two of us traveled from a bar in Chicago to a nightclub in Tokyo, as a preface to the release of The River in Reverse. Japanese fans welcomed Allen like a returning hero and brought re-issues for him to sign containing his most obscure productions and recordings; songs he seemed amazed that anyone remembered.

The Imposters and Allen’s musicians then went on a twenty-five-date U.S. tour that took us from Green Bay, Wisconsin, all the way back to the French Quarter.

Needless to say, Allen returned to New Orleans just as soon as it was possible, and his faith in the city’s restoration was repaid in time, but seeing him become a performing, touring musician for a while was a remarkable transition to behold.

Not so very long ago, Allen sent me an e-mail greeting from Quito in Ecuador, where he was playing a date. I’d never heard of anyone playing in Ecuador. The world no longer has to come to New Orleans to see Allen Toussaint. He’s been taking that part of New Orleans that lives in his songs out to the world.

Back in the summer of 2007, Steve Nieve and I toured Europe with Allen’s band, including his son-in-law, Herman Lebreaux, on drums.

The moon was rising and the temperature falling below a hundred degrees Fahrenheit for the first time all day as we took the stage for an encore at the amphitheater of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens.

The ruins of the Parthenon where illuminated above us as Allen began to play “Yes We Can.”