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2006 – Green Bay, MI to New Orleans, LA.

I found a battered upright in a spare dressing room somewhere and was plunking out a very basic accompaniment for a tune I’d first heard on the B-side of Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers splendid version of The Drifters’ “One Way Love”.

It was a song I’d heard Brinsley Schwarz revive in the cellar of the Hope & Anchor in Islington and although I didn’t know it at the time the song had been a 1961 hit for Ernie K. Doe.

The music must have drifted down the hallway, as I was suddenly aware of the song’s composer standing in the doorway with look of surprise that I knew the song at all.

“Well” said Allen Toussaint.

He was a man of few words.

1983 – New Orleans.

My meeting with Allen Toussaint came about due to a most unusual assignment. Yoko Ono’s office had called to ask if I would contribute to an album of interpretations of her songs that her and John Lennon had been working on at the time of his murder.

The song I was requested to interpret was “Walking On Thin Ice”, the song they had completed working on the night of John’s death. Now I was being asked to sing it again.

Yoko and I met at the studio where she had only recently returned to work on what would be the “Milk & Honey” album. I took the request very seriously but really didn’t know how to proceed. I looked for a gap in our tour itinerary and suitable location to record.

I could see a day after Memphis and perhaps a day before our proposed New Orleans date.

More wishfully than actually imagining it might really happen, I asked “What if we could get either Willie Mitchell or Allen Toussaint to produce this track?” I thought I might as well have suggested we hire a rocket ship to the planet Jupiter.

I don’t know what calls were placed or which were answered but five days later I found myself on the phone with Allen Toussaint. The unusual nature of the song clearly inspired Allen’s curiosity but at the time I was still hoping for lightning to strike.

New Orleans had been the third city that the Attractions and I had visited in 1977 but we had only returned once since. I truthfully thought my request that we might head that way was in hope that the date would not take place and this would leave us with some play time in the Crescent City.

So proved to be the case in 1983 when our proposed date fell through, only this time we found ourselves at Sea-Saint Studios – with time enough to take in both an afternoon show by Art and Aaron Neville and then the full Neville Brothers band – and get to cut a song with Allen Toussaint at the controls.

Allen saw that the Yoko song was well-served by all of the members of the Attractions and the T.K.O. horns and then took me out for a short ride in his gold Rolls Royce to retrieve a home-cooked meal for the whole crew before we wrapped up the final vocal performance and his final mix.

1988 – New Orleans.

T Bone Burnett and I were working on the album “Spike”, a record that eventually took in sessions in four cities. Our second stop of Southland Studios, New Orleans was to record horn parts with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band after Allen Toussaint had effectively designed the song “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” from the piano part outwards.

We parted promising that we must work together again but Allen didn’t often leave the hometown where he had written and recorded since the late ‘50s, people traveled to him to have him produce them but I only made two more whistle stops in New Orleans during the following decade.

2005 – New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The Imposters and I had played a set with Los Lobos’ David Hildalgo sitting and taking lead vocals on “Mas Y Mas” and the Hunter/Garcia tune, “Bertha”, just one of a multitude of their songs that were beauties long before “Americana” became an orthodoxy of itchy tweeds and mustache wax.

In the backstage area I saw Allen again, whose appearance at Jazz Fest was an annual highlight. We spoke about “I Believe To My Soul” a summit recording produced by Joe Henry on which A.T. appeared alongside Irma Thomas, Billy Preston, Ann Peebles and Mavis Staples.

Once again, we parted with the hope that we might work together again.

Four months later the Katrina catastrophe changed everything in New Orleans.

I learned later that Allen lost his home and studio in the subsequent flood.

Like so many people he eventually got out of the city in the chaos and distress that ensued. He made his way to New York, where his dear friend and associate, Joshua Feigenbaum helped him put his plans for the future in order.

The idea that the riches of his songbook should be addressed again came to several people at the same time during one of Allen’s lunchtime appearances at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street. I was only glad that I was one of them.

Allen and I made our first stage appearance together at a Katrina benefit show organized by Wynton Marsalis at Rose Hall. We followed McCoy Tyner with a performance of Allen’s great song of hope, “Freedom For The Stallion”.

I had written “The River In Reverse”, a week earlier.

Over the next month, we met at Joshua’s NYC apartment imagining the record we might make from the Toussaint songbook, including four titles first heard on Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can” album to which we added four new co-written songs and my lyric for A.T.’s slower minor-key arrangement of “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair, which I had first heard on Dr. John’s “Gumbo” album – an essential summary of New Orleans styles that to which I had limited access in Liverpool back in 1972.

The resulting piece, “Ascension Day”, described a scene of devastation that I could only imagine until the first morning after we arrived in New Orleans to complete “The River In Reverse” album and I took a drive to the levee in Lower Ninth Ward.

There was a large barge wedged up in a crack in the levee wall, corroded cars sat upside down where the water had washed through them, leaving refrigerators and chairs perched weirdly in the few standing tree branches, wooden houses shifted off their foundations and sitting at crazy, queasy angles, perspective and geometry denied. Not a bird was singing, that much was true, it was so much worse.

I had written “The River In Reverse” alone and at a safe distance from disaster but it was hardly a work of speculative fiction.

The song was not about a literal river breaking its banks but a relentless drift, an inevitable flow towards governing by “money and superstition” until all decency and hope is submerged in an “uncivil war”.

Even offers of salvation see a man “fall through the mirror of a lake” and declared a fake, not a saviour miraculously walking upon the surface.

The surreal sights I saw that morning – upturned cars, a refrigerator lodged in tree branches, wooden houses moved whole off their foundations, a barge suspended across the breach in the levee wall, as if about to be airborne, they might have seemed the stuff of nightmares to me, the visitor who could leave again but, two levelled blocks away, a man was climbing a ladder against a post in a attempt to restore power to what was left of his house.

Electrical re-connections across the city were intermittent. We would drive home from the studio at midnight, past whole blocks that sat in darkness while the next two were illuminated and on the next, plunged back into the darkness.

Military vehicles and soldiers in sand-coloured fatigues sat at the crossroads, left over from the weeks of martial law.

My friends accounts of life within the city before the waters rose, during the evacuations, when symbols were painted on houses indicating a sick or infirm resident who could not be transferred and later other symbols denoting fatalities were followed by accounts of the damage and ruin they found upon their return.

I felt uneasy in my gaze. I did not want to be a voyeur. The television did enough to intrude and demean and decide who was worthy of help and for how long.

Three years later I wrote “Stations Of The Cross” about this procession of piety, always keeping scourge and crown of thorn close at hand in case anyone asked for too much in recompense.

There is always someone dying somewhere, while we heedlessly press ahead with our nightly entertainments; a brutal boxing match, a murder in a live sex-club, imagining ourselves absolved by the music of “her fine whine, diminishing behind her” in a “Church Underground”.

Buying our way into heaven with small acts of charity.
“The water came up to the eaves
You’d think someone had opened a valve
It’s too soon to stay now and too late to leave

So spare your remorse all the way up to Calvary”

Allen showed nothing but grace and admirable stoicism through all of this. He had the strength and the wit in reserve that he had put into songs like “Hercules”.

The decision we took to complete our sessions in a city still under curfew was an easy one once we found there was a functioning studio, “Piety Street”, in the aptly named neighbourhood of Bywater.

Producer Joe Henry and I knew we must accompany A.T. back home, as so many did, to begin again.

Eventually we even persuaded Allen that he must go to the vocal microphone for the opening verses of a song that he had written forty years earlier but was once again right on time: “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?”.

Allen Toussaint spent much more of post-Katrina life on the road.

I was his guest at the Jazz Fest the following Spring before he and the horn section we dubbed The Crescent City Horns – Joe “Foxx” Smith, Amadee Castanell, Brian “Breeze” Cayolle and Big Sam Williams and guitarist, A.B. Brown, joined The Imposters on a tour from Green Bay MI to the House of Blues on Decatur St in the French Quarter.

The following summer, with The Imposters rhythm section otherwise detained in France, Steve Nieve and I joined A.T.s band and the vocal harmonizing bassist, Paul Bryan on a European tour from the tiny The Picket in Liverpool to the open air Odeon of Herodion below the Acropolis in Athens.

That night we played a song that A.T. and I had written together more in celebration than lament.

Allen’s joyful rolling piano and horn refrain probably does more to express what I could only hint at in the lyric…
“Send out a message and it’s sure to rebound
What’s that I hear?
What is that sound?
Seems to be coming from under the ground

International echo”

To be continued…

1) BRILLIANT DISGUISE – Elvis Costello from “Kojak Variety”

2) POINT OF NO RETURN – Elvis Costello from “Vinyl”

3) STRANGE – Elvis Costello from “Kojak Variety”

4) I’M AHEAD IF I CAN QUIT WHILE I’M BEHIND – Jim Ford from “Point Of No Return”

5) I’M A MESS – Nick Lowe from “The Convincer”

6) I HAVE CRIED MY LAST TEAR – Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers

7) GET OUT OF MY LIFE WOMAN – Lee Dorsey from “Ride Your Pony”

8) LIFE – Dr. John from “In The Right Place”

9) DEEP DARK TRUTHFUL MIRROR – Elvis Costello from “Spike”

10) ON YOUR WAY DOWN – Little Feat from “Dixie Chicken”

11) SWEET PEAR – Elvis Costello from “Mighty Like A Rose”

12) CHEWING GUM – Elvis Costello from “Spike”

13) RIVERBOAT – Lee Dorsey from “Yes We Can”

14) DON’T PITY ME – Curly Moore from “The Soul Of Treme”

15) NEARER TO YOU – Betty Harris from “The Lost Queen Of New Orleans Soul”

16) TIPITINA – Dr. John from “Gumbo Blues”

17) ASCENSION DAY – Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint – from “The River In Reverse”

18) WHO’S GONNA HELP BROTHER GET FURTHER? – Elvis Costello & The Imposters with Allen Toussaint from “The River In Reverse”

19) INTERNATIONAL ECHO – Elvis Costello & The Imposters with Allen Toussaint from “The River In Reverse”

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