WHEN THE WORLD IS RAINING DOWN ON ME…
Let it go! Let it Go! Let it Go!
Let it go! Let it Go! Let it Go!
When the world is coming down on me, I let it go! –Cowboy Mouth, “Jenny Says”
As Cowboy Mouth rocked my Lundi Gras troubles away, two friends from Rocckus, Megan and Amanda from New York (where their brother Chris had already returned), appeared out of nowhere dressed in gowns for that night’s Orpheus ball. When it began to drizzle Amanda pulled out a poncho but Megan had forgotten hers, so I offered my jacket as I opened an umbrella in quiet admiration: It takes dedication to rock out in the rain in evening-wear. In return, the sisters offered a red spoon to throw during “Everybody Loves Jill” but I proudly/embarrassedly pulled out one of my own, carried from Jacksonville in hopes that Cowboy Mouth would be playing somewhere. How about right outside my hotel?! Thank you guardian Mardi Gras angel!
Soon the show came to its typical explosive conclusion with “Jenny Says,” Cowboy Mouth’s one radio hit from the mid-nineties and my introduction to the band several years before I otherwise discovered New Orleans music. It remains their signature song, played penultimately in concert (pre-Katrina it was the final song, but the storm changed everything) by a band that understands why people continue to attend live shows in the digital age. During this cleverly crafted bit of pop-catharsis Fred LeBlanc has fans slowly squat to the ground and then, on cue, jump and scream like maniacs, purging any last vestiges of frustration and angst he’d yet to expunge. In much-needed release, I spazzed-out to one of my very favorite songs and let it all go.
As the joyful defiance of “Jenny Says” faded, Fred emerged alone as he tends to post-Katrina to play the poignant “The Avenue” which tells of how this manic, drum-punishing rocker broke down in the shower as the reality of Katrina set in. Referring to St. Charles Avenue–ground zero for all major Mardi Gras parades–the song provides somberly optimistic contrast: “Because the marching bands will roll; I’ll find my city in my soul; Because I planned on growing old on The Avenue.” Except now it was Lundi Gras, and New Orleans was back, baby, so on the final chorus, Fred transformed optimism into triumph: “Because the marching bands DID roll; and the Saints won the $#@$ing Super Bowl…” At this point, he lost his place and simply shook his head: “I never thought I’d see that happen.” Triumph all around!
ROBE-N-HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS
A majority of the crowd dispersed, including my Rocckus friends, as the tux and bow-tie sporting MC chased Fred off stage to introduce Rex, King of Carnival, allegedly the main attraction; nevertheless, a decent crowd remained. It is traditional for Rex to declare tomorrow a day of fun and revelry before, in a newer twist, requesting that government and taxation be suspended for the day. Apparently the first time this stunt was performed it caught the mayor off guard, but now the gag is well-rehearsed. (Though all in folly–the city isn’t going to suspend taxation on the biggest tourism day of the year!) Current mayor Mitch Landrieu hammed it up, huddling with his advisors for several minutes before acquiescing.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the pageantry of Rex is one of the weirder aspects of carnival. I earlier mentioned how the regality of its krewe costumes make them more menacing. The King, however, is straight out of Wonderland. A grown man in tights and a white wig and sequins and a crown–it stands out as bizarre during an event where being over-the-top is a citywide competition. Granted, you’ll witness risque costumes, base nudity and outright sacrilege during Mardi Gras. I dressed like a pirate, for God’s sake! Twice! But most costumes embrace the ironic or the absurd while some are frightening, such as the roaming skeletons that traditionally wake up the Treme neighborhood in the wee hours of Mardi Gras. But this is all self-aware absurdity. When well-heeled old men dress in costumes that strive to be whimsical and tasteful at the same time, it just doesn’t work. Either wear a tux or dress like a cartoon. When you try to be a paradox–classy and absurd–you just come off looking like the kid who didn’t quite get the joke. Somehow Indians manage to be excessive and flamboyant while remaining dignified and elegant–perhaps through defiance–but every time I see the King Rex, I expect the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat to follow. If you want to get the full effect, watch the highly choreographed and ritualized Rex Ball unfold on TV Mardi Gras night. It looks like Little Orphan Annie’s ultimate tea-time fantasy brought to life via Daddy Warbucks’ credit card!
I soon lost attention as Zulu appeared and went to get a drink. Despite feeling increasingly under the weather, the beer I’d had during Cowboy Mouth was divine and I figured one more couldn’t hurt. Returning to the same booth as before, however, something was different. As if the appearance of Cowboy Mouth beside my hotel wasn’t karmic enough, there stood a surprising omen of my journey come full-circle. It was Danny Cattan. The man!
DANNY CATTAN IS THE MAN!
First off, let me say that I don’t really know Danny. At all. That’s what makes this story so dang funny. I met him once during Jazzfest this past spring working a daiquiri booth, returning to say hello the next day. That’s it. Yet the mystic swirl of events pre and post this introduction, punctuated by its absurdity, altered the course of my life like some millennial astrological alignment of the stars. In fact, if you divide those few minutes back in May by the monumental life decisions that were being formulated, ie. My Year of Mardi Gras, and toss in our meeting again as I was just beginning this journey, then by a mathematical equation of simple division (major life decisions made/actual minutes known) you could argue Danny Cattan is the most influential person I’ve ever met.
Let me explain.
My oft-mentioned friend Metairie Mark, (heretofore to be known as Marquis) is boisterous, fun-loving, social, and quite animated–common cajun characteristics. An avid-storyteller, he never forgets a face…or apparently a name. Flashback to May. Marquis, his wife, Brooke, and I are standing in line at the daquiri tent beside the main stage where we sought a break from beer with frozen New Orleans Rum Punches. As the girl takes our money, Marquis glances at the back of the tent, flinches, does a double take, and flinches again like a cartoon cat with bulging eyes. Tapping the girl on the arm, he points to the back of the tent: “That guy, there, in back. What’s his name?” She looks over her shoulder then turns back and says: “Danny…” Before she can finish, Marquis’ face flushes with triumph and he nods, then puffs his chest out like the Lion King, takes a step back, throws his arm backward and up in an arc like a Dr. J hook-shot, and steps forward into the grandest index-finger-pointing gesture I’ve ever witnessed. “DANNY CAT-TAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” The guy in the back of the tent flinches, looking up in complete bewilderment at the declaration. “It’s Mark Foret! Twenty years ago we worked together at the Super Store!” Twenty years ago. Said like it was just last semester. Danny stops, takes a breath, and his eyes widen. He rushes forward where the two old friends embrace over the table in a flurry of ‘how the hell have you been‘s and ‘what the hell have you been up to‘s. Brooke and I, meanwhile, are doubled over laughing to the point of stomach contractions. I’ve witnessed a thousand reunions in my life, but a flock of jumping, screaming Tri-Deltas converging on the sorority house stairs for their twenty-year couldn’t match the flamboyance of Marquis’ Lion-King-meets-Dr.-J move. All. Time. Classic.
As Brooke and I wipe tears from our eyes, Marquis presents his friend: “This is Danny Cattan. He’s the man.” One of us–which I can’t recall–said “Apparently so!” and we both doubled over laughing again. Finally the story came out that they were old high school friends who worked together in a supermarket, cutting up and getting in trouble, one summer during college. As our guffaws subsided, Marquis introduced Brooke and then me, explaining that I’m a huge fan of New Orleans and Jazzfest. “Oh,” Danny says with a politely interested smile, “so where are you from?” I think for a second, never knowing how to answer this question since I’ve lived so many places, and say “Well, I grew up in West Virginia….” It was now Danny’s turn to double-take step backwards. “West Virginia? How in the world did you end up in New Orleans?” Without thinking, I blurted out: “Hey, it’s take a little bit of everything in the pot–It ain’t a gumbo till you add the West Virginia.” Everyone broke into laughter again and Danny reached over and slapped my hand in a hearty shake: “West Virginia Gumbo! I love it!”
After the friends exchanged digits, we departed a humorous but seemingly fleeting scene; yet the wheel of fortune was spinning. From that moment on, Marquis began referring to me as WV Gumbo and I embraced the identity–just look at the authorship credit for this blog. I have struggled my entire life to bridge the gap between my rural Appalachian upbringing and my adopted Creole-Caribbean Soul (remember: Buffett, grew up on the Gulf, started playing in New Orleans, and wrote “I Will Play for the Gumbo”), yet in one beer-fueled, unwitting moment I managed to fuse these personas. And while drinking the daiquiris we walked away with, I began waving my t-shirt over my head forming a one-man-second-line while the Dirty Dozen Brass Band played, prompting Marquis and Brooke to begin asking why I didn’t just move to New Orleans, assuring me I’d fit right in. That was Thursday. By Saturday, as we took another round of N.O. Rum Punches to the other side of the fairground to watch Better Than Ezra urge: “I know what you’re thinking. Could I move to New Orleans? Could I make that shit happen….and the answer is yes!” the basis for My Year of Mardi Gras had taken hold.
Flash forward to the present when at Mardi Gras the next day my friend (through Marquis!) Chris Tusa told of how he and Marquis in high school, for reasons unknown, began pointing to Danny in the halls declaring: “Danny Cattan is THE Man!” Perhaps that history inspired Marquis’ embellishment, but whatever the source, the cry of “Dany Cattaaaaaaaan!” became an ongoing joke. Instead of crying Geronimo! during our annual New Years Day polar plunge or balcony-lake jump during our yearly trip to Virginia, we now cried “Danny Cattaaaaaaaaan!” The joke must have resurfaced a hundred times in a dozen ways over the following year, a constant reminder of the change I was contemplating. And now here he was again just as I had begun the most radical departure of my life. Jumping in. No fear. No reservations. “Danny Cattaaaaaan!”
So if you’re at an event in New Orleans and see a Fat Tuesday Daiquiris tent, be sure to stop in for a rum punch. And be sure to ask for Danny. But if you end up quitting your job, moving to Vegas, and starting a blog on your adventures as a blackjack dealer, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
EPILOGUE: CAN’T RAIN ON THIS PARADE
Between Cowboy Mouth and Danny Cattan, I was leading a charmed Lundi Gras and nothing could dampen my spirits, including an evening that progressed pleasantly if unexceptionally. The Topcats, a highly skilled cover-band of the type only New Orleans can nurture for thirty years (it was their anniversary–all original members) came on after Rex and I hung around to dance to a great mix of 70’s, 80’s and current hits. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Huey Lewis’s cheesy “The Power of Love” played live, but it felt joyously appropriate tonight, and who would have guessed it would soon be followed by Cee Lo Green’s “F%#* You”?! Soon I wandered into a touristy restaurant just off the plaza where I could listen and maintain sight-lines. The po’boy and salad were as serviceable as expected, but life was good. Next I wandered off to catch most of Orpheus’s elaborate parade where the throws seemed stingier than in past years. I walked away without a medallion but still smiling. Lundi Gras had delivered. Back at the hotel, I retrieved my luggage and waited for a cab beside a roadie who had helped put up and take down the stage. His dad drove a cab and he gave me some tips for surviving the city. Shortly I was heading back to Metairie to crash a few nights more with Marquis’ parents–the return of the bad penny–arriving at around 10 o’clock in hopes of turning in early. Zulu would at 8 a.m. tomorrow and I would have to drive and find parking. This was the namesake day of my adventure and I didn’t want to miss a thing.