What did Ben Fong-Torres love about New Orleans? Everything and everyone.
"The moonlight on the bayou, Louis Armstrong sang in Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans." A creole tune that fills the air. I dream about magnolias in bloom, and Im wishin I was there.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Im prepared to miss New Orleans for a long, long time. What a wonderful city it waswith a sad emphasis on the past tense, as it can never fully be restored to its carefree days and ways, of a street called Bourbon and a drink dubbed Hurricane. The classic architecture, borne of its French and Spanish roots; the soulful Cajun cuisine; the life-is-short motif of the natives, who operated voodoo shops, gave tours of haunted houses, and told about the citys history of fighting floods and canes.
I visited the Crescent City several times, including once in 1995, when Gavin , a radio and record industry magazine where I worked, hosted a music biz seminar there. On the eve of that trip, I wrote:
Frankly, my dear, I don't remember much about the last and only other time I was in New Orleans. According to my calendar, it was in mid-March of 1978, and I was there for a vacation and to pop in on the NARM (National Association of Record Manufacturers) convention at the Hyatt. There was a big midnight bash at the Superdome hosted by Rolling Stone magazine, where I worked. But my notes say that Dianne and I spent most of our time at clubs and restaurants. Let's see: The Bon Ton, Cafe DuMonde, Brennan's, Chez Helene's, Maxcy's Coffee Pot, Antoine's, Houlihan's, Marti's. Lots of music, too, at Crazy Shirley's, at Preservation Hall, and at the club I remember best -- La Strada on Bourbon Street.
Not that La Strada is any great Big Easy landmark. But back then, after a hard day's week at Rolling Stone, I had the great reward of a Sunday afternoon show on KSAN, the free-form pioneer. And my theme song was "(I Don't Know Why I Love You) But I Do," a 1961 hit by Clarence "Frogman" Henry.
The Frogman is a Louisiana native, and it turned out that he was the house band at this funky club, La Strada. Well, "house band" is stretching it. Henry sang to a jukebox. After a few unfamiliar tunes, the Frogman launched into "But I Do," and, half way through my time in New Orleans, my trip was already made.
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Returning home to San Francisco from the 1995 trip, I recalled a few highlights:
Transcendent moments: I was lingering at the Hyatt Regency for no good reason -- except maybe that 12:30 a.m. was just too early to call it a night. In New Orleans, anyway.
Sure enough, along came a guy holding a sign, inviting all lingerers to meet Timbuk 3 in room 1906. Around 1:15, with a very superfluous Amaretto in hand, I was listening to Barbara K. and Pat McDonald, perched on the foot of a king bed, entwined in harmony, Pat's guitar amplified on a little Peavey set up by a window framing a view of New Orleans, resting between thunderstorms. They sang a couple of gorgeous songs from their new album, A Hundred Lovers , and then they did a gently rollicking "Born to Be Wild" from their six-song sampler of a year ago -- this in response to a request for "In a-Gadda-Da-Vida."
Wading our way through Bourbon Street, past topless bars and female wrestlers, we wind up at Lafitte's Blacksmith Store, a dark bar reeking of history and unassuming jazz, played by a chain-smoking combo, one of whom says, at set's end: "Jazz is dead, man. It's all karaoke bars on Bourbon Street."
I think and I hope he's wrong. Jazz is no more dead than the spirit of music, and in this party disguised as a city, music remains what it has always been: transcendent.
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Two years later, we returned to New Orleans for another Gavin Seminar. I conducted an on-stage interview with the founder of Tower Records; off-site, I sat with the legendary Pat Boone for a magazine piece. And, in my column, I noted a few other memorable moments:
The Spice Girls packed the Regency Ballroom for a midnight meet & greet -- the biggest late-hours gathering in Seminar history. As one guest said: "It's amazing what a hit record and sexy girls will do" ... Wackiest cafe: Lucky Chan's, where the food is Asian/Cajun and the waitresses are men ... Perfect closing shot: Late night Sat. night, Laura Allan is at the piano at the hotel bar, the Mint Julep. She stops to tell me that I complimented her, 20-something years ago, when she was singing at the Magic Pan, a creperie in downtown S.F. Lovely as ever, Laura sang "Let It Go." And so we do, until next time...
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Next time came in early 2001, when we returned for a rather special occasion. I wrote about it in this space. Heres a shorter version:
Bobby Cure, leader of one of two bands playing at the wedding of TV anchor Sydnie Kohara and high-tech executive George Laplante in New Orleans, couldnt believe his eyes and ears. On his stage was Sydnie herself, glowing in her beautiful satin wedding gown, belting out Gloria Gaynors who-needs-a-manthem, I Will Survive. A few songs later, she was back, this time to do one of her favorite tunes, Patsy Clines Crazy.
I knew youd love me as long as you needed
And then someday youd leave me for somebody new
Cure loved her performances but couldnt help scratching his head at her song choices. But there was no mistaking it: Sydnie was in love with her brand-new husband. Take it from me. I married them.
So that was another thing that probably had Cure thinking that this was one of his more curious gigs. Here was Sydnie telling him that she wanted her minister to do a little Elvis. And I take the microphone and sing Cant Help Falling in Love while the newlyweds swirl around the dance floor, soon joined by dozens of others.
Of course, in New Orleans, odd moments are taken in stride. We were, after all, in the Big Easy on the throbbing eve of Mardi Gras, with parades coursing through town and various suburbs. The weather zigged and zagged, from humid heat to 40 MPH winds and a splash of rain, to 30-degree nights. But no one cared. The streets were jammed and jamming. Bourbon Street was its usual frat party-meets-rave. Philip Kan Gotanda, the playwright/screenwriter, his wife, actress/producer Diane Takei, my wife, Dianne, and I lasted maybe a dozen blocks before we escaped down a side street, back to the Omni Royal Orleans.
We were in New Orleans because Sydnie is from Louisiana, and chose to have her wedding close to family. A couple dozen of her California friends made the trip; others came from Arizona, Colorado, New York, and London. Pals included television personality Jan Yanehiro, who helped get Sydnie and George together two years ago; her agent, the civil rights attorney Dale Minami, and several former fellow reporters on KGO-TV in San Francisco. All together, almost 200 people attended the nuptials, which George and Sydnie sandwiched between a welcoming reception and an afternoon of up-close parade watching at a house they rented on Napoleon Avenue for a Mardi Gras brunch.
The Laplantes did it up right. I mentioned two bands at the wedding. I lied. Besides Bobby Cure, there was a swing bandbut, at the wedding itself, there was also a jazz trio playing the processional, recessional (in full New Orleans second-line style), and a song within the ceremony, Louis Armstrongs What a Wonderful World.
Its easy to get overpowered by music in New Orleans. Whether on Bourbon Street or down by the riverside, or in a bar at 5:30 in the morning, youre gonna hear jazz and blues and R&B and Zydeco, whether from street performers, legendary bands or just a jukebox. I even had a cup of coffee with Mr. New Orleans himself, Allen Toussaint. The elegant Mr. Toussaint, who showed up in the Rib Room at the Royal Orleans in a suit and tie, has been making music since the Fifties. As a writer, arranger and producer, his credits include Mother in Law, Ya Ya, Working in a Coalmine, Lady Marmalade, Yes We Can Can, and From a Whisper to a Scream. Hes worked with Etta James, Dr. John, Paul McCartney and many others.
We were meeting because I was working with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to gather material for a library, and I wanted him to consider donating documents to the new facility. Mr. Toussaint, who was inducted a few years ago, listened to my pitch andmusic to my earsagreed to help.
I celebrated by joining Dianne and four friends for a huge breakfast at Brennans. At this landmark restaurant, breakfasts described on the menu as typical run $35 to $50. If you economize by ordering ala carte, an egg dishsay, a Benedict or a Sardoucan be acquired for a mere $19 to $24. Financing is available.
In a city of voodoo and ya ya, of Hurricanes and dog parades, of boiled crawfish and gators-on-a-stick, of swamps and sidewalk psychics, of Saints and sinners, of grownups walking around in jesters hats and flashing breasts in hopes of a string of Mardi Gras beads, and of singing brides and ministers, the twenty-buck omelette was just one more thing to laugh about, and to remember.
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And, now, post-Katrina, I read that Mr. Toussaint was among the thousands who fled to the makeshift shelter at the Superdome. Sydnie Kohara, now morning co-anchor on CBS 5 in San Francisco, went to Louisiana to file reports from there. I havent heard about her loved ones in Bayou country. One prays that they made it away safely to higher ground, from where, no doubt, they, more than most of us, know what it means to miss New Orleans.
You are cordially invited to visit Ben's home page, loaded with celebrity photos, articles and goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.