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‘Treme,’ the rage and the music

I am not of the generation that can claim memory of the moment when President Kennedy’s assassination was announced — I was too young.

Likewise, when oil started washing up on the beaches of Santa Barbara, I don’t recall where I was when I first saw the images of blackslicked birds, sick and confused, shivering in the disembodied rubber gloves of rescuers.

All I can remember at that time was thinking, “What are we doing to our planet?” And crying, like the Indian in the commercial (who followed a few years later), as the evening news showed berms of dead fish piled along the shoreline, tan sand fouled with the black fetor of Shell pelf.

Talkin’ bout’ my generation, there are just two big news incidents where, when it was evident what was happening, I can clearly recall where I was at the moment the news took hold: 9/11 and three days following Hurricane Katrina.

September 11 needs no comment, as there was an almost universal reaction to the attacks. For myself, I remember driving home from my job and staring straight ahead on my way home while I listened to reports on NPR, looking at the other drivers on the road, also looking shocked and numb and looking straight ahead, not looking anywhere else, lost in the despair of the moment as the radio reported the horror in NYC. It was apparent that something had changed, irrevocably.

The universal reaction to Katrina, on the other hand, was much like the city that was affected — nuanced, complex and inevitably inscrutable.

On that Friday, I watched the abstract blobs of NOAA graphics moving towards NOLA, no one knowing if it was a category three or four storm, everyone hunkering down but, in the end, another hurricane with a funny name. Throughout the weekend, reporters whipped in the winds, chattered on cheerfully about levies giving way and roofs flying into oblivion, insouciantly gripping tethers and reporting that, it could be worse.

By Monday, the skies cleared, giving a glimpse an indescribable devastation, floating in the streets, thousands scrambling for space in the Superdome, people stranded on roof tops waving at helicopters waiting for salvation. And, with each passing day, we watched how our government demurred with a criminal disregard.

Set several months after the catastrophe, the HBO show “Treme” expresses the frustration many of us felt, through the eyes of New Orleans residents. All tied together in the midst of a once great city struggling to rise from the mud, the characters and their stories create the most compelling television in years.

The opening credits, a chaotic pastiche of faded photographs and the water stains on walls, faded like Mark Rothko experiments, suggest a city still peeling at the edges but full of memories. The theme music, very New Orleans, is infectious and joyous, in a way the show’s characters hold faith for their city’s eventual (or assumed) resurrection.

Although voodoo figures marginally in “Treme” — at the beginning of one episode, a New Orleans stalwart performs live in a radio, then follows with the lighting of “spirit candles” and the sacrifice of a live chicken, to bring the city back — the show is infused with the Catholicism that has always striped the city with its contradictory character. The big “C” and small “c” has always made New Orleans as fun and hilarious as it was in JK Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (the greatest comic novel ever), each character in “Treme” seeking redemption beyond the confines of the confessional yet never two steps from mystic animism.

Created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer (from “The Wire,” a show many critics consider to be the best show ever made for television), “Treme” is more a character-driven show than plot-driven and, as such, could be superior to their previous project; it still remains to be seen but all indications point to “better” as the show progresses.

Not as intense as “The Wire,” “Treme” requires patience as it unfolds, slowly revealing itself like a bottle of Chambolle-Musigny (which one of the characters opens, to the horror of his erstwhile restaunteur girlfriend), taking a meandering, ambling pace of a French Quarter funeral march. In Treme’s New Orleans, the bodies have all been cleared away (with the exception of one episode) and the violence is at a minimum; we’re asked to accept things that, as best as I can tell, has the torpid drawl of a Saint Charles sheriff, with all the nuanced narrative and inscrutability of the cop’s oneiric rambling.

Take the character Antoine Baptiste (Wendell Pierce, “Bunk Moreland” from “The Wire”), a talented trombone player in the Second Line bands but also within the scene on Bourbon Street. Baby Daddy to a woman he hardly loves (and another we only catch a castoff allusion to) and similarly tied to bar owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexender), the scapegrace Batiste shuffles through life living for his next gig. Indeed, despite scrapes with corrupt NOLA cops and grief from the harridan he lives with, he just wants to play — something that, in post-Katrina New Orleans is a rare gig, given to just the top-tier musicians or hacks willing to greet tourists at the airport. Antione can be a jerk — when a knock comes to the door while baby mama No. 2 is feeding, he turns his eyes to the door, expecting her to get it – but he’s really only as a slave to his craft, turning over a brand new horn to an old mentor, while wondering where his own horn will turn up after being arrested by corrupt cops.

And, as with so many New Orleans musicians, slavish to where his roots are in the second line.

Other characters are no less true to the tradition that makes NOLA Nawlins. John Goodman plays Creighton Bernette, an English professor putting polemic on YouTube, a lark which undermines his desire to publish his “real” novel regarding the flood of 1927. Davis (Steve Zahn), a trustafarian from awld muh-nee is a slacker enthralled with the city’s musical tradition and banks everything he has, life and love, in his obsession with that. The Old Chief (Clarke Peters, also from “The Wire”) tries to gather his tribe together — most of whom have been dispersed by the storm — while attempting to get his prominent and successful jazz musician son to return to the fold of the second line.

It is the music that brings me here; it is all, all of it, exquisite. Like “The Wire, “Simon brings in locals for his actor’s roles but, unlike the previous show’s Baltimore location, he has centuries of music to draw upon as well. Not just Jazz but the music on the street, the second line, roots that stretch all the way back to Africa. When the Big Chief and his crew begin to jam, the step back to their pre-slave tradition is as authentic as the moment a child is born, cradled and then passed on to the father to raise to the sun. To watch the Big Chief and his crew chant, shake tambourines and beat drums, away from the glimmer of Bourbon Street is, quite simply, a revelation.

In one episode, the Big Chief assembles all he can get in the Ninth Ward, an area completely decimated by floods, his crew rehearsing for a second line march for a funeral. The immediacy in that moment of improvisation reveals to us the African roots of the music which makes New Orleans great. With feathers and drums, we’re reminded what a unique culture resides within our own country.

In the midst of that revelry, a tour bus pulls up and stops in front of the Big Chief’s tribe. The music stops and everyone stares, offended at the bus.

“Whatcha’ ya’ll doing?” the bus driver asks, while camera flashes erupt from the bus (the bus marked with “Katrina Tours” on the side), as if the riders were rolling through a wildlife park, taking photos of wild jungle beasts.

“Move along,” the Big Chief says to the bus driver, too proud to give away his joy and too ashamed of his hood, seething at what his government has not delivered. Rocking within blocks of boarded up houses and piles of rubble lining the street, his ward is as alien as Timbuktu to the tourists but to the Big Chief, is no less home than his own skin.

“I get it. I’m sorry. My apologies,” the bus driver says, sincere and deferential, as he moves the bus past and down a road lined with detritus and rubble.

A snide aside, we’re the moronic rubes snapping photos, offending the natives while sitting in an air-conditioned coach that rolls past miles of boarded-up windows and berms of trash that once amounted to lives lived in earnest and full of love.

Our country will be known for blues (created in the fields of the south), rock and roll (a variation on the blues, also created throughout the south) but mostly, eternally, for Jazz. Unfortunately, our country also carries a legacy of destruction and oppression, an exact counterpoint to our music.

While the cotton fields and shotgun shacks of the south claim the blues, while modern culture claims rock and roll (technology over territory) only one city, New Orleans, can rightfully claim the birth of, arguably, the most important musical form in this or any century — Jazz.

And while blues or rock and roll have made more of a mark on modern culture than Jazz, at least as far as mass-culture, the true influence of Jazz ultimately negates the extent of the other forms because, while blues eventually led to Jazz (as well as rock and roll which is just blues mixed with country), Jazz endures and astounds. If rock or blues songs continue to be part of our musical lexicon over 100 years later, I might revise my opinion but I don’t see that happening.

Yet, the previous administration, along with many of its cheerleaders, seemed to not care if the birthplace of the most important artistic form in a century (it could be cogently argued that modern abstraction was entirely influenced by Jazz), originating from our country, would be allowed to drown and flounder.

That confusion, frustration and rage of what happened in the days, weeks and months following Katrina finds a perfect pitch in “Treme” yet, like the music, brings a joyful sound from the underscoring blue notes.

As I write this, minimal amounts of sludge wash ashore on the Gulf Coast — and New Orleans. That’s because BP has spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant chemicals into the gulf as it tries to spin the worst environmental disaster since Sadaam Hussein purposely spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf (in an attempt to slow down U.S. troops from taking Iraq, in 1991).

Dispersants that, by most accounts, will kill 12,000 square miles of coral forests along the Gulf Coast and will kill fishing and shrimping from Texas to Florida for at least two decades. Dispersants that do nothing to deal with millions of gallons of oil plumes sitting in the belly of the Gulf of Mexico.

While fish and shrimp might not survive, for decades, “Treme” has convinced me that a tradition will continue, despite the best efforts of the federal government to wipe a culture out. “Treme” will be around for a few seasons, I’m positive; count on the rage as well.

jim@pagosasun.com