#81: Buckwheat Zydeco: When I interviewed this legend by phone we discussed, among other topics, his great love of fishing. He even agreed to fish with me. But when I called him back months later to take him up on it, his manager said he’d fallen ill and couldn’t fish. A year or so later, he passed away.
#82: Calvin Johnston: K Records label head and singer for Beat Happening happened to be working the merch booth when I purchased a Chain and the Gang (Ian Svenonius) vinyl album. I remember he didn’t smile at all.
#83: Ed Helms: I wrote the only tourist guidebook ever created specifically for those who visit New Orleans to hear music, and I happened to be carrying a backpack full of them when, at the coffeeshop, I overheard a dude telling his girlfriend, “I wish there was some book we could buy that would tell us which music to go see.” As I laughed at the specificity of his remark I looked closer and noticed it was Ed Helms from The Office/Hangover, almost unrecognizable with a brown goatee and a pork-pie hat. “I don’t mean to bother you, but you should take this,” I said to them, and gave them a copy of my book. He was really happy about that. Then I left.
#84: Ellen Barkin: At Ye Old College Inn, I waited on the Big Easy star, her family, and her pre-teen son who wore a ginormous afro. They sat her at a corner table where, not a month earlier, a mouse had fallen out of the ceiling and onto someone’s plate. This did not happen to Ellen Barkin though. At meal’s end she thanked me with a wink and a large tip, for being sweet to her, without ever acknowledging her fame.
#85: Hot Water Music: My old band AmeriCar Underworld traveled from Tampa to Deland, Florida to perform at a punk show in a college classroom. Our opening band, Hot Water Music, played its first ever show. We snickered a little at the band’s “emo” theatrics, but they clearly had passion and power, and we knew they’d light up the local scene. Six years later, I’m working as a stagehand at House of Blues in New Orleans, setting up the backline for headliners, Hot Water Music. I said hello but didn’t mention that show in Deland.
#86: Hulk Hogan: In Ft Myers, FLA, I touched his sweaty body a few times as he quickly transported the 24-inch pythons to and from the ring. Years later in Tampa (coincidentally, the same city where Hogan was later filmed fucking the wife of shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge), I bussed Hulkster’s table more than once. I remember at Newk’s Cafe across from the stadium one night, he scarfed down the walnut fried grouper sandwich. When he was done I asked, “May I take that for you Hulk?”
A big Andy Kaufman fan, I was honored to get to spend a weekend raising hell with Tony Clifton, and writing about it for Vice. I got to say everything I wanted to say in that piece, and feel like it’s one of the best pieces I ever wrote, and so I don’t have much more to say about that experience. I suggest you CLICK HERE and skip to reading that piece in its entirety.
Or if you’d just like a salacious excerpt of that article, I’ve culled the most informative and/or offensive parts, below:
In 2006, after an eight-year hiatus, Comic Relief reemerged to put on a show to benefit the victims of Katrina. When he hired Johnson as a videographer, Bob Zmuda (Kaufman’s former writing partner, and the head of Comic Relief) was working on a more ambitious project than a one-off gig: a tour featuring two dozen New Orleans musicians and dancers that would both raise money for performers still dealing with the effects of Katrina and restart the long-dormant career of Tony Clifton.
Clifton is a character, both figuratively and literally. Andy Kaufman claimed to have “discovered” the drunken, foul-mouthed nightclub performer in 1969, but in reality — if the word reality applies to any of Kaufman’s projects — he might have emerged from Kaufman’s head, like Foreign Man. In any case, since the 70s, the Clifton costume and persona has been passed around like a handle of warm whiskey in a green room. In his book Andy Kaufman Exposed! Zmuda copped to having first worn Tony’s signature thick prescription sunglasses, and starting in 1979 Kaufman impersonated Clifton as well — so often and with such hateful aplomb that audiences quickly came to consider the character Andy’s original creation and forgot that a “real” Clifton supposedly existed somewhere.
Most people believe today’s Tony Clifton to “be” Zmuda, who’s now old enough that he no longer needs prosthetics to approximate Clifton’s jowls. Either way, Jeremy has always served two bosses: Zmuda — who Johnson by now considers “a dick” — and Clifton, whom he much prefers. Johnson has spent over five years as Clifton’s de facto assistant, on-call videographer, and sometimes writing partner. People close to the duo have suggested that Johnson is to Tony what Zmuda was to Kaufman. Which still doesn’t mean he can answer the most basic of questions: Who is Tony Clifton?
Like so many other well-meaning Katrina charity projects based in New York and LA, Clifton’s show helped in one way but also removed a lot of important talent from an already weakened New Orleans music scene. Still, Clifton maintains, “I did a good thing getting them out of this hellhole.”
Another thing about Clifton: he has the tendency to be as racist as you’d expect a weathered old alcoholic lounge singer to be, both privately and especially publicly.
Clifton doesn’t use the word nigger to break down its associations and our prejudices, the way Louis C. K. does with hot-button words; he spits it out with abandon. Tony makes Quentin Tarantino seem tasteful. You wonder how he would ever find even one black musician to work for him, much less five of his 11 band members — especially since he claims he doesn’t warn anyone what they’re in for before he hires them.
Clifton claims that [his band quitting in the middle of the show because of his racist remarks], made him realize he needed to henceforth really befriend all of his employees. “I am now very close to my band members,” he says. “I’ve learned that I need to be talking with my people and communicating with them directly. People who work with me now know who I am, and know where I’m comin’ from… Some of the people who decided not to leave the band that night, by the way, were also black. But they saw the bigger picture. So, it’s not like all the blacks left the band at once. Just the niggers left.”
Clifton tells anyone else who’ll listen how he’s the “official tester” at the Bunny Ranch. He calls Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof “the PT Barnum of booty” and claims, “Nobody gets laid more than Tony Clifton… As soon as Hof gets a new girl, I go down there and test to make sure they can do all the nasty things that clients want. I’ve fucked, on average, two or three girls under 25 years of age every week for the last 12 years. And they get nervous that I’m not gonna give them a good report! So they’re like, ‘Do you want me to suck your cock again? Do you want me to swallow your cum? Do you want anal?’ I am the luckiest guy on the Earth.”
. . .
“I have energy and I have a big fucking heart,” Clifton brags. “And the trick is to keep yourself associated with young people. Going back to Dennis Hof: I don’t fuck any girl over half my age, and I promise you.” He pokes my chest for emphasis: “Fucking, young, girls, will, keep, you, young. Their pussy juice is the nectar of the gods. It’s my secret to life.”
In 2013, Vice paid me to attend ToddStock, a four-day celebration of wizard musician Todd Rundgren’s 65th birthday, with the man himself in attendance. Superfans paid $800 to sleep in a tent, eat twice daly from killer themed buffets, and attend fun, open-bar happy hours with their hero. My psychedelic guru, Ray Bong, had only recently turned me on to Todd, and I was not yet the big fan I am now. Even Prince looked up to Todd Rundgren, as a songwriter, guitar shredder, producer, and as a fellow uncompromising soul. I really loved writing about ToddStock (CLICK HERE to read that Vice story).
But I left out some of the funniest, most interesting parts…
Just a few years younger than Todd, Ray Bong was one of the few who proudly paid over $1600 to take his wife for a weekend of camping with Todd Rundgren.
But before all that, I invited Ray Bong over to my house, he smoked me out, and we called up Todd Rundgren at his home in Hawaii and talked about music and laughed with him for 17 minutes, for OffBeat magazine — because not only would Ray consider this a great honor and gift, but I would have a Rundgren scholar on hand during my interview. Usually a psycho blabbermouth, Ray’s voice shook as he spoke to his idol.
I asked Todd, “Aren’t you scared of the type of people who would pay $800 just to be around you? Aren’t you taking a risk?”
“[laughs] We had the original Todd Stock five years ago out here on the island of Kawaii, in a lot next to my house. I just opened it up and said, ‘Anyone who can get themselves here and can put up $350 for food and booze,’ then everyone was free to show up. This time, we certainly expect to see the fans that show up to all the gigs and they want to have an opportunity to hang out outside of that context. When we had the first event, a few people early on would get a little over-excited and wanted to monopolize the conversation. But…eventually they calm down because they realize the have a whole week to get everything covered [laughs]. I have these events every once in a while and then they go back and they prosthelytize me!
My wingman at ToddStock, Mike Hogan from New Orleans brass rock band Egg Yolk Jubilee, joined me at ToddStock with his video recording gear. Like Ray, Hogan worshipped at Rundgren’s feet. He even keeps in email correspondence with Rundgren’s musician wife Michele, to find out what projects Todd’s working on, when Todd will tour, what Todd had for breakfast. I kid. But Hogan wore a different Todd shirt every day of ToddStock.
So he was the perfect person to record video of Todd and I fishing together. I’d previously communicated with Michele Rundgren — who sort of manages, and is very kind to, all of her husband’s fans and other sycophants — and she arranged for me to interview Todd for Vice, while we fished for catfish on the flooded Mississippi River levee.
Todd remembered me from our phone interview, and happily went along with my idea to recast John Lurie’s famous weird fishing show Fishing with John, as Fishing With Todd. Pole in hand, Todd laconically answered my questions as if this were just a conversation we happened to have while fishing.
Todd was very cool, and generous with his time. Before he left and went back to the party, he even sang and recorded the augmented theme song with me, “Fishiiiiiiiiiiing, with Todd. Fishiiiiiiiiiing, with Todd.” I was excited to put at the beginning of the fishing video Hogan filmed (which you can CLICK HERE to watch), “Theme song by Michael Patrick Welch AND TODD RUNDGREN.”
After the fishing interview, we took a nap, and then headed to the dinner buffet. I sat at a corner table munching when Rundgren himself walked up with his plate of food and sat down beside me, presumably because I was the only person in the dining hall not wearing a Todd Rundgren t-shirt. Todd and I talked off the record about New Orleans. “I love New Orleans partly because I love to cook. Cooking is a great passion of mine,” Todd said. “And one of my favorite things to cook is a good roux. So I like to come here and get the real thing.”
Just then Mike Hogan walked in — wearing a Got Milk? shirt, except it said Got Todd? — and he spotted me sitting and chatting with Todd. His eyes widened slightly. Hogan brought his food over and sat with us. I caught Hogan up on our food conversation. “Oh yeah, I knew you liked to cook,” the superfan said to Todd.
“And I was just saying that one of my favorite things to cook is a roux,” Todd added.
“I’ve never made a roux,” Hogan admitted. “It seems like it takes a lot of preparation, and is easy to screw up. So I leave it to other people.”
“Well then,” Todd said without laughing, “you’re a pussy.”
And I knew Mike Hogan was in heaven.
Not wanting to make my Vice story about me, I left out an amazing musical memory I won’t ever forget:
All weekend, Todd’s superfans had been jamming in different combos in the main room. They’d be working on some Rundgren cover, and I’d see Todd walk in, realize what they were playing, then walk straight out.
I’d performed my psychedelic electronic solo act “White Bitch” in New Orleans for over a decade and, feeling discouraged, was ready to quit forever. But I had recently realized how much my music and weird approach had in common with Rundgren’s. I’d overlaid all of my meticulously programmed backing beats onto a series of weird, funny videos I’d made, so that my onstage moves synched up with the pre-recorded images in trippy ways — all of that was very Rundgren, even though I’d never heard him.
So at 2am, two hours after Todd turned 65, I set up all my one-man-band gear in the grass outside of the main room and began to play. Todd had gone to sleep, but lots of people wandered out of the main room to watch and listen. Two of Rundgren’s three sons stood in front of me jamming out to the first song. They seemed really into it, but then quickly walked off, which bummed me out. Still I played on.
By my third song, the two sons returned with their brother, plus Michelle Rundgren, and Todd himself — they had woken dad and dragged him out of his bed to see me play! The whole Rundgren family stood five feet in front of me for the duration of the show, clapping and whistling and shouting encouragement as I sang and played guitar.
I could have led the crowd in the weekend’s first chorus of “Happy Birthday to Todd,” but thought it best not to focus on him at all. I did say into the microphone, “I only recently discovered Todd’s music, and am learning a lot about it this weekend. I’ve learned that all this time I thought I was ripping off Prince, but I was actually ripping off Todd — just like Prince does.” Then I played Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”
When I finished the song, Michele leaned in on me and shouted, “Play your original music!” I took this as a big compliment at the time, but later realized she simply feared I’d bust into a Todd Rundgren tune. She really looks out for him.
When I finally finished my set, everyone clapped, and Todd Rundgren himself began to chant, “White Bitch! White Bitch!” until all his fans joined in “WHITE BITCH! WHITE BITCH! WHITE BITCH!”
I took that as a huge compliment too — even though I’ve known plenty of people who didn’t like my music, but still loved saying the name. I played one more show after that, then put White Bitch away forever, satisfied, at least, that Todd Rundgren liked it.
My two least favorite rock stars are Lenny Kravitz (such a poser, despite his talent, and also has never had an original idea) and Smashing Pumpkins lead singer, Billy Corgan, who is a great guitarist, but who sings like a toad, and is made even toadier by all his bragging. You’d think if you “sang” like that, you’d keep slightly humble. He should play guitar in some better singer’s band, stand at the back of the stage, and shut the fuck up.
Before I arrived in Tampa for college in 1992, Billy Corgan haunted the nearby Florida town of St. Petersburg. He’d moved there to be near Tampa’s goth scene, and to front the goth band The Marked, so named for all the members’ prominent birthmarks. Florida legend has it that, before Corgan moved back to Chicago, at his going away party, he told the roomful of people, “I have the looks, the voice, and the talent to make it.”
As they say: it ain’t tricking if you got it. Corgan soon made good on his threat. Still, what a toad.
I still lived down in Ft. Myers, Florida when my friends and I drove two hours north to Tampa to see the Chicago-based Smashing Pumpkins a few months before Siamese Dream would come out. Tickets cost $6 apiece. We didn’t know much about the band, yet still showed up in Tampa five hours early to explore Ybor City. I remember seeing then-unknown Floridian, Marilyn Manson, in full makeup, carrying a lunchbox, passing out fliers for his band’s show the next week.
Hoping to listen to the Pumpkins’ soundcheck, we sat on the venue’s back steps. Soon, blonde bassist D’Arcy and guitarist James Iha pulled up in their tour van. We stood and cleared the steps so they could get by us. They looked dirty and half asleep as they struggled to open the back door — it seemed almost like they’d never opened a door themselves before. Still a teenager and a few years from my first drink, to me they seemed like drug addicts, totally smacked out.
Iha stuck his foot into a hole at the bottom of the door, as if that would magically trigger it to open. When that didn’t work, he finally looked up at us teenagers, mouth slightly open like, Please help.
I’d never seen anyone so out of it. It scared us a little. Whereas, nowadays I would just assume they’d been touring the country, staying up late every night, and sleeping in a van.
We knocked on the door and someone came and let them into the venue.
They seemed fine by the show that night, which was admittedly phenomenal, aside from the as-yet-released opening song “Disarm,” one of the toadiest songs to ever gain radio prominence. Corgan still had long hair, and wore a dress, and emphasized his guitar solos. Siamese Dream wasn’t out yet but they played all those songs. That night, it woulda been hard for me to believe how much I would come to dislike Corgan.
Since my own story of meeting Smashing Pumpkins wasn’t that great, I want to share my friend Matt Simmons’s better story, about the time he jammed with a hilariously arrogant Billy Corgan. In Matt’s own words (edited by me):
“It was probably 1987. My bandmates and I weren’t old enough to get into bars, but someone had heard of a late night get together at the ‘Bad Dog’…There were a bunch of locals hanging out that I vaguely knew. In the corner of the large empty space was a smattering of musical instruments: a drumset, a bass guitar, a couple of guitars and amps. One guitar was missing a string, so I picked up the guitar that was intact, string-wise, though not entirely un-crusty.
“We embarked on a ‘jam’; a smattering of the simplest Rush tunes we could muster, and maybe a longform version of “Louie Louie.” I’m not sure which of these we played when Billy Corgan walked in. Billy was known in the area as the lead singer of goth power trio ‘The Marked’ and was probably the closest thing sleepy St. Pete had to a rock star at that time.
“He was wearing a poofy pirate shirt with big frilly sleeves, the likes of which would eventually be made fun of on Seinfeld. Corgan made his way past us to where the five-string guitar was, regarded it, and set it down again. He made his way back over to me during a pause in the music and said very matter of factly, ‘I think I should play the guitar you’re playing now, and you should play that one.’
“I made more of an effort standing up for myself than at any point prior or since; I had gotten there first, the space belonged to someone that I had known longer than this guy, and all the other players were my friends. So Corgan walked back over to the missing-string guitar and began to play it.
“At that point, the informal jam session changed substantially. We launched into some other progression of chords, but now it had suddenly become a background for the 5-string guitar played by Corgan. It took on less of a jam session feel and more of something cohesive, like something with purpose was happening. I felt like more people in the room started actually paying attention.
“Once that epic tune had ended, Corgan suggested playing the theme to the ‘Batman’ TV show. But now the informal jam was taking on the tenor of a masterclass. He came over and took the bass and showed the bass player how he wanted it played. He got behind the drum kit and demonstrated how the drum part ought to go. He showed me how he wanted the backing guitar so he could solo over it, this time on the 6 string guitar, which I had surrendered to him after his display of better-than-competent playing earlier on.
“The thrown together band did the best they could, but I think it ultimately fizzled out due to a general bad feeling among the players that they weren’t living up to the pirate-shirted bandleader’s expectations.”
In college in Tampa one night, my very attractive young girlfriend went out without me to The Castle goth club. There, she spotted Billy Corgan. He was in town playing some Tampa arena with Smashing Pumpkins. He’d recently shaved his head bald.
My girlfriend approached Corgan and asked him to dance.
My two small daughters mostly don’t like any music that isn’t garbage. In the car we stay in a constant tug of war between their modern pop radio station, and my old school rap station. They happily give me my way though, if rapper Slick Rick comes on. Something about his English accent, and his narrative songs — my 10-year-old can recite “Children’s Story” word-for-word, just like I could at 14:
Once upon a time not long ago / when people wore pajamas and lived life slow, when laws were stern, and justice stood / and people were behaving like they ought to: good…
Compared to my kids’ favorite rappers today, that sounds like Shakespeare.
In my late 20s, twas my honor to interview Rick the Ruler, who’d just been let out of prison. I mainly remember his voice on the phone, that U.K. via Brooklyn accent, so smooth and nice as he described what to expect from his live show at a Tampa arena, opening for Nas: “My thing has always been to dress. I try to use the jewelry as an eye-catcher… I try to make the show oriented around little pictorial skits. Like, me and the DJ might have little conversations between us to highlight the rap. I have everybody dress coordinated so the color schemes look pretty.”
Envision the creamy sound of Slick Rick’s voice saying that last line: “so the color schemes look pretty.”
We talked more than I thought we would about his recent time spent in prison for attempting to murder his former bodyguard, also his cousin, who’d continuously tried to extort money from Rick. During that skirmish, Rick also shot an innocent bystander in the foot. “Did people in jail recognize you?” I asked him, cautious not to get too personal with, or otherwise bum out, MC Ricky D.
”Yeah man, you can’t miss the [eye] patch. Even if you never heard a song, you’d think, I’ve seen that guy on TV or something,” he chuckled, then continued, casual and open about what had to be a terrible experience: “ It goes both ways though: There are the people in jail who admire you, and then the people who want to make a name for themselves by picking on you, making your bid a little harder than it needed to be.”
Rick bragged on his quite good 1999 comeback album, The Art of Storytelling, which featured OutKast, Redman, and Raekwon, among other rappers who idolized Rick. He admitted to me that he hated his previous two albums, Behind Bars and Ruler’s Back. “They could have been at least 75% better. Time wasn’t able to be spent on those records,” Rick said. “Both albums were recorded while I was on bail for three weeks. Those two albums are not good mainly because the music was later put onto the raps,” he said, lighthearted, not defensive regarding those musical mishaps. “There was no chemistry. And I hadn’t time to go back and change things.”
If I must travel from downtown New Orleans to the CBD or Uptown, I use it as an excuse to cut through the French Quarter, and I almost always take Bourbon Street. I love the barkers and the strippers and the sudden blasts of A/C from open storefronts, and the unholy musical mashups from competing cheesy cover bands.
One day I escorted my friend Kate to work, and convinced her to take Bourbon St. (people often need to be convinced). As we walked I saw, up ahead half a block, a recognizable length of blonde hair swaying behind a very tall dude in leather pants, and a vest with no shirt underneath.
Though I couldn’t see his face, I told my friend, “That’s Sebastian Bach, the singer of Skid Row.” I’d purchased a couple Skid Row albums as a kid, learned a couple Dave “The Snake” Sabo riffs on my guitar. I also knew that, “He’s in New Orleans this week singing in some touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar.” I knew Sebastian had also recently played lead rolls in Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Kate wasn’t that impressed. Still, I did convince her to shout with me, “Sebastian!”
At the sound of his name, Sebastian Bach spun around, locked eyes on us, and “threw the goat” with his left hand (the Satanic heavy metal hand gesture).
He then waited for us to catch up to him, and asked, “Hey guys, what are you doin?”
“Headed to work,” Kate said, as we all continued walking.
“Yeah, me too!” he laughed.
We walked for several blocks, discussing Jesus Christ Superstar. He was very friendly. He also looked just like he did on the album covers, yet no one else on the crowded street stopped him.
“So your show is all sold out, eh?” I asked him, fishing for a free ticket.
“Yep, yep,” he said, “It’s going great!” He did not take the hint.
We walked all the way to Canal St. with Sebastian Bach, and then bid him adieu. “He has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen,” Kate commented as he walked away.
A few weeks later Sebastian would be fired from Jesus Christ Superstar.
Sade is the name of the band’s singer, but also the name of the band, and Stewart Matthewman has served as the band Sade’s guitarist and saxophonist, and written songs with its famous singer, since 1982. While not the band’s sexiest member, Matthewman is perhaps its most musically important.
I was very honored to meet him, but now, a decade later, my strongest memory of writing about him is how some Gambit editor inserted the word “unregular” into my article: “The band has remained the same since its inception, but its tours have become unregular.” Unregular is not a real word! I’d never typed that non-word in my life until my follow up complaint email to Gambit’s editors, none of whom fessed up to the crime. They did fix it online, but. That used to happen to me so much at Gambit, I started to suspect a plot. Unregular. Jesus Christ.
Anyway. Matthewman and I shared a good conversation about making music, and of course we discussed his band’s mysterious, elusive singer, who only deigns to make a record every 100 years. “Sade the person has a totally different concept of time. For Sade there is just no definite time that things will happen,” Matthewman told me. “I don’t know if it comes from her being African, but for her there are really only two times: sooner or later. Also, whatever she does, she does that thing 100 percent, so she doesn’t do music if there’s anything else going on in her life. And in order to write songs, she also has to live a bit, and have things happen to her, because she writes from the heart and from experience. In the last several years, she’s gotten settled into a new home, has new family around. So now, finally, this part of her life can be about music.”
I had to know what it was like to make music with motherfuckin Sade, so inquired about their shared artistic process. “Sade is a master of space,” he said. “In music and art and fashion and architecture, she doesn’t like big complicated things, so with music she is great at clearing stuff out. Like when I’ve laid down a bunch of guitar tracks, she comes and takes out everything but the best bits. She has an amazing ear.”
I hung up the phone and proceeded to be really bummed about missing Sade in concert. But then, on the day of the show, Gambit emailed and said two tickets waited for me at the Superdome! Not until I got to will call though, did I realize I’d be sitting on the floor, just a few rows from the stage! I think the tickets read “$380.” Apiece.
And I had an extra. Now, it’s sketchy for a journalist to accept such an expensive gift. Plenty of people stood outside the Dome looking for tickets, and I knew I could make a couple hundred dollars. I instantly met a nerdy Black dude wearing spectacles, who looked like he’d come straight from a very boring office job. He said he’d driven all the way from Mississippi at the last moment, to see if he could score a ticket to see his favorite artist. “Prince is my favorite of all time — Prince and Sade, both — and I was sitting at home thinking about how bad I felt after I missed Prince’s last show here in New Orleans, and so I jumped up off the couch and got in my car and drove as fast as I could. I couldn’t miss my other favorite artist, Sade…”
So, I sold him the ticket for $50.
This Sade nerd stranger turned out to be great company during the show. The concert was amazing, right up front, where I could watch the exact chords Matthewman’s hands played. As each smooth-ass song began, my new friend would lean over and tell me at least one trivia fact about that tune. Dude ended up being the perfect person with which to watch Sade.
NOTE: After every Superdome or Smoothie King Center concert, I buy a $10 t-shirt from the bootleggers outside the show. Sade, Van Halen, etc. all sell their official tour shirts for like $40, so I always try and support the local economy instead. My bootleg Sade t-shirt is still perhaps my favorite piece of clothing — not least of all because it draws many compliments from Black ladies.
Since I met Def Jam records founder Russell Simmons in 2011, he’s faced rape accusations that look credible. It’s tough to admire him any longer.
But regardless of my feelings, he remains one of America’s very few, real self-made men, who rose from dirt poor to Oprah rich, and brought a lot of Black people up with him: Run DMC, Public Enemy, EPMD, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys (oops wait, not Black)… With no seed money, Russell Simmons made rap music popular.
Our interview in 2011 though, was about yoga. And it was exceptionally corny.
Simmons visited New Orleans during Essence Fest, to promote his then-new book Super Rich: A Guide To Having It All, wherein he claimed that being rich is just a state of mind, and that money cannot buy (yaaaaaaaaaawn) happiness. Which is easy to say for a guy who wears each pair of his Jordans just once before donating them to charity.
Simmons told me, “Super Rich means ‘needing nothing.’ It’s a state where your connection to your higher self is so strong …that there’s no difference between being broke and being a millionaire.”
Nowadays, that would be called trolling. I might let the broke guy try and teach me that trick, but not a rich dude.
In the book, Simmons writes things like, “I sincerely hope that everyone reading can employ these principles to attract every toy that I’ve had the good pleasure to play with.” Gross. In the Super Rich chapter, “Give It Away (Until They Can’t Live Without It),” Simmons suggests giving away “your gifts” for free and expecting nothing in return. “If you’re not giving away your gift, then you are not in the game,” Simmons says. “And if you are not in the game, you can’t win.”
I wonder how Jay Z responded when Russell suggested giving away The Blueprint.
I‘m stretching the definition of “famous” here a lil bit. But people seem really impressed when I tell them I sometimes fish with Tulane University historical geographer, Richard Campanella, “famous” for his comprehensive books and NOLA.com articles about New Orleans. It says something good about this city that we celebrate Richard like we would a musician. The giant, sex-themed Mardi Gras krewe, Krewe Du Vieux, made Richard their grand marshal in 2018, and based their parade’s theme (“Bienville’s Wet Dream”) on one of Richard’s books (Bienville’s Dilemma). Having a Mardi Gras parade dedicated to you and your books while you are still alive and young — that’s about as famous as you can get, round these parts.
Richard and I met after he criticized one of my books in one of his books (He wrote that my Underground Guide [LSU Press] omitted Bourbon St. because it lacks hipness. That statement is officially the only time I’ve ever heard Richard Campanella be incorrect about anything. For the record, I love Bourbon St., maybe more than the average local in fact, but my book omits anything that tourists already know about, or anything that will be aggressively pushed on them). Either way, twas an honor to find my way onto Richard’s radar, and so I invited him out fishing on my boat. The handful of times we’ve hung out were all on the water. Wherever we go, he tells me something I didn’t know about a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. He always adds another layer.
This was especially true when I took him to Shell Beach, and recorded an episode of a fishing show for radio station WHIV in 2018. The following is a transcript of that day, with my narration:
The first thing I ever did with my new boat, was drive it to the very tip of St. Bernard Parish, to Shell Beach, LA on the southern shore of Lake Borgne. [music] There’s no real beach at Shell Beach. Well, technically there is but…it’s more of a beach for fish…we’ll explain later… Today I’m fishing with my musician buddy Todd Voltz who is recording us, and our special guest, Richard Campanella.
RC: I’m ahistorical geographer at Tulane University.
MPW: Have you ever caught a fish?
Shell Beach is about an hour or so east of New Orleans. We pulled the boat out there together in the dark at 5:30 after purchasing three cups of coffee and a bag of ice from Brothers food mart.
RC: We should take St. Bernard instead of Judge Perez; this the more historical route… All roads lead to Rome here… You’re going through interesting scenic river road instead of a 1970s suburb. If this were Perez we’d be driving through K-Marts…
Fishing is all about talking. If you don’t catch anything, you’ll at least have great, expansive conversations. Just on the ride out to Shell Beach we discussed in detail freshwater intrusion, Dockville Farm and Mirot Foundation Tower, and the new plans for a beach in the city of New Orleans proper…
RC: Pontchartrain Beach opened in 1930, and the amusement park closed in 1983, making the beach completely off limits. for a whole generation of New Orleans. When the new version opens, it will be a hit from opening day, as long as fecal tests are favorable. The sheer novelty of being able to take a bus to a beach or bike to a beach, and would really diversify the range of things you can do with a family.
The farther we drive east from New Orleans, the roads shrink down to thin strips of tar with water on either side. These same precarious roads begin winding even more precariously through docks alive with commercial fishermen, crab men and oysters men…until finally we arrive at Campos Marina on Shell Beach…hands down one of the world’s best fishing spots. As we unhook, unstrap, and otherwise ready the boat, I pump up Campanella and Todd a bit with stories from other great Shell Beach trips I’ve made.
MPW: Black drum, sheepshead, redfish, trout, you can catch anything here. I’m always looking for redfish, the biggest most fun fish to catch, and they stay good in the freezer. But Shell Beach is gonna be the trout spot coming up, once the salt rolls in… Grande Isle is the closest place that has actual salt all the time. Shell Beach has just enough salt to ruin your boat if you don’t clean it… Salt cleans the water, but the water’s kind of dirty now, and trout can’t see, so they leave. But redfish are just pigs snarfin along the ground until they hit something.
We pay the $7 ramp fee and buy 100 live shrimp at 35-cents apiece, which entitles us to fishing advice from Campos Marina owner, Frank Campo., who has been catching bait professionally for his family business since the age of 12. His advice on this windy day was stay inside the MRGO, or Mr. Go, to hide from the wind and pluck the few trout that have moved back in despite the weather not cooling off like it should have by now.
[sound of the boat’s engine starting]
One of the best things about Shell Beach is the sheer number of nooks and crannies and rocks and ponds and cuts you can fish. Louisiana fishermen are always on the lookout for clean water that is also moving, and there are a million places to check here. If the weather is a little bit off, you’ll almost always still find someplace, some special angle, where you’ll be comfortable AND catch fish.Which is good, cause today it’s a little windy as we pull out of Campo’s Marina.
RC: That monument there is the ‘Katrina Cross,’ with the listing of the St Bernard dead…
Normally I’d head straight to Lake Borgne, but given the wind we decide first to cruise down the calmer Mr GO, to fish a few cuts. When the tide is falling, water drains out of the green marsh grasses, bringing with it crabs and baitfish and all types of other surprises.
We stop and throw the anchor into the muddy marsh.
MPW: I stopped here because there are multiple cuts, and the water comes pouring out of the marsh and gets pulled into the lake. The farther back you can go into the marsh, the cleaner the water is
I have to tell Richard to stop saying he is a terrible fisherman
MPW: Why do you tell yourself that?
RC: I catch nothing.
MPW: Well of course not if you tell yourself that.
That sound you hear in the background is an oxygen bubbler, which keeps the shrimp alive. We should either call this fishing show The Bubbler, or I should buy a quieter bubbler before the next episode. For now I’m just glad the shrimp are alive — keeping them alive is an ongoing dilemma for many fishermen.
Campanella doesn’t get out on a boat much, so unlike me he doesn’t become antsy after we don’t catch anything for 15 minutes. He’s mesmerized by the marshes.
RC: They’re just a golden line, like photographing the inside of a forest.
As he muses, I catch the day’s first fish, a largemouth bass, that weighs probably about one pound.
MPW: Largemouth bass, they love live shrimp. They inhale it.
RC: A bass herewould have been all but unknown ten years ago.
Because of the MRGO carved into the marshes and a thousand other smaller human diversion projects that allow fresh river water into saltier areas, Louisiana is one of very few places on Earth where one can catch a bass in the same hole as a redfish, and see porpoises swimming out with the alligators.
Richard is miffed that I would throw the bass back:
MPW: I don’t eat those. I am anti-bass. Possibly a bias from growing up in Florida.
RC: Where I come from, bass was the Rolls Royce of fish. Flakey white meat.
MPW: I guess I just feel like saltwater fish are more delicious. Though bass eat well; they don’t eat anything that isn’t moving. Redfish will eat anything, dead or alive. Trout are also prized because they generally won’t eat anything they don’t think is alive.
RC: They are foodies. Tapas with a hook.
We lift anchor and move the boat to one of strips for which Shell Beach is named. At our next stop, the dead white oyster shells are so thick they push up onto the land, creating a beach that wouldn’t feel very nice on your bare feet.
MPW: Most fish, trout especially, love a hard bottom of oyster shells. This strip of shell beach also has a sort of gully drop off running all along the shore. Predators get down in that gully and just swim up and down it, eating vulnerable baitfish. I’ve seen a lot of porpoise hanging around that gully having way too good of a time.
But even here at my best spot, fishing remains slow, so far. There’s not enough water movement, and at the same time the wind is just strong enough at a bad angle where it’s hard to keep the boat anchored in one spot — every time I get a hopeful nibble the boat drifts away from the spot.
Attempting to somehow spin this win to our advantage, we start the boat again, and go brave the shores of Lake Borgne proper. There, I’m able to position us with the wind at our backs, casting toward the rocks, which were put here to shore up the deteriorating marshes — luckily, fish seem to like those rocks as much as they like the natural grass.
RC: Lake Borgne. Borgne means “a one-eyed man.”
The wind isn’t much worse out here, and I can see baitfish being blown against the rocks. [casting sound]. I throw a heavy weight about ten feet off the rocks and feel them nibble my shrimp the moment it nears the bottom. Almost immediately, I feel a substantial thump on my line, and lose my bait entirely…
MPW: There are a lot of fish here guys. The redfish will chase the bait into the rocks, so that on a calm day you can see the bait jumping onto the rocks trying to get away.
I kept tossing toward the rocks until finally, I turn my first truly substantial strike into the day’s first redfish…about four inches short of 16, the legal size limit. It looks fat and perfect to eat but…
MPW: A little “rat red” they call that.
We throw him back. I keep throwing my bait toward the rocks and pull several more nice, undersize fish. I catch a few black drum — the redfish’s less pretty cousin who nonetheless tastes just as delicious — but they’re all under the legal limit of 16 inches.
MPW: These little black drum stealing all my shrimp!
RC: You ever fish the river?
MPW: The Mississippi? So poisonous and gross. I’d do it just for the joy of dragging up a 50lb catfish.
This leads us to talk of recent dredging projects at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi.
RC: It’s a suit of scores and scores of projects in three categories: Shoreline Restoration, Sediment Diversions, and then dredging and siphoning — the 2nd one is most controversial. No one’s against the shoreline projects, and siphons work really well until you stop — it’s not sustainable , there’s no stasis, it’s a verb, not a noun. They’re aiming to change the plumbing of the river to bring the Birdfoot Delta down to Plaquemines, so the mouth of the river would be disemboguing into Breton Sound on one side, and Barataria on the other, much closer to populations, and filling in those saltwater areas… It’s end times…
Todd was so enthralled absorbing Richard’s specialized knowledge that he wasn’t ready with the camera when I finally nailed the day’s first keeper redfish.
MPW: We did catch this 16” redfish! Hopefully he doesn’t freeze and shrink to 15” just as the marine patrol rolls up!
After I put that lil snack in the cooler, Todd just had to fish — which meant he also missed recording the massive black and white striped sheepshead I nailed.
MPW: Sheepshead have teeth like a goat or like a person because they eat mostly barnacles, crabs, and shrimp. You are what you eat, and sheepshead is just made out of crabmeat. Sheepshead also have a very tough rib cage and it takes like a chainsaw to filet them.
Luckily, Todd made sure he was totally at the ready when the day’s biggest fish hit my line — but then I missed the [bleep] thing.
MPW: Damnit! Luckily, Redfish are one of the very few fish that will give you a second try. Do-over fish. They just sit there like a cow waiting to be fed.
I tossed my shrimp back in the same spot, and he couldn’t help himself…
MPW: Oh my ever loving christ this is a big one. Get the net. But here’s the thing about the net: you can fuck it all up and break the line if you put the net in the water too early.
Richard nets my big redfish.
RC: WOW! Look at the size difference!
Though I suspect I might could pull one or two more fish out of this hole, we decide to head to Fort Proctor before the predicted heavier winds arrive. I’d invited Richard to be my guest to Shell Beach after he told me he’d never seen Fort Proctor up close.
[Boat engine sound]
A regular lil boat like mine can only take you to the edge of the mote surrounding Fort Proctor — whereas a little kayak could get you over the moat and into the fort. We remain on Borgne’s shoreline.
RC: This is Fort Proctor, also known as Fort Beauregard, what’s known as the third system of defense, after the War of 1812, clear into the 1850s, like Ft. McComb, Battery Bienvenue. Ft. Proctor dates later… This area was a backdoor to New Orleans. The British took that route in 1814, and this fort was finalized just before the Civil War. But by that time, new artillery technology rendered them obsolete. Cannons were able to penetrate them, so they saw very limited action. A lot were abandoned. Rising sea levels and eroding coast has rendered this one vulnerable. They put a barrier around it to protect it from rising seas.
As we explored what we could of Fort Proctor the wind really began to pick up. On the way back we get turned around; the marshes can mess with your sense of direction. In many area the grasses even shift around, making a laughing stock of your GPS.
Finally back at Campo’s marina, I show the boys how to filet a redfish. As the blood flows, Richard summarizes the trip, what he learned, and how the experience might even effect his work:
RC: I spend a lot of my time thinking about the urban history and geography of New Orleans, and I live in Uptown and I spend most of my time in the core of the metropolis. But this city more so than just about any other, you need to understand the periphery and the environmental context of New Orleans and it being on a deltaic plane. So I particularly appreciated the opportunity to go out on a boat — which I do not have — and explore some of the deltaic fringes of the metropolis. It was a great experience for me. And I got to practice my fishing if not my catching of fish.”
Richard did not prove himself wrong about being bad at fishing, but at least he’s clearly smart in other ways.
A hush would fall inside my neighborhood coffeeshop whenever the Kinks’ Ray Davies entered, but no one ever bothered him. During one of Davies’s NOLA visits, some fool snatched his girlfriend’s purse, and Davies’s stubborn English pride told him to chase the robber, who pulled a gun and shot Ray Davies, and so we didn’t see him at the coffeeshop for a while.
Davies survived that bullet to his leg, but still feared the bloodthirsty British press, and so hid out just several blocks from my apartment, at the large house of his friend, artist Robert Tannen. “Ray Davies just walks around the house in his boxers all day in a Vocodin haze, reading books,” said my friend who interned at the time for Tannen.
“Oh shit! Do me a favor?” I gave my friend a copy of my New Orleans novel, The Donkey Show, with an inscription wishing Ray Davies a pleasant recovery. I felt honored when my friend told me he watched Davies read the whole book.
Some weeks later, a wooden cane helped Ray Davies limp into the coffeeshop where I sat writing. The usual hush fell. This time I felt tempted to speak to him. I happened to be seated beside the milk and sugar kiosk, to which Davies eventually hobbled. “Mr. Davies, I don’t mean to bother you, but I wrote that book The Donkey Show…”
“Oh!” his face genuinely lit up. “I really liked that book! Thank you very much!” Everyone in the coffeeshop watched as Davies sat down at my table, and began asking me lots of questions about my novel, how long it took me to write, how I went about getting published, etc.
The whole time I wondered, What the hell is going on!
I told my girlfriend all about Davies’s compliments, as I did anyone else who’d listen. It felt like a huge validation. Every time I saw Davies out and about in New Orleans, he treated me like a fellow artist, like a peer. Twas kinda psychedelic.
One moment I’ll hold onto forever, came during that year’s JazzFest. As my girlfriend and I squeezed through an especially dense crowd, we found ourselves almost belly-to-belly with Davies and the girlfriend for whom he’d laid down his life. “Oh, hi Mr. Davies!”
“Michael!” he said, and shook my hand. And when I introduced my girlfriend, he looked her in the face and said, “You boyfriend is very talented.”
I used that as a blurb on the back of more than one of my books.
Davies had not talked to the press about getting shot, but he agreed to sit with me at a bar and let me interview him. But then he kept having to put it off. We rescheduled a couple times. Then one day at my library job where I helped man the reference desk, I received a call. One of my bosses picked up and turned to me: “It’s Ray Davies?” My boss seemed slightly impressed.
Unsure how Davies knew where I worked, I took the phone. “Michael, I am so sorry that I keep rescheduling, but I am busy all this week,” Ray Davies said, “so let’s just do it on the phone right now, eh?” The line of people at the reference desk grew as he began, “The other night Trent Rezner and I were backstage at the Bowie concert together and I told Trent…”
I grabbed a paper and pen and, with the phone to my ear, tried writing his words down. But I was too caught off guard, not to mention neglecting my job in front of my bosses. Eventually it broke my heart to say, “Uh, Mr Davies, I’m sorry but I am at work…”
We rescheduled one more time before I finally gave up.
The last time I saw Ray Davies, myself and Ratty Scurvics busily set up our musical gear in the Contemporary Arts Center’s parking lot, about to play a concert for a special New Orleans art night, where everyone walked around the Central Business District drinking. Ray Davies wandered in, and walked right up to where I kneeled, plugging in my guitar pedals. Only when I stood did he recognize me. “Oh Michael, hello!” he said.
“Good to see you Mr. Davies. I am about to play a show here.”
“Oh wow. You play music too?” he asked.
“That’s great!” he claimed, then split as fast as he could.