T. S. Eliot considered April to be "the cruelest month", but for my money, February wins the calendar cruelty sweepstakes hands down.
Before my Academy days, February had a different (but no less disagreeable) meaning. As a child of devout churchgoing Catholic parents, the coming of February usually meant the onset of Lent, the six-week leadup to Easter. I really didn't understand the whole concept and meaning of Lent as a kid; the two main things I took away from it during that time was that 1) I had to go to church after school on the first day of Lent and get soot rubbed into my forehead, which I wasn't supposed to wash off until bedtime; and 2) my parents 'encouraged' me to give up something I loved (chocolate, sweets or a favorite toy) for the duration - an aspect of the season that I loathed and dreaded, but one that invariably fell by the wayside as the days progressed, as my folks both took pity on my misery at being deprived, and/or got tired of constantly trying to enforce the weeks-long ban.
In other words, for most of the first two-plus decades years of my life, February translated into "No Fun" . . . except for one brief, shining moment. That was in 1983, the year I experienced my first true Mardi Gras.
For reasons that have never been properly explained to me, soon after retiring from the Navy, my dad decided to leave Monterey, California and settle 2,000 miles away in a place he had heretofore never visited nor evinced any interest in - Slidell, Louisiana, hard by Lake Pontchartrain and a short distance from New Orleans. So in the summer of 1982, we said goodbye to Monterey (at that point, the greatest place we'd ever lived) and for several days drove across the arid Southwest and Texas to our new and unfamiliar home, arriving at temporary lodgings in The Crescent City late one July evening. I will never forget my first morning in that city, when I stepped outside my air-conditioned room into a veritable steam bath; I was instantly soaked with sweat, and stayed that way all day, even through three shirt changes. The place, weather-wise, was brutal.
During my first few months in the state, I got to know New Orleans a little better. It's an odd city, a jumble of contrasts and juxtapositions, a melange of old and new, black and white (figurative and literally), with varying shades of grey in between. Neighborhoods full of beautiful Greek Revival-style buildings stood cheek-by-jowl with crumbling, decrepit slum areas. On some days, in the heart of the modern business district, you could smell the primeval mud and rot rising from the murky Mississippi River slowing flowing through the center of the city. The city boasts about the positive actions it took to avoid much of the upheaval and turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's; yet by my estimation, it's one of the most de facto segregated cities I'd ever been to. The quaintness of the scrolled iron balconies in the Bourbon Street area were counterbalanced by the unsettling spookiness of the city's cemeteries, consisting of acres upon acres of elaborate marble vaults (New Orleans sits so far below the water table that any buried coffins would just float back to the surface, so everyone is entombed above ground), veritable cities of death. I think the whole 'N'Awlins voodoo' thing has been way overplayed nowadays by the media . . . but enough of it was present in the city at the time to add another dollop of strangeness to an already strange place. All in all, New Orleans was an odd combination of the living and the dead, excess and morality, unbridled partying and religious severity, abiding joy on the surface . . . and deep sadness underneath. For those first few months, it was a place I appreciated, a place I tolerated - but a place I never really enjoyed or loved.
Then came that February and Mardi Gras season, and my entire perception of New Orleans changed.
Actually, Mardi Gras is more than just a single day or weekend. The Carnival season there officially begins on January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas (also known as, shockingly enough, "Twelfth Night"). Various fraternal organizations/social clubs, known as "krewes", sponsor dances, balls and parades throughout the season, with the number and frequency intensifying as Mardi Gras gets closer and closer. The weekend before Mardi Gras is when they really start to kick out the jams, with tourists flocking in from across the nation and world to party, get drunk, show their respective tits, and view the parades of the major krewes (Endymion, Bacchus, Zulu, Rex, etc.).
My family and I went into the city on the last Sunday of the season that year to see the Bacchus parade. We arrived early, in a vain attempt to beat the crowds, and thus had time to wander around the French Quarter and Bourbon Street for a while. I was amazed at the transformation I saw in the city's demeanor. It was a complete carnival atmosphere, with laughing, smiling revelers walking the streets, mingling with singers, dancers, acrobats and people in all sorts of masks and costumes. Music was heard everywhere - a lot of Dr. John and Louis Armstrong, as I recall. But the song that I remember hearing the most was Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras In New Orleans", the proper theme tune for the celebration. New Orleans didn't seem dangerous or dirty or weird or spooky during that time - it was as if the ever-present shadowy side of the city was completely (if momentarily) pushed aside away by the bright, fun, happy glare of fun and enjoyment happening that weekend. Of course, it didn't last; in a few days, the Crescent City was back to its old light-and-dark self. But the memory of the city's brief, glorious annual transformation stayed with me for a long time afterward.
My family left Louisiana shortly after I left for Annapolis later that year. The next time I was anywhere even remotely close to that area was nearly five years later, when I lived in Athens, Georgia for a few months, attending a school related to my military speciality. During the time I lived in Georgia, I never put much thought into making the long road trip to New Orleans; I mean, that college town had nearly everything I wanted, in terms of great music venues (like the 40 Watt and the Uptown Lounge) and fun, cool things to do. The University of Georgia radio station, WUOG, was always playing off-the-wall, cutting edge stuff, so it was on constantly in my home and car. And when I wanted some different atmosphere, well, Atlanta was less than an hour down the road. Driving any further, much less out of state, never really crossed my mind. I'd been away from Louisiana for so long that when that February rolled around, I had all but forgotten about the whole Carnival season there.
As I recall, the thing that put the idea of Mardi Gras in my head again was a short local news segment I saw that Friday night about the upcoming weekend events in New Orleans. It sounded intriguing, but I didn't know one way or another if I would make the journey. In fact, it wasn't until the next morning, only a couple of hours before I jumped in my car, that I finally made up my mind to go. And go I did - I left just after 9 am that day, and made the 530-mile run from Athens, Georgia to New Orleans in a little less than six and a half hours, which was frickin' hauling it. In hindsight, the rate I was traveling was a little nuts. First of all, keep in mind that I was speeding through Alabama and Mississippi, states with a somewhat, um, interesting history of law enforcement. If friggin' Boss Hogg and his cronies there had nabbed me blasting through their states . . . hell, I'd probably STILL be in jail. Secondly, it wasn't like I was all fired up to get into the city and get buck-wild. At the time, I didn't drink at all, and thus wasn't much of a gung-ho partier. I guess I just wanted to be at a place where the action was, as soon as possible.
On my way out of Athens, listening to WUOG, they played a lovely little ethereal song called "Orange Appled" by The Cocteau Twins, a Scottish alternative/dream pop band. The lyrics were all but unintelligible, but the female voice uttering the obscure syllables was amazing and beautiful, as was the dense instrumentation backing her.
By mid-afternoon, I had arrived in Louisiana, and decided to take a brief detour. I got off at one of the first exits across the Mississippi/Louisiana border, and for the first time in years drove into Slidell, my old hometown. The place still had a sort of rundown, beat-up, hangdog feel about it - Slidell to me always felt like it was only a couple of steps removed from reverting back into the swampland from which it had been carved out of. I took the car back to my old neighborhood on the far eastern edge of town, hard by the Pearl River, driving down a mile and a half down a dark ribbon of narrow road, threatened on either side by glowering oak and cypress trees heavily veiled in kudzu. The area had been flooded once when we lived there, and apparently had at least one other flood in the intervening years. But the current residents were doing what they could to fight back and hold on; in a couple of cases, homeowners had raised their houses on stilts. Being back there, going down that road again, seeing that beaten down neighborhood attempting to keep up appearances against the inevitable - it was all pretty depressing. I didn't linger for long; I just couldn't take very much of it. Whatever lingering nostalgia I had for the place was wiped out by that visit; I've never been back. I was eager to finally get to New Orleans and shake the sights and memory of my old living place out of my head.
While wandering through the bars and shops in and around Bourbon Street, I had a completely unexpected encounter with one of my former Naval Academy classmates, who I hadn't seen since our graduation a year earlier - I suppose this person, who at that time was in flight school in Pensacola, Florida, apparently felt the same sort of urge I felt that drew them to New Orleans. They were known for being a renowned party maniac back at Navy, so I really shouldn't have been surprised by their presence there. I ran smack-dab into this person as they were reeling down the middle of the street; it was obvious that they arrived much earlier to the city than I had, and had no compunctions about partaking liberally in the refreshments being offered. Despite this person's obviously inebriated condition, they immediately recognized me and screamed happily as I was enveloped in their sloppy bear hug. I was practically knocked to my knees, not from the unsteady impact of the collision itself, but moreso from the powerful booze fumes wafting off out of their lungs and off of their body - it was like they had been swimming in rum. This person's left hand clutched a big plastic cup containing the dregs of the latest in a series of Hurricane cocktails drained during the day; as I was pulled in, they managed to dump a goodly portion of these remnants down my back. Despite all of this, I was happy to see a familiar face. I tried to carry on a conversation, but my attempt was brief, as this person was too far gone to comprehend much of what I was saying, and in no condition to respond. After a while, they just sort of wandered off down the street, and that was that. A weird encounter, but one par for the course during Mardi Gras.
[Note that I have refrained from providing any specifics identifying this person, as I have no desire to impugn their current status and reputation - the next time I saw them was years later, on television, where they were part of the crew on the International Space Station. Funny how people turn out . . .]After a few hours of wandering around, dodging drunks, poking my head into shops and listening to music, I got a little tired of fighting the crowds and weirdness - I was starting to feel a little like Yossarian in Rome. It was getting towards dusk, so I decided to make my way over the waterfront area for a bite to eat; I figured it might be less crowded down there than in the French Quarter. I made my way south, looking for a decent-looking restaurant. But en route, I came across the local Tower Records store (now long gone) a couple of blocks south of Bourbon Street, close to the riverfront. Of course, I decided to step inside for a bit.
There were a lot of people in Tower as well, but the scene in there wasn't as nuts as it was outside the store, so it was a semi-oasis of relative calm. I avoided the jazz and blues sections, which were understandably getting most of the action, and made my way over to the rock/alternative cassettes. As I get there, I remembered that Cocteau Twins song I heard out of Athens on my way to Louisiana, and decided to look it up. I wasn't too optimistic - the pickings at that New Orleans store seemed to be pretty slim. But lo and behold, there in the "C"s was an EP by the band, Love's Easy Tears, which contained the song I was looking for.
After a fine meal of spicy crawfish (the first I'd had since I left Louisiana years earlier) at some nondescript joint close by the river, I made my way back to the Bourbon Street area. It was full nighttime now, and the revelry, as it were, was in full swing. If I thought that people were going overboard during that afternoon, that paled in comparison to what was happening that evening, the last weekend before the start of Lent. I made my way as carefully as I could down the avenues through the roaring, jostling throng, my wallet safe in my front pocket with my hand over it. The entire area was a whirlwind of movement and undirected energy and noise, people shouting, laughing, singing and reeling around. But near the edge of the French Quarter, where I managed to find myself, I noticed that the revelry was pretty well concentrated; a lot of the streets and alleys leading directly away from the area were nearly pitch-dark, with none of the lights, crowds or excitement present from literally the next street over. It's a pretty spooky and unsettling feeling, looking to your left and seeing brightness and energy, then glancing right and seeing essentially . . . nothing, a veritable black hole. I can't think of a more literal demonstration of the whole "black/white" New Orleans dichotomy I was referring to earlier.
But then, I looked back towards the Quarter . . . and saw the glistening puddles of beer (or whatever) and glinting shards of broken glass covering the streets . . . and heard the various sources of music blending into a beckoning, cacophonous melody . . . and watched the gaily-dressed people who remained swirling and milling around underneath the bright multicolored lights of the bars and restaurants. And despite it all, I couldn't help but think how fun and inviting - how beautiful - it all looked . . . so much so, that I nearly turned around and went back into it. But in the end, I went and found my car and left for home.
I stopped in Mississippi overnight at some fleabag motel, and made it back to Athens later that afternoon. En route, I opened my new Cocteau Twins cassette and played it several times during the journey. Here's the song lineup:
1. Love's Easy TearsAll of the songs were sweeping, soaring and majestic, but I noticed within them all an undertone of longing and sadness, a hint of menace in the music. And after a bit, it struck me that there were parallels between The Cocteau Twins and The Crescent City celebration. Mardi Gras is about joy, about cutting loose and having a good time. But like Love's Easy Tears, there was an undercurrent of melancholy in the annual event. Mardi Gras is New Orleans dressed up, but like an old woman who puts on gaudy makeup and age-inappropriate clothes in order to appear to be something she is not, there's something a bit 'not right' about it.
2. Those Eyes, That Mouth
3. Sigh's Smell of Farewell
4. Orange Appled
I went into New Orleans intent on seeing the bad side - the dirt, and the drunks, and the darkness, and that's what I came away with, only seeing the beauty at the very end of my visit. But I was wrong to focus on the negative features of the city and the event. It's that combination of gaiety and despair, laughter and screaming, brightness and shadow that makes Mardi Gras what it is. It's not sanitized and perfect . . . but it works, just like the combo of majesty and misery works in the Cocteau Twins music. It was through listening to these tunes that I finally began to understand Mardi Gras. Love's Easy Tears was the first Cocteau Twins release I ever purchased - but it would be far from the last.
Here's The Cocteau Twins' Love's Easy Tears EP, released on 4AD on September 1st, 1986. Let me know what you think, and I hope you enjoyed your February, wherever you are.
Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP: