Treme: “What’s Left?” September 2011, MRR #340

My wife often finds it difficult to follow a speech or conversation, on TV or in a movie, if there is a strong accent or dialect involved. I, on the other hand, can usually catch the gist of what’s being said and roll with it. When we saw Harry Brown in a theatre, or rented Alfie and Flawless on Netflix, she felt that subtitles would have been appropriate, given the overpowering cockney of Michael Caine’s British accent. The same with David Simon’s HBO series The Wire. She complained that Baltimore’s black street vernacular needed captions. In all these cases, I got the general idea of what people were saying, even though I never got all of the words.

Currently, we’re fans of another David Simon TV series, Treme, now having finished its second season. Co-created with Eric Overmyer and set in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, Treme features plenty of local language, culture, locations, and flavor. It’s also wall-to-wall music, frequently jazz of one stripe or another, but often so varied that it’s a delight to watch the show to try and identify what’s being played. In episode 19, entitled “What is New Orleans?,” David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” shared the soundtrack with Dr. John performing “Hu Ta Nay” and Allen Toussaint’s “Tipitina and Me.”

Treme is also riddled with Famous People, musicians like Ron Carter and Kermit Ruffins, but also writers like Roy Blount Jr., chefs like Tom Colicchio, and politicians like James Carville. Elvis Costello did a cameo at the beginning of season two, and Peter “Spider” Stacy of The Pogues played his tin-whistle, busking the streets of New Orleans with American musician Steve Earle, in a recent episode. To add to this chaos and complexity, the show’s plot is multi-layered, multi-charactered, and multi-cultural in the best sense of that word. Sometimes didactic and heavy handed, particularly when castigating those responsible for fucking over New Orleans before, during and after Katrina, Treme is nevertheless incredibly rich, lush in details, and profligate with the truth. Gumbo would be an inadequate metaphor for the intricacy and density offered up by this tasty show.

There are still times when the dialogue in Treme is difficult to follow. When the city’s Vietnamese community, or its Mardi Gras Indians, or the bounce music subculture, or white rural Cajuns are featured, both my wife and I could have done with some translation. An excellent source to help fans decipher the show can be found at http://www.nola.com/treme-hbo/. I suggest renting the first two seasons, then watching the third when it returns to HBO.

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When the mode of the music changes: “What’s Left?” August 2011, MRR #339

I learned about the death of Gil Scott-Heron the same day I went to a sold-out Tony Bennett concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. After listening to Tony do standards like “Smile,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” I listened to Gil doing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” thanks to YouTube. Whereas Tony was a spry, animated, and healthy 84, Gil died at 62 gaunt, HIV positive, and fighting a long crack cocaine addiction. I admire the former as a unique interpreter of the great American songbook, but I revere the latter as a revolutionary black poet, a powerful voice of the ‘60s, and a seminal influence on modern rap and hip hop.

In the HBO TV drama Treme, the character Delmond Lambreaux, a New Orleans modern jazz musician transplanted to New York, listens to traditional New Orleans jazz, Jelly Roll Morton to be exact, on vinyl in his apartment with his girlfriend, Jill. When Jill complains that the music sounds so old-fashioned, Delmond protests that classical music can be over 300 years old and still considered relevant, yet jazz that’s barely 40 years old is dismissed as out of date. The character is clearly frustrated as to why it’s not possible to appreciate both styles of jazz on their own merits.

I’m not trying to judge what type of music is going to stand the test of time. Nor am I arguing that musical genius requires immense suffering and a short lifespan, or even any particular originality. What I am saying is that music which is meaningful in any way must move us, must in some way inspire us, must raise the hair on the back of our necks. The music of the above mentioned performers did just that for me. So did my exposure to the Ramone’s first album, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Stiff Little Finger’s Inflammable Material, and the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bullocks. Classical music (Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovitch), bebop (Parker, Gillespie, Coltraine), acid rock (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service), and country (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Dale Gilmore) also do it for me. In fact, there are only a few categories of music (soft rock, smooth jazz, disco) that I can’t really listen to.

Plato contended, in book four of the Republic, that: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake” (as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg). Certainly, music has been used historically, by religion and politics, to strip people of their individuality, create ecstatic experiences, and help to forge powerful social movements. And folks in the ‘60s viewed rock music as a revolutionary weapon. My point is much more mundane. Music should feed our souls, uplift us, make us whole. It shouldn’t be used to divide, to make us feel superior to others. I don’t give a shit if you have the same taste in music that I do. Just enjoy yourself, for fuck’s sake.

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