Sunday, November 27, 2011

Orbiting Coco Robicheaux

Coco Robicheaux passed away Friday evening. Much has been written about the man, his music, his artistry, his character and his seemingly mythical background. Much more will be written. Many of us spent yesterday between tears and laughter, blaring his music through our homes to let him know we're here thinking about him. I double checked my files to be sure that I hadn't lost the 40 minute live set I recorded on my phone at Mimi's a couple months ago. I regretted never having given him the eagle feather I had told him I'd bring when I saw him next. I remembered that the ancients believed there is a four day window between the time the soul leaves the body and its transition to the higher realms. I'll have to light a candle for him today so he sees it along the way.

I saw some great remembrances yesterday and gathered them together in a little mental basket hoping to amass more and maybe put together the ultimate collection of “Memories of Coco.” Lord David spoke of learning about kindness through Coco's admonishments. Louis Maistros told a great story of breaking his elbow after a bike fall near the French Market and Coco laying hands on him telling him he'd be okay. Mark Folse spoke of Coco's authenticity. My friend Pam, who knew him for twenty years, told a story of taking a seriously drunk Coco home decades ago and carrying him up the stairs (once they finally found the house that he had forgotten the location of) only to be stunned the next day when he remembered her name even though he had been toast the night before.

There were many, many people who knew him longer than I. Many who knew him better than I. But once you entered Coco's orbit, he knew YOU. If he knew you, he never forgot your name or passed by without acknowledging you. In the end, I decided to stick to my own memories, adding them to the collection that someone else will put together.

I first became aware of Coco Robicheaux as a member of an audience. Many audiences actually. I'd seen him lots of times and loved his music, my closest contact being the dropping of a couple bucks into the tip jar. Then one day I happened to be on Frenchmen Street. I walked into the Apple Barrel to grab a beer and found myself sitting next to the man. He looked over and said hello. After introductions, him introducing himself as though I wouldn't possibly have known who he was, we spent some time in regular bar stool small talk. It was not long after the storm. The next time I saw him we were across the street from each other on Frenchmen. I shouted hello, he responded with, “Hey, you're the girl with the guy's name! How ya doing?” After that there were many bar stool conversations.

One afternoon we spent a long time discussing the time I spent on Reservations in the Southwest and what I'd learned, comparing and finding similarities to his Native American Swamp knowledge. I actually wish I'd taped the conversation. We wound up deep in our cups and deep into a sort of theology of earth religion discussion. We delighted in each other's understanding and knowledge. I learned a lot that day.

Another day I was locking my bike to the tree just down from the Barrel. My lock, notoriously rusty and difficult, was giving me fits so I was concentrating hard on that lock, bent over it and probably cussing. He came quietly up behind me and gruffed hello. He had startled me and found that hilarious. He laughed and laughed, then started down the street. I asked him where he was headed. He growled, “Goin' to make trouble wherever I can,” laughed some more and said he'd be back later. I watched him saunter down the street still laughing at me. I was laughing too.

Months later, I had an appointment at Electric Ladyland. I walked into the Barrel for a beer before my appointment and found the usual afternoon small group at the bar. The wraithlike woman behind the bar was terribly upset. The bathroom door wouldn't open. Now, in order to understand this, one has to know the Apple Barrel bathroom. The door is closed and a little hook and eye lock is ready for use, but the door has to be pushed just a wee bit back open in order to actually place the hook into the eye. This is something that couldn't easily be accomplished by a slight slam of the door from the outside. The odds of that hook landing in that eye exactly without human hands placing it there are astronomical. After much discussion it was decided that we should pound on the door as there might be someone in there who was in distress. Each of us took a turn, with one of us attempting to look under the door, a fruitless but beer fueled suggestion. Finally it occurred to us that we'd been there an hour and hadn't seen anyone enter that bathroom. We were all accounted for.

At that moment, the bartender said, “Goddammit, it was Coco! We had an argument and he left in a snit, but he walked back and forth out there for a while. He did this. He slapped a hoodoo whammy on it.” No one in the place thought this far fetched, although all of us, except the bartender, found it hilarious. One of the other denizens explained that an argument had taken place and told me what it was about, some petty thing I can't remember now, then nodded solemnly saying, “Yeah, it had to be Coco.” The bartender then determined that Coco Robicheaux would never be allowed in that place again. The bathroom door was eventually taken off at the hinges and the hook was indeed in the eye and the assumption that Coco's hoodoo had caused it became an Apple Barrel truth, remaining so to this day.

The last time I saw him to talk to him was a couple months ago upstairs at Mimi's. He was playing a great set and I asked him if he'd mind if I recorded it. When he said no he wouldn't mind, I put my phone on the couch three feet from his mic and hit record. I just left it there and took a few pictures. I had a huge yellow bag with me that had been signed by many of the cast members of Treme as well as Mos' Def and Lloyd Price. Coco said he wanted to sign it and did. On a break I asked if I could buy him a drink. Dumb question. Of course the answer would be yes. He squinted his eyes into a slit, knowing me for a sucker, and asked for either a Remy Martin or a Courvoisier, I can't remember which. Then he grinned at me waiting to see if I'd spring for it. I said okay and he looked a little surprised when I came back with that instead of his usual tequila.

His CD, Revelator, had come out and as he sipped his drink he showed me how it was packaged. He was so proud that it wasn't in the standard jewel case. The CD itself clipped onto a hard grey material entirely made of potatoes and the cover was entirely recycled/recyclable paper. He told me he was thrilled that his music wasn't going to damage the earth with its packaging.

As he got ready for the next set I teased him about his shoes. He was wearing these pointy square toed white loafers with fleur de lis on them. I asked him if he'd just raided his 70's disco storage. He laughed that laugh of his and said, “Hey, these shoes still walk good!”

I have no doubt that the spirits he spoke of as being constant companions are his companions now. While he'll leave a big hole in our world, I am glad he didn't have a lengthy illness. I'm glad he left us in one of his favorite places, wherein he'll no doubt reside in spirit forever, perhaps locking the bathroom door randomly to amuse himself. His current companions already know of his kindness, his artistry, his metaphysical prowess and his laughter. I just wonder if they told him to leave those shoes behind as he'll no doubt “walk good” to the other side just fine without them.

Cross-posted at B2L2

Friday, November 18, 2011

Greg Bright's Landed Shark

Fringe Fest is this week, which you no doubt know unless your head has been under a rock. As usual, I scoured the list of shows, then culled them, then arranged them by time and location. It's a difficult process given so many interesting offerings. Several pieces really stood out and one I was determined not to miss started off last night at NOCCA with Never Fight a Shark in Water.

To say it was moving is to understate things. To say it was strong is still weak. What I saw was nothing short of the personification of sheer will, faith and optimism walking around in front of me in the person of Greg Bright.

To give you some background, in 1975 Greg Bright, then 20 years old, and Earl Truvia, 17, went to bed one night in the Calliope Projects. Later that night with the requisite banging on the door and shouted threats to open up, Greg was arrested for the murder of a 15 year old boy. After a Kafka-esque trial including an incompetent court appointed attorney, withheld evidence, testimony against him by a paid schizophrenic heroin addict testifying under a false name due to her own criminal record he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Did I mention that he and his co-defendent, Earl Truvia, didn't even know each other?

It is after Bright's poignant detailing of the conditions under which his ride down the "Snake Road" to Angola took place that we learn that Mr. Bright arrived there terrified, innocent of the crime of which he was convicted, and illiterate. We are exposed to the conditions of the prison, startled intermittently by a piercing prison whistle insisting on immediate stoppage of whatever the inmate is doing (and Bright's movement from one scene to another upon hearing that whistle hurts as the audience realizes that it is probably instinctive at this point), and we meet some of his fellow convicts as seen through his eyes. During rare free time from digging ditches, pulling Johnson grass, clearing land in all kinds of weather, Bright taught himself to read. His telling of the revelation that the word "the" was always going to be "the" no matter the context has the audience stunned and inwardly cheering for him.

Greg Bright was in Angola for 27 1/2 years as an innocent man. Upon learning to read he became his own legal advocate, pouring over law books and filing motions. In watching Mr. Bright explain all this with sadness, anger, humor and faith, we see a tall, thin, intelligent man who clearly has a six foot plus piece of rebar somewhere in his soul. It would have been easier for him to fold into himself, nurturing hate and self-pity. There were clearly plenty of less productive ways to survive physically and emotionally during his nearly three decades of unjust incarceration. Instead Bright chose to channel his outrage into the quest for justice, and as denial after denial of his motions arrived, there must have been times when the discouragement was nearly unbearable. Finally in 2003 he prevailed, the conviction was vacated and he was a free man.

The audience wanted to get up and holler in support and joy, but Bright wasn't finished. He starkly explained how ill prepared he was for freedom, how because he was not a parolee he didn't qualify for many of the re-entry programs, he tells of being handed a check for ten dollars upon his release.

Greg Bright is only a year younger than I. To put all this in perspective, while he was burning grass in a ditch in Angola, I was marrying, raising a child, reinventing myself multiple times, paying mortgages, traveling. In short, living my life and learning the lessons "free people" as he calls them, learn as they go along. While he certainly learned lessons, there were few that could have prepared him for life as a free person. He is still on his feet, his faith strong, as he learns these lessons so late in life, and clearly it's a continuing process.

Never Fight a Shark in Water is a one man show using Greg Bright's words written unflinchingly by Lara Naughton. It had been performed by a professional actor previously, and the actor no doubt did a great job portraying the man. It's the kind of part just about any actor would like to attempt. That said, watching Greg Bright perform this piece himself, portraying his darkest times, showing the brightness of his faith in God and himself, talking about his mother who becomes an unseen guardian angel in his references to her, and watching the man daring to lay himself bare under harsh lights on a floor stage with only four music stands, a bench and a butt can is a stunning experience and a great gift. He spares himself nothing and generously goes along emotionally naked in his prison denim peering over his reading glasses to reveal the eyes that have seen much and cried often.

Last night was opening night. Never Fight a Shark in Water will be shown again tonight and tomorrow. It's a staggering piece and ultimately one of the most positive, uplifting and life affirming pieces I've seen in a long time.

Below is information for the next showings. It's worth your time. More than worth it. Your Thanksgiving prayer will be more heartfelt after seeing this show.

Dates: November 17, 18, 19 at 7 p.m.
Venue: Lupin Theatre, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, 2800 Chartres Street NOLA 70117
Tickets: $8 (with a $3 Fringe button), available at the door or in advance at or at Mardi Gras Zone.