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


Mark Folse said...

Just great. Thank you for this. And that bathroom has been hoodoo'd to this very day. A dear friend found it locked not long ago and a voice said, "just a minute", but no one in the narrow stretch of the bar where you must physically brush past the patrons remembered anyone going back there. So she tried again and this time the empty bathroom was unlocked. As she left, both of her pierced earrings popped out and landed in her left hand. If anyone had to put a hex on that bathroom I am glad it was Coco, who was too kind to manage anything worse than playful.

judyb said...

Beautiful. Thank you

Pam said...

Can't quite talk about it yet, but this was wonderful. Thank you.

Adrastos said...

Great post, Sam. He will be missed.

LouiseM (Chicago) said...

This is excellent. Thank you for it.

Lord David said...

Thanks, Sam.

Jennifer said...

This was a lovely tribute to Coco's character. He was quite a force in this town and leaves an unfillable gap in the colorful New Orleans music scene. My father Michael Sklar is the guitarist pictured above with him at Mimi's, and was his closest friend. They were quite a team and I will treasure the innumerable memories of them on stage together.

Stuart Johnson said...

Coco was one of the first people I met when I moved to New Orleans in 2004. He and I lived in the same building on Barracks St., and we became friendly around the building long before I had any idea he was a local celebrity. I look back on those first months I lived in New Orleans, and I think of how drastically different I must have been back then -- before New Orleans had cast its spell over me and changed me irrevocably, before I learned how to relax the way only a New Orleanian can, before the Storm and all the painful lessons I learned and scar tissue I built up from THAT experience. So, I think back to that person I was the first time I met Coco, and I can't imagine what on EARTH I myself would have to say to him, much less what Coco would. And yet, I am nowhere near as wise as Coco... He, a man who in so many ways personified the quirky, charming, and mysterious city he called home, always accepted me for whatever I was, and graciously spend time entertaining me with fantastical stories or listening to me as I started coming out of my own shell. Now that we won't see Coco walking the streets (well, at least not as often, for I am sure there will be at least some astral sightings), I count my blessings that I was able to be part of so many of the far-too-few hours Coco was here among us. Have a peaceful journey, Friend.

Robyn said...

I met Coco through my husband, Blue Max (aka Don Ryan.) Coco presided over the ceremony when Don and I jumped the broom at the Yellow Moon, the night the Saints won the Superbowl. (The bride and groom wore black and gold, the minister wore tiger and leather.) The two were often mistaken for each other, though I always claimed to have married the good looking one. Coco lived with us for a several months before moving into the other side of our double, just over a year ago.

When the call came from the Apple Barrel, we went to the hospital, arriving a few minutes after the ambulance. They told us he had died instantly, even before he hit the floor. When we saw him, he was smiling and looked at peace.

The bartender had poured his drink, but he never had to pay for it. No wonder he was grinning.... I'm sure he still is.

I truly believe he decided it was time, and he chose the place and manner. He went just after the moon set (5:35) (new moon was at 12:10 a.m. on the 25th)

We miss you so much, Coco. Enjoy the new paths you're walking with the spirits.

Lips said...

Coco, we love you! We miss you!

We wish your daughter wanted to have a Memorial Service because we want to pay tribute to New Orleans' own "Legba-Dude."

We wish we could walk by your remains at Gallier Hall and feel your Spirit fill us, like when they laid up Earl King.

We'll have to feel it along the paths we saw you last; in our memories and "real-life" places.

We'll have to see it in the eyes of those you loved and loved you, like your wife, Danielle.

God Bless you, your family, we, your Tribe, & those that never experienced the privilege of hearing you in person: music or story-telling or just grinning.

"When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey" Acts 21:5

Louis Maistros said...

Sam, i was moved by this beautiful tribute. Thanks for writing it, i know it wasn't an easy thing to do. It's so hard to even think about it. I still can't believe he's gone. Maybe that's because he isn't really gone. When someone that deeply spiritual passes, you almost don't know whether to say hello or goodbye. Maybe you say both.

Mark Folse said...

It was incredibly touching when Coco's family showed up at the Apple Barrel last night. First two cousins, who regaled me with tales of when Curtis was young, and then the rest with his current wife a bit later. They were deeply touched to know he had two families, once at the Apple Barrel who were by his death as they were.

unusual suspect said...

I've had many an adventure with Coco over the years; all good.
One time we went to HOB to see Johnny Winters. We talked all the way there about music & guitarists.Johnny was magnificent.As we staggered back through the Quarter, neither of us had much to say after witnessing a virtuoso performance.We were both stunned that after all those years the man never missed a lick. It was the one time where our silence said it all.