The Conservative Underground: Musical Squares



This year, Ash Wednesday happened to fall on my 34th birthday, which was the only reason I agreed to play at Balcony Music Club (ex-El Matador) on what is traditionally and officially the most un-fun day of the year. The other three Bywater/Marigny bands and the scruffy 60-person crowd they conjured (miraculous for Ash Wednesday) are often called “Circus People,” though I’ve yet to see most of them do any tricks, outside of playing open chords on acoustic guitars. Others call this genre of person, “hobohemians”. If they begged for money (which they don’t; they play music for free drinks and beer money) they’d be called “gutterpunks”. A hilarious friend of mine refers to this clique

– which grows exponentially during Mardi Gras time – as “Depression Era Paperboys,” because of their dingy suspenders and old-style hats – a style of dress they conform to the way frat dudes do baseball caps. I’ve always been suspicious of any person whom you can tell too much about from 100-feet away. But I’ve tried to cut the Circus People slack because they play a lot of music, and add color to New Orleans. Even if that color is mostly brown.

The Circus People like only old-timey sounding, semi-acoustic music. Their drummers often beat on paint cans and suitcases. Also like frat dudes, these Circus People socialize only with each other. Though I’ve lived in Bywater (year-round, I might ad) and participated in events with them for years now, even the ones I see everyday consistently act like I am the outsider here. I used to chalk this up to their being mostly from up north. Meaning, they don’t understand Southern Hospitality. I’ve begun to believe, however, that they ignore me because, instead of dressing like Django Rheinhart, I look like a schoolteacher. Like them, I too rely on my bicycle, I too have very little money and have been wearing the same clothes for years, but because I wash said clothing on a semi-regular basis, the Circle People treat me like some kind of yuppie.

On a good day, the electric guitar-based rock music I play sounds like Prince crossed with Nirvana. On a bad day it sounds like Prince throwing a temper tantrum (and not looking nearly as good while doing so). I am often accompanied by Ray Bong, a 52 year-old tie-dyed acid head who dances like an ape while wrenching psychedelic bleeps and bloops and swooshes from toy analog instruments. So it’s easy for me to accept that what we do is not for everyone. I would not, however, accept playing last on a bill of five of their bands. “I know this scenario,” I warned the Circus People during my refusal, “and as soon as y’all are finished playing, all these folks will leave, and we will be playing to no one. No way are we playing last.” Of course some of them got mad at me for asserting myself, but in the end they bent to my will, considering it was my birthday. We would play forth, right before the best band of the evening.

The band before us featured two really great girl singers playing music that, though good, sounded very old. Like so many New Orleans musicians, they possessed huge talent, but were totally lacking in original ideas. Still, the Circus People sat rapt -- until the girls finished, and Ray and I and our guest female rapper MC Shellshock began setting up. At that point, before we could play even one note, almost the entire big crowd immediately walked outside. There is only one way to describe this behavior: conservative. Not in terms of the Circus People being Republicans, but as soon as it became obvious that we would not be playing the same type of music as the other bands -- though they had no idea what type of music we might make -- they lost interest. Because we didn't look like them, we were deemed worthless (OK, maybe that does sound kind of Republican…). The most unfathomable part of this to me was: what type of person sees crazy old Ray Bong setting up his wild, alien instruments on stage and isn’t even the slightest bit curious? But they were not curious enough to watch even one song. In the end, we played to almost no one anyway. Then everyone came back in after we’d finished.

Since that night, I’ve been thinking maybe I should learn some songs from the 30’s and 40’s, paint on some face tattoos, and perform as Snowbird the Clown.

Or else I can just write the Circus People off as sheep.

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