Last spring, the underground music legend known as Bobby Lounge was nervously preparing for his "comeback," a debut performance at Jazz Fest. Never mind that Lounge had played only a handful of shows in as many years.
It was a testament to both the bigness of his talent and the perseverance of his manager, John Preble, that his return to the stage should happen in front of an audience of thousands. Seated at a pink baby grand piano in his equally grand parlor, he launched full-throttle into a sort of camp gospel number, "I Will." Not so much playing the piano as landing on it, it was almost as though he was trying to break his own fall from grace. The sound was so full and so soulful, it was easy to imagine a gospel choir like the ones he grew up hearing backing him up. It's more difficult to imagine one gutsy enough to accompany lyrics like, "Some men give you El Dorado Cadillacs, baby/ a trunk full of cocaine/ But after I give you my pneumatic drill -- it's a jackhammer, baby / you'll never walk again."
"I thought that people wouldn't really catch it, and it would just go away," he says now of his fabled Jazz Fest performance. "I just thought it wouldn't carry well enough."
He needn't have worried -- his performance was a standout by everyone's standards. Rolling Stone magazine called it "unforgettable" and The New York Times called his lyrics "lethally sardonic." What was even more exciting than all the buzz (which had been building for months, thanks to his friend and self-appointed manager John Preble) was how Bobby Lounge's act -- from its dramatic start, in which he was wheeled out in a fake iron lung, to its rollicking finish -- had the audience in stitches.
And yet, for all his coy sarcasm, Lounge's delivery sounded utterly sincere. Or maybe it just didn't seem possible that someone could perform at such high velocity and only be kidding.
Luckily for audiences, Lounge's penchant for theatrics is backed up by the kind of natural talent that mocks musicians who actually have to work at it. Rumor has it that Marcia Ball couldn't play the piano for a full week after hearing Lounge's R&B-inspired demo tapes; she's since been known to cover some of his tamer songs. Ball would be hard-pressed to find any G-rated numbers on Lounge's CD, I Remember the Night Your Trailer Burned Down, the best parts of which match the vocal prowess of Bessie Smith with the raunchy roadhouse flamboyance of Jerry Lee Lewis.
There's not a single track that would suggest Lounge is actually the since-outed Dub Brock, a middle-aged art teacher contentedly living a quiet life in his boyhood home of small-town Mississippi. He's like Hedwig, but without the Angry Inch -- and in fact "Trailer," with its unfailingly clever word craft, could easily stand in as that soundtrack's sequel.
Brock has never pursued musical success on the scale of which he is evidently capable. But his reluctance to perform stemmed as much from his desire not to be "outed" as a musician in his small community as from his deep ambivalence about being a performer.
"I would have felt like an idiot, acting like I was the musician around all these people who have studied music, who know everything about theory. ... I can only play by ear," he says. "I'm an art teacher. Nobody at school even knew I played music."
Still, there's plenty of lyrical evidence that he'd at least given the matter some thought:
"If I had been Elvis I would not have gone on dope / If I'da been Elvis I'd be bigger than the pope / If I had been Elvis, I would not have made all those / tacky Hawaiian films / I could have been Elvis so much better than him."
Currently working on his second CD, Brock says he's grown more confident since his "outing" at Jazz Fest, and he's looking forward to his House of Blues show, originally scheduled to coincide with Southern Decadence over Labor Day Weekend. The show will be his first club appearance in 15 years.
Brock's longtime ambivalence still baffles Preble, who would have gladly served as his Svengali if only he'd let him. Preble, the charismatic curator of the UCM ("you see 'em") Museum in Abita Springs, was at one time the owner of Ruby's Roadhouse in Mandeville, which he bought as a place where an act like Bobby Lounge could get off the ground.
Preble tried to explain what it is about Lounge's music that has sustained his interest over the years. "I like hits," he offered matter-of-factly. "I like figuring out how it works. Those first 10 seconds, something happens in your head, and you know you want to hear it again. Bobby's songs are like that. It's the same thing with painting, or food, even. You smell it, and it's good before you even taste it."
- "I thought that people wouldn't really catch it, and it would just go away," Bobby Lounge says of his fabled Jazz Fest performance. "I just thought it wouldn't carry well enough."