The blues and writing about the genre; filling the hole in my life; my early musical ambitions; revelations in Louisiana; acceptance and understanding
A personal break through for me as a journalist (I think) came after recently speaking with blues musician Chris Thomas King, the Louisiana native and so-called King of New Orleans Blues.
I’ve known of King since he starred in “O Brother Where Art Thou” as Tommy Johnson, an early blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. His eerie and reflective rendition of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” always intrigued me as a kid. When I was learning how to play the guitar, and when I was acquainting myself with the blues, I often did my best to imitate King’s sound. I never thought that one day I’d speak to the man.
Then again, I never thought I’d live in Louisiana, the heartland of the blues.
My interview with King comes at an interesting point in my life: I am 26; trying to establish myself as a writer; managing a newspaper in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana; displaced from my home state (Washington); in a committed relationship with someone for the first time; and yet I am still somehow lacking in some aspect. What it is, I can’t say.
I have a good life, but the things I once found fulfilling – even just a few years ago – seem forgotten to me. My “lust for life” seems like a forlorn quest, or just another unremarkable path to self-acceptance. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible ending, but I have a hard time imaging how I will ever reach that ending happily and at peace.
As a kid, the answer to happiness – or at least self-respect – was an easy one: music.
Since taking up the guitar at 12, I took the phrase “play till your fingers bleed” to heart. Although I never actually cut my fingers on the strings I damn sure tried. I loved my guitar. It was actually my dad’s guitar that he owned since he was about 19; an ember-colored Applause, similar in design to the Ovation guitars. I wasn’t very sentimental at the time, but I enjoyed the fact that my father was passing down the skill to his son with the very guitar that he learned on.
The guitar was huge for my size, but it was a point of pride for me. My friends’ parents bought them nylon-stringed guitars and cheap-o electric ones, but not me. I was determined to learn the hard way. As my friends quit after just a few months of playing, I stuck with it and I got better.
Music, and certainly the blues, taught me so many things about myself when I was growing up. My guitar was my therapist, my friend, and – as corny as it sounds – my first love. I could consult it when I was angry, lonely, happy, etc. I was constantly pushing myself to experiment with it.
It was about 2 p.m. last Monday and I hadn’t eaten much. I went to Couyons, just down the road from our office in Port Allen, Louisiana. It’s a Southern-style eatery. Nothing fancy, but damn good food.
I bought a $12 fried seafood po’ boy with a side of mac and cheese. I wolfed it all down in about seven minutes and was so stuffed that I barely made it to work.
I got back in the car (somehow), drove back to work, pulled into our lot, parked, left the engine running, cranked the A/C, leaned the seat back and fell asleep for about 45 minutes.
I’ve lived in the Deep South for almost a year, and I’ll tell you, it is not easy. But I’m catching on.
My dad got me into journalism. Growing up, there was always a newspaper on the kitchen table in the morning next to a half-empty mug of coffee and he was always buried into both. My mornings usually began with the sound of mom and dad crinkling the paper open and shut as they searched their favorite sections.
Before I really took an interest in journalism as a career, my dad used to show me the David Horsey comics in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (This was when the paper was still in print and I was still in high school.) Horsey’s comics were always so easy to understand, even for a high schooler with little knowledge of the world. They made me feel smart, engaged, but they also made me laugh.
I considered becoming a cartoonist in high school. I scribbled a lot in my teenage years. I drew a bunch of weird shit. My mom said it was cool, which was enough to keep my going. Even though the idea of professional illustration died in college, I still consider dabbling into it.
Don’t stop exploring. A camera is a firearm. Shoot well, write well. Some of the best knowledge I gained through college.
This spawned from a brief college workshop with Bettina Hansen, a photographer at The Seattle Times, and Josh Trujillo, a photographer at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. If you’re in a creative jam, Hansen said, pick up a new device or a new medium and learn something new. For me, that device was a DSLR camera.
I’d owned cameras in the past, but never seriously considered pursuing photography. Prior to Hansen’s class, my technique (if you want to call it that) was to snap as many pictures as I could and sort through the ones I didn’t like. It was the same effect as shooting a 50-meter target with a shotgun as opposed to a long-barreled rifle.
Cameras are technical the same way firearms are. This was something Trujillo had told us. To shoot well with either, you must have good posture and know-how of the mechanics behind the device. Simply snapping (or firing off rounds) is a sure way to fail.
The technical knowledge I gained from Hansen and Trujillo planted a seed that developed into a passion. I learned how to make good pictures (sometimes), by finding the right angle to line up the shot, the right source of light, and the right ratios on the camera.
A year into photography and I found the same technical approach can be applied to writing.
As journalists, we are trained to mash the subject and the conflict together until they peter out into a conclusion; to beat the story into submission, like a butcher tenderizing meat. This is the core lesson of most early news writing classes. Reporters suck in every sight, sound, and word that they can and then regurgitate it onto a Word document.
But this takes away from the artistry of writing. After it’s done so many times it’s not even fun. It’s the equivalent of a shotgun blast, or a hells-chance blast from a machine gun. It‘s messy.
As with shooting a photo, or shooting a target, it takes focus, concentration, and most importantly, skill.
“[George McGovern] is still naïve enough to assume that anybody who is honest and intelligent – with a good enough voting record on “the issues” – is a natural man for the White House. But this is stone bullshit. There are only two ways to make it in big-time politics today: One is to come on like a mean dinosaur, with a high-powered machine that scares the shit out of your entrenched opposition…. And the other is to tap the massive, frustrated enemies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to immediately choose between a Ford and a Chevy.”
I just picked up “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” It’s been on my shelf for five years and it’s about damn time I finished the thing.
I’ve never been able to totally immerse myself in politics the way so many hard-boiled reporters do. But it is somewhat of a personal goal, and if I’ll ever understand it, I may as well start here.
So much of Hunter S. Thompson’s writing resonates with today’s political landscape. Especially the above passage. It makes me wonder how much has really changed. On the surface, we have these great technological and social achievements, but beneath it’s business as usual.
Thompson was writing in the shadow of these incredible conflicts, like WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I like to believe that my generation has evolved from such things. But maybe I’m dead wrong. Maybe that shadow is permanent.
This is a question that plagued my journals during my teenage years. One that I struggled with for years. One that I thought I knew when I left the Army. It is a question that maybe influenced me to join the Army. I was sure I was beyond it. But after finally reading Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory,” I am certain I don’t know anything.
“Where Men Win Glory” follows the life of Pat Tillman, an NFL football player turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Without opening the book, Tillman’s story seems to follow a typical martyr trope: a young man who leaves money and fame behind for a greater purpose – a patriotic purpose. But this is not the case. Tillman’s purpose was far higher than nationalism, according to Krakauer (although military authorities and elected officials tried to ensure Americans otherwise).
Tillman was real, in the truest sense. He never pretended to be something he wasn’t, or to believe in something that was false. He was intelligent and an avid scholar, constantly seeking new knowledge and perspectives, even if he didn’t agree with them. He was also a physical powerhouse, whether he was blocking tackles as a linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals, or running marathons and climbing rocks with friends. He was strong both physically and emotionally. He was compassionate, empathetic, self-critical, and often sensitive. Certainly complex.
And Tillman’s complexity is what makes him such a unique, yet relatable, character.
In the aftermath of 9/11, he enlisted in the Army, leaving behind an NFL contract to become an infantryman. His family pleaded him to reconsider, but it was already in him. His reason for joining seems convoluted and even contradictory, but it’s one that I understand on a very basic level.
The first time I had crawfish was in a restaurant in Lake Providence, Louisiana, called The Dock. It sat just above the lake with an outdoor patio (the actual “dock”) that went into the muddy water. You can walk onto the dock and see turtles sunning themselves on rocks or peering out of the lake’s surface. The patio is decorated in old buoys and strings of dirty Christmas lights.
I had just moved to Baton Rouge and was on my way back when I passed The Dock for the second time. I had never had crawfish, and so I pulled in, against my girlfriend’s wishes.
The inside was exactly what I pictured rural Louisiana to look like. Creeky wood floors, a range of taxidermy on the walls, the New Orleans Saints were on the only TV. Baskets of clumpy fried food were on every occupied table, and man, did it smell good.
I’ve only lived in Louisiana now for more than a month. Nothing about my move from Washington has been easy. I lifted everything I had in the Northwest and shipped it via U.S. Postal Service to the Southeast.
On the surface things are nearly the same. Our cities have the same same retail outlets, country roads are bumpy, money is still green. But there is so much to get used to. On a map, Louisiana looks like any other state, aside from its peculiar boot shape. When you drive the roads and experience the countryside at eye-level, you realize the map is a lie. What looks like solid ground turns into swamp and an oceans of knee-deep mud. Roads turn to bridges. Eventually, the roads end and the swamps dissolve into the salt of the Gulf. Everything about travelling in Louisiana is inconsistent. The gas prices, the erratic drivers, the stop-and-go drivers, the colors of the pavement. Shortly after moving here I suffered frequent anxiety attacks while driving.
There are some more subtle differences about Louisiana that I’m not so fond of. Such as the lack of quality coffee. Luckily Baton Rouge is a college town, and espresso is in no short supply. But PJ’s Coffee doesn’t do it for me, and neither does CC’s Coffee. They’re both too bright and the baristas are too happy. Even the Starbucks here kinda sucks. At least Washington’s Starbucks give off thelocal vibe. I miss the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall coffee shops where the espresso is actually made, not squeezed from a box. I miss pretentious baristas. Where do I watch the rain fall? Where do I ruminate over my life choices on Saturday afternoons? I miss the conscientious nature of Washingtonians. The coffee culture.
It’s not all bad though. Lately, I’ve been writing local news stories for a weekly paper. When I tell people where I’m from, they usually answer in surprise. I recentlywrote an article about a peace celebration in town.One of the religious leaders said, “You must be used to this sort of thing then.” She was right. Seattle has its fair share of peace-niks and I’ve definitely rubbed elbows with a lot of them. But even though Northwesterners have a rep for conscientiousness, the issues in the South are still very much the same, regardless of the side you’re on: Environmentalism (coastal erosion), equality, the local falvor, and ultimately progress. Baton Rouge isn’t as different as Iexpected, and neither is Louisiana. To be honest, I expected hostility, or at least indifference, to the way I talk and dress, but the opposite has been true.
I was lamenting some ofthese problems to a mutual friend who had also moved to the area recently. It’s not so much the location that makes Louisiana great, she said, it’s the people.
New Orleans is only about an hour south of where I live. I’ve only been there twice, and yesterday was the second time.
I didn’t know where else to go, so me, my girlfriend and her siblings spent our evening in the French Quarter. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anywhere else I would have wanted to go.
The French Quarter is beautiful. It’s everything I love about city life. It’s nice to escape the big “box stores” and strip malls that surround our residence in Baton Rouge and see some true Southern culture.
I took well over 200 photos. The ones I liked best are below. (I used my Canon Rebel, but I ended up playing around with the pictures quite a bit on Snapseed, VSCOcam and Hipstamatic. Hipstamatic is a bit gimmicky, but occasionally it works, and very well too.)
Everything is a drum if you’re good enough. (Edited with Hipstamatic and Snapseed.)
The sound of the engine was unbearably loud. I stared at the plane and waited in line to get on, trying to take it in. I tried to form words that would capture the moment, but none of it felt real.
The plane looked like a giant eggplant with wings decorated in Christmas lights. It was the only thing visible on the Kuwaiti horizon.
Contrary to what my drill sergeants told me, war actually was how the movies portrayed it, and I was a lead role. I saw myself through the lens of a camera on the long bus ride to basic training, doing pushups in the rain, and in Fort Riley, Kansas, wandering around in awe, contemplating how I came from the progressive culture of the West Coast to a Midwest wasteland.
Here I was again, from a different camera angle, lined up with my backpack on backwards and my rifle slung to my side, waiting like everyone else to get on a giant eggplant. When I try to remember it, the military is a big weird dream where I had no control and did things I did not want to.
The plane’s giant engines grew louder, accompanied by a high-pitched whine, and then faded. Over and over again.
My platoon sergeant jumped around the line. He inspected each soldier, slapped our helmets together and punched us jovially on the shoulder. He was the big brother you didn’t want. He inspected my rifle and made a playful threat to me if I vomited on the plane. He threw a playful punch into my right shoulder, twisting me 45 degrees. I heard him bouncing around the line, making the same comments, happy as ever. He wanted to get on the plane.
The plane was a C-130 Hercules, in service since the ‘50s, primarily as a cargo transport. One-hundred feet in length and 40 tons in weight. From where I stood, all I could see an empty grey shell with blinking lights. It was hard to imagine a something so big and ugly being safe.
There was no signal to begin boarding, but sure enough, like dominos, the line began to move. We waddled toward the gate that doubled as a boarding ramp at the plane’s rear. I stepped on. The closer I got, the more rickety the plane looked. Its bare-bone interior gave the impression of riding in a giant tin can. Cargo netting was draped from the plane’s ceiling. There were maybe 80 seats in the center and maybe half of that along the sides. As the center seats were filled up, I was assigned one of the roomier seats along the side. (Sometimes having a name at the end of the alphabet has its perks.)
As I got comfortable, I saw Ronnie climbing up the ramp. We usually called each other by our last names, or by a dumb nickname. How Ronnie became known by his first name is beyond me.
Maybe it was because he just looked like a Ronnie.
We gave each other a mutual nod and he sat next to me. His helmet hung low on his brow, just above his crooked wire-frame glasses. Gear dangled loosely from his chest. His face was hard, but there was always a goofy-kid-smile hidden on Ronnie’s face. It was apparent that Ronnie liked being a soldier, but he never really fit in. I guess that’s why I always liked him.
We didn’t say much. I held my hand out low. We clasped our gloved hands together and shook them as he settled in to his seat. He plugged an earbud into his skull and put a stick of gum into his mouth. I watched as the other soldiers did similar things. They spit wads of chewing tobacco into soda bottles and unbuckled the chinstraps on their helmets, like John Wayne. One or two of them pulled out paperback novels. Ronnie kept his helmet on the whole time. He stared at everyone while I stared at him.
The pilot’s voice boomed and crackled from an intercom. He sounded like any other pilot: male, relaxed, witty. He made a joke about an in-flight movie and then one about getting shot down by Iraqi anti-air guns. It wasn’t really funny.
The gate began closing, but stopped short of sealing the interior from the outside. I swear I could still see the night sky from where I sat. I was on a roller coaster and my seatbelt wouldn’t fasten.
I didn’t say anything, but it seemed I was the only one who noticed it.
Maybe I was.
Ronnie was still in outer space, chewing his gum like a cow. I wanted to talk to him, but he was focused on something else. I yelled his name, but nothing was audible above the plane’s engines.
The plane began to bounce around and roll forward as the brakes were released. Within minutes we were airborne and gaining altitude fast. It shook violently as if we were about to break through the atmosphere. The slightest tilt of the plane’s axis made my innards writhe.
I’m probably going to vomit, I thought. My sergeant will probably make me do pushups for it.
When the C-130 leveled out, the interior lights blacked out and red lights switched on. My heart skipped a beat and my face was hot. I looked to my left and right. Everyone else did the same. Ronnie and I stared at each other for a second. He shrugged, as if to say “that was weird.” Flashing red lights are usually a sign of imminent danger. I thought we were going down. But the red lights remained on the rest of the way. The plane’s crew didn’t make any announcement about the lights. Everyone just sort of sunk back into their seats. Informal. Strange.
I tapped Ronnie on the shoulder and yelled:
“WATCHA LISTENIN’ TO?”
I tapped my ear. He gave me his other earbud and I plugged it in. It was “Welcome to Paradise,” by Green Day. It’s fitting for going to a war-torn country for a year. I leaned back against the seat and tried to relax, maybe even sleep. But I couldn’t. Rock and roll in one ear and the deafening sound of machinery in the other. I leaned my head against the wall and my whole face vibrated with the engines. There weren’t even any windows to space out at.
I spent the rest of the trip in the ominous red light, staring at the intricacies of the plane’s interior: the airmen reading their books and not wearing their seatbelts, the sleeping faces of those around me, the ladder up to the cockpit. What are all the cargo nets for? I think about the guys in Special Forces who probably have to ride C-130s all the time.
I thought about Bob. A family friend and a WWII vet who was shot down over Germany while in the back of a transport plane. How the hell did Bob live anyway? I wondered what was going through his mind when he went down. The German’s took Bob prisoner and held him at a POW camp for more than a year. He ate nothing but rotten cabbage and potatoes before his release. I couldn’t imagine.
We were descending and we didn’t even know it. The plane bounced a little bit as we landed and eventually stopped. I expected more of a plummet straight into the earth. The big broken door lowered and the sound of the engines began to die. We put our backpacks on backwards again and picked up our rifles, waddling off the plane the same way we waddled in. It was after midnight when I put my boots down in Iraq. The concrete under my boots felt warm. The air smelled like a mixture of rotting eggs and burning rubber.
A strange smile crept across my face, but I didn’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with finally being here. Up until that moment, war had only been something on TV. I felt like Charlie Sheen, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise.
From a different camera angle, I saw Ronnie marching behind me. His face was scrunched into a mixture of “fuck this” and “fuck, my bag is heavy.”
We were just like movie actors. Maybe not as handsome.
Louisiana wasn’t my first choice for moving. Sometimes I think I could have moved to Ohio, or New Mexico for that matter. But it’s not true.
Louisiana has a peculiar type of charm. People travel from across the world to visit and to see a truly distinct piece of the American pie. I’m really no different.
“The city is magic,” a friend of mine once said about New Orleans.
I believed them then and I still do. You don’t need to visit New Orleans to know that. A deep swampy force attracts a certain brand of people with just the right amount of curiosity and sucks them in.
But for all its charm, it is still a new country to me. Everything is different. Living on the West Coast I could drive 1,000 miles south on I-5 and recognize almost all of the town names. I have no such familiarity down South. I’m lost in a tangle of state borders, “parishes,” highways and interstates, all weaving in and out of each other (but the roads – and the drivers – here are another story completely).
When I look out my window at night I can see the fluorescent lighting of Walmart contoured by three enormous white crosses in the background. Churches are everywhere. Some are falling apart. But then again, so are a lot of things, especially in the countryside. Forgotten buildings start to slip back into nature. Their roofs cave in, vines creep along their exterior and they slowly fade to an earthen brown.
It’s all part of the allure, every sensation, whether it’s the god awful smell on Bourbon Street or the weight of the air at a Highway 61 gas station. I came here because I wanted to learn what the mysterious South, which so many Northerners have vilified, was actually like. What better place to do it than in Louisiana?
I live in Baton Rouge.
It’s not my first time living outside of Washington, but it’s my first time really on my own and with nothing to cling on to. I’m like a crab without a rock, scuttling along, looking for something to claim.
There’s no college classes to attach to. No family or job to rely on. This is what people warn you about. It’s what some would call “the real world.”
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.