My dear old friend, Jerry Swift, former owner of The Ritz music hall in Memphis and with whom I shared musical memories, misadventures, and shenanigans in the mid-to-late 70’s, challenged me to post a slice-of-life story. Jerry, you were one of the early stars and co-horts to my colorful life:
Late 1977, after coming off the road with Captain Beefheart in support of Shiny Beast, I met up with Harry, Don’s manager, for a thank-goodness-the-tour-is-over weekend in New Orleans. My second visit to this sexy, provocative, mysterious city. Staying with friends of Harry’s, we piled in the car to go hear music finally pulling up to a block already lined with people. We bypassed the line, Harry back-slapping all the doormen & bouncers on the way past. Sliding into Tipitina’s, a vibrant energy thrummed, expectation I’d rarely experienced in a small venue (exceptions Alex Cooley’s, The Ritz, Cafe Wha, Agora Ballroom, Bottom Line).
Harry, being Harry, had scored us a table up front. Shots of Jack tossed back. Lights dimmed. Music started. Wild Tchoupitoulas danced their way on to the stage, feathers flying, feet stompin’ full of rhythm-from-a-dozen-cultures. I was clear blown out of my chair and on my feet moving parts of my body I didn’t know even moved, barely noticing as the stage filled with Neville after Neville and a few guests – including Harry with his harp. I turned, surprised – but not really – to see his empty chair.
Harry was a man of a million stories, each better than the last. Former manager of The Meters, learned harp from Charlie Musselwhite and Sunnyland Slim, and I could go on and on. But Harry’s a story for another day. As is Van Vliet – I still have the rapidograph set he bought me in some art store somewhere between Atlanta and Birmingham.
On the way home way past 2am, Harry asks “will you be really disappointed if we don’t bum around the city today? Aaron asked if I’d come lay some harp tracks down on their album.” Disappointed? Not. Driving across the Pontchartrain late morning full of excitement and possibilities, sun glittering on the water ’til we finally drove into Studio in the Country in Bogalusa. It would be a day and night that imprinted deeply. The musical process with all players in the same room. No overdubs that day. Jack Nitzsche, manic beyond description, behind the board. Channeling mentor Phil Spector. Jack, brilliant, yet frequent-crazy-town-resident, orchestrator of Ike & Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” That day there were moments I wept with emotion. Laughed so hard I snorted. Felt my heart beat faster at magic as it happened. I couldn’t stop staring at Aaron’s birthmark. I tried, I really did.
A revered right-place, right-time memory. Magically up-close, immersive, and personal. “Life’s been good to me so far.”
If you know Harry Duncan, give him a hug from me!