Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How Does It Feel?

We're one day out from the "Katrinaversary." Year five, which is apparently some kind of milestone. A few weeks back I did an interview on our front porch which may or may not appear on BBC TV, and the interviewer asked me, at the end, what I wanted to 'leave viewers with.' I had two points I wanted to stress.

1. New Orleans was not 'laid low by Hurricaine Katrina.' New Orleans was flooded when improperly constructed and badly designed floodwalls failed well below their specifications. To this day, this is still not general knowlege, and..

2. The 'Federal Flood' (as it's known around here) and the recent BP Oil disaster are not isolated incidents. They are part of a continuum of sloth, incompetence and mendacity that grows directly out of modern 'conservative' philosophy, which holds that "government is the problem, not the solution" and that all human endeavor should take place within the realm of capitalism. In the aftermath of Katrina I stated repeatedly that New Orleans was the Canary in the Coal Mine and that if we continued down this path, the whole country would eventually look just like us, crumbling infrastructure, hapless emergency response and all. In the intervening years, much of this has come to pass. Bridges collapse, economies falter, various states can longer afford road maintainance and are returning once-paved roads to gravel. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold etc. At least we have better food here. And the architecture is easier on the eyes.

I've done my share of these interviews in the last five years and they're pretty standard for the most part. I've waited in vain though, for that stock MSM question "how do you feel?" In wickers-world America, it's apparently considered good form to stick a microphone in the face of the grieving widow, the fire-displaced family, or the surviving gunshot victim and ask "how do you feel?" As far as I can recall, nobody's ever asked this of me.

Probably a good thing actually because, in the weeks immediately after the flood, I wouldn't have had a coherent answer. I ran on pure adrenaline for quite awhile, but I'd been doing that for some time. In March of 2005 my father passed away, and I'd spent the summer with my family putting his affairs in order and arranging a memorial service. I returned to New Orleans on August 21st, in time to attend a "new faculty' meeting at Tulane University (where I'd been hired as visiting Professor of Music), pick up my parking pass, buy a new 'gig suit' on sale at Perlis's Menswear on Magazine street, and get caught up in the biggest engineering failrure in U.S. history. Any attempt to 'process' my father's death (if such a thing is even possible) was quickly dwarfed by the enourmity of the events that engulfed me.

In a process that will be familiar to every New Orleanian, these epic, catastophic experiences occurred simultaneously with life at it's most banal elsewhere in the country. Because Americans are so accustomed to these sorts of things happening 'elsewhere,' in some distant third world hellhole, there was a tendency to not really 'get it,' Katrina-wise. I remember the jaw-dropping incredulity I experienced when reading e-mails from parents of my students at Tulane demanding to know whether this was going to "affect my child's graduation date," as if we were all still sitting at the University in our offices with lights, air-conditioning, and a functioning administrative staff dealing with some minor glitch in the system, rather than, as was the case with me, sleeping in my car and cadging computer time at the Santa Rosa, New Mexico public library. I was tempted to think of these people as incredibly oblivious and self involved, and maybe they were. But some of them doubtless simply couldn't get past that mindset, so common among first world people, that says this kind of thing Can't Happen Here.

So, if someone had asked me, at that moment, how I felt, I would have said changed. Utterly and completely. And that change is something I'll carry with me the rest of my life. I will never, ever again be able to walk down the street of a modern city and feel any sense whatsoever of permanence or inevitability. The phrase "safe as houses" doesn't mean shit to me. Because I know, on a deep, visceral level that has squat to do with any kind of intellectual acknowlegement of these things, that forces beyond my control can come along any second and blow everything I've worked for, my whole life, straight to hell. It's the difference between a healthy young man blithely asserting he's accepted the fact of his own death, and that same man after he's been told he has terminal cancer. Because talk is cheap, and it's easy to sound brave when fear is abstract.

Later on of course, I got mad. Because the trope moved very quickly from an outpouring of sympathy and compassion to 'blame the victim' mode, seamlessly and without missing a beat. We were told we wore our skirts too short and asked for it, because New Orleans is 'below sea level' (actually about half of it is, but so's half of the Netherlands). Our citizens were depicted as work-shy welfare chisellers and murderous thugs, even though New Orleanians are, in the main, the sweetest-natured, most generous and open hearted people I've ever met. They certainly work harder than Dennis "That Place Looks Like It Should Be Bulldozed" Hastert has ever worked in his whole mean-spirited, fat-assed life. I swear to god, some of the shit I heard come out of peoples' mouths...to this day I can't for sure say I wouldn't happily and cheerfully murder them with my bare hands, I came across them in a dark alley. And that kind of hateful is no way to be. It's dangerous to your health. I'm working on forgivness, I truly am, but it would be much easier if somebody, somewhere, over the last five years (besides Brownie I mean) suffered some kind of adverse consequences for the reckless criminal neglegence that killed thousands of my fellow New Orleanians. Oh yes, let me remind you of that, please, they drowned like rats, some of them, in their own houses. Others perished from thirst or exposure or lack of needed medical care, because certain people decided to pray on the fear of our worser angels with black-savages-run-amok-raping-babies-shooting-at-helicopters yadda yadda yadda all of which, I remind you now, turned out to be utter bullshit, hatched mostly in the fever swamps of the neo-conservative imagination. Nobody has ever been held accountable for this. I can't even hear the phrase 'personal responsibility' now without spitting.

I could go on, but what's the point. We've learned nothing. The same Army Corps of Engineers who buggered up the floodwalls in the first place are now charged with their redesign and repair. The same neo-con talking heads are still blathering the same easily refutable bullshit, unchallenged. The catastrophy that was Katrina has been for the most part pushed from public conciousness by successive, new examples of greed, mendacity, irresponsibility and shameless fear-mongering and race-baiting. The only people who ever pay a real price for any of this are the victims of it. The perpetrators always skate.

So, we deal. Down here, we deal with this shit the way we always have, by holding close to our community, our culture, and each other. In spite of all this, New Orleans is still the only place that feels real to me. So that's how I feel. Real. And lucky. Lucky that I live here. You can say that's delusional, that my sense of reality is illusory, but to that I'd say your conception of the solidity and sensibility of Dallas or Chicago or Portland Oregan or wherever is just as ephemeral, you're just too blind to see it. We're all going to die, someday. I'm in no rush to hurry the process along, but neither am I willing to sentence myself to a life in a faceless suburban American shithole in pursuit of some kind of purely imaginary security. In the words of the immortal Louis Armstrong, "I've seen too many jazz funerals to worry about stuff that might happen."

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