With Hurricane Isaac on a trajectory to New Orleans this week, we’d thought it was a good time to reflect on the story of the song “Vieux Carre” which was influenced by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The song was also influenced by a family vacation that we took to the Crescent City just months before that tragedy, and the extraordinary differences between good times and bad.
That November, 2004 trip was our first to New Orleans. We had a planned vacation to Orlando during Thanksgiving week but decided to start off in New Orleans so my son and I could catch our beloved Broncos who were playing the Saints that week. Naturally, one of the first attractions we wanted to see was the famous “French Quarter” and I remember driving down Interstate 10 and seeing an exit for “Vieux Carre”. My wife, who speaks and reads French pointed out that is where we wanted to go as Vieux Carre is the original French title of “old square” for the neighborhood. Well, anyway we enjoyed our trip, had lots of fun, and the Broncos handily defeated the Saints.
About nine months later Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and, like most people, I was horrified by the images of people trapped for days in the flooded city in the aftermath. One image in particular that chilled me to the bone was footage of refugees who had climbed onto the elevated interstate to get above the flood waters and were trapped in the sweltering heat under that same large green exit sign that read “Vieux Carre”. This, coupled with the horror stories of conditions inside the Superdome (a major evacuation center and the place where we saw the football game in 2004) moved me to write a song about the tragedy.
I originally wrote the song on piano in early 2006, while I was writing a lot of material for Imaginary Lines, but I never really intended to use the song for that project. Three years later, I introduced the song to my band Animal Society, and we worked out a new arrangement. It was recorded for our debut album in 2010, with the mix greatly inspired by the 1980s sound of the band Zebra, who ironically originated in New Orleans.
Listen to the Song:
On February 20, 2005, author Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at his home near Aspen, Colorado. That day also happened to be my son’s 14th birthday and he has become a big fan of Thompson’s work (as is evident in this 2010 piece that he wrote).
Anyway, I remember feeling disgusted when I heard the news because he did it while his sonm grandson, and daughter-in-law were in the house and while on the phone with his wife. Aside from my normal repulsion towards suicide, I also found the “grandiose” gesture was a lame attempt to replicate Ernest Hemingway and try to cement his legacy as a rebellious folk hero. I was moved to write some starter lyrics just days after the suicide;
The Hunter could not stand it no more
Couldn’t stand his Aspen slums
He pranced about like a dignitary
But his heart paled to that of a bum
It was so easy to travel the “Heming” way
He reached out with both arms and he embraced surrender
For he could see no solace in yet another cheap bender
No longer was it easy to face the setting sun…
I labeled the new poem “Tommy’s Got a Gun” but soon forgot about it. About four years later, I came across the lyrics and started developing music. Based on a simple, five note riff I worked out an arrangement with my band Animal Society and turned the lyrics into a proper song. To add the remaining necessary lyrics, I went directly to Thompson’s suicide suicide note and lifted some lines verbatim;
Football season is over now, there will be no more games
No more bombs, no more walking, no more fun…
You are getting greedy now, act your old age
17 more than we needed, 17 more than we wanted
Relax, this won’t hurt…
The song never quite worked out for Animal Society but was included on Imaginary Lines 33, with Erik Trabert providing the layered electric guitars and Rons Simasek on drums. Hunter S. Thompson received a full co-writing credit, one his last ever.
Listen to the Song:
On September 25, 2007, my sister Diane had surgery that changed her life, The surgery to remove a tumor from her optic nerve went terribly wrong, Diane was left with severe brain damage to the left frontal lobe. For months, the doctores told us she wasn’t going to wake up and if she did, she would be in a vegetative state. No one could offer any hope for her future except to suggest that we prepare for the worst. Once Diane defied all of the predictions of her doctors and not only woke up from the coma, she was alert and aware of her surroundings. she was blind in her left eye and could not move her right side, but her left arm and leg were strong. Her speech was profoundly impaired, but she did manage to communicate with single words and gestures. While she was hardly her robust former self, my sister was still in that severely damaged body and for the first time, we had hope for her future. maybe the same medical profession that “broke” her could offer some way for her to regain at least a protion of what she lost. At first, she made steady progress with traditional speech and physical therapy. She was working on regaining some independence and we actually have some video of her getting up on her own two feet and walking with a lot of help from her therapists. But after she suffered some setbacks due to seizures and bouts with pneumonia, her progress palateued and her insurance stopped allowing her to have therapy. Since she wasn’t progressing quickly enough, she was not eligible for any therapy at all. I never realized that there was no such thing as gradual progression or therapy at your own pace in the world of medical coverage – both private insurance and medicaid – Diane had both and neither could help her get what she needed. Still we hoped that there was someone out there with a therapy or treatment that may help improve the quality of her life. Surely someone must be doing research into brain functions and nerve regeneration or re-purposing?
I started searching for places that may offer specialized therapy for someone with Diane’s severe level of brain damage. Unfortunately, I found many organizations who lobby for funding and several doing research but only a few offering actual treatment and none offering anything innovative for someone with Diane’s severe problems. I had always thought that the problem would be funding the treament Diane needed, but now I realized that the treatment may not exist. the reasons for this are not entirely clear, we can treat cancer with amazing success now, AIDS is no longer the certain death sentence it once was but we still haven’t unlocked the mysteries of the human brain. There have been studies showing that despite the long help belief that brain cells do not regenerate, this may not be true and in fact sometimes functions done by that lost cell can be taken over by other cells. So many possibilities, but so little that we can actually do to help Diane regain her ability to talk, walk and do anything independently. so, with treatment limited to things that will just keep her alive, Diane sits in a nursing home that provides her with basic care but that can’t offer her any treatment or therapy that might improve her future. My question to all of these lobbying groups is where does all the money you successfully lobby go? Where is the data from the research you have funded? How much of the funds have actually gone for research and how much of it has gone to fund additional lobbying?
We all realize at this point that there is no miracle cure for Diane’s condition. However, it is frustrating that even with good insurance and a specialized care account that will provide anything she needs that insurance can’t cover that her treatment options are so limited. At this point, we are willing to send her anywhere if there is hope for some improvement for her. Our dream is that one day she will be able to spend days with her family and friends at the beach or even just sit around the kitchen table with us at family gatherings. We would like her to have all the support and therapy she needs to stay as healthy and active as she possibly can. With all of the amazing technilogy we have in this modern enlightened word we live in , we still don’t fully understand what makes our bodies function the way they do.
Dollars for Diane
Saturation Acres is a recording studio located in DuPont, PA. It is owned and operated by Bret Alexander, songwriter, guitarist, and producer for The Badlees, a band which reached national success in the 1990s and continues to enjoy great regional success to this day. Alexander opened Saturation Acres in 1999 at its original location near Danville, PA along with fellow Badlee Paul Smith. The duo had recently recorded and produced the Badlees’ album Amazing Grace independently in Alexander’s basement, after the band found itself in major label “limbo” the previous year. The result was an album that sounded as good as anything coming from the major studios and a rekindled fire by Alexander and Smith to do more studio work (both had started out as studio engineers before forming the Badlees in 1990).
For nearly a decade and a half, the studio has been the most highly regarded and respected in Central Pennsylvania as hundreds of projects have been produced at Saturation Acres. These projects have crossed the musical spectrum from hard rock/heavy metal to country/Americana and just about everywhere between. There is also a great diversity in the level of artists with national acts like Breaking Benjamin and Darcie Miner recording in the same place as scores of regional acts like Mycenea Worley, HotWingJones, Ed Randazzo, and a list too long to reasonably list here. Most of the Cygnus Wave releases have had ties with Saturation Acres to varying degrees, with the Imaginary Lines and Animal Society albums having the deepest affiliations.
In 2007, Smith left the studio as a full-time partner (although he still works on many projects) and Alexander decided to relocate to the less rural, current setting in the heart of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton corridor of Northeastern PA. Although the studio has lost some of the mystique of its former remote setting, it’s new locations gains much in convenience for artists. Alexander says the most rewarding aspect of his work is when he takes a mish-mash of ideas within a band and forges them into a cohesive direction. As he put it in an interview a few years ago;
It’s so cool to get them in a room, and get them on the same team, and start to figure out exactly who they are. And all of a sudden, it’s like ‘OK. Now we know. Now we know who we are, and what we’re good at. Before, they were just playing.”
There are times when songwriting is just not so serious. One such example for me came in the late spring of 2006, when I sat down to write a song about summertime, but ended up writing a cool riddle which gypped lines from songs from eight of my favorite classic rock artists.
The song was “She Said” (listen to it here) and each of the nine lines within the three verses begins with “She said…” or “She says…” with either direct or paraphrased quotes from established songs. The first line is;
She says I wonder if you’ll ever learn…”
This is a reference to an obcure song that I wrote about a decade earlier. But the rest of the lines refer to well-establish artists and well established song. A few hints on these songs – first, all these songs were released between 1966 and 1975 and next, the tense which preceeds the lines tells whether the original singer of these lines was alive or dead in 2006. Here are the eight lines in question;
She says ‘A movement is 6 stages while the 7th brings return’
She said ‘I know what it is like to be dead’
She says ‘Behind the beauty cracks appear’
She said ‘The future is uncertain and the end is always near’
She says ‘Keep them mower blades sharp’
She says ‘Think as it was and then again it will be’
She says ‘Go sing your heart out to the infinite sea’
She says ‘I may make you feel but I can’t make you think’…”
Six years after the song was written and nearly three after it was released internationally, noone has yet been able to tell me the origin of all eight of these quotes.
Listen to the Song: