'The New Atlantis' chronicles N.O. musicians' struggle to keep culture afloat after Katrina
Published: Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 10:35 AM Updated: Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 10:39 AM
By Alison Fensterstock, The Times-Picayune NOLA.com
Offbeat magazine contributing editor John Swenson’s new book deals with our musical world that was in danger of being lost to floodwaters. Released at Jazz Fest 2011, “The New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For The Survival of New Orleans” focuses on the five years between Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf oil spill.
'The New Atlantis' opens with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars' pre-Katrina recording session -- ominous in retrospect -- and ends with the same musicians whipsawed and shaken by the oil spill.
Those events, along with the Saints’ Super Bowl win, create a ready-made narrative arc, framing the action in a story that is deep rather than broad in focus and intensely urgent.
Consistent characters emerge, paralleling selections from long Offbeat pieces Swenson wrote during the time the book covers. Troy Andrews comes of age as a formidable musical force. Glen David Andrews moves from triumph to setback to redemption, struggling with personal demons as well as his ravaged city, and Dr. John looms over it all, a code-talking, newly politicized lightning rod.
They struggle in the uncertain post-storm economy to re-establish their homes and livelihoods, to rebuild the cultural climate that nurtured their growth as performers, and in some cases, to get the attention of political powers-that-be. Swenson’s recountings are intimate, intelligent and passionate, and most importantly, come from deep in the heart of the battle the title announces.
Swenson, who since 1967 has been an editor at Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy, as well as reporting on music for Reuters and UPI, is New Orleans’ elder statesman of music journalism. When he moved to New Orleans (he splits his time now between Brooklyn and Bywater) in the early ‘80s, he shifted the focus of his writing toward Louisiana sounds, he said, because they simply were more interesting and vital than anything on the mainstream charts.
He also is immersed in the scene — he’s out in the clubs and hanging around in studios. The musicians are subjects, but they’re also his friends, neighbors, drinking buddies and dinner guests.
In “New Atlantis,” his allegiance to the music — and to New Orleans itself — resonates with vividly descriptive language that gives readers the sense that they’re right alongside Swenson, a cold bottle of High Life sweating in their hands, trumpet ringing in the air and sweet olive scenting the humid Bywater breeze.
Swenson’s concern for the future of the music culture is as personal as it is journalistic – probably more so – and reading him, you can’t help but care, too.
The book opens with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars’ pre-Katrina recording session — ominous in retrospect — and ends with the same musicians whipsawed and shaken by the oil spill.
Swenson closees the book with a quotation from Dr. John, encouraged by President Obama’s election but guarded from years of disappointment at the government’s treatment of the Gulf Coast: “Either something’s gonna happen, or it ain’t. If it don’t happen, the future is weak. If something happens, it could be wonderful, a renaissance of spirituality this planet has always needed. I don’t have no expectation. I have only belief in what is a possibility.”
It would be hard, after reading Swenson’s chronicles, not to share that belief.