Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Six Degrees of Coco Robicheaux

Here's the text of my story about Coco Robicheaux in the current OffBeat

Check out Andy J. Forest's video of the song he wrote for Kenny Holladay and Coco

Debbie Davis stood just inside the doorway of Three Muses, singing “When I’m 64.” It was Friday night on Frenchmen Street, the day after Thanksgiving, and she held the festive crowd’s attention. “I saw the ambulance go by but I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. “Someone came into the club and told me Coco Robicheaux had just been taken in an ambulance from the Apple Barrel. His heart had stopped, and they couldn’t revive him.”

Davis told her audience what had happened. A pall came over the room, a sense of sudden, irreversible loss that overwhelmed the normally carefree Frenchmen Street revelers.

Davis said she was surprised at how much the news upset her. “I wasn’t really close, but I got to know him after the flood,” she says. “Those of us who got back first got the gigs, and he was there right away.”

The final chapter in the legend of Coco Robicheaux is the impact his loss has had on the closely-knit downtown community. His garrulous spirit led him to converse with anyone he came into contact with. As a result he leaves a much deeper mark on New Orleans than the music he left behind might suggest.

“He was a social conduit,” says Davis. “Everyone you met knew Coco as well so you always had a starting point for a conversation. He was the Kevin Bacon of Frenchmen Street—Six Degrees of Coco Robicheaux.”

It seemed like almost every time I walked down Frenchmen Street, I saw Coco Robicheaux. He liked to sit on the bench in front of the Apple Barrel, smoking a cigar and talking to passersby, or inside the bar drinking tequila. He would converse with great detail on any subject that might come up, or start in on one of his own shaggy-dog-story life experiences. He presided over a number of eccentric and unique marriage ceremonies, and even performed some hands-on faith healing exercises that his patients swore by.

Photo by Do Verdier.
I guess I must have seen him play at 15 different bars around the Marigny-Bywater area. Like so many New Orleans musicians of legend, he spent a lot more of his creative energy on live performance than studio work. He wanted to see the looks on the faces of the audiences. The last time I spoke to him at length, he talked about how much he enjoyed playing for prison inmates and how he wrote a song called “Sittin’ On Death Row”. Though he worked the clubs, he was the apotheosis of the New Orleans street musician—a man with a guitar and a tale to tell. Like all good storytellers, he was not afraid of adding embellishments, exaggerations or alternative interpretations of the events he described, a habit that led some to question his veracity. But even those who were skeptical of Coco’s rambles through history liked him. His friendliness and loving, giving spirit was irresistible.

Such skepticism has led some to question details of his biography, but like any American legend, the spirit he leaves behind is more important than the details. American legends are frontier characters, explorers on an uncertain journey of discovery, and Coco had that restless mystery about him.

Born Curtis Arceneaux into a Cajun/Choctaw Indian family, he gave out a number of different accounts of his biography over the years, introducing a lot of different elements without truly contradicting himself. He moved around so much, in fact, he might well have been excused for offering some confusing scenarios. Though his family was from Ascension Parish, he says he was born outside of Merced, California while his parents were vacationing. He told of a childhood working in the cane fields with migrant workers from Haiti who taught him to make reed flutes. He spent time in France traveling with his father, who was in the Air Force. He assisted his great grandmother, a hoodoo woman, in her ceremonies, an influence that runs through his music. Cousins Van and Grace Broussard were in the music business, and Curtis followed suit, playing trombone and singing in soul bands. He was playing guitar on Bourbon Street in the early ‘60s and tells of recording an album’s worth of material at Cosimo Matassa’s studio that mysteriously disappeared. After wandering out west as a migrant worker, he landed in San Francisco in time for the Summer of Love, but by ’69 he left the West Coast under something of a cloud, claiming someone had committed “terrible crimes” using his name.

From that point on he identified himself as Coco Robicheaux, a childhood nickname taken from a Louisiana folk tale about naughty children. If you did something bad, a kid’s parents likened you to the wicked Coco Robicheaux, who fell victim to the wolf monster Loup Garou. His name is a legend of its own, then, the identity of everybody’s bad self. It’s unlikely that Dr. John was referencing Curtis Arceneaux when he called out “Coco Robicheaux” during “Walk On Gilded Splinters”, but it’s possible they could have crossed paths before Mac went into involuntary exile from New Orleans himself in the mid-1960s. Calling yourself “Coco Robicheaux” is hoisting a heavy load of karmic baggage any way you look at it, but by the time he returned to New Orleans once and for all in 1992 after another legendary stay in Key West, Coco had completed his transformation into a hoodoo spiritualist. The 1994 classic Spiritland featured dense swamp rundowns like the title track, “Walking With the Spirit” and “St. John’s Eve,” which incorporated field recordings from Do Verdier Bogue Falaye. Frenchmen Street denizens populated the album credits, which included Irene Sage, Lenny McDaniel, Allison Miner, Nancy Buchan, Smokey Greenwell, Hart McNee, Kenny Holladay, Tommy Malone, Sonny Schneidau and Coco’s perennial sidekick Michael Sklar.

A follow-up album, Louisiana Medicine Man, plowed much of the same musical turf with some of the same musicians. The title track got considerable airplay and appeared on the benefit album for the Musicians Clinic, Get You A Healin’. Louisiana Medicine Man got the award for Best Blues Album at the 1998 Best of the Beat Awards. Hoodoo Party (2002) further codified Coco’s swamp mystic identity with tracks such as “Burn My Bones,” “Li’l Black Hen,” “Thrift Store Suit” and the title track. In the last few years, Coco put out several albums with overlapping material. Yeah, U Rite! attempts to expand his style, most successfully with the witty “Ten Commandments of the Blues.” For some reason he decided to remix most of the tracks for another version of the same record, Like I Said, Yeah, U Rite, which dropped a couple of tracks and included what would become the title tune of his final album, the covers-heavy Revelator.

For those who didn’t know him, Coco will probably be best remembered for sacrificing a chicken while on air at WWOZ on the HBO series Treme, and for his astonishingly well-attended second line on December 12. What began as a small crowd assembled in front of the Apple Barrel swelled to a throng of thousands parading down Royal Street through the French Quarter, following a brass band led by James Andrews and Uncle Lionel Batiste. The crowd sang and chanted as they marched, shouting, “Coco. Coco. Coco.”

If you didn’t know Robicheaux, well, there’s no amount of storytelling that can make up the difference. Like New Orleans itself, if you haven’t been there, you’ll never really know what people are talking about.

Coco’s second line was sandwiched in between two musical tributes to Frenchmen Street heroes which featured many of the same musicians. On Sunday night there was a benefit for Kenny Holladay’s family at Check Point Charlie. Monday after the second line revelers gathered at House of Blues for a free concert. Before he played, John Mooney said, “He got both feet in Spiritland now!” Lynn Drury went to the House of Blues just to be there, “out of love for him,” she says. “He was beautiful. He touched a lot of people. When I was coming up he was always a fixture, hanging out in the street, talking in front of the Apple Barrel. He connected everybody. He had time for everybody. I wasn’t invited to play, but when I showed up backstage, they said ‘You’re on next!’ It was a beautiful surprise. I hope we don’t have to wait until someone else dies to feel that spirit again. I learned something from that. I’m going to try to live up to that from now on. I felt I was in touch with something bigger than all of us.”

Anders Osborne was at both tributes, playing with Billy Iuso and with Andy J. Forest, who’d written a new song for Kenny Holladay and Coco:

Sometimes I imagine them both walking down the street
Nowhere left to go, no one left to meet
Blues in other rooms filter down from other dreams
Their spirits are on every corner down here in New Orleans


1 comment:

joivie said...

Wanted to mention that Curtis left SF in 1975. I was born in 1970, and he was there. They moved to a Colorado commune when I was a baby, and then returned to SF after a serious fire. He and my mother worked with the original founders of the Haight Ashbury Free Medical clinic at Rock Medicine during the early 70s.

We have created this Memorial Love Board on Spiritland to celebrate Curtis Arceneaux/Coco Robicheaux. This is a place to honor my father's life and work by connecting and sharing.