Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), "enjoying" a moment with his class.
Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), "enjoying" a moment with his class. Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Davis: "There are so many beautiful moments here."
Janette: "They're just moments. They're not a life."
Within the song-and-dance pageantry, there's an extended discussion about the nature of art going on in Treme. In one corner, there's the default belief that art is a leisure activity which stands in the way of life: where making music, or preparing haute cuisine, or writing novels is seen as an unsustainable, even irresponsible way to go about paying your bills and feeding your kids. In the other, there's the New Orleans sentiment that art happens every day, all the time; that art is life.
It's one of the show's central conflicts: musicians and other cultural artists are constantly hustling to justify their collective existence. But in episode nine, it's especially strong: Antoine and Creighton both have children to raise; Albert has to keep a day job to support his hobby; Janette has too many expenses to pay; Davis has a very evident blindness to the consequences of his hedonism; Annie and Sonny have a fractious relationship apart from performing. The arrival of Janette's parents, the payment negotiation scene with Jon Cleary, the manual labor of Albert's young charge, and the hard-working Texas carpenter only sets this into further relief. And by the end, the struggle to create art seems to have pushed at least one character to a breaking point.
Josh Jackson returns here to write about all this, and the music to boot. Our Treme archives are here; HBO's full playlist is here.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So when we just talked, you said you had thoughts for me about this the big plot development of this episode. (Note: spoiler follows.) Do tell: I think I have too many thoughts about it.
Josh Jackson: Writers David Simon and George Pelecanos strike again, as they did often in The Wire. Creighton Bernette is presumably dead. I had a hunch that he was suffering, but I'm still not sure I was ready for it. His YouTube post in Episode 8 was ominously foreshadowing.
There's some real world parallel to Creighton Bernette. I mentioned that his character has associations with the late Ashley Morris, a blogger from New Orleans. He's also somewhat based on the brilliant music documentarian Stevenson J. Palfi. Palfi was the creator of Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, a film that captures the genius of three New Orleans pianists: Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, and Isidore "Tuts" Washington. Palfi lost his life's work in Katrina, including all the footage of his upcoming film on Toussaint. It was more than he could bear. He left behind a former companion and a young daughter.
Depression was a very real outcome in post-Katrina New Orleans. We're talking about the reconcilation of tragedy and suffering as powerful as the Book of Job for some. Not everyone could handle it.
PJ: Do you know anything about Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the book referenced by Creighton before his passing? It seems a very David Simon meta-meta moment: using a work of literature to illuminate a human condition in the middle of using a work of TV drama to illuminate a human condition.
JJ: I knew my English degree would pay off someday. It's required fiction reading beyond the remarkably astute regional observations and early feminism. Creighton indentifies with Edna Pontellier, the protagonist. Spoiler alert: She drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico at Grand Isle. (If she did that today, she's be covered in oil.) You could hear Creighton building his case for suicide: "The ending of the book is not the end. It is a transition. It's a rejection of disappointment and failure." He also talks about Edna, but really himself, and the taking of one's own life not as an act of moving toward darkness, but spiritual liberation.
PJ: Three big musical gatherings in this episode. There's Davis' party, where the wine, women and weed flow freely. I recognize the real Davis Rogan on piano — who are the other folks? And especially the fellow with the white soul patch who sings "Double-O Soul": I feel like I should recognize him from somewhere ...
JJ: Jimbo Walsh is playing bass. I didn't catch the rest, though I was okay with the version of Irma Thomas' "Wish Someone Would Care." That soul patch belongs to John Magnie of The Subdudes (often spelled "the subdudes"), a very good rock band. He's had it for many years; it's much longer and more grey than I remember. The Subdudes' "All the Time in the World" plays at the end credits.
PJ: There's also a prominent place for Jon Cleary, whose band is playing at Bacchanal when Janette gets rained on. From what I can tell, he's an Englishman who knows his Professor Longhair.
JJ: He's a very good musician. He plays "When You Get Back" with his group, Absolute Monster Gentlemen, in the studio, then "More Hipper" and "Big Chief" at Bacchanal. He's found a way to tap into a very rich New Orleans piano legacy. I regretfully missed his crawfish boil during Jazz Fest.
PJ: And there's Kermit Ruffins again, leading his two weekly gigs at Vaughan's and Bullet's, Batiste in tow. You know, it seems like his naturally friendly personality is really perfect for the show. (Here's a man who sings his answering machine message — I've called the number!)
JJ: Kermit is a real ambassador for New Orleans — and such a homebody. I've heard rumors about an upcoming Treme-related tour by New Orleans musicians in conjunction with the show's second season, but Kermit doesn't appear to be joining it. Then again, you can bring the great music, but you can't export the vibe of Bullet's to Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park anyway ...
PJ: There are other spontaneous music happenings in this episode too: Albert Lambreaux's Mardi Gras Indians burst into song in the middle of weaving their costumes. Now, I remember you telling me about this, but that whole scene where he talks to the police about "Big Chief Tootie" deserves further explanation to those who don't understand the history. I think we get a taste of why the police and Indians are at odds, but that was a landmark event, no?
JJ: Yes, Allison "Tootie" Montana was the chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, and he was widely regarded among the tribal council as the elder Chief of Chiefs. He created some of the most beautiful suits for more than 50 years. An old-time Indian, Montana was dean of them all. He is also the
father uncle of Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, who plays Antoine's girlfriend.
There were problems with police and Indians on St. Joseph's Night in March 2005, pre-Katrina. NOPD responded to calls about Indians with weapons, which was not true, and they created an event. Police forced Indians to remove their feathers. Weeks before that, they had told other Indians to leave the streets and congregate inside on Mardi Gras. So there was a general perception that the police were enforcing permit and assembly laws that run counter to a longstanding tradition of Indians having their way on the streets for these occasions. Culture was under siege, as African–Americans were not allowed to move art through the community as they had for generations.
Tootie Montana spoke at a City Council meeting about the complaints of harassment against Indians. He suffered a heart attack there and died "on the battlefield," as they say. The symbolism did not go unnoticed. I watched his last words on a documentary called Tootie's Last Suit. His final words were, "I want this to stop."
PJ: And there's this whole drama between Sonny and Annie, which results in both of them playing all sorts of different gigs. (Also: yeesh, I sure hope Michiel Huisman's character was drawn up as an intensely insecure, dislikable fellow.) One reaction is that wow, there are a lot of buskers in New Orleans, and another would be: what are these guys playing?
JJ: There are plenty of buskers playing music in public spaces. It's free speech in action. I did like the one guy's sticker — "TIPS is not just a club on Tchoupitoulas." I heard Sonny playing Chris Kenner's "I Like It Like That"; fans of Patti Smith's Horses have heard the tune. Annie and her new frontman take on Randy Newman's "Dixie Flyer," Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"
PJ: On the subject of Sonny and Annie, there's a peculiar scene when Annie walks into saxophonist Aurora Nealand's house. Annie could have used a little bit of emotional support at that point in time, but Aurora isn't really forthcoming with it. See, Annie wanted to drop the music to save the relationship, but Aurora seems to advise her to drop the relationship to save the music: "f—g is f—g, but music, that's personal."
JJ: I would say that the f-word there connoted more body than mind in this instance, whereas music itself is a function of some higher human intelligence that points to something beyond survival.
PJ: Ok, let's finish with some recorded music. I heard Davis playing Smiley Lewis, a little of what I think is Sonny Rollins' "Blue 7" behind Albert Lambreaux, and I think that's the first time I've heard Weezy F. Baby's name called out in the background — aka Lil' Wayne, who in spring 2006 was transitioning from superstar to megastar — but that's about all I recognized. What else was there?
JJ: I heard O.V. Wright singing "I'd Rather Be Blind, Crippled, and Crazy" on the jukebox at Liuzza's. Best frosted mugs for a papal libation, whether you're in Rome or Avignon.
And we can't leave out the calliope on the Steamboat Natchez! You can hear it twice a day most weekdays. We heard the steam whistles blowing Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" and "Ain't She Sweet." In fact, we started and ended this episode on the waterfront.
We've seen many beautiful moments in the first eight shows, but the rain came in this one. I'm ready for a finale that's really pretty: injuns at night, perhaps?