Sunday, March 19, 2006

SXSW: New Orleans in Austin

Yesterday was the final day of SXSW and I spoke with my longtime hero, Harry Shearer. God, I’m going to miss living like this.

It was at a panel entitled, “New Orleans Music After Katrina” which Shearer hosted. (For those of you who have never heard of Harry, that’s his magic. He’s got his hands in everything – does numerous voices for ‘The Simpson’s; has a national radio show on KCRW, “Le Show”; was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live”;a former columnist for The Los Angeles Times, was the bass player in Spinal Tap, has published numerous political satire books, is the voice for TVLand, shows up randomly in movies – the list is endless.) Shearer lives in New Orleans and is also president of Courgette Records.

As any reader of this blog knows, Katrina recovery and the well being of the South is of great concern to me. Combine this topic with the preservation of music and then throw Harry into the mix . . . it was the first panel I put on my schedule, let’s put it that way. I sat front row center.

He assembled an impressive panel that included, left to right in the photo:

Jan Ramsey, Publisher of Offbeat Magazine, a local publication held in high regard by the New Orleans music community:
“Music is the lifeblood of our cultural; it is so important.”
“What about teaching the history of our musical culture in the schools? Why can’t academia get involved? How is the younger generation going to carry these traditions on?”

Scott Aiges, Director of the Louisiana Music Export Coalition (worked formerly with the Mayor’s office as a liaison to the music community):

“The government in New Orleans has a long history of not caring about the music community. When I worked in the Mayor’s Office and cuts needed to be made, my job was the first to go.”
“We finally got some new tax credits going – we had some for the film community and now have something called the Sound Investor Tax Credit, giving tax breaks for people who choose to record in New Orleans. This money goes back to the infrastructure.”

Cyrill Neville, musician with the Neville Brothers:
“New Orleans is the microcosm for what is going on in the country right now.”
“Here in Austin, I am being treated with respect, something I never got in New Orleans. The Austin Music Commission actually does stuff for me. On February 5th here in Austin, they declared it ‘Cyrill Neville Day’ - amazing. Since I’ve been here, I’ve written five tunes about everything that’s happened.”
“New Orleans has it down to a science – cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Harry Shearer: “I remember everyone saying that if you tried to call the Red Cross for help, it was always busy. If you tried to call the Red Cross to donate money, they always picked up.”

Alan Toussaint, incredibly eloquent musician and songwriter (just recorded an album with Elvis Costello and U2):
“I think it’s wonderful that Katrina has been such a booking agent.”
“We operate on a different strut. The people that would turn the city into a Disneyland – it wouldn’t even gel with their spinal cord.”
“In New Orleans, we’ll find something that doesn’t work and do it over and over again.”
“Some of us have to settle for a little less to live in New Orleans.”
“I don’t talk about going back to New Orleans because I’m never leaving. When everyone is gone, I will be the last man that remains.”

Keith Spara, reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune (one of 10 reporters who ‘stayed behind’ specifically to cover Katrina.):
“A day or two after Katrina hit, some of us from the newsroom went to the now-infamous Wal-Mart and we saw a cop walking out with an armload of DVDs. That’s when we knew the rules had changed.”
“Austin could learn a lot from New Orleans in terms of how the music is packaged. You’ve got a live music stage at the airport, you’ve got a slogan, ‘Live Music Capital’ – it’s a very clear that this town cares about music and has invested in the industry.”

Everyone agreed there was one charity directly helping the music community in NO: MusicCares. Give a little if you can.

Finally, I had to approach Harry post-panel and gush a bit. I asked him what he lost in the hurricane. “We only lost a fridge,” he said, sheepishly.

I told him I missed his column in the LA Times Magazine, ‘Man Bites Town’ and he said, “I think you are the only one.” I then asked about his amazing powers of invisible fame:

HC: “I always tell people that if I was a celebrity, I would be stealth like Harry Shearer because he can do whatever he wants and nobody bothers him.”
HS: “Well, I don’t get to do whatever I want.”
HC: “It sure seems like it.”
HS: “But, sure, I know what you are saying.”
HC: “I mean, you can buy your own cereal and deodorant, right?”
HS: “Absolutely. In fact, it reminds of a story. I was talking to Jim Carrey and he was saying how he’d love to just go out and play pool in a bar sometime but he couldn’t. He said, ‘Mind you, I could have a pool table delivered to my house in 45 minutes but it’s not the same.’”
HC: “Yeah, I would think that for a comedian, it’s very important to be out in the world, amongst people, observing and being part of society.”
HS: “Absolutely. For any artist, really, it’s vital.”

So there ya have it. This time tomorrow, I’ll be stuck in a cubicle wondering if I’d imagined it all. Thank heavens for this blog – I’ll need some evidence that SXSW ever happened.

Expect whining and pining with more Austin photos to come.

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