It’s been 15 years since New Orleans was left for dead after Hurricane Katrina. Officials from the lowest to the highest level of government looted what was left of the city while its population was being shipped all over the United States. Social media as we know it today did not exist; there was no way for violently separated families to find information about each other, no means to return unless you had money. It was so bad that if you didn’t live through it yourself you probably can’t even believe what happened.
People talk of how the city remade itself, but the truth is that the city, the state, the federal government and the law enforcement establishment completely botched the recovery. Whatever happened to save New Orleans took place on an individual basis. It was thousands of acts of will by people who stood up and played the greatest role of their lives. Of course, there was an unusually large number of artists leading the way, because New Orleans is a city where most art thrives in public and is not commodified.
One of the artists whose transformation helped the city refresh its soul was Paul Sanchez.
Before Katrina, Sanchez was an overshadowed sidekick to the voluble front man Fred LeBlanc in Cowboy Mouth. Sanchez likened his time in that band to being in a dysfunctional family. When he lost everything he owned in the flood that followed Katrina, Sanchez threw caution to the wind and quit the Mouth.
Sanchez drew the Death card from the Tarot deck. But as any street corner card reader will tell you, the Death card is also about rebirth, about transformation, and Sanchez rose from its ashes like a phoenix. He recorded a remarkable series of albums. He wrote the score to a musical adaption of the book Nine Lives and assembled a who’s who of New Orleans musicians to perform it and record it as an album. He put together the Rolling Road Show, a kind of musician’s self-help organization that included dozens of talented local players and became a staple at Jazz Fest. He took part along with Jim McCormick, Alex McMurray and the late Spencer Bohren in the wonderful songwriting project The Write Brothers, whose debut album was a classic piece of New Orleans music.
I have gotten used to getting a call from Sanchez saying that he was readying his latest album. His post Katrina workload—Exit To Mystery Street, Farewell To Storyville, Stew called New Orleans, Red Beans And Ricely Yours, Bridging The Gap, Nine Lives, Everything That Ends Begins Again, heart Renovations, Life Is A Ride, One More Trip Around The Sun—has been astonishing. So you can imagine my surprise when he called to inform me that he was getting ready to release his last album, I’m a Song, I’m a Story, I’m a Ghost. When pressed, he admitted that he was retiring.
This is your last album?
Well, you know there are no such things as albums anymore. Albums collect music on a disc and in my generation albums as art really became something. The Beatles really turned it into art. CDs came along and the album concept survived but I don’t think the additional music added anything. I think there was something perfect about those Beatles albums being 35 minutes long. You’d get together with friends, crack the record open, and then in the pause you took to turn the record over you could talk about side one before you listened to side two. It was a very communal thing.
But now I just feel done. I feel like the way I used to do things is over. Then I got really sick, and I definitely couldn’t do anything at that point. It was time for me to figure out what was next. I haven’t written since I finished this album. Normally I would write several songs a week but I’ve come to a stop. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve considered just writing stories for a while. I did a little remembrance of Dr. John when he died and Tom Piazza contacted me and suggested I should do some writing.
What happened to you?
I had some shoulder pain last year. I thought I’d pulled a muscle. I kept driving through the summer and the muscle kept getting worse. I had to drive right-handed because the pain was so bad. It got so bad I could hardly play. The whole time I was also developing a vocal problem, my voice wasn’t functioning properly, and that was really bizarre. I was fine singing but I couldn’t speak. When I got home I had to cancel my gigs, I was in such pain, I couldn’t even lay down, I had to sleep in a chair with my chin on my chest. I couldn’t speak; I couldn’t play the guitar so I felt the universe was speaking loud and clear. Then I got an abscessed tooth infection that was so severe I couldn’t open my mouth. My dentist put me on antibiotics and three days later I woke up with my neck swollen out to here and I was unable to breathe. I went to the emergency room where they said I had something called Ludwig Angina, a rare condition where the abscess in your tooth goes to your sinus cavity, then your heart, and it kills you. They had to do emergency surgery.
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