Have you ever opened up a wall in an old house, gone through layers of vintage wallpaper, cracked plaster, looked at the strips of lath beneath? Have you ever snapped a piece of that Victorian lath over your knee and smelled fresh wood? Have you crumbled a piece of old plaster in your hand and looked at the horsehair embedded in it? Did you think of the burly, expert carpenters that put it all together? Did you look out the window and imagine all the materials that made that house arriving on horse-drawn carts? In New Orleans, we, most of us, live in houses built before the 1920s. The past and the present exist side-by-side here, and I don’t think I’d want to live any other way.
The later 1990s, a few weeks after I’d cut my dreads off – you can see the stumps trying to work themselves out. Although it was pretty clear at this point that the band had run its course, cutting my hair was not symbolic of that; pure and simple, times were changing. At the end of 1987, when I’d just moved to NYC, I was intrigued by the sight of Dave Insurgent, the first white guy with dreads I’d ever seen. Ten years later, the style was everywhere. Gutter punks were starting to do it, and I think this is where the idea that dreads are dirty or smelly comes from ( the notion can’t come from Rastafarians, who are usually fastidiously clean ), and it’s ironic, because the way you get your hair to start clumping up is to wash it. You know how if you shampoo your hair but don’t condition it, it has a kind of harsh, horsehair-kind-of-feel and snarls up really easily? Bingo. People started to get the ridiculous idea that we’d had our hair done at a salon, and I was particularly annoyed that several hairdressers were going around saying that they’d done our dreads for us. I hadn’t had a haircut since 1985, and people asked if I had extensions, another sore point. Hippies, too, had dreads now, and being mistaken for a deadhead was, at the time, very, very irritating. I guess the final straw was the question of appropriating black culture. One night, a rasta followed me down the street, enraged, screaming abuse. Fuck it, I said to myself, and I went home and got out the scissors.
” We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run. Because the world’s attic was still untidy. Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.
When we turn on the radio in a New York hotel room and hear Elvis singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, we are seldom struck by the peculiarity of our situation : that a dead man sings. “
Going through old stuff again. On new year’s eve, 1992-93, I saw Screamin’ Jay Hawkins at The Palomino, which was a famous old country-western bar in North Hollywood. He came out of a coffin, had the skull, the whole bit, but what makes it seem like a dream now is that there was hardly anyone there. After the show, I ripped a promo photo off the wall and asked him to sign it for me, which he did, staring at me bug-eyed the whole time. I suspected that it was part of his act, but I didn’t look anything like a regular citizen at that point, so who knows.Another time, a couple of years later, I went to see the Les Paul Trio in NYC. My memory of this also has a dreamlike quality, but because of the sheer sorcery of the performance. I was seated very close to him,so I could see very clearly what his hands were doing, but I could not understand what I was hearing, which was like three guitars playing at once. Afterwards, he was getting a beer and I walked up and asked to shake his hand, and he graciously obliged, but warily, as if I was a two-headed monster. ” My God “, the guitar original / inventor of rock n’ roll recording technique seemed to be thinking. ” Look at this kid. What have I done? ”