Tuesday I am in an Italianate parlour in the Garden District of New Orleans, drinking a glass of white wine and wondering about Brooke Shields’ mother, and why she allowed her then 10-year-old daughter to be photographed wearing nothing but heavy make-up and body oil. The resulting image of Shields ended up in a Playboy publication and was later rephotographed by the artist Richard Prince, who titled his appropriation of the glistening young Shields “Spiritual America.”
The parlour, where I am about to give a reading, is in the Columns Hotel, where Pretty Baby (1978), starring Shields as a child prostitute, was filmed. This seems fateful, given that the long opening chapter of my new novel, The Flamethrowers, is also called “Spiritual America.” I named it thinking of Prince, whose blithe attitude is important to understanding the art world of the late-1970s. I also simply liked the sound of those two words placed together. What is “spiritual America”? I was not thinking of child prostitutes, and definitely not of child pornography, but maybe of soft-core, in the way that dwelling on the 1970s can lead the mind to that realm.
Wednesday I am downtown, being taken to dinner by my New Orleans host, Zachary Lazar, author of, among other things, the darkly brilliant novel Sway. While Zach goes to order our food, I stay at the table and absorb the palpable race guilt in the room. A white woman is loudly declaring her ethics as a property owner and landlord. We’re in a recently hipsterised part of the ninth ward called the Bywater, which, I’ve been told, is occupied by only 14 per cent of its pre-Katrina inhabitants (one hears a lot of statistics in New Orleans; this itself a symptom, perhaps, of the endless copmlexities of race and gentrification). The incoming population are primarily white, the outgoing primarily black. New Orleans, like the rest of the south, is a place where race is front and centre, and always has been. Zach has just spent a week at Angola prison, the notorious maximum security state penitentiary in Louisiana, where almost 80 per cent of the inmates are black (the state percentage is 30 per cent).
Later that night I’m waiting to get patted down for entry to a nightclub called Celebration, in the seventh ward. In front of me is a woman two metres tall, with an enormous blond afro. Is she actually a man? No, a gorgeous woman, all softness and curves. Zach, his wife Sarah, and I are the only white people. We hang by the bar, order drinks and take in the scene: highly skilled dancers getting down to a big band jazz ensemble called To Be Continued, or TBC, which has a hip-hop element. They do a cover of rapper Trinidad James’s “All Gold Everything.”
“Gold all in my watch,” everyone sings, pointing at their watches, or the place where one would go. People are joyous, rocking, wearing amazing outfits, like the two handsome guys in lunar, whitest-white tennis shoes, an older woman in two pairs of sunglasses. The band is incredible. As Zach explains, being in a marching band is the highest circle of adolescent cool in New Orleans, and the best musicians end up in groups like TBC, whose members were all left homeless and scattered around the country after Katrina, but have since rebounded.
One band member keeps trying to prop up a huge photograph of a young man smiling. It’s obviously a photo of someone who died, and given how young he is, one has the sense it was a tragic death. The photo falls on the floor. A trombonist picks it up, tries to wedge it next to a speaker. It falls on the floor again. Is picked up, re-wedged ...
TBC is one of the bands that play in the second-line parades on Sundays, a local tradition that Zach tells me all about, how fabulous it is, how cool and uniquely New Orleans. I will miss it because I’m leaving for New York on Friday, for the next leg of my book tour.
First up in NYC is an Artforum dinner on the occasion of the Frieze art fair. I bring my friend Sarah Nicole Prickett, a contributing editor at The New Inquiry and a great writer. I actually met her by sending her a fan letter. She’s dating Jesse Barron, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, who, a few months earlier, had sent me a fan letter, and in some indirect way, they partly connected through me. Or at least we all revel in this idea, as we drink bad wine late that night at a pro-Franco Spanish bar on Thirteenth Street, where someone is incessantly pounding and I think, irritated, what the hell, construction? But no, they are pounding meat, tenderising it in, I guess, the good old Falangist method: with a cleaver. I go back to the hotel I’ve been booked into by the Frieze organisers – a high-rise temple of bachelor-pad modernism – and find my room thrumming like I’m inside the vascular system of a huge beast. The room vibrates with club music until 5am.
The next day, management sends up a bottle of prosecco in apology but I’ve already decided this is not a hotel but a giant honeycomb of vomit, sex and death, with a thin varnish of fake glamour over it. Still, if someone else is paying, I will probably stay there again.
On Monday I’m speaking at Moma’s PS1, on women, prison and race. I have the prosecco in my bag to hand to my hosts, the smart and engaged editors of Triple Canopy magazine. The talk, which is organised around 10 images, seems to go OK. When I get to the final photo, of a woman named Shelly Frey, who was gunned down by a security guard in a Walmart parking lot in Houston, Texas, I almost cry as I explain that she had moved with her two small children to Houston from New Orleans after losing everything in Katrina. Later, I get an email from Zach. He hadn’t been able to see TBC at the Mother's day second-line parade on May 12, but that turns out to be a good thing, because as the band were playing, someone shot into the crowd, injuring 19 people.
I think about the sweet sunshiny face of the young man in the huge photo that TBC kept propping up while they played. It turns out he was murdered on Mother's day three years ago. He was a beloved saxophone player and a role model in his community. Was the new shooting related? I have no idea. None of TBC’s musicians were hit but expensive instruments were damaged, including a tuba, trombone and trumpet. I think about my happiness that night while TBC were playing at Celebration and come to no revelation of any kind, except that you can’t understand anything about a city by going there for three days. But you can have an experience. I’m lucky I got to see TBC, who seemed to me a form of living art, real American jazz improvisation. And improvising is what its members have had to do, over and over. On May 19 they played the second-line parade with borrowed and duct-taped instruments.