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So Long, For Now So Long

RIP, Gatemouth Brown

"By this time everybody's kinda lookin' around. Warren looks over at the bar and there's Gate in the corner of the bar in the fetal position. The bass player sees him at approximately the same time and drops his bass while the rest of the band continues the daaah-na-na-duh-duh, gets off the stage, goes down to the bar and basically pulls Gate to the stage, puts his guitar on him, and then everything was fine."

Johnson says that a year or so ago, after Gate had sought treatment at M.D. Anderson for lung cancer and emphysema, the doctors told him that his beloved pipe was naturally the first thing that would have to go. And he would have to submit to chemotherapy. The proud, stubborn Gate would have none of that. Johnson, who is having health problems of her own, had been in touch with Brown, and says that he had promised to call her when he was in town for treatment. He never called. "I called him in Slidell and said, 'Gate, you promised you would call, but you never did. What happened to you?' And he just cussed like 48 sailors…'I wasn't gonna take that stuff and la-di-da-di-da.' And I said, 'Gate, you can't win that battle, baby.' You have a hell of a time with it with the best of intentions. I know what I'm talking about. He would not even stay in the hospital. They wanted to put him on chemo instantly and the whole nine yards, 'cause he was really long gone. He hadn't smoked cigarettes for years, but he had marijuana in that pipe 24/7. And there were those who said marijuana was good for lung cancer and so forth, but it's six of one a half-dozen of the other. That has not been proven either way."

But if you were gonna give Gate the option of submitting to outside forces or carrying on his own way, you knew which he would choose. He would load up another bowl and head back to Slidell and carry on the best he could. He made a memorable appearance at this year's French Quarter Festival in New Orleans. It was at the Maple Leaf Bar, and the show was supposed to be for New Orleans keyboardist Joe Krown. Upstate New York jazz DJ Dave Moskal was there. Suddenly Gate shuffled in the door -- dressed in his usual Creole cowboy garb and trundling his oxygen tank alongside him as the room exploded in applause. "They disconnect his oxygen and he lays out a couple of tunes with Joe's band -- slumped over his guitar -- and the crowd is just silent as he's playing," Moskal told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Brown's last recording, an eerie solo rendition of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" that appeared earlier this year on Los Super Seven's Heard It on the X, in some ways seemed like an odd choice. At least until you listened to it. Gate had often railed against crude bluesmen like Jefferson -- both their lives and their music. But when you hear it, it's plain that Gate stamped the song with his own sophisticated Texas swing style -- there would be none of Jefferson's odd, some say faulty, rhythm here. And then there's the fact that it's pretty much the ultimate control freak's song. It says, in essence, "I may be dead, but you will remember me and work for me for the rest of your days."

On the song, Gate is playing a National steel guitar, and he once recalled that they were the very first guitars he played in his boyhood in Orange. Which brings up another point: There was something almost mystical in his Katrina-forced evacuation. Gate -- knowing full well the end was near -- chose not to come to Houston, where one of the world's mightiest medical centers awaited. Instead, he chose to return to Orange, the hardscrabble border town where he became a man. As he once sang, "I was born in Louisiana and raised up on the Texas side." The fusion of those two unique states' cultures defined him as both a man and a musician.

Quite simply, Gatemouth Brown embodied the western Gulf Coast, and just as things will never be the same here after Katrina (and Rita too), neither will the music. As Doug Sahm was to the I-10 corridor from Houston to San Antonio, so Gatemouth Brown was to that which heads east as far as New Orleans. We may see their like again, but somehow I doubt it.

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