Too many mornings gonna wake up soon and
Oh Lord, eat my breakfast by the light of the moon
Oh Lord, by the light of the moon
If you see my mama tell her this for me
Oh I got a mighty long time, Lord, cause I'll never go free
Oh Lord, I'll never be free. -- "Angola Bound," by Charles and Aaron Neville
Charles Neville knew something wasn't right the night he got busted big-time. It was 1964. His "friend," who was in fact working with the police to escape other charges, was acting funny. While stopped at a toll booth on the Mississippi River Bridge from New Orleans to its suburb of Algiers, all hell broke loose. Shotgun-toting plainclothes policemen erupted from the car behind them, eventually finding the two joints that Neville had concealed down the back of his shirt.
The hell that was so fast to erupt would last for three long years. Charles Neville -- saxophone player, thief and small-time doper -- was headed to Angola prison. This was the sum of all fears for all Louisiana youngsters, especially African-Americans. "In the minds of black men growing up in New Orleans, the specter of Angola was always there," related Cyril Neville in The Brothers. "Angola was the threat, the nightmare, the worst-case scenario -- the big, bad, dark state penitentiary stuck out there in north central Louisiana, where racism ran wild and convicts lost their minds, and guards, just for the hell of it, tortured and killed."
"You could get there without even trying," notes Aaron Neville in a phone interview from his New Orleans home. "If they wanted to put you there, they could think of something. 'Vagrancy' was one way "
Angola is a huge place, almost a prison without bars. Legend has it that prisoners who escaped from the 2,000-acre central compound would take it on the lam for weeks at a time, only to be run down still within Angola's 18,000-acre site in a bend of the Mississippi River. Some 250 homes and 750 free people live on Angola, in addition to the 5,000-plus inmates. The prison has its own post office, parks, community center and grocery store.
Angola was also a sexual war zone. Predatory inmates had two types of "girlfriends" to chose from: "real girls" and "gal boys." "Real girls" were transvestite homosexuals, whether inside or outside of prison. "Gal boys" were straight men either raped or duped into becoming submissive lovers. Aaron read to this writer an unbearably detailed passage from current Angola inmate Wilbert Rideau's prison bio concerning a straight man's thoughts as he -- to put it delicately -- underwent the transformation from heterosexual male to "gal boy." Hearing Aaron's angelic voice read such hellish prose put one in mind of a death march played on a harp.
But sex was but one minefield of many for the inmates. Drugs and gambling could get one killed just as fast, as could coming within six feet of a guard, as could, well, just about anything. But life for the Neville brothers on the outside was not much safer. All had good friends murdered, some by the police, some by criminals, some by Klansman types who escaped justice. All save Art, whose troubles came later in life, were bound up enough into hustling and the dope game to win themselves hard time, though only Charles was sent to Angola. In a way their free lives resembled those that they lived in prison, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that music saved all of their lives.
Charles's example is typical of the Neville brothers' experience. On the inside he stayed clean of the heroin that made his life a prison on the outside. But once free of Angola, he struggled another two decades to get clean. Aaron's, Cyril's and Art's stories are similar, though Art never did time and was the last to fall prey to addiction -- not to smack but to crack. It was their uncle George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry that brought them all together (as the Wild Tchoupitoulas), but only after he had licked his own heroin addiction and attendant scrapes with the law. Both inside and out, however, all of them stayed more or less true to their muse, who bore them through to freedom from both drugs and prisons.
Charles puts it simply when he remembers in The Brothers how vital music was to his survival: "Music protected me and saved my sanity. Without music, I'm not sure I would have gotten through Angola. Music made the difference." Aaron, also an ex-con, has said similar things. When people tell him that his voice has brought them through rough patches in their lives, the devout Aaron tells them that it has done much the same for him by reminding him that God put him on this earth to sing.
There were those in Angola, as there are those in life, who didn't have that or any other difference-maker in their lives. Charles met one such man at dinner, an inmate he called Coca-Cola Black. The saxophonist was sharing his dreams with him, telling him about how wonderful music made him feel and how he couldn't wait to get out and play some more. "I hear you, bro," Charles recollects the immense Coca-Cola replying. "I get that same feeling when I stick a knife in some dude's heart and watch the life leave his eyes. Longer it takes, the more I like it." Later, Charles saw this same man slit another inmate's throat in a gambling dispute over two pennies' worth of Angola scrip.
"Yeah, that dude needed to be in," Charles laughs in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut.
But there is a long roll call of music greats who have left Angola and distinguished themselves in New Orleans and beyond. Drummer Frank Black and pianist James Booker are ex-Angolites who are now remembered as two of the finest musicians in Crescent City history. Leadbelly came and, so the story goes, went after his song moved the governor to pardon him. Dr. John passed through, as did unique stream-of-consciousness country bluesman Robert Pete Williams. On November 17 this year the Nevilles will attend a music symposium at the prison to discuss its rich history.
It won't be the first time the brothers have revisited Angola since Charles's 1967 release. Aaron Neville, who runs a youth community center in uptown New Orleans, has taken at-risk teenagers there on several "Scared Straight" trips, one of which he recalls as one of the most heartbreaking days of his life. "One time I was up there and this kid came up to me and said, 'Mr. Neville, do you remember me?' I said no. He says, 'You brought me up here a while back. I guess I didn't pay attention, 'cause they gave me 50 years.' "
Perhaps music can keep that kid going as it did Charles. Perhaps it will help him to become a better man, one that can live free and be productive. After all, it worked for the Neville brothers.
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