Underwater Dance Club, For Reals
When George Bush claimed something to the effect of "there was no way we could have known that the levees would break," my first thought was to compile a mixtape for our impotent leader of the literally hundreds of songs detailing New Orleans's eventual watery demise in just that manner -- my two personal favorites being "The Big One's Coming" and "Underwater Dance Club" by one-man-band/inventor Quintron and his puppeteer wife, Miss Pussycat (a.k.a. Panacea). While so many New Orleans musicians attain success by bowing to the tourism board and reading from jazz, blues and funk blueprints, no one's sound truly epitomizes the wild personality of modern-day N.O. like Quintron and Miss P.
With and without his best girl, Quintron has toured the world for 14 years -- including once with the White Stripes, and once with the Cramps -- and released at least eight albums, most notably on Chicago's famous Skin Graft label. The couple's New Orleans performances on intense holidays like Lundi Gras and Halloween can conjure up crowds that would make Aaron Neville say "Damn." Shows begin with lovingly handcrafted musical puppet shows that could rock an acid test as hard as a kindergarten classroom. Then, accompanied by the increasingly up-front yelping of Miss P, Quintron's wa-wa organ funk (sorry to use the word funk; it's not my fault it's been so misused) channels the stomping energy of Jerry Lee Lewis, with the addition of feedback and four-to-the-floor techno breakdowns executed on a light-activated synthesizer Quintron invented, called the Drum Buddy (he was "banned" from Clear Channel venues for setting it afire on stage). And either despite or because of their musical eccentricity, the couple already exists in New Orleans's canon of true legends. It's a morbid way to measure popularity, but in regards to N.O., if they ever died (more on that later), their second-line funeral would be crazy mad miles deep.
The couple's other great talent has been hosting huge concerts at their underground Ninth Ward speakeasy, the Spellcaster Lodge, which for 14 years has prided itself on throwing together esoteric bills of international one-man bands and transvestite rappers and Peaches and Jon Spencer and Calvin Johnston and 500 of your closest friends, all looking like they've been rained on. It's the same nightspot the duo prophesied would one day be flooded, in their aforementioned "Underwater Dance Club."
One month after Katrina fucked up New Orleans, on St. Claude Avenue -- a street considered sketchy even before it was strewn with dead city buses and the guts of every house for miles -- Quintron emerges from the Spellcaster's dark belly, where he's spent days demolishing the black, mold-infested walls, trying to do what he can to keep his home from being condemned. The upstairs living area and puppetry studio survived, but the house's front gables were blown down the street. The couple escaped with all their touring equipment (including the organ given to Quintron by Miss Antoinette K-Doe, widow of famous New Orleans R&B singer Ernie "Mr. Mother-in-Law" K-Doe), but Quintron's 1937 Hammond B3 now sits outside on St. Claude with the rest of the junk. The couple had no insurance, but Quintron is looking on the bright side. "No matter how much this costs us to fix," he says, "it still won't be as much as I would have given those insurance fuckers the last 14 years. So I win."
Sitting atop the Spellcaster's cherry-red deck amid pots full of cacti and scattered clawfoot bathtubs, Quintron recalls the Mad Max vibe that prevailed in the city even two weeks after Katrina. The once-famed view -- an all-encompassing vista of New Orleans's most notorious and enigmatic poor neighborhood -- is today a panorama of mud-coated cars and stranded motorboats. "People were driving city buses around St. Claude like bumper cars," he recalls. "The mechanics across the street" -- with their strange hand-painted "No Cat Selling" sign out front -- "stayed open the whole time, fixing military cars on credit. And the whole neighborhood was shopping at Dora's," Quintron says with a smirk, referring to the thoroughly looted convenience store next door. (Someone did break into the Spellcaster, but just for liquor, which Quintron, like any New Orleanian, empathizes with and forgives.)
But a most harrowing event occurred after New Orleans's true chaos had ended and the Spellcaster's reconstruction had begun. After they'd spent, as Quintron puts it, "a long day dressing up like movie stars and taking pictures with the EMTs among the wreckage," the couple's generator was humming along on their back porch as they lay down for a nap. At some point Miss Pussycat got thirsty and stood up to get a glass of water. "And I heard her fall right down. But I remember not really realizing that this was something I should worry about," chuckles Quintron. "Then I stood up too and bam, fell right down. And that didn't seem wrong either; I just thought, 'Ah, lying down, cold floor, feels good."
"Until somehow I realized, 'Oh, my God, it's the generator!' " Panacea recalls via phone from her parents' house in Oklahoma. "I couldn't move, though. I tried to wake Quintron, but his face was green and his eyes were rolled back in his head." Miss P somehow dragged her remarkably tall husband out onto the deck, where they lay until paramedics arrived with oxygen tanks. They almost died at a time when the city couldn't have even had a proper procession.
And in the midst of all this, the couple's new record, Swamp Tech (4 Life), comes out on Tiger Beat 6 records. The album, with accompanying Electric Swamp puppet DVD, continues Quintron's evolution from multi-limbed noisemaker to writer of instrumental ditties ("Tea Time") and rocking dance songs with Southern themes, such as "Shoplifter," about stealing "alligator shirts and catfish shoes" from a shop on since-unfortunate Canal Street. Miss Pussycat wigs out confidently on "Fly Like a Rat," and the fast and happy "Love Is Like a Blob." Though the organ sound on Swamp Tech is heavier and dirtier than on their clean, tight previous record, Are You Ready for an Organ Solo?, the new disc could have used another layer of the dynamic noise that makes their live shows so rich and wild. But Quintron's soul-shout vocals (in which he here proclaims himself "a shoplifter," "a badass," "a French Quarter faggot," "the God of thunder" and "the dream captain") finally take command for a solid rock record that features no guitars, and an electronic album that never sounds synthetic.
Q and Miss P are determined to resurrect the Spellcaster, and New Orleans. While the body count of New Orleans bands is still being compiled, the city can breathe easy knowing that one-man bands don't break up. And whether all their former "Lodge members" remain in L.A. and New York or not, Quintron and Miss Pussycat will celebrate the release of Swamp Tech and Electric Swamp with a free concert at One Eyed Jack's, 615 Toulouse in the French Quarter, on Monday, October 25. If anything will bring all New Orleans's displaced bohemians back home...
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