Lip Service

For much of the '90s, rock and roll scenesters -- from Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson to Alex Chilton and Peter Buck -- have moved to New Orleans, drawn as much by the city's Flowers of Evil darkness and spirit of perpetual carnival as by its musical heritage.

It's interesting, then, that Cowboy Mouth, the finest of the city's tide of successful rock bands -- which include Better Than Ezra and Dead Eye Dick -- has built a devoted following through a decidedly non-Dionysian "celebration of life." As evidenced by their storm trooping concerts or by Are You with Me?, their inaugural release for MCA, Cowboy Mouth blasts out a literate, primal-screaming, pop-music-as-the-new-Chautauqua brand of Louisiana rock and roll -- and the underlying premise is that life is a voyage best navigated with passion and abandon, but tempered by a responsibility to oneself and to fellow humans.

It's a message that's spreading across U.S. radio on the strength of "Jenny Says," the CD's hit single, which is memorable for a chorus which exhorts, "Let it go, let it go, let it go / When the world is coming down on me / I let it go!" While the song, at its most basic level, is a remembrance of women past penned by drummer and frontman Fred LeBlanc, it says just as much about Cowboy Mouth's view of the world as a fascinating, arduous, wonderful and terrible place.

"The first night we broke up," LeBlanc says of his relationship with the titular Jenny, whose name is peppered throughout his songbook, "I took off all my clothes and drove down the interstate at 110 miles per hour screaming my guts out. Then, when I actually made it home, I taped paper all over my apartment walls and wrote 'let it go' as big as I fuckin' could, over and over. And the song kinda came to me. It occurred to me later that 'let it go' applies to a variety of life's circumstances."

As a veteran of numerous bands and years as a hard-boozing, disenfranchised New Orleans punk, LeBlanc had an epiphany the morning he woke up and found bile-infused vomit -- the fruit of a long night of heavy drink -- coating a pile of neatly folded laundry he'd spent the previous day washing.

"Something clicked in my head," LeBlanc says of that dawn, "and I thought, 'I'm really tired of doing this to myself, and I don't deserve this.' I've drunk some since then -- this is the city of Mardi Gras, after all -- but I went through my period where I wanted to die young, and I'm over it. This may not be in vogue to say, but I want to live a long, healthy, full life."

Gradually, LeBlanc evolved a philosophy that is, in many ways, expressed by the "let it go" litany of "Jenny Says." He thought back, for instance, to watching a Sunday morning television show that emanated from one of New Orleans's old black Baptist churches.

"It came on right before Bugs Bunny," LeBlanc explains, "and I thought, 'Man, these people rock.' Because they were celebrating. They took all their problems and frustrations -- and they were pretty harsh -- and worked 'em out in a constructive, energetic and passionate manner to where they could go face the week again totally cleansed."

He pauses. "What I learned was that life's never going to be easy, but you can make it work for you if you approach it with an attitude of making sure that whatever it is inside of you that's bringing you down, just get it out of your system. And there are a lot of ways to do that -- some better than others, obviously -- but I choose to do it with Louisiana rock and roll."

Hence the exorcism of "Jenny Says," which surfaced back when LeBlanc was in his final days as a member of New Orleans's wildly popular drunk-rock act, Dash Rip Rock. Like its composer, the tune has aged gracefully since LeBlanc quit Dash in the late '80s and formed Cowboy Mouth with Paul Sanchez and John Thomas Griffith.

Those two musicians, both guitar players, had sterling musical pedigrees: Sanchez had played with LeBlanc in the Backbeats, a synth-pop outfit, and later had established an enviable solo reputation as a folk-rocker, while Griffith had been a member of Red Rockers, New Orleans's prototypic new wave band, whose "China" was an MTV hit in the early '80s.

With original bassist Steve Walters, Cowboy Mouth recorded three increasingly successful indie releases for the Monkey Hill label: It Means Escape, Word of Mouth and Mouthing off Live. When Walters left, he was replaced by Rob Savoy, founder of Lafayette's zydeco/rock Bluerunners. With four lead vocalist/songwriters and a live show focusing on LeBlanc's front-and-center drum kit, the band began to draw exponentially rippling crowds as they passed through the South's fraternity circuit.

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Rick Koster