New Orleans is the only city in America specifically associated with drunkenness. It is the New Year's Eve of cities, a nonstop, year-round, 24/7 saturnalia. Whiskey is available at gas stations, and the bars never close. Mardi Gras is only an intensification of the day-to-day life of the City That Care (read: sobriety) Forgot.
It's also a city with more than its share of problems. It's dirt poor. Its streets are even more potholed than Houston's. Its municipal government is famously Byzantine and notoriously corrupt. And it boldly embraces the philosophy behind H. Rap Brown's semifamous quote: Violence is as American as apple pie.
But what circuses they have!
For all but the past five years of his life, singer/songwriter/guitarist Tommy Malone was a willing participant under that seething big top, just another tightrope act in a city with no safety net. In 1987 he helped form the subdudes, a pioneeringly free band that jammed (as opposed to a jam band), an Americana act before such a genre existed. For all but the last six months that the subdudes plied their trade, Malone anesthetized himself in the grand Big Easy manner. Then one day five years ago -- with no assist from AA or other treatment program -- he screwed the cap on the 90 proof for good. Malone daubed his head with the ashes of a Lent that he hopes will last through the rest of his days.
The subdudes were not long for the world with a sober Malone. When asked if his new lease on life was the kiss of death for his longtime band, which lasted less than a year after his rebirth, Malone answers: "Yeah, perhaps. Sobriety has a way of making certain things clear. Certain things that you might have avoided before become unavoidable when you're sober."
Malone's new album, Soul Heavy, explores those concealed truths in poetic detail. The disc's opener, "Fat Tuesday," is a first in the annals of Mardi Gras song, both in content and form. It's melancholy. The protagonist is sober, perhaps even a little sad at saying good-bye to all that, but resolute that he is in the right. The tune is also more than a shade toward Gothic, such as when Malone sings: "You call me crazy and it's probably true / at least you call me, now here's a clue / what's black and white and red all over / a newspaper story about a murdered lover."
While Malone is quick to dismiss those dark lines as nothing more than his subconscious in action, he is ready to delve further into the theme of a teetotaler's Fat Tuesday. "Mardi Gras is just a celebration of decadence," he says. "If you don't want to participate in it anymore, at least in that way, it becomes this really bizarre thing to observe. I used to be in it. I used to be one of those people. This is my observation -- after I got clean -- of what it looked like from the other side."
The acoustic guitar-based song segues out into a rollicking Professor Longhair piano line, as if to say, "This city doesn't give a damn about you and your precious sobriety, Tommy Malone. We're gonna go about things the way we always have."
Indeed, one wonders, as Malone later sings, "How fat can a Tuesday get?"
Some years back the wire services ran a story about the dread with which sober New Orleanians saw Halloween approach. Followed by Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve and the six or so weeks of Carnival, Halloween heralded the winter months when the pleasures of the flesh were at their most enticing. Did Malone find this to be true?
"There's no particular season in this city. It's just in general nonstop debauchery," Malone says. "It's always there. But I've managed to do well. I don't really belong to any kind of program or anything. Never did, never did really feel like I wanted to go there. I have a lot of friends who are clean who I stay in close contact with, and really I just immersed myself in music more. I really wanted to get into music once I mysteriously and magically had more time and energy on my hands."
In a gentler way, Soul Heavy calls to mind Stevie Ray Vaughan's In Step, sans the 12-step jargon and beefy guitar solos. While Malone does offer up counsel, as on "Hold On," when he sings, "Listen to the faint little voices / Going on inside your mind / Askin' you to rearrange yourself / Take the horse by the reins," it is in his own words, not those found in AA's Blue Book.
"It's really tough to talk to people" about sobriety, he says. "You don't want to get in people's face and preach about it. But more often than not people don't understand it; they get weirded out by it. You gotta dance around the issues and stay in your own little world, but there's a lot of fun on this side, too."
For many who rediscover sobriety, work becomes a new obsession. The mind, no longer idle, takes leave of the devil's workshop, and as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were wont to observe, a guilt-racked conscience can be expiated by toil of the humblest sort. Couple these urges with the newfound energy that clean living affords, and one often sees from the newly clean a redoubled dedication to the work ethic.
Malone's new grounding in industry is metaphorically depicted on the cover of Soul Heavy. It's a simple, stark image, an anvil set against a white backdrop. "I woke one morning with a damn anvil in my brain," he says. "I already had the title in my head -- the whole 'heavy' trip. I had a lot of recollections of living in the country and my dad having one of those big ol' suckers sitting there in the shed. I walked by that anvil about 8,000 times when I was a kid. Honestly, I just liked the image of it. An anvil's got soul. You gotta be a working-class man to fuck around with an anvil. If you can use an anvil, you're a bad motherfucker."
Malone's been hard at that anvil these past four years. After taking leave of Tiny Town, the roots-rock supergroup he co-fronted with Nashville-based Pat McLaughlin, Malone worked "a lot of shit jobs," he says. "I did a lot of house painting. I had a job working at the wax museum building toilet stalls."
He also started reinventing himself as a solo act. Free of a band's constraints, Malone's imagistic poetry has taken wing. It hovers just this side of the purely symbolic, offering up plenty of clues as to its ultimate meaning. Two of his songwriting heroes are Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, and like them, Malone knows that just the right amount of ambiguity makes all the difference.
"If you're at least transferring some emotion that somebody can grab," he says, "to me that's enough. If a line gets interpreted a million different ways, to me, that's the beauty of it."
But often Malone's lines are as clear as white rum, as when he sings on "Fat Tuesday": "Friends are calling 'cause they're falling down / I've joined the circus but I ain't no clown." He's too busy, too hard at work to be distracted by the frolics that once smothered him. It's a lesson learned by one New Orleanian, and now he longs eagerly for that command, that consulship, he so long delayed. Meanwhile, for the rest of New Orleans, the circus continues, and for all too many, their dreams are subsumed under those the city so obligingly furnishes all year round.