Forty Three: The Dog Breath Variations March 9, 2014Posted by The Typist in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Tags: 365, Cafe Borrega, Siembra Azul
If I have to explain how one gets from the hubcaps in the bathroom of Cafe Borrega to lying in bed listening to Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat you are likely to get lost along the way. There is no map.
The place is packed and the bartender is slammed. They’ve been getting some good press but just lost a chef. “Come back in a few weeks, then Yelp us,” one server tells me, after another suggests a kind review. “Only people who want to complain ever post on Yelp.” It takes a while to get served at the bar, until a regular hails Hugo. The couple next to me are dressed to go out: she’s in a nice dress and he’s wearing a British tan sports coat. Yuppies, you discover, can be people, too. I watch Hugo hand mashing the limes for the margaritas. There is a twenty minute wait for margaritas.
Pachuco: a Mexican-American subculture that emerged in West Texas and migrated to Los Angeles. Zoot suiters. Gangsters. Also a style of doo-wop music that emerged from this culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I order a Hornitos Reposado, iced, and a Bohemia. I have a sentimental attachment to Bohemia. It was the first beer my father ever ordered for me. We were on a trip to Monterrey, Mexico to visit the mountains where the flyways of the eastern monarch butterfly converge.
I walk into the Apple Barrel
& there you are, Venus de Miller
perched on your bar stool pedestal.
The barmaid asks me what I want
but I’m not paying any attention to her
& anyway I’ve left my stomach behind
somewhere in the mountains outside Monterrey
filled with a million Monarch butterflies.
— “Venus de Miller”, Poems Before Breakfast
“Cucuroo carucha (Chevy ’39)
Going to El Monte Legion Stadium
Pick up on my weesa (she is so divine)
Helps me stealing hub caps
Wasted all the time”
— “Dog Breath, In the Year of the Plague” – Frank Zappa
No Hornitos, Hugo tells me. Would you like to order something else? I hesitate. I’m not a tequila connoisseur; I just know I like it. Another sentimental attachment, the drink of Coco Robicheaux. We trade Coco stories. “May I suggest something?” Of course. Out comes a bottle of Siembra Azul. It is a wonderful tequila, with a strange flavor that somehow makes me think of a peyote button, something earthy with a dusty fruitiness. (Blue agave is not a cactus, or related to peyote. Agave is a cousin to aloe). I give Hugo a twenty for my drinks, and leave him the five in change as a tip. Boisterously friendly, he tells me the next one is on him after an appreciate sigh on my first sip and a compliment on his selection. There is the immediate male bond of one guy inducting another into his passion. He leaves the bottle on the bar.
It is not just the Chevrolet hub caps (suggesting a particular fondness for that make) but one is a work of art, a Louisiana license plate dated 1956 with the outline of a pelican in the center, beneath an old, unidentifiable but clearly 1950s hood ornament. “Primer mi carucha (Chevy ’39)…” The pachuco rhythms and voices of the first part of Zappa’s delirious concerto grosso starts to hum itself in my head.
Outside the bathroom Alex McMurray and Paul Sanchez are trading licks and lead vocals. This is as far as you can get from Uncle Meat but not so far removed from pachuco. There are brilliant acoustic guitar moments in the third movement (if I may call it that, and I will), “The Dog Breath Variations.” The pairing of New Orleans’ two premier folk rockers are why we are here. The two rows of tequila and the smells coming from the kitchen are incidental. Cafe Borrega is very much a Three Muses sort of place, set up as a restaurant with music. We spend half our time there leaning on the railing between the stage and the pick up window, trying to stay out of the way of the servers. Whatever the waitress says about the fill chef, the smells are wonderful. Later they tell me he is just too slow, and that this is the first time they’ve had an overflow house. I swear to come back soon and eat.
Eric’s friend Allison reaches over and picks up the menu face down on the musician side of the railing. On the back are a set of what appear to be fortune telling cards. Her British friend (whose name is drowned in agave), she says is El Borracho. He doesn’t know any Spanish and asks, what the hell is that? Is he taking a shit? (In the picture the drunkard is bent a the knees, suggesting unsteadiness). Eric, she says, is El Gallo, the rooster. No one who knows Eric would disagree. I have on a red shirt, and so I am El Diabolito. A little devil? I can own that I tell her. She goes to put the menu down and and stop here. Which are you? La Estrella, I announce, and she smiles. Enamoramiento. (Love sick fool. Diabolito, si).
I had to text Eric to get Allison’s name, although we’ve met at least twice before. For the rest of the night, I think of everyone by their card names: El Borracho, El Gallo, La Estrella.
We get another round, and I manage to spill half my glass. We are all laughing, and Alex McMurray says “I hear someone talking about tequila.” “I spilled half of mine,” I holler back. “The hand of an angel spilled it,” I say “This much and no more tequila tonight.” “You better tip that angel well,” Sanchez says. They break into The Champs song Tequila. After a few choruses they stop, and McMurray offers a shot to anyone who will dance on the bar like Pee Wee Herman. Eric rushes to steady the stool I put my knee on but I think my angel is still close, and then I’m up and they’re playing Tequila again and Hugo has his iPhone out, a huge grin on his face, as I shuffle and shake.
I try to decline the shot. Hugo will hear no objection.
“Please hear my plea.”
The first non-doo wop line of Dog Breath, spoken in exaggerated baritone by Zappa.
Given his fascination with pachuco music and his last name, it would be easy to think Zappa Chicano. Actually, he is from Baltimore and of Sicilian, Italian, Arab and Greek heritage. His family moved to Los Angeles County when he was a child.
“Zappa grew up influenced by avant-garde composers such as Varèse, Halim El-Dabh, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, R&B and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz… [b]y his final year, he was writing, arranging and conducting avant-garde performance pieces for the school orchestra.”
–Wikipedia entry, “Frank Zappa”
Zappa’s first national exposure came in the late 1950s, in which a clean cut young man in a suit demonstrates to Allen how to play the bicycle as a musical instrument, and jams with the show’s band.
We meet the two women who are clearly their for the musicians after the last set is over and Sanchez and McMurray come to the bar. Nicole says she lives in Mid-City. I tell her I live in Gentilly. What we both mean, after discovering that we live maybe three blocks apart, is that neither of us wants to own the stuff Faubourg St. John moniker. She is friends with Sanchez, and the younger woman with her is his niece. “I’m sure I’ll see you around Canseco’s.” Eric, we discover, also know’s the co-owner Linda, Hugo’s wife. This is a very small town of half a million people. This is one of their stories.
I am slowly sipping Bohemia by this time, and Eric is deep into conversation with Paul Sanchez. It is one of Eric’s life time goals to befriend every musician in New Orleans. I lean around Eric and ask McMurray how one auditions for his Valparaiso Men’s Chorus project, in which he leads a small band and a group of men in singing chanteys. “Show up for the next show. Show you can sing.” He tells me the next date, but I had already bookmarked it in my calendar, being fascinated but never having witnessed their performance at the Saturn Bar.
As I drift deep into the complex second movement “Legend of the Gold Arches” I lay in the dark and think: concerto. No single instrument is featured, so the correct term is concerto grosso. The form died out in the late 18th century, but was revived by a long list of modern composers ranging from Stravinsky to Phillip Glass. I don’t think about them as I listen in the dark. I listen to the intricate play of Zappa’s studio mix orchestra and think of J.S. Bach. I resolve to ask the guy who runs the Open Ears free jazz series, who teaches at Loyola, if he thinks “Dog Breath,” “Legend of the Gold Arches” and “The Dog Breath Variations” could be considered a concerto grosso. His answer will not really matter. This is the music they would play in any heaven worth of the name and in the hell reserved for the classical snobs of the sort who drove the jazz program out of the University of Chicago.
By the end of the night, as my eyes drift over the collection of Latino brick-a-brack that decorates the bar, I am fixated again by the rotating Virgin of Guadaloupe over the cash register. She spins around a counter-moving inner psychedelic transparency projecting ever changing colors and a halo of parabolas of light on the nearest walls. I can not get “Dog Breath, In the Year of the Plague” out of my head. (It is, in spite of the name, a catchy pachuco pop/doo wop song). Eric I know will talk all night if Sanchez lets him, and I know the hours musicians keep. I go to Patrice’s and she about to go to sleep. Before she puts the light out, I dig my headphones out of my bag and dial up Uncle Meat on my ‘Droid and jump to the fifth track. I close my eyes in the dark, but can’t get to sleep until almost the end of the record.
“Primer mi carucha (Chevy ’39)
Got me to El Monte Legion Stadium
Pick up on my weesa (she is so divine)
Helps me stealing hub caps
Wasted all the time
Bongos in the back
My ship of love
Ready to attack”
— chorus and refrain from “Dog Breath” by Frank Zappa