Now That Kathy’s Gone
This track is for a scene in Dan Baum’s book about a man named John who becomes a woman named Joann which is utterly New Orleans… in fact, it would be borderline inappropriate in any other city but is completely acceptable here.
Since the track was recorded I have even heard, “Oh yeah, that happened to a friend of mine back in the eighties,” from more than one person – always the 80’s which makes me wonder if there was a design flaw in the product at the time. The scene is the most sexually graphic in the book. Colman and I once asked Dan Baum how he got Joann to be so graphic, he laughed and said, ” It’s New Orleans. She owns a bar. I gave her bourbon.”
In the scene, John is indulging a lifelong, secret urge of dressing in women’s clothes. In this case, his wife Kathy is leaving for the night and he is going to dress in her clothes and, for the first time, experiment with a vibrator.
During the course of the proceedings John loses the instrument inside himself and has to go to the hospital to have it removed. In the course of being there Kathy arrives, a nurse brings in his belongings which his wife sees in a clear plastic bag including the vibrator. She becomes furious and leaves him.
You can see how this had to be a song.
I suggested a Bourbon Street stripper kind of song and Colman, being a Hollywood screenwriter who says “yes” to anything which includes sex in a theme whenever possible, said “yes.” It is a pretty straight blues song with tradition jazz overtones that Matt Perrine’s arrangement gave it. Also, I had kept the melody in the same key throughout even though there were scene shifts. Matt picked up on the fact that the other songs with scene shifts had different melodies so he wrote key changes into the arrangement at every scene shift to give the song a musical as well as lyrical turn. The rising melodic line also plays into the rising desperation of John’s situation.
The band was basic on this. Shane Theriot on guitar. I had never worked with Shane before, he was Matt’s call and one of a number of fantastic choices by Matt that helped make the record possible. Shane was professional, completely prepared and totally about
what the song needed. What a player and an asset to the sessions! Matt, on bass again, kept the low end slithering along.
Herman Roscoe Ernest III on drums – a track he could have played in his sleep. He was such a funny man. This was one of many moments where he made us forget just how much he was hurting from his illness by telling stories and making us laugh til we cried. I explained the scene in the book to him, how it was man dressed like a woman at which point he shot me a look and said, ” Hey now, I don’t know ’bout this one…”. I started telling him how we had written it as a Bourbon Street stripper song, a light went off and he completely understood where we were headed. He smiled and said, “This is like Donna, the Bubble Girl.” I laughed and said I didn’t know about her. “You never heard of Donna, the Bubble girl? She had an act on Bourbon street, was a man dressed like a chick, dancing in a giant champagne glass that had bubbles coming out of it.” The fact that I could hardly breathe from laughing didn’t slow him down as he went on to say, ” Bitch was fine, too. I wouldn’t look though, knew that bitch was a man, played my drums with my head turned the other way.” He demonstrated by doing so. The man knew how to make people laugh. What a beautiful cat.
Shamarr Allen is the soloist on the song. Shamarr is without a doubt one of the most electrifying trumpet players you will ever see. He can play the most technically proficient and complex jazz songs thrown at him, he can add the delicacy of melody behind a Willie Nelson song and he can rock a crowd with his horn. He also can give in to the urge to play and misbehave like a ten year old child and in this case I encouraged it. He plays beautifully but the playfulness in his sound effects add as much to the track as the notes. He makes the horn laugh, makes it say “uh oh” and pass wind. He makes it an instrument of comedy within the context of the song. He is quite something and was an invaluable contributor in playing, arranging songs, co-writing, even writing a track on his own when we decided we needed to add a rap song. One of my favorite guys to work with because he is all about the song, what works to make a track better, works for Shamarr.
Michael Cerveris had agreed to sing the part of John/Joann. I didn’t know Michael until after Shelly and I moved back to New Orleans from Belize. He is an actor in films, television. Has won a Tony Award and is a much acclaimed Broadway actor. It is one of the times in my life that I am actually grateful for my “lack of education,” as Paul Simon once sang. I was unaware of who he was and his many achievements or almost certainly my life long inability to talk to artists I admire would have taken over. He was in New Orleans to appear in a film a few years ago and was attending a Tift Merrit concert where I
was the opening act. He started showing up
at my shows and, since Shelly was working on the same film, I thought she had talked him into checking out my gigs. I found out that he “likes to sing” as I so innocently/stupidly said of a man who has twenty years experience as a successful actor in MUSICALS. Duh! I started asking him to sing in my sets at dba and Chickie Wah-wah not realizing that when back in New York he was singing at Lincoln Center.
Michael is a very humble fellow who never let on about his own career until I found out from others. During the course of becoming friends he said that if we made a record he would sing a part. I called when we won the Pepsi Refresh grant and asked if he would be alright with singing the part of a man who becomes a woman. He laughed and told me that any actor on Broadway in New York would be delighted at the chance. At this point I called a friend in New York who is a director and was telling him about the record. I mentioned that Michael Cerveris was to sing a role saying he was, “a young actor from New York that I met when he was working on a film in New Orleans.” My friend, Dickie, is an old friend from New Orleans, the kind of friend who speaks plain English to you. “Sanchez… you’re still a moron. Do you have any idea who this guy is?” and he proceeded to tell me about the Tony Award, the benefits he has done for Lincoln Center and his performance at Stephen Sondheim’s birthday concert.
The next time I saw Michael I told him I felt like an idiot for knowing him for so long and not realizing those things. I asked why he didn’t tell me. He smiled slowly and said, “We-e-e-ll… you kept introducing me as a ‘young actor from New York’ and I’m your age, I didn’t want you to stop calling me young.” A wonderfully humble fellow.
He wanted to get some New Orleans Ya’t accent into the part and asked about my own accent on the demo because some of the words sounded like a New York pronunciation. I explained that the Catholic Church sent 200 nuns from Brooklyn to New Orleans in the early 1900s to teach and the accent melded with the Creole accent to become, “Hey baby! Where ya’t?”, a sort of combination drunk/Creole/Brooklyn accent. He liked it and ran with it to the point that his pronunciation of the word “purse” sounds like my mom or one her friends at the Poke-Kino game back in the 60’s, “poise”.
The first person in the scene with Michael is the wife, Kathy, who is sung by Tara Brewer. Tara is a teacher at NOCCA and a real pro in the studio. She had been singing backups for a week and I dug her vibe and voice so asked her if she would be “Kathy.” I didn’t know her very well before the session. Michael had suggested her and I had seen her sing on an episode of Treme last season but I didn’t know what a powerful voice and wonderful actress she is. She did not hold back and really had some fun being “‘da Queen of Metry” as we put it, very funny and talented.
The next person John encounters is the admit nurse at the hospital and I asked my niece, Natasha, to do the part. She is an actress, performance artist, songwriter and photographer and my brother George’s daughter. She has great comic timing and made the most of a dead pan, unsympathetic nurse. It was fun to watch her work with Michael – my niece standing toe to toe with a Tony Award winning actor so I was a proud uncle. Tasha was completely non-plussed, her father’s daughter, a pro.
Debbie Davis sings the part of the brash nurse who comes into the hospital room carrying John’s belongings in a clear plastic bag which allows Kathy to see the vibrator. I told Debbie to really lay on the New Orleans accent, I asked her to be the fourth Pfister Sister. You don’t have to ask Debbie Davis to have fun singing more than once. She ran with it, had fun with it and knocked it out in two passes.
The backing singers were two of our “chorus” singers, Vatican Lokey, (who was about to leave an indelible impression on me and Nine Lives on another song), and Debbie Davis who was doing double duty as a featured singer and backing vocalist on this one. I wanted to add some male voices as well -I kept calling it “the voice of John’s sexual subconscious.” I called my friend Bill Lynne – “Swami Bill” from his days in John Sinclair”s Blues Scholars, “Cardinal Bill” to the members of the Krewe of Bike-us. Bill is a guitarist, artist, producer and has been a real support system to his friends since the flood with advice, experience, occasionally listening to them cry and always reminding them to get on with the business of living. He has a vast knowledge of and understanding of music, appreciates the craft of it. I told him about the song. He dug that it was off the wall. I said I wanted a bass voice and would he sing the role of John’s sexual subconscious on some background parts. Bill has a sense of humor and said it wouldn’t be the first time he played the part of the sexual subconscious.
My final back up singer and member of the “sexual subconscious choir” is Davis Rogan. Davis is a larger than life character in many ways and to be in his presence is to be awash in nervous energy, ideas that flow one into the next and a conversation that will end abruptly as he disappears to pursue one of a hundred paths that have crossed his mind. I’m not sure he knew what to make of being asked to sing the part of the sexual subconscious, I thought he would dig the joke but he just gave me a sideways look and asked to hear the part. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can do that. I’ll see you tomorrow.” That “tomorrow” got postponed three times due to his schedule working as a writer and creative consultant on Treme but also due as much to Davis navigating the world in a way that is unique to him. I always find myself amused and interested when I see him; amused and exhausted when he has left. It is a rare thing to watch a mind work that fast and you can almost see his eyes blinking like a computer rebooting as he continues talking while walking away from you.
Matt Perrine set the track up with a smooth as silk arrangement, Shamarr played with playfulness, Michael exchanged energy and timing with the other singers and Now That Kathy’s Gone came inappropriately to life.
Joann, whom the song was written about, was to come to the studio later in the sessions to watch Michael record a disco track called Full Time JoAnn. While she was in the studio, we played her the tracks that were written about her but when we got to this one Colman was uncomfortable about being in the room. He came up and whispered, “I don’t know… it’s pretty graphic.” I turned to Joann and explained that Colman was unsure about playing this one because it was the scene in the book where “John is experimenting with the vibrator and loses it”. Joann corrected me, “Honey I didn’t lose it. I knew where it was!”
I wanted three gossipy nurses at the end of the song, sort of walking down the hall talking about the incident as the song fades. My wife Shelly is a set dresser on films and her sister-in-law Christy is a nurse. Our friend, Angelle, is a school teacher who lives and teaches in London. None are performers. All three are products of the New Orleans Catholic school system and have as pronounced a New Orleans accent as anyone I could have hired. This coupled with the fact that they worked for free got them cast as my gossipy nurses.
Now That Kathy is Gone is comedically, tragically and wonderfully New Orleans.