Where are the Bodies?
Where Are The Bodies? is a protest song set to New Orleans music. It is the most overtly political scene from Dan Baum’s book. Dan, in voicing his own outrage and asking the question, voiced the outrage of thousands who asked after the storm, “Where are the bodies?”
It is a scene where Coroner Minyard, now near 80, goes to St. Gabriel to the make-shift morgues set up after the flood of 2005. An elementary school has been converted for the purpose. Classrooms, still piled with children’s books, are where doctors are sleeping. Garden hoses serve as showers and refrigerated trucks, eighteen-wheelers are ready to receive the bodies as Frank is given a tour by the men in charge, but… where are the bodies?
Matt Perrine’s darkly over the top arrangement sets the stage for a the tragedy and absurdity of this song and these events. Through his musical vision it is at once a bit New Orleans trad jazz reminiscent of the songs St. James Infirmary and Marie Laveau, also a bit of brechtian theatre as well as being an angry protest song. He brings out all these things and still leaves space for Frank to be the center of it all.
The band on this track was Doug Belotte – drums, Matt Perrine – bass, Tom McDermott – piano, Alex McMurray – banjo, Tim Laughlin – clarinet, Rick Trolsen – trombone and Kevin Clark – trumpet and they all spent a lot of time on this track. Matt had written a tight but complex arrangement. Tom’s piano playing strung a lot of it together as the band had a few different movements or shifts to make during the song. Matt took them through it a few times and they nailed it in sections. Mark Bingham edited it down to a single song.
I wasn’t there the day they cut the basic track because I was in a scene from Treme that was shooting that day and Matt wasn’t there the day I recorded the lead vocal because he was filming a scene from Treme. I kept wondering why Matt had the band cut the intro to the song so fast because I was really spitting out the words and originally it was a slow, dramatic intro. When Matt came to the studio the next day and heard the track he was stunned that we had kept it as fast as he cut the intro. He’d thought Mark could edit it to tempo but the chords hung over each other and this was what we thought he’d wanted. Matt suggested we recut but by this time I had come to really dig the tension that singing it fast had added to my performance and my voice. I insisted we keep it just as it was: accidentally perfect. Just like I like my art.
Jesse Moore sings the part of a National Guardsmen giving Frank his initial tour of the facilities. Jesse is a very nice fellow with a natural sweetness to his voice that I normally love but after his first take I offered instruction. I told him I didn’t want Jesse Moore’s sweet voice, I wanted something more sinister for the voice. I asked him if he was familiar with the voice of Judas in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesse smiled and said with a laugh, “I played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.” Jesse is a terrific actor. I see him popping up on TV and movies quite a bit since the film business has come to New Orleans. He jumped right into the acting part of it and really lit up the role with character. You can see, hear and almost feel him sneering in contempt.
Matt had the idea that the voice of the 82nd Airborne should be sung an octave up form the rest of the song and Debbie suggested Vatican Lokey. This is how I came to hire, work with and love Vatican Lokey. He came in to do a bit part and blew the roof off the studio with it. Vatican burns up the role and vocal with a perfectly over-the-top performance. Debbie reminds me that there are a lot of female singers who struggle to hit a high B flat and Vatican did it on command for several takes. It was an astonishing performance and remains a highlight of the record and live show.
In singing Frank, I was becoming increasingly surprised at how much of me I had written into his character and on this song. Singing as Frank I got to channel rage at the government, the insensitivity of the system, the sadness, the madness, the badness, and all of it as if it were sung by Frank Sinatra.
That was who I had decided Frank would sing like and when I stepped up to the mic for Minyard’s songs, it was with Sinatra’s swagger. One Frank helping me complete the other. I was so pleased when Debbie Davis noted at the rehearsals for the Le Petite performance of Nine Lives that I hit the word “die” in the line, “has red tape made it impossible to die”, like Sinatra hits it at the end of the song That’s Life, which was exactly where I had gotten the inspiration and idea for the phrasing. Thanks for noticing, Deb.
Where Are The Bodies? is a song for the people of the city, it is a song for me but really, it’s a song for two Franks, Sinatra and Minyard. Here’s to them both.
~ Paul Sanchez – August 9, 2011