“Treme” Explained

“Hey, you seen ‘Treme?'”

When I was back home in New Orleans, HBO’s new locally-based series was the talk of the town. With practically everyone I talked to, the feelings are overwhelmingly positive. Although there are some “Treme”-haters (and one is certainly welcome to dislike the show for one’s own reasons), they seem to be in the minority, as New Orleanians for the most part embrace the show and have been organizing “Treme” watching parties, in private homes and organized in public places, like the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home on St. Philip Street in the show’s namesake neighborhood.

Given that I’ve been out of town I’ve been remiss in writing about the show myself, but here are my feelings in a nutshell. I love it.

Some people quibble about little inaccuracies in the geography or culture, mostly anachronisms (“That wasn’t open for two more months after this is set!”), but all that can be easily brushed away. The producers and writers are going well out of their way to be true to the culture and spirit of the city, and the story they’re putting together serves a greater truth. We also must remember that this isn’t a documentary, it’s fiction — they’re telling a story, and fictional and fictionalized elements of reality enter into it. It all boils down to the story they’re telling rings true to so many New Orleanians, reflective of their feelings and experiences after the storm and the Federal flood.

The characters, many of them based on real people, ring true as well. We’ve known people like this. The most astonishing character of all is Clarke Peters’ Big Chief Albert Lambreaux — not only the standout character on the show, but one of the standout characters in any show I’ve ever seen. His dignity, determination, pride and complexity are a rare thing in episodic television, and to think … he’s portraying the black Mardi Gras Indian community and doing it well! The respect and honor shown to the Indian culture by this show blows me away, and as far as I know it’s the first and only portrayal of that rich subculture of New Orleans outside of a documentary.

Here are a couple of my own photos of Indians parading in the Tremé on Mardi Gras Day 2006, the first one post-Katrina.

Me Big Chief, me feelin' good ...

Get out de way!

Because I’m behind, this is going to be sorta five posts in one — let’s get going.

Dave Walker, longtime television writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is one of many New Orleanians who’ve been writing about the show. Da Papuh has an entire sub-site about “Treme,” and one feature Dave’s been writing each week is called “‘Treme’ Explained,” which is a guide to all the unexplained references to New Orleans in each episode. These are li’l tidibits that most New Orleanians are probably going to catch, but lots of people from elsewhere probably won’t. It helps make the show that much richer on your second, third and subsequent viewings.

Here are links to the columns so far, with a few excerpts and other tidbits. There are a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the first five episodes yet, you might want to refrain from reading further until you have.


Episode 1: “Do You Know What It Means?”

My first reaction after seeing the pilot episode: “I could not have dreamed that it would be this good.” Quibbles notwithstanding.

For starters, view a comprehensive archive of the Times-Picayune’s Katrina coverage, including an animated map of the levee failures.

It’s pronounced treh-MAY. Or TREH-may. Or … oh, just watch the video.

A second line is a neighborhood street parade. Typically, participants include a sponsoring social aid and pleasure club and brass band (the main line) and whoever else wants to participate (the second line). Second line photos and videos.

Social aid and pleasure clubs date to the late 19th century. One of their early functions was to provide funeral insurance for members. David Kunian – WWOZ-FM show host and ace New Orleans music documentarian – has the written the definitive piece.

The second line that opens the premiere of “Treme” is meant to re-create a second line staged on Oct. 9, 2005 in honor of Austin Leslie (a photo of Leslie can be glimpsed, very briefly, on an attendee’s fan).

TV-history bonus: Austin Leslie was a master of Creole soul food who served as one of the inspirations for the great CBS TV comedy “Frank’s Place,”  He died in Atlanta at age 71 a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

The bridge causing Davina Lambreaux so much anxiety is the Crescent City Connection, which spans the Mississippi River and links the east and west banks of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, people attempting to evacuate the flooded east bank across the bridge to the dry west bank were turned back by law enforcement. Stories here and here.

The opening theme is “Treme Song,” by John Boutte. It’s playing on a loop in my head and also here.

The WWOZ-FM 90.7 live stream is here.

The song that plays under the closing credits is “My Darlin’ New Orleans” by Little Queenie. Hear it on her MySpace page here.

I’m generally not one to toot my own horn, but “My Darlin’ New Orleans” is back in print and available for the closing credits because I put it on the “Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans” box set six years ago. I’m proud to have made my li’l contribution there.




Episode 2: “Meet De Boys On The Battlefront”

And it just keeps getting better …

The second ‘Treme’ episode’s title is a Mardi Gras favorite, recorded by multiple artists. Its best-known rendition is by The Wild Tchoupitoulas, on a 1976 album on which The Meters and the Neville Brothers provided backing. More here. HBO’s comprehensive music list for the episode here.

Coco Robicheaux is originally from Ascension Parish. He and his band, The Swamp Monsters, perform at 11:15 a.m. April 29 in the Blues Tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His MySpace page is here. His website is here

The fire referred to in the WWOZ scene happened April 24, 2001. Nobody was hurt in the two-alarm afternoon blaze at Robicheaux’s Faubourg Marigny apartment, which took 55 firefighters about 90 minutes to extinguish. Stacks of that year’s Jazz Fest poster — stored next door in artist James Michalopoulos’ home and studio –survived the fire.

Now we know why Janette Desautel doesn’t want to talk about her house. She’s living upstairs above a flooded-and-gutted-to-the-studs downstairs, a familiar state of being to many New Orleanians who’d moved back three months after the storm. In flooded homes, restoration required stripping all of the drywall and insulation from the interior framing, up to and sometimes including the ceiling, depending on the water level. The studs then had to be treated for mold. This was after removing all the furniture and in many cases all the finished flooring, piles of which where dumped curbside for removal by FEMA subcontractors (hence the mounds of debris on the sidewalks around Albert Lambreaux’s house, which we learn in this episode is in the Gentilly neighborhood, among the hardest-hit by levee-failure flooding). All submerged electrical wiring had to be replaced and inspected before power could be restored.

Cooking her breakfast eggs on a hot plate, Desautel appears to be waiting for Entergy, the local electricity and natural gas provider, to restore her gas. The underground lines had to be cleared of floodwater, block-by-block, before individual homes could be returned to the system.

Also painfully familiar to New Orleans viewers: Desautel’s spontaneous weeping. Overcooked eggs, your contractor’s voice mail not accepting in-bound messages, the lines at the few open grocery stores, memories of lost or displaced loved ones, the overwhelming task ahead at just restoring your life – any or all of which, plus thousands of unnamed challenges, could send a person plummeting. Depression was chronic in the city during the days depicted so far in the series, even among residents who were comparatively lucky. “Treme” may not hit a note that rings truer with New Orleans viewers than Desautel’s sad breakfast moment.


Episode 3: “Right Place, Wrong Time”

So much respect for the Indian culture in this episode, and a powerful ending that for me was like a kick in the stomach.

Episode three’s title is “Right Place, Wrong Time,” a hit for Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack in 1973.

It comes from his album “In the Right Place,” produced by Allen Toussaint. The record features backing performances by The Meters, “the fonkiest rhythm section anywhere,” Rebennack writes in his biography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon,” in which he reveals that several well-known artists contributed to the tune’s lyrics.

“Bob Dylan started it off by laying a line on me – ‘I’m on the right trip, but I’m in the wrong car,’” he writes. “Then Bette Midler gave me one: ‘My head’s in a bad place, I don’t know what it’s there for.’ Doug Sahm also pitched in: ‘I was in the right set, but it must have been the wrong sign.’”

Most New Orleans bars and restaurants that otherwise serve liquor in bottles or glasses will issue you a plastic “go-cup,” into which your unfinished beverage can be poured for later consumption, upon your departure.

In an essay about Mardi Gras Indian history and traditions, including the role-call roll of the anthem “Indian Red,” historian Kalamu Ya Salaam quotes Allison “Tootie” Montana [the late, beloved “Chief of Chiefs’] on the hierarchy of various Indian gang officers and their functions on the street.

“Your Spy Boy is way out front, three blocks in front the chief,” Montana said. “The Flag Boy is one block in front so he can see the Spy Boy up ahead and he can wave his flag to let the chief know what is going on. … The Wild Man wearing the horns in there to keep the crowd open and to keep it clear. He’s between the Flag Boy and the Chief.”

The hierarchy of Indian gangs and various members’ roles is further explained in this David Kunian essay, for which he visited a practice session presided over by Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Golden Eagles.

The Wild Magnolias’ “New Suit” celebrates the ritual of designing and sewing a new suit every year.

Albert and Lorenzo go in search of Albert’s Wild Man in the Lower 9th Ward, where floodwaters knocked many homes off their foundations. The devastation made the Lower 9th Ward officially closed to habitation until January 2006. Homeowners were allowed daylight “look and leave” visits until that time. The horrific phenomenon of residents finding dead loved ones upon returning to their homes was not uncommon, even in homes that had presumably been searched.

Here’s some footage of Indians on parade on Super Sunday: “Aside from Mardi Gras day, the most significant day for the Mardi Gras Indians is St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th. Around sundown on this day, the Mardi Gras Indians once again dress in their feathers and suits and take to the streets to meet other “gangs.” Also, the Mardi Gras Indian Council and Tambourine and Fan organization put on an annual “Super Sunday” parade on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day.”


Episode 4: “At the Foot of Canal Street”

Episode four’s title, “At the Foot of Canal Street,” is a song by John Boutte — who sings the series’ opening-credits theme, “Treme Song” — and Paul Sanchez.

John Boutté has been perhaps my very favorite New Orleans vocalist for many years, and Paul Sanchez perhaps my favorite New Orleans singer-songwriter. They’ve been writing, singing and playing together for quite a while too, and it’s a pairing made in heaven. If Paul and John had done nothing else but write the song “At the Foot of Canal Street” they would be great people for giving us the gift of that song, one of my very favorite songs of all time. That they’ve given us so much more, in music, song, stories and their very humanity is a blessing that we can’t even begin to measure.

Here’s a video of Paul Sanchez performing his and John’s great song:

Because I can’t get enough of this song, here are links to two more performances, both of which I was in attendance — the first at Joe’s Joint in L.A. last year, and the second in City Park in New Orleans just a few weeks ago

Canal Street runs from the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans (where it provides the up-river border to the French Quarter) to a Mid-City cluster of cemeteries. After a slight jog there, the road continues toward Lake Pontchartrain as Canal Boulevard. Many locals consider the river end of Canal Street to be its foot.

That’s true, many locals do or did, including this local. John and Paul always thought it meant the other end where the cemeteries are, and now that they’ve written one of the best New Orleans songs ever, I think that from now on we all need to start re-thinking of the cemeteries end as the foot of Canal Street.

The name called in the hospital waiting room before Antoine Batiste’s, Edward Bocage, is a reference to New Orleans singer, songwriter and pianist Eddie Bo, real name Edwin Bocage. The man who answers to the name is wearing the kind of cap that was a Bo trademark. An R&B pioneer, Bo had many hits, for himself and others, including 1962’s dance-craze sparking “Check Mr. Popeye.” Bo died at age 79 in March 2009.

Janette Desautel’s gas-line issues were chronic for months after the storm. [Follow the main link above for many more details.]

Trumpeter Al Hirt was hit in the lip by a chunk of concrete thrown during the 1970 Bacchus parade. The incident was spoofed during “Saturday Night Live’s” 1977 Mardi Gras episode.

Albert Lambreaux’s insurance woes were widespread. Homeowners insurance policies such as Lambreaux’s did not cover damage from the storm’s levee-failure flooding, just damage caused by wind and rain. He apparently didn’t have federal flood insurance; only about one-third of the homes in the territory devastated by Katrina and its aftermath did. Homeowners without flood insurance typically received a few thousands dollars to repair or replace wind-damaged roofs and interior rain damage – for homes, like Lambreaux’s, that sat in 10 more feet of water. There were government-provided solutions for people in Lambreaux’s predicament, though they mostly proved just as frustrating.

John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette is partly based on New Orleans blogger Ashley Morris, who died in 2008. Morris didn’t use YouTube, though he’s featured in a video here. The Creighton rant is drawn in part from one of Morris’s most-beloved and – you’ve been warned – profanity-laced posts.

Dirty Coast, purveyor of my favorite New Orleans t-shirts, has reprinted the design commemorating Ashley’s beloved “FFYFF” — get it here.

Fuck you, you fuckin' fucks!


Episode 5: “Shame, Shame, Shame”

The title of episode five … is a song by Smiley Lewis, who also recorded “Tee-Nah-Nah,” “I Hear You Knocking” (covered by Dave Edmunds), “One Night” (covered by Elvis Presley) and “Blue Monday” (a huge hit for Fats Domino). Lewis died in 1966.

The episode was written by former Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, a staff writer for the series. Elie’s documentary, “Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” co-made with Dawn Logsdon, offers vital background for fans of “Treme.”

Listen to a recent NPR interview with Lolis Eric Elie.

Judge John Gatling is played by Tim Reid. His cameo is a warm shout-out by “Treme” to “Frank’s Place,” the New Orleans-set CBS comedy of 1987-1988 that is widely considered to be one of the best-ever screen depictions of the city and its citizens. “Treme” staff writer David Mills wrote about Reid’s involvement with great affection on his blog, and the production and HBO are planning a public event, to include a screening of several “Frank’s Place” episodes (the series is not available on DVD) and a panel discussion to include Reid and co-creator Hugh Wilson, to continue the homage. May 24 is the tentative date of the event, further details of which will emerge in the next few days.

“Frank’s Place” is one of my most beloved TV shows of all time. When it debuted I had been living outside New Orleans for five years and wasn’t nearly as homesick as I was at first, but having this well-told and accurately portrayed beacon of my hometown on television every week was pure joy. I still kick myself for not having taped the show way back when it was rerun on BET, and I hope someone reruns it again. It is my number one most-desired DVD release … one day, I hope.

I never got to meet series creator Hugh Wilson, but I got a really nice note from him after I started my first radio show on KCRW, “Gumbo Ya-Ya,” back in ’88. The show featured Louisiana music, and it seemed that the folks on the “Frank’s Place” set were regular listeners. I’m still boggled by that. A couple of years after the show sadly ended, I was asked to be a judge in the gumbo cookoff at the now-defunct “La.-to-L.A. Festival,” and my fellow judges were the Miss Marie and Big Arthur from the show! That was one of the coolest days ever.

King Oliver. Kid Ory. Honore Dutrey. The Kid Ory solo in [Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five’s] “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” begins at 1:14 into this YouTube video:

Now, let’s get ready for episode 6. Tune in next Sunday night!

And remember … “There’s pride on Bourbon Street!” (*giggle*)


6 Responses to ““Treme” Explained”

  1. Tweets that mention New Looka! post: "Treme" Explained -- Topsy.com said:

    May 10, 10 at 10:56 am

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  2. Tiare said:

    May 10, 10 at 1:04 pm

    What a wonderful and informative post Chuck. i also LOVE Treme, i can’t watch it on TV of course but there`s other ways and every monday is my Treme day 😉 which has turned my dull mondays to happy ones.

    The Treme explained column at nola.com is what i’ve always been reading and it helps when you’re not from Nola. It’s also fun to read all the comments. The show is awesome, it makes you laugh, teary, upset, happy, everything and as the story unfolds it just gets better and better. Then there’s the music… every show is packed with wonderful music and I’m waiting for the soundtrack.

    If you’re gonna write about Treme here, i’m gonna read!

  3. Tiare said:

    May 10, 10 at 1:06 pm

    Oh..i forgot to say..your photos of the mardi Gras indians are awesome.


  4. Chuck said:

    May 10, 10 at 2:35 pm

    Tiare, I knew you’d find a way to watch.


    And thanks!

  5. Tiare said:

    May 11, 10 at 12:08 pm

    When there`s a will there`s always a way Chuck;-) at least most of the time, hopefully. I wonder what Ashley would have had to say concerning the oil disaster?

  6. boogalaxy said:

    May 16, 10 at 5:13 am

    Fantastic show, thanks for all these links. I’ve never been to NO but love the music and culture, it’s nice to have some more background.