V/A — The Big Easy

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A brief programming note. Alphabetically, the next record on our list should be The Band’s Rock of Ages, which I apparently misfiled behind The Last Waltz, despite its having come out six years prior. But the notion of ripping through another multi-disc live record from The Band seemed too exhausting, so I figured it was time to turn my attention to the cache of compilations that butt up against the end of my collection. For reasons that should be pretty obvious, I don’t want to spend the last three weeks of this project listening to soundtracks (though it strikes me now that the artistic diversity of those albums might be a good analogue to the shuffling way we typically listen to music), so I’ve decided to sprinkle them in whenever I need a break. As we work through the Beatles, Dylan, Kristofferson, and Willie, we’ll probably be flipping ahead quite a bit.

So, all of that being said, today’s record is the original soundtrack to the 1987 Dennis Quaid/Ellen Barkin film The Big Easy. The film was a moderate success–it grossed $17 million–and received surprisingly high praise from Roger Ebert, who called it “one of the richest American films of the year.” Ebert further implied that the film’s easy plot (Quaid is a dirty NOPD officer who assumes an affair with Barkin’s by-the-books Assistant D.A.) was only a playground in which Quaid and Barkin’s (apparently) well-rounded and fully realized characters could play.

I say “apparently” there because I’ve never seen The Big Easy. However good it might be, the film’s reputation didn’t manage to carry it out of the eighties, and its title card certainly didn’t help (see image above). Furthermore, while it was praised by critics, the film was largely panned by locals, who objected to its representation of Louisiana life: The French Quarter as mysterious netherworld, locals with mysteriously Virginian accents, and all of the other annoyances that, in the days before Treme, crystallized most people’s inaccurate perceptions of New Orleans and Louisiana. It’s worth mentioning here that nobody called New Orleans “The Big Easy” before the film was released, and that nobody in Louisiana calls it that now unless they’re mocking those same stereotypes that our big-budget tourism industry used to be able to get away with.

All of which might lead you to believe that The Big Easy’s soundtrack is surface-level swamp scum. And, now that I think about it, maybe it is–if you were planning on putting together a Time-Life South Louisiana Sampler in 1987, The Big Easy beat you to it. But it speaks to the quality of Louisiana’s local culture–or at least to my homerism–that the film’s music supervisor could dip even the shallowest of cups into the waters and come up with something this rich. The sole contribution of actual Louisianans to the Big Easy project has far outlasted the film (and the spin-off TV show!) itself.

Despite having grown up in the heart of Cajun Country–Lafayette, which likes to call itself the Hub City when the local flavor gets a little too spicy–there’s possibly no song that feels more like home to me than the Dixie Cups’ version of the Mardi Gras Indian classic “Iko Iko.” We didn’t have the Indians in Lafayette, but we did have Mardi Gras, and we’d play this song on the way to the parades every year. Even hearing it now, having done my best to strip off nostalgia’s veneer, it sounds so warm, so unlike anything else. Those simple, percussive clinks of glass ashtrays and the muted hand-drum, the “jockamo-fino” chorus that made no sense to me as a kid and that I now know is vulgar in a manner that I can’t recall, the sway of the three Dixies’ voices. There are apparently other versions of it now, including one by Aaron Carter, but I have no interest in hearing them. I’m not even interested in hearing The Dixie Cups, who play Jazzfest every year, play it; the original 1965 recording is perfect, as good a pop song as has ever been recorded.[1]

Nearly everything on this record is great, though. Professor Longhair gets all goofy-fingered on standard-bearer “Tipitina.” The Wild Tchoupitoulas deliver “Hey Hey (Indians Comin’),” the record’s second Mardi Gras Indian chant. Out west in Lafayette, Buckwheat Zydeco contribute “Ma ‘Tit Fille,” and Beausoleil deliver “Zydeco Gris-Gris.” I’ve been sitting on my floor in front of the record player while doing this project, but I actually stood up halfway through “Iko Iko” and started moving around the living room, shuffling a little bit as I moved boxes around. This music wasn’t made to be examined, but to be participated-in, and it’s infectious in a way that, as far as I can tell by the rest of the country’s perennial fascination with Louisiana, transcends the boundaries of comfortable, familiar music. Like South Louisiana itself, it forces adventure upon you, for better or worse.

Lest you accuse me of having lost my critical eye in the dancing, I will note that Fats Domino and Dr. John’s respective absences here are an oversight–surely there’s room for “Blue Monday” and “Right Place Wrong Time” here. And, despite his canonical status in New Orleans, I’ve never really cared for Aaron Neville’s music, either; the staccato whum-whum-whum-whum-whum-whum waltz of that late soul sound has always grated on me, even in the (admittedly pretty excellent) live version of “Tell It Like It Is” that he and the Neville Brothers turn in here. The less we say about Dennis Quaid’s “Closer to You,” which the actor sings in the film, the better.

Though “Closer to You” does answer a question I’ve been rolling around for a little while. The year after The Big Easy was released, Quaid (along with John Goodman, who also appears in The Big Easy) starred as a football football player for the nonexistent Louisiana University in Everybody’s All-American.[2] Unlike The Big Easy, Everybody’s All-American was a flop, bringing in less cash than Quaid’s other film, and tanking in an almost sublime way with critics. But the film’s really not that bad. It stays far away from Rudy-style sentimentalism and paints a pretty accurate picture of what the gameday experience at LSU is like–or, what it was like for a long time.[3] But why was Quaid spending so much time in Louisiana in the late eighties? John Goodman’s wife is from Bogalusa, and the couple live in Old Metairie; spend half an hour in the Uptown Whole Foods and you’re bound to see him. Quaid, as far as I know, doesn’t own any property in Louisiana, and has no familial connection to it. But he does play music, in a band called The Sharks. And, having heard “Closer to You,” a soft ballad beflocked with warm synths and supported on all sides by wonky sax and gentle accordion, it all makes a little more sense: The song, which appears near the very end of the album, is a respectful distillation of everything that’s come before it. Dennis Quaid wanted to be a part of it all, too. And it’s kinda hard not to like that.




[1] Original Dixie Cups Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins, and their cousin, Joan Marie Johnson, grew up in New Orleans’ Calliope housing project, which years later gave birth to No Limit Records. Someone needs to write a definitive history of music made in New Orleans’ public housing. Back to post.

[2] Though Louisiana University doesn’t exist, the team’s colors are purple and gold, they call themselves the Tigers, their campus is in Baton Rouge, they have a live tiger mascot, they play in Tiger Stadium, Dennis Quaid lives in the dorms built in to Tiger Stadium’s south end zone, the crowd does the same cheers on first down that we do at LSU games, etc. Back to post.

[3] As I think about it now, I wonder whether the film’s detractors were sick of hearing about Louisiana. Cajun cooking was a major culinary fad in the early to mid eighties, thanks largely to Chef Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish, which were so popular that the redfish population dramatically declined and the government had to set limitations on commercial fishing in the Gulf. Still, it was very much a fad–in the opening credits to The Simpsons’ second Treehouse of Horror in 1991, “Cajun Cooking” is written on a tombstone. I guess it’s possible that Everybody’s All-American was the victim of Louisiana fatigue. It’s equally possible that my having been in the stands when the film was shot has affected the way I see it. Back to post.


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