I got called out the other day for getting it wrong in my last blog. Got called out by no less than the co-producer of Treme, Eric Overmyer, in front of no less a knowledgeable audience than Sync-Up, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s symposium for music insiders. Got called out—and rejoiced! And here is why: Overmyer spoke to the way people were picking over Treme for every little thing the producers didn’t get right. And even some things that the producers did get right but that the pickers-over thought they got wrong. Like my recent blog where I had to point out that WWOZ wasn’t broadcasting from Armstrong Park after the Federal Flood of ’05.
Well, I got called out on that one, Mr. O. saying, “We did our research and we know that WWOZ was back on the air in New Orleans by December.”
But with no establishing shot to place WWOZ in its present location, and the show being named Treme and all, and the visuals showing an uber-funky studio reminiscent of our Treme tree-house, I’ll continue to claim that it was an honest mistake on my part to think they were placing ‘OZ back in Armstrong Park. Only in the second week was there a reference to our current French Market location, when D.J. Davis McAlary predictably decries our move from the hood to WWOZ’s soulless bastion of tourism in the French Quarter. (Of course, true to character, D.J. Davis McAlary would never mention the fact that the electricity, being supplied by the City and not Entergy, was not restored in the park for months and months, necessitating such a move.) McAlary’s remark made the French Market people nuts, but we, at WWOZ, understand this is fiction, and pretty damn good fiction at that.
But what is this preoccupation we all seem to have with details, if this is, after all, just fiction?
Well, here goes my theory, and here’s why I’m rejoicing at being called out:
One of the things that always irritated me about reading the Bible, is the way you get going on a really good story, and then, bam—you have to wade through 3 chapters of say, how the tabernacle is put together (“And its pillars shall be 20 and their sockets 20 of copper the hooks of the pillars and their decorative bands shall be of silver…..”) or what the high priest wears (“And two chains of pure gold at the borders of the breastplate will you be making them of plaited work, not links, and you will be putting the chains of plaited work onto the settings….”), or the endless laws, not just repeated but three-peated and then spoken and then inter-woven like beads on an Indian suit. Why-oh-why insist on arresting the storyline just when it’s getting interesting only to focus on all this minutiae?
I’m not the one who came up with it, but I do think there is something to the idea that all those details were memorialized by a school of priestly scribes in the Babylonian captivity around 600 B.C.E., and they did so because, in the end, it might well be the details more than the storyline that ended up defining these people on the fringe who eventually called themselves Jews. Each detail is another marker distinguishing “us” from “them.” And when you’re in exile, it’s just about all you got. Every detail forgotten is another piece of you erased. So the most important thing is to remember the details. It starts as part of the grieving process, rehearsing over and over in your mind the inventory of every little loss suffered-- then idealizing each little thing, until it grows into an obsessive memory, a catalog of obsessive memories that becomes the composite you hold onto when the forces all around threaten to swallow you up.
If in fact the scribes get the details wrong, or they favor one set of details over another—whatever details they gave us is pretty much the basis for who folks think we were once we’ve passed the scene . Mess up a detail and it will redefine you for the rest of time.
So even if art-- or fiction-- is the lie that tells the truth—- such as the truth of Chief Albert Lambreaux’s unbending determination…. if even one little marabou detail is wrong… well, in New Orleans, some guardian of the groove will pounce on the inaccuracy to decry your betrayal and, in this city there are so many opportunities to go wrong. If New York has Houston Street, we got a million Bur-GUN-dies.
So why are we like this? Why is it so damn important to us? Because New Orleans had the first opera house in the U.S. is why. Looking back to our early history, there has always been an ingrained hostility between the highly cultured “locals” and the barbarian intruders from the outside. That’s why we have neutral grounds instead of esplanades. We’ve constructed every defense imaginable for the past 300+ years to protect who we think we are and who we insist on being in the face of overwhelming influences that would homogenize us, Americanize us, wash out and dilute our identities. Long after we have been exiled by time and circumstances from our Creole past, we still retain the habit of scanning for the markers of our heritage. Scrupulosity is its name and in scrupulosity shall we retain our sense of self.
And that is why I rejoice so at being called out by Eric Overmyer. This is the ultimate proof (as if any were needed) that his cultural DNA has become infected with our disease. By industry standards, the producers of Treme have expended a frivolously unnecessary amount of time and money making sure they got right as many details as possible. And it’s obvious they fret more than any one we’ve ever known in the business when they get a detail wrong, or someone thinks they got it wrong. They have, in short, become one of us. And I rejoice.