Hattiesburg, MS. February 2008.
The kids come to the Hippo for the dark and the music and the concrete-and-brick urban courtyard out back where they sit with cigarettes and beer. They’re Southern Miss kids who drive the couple miles down Hardy Street from the university and give five bucks to the hulking and smiling gentle-voiced bouncer at the door so that they can each individually enter a scene from their imagined young-adult utopia. One girl, who wears a Ravenclaw bracelet on her right wrist, says it’s like The Three Broomsticks from Harry Potter. For others, the place is straight out of Williamsburg, or the LES—or you can find it in Austin when you’re there for SXSW, or in New Orleans when you cover the two hours down the interstate and take yourself to the edge of the Marigny. Or even, says a girl in a flowy pink skirt, as she stabs out a cigarette in a dirty ashtray in the center of a black-iron table in the courtyard, like that time in Paris when she ducked down a side street and wandered into the smallest discotheque ever and drank Foster’s with French guys.
These kids are the artsy sort; they’re in the College of Arts and Letters at the university, and they’re involved with Amnesty International, or write for the Student Printz or Southerner; they’re hard-calved dance girls and slim-chested, pot-bellied journalism guys who get invites to the theatre kids’ costume parties. A lot of them think they’re hipsters, because they wear skinny jeans or have ironic mustaches and t-shirts, and they read the right books and deride the right bands: but they’re not really hipsters at all, primarily because they think they are, and also because they are too genuine and too nice and too southern. When they go to Brooklyn, they’ll be disgusted with the ‘tudes of the white kids who’ve just moved into Bed-Stuy, and they’ll realize that the Thirsty Hippo isn’t a facsimile of the Bedford Avenue hipster enclaves they’d imagined, and they’ll miss nights like this more than they currently think possible.
These kids (one of them was asked about his chosen university by his Mississippi State and Ole Miss-bound high school friends: “Aren’t there lots of gay people and liberals there?”) come out for the music, and tonight the music’s not an import. It’s Stale Fashion, a local quartet, having spun down from a tour of empty dives in Philly and New York to set up, for the first time in weeks, in front of a space packed with happy bodies. Stale Fashion doesn’t have much time left, actually—in a year or so, maybe a little less, they’ll be gone. The lead singer, Ryan Stout, he’s going to sort of disappear (somewhere up near Memphis, somebody’ll say), and lead guitarist Ben Shea’s going to front another group called Dark Knights of Camelot, which’ll end up packing the Hippo too, even though the kids will always feel a little sad when they hear Ben’s guitar not leading the band through a wickedly danceable Stale Fashion tune like Telescopic Films.
The kids come out into the long American night to dance. Sure, a few of them sit on barstools and watch, and a few never leave the old booths along the back wall, but most of them dance. There’s a couple of guys who set up between Shea and the empty doorframe that leads from clogged performance space to airy courtyard, and they leap and flail to the rhythm and stop and shout the chorus to one another, and there are kids in flannel in front of Stout, kicking and clapping, and if these kids see one another, they smile, and when they get tired, they dance more, because the songs don’t stop coming. Here at home in the Burg, the band plays its entire fucking discography, and if it seems like they’re going to miss a song, the kids let them know. When it’s all done, when he’s got no more songs left to play, a shirtless Stout grabs a formerly-flailing emo-haired guy and crushes him with an embrace, and does the same with the kid’s panting friend. Later that night, the friend will be back in his Hattiesburg Hall dorm room, and he’ll be listening to a song called Sea of Photographs, and his roommate will say: “We will be watching a music video to this song on TV soon. I know it.” He’s wrong, of course, and, the next year, when all the kids’ Facebook statuses lament Stale Fashion’s breakup, a few of them will feel for a moment like a lot of other kids felt in 1970.
New York, NY. December 2009.
You miss a place like the Hippo when the kids don’t dance.
What you’re trying to do in a bar like this—in the American night with a couple of beers in you and with the music around you—is really live. You want your consciousness to hum with the energy of profound experience. This bar in the LES, you don’t even know its name. You came because you used to go see Linnzi at the Hippo, because you’re from New Orleans and so is she, and because since you’ve been in New York you’ve craved everything and anything from home. Linnzi Zaorski, with her smooth and gorgeous and occasionally naughty old jazz, she fills a need.
What you do is grab a couple of new friends—two guys from the grad program— and ride the train and get there way too early, so you walk around the block and get Chinese and eat with a plastic fork while walking back, wasting time; and then you go and sit at the bar and pay six dollars for a can and a half of PBR and wait. Off to the side, there’s this tall skinny blonde who looks familiar. You think she’s Linnzi, actually, when you see her peripherally, but this girl’s lankier and feels like a quiet artist, a deep thinker sort, not a Roaring Twenties jazz diva who, singing, says that it’s too hot for words, don’t bother with conversation, let’s get straight to the lovemaking. This girl’s just sitting quietly with one skinny-jeaned leg crossed over the other, and there’s a couple of guys in cardigans talking to her, and she only nods and occasionally gives them a reply. It’s the first sign of nonheightening tonight: you think this girl’s the only person actually here for the music. The small group of horn-rimmed-glasses guys at the bar, the fortysomething couple at a table in front of the tiny stage, they’re just here. Maybe they heard there’d be some jazz tonight, but it’s not really Linnzi they want to see. This is not how you turn life into living.
Linnzi’s great, of course, when she gets up on stage with that blonde hair of hers pulled up into something pre-Depression, and that oh-so-sexy voice. But fuck, you know? Nobody’s dancing, and all you can do yourself is sit and smile in back with your arms crossed while she sings, and then she asks for tips, and tells everybody, pointing across the room, to say hello to her sister. And that explains the lanky girl sitting with the cardigan guys. The other thing is, you have to feel guilty on top of the rest of it, because when the tip bucket gets to you, you realize you spent the last bit of cash in your wallet on the fucking PBR, so you go from hoping Linnzi recognizes you from the Hippo and comes over with a cigarette and says hello to hoping she thinks you’re an anonymous New Yorker with whom she has never before shared nor never will again share the same space.
You love her music, but nothing engages. You could be anywhere; you’re not somewhere. The only opportunity to salvage the night comes when you see Linnzi, the sister, and a little crowd standing outside the bar after the last song, all of them drinking and smoking, but you’re still embarrassed because you made eye contact with Linnzi while she was carrying the tip bucket, and so you lead your friends around the corner and talk about a band none of you will ever start, find the F train, and ride away.
New Orleans, LA. January 2011.
I find the long American night again in my hometown—tonight, in the middle of January, while still home for the holidays, on Frenchmen. It’s the usual mixture of atmosphere and alcohol and musical power, and this time it all connects, everything engages, and it’s like the Thirsty Hippo junior year, except now it’s Linnzi again, for the first time since the last time up north.
Into the bar with Jack and Calvin, and the first thing is the beers are amazing: we order local brews, starting with Irish Channel Stout and moving to Abita for the rest of the night. The second thing: the men at the bar, who are the kids from the Seventies, are talking about Linnzi, which means they are here for the music, and they know what to expect and love it and anticipate it. That changes everything, you know? Music is a weapon that works only on the willing.
“The thing about her is,” Jack says between sips, “I mean, you close your eyes when you’re listening to her sing and it’s like time travel. It’s like you’re back in the Twenties.”
We talk about other things.
Calvin, who will soon earn an officer’s commission in the Army, talks about his plans. “Retirement by forty, maybe.”
“Which leaves time,” I say.
“Plenty,” Jack says.
Calvin says: “Plenty of time, enough time to start a whole new career, or maybe I’ll just relive my young adulthood.”
This has us talking about the future. The long American night is intrinsically connected to the young American future. You cannot experience the former without simultaneously feeling the latter, because this sort of nostalgia bleeds into your ambitions. It’s a nostalgia for the things you miss, the things that’re happening now, and for the things that haven’t happened yet. It’s eternity in the theological sense: the compression of past, present, and future into an existential pinpoint, the absence of linear time.
Anyway, I say, I’m going to do what I love, and I think that’s the secret. “You have real success when you’re able to do things for money you’d do for free,” I say. “And the best part is, you’ll be motivated to do the things you love but put off, because of the potential for reward.” This is not a new or unique insight, but it’s still an insight, and we toast it.
Jack says something very New Orleans, something like: “Yeah you right.”
Our futures go on hold for now, when the music starts, and we move over to the performance space and stand near the wall, stage left, our right arms resting on the little minibar there, upon which we also rest our Abitas so we can cheer between songs. We’re ready to dance, but when we do, we do it vicariously: a couple takes the floor and really, really swings. It’s this very short guy, and this hot tall fortyish woman in a white skirt and heels, and there’s a flower in her hair, and, looking at her, Jack mouths, “Fuck, man!” and while we watch, this couple shakes the floor so hard that the CDs on the table in front of the stage come collapsing down in the middle of the song, and hit the floor, but nobody gives them any notice until Linnzi finishes the song and smiles and comments on the athleticism of the dancers (who have, by now, picked up the CDs and set themselves up for round two). The air’s humming.
Before it’s over, we’ll have stood outside on Frenchmen smoking Black and Milds while talking with a hobo—the New Orleans sort of hobo, the kind that’ll hold a honest-to-God conversation with you, a talk that isn’t just fucking bullshit designed to keep you around long enough for the sales pitch. It is that, of course, but not just that. If you say you’re out of cash, which I will be at that point, these guys’ll be all like, “Ain’t no thing, brother,” and they’ll keep on talking to you, about the city or about the music, and you’ll finish the conversation and off he’ll go down Frenchmen, down to the corner, where he’ll cross the street into the Marigny. And after that, after the music’s ended, we’ll go down St Charles and eat diner food, and then cross Carrollton and chill with the Tulane kids on Oak Street.
But before then, the music dominates us, and the dancing excites us, and between songs, Linnzi Zaorski comes down from the stage and walks up to us with a double-shot of tequila, of which she’d taken only a small sip.
“Hey, boys,” she says. “Look, I have another gig after this one, so I gotta watch the alcohol consumption. Y’all want a shot of tequila?”
“Absolutely,” I say, and, while she walks away, I drink half, and hand the glass to Jack, who finishes it, and the three of us stand there breathing the night’s air.
And the music begins again.