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A Kind of Homecoming: Recent poster for Santa Cruz expatriate June Dimorente and her New Orleans cohorts.

Redeveloping Bohemia

The Iguanas and El Radio Fantastique contemplate what it means to miss New Orleans

By Peter Koht

According to Newsweek, the best-case projections by civil service crews indicate that the floodwaters currently covering New Orleans will not be fully drained before the middle of October. More pragmatic engineers have told CNN that three months is the likely window for total liquid evacuation. Of course, clearing out the highly polluted water is nothing but the first step of an intense civilian reconstruction effort. There will still be months of work involving cleanup of toxic wastes, removal of corpses and debris, re-establishment of utilities. All of this work needs to be accomplished before the commencement of a colossal rebuilding effort. Unless your paycheck draws from a Halliburton or Caterpillar account, New Orleans will not be a viable place to live for most of the next year.

In the face of such monumental human calamity and suffering, it might appear myopic to lament the loss of New Orleans' unique artistic community, but when the levee broke and covered the the Ninth Ward in a tepid bath of sludge and toxic waste, that detritus spilled over the homes of innumerable artists, musicians, puppeteers and painters whose lifestyles relied upon New Orleans' unique combination of low rent, cultural diversity and more than enough bars to keep your Kurt Weill–inspired cabaret project in work throughout the sticky summers.

"Our apartment was on the third story of a building built in 1883," says June Dimorente of El Radio Fantastique, a New Orleans–based band that rolled through town last week to perform at the Warehouse as part of its We Have No Place to Stay So We Might as Well Play Tour. "It was made of crumbling bricks and the roof was leaky. We paid $600 bucks a month and people though we were crazy for paying that much. Most people we know paid about $100 a month in rent."

"The city itself feels dead," says Giovanni, June's husband and lead singer for the band, whose haunting melodies and unique orchestration call to mind the latter-day work of Tom Waits or the Tin Hat Trio. "It's a heartbreaking sense of loss not only for the town but the supportive artistic community that called it home." Comparing New Orleans to San Francisco before the beats and hippies showed up to exploit the cheap rent of crumbling Victorians, Giovanni says the best part of life in the Crescent City was the fact that "you could live the artist's lifestyle and have time to do all the things that you want to do."

Most of the members of El Radio Fantastique and their sister bands, Crooks and Nannies and A Particularly Vicious Rumor, worked day jobs to meet the rent payment, but the majority of their lives were tied up in learning music, playing gigs and making outlandish costumes. They lived in one of the last bohemian enclaves in America that had yet to be subject to real estate speculation, gentrification and the creeping blandness that serves as the backdrop for the majority of American cities.

Not that it was perfect. Robbery, poverty and murder statistics show New Orleans was and is a rough place to call home, but it still produced more artists and musicians per capita than any American city outside the 212 area code.

Established artists like Branford Marsalis, the Mardi Gras Indians and the Iguanas still call New Orleans home, although their previously cheap rents have been replaced with mortgage payments and familial concerns.

Reached on the phone while on the road in Virginia, Joe Craven of the Iguanas lost his house in Lake Terrace, but not his desire to live in New Orleans. For him, the uncertainty of when he can visit the remains of his home is more disturbing than the fact that all his material possessions have been given a toxic shower. "We're getting all these mixed reports of when we can go back, how we can go back and if we can go back, but I certainly plan on doing everything that I can to get back home."

Noting that the Iguanas will probably now record their new record in Austin, Craven goes on say that he hopes "that people can have faith and sustain through these difficult times, but I fear that something really bad could transpire and that people will lose faith and that it will never be the same."

For the members of El Radio Fantastique and their tour mates, this excursion is a bittersweet farewell to a scene that is destined to break apart as soon as the final date of the tour is played. The entire posse is now homeless and it's going to be very hard to keep a seven-way long-distance relationship going. The group's monumentally talented drummer, Kid Twist, who also plays in Crooks and Nannies and A Particularly Vicious Rumor, is heading to Europe for the short term, but does not plan to return to Louisiana. June and Johnny Dimorente are moving to the Bay Area.

Not all is lost though. Both the French Quarter and Preservation Hall managed to survive the storm. Big Daddy's strip club reopened its doors on Sept. 12 and, at presstime, the Central Business District is about to have its utility service restored. But although President Bush made the obligatory reference to the Second Line funeral tradition, it's an unfortunate fact that by the time the city stumbles back from the watery abyss, many of New Orleans' trumpeters, tuba players and saxophonists will have marched on to other cities, playing the melancholy airs of an artistic paradise lost.

The Iguanas, Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 9pm at Moe's Alley; tickets $12/adv, $15/door. More information on El Radio Fantastique can be found at www.myspace.com/elradiofantastique.

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From the September 21-28, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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