New Orleans Inherits the Upstairs Lounge

RYAN SPARKS 

PHOTOS: RYAN HODGSON-RIGSBEE

Today the victims of the disastrous fire at the Upstairs Lounge in 1973 were commemorated with oratory, a jazz funeral procession, and the final performance of a musical that portrays their demise.  

In some ways, we understand more about this event than we have in the past forty years, and in other ways we are more easily embarrassed by our lack of detail than ever. The bare facts are four decades old, and were widely reported--briefly. Late on a Sunday evening, an arsonist sprayed some type of accelerant on the stairs leading up to the homosexual-friendly hideaway called the Upstairs Lounge overlooking Iberville Street in the French Quarter. The arsonist then set fire to the stairs and rang the bell.  

When someone innocently opened the heavy entrance door--probably expecting a familiar face--the ensuing backdraft spread through the lounge quickly. In the ensuing chaos a bartender led several patrons out through a back exit onto the roof, but in a tragic turn dozens of others were inadvertently left behind and trapped. In the dark, smoky terror the remaining victims were left to cower or fight against the bars blocking the windows. 32 people died in the tragedy, rating it as one of the city's highest casualty crimes.  

Investigations into the arson fizzled shortly after the city came to terms with the sensational carnage. The decision on the part of the authorities to halfheartedly use their resources to investigate the occurrence because the Upstairs was a "queer bar" is perhaps what grates modern nerves harder than the motives of the mystery arsonist --who himself very well might have been a homosexual patron involved in a physical altercation within the bar earlier in the day.  

Unfortunately, with all the actual confusion and manufactured prejudice, it seems that the NOPD felt the Upstairs was a mess they might never find the bottom of, and even if they got close to the truth, the implication would be that certain investigators understood the subculture now and might be tainted by its color and texture. 

Regardless of whether it was a hate crime or a deranged act of retribution undertaken by an individual blind to the cultural resonance his actions would have, the governing authorities and the local religious community reacted as expected. It was less of a cover up than a cold shoulder. The city followed its sharp instinct to shore up the generalities it did know like a levee against the rising depth of what it had yet to understand.  

upstairsljazzf.02413.rhr04.jpg

The story is a unique one, and perhaps the reason for its persistent obscurity is that there are no clear answers, despite the accumulating amount of eyes drawing their focus to the event. This is no Stonewall, with its clear distinctions between the Harassed and the Harassers. This isn't one individual's nightmare, no evening redness horror like that visited upon Matthew Shepard in 1998. This is, unfortunately, a singular crime with a high body count, a tragedy that has as much to do with lasseiz-faire building codes and pure chaos as it has to do with homosexuals' long-suffering search for equal opportunity.

In contemporary America, though, such tragedies are expected to have some amount of marketable value--not necessarily in the commercial sense, but, at the least to the victims and those who empathize with them. So it is no surprise that the Upstairs Lounge notches more exposure with each passing anniversary and attracts more voices wondering aloud why this event failed to inspire outrage or capitalize on its intrinsic tragedy.  

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are either vague or so obvious as to be obstructive. New Orleans, for all its historical licentiousness, is still subject to those high pressure systems moving across the south wherein God and Country cause intermittent storms with Culture and History but usually prevail on their way across the region. So as an event that could only dishearten instead of galvanize, as an event with a faceless instigator instead of an identified villain, we are forced to ascertain it differently in the scope of gay rights and tolerance of alternative lifestyles.

What we can and should accept is that the individual victims believed in choice. They all chose to be in the Upstairs Lounge that night. Maybe they went because they had friends they wanted to meet or because they chose to worship and sing gospel in the unique upper room sanctuary along with the Reverend Bill Larson. Or, maybe they went just because then, as now, New Orleanians reluctantly surrender weekends to the harsher rule of Mondays. Whatever their reason, it was a choice.  

By some accounts, there were close to 80 people in the lounge when the fire started. No one sentence could fairly describe them all except this: they all chose to climb the stairwell and enter the lounge that night, and if anything culturally significant happened, it would be shared immediately and locally, not in starts through the nation.  

Though many bodies were identified but unclaimed--the pendulum of modern shame now swings heavily toward these of the families who once hoped to escape its lightest touch--there were four bodies that went unidentified. These people were perhaps visiting in secret or they could have been bold yet just outside the bounds of contemporary records. This is what nags at us about the Upstairs tragedy. How horrible to be a just a visitor on one night, trapped in a decision. Trapped in a world of social cues that exclude you, trapped in the rigid first steps of a modern philosophy about homosexual awareness, trapped in a city that preaches frivolity so long as the specifics aren't discussed. Trapped for one night in a room designed and decorated to temporarily sustain your liberty.  

We have little to gain by demonizing the status quo of forty years ago. We have everything to gain by commemorating the strides the soldiers of awareness have made, because now the disaster shows that there is so much more to learn beyond the headlines. We can't let it become the gay tragedy with indie rock cachet. The Upstairs fire is still a local story, a story with relatives and survivors. It can be a showcase, a cross section, another insoluble strata in New Orleans' odd religious history.

The jazz procession today was long overdue, but let's not put these instruments away waiting for another five year anniversary.