The first time I went to Bourbon Street was in junior high. My friend’s parents had invited me to New Orleans to see Mississippi State play Tulane, and they turned us loose in the French Quarter for a few hours on the Friday night before the game. Of course, we headed straight for Bourbon.
We pooled our pocket money to buy an oversized beer, and we passed the plastic cup back and forth as we gawked our way down the most notorious street in the South. It was a magical moment, right up until a pimp solicited us, appearing seemingly from nowhere, dressed in a baggy three-piece suit.
“Gentlemen,” he said, sidling up beside us and matching our stride. “Looking for some ladies tonight?”
“Uh, not right now,” I said, trying to play it cool. “Maybe later.”
He disappeared back into the chaos of the street, but the whole encounter kind of spooked us, so we dumped the beer and were back at the hotel, as instructed, by 9:00pm.
Compare that to my most recent trip to Bourbon, a couple of weeks ago. As an adult and a New Orleans local, Bourbon Street lacks the magic and mystery that it held twenty-five years ago. It was a pain in the ass to find parking, I was dodging drunk tourists and puddles of gutter soup, and a dude with a short, tight afro and dark wayfarers sidled up beside me, matched my stride, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Hey brother, I got that good cocaine. You interested?”
This happened, it’s worth noting, in broad daylight on a random Wednesday afternoon.
The reason I was on Bourbon that day is because I had been thinking about Richard Campanella’s new book, Bourbon Street: A History and the excerpt we're running in this issue where he writes about “window hawking,” a practice that started on Bourbon Street in the late ‘60s when some genius had the idea to sling booze directly to customers on the street. As a result, club owners had to come up with new ways to entice customers back inside, which led to more bars flinging open their doors and windows and flooding the streets with a cacophony of sights and sounds intended to reel in visitors and their money. It’s this crass commercialism that drives many New Orleans locals away from Bourbon in search of more authentic (or “authentic”) culture, but, as Campanella notes elsewhere in the book, it’s locals who are the primary beneficiaries of this commercialism, through the density of jobs on Bourbon Street and the economic impact of the street’s tourism culture.
This got me thinking about the people working on Bourbon Street, the New Orleans locals who earn their daily bread on a street that most people in the city derisively dismiss. It also got me thinking about an episode from Treme, HBO’s paean to post-K New Orleans, where trombone player Antoine Batiste gets a gig playing at a Bourbon Street strip club. Batiste bemoans his fate, complaining about the world famous, neon-lit, beer-soaked, tourist-packed French Quarter street, but throughout the episode fellow musicians—including Deacon John and Trombone Shorty playing themselves—echo the same refrain: “There’s pride on Bourbon Street.”
For out-of-towners carousing on Bourbon, pride is usually the first thing to go. But what about the people who work there, the people whose job it is to make sure that the music keeps playing and the drinks keep flowing? I spoke to a musician, a striptease artist, and a bartender to find out: Is there really pride in working on Bourbon Street?
Yes, says Bill Richards.
For more than ten years, Bill has been gigging around New Orleans, one of the few towns in America where a musician can still make a good living. Bill plays electric bass, usually alongside legendary New Orleans drummer Russell Batiste, or bluesman Colin Lake, or Mardi Gras Indian groups like the Wild Magnolias. He plays the clubs and festivals around New Orleans, and he’s played events like SXSW and the summer jazz festival circuit in Europe. But his “day job” is on Bourbon Street, where he plays in a classic rock cover band weekday afternoons at The Famous Door.
“There is a certain pride to be had on Bourbon Street,” Bill says. “As a musician down there, you almost feel kind of tough, like you’ve gone through boot camp.”
Bill points out that a shift on Bourbon Street is five hours long, which is twice as long as two really long “regular” gigs. It takes stamina, both physically and mentally, to play a five hour set, and musicians who do that definitely earn the respect of their peers. Playing on Bourbon Street also means that Bill knows hundreds of songs, and he plays with a rotating cast of musicians who know hundreds more, meaning he can easily suit his playing to other players and has no problem learning songs on the fly. If someone at the bar makes a request and only one person in the band knows the song, they quickly teach it to the rest of the band.
When I dropped in to see Bill playing at the Famous Door, the bar was half-full and getting a little rowdy. The five-piece band (they’re called Half Past Whiskey, though a name for a Bourbon Street cover band is really just a formality) cycled through “Highway to Hell,” “Born to Run,” and “The Joker.” The band members traded lead vocals from song to song, making up the setlist as they went and taking requests in between. While New Orleans locals might not have much regard for cover bands, the crowd at the Famous Door was eating it up. At no point in the afternoon was there not someone singing along, from the girls who locked arms and swayed in time to “Tiny Dancer,” to the dudes in ballcaps who lifted their beers and shouted along to “The Breeze,” to the whole damn bar singing the whole first verse of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” One group of guys took turns high-fiving the guitar player on their way out between songs, but then they rushed back in from the street a moment later, all smiles, when the band started playing “Ramblin’ Man.”
“That was a decent crowd,” Bill tells me the next day. “A lot of times on Bourbon Street you get a crowd where if you play one slow song or something people don’t like, everyone just leaves. During the daytime you get people who are more appreciative, who want to listen to music. I’m having fun when there are a lot of people in there who appreciate whatever we’re playing for them.”
Bill knows how most locals feel about Bourbon Street, and he doesn’t begrudge the negativity, but he’s also quick to point out that Bourbon offers a unique opportunity for New Orleans musicians.
“I think there’s really nothing significant on Bourbon Street for a lot of locals, but it’s really a good deal for a musician,” says Bill. “There aren’t too many places in the country where a musician can get a steady gig like that playing five days a week or more if they want. The fact is, your average full time Bourbon Street musician is doing just as well financially as some sideman out there touring with major-label groups. Some musicians have no interest in playing anywhere else.”
For Bella Blue, the Headmistress of the New Orleans School of Burlesque (NOSB), Bourbon Street offers the best of both worlds. Bella started performing burlesque in 2007, and a year later she opened NOSB, where aspiring performers can take weekly classes on the art of striptease. She performs regularly in New Orleans, and she makes appearances at clubs and conventions around the country. Bella also produces the monthly Dirty Dime Peep Show at the Allways Lounge, a bar and performance space on St. Claude Avenue in the heart of New Orleans’ independent arts scene.
Earlier this year she partnered with a new club on Bourbon called Lucky Pierre’s to present The Blue Book, a burlesque show that features traditional female burlesque performers alongside drag queens, drag kings, and the occasional male stripper. Lucky Pierre’s is near the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Ann, an unofficial boundary that divides “straight” Bourbon from “gay” Bourbon. The club’s location, says Bella, works to their advantage.
“It really fosters an environment of come-as-you-are. Whoever you are, whatever your deal is, you’re welcome here,” says Bella. “It’s not just straight; it’s not just gay. It’s a very, very diverse crowd, and people feel comfortable there.
Lucky Pierre’s looks like a lot of other Bourbon Street clubs. On a Friday night, the music is pumping and the colored lights are spinning. There’s a well-muscled young man dressed only in his boxer briefs and boots dancing in the doorway, not unlike the scantily clad, impossibly high-heeled women outside the strip clubs a few blocks up the street. Another guy has a sign advertising “3-4-1” drinks and “free burlesque.” In addition to The Blue Book, Lucky Pierre’s hosts foam parties, male revues, and other events that target young party people, and the crowd reflects that. Inside, there’s a least one bachelorette party in matching pink tees. The audience at the Blue Book is definitely diverse, but they all seem to have one thing in common: they’re almost all tourists.
“Most of our crowds have never seen a show before,” says Bella. “Maybe they’re coming from the middle-of-nowhere America, and they don’t have burlesque there. So it’s their first experience ever, and they get to see it on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and it’s a very, very huge part of their memory. I love that aspect of it.”
Bella’s first jobs on Bourbon Street were in the strip clubs, work that helped finance her foray into burlesque and helped fund the NOSB. She’s in the clubs less frequently these days, mostly due to her increasingly busy schedule as a burlesque performer around the city. Bella says that The Blue Book is similar to the shows she does off Bourbon Street, and she doesn’t feel the need to change anything in order to make it fit in on Bourbon. In fact, she believes that shows like the Blue Book present an opportunity to evolve the entertainment culture of Bourbon Street, to offer an alternative to cover bands, karaoke bars, and strip clubs, and she’s proud to be a part of the street’s traditions.
“I’m not ashamed of having worked as a stripper in strip clubs at all. It’s a part of my journey and process. There’s pride in stripping on Bourbon, doing burlesque back on Bourbon Street, which is where it started [in New Orleans]. It provides a middle ground for people who don’t want to go in strip clubs, but they still want to do something on sexy on Bourbon.”
Tiffany Soles tends bar at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, a club in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. The Jazz Playhouse isn’t your typical Bourbon Street dive, and Campanella, in his book, cites it as an example of what some locals consider “a few spots of Good Bourbon amid ten blocks of Bad Bourbon.” Tucked inside the posh hotel lobby, Tiffany calls the Jazz Playhouse “a little oasis in the middle of all the chaos.” The room is draped in crimson velvet, with dim-lit chandeliers and a candle on every table. The club offers live music nightly, mostly contemporary takes on traditional New Orleans jazz from both young upstart musicians and seasoned veterans like the club’s namesake, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. Nonetheless, Tiffany says that when she tells people that she’s a bartender on Bourbon, their reactions are predictable.
“If they don’t live here, they’re like ‘Oh my God, that’s so amazing!’ and if they do live here, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.”
By day, Tiffany serves as the Membership Director of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, a professional organization that’s active in 41 cities around the country, including New Orleans, where Tiffany previously served as chapter president. USBG provides bartenders with educational experiences that range from the history of cocktails to current trends in mixology. She says her commitment to pouring the perfect drink is one of the things about the Jazz Playhouse that defies the usual preconceptions about bars on Bourbon.
“We’re an international destination in New Orleans, so you get people coming in from all over the world who have different tastes and who are looking for different things,” says Tiffany. “Even though they’re on Bourbon Street, they’re not all looking for the Big Ass Beers and three-for-one specials.”
Not that Tiffany has anything against Big Ass Beers and three-for-one specials. For her, Bourbon Street isn’t just where she works, it’s also her neighborhood. She lives in the French Quarter, just a few blocks from the Jazz Playhouse, and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Talking to her is like taking a guided tour.
“What I love about Bourbon Street is that there is a little bit of everything for everybody,” she says. “If you are looking for jazz, you can come to us, you can go to Maison Bourbon, you can go to Bourbon O, and you’ve got Fritzel’s right there as well. You’re going to hear a great show, and you’re not going to have maybe the same type of crowd that you would at club bars, like the Beach or Razoo’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s just completely different experiences, and they cater to a different crowd.”
Tiffany calls Bourbon Street mainstays like Pat O’Brien’s and the karaoke bar Cat’s Meow “guilty pleasures,” and though she’s not a regular at those spots, “anytime I have friends in town and they want to go, I’m in.”
I’ve always taken a pretty soft stance on Bourbon Street. If I’m in the French Quarter, I’ll occasionally make a pass or two down Bourbon to check out the craziness, but I’ve never gone out of my way to defend Bourbon Street from the detractors. Campanella’s book made me rethink my position, particularly his bold argument that Bourbon Street, which sprang to life without any organized civic oversight or corporate sponsorship, is a more authentic part of New Orleans culture than the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, which relies on support from a big oil company and decidedly non-New Orleans headlining acts. The argument is not unconvincing, but for me and probably most other locals, it’s tough stuff to swallow.
Part of the reason people enjoy themselves on Bourbon is the work of people like the ones I talked to over the last few weeks, and they clearly do take pride in contributing to a culture that attracts countless visitors. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be planning more trips to Bourbon Street, and I don’t really feel inclined to talk other locals into spending more time on Bourbon either, but I do think New Orleans can do a better job of recognizing the contributions of the people who work there.
“Maybe they just don’t like it,” said Bella Blue, after I asked her about locals who avoid Bourbon. “That’s fine. You don’t have to go. Not everybody’s going to like it, and not everybody’s going to want to go there, but you can’t dog something that’s such a huge part of the survival of the city.”
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