The elegaic song American Pie spoke of the day the music died. People were drinking whiskey (bourbon, presumably) and rye. The lyrics invited interpretation, most of it a trifle earnest.Afriend of mine took a more frivolous tack, claiming that the song was about his car-repair shop. My friend’s name is Levy.As you may recall, singer Don Maclean took his Chevy to the levée. It is a word in the American language, not the English, but its origin is obviously French. As we all now know, levées attempt to contain the Mississippi in New Orleans.If it were New Amsterdam, a Yankee (from the common Dutch Christian name Jan-Kees) would be taking his bike to the dyke. The Dutch term is more familiar, but the French more poetic.American Pie did not mention New Orleans, but the poetry now seems to have been tragically prescient.New Orleans is a haunting place, and the Mississippi a river of extraordinary power. I was 10 years old when the river seized my imagination, in the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.New Orleans is the definitive river town, and I believe it always will be, come both hell and high water simultaneously, not to mention Lake Ponchartrain, across which they say Buddy Bolden’s cornet could be heard.New Orleans jazz took me by the ear when I was 12, through Voice of America, and the city has held me in its grip ever since.With a neighbourhood called Storyville, New Orleans must be the place for a writer. Tennessee Williams? Shouldn’t his first name have been Louisiana?I was in my early 40s before I finally reached New Orleans.There was no bus named Desire, so I had to settle for the Charles Street streetcar.On that first visit, I found myself engaged in an impulsive gesture. I scrambled up the 45-degree slope of the levée, sat on top, and dangled my legs, allowing my feet to dip into the Mississippi. It was an emotional moment.I hope it did not offer any bad ideas to the Gods, who have enough already. New Orleans had been one of the first cities to embrace rye whiskey; probably the most important in popularising the style; and one of its last holdouts.It was the home of Herbsaint and Peychaud Bitters; the birthplace of the Sazerac, in my view the first cocktail, and of Southern Comfort (which later moved to St Louis, Missouri). It was the land of the Mint Julep, the Ramos Fizz, the Absinthe Suissesse, the Milk Punch and the Café Brûlot.It was the home (I hope it still is) of the Dixie brewery and Blackened Voodoo beer. It was the only city in the United States where it was not an offence to walk down the street while consuming an alcoholic drink. It was also a city where people partied like nowhere else.At his most awkward, in the early days of the deluge, President George W. Bush blurted out a confession about his wild years. Living in Texas, he made trips across the Louisiana state line to enjoy himself. Sometimes he had a little too much fun in New Orleans.I wonder whether he preferred The Original Old Absinthe Bar (“Established 1806”) or the Old Absinthe House (“Since 1807”). Or was Sazerac Bar at the Fairmont more his speed? Or “Mr Nick” Castrogiovanni’s, where they once made a 34-layer pousse-café.The last time I was there, they were offering free drinks to women who could prove they were not wearing underclothes.Nick was said to have invented the city’s most famous cocktail after his shed-like bar barely survived a hurricane. The Hurricane Cocktail was made famous, though, by Pat O’Brien’s lurid version.George W’s rare moment of spontaneity and candour may cost dearly with his colleagues on the religious right. I am not surprised that a very small minority have told New Orleans that, if not the Sodom, it was certainly the Gomorrah of our times, and provoked God to destroy it.New Orleans could live without hurricanes, but it will be back at the bar sooner than we think.Its death has been exaggerated. Like that of Mark Twain.
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