29 July 2017

Church of Fred

I was barely 20, just back from a summer in France, madly in love with a musician, and toying with the idea of becoming a journalist. Neither my boyfriend nor I had a car – so it’s fuzzy how we actually got to the service at the Assembly Center on the campus of Louisiana Tech. The main act was Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, poised to become the greatest southern rock band since Skynard – if they could just catch a break with Fly Me Courageous. Anyway – I loved Honeysuckle Blue and had a friend at Tech so it seemed like an opportunity to interview an actual rock band, maybe get a piece in the venerable Pow Wow the next week, and catch up with Nancy.

The name of the opening band was Cowboy Mouth.

Yeah. That Cowboy Mouth.

Assembled by Fred LeBlanc, former drummer of Dash Rip Rock, (I witnessed some of that break up from a darkened corner of the old Enoch’s/Pierce’s on DeSaird the year before… but that’s another story.) the band boasted some of the best rock players from NOLA: John Thomas Griffith of the Red Rockers and Paul Sanchez on guitar with Paul Clement on bass.  I knew it would be good. I mean. It was Fred. I’d witnessed Dash Rip Rock. I knew. Or, I thought I knew. But this was not Dash. There was no Bill to restrain him. This was Fred unleashed.

And it was a revelation. The Church of Fred: Jimmy Swaggart AND Jerry Lee, if he played drums rather than piano. We screamed, we danced, we writhed on the floor in ecstasy. We never wanted it to end.

And then Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ came on. And they were great. But they weren’t Cowboy Mouth.

I can’t count the number of times I saw Cowboy Mouth in the 90s and early 2000s. I danced on bars, I fell off tables, I writhed on the floor in pools of stale beer with 400 of my closest friends, I danced at tailgates, I screamed at amphitheatres. Monroe, Chapel Hill, St. Louis, Memphis, even NOLA. Every show was as frenetic and magical as the one before. I left feeling part of something bigger than myself, invincible, alive. It was as close as I got to church.

Then, for whatever reason – we stopped attending services. We knew when the band was in town, but never managed to go. The kids had soccer, we had to get up early; Fred was such an ass that time in St. Louis; The crowd was TOO rowdy, not like when they played Enoch’s; Paul left – it isn’t the same. Always a reason, until….

Twenty-seven years, three college degrees, and two kids later I returned to the Church of Fred. We almost balked at the ticket price – but decided – hey. It’s Cowboy Mouth. We haven’t seen them in years. They always put on a hell of show. So we went. And it was a hell of a show. But….

there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something that didn’t quite sit well with me. It wasn’t that it was essentially the same amazing show I first saw in Ruston twenty-seven years ago. More than my pity for such a talented musician to have squandered so many chances at the notoriety and commercial success he’s chased all these years. More than the melancholia that sets in when you realize you are middle-aged, that your summer is fading into autumn. It took me a few songs of watching Fred play that crowd.

Fred’s performance was masterful from a professional point of view. He complimented, he cajoled, he pleaded, he demanded, he placated, he rewarded, he punished. All with a driving backbeat that’s easy to dance to.  And they obeyed his every word. He told them to cheer, they cheered. He insinuated he didn’t like Iowa, they booed. He told them to get on the floor, and they did. Those that didn’t, he shamed.  And the crowd loved him for it. Adulation. Worship. It was a symbiotic relationship. They craved his authority. And he definitely needed their love.

He’s music’s Donald Trump.

Don’t get me wrong - I can’t remember a time he ever brought politics into the show. And I’ve only ever seen Fred use his powers for good. He once stopped a show mid-song and forced a pair of frat boys to literally kiss and make up rather than fight in the mosh pit. He refuses to allow negativity and violence at the shows – he demands everyone turn and meet someone they don’t know at the beginning of every show so the audience are friends, like the sign of peace at mass. Every audience member is expected to be an active participant in the joint effort to have a good time and feel alive.

But understanding Fred, having been part of that congregation for so long, I finally understand Trump supporters in an uncomfortably real way. I’ve struggled over the last two years to understand why otherwise rational people support him. What do they see in him? How can he command such total allegiance when it is obvious to everyone else he is a megalomaniacal con-man, a grifter completely lacking in morality and void of anything of worth and consequence?

Trump’s not as good of a showman as Fred, but they aren’t so very different in technique. Trump compliments, he cajoles, he pleads, he demands, he placates, he rewards, he punishes. His supporters, too, want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want that energy, that high that only being part of the anointed, the initiated, can bring. They want to feel alive.

But where Fred brings pounding rhythms of positivity, Trump brings division. Rather than being united through music, his supporters seek power. They suspend reality so that high lasts, so they aren’t ordinary, mundane. That innate need for belonging supersedes reason. They excuse the lies, the collusion, the corruption.  He is theirs and they are his. They need each other.

I’m not the first to come to this realization. About Fred or Trump. But last night, as I thought about almost three decades of choices and regrets, as I watched aging frat boys and sorority sisters cling to the joy of a fading summer sunset alongside townies and former club kids wishing their knees could withstand a good pogo in the pit, I understand some friends and families a little better than I did Friday morning. I’ll never agree with them. Trump is dangerous. He is a traitor pushing our democracy to a breaking point.  But I do understand why they cling to him.

And it’s because of Fred and Cowboy Mouth.