We stumbled upon the regular Saturday night haunt of legendary blues guitarist Coco Robicheaux somehwat by accident two weeks ago in New Orleans. It was simply the best music being played on Frenchman Street at the time. I'd recognized his name from many JazzFest lineups and had been to Frenchman street when it was just taking off--it's the hottest place for music in the city. Coco sat with his guitar on a makeshift stage at a bar named Apple Barrel surrounded by a small group of musicians who come and sit in when he is there. A tip bowl on a stool rested in front of him. "I'll play until morning as long as the tips are coming in," he smiled. My friend Rafael immediately bought him a drink when we arrived. Apple Barrel is a hole in the wall with barely enough space for twenty people. We slipped into the back near the bathroom and found spots at the bar. The sidewalk is a fine place to listen to the music with a breeze coming off the Mississippi. During the break I asked him about a song he played that sounded good but I didn't recognize it. "The one with Jesus in the lyrics," I said. "That's 'Suzanne' by Leonard Cohen," he said. He then whispered the lyric I referenced into my ear:
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.
I knew the song, but it had never sounded so raw as in Robicheaux's capable hands. He growled the lyrics and his haunting guitar made it sound like a sermon. He told me more about why he plays "Suzanne."
"During the storm, a songbook fell off the bookshelf in my house and lay open to that song. I read the lyrics and they spoke to me about the city of New Orleans and Katrina." His voice was a low raspy growl. I listened to the song when I returned home.
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.
He has a point. The son of Choctaw and Cajun parents who has played with Muddy Waters, Coco Robicheax is a fixture on Frenchman street and the locals love him. "He'll give you the shirt off his back," Ally the bartender at the Spotted Cat told me. "We all have his number. If you need something, he'll be there."