Coco Robicheaux in New York City
Sad news from New Orleans: musician Coco Robicheaux died on November 25.
I spent some time with Coco in New York City in late 2005. He landed there for a while after Hurricane Katrina. He was a beguiling man. A friend said, “It sounds like he was a museum of himself.” That’s a good way to put it.
Click through to read a profile of Coco Robicheaux I finished in November 2005.
Coco Robicheaux grabbed his machete and .357 Magnum, stepped into his Jeep Cherokee, put it in four-wheel drive, and pulled away from his French Quarter apartment. He had stayed through Hurricane Katrina—even the breaching of the lakefront levee hadn’t phased him. But three days later, when he heard the river levees were also giving, he imagined the floods converging in the middle and submerging the city. He had also seen the looters. It was time to get out.
The September sun reflected off the rising murky water as Coco turned left on Elysian Fields Avenue. He knew the I-10 was flooded, so he drove north hoping to catch the I-610 out of town. When he got to Clayborne Avenue, the water had risen too high. As he turned the truck around, a fat man waded toward him through the waist-deep water. He had a long piece of steel in his hand.
“Water’s gettin’ kinda deep,” the man said.
“Yeah, you right,” Robicheaux said.
“Maybe you oughta just get outta that car right now,” the man said.
Coco grabbed the loaded .357, stuck it in the man’s neck, and said, “My piece of steel is bigger than yours.”
Coco Robicheaux parts his hair in the middle and pulls it back into a thick braid that hangs like a rope over his shoulder and ends in a wispy twelve-inch strand near the front pockets of his jeans. He wears a small stud in his left nostril and small hoops in both ears. His leathery, flat-nosed face has six thick wrinkles. Two of them stand like a goalpost between his eyebrows, two crescents float under his eyes, and two run like parentheses from the top of each nostril around and under his thin-lipped, impish grin.
He usually wears a hat—a white Stetson, a brown derby, or a red beret. He wears three rings on his left hand, all American Indian faces in headdresses. Sometimes he’ll twist his hair into two braids, each in tighter and tighter threads toward the end. He often wears a leather jacket, under which you might see a thick tuft of brown and grey chest hair sprouting from a swatch of red rockabilly flames or purple Native American patterns. He usually wears jeans, too, unless he’s in an outlandish suit. The jeans would be tight on anyone else, but he is as skinny as an exclamation point. The boots—snakeskin—are tight. It takes him a while to get ready in the morning.
Robicheaux’s fingerprints are all over New Orleans. He sculpted the bust of Professor Longhair in the front lobby of Tipitina’s—a famous club at Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon Avenues—that patrons rub for good luck. The House of Blues on Decatur Street in the French Quarter used to have Robicheaux’s deep Cajun drawl on its answering machine. (Robicheaux’s own answering machine says, “This is Co-co Ro-bee-cheaux. I might be out at the sto’, or honkytonkin’ ‘tween Texas and Georgia. Leave a message…a short message.”)
Robicheaux has played Jazz Fest and the French Quarter Festival every year for the past ten years. He growls like Howlin’ Wolf over a pan-Southern mix of R&B, New Orleans second-line, gospel, Texas country and western, and mournful minor blues. He infuses his style with a spirituality based in his Choctaw and Cajun ancestry. Robicheaux’s sound, and the stories he tells, call to mind the recently departed Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. (“We played poker together,” he said of Brown. “He’d be sitting there in his underpants, put his teeth on the table, hair sticking out…I loved that guy.”)
Through his music and appearance, Robicheaux has created a mystical mirage, a museum of himself with separate wings for the Indian medicine man, the Cajun mischief-maker, the outlaw, the hobo, and the hard-luck bluesman. Part of the reason New Orleans is now so “spooky and surreal,” as a friend there recently described it, is that people like Coco Robicheaux are gone. Hurricane Katrina scattered the rich culture of New Orleans like a ball of dough dropped in a pile of flour.
Heading back south on Elysian Fields Avenue, Coco thought about his friend Jimmy. Jimmy lived upstairs in an apartment building on Poland Avenue in the Ninth Ward. The Ninth Ward is one of the lowest parts of New Orleans, and Coco knew Jimmy would be trapped if he stayed. He drove to Jimmy’s building through the rising water and found him there with his wife, his six-year-old daughter Joliette, and Joliette’s mother.
“Jimmy,” said Coco, “we gotta get out, man.” “Naw,” said Jimmy. “It don’t flood that bad around here.”
“No,” said Coco. “This is the river and the lake coming into the city. We could get 19 or 20 feet of water.”
“We got food, we can stay,” said Jimmy.
“Yeah, but you can’t bathe,” said Coco. “You got your little girl, these women are crying. Look, you know I would stay here, and I’m leaving.”
Jimmy agreed to go. There wasn’t room in the truck for everyone, so Coco got in his truck and headed back to the French Quarter to unload his bags. He drove down Poland Avenue, dodging trees that had fallen and electrical wires that were fizzing in the water. Back at Royal Street, Coco unloaded his guitar and the bags he had packed, then drove back to pick up Jimmy and his crew.
Back on Poland Avenue, Coco pulled up as Jimmy was trying to convince his neighbor, Crazy Charmaine, to leave. She didn’t want to leave her dog behind. Coco said the dog could come, too. Coco and Jimmy began loading up the truck—clothes, food, dog food, dog. As they were getting ready to pull away, a hornet stung Coco above his eye.
“That’s answer enough for me,” said Coco. “The bus is leaving.”
As they crossed town toward the Superdome, the water rose higher and higher. It had been up to the truck’s exhaust pipe, but when they reached Poydras Street, Coco realized that his elbow, which he was resting on the window ledge, was getting wet. He looked in his rear view mirror and noticed that cars were following him—much smaller cars.
Coco approached the Crescent City Connection, the two huge, black, steel spans that take U.S. 90 out of New Orleans, over the Mississippi River, through Gretna and Jefferson Parish, and out to the swamps of southern Louisiana. The exit ramp onto the Connection dips low before it climbs up to the bridge. Coco made it through the dip and looked in his rear view mirror again. He saw three cars disappear. As he drove his friends across the Mississippi River, he thought he might be the last person to drive out of the city.
A few weeks after the hurricane, Robicheaux found himself in New York. Katie McLean, an actress friend in New York, had offered her Turtle Bay apartment while she was vacationing upstate, and Tom Thayer, a co-owner of d.b.a., a bar with branches in New Orleans and Manhattan, had lined up a few gigs. Shortly after he arrived, Robicheaux played at Micky’s Blue Room, a bar on Avenue C in Alphabet City, on a Tuesday night in the middle of a ten-day stretch of rain. Early in the evening, Robicheaux and his trio—Rob Wagner on saxophone and Dave Easley on pedal steel guitar, both from New Orleans—played slow swampy blues, taking long solos to fill the nearly empty room. As the night wore on, the room filled up with other New Orleanians who had recently arrived in New York. Another sax player showed up and sat in. Guitarist Alex McMurray sat down behind Robicheaux and played blues licks. Another man pulled an accordion out of a case and sat down on a bench. A man in a suit and porkpie hat led a crowd of stylish people into the room. They danced. James “Satchmo of the Ghetto” Andrews grabbed the microphone.
“Good evening, y’all. Give Coco Robicheaux a big hand! We gonna do ‘Ooh Pooh Pah Doo,’ y’all. We gonna take y’all back to New Orleans! We gonna do a song made famous by my grandfather Jesse Hill. When I say ‘alright,’ you say ‘okay’! Alright!”
It was a reunion. As James and the band boogied through “Ooh Pooh Pah Doo,” the crowd of evacuees pushed the tables to the back of the room, danced, and forgot their troubles. Andrews called to the crowd, and the crowd called back. He eventually turned it back over to Robicheaux, and the rest of the musicians played into the night.
A week later, I went to meet with Coco near his friend’s apartment, where he had been staying with his wife and Dave Easley. I walked up First Avenue, past the United Nations and the tony shops and boutiques, and saw Coco standing at the corner of 51st Street. He wore a brown derby, black wraparound shades, a leather jacket over a red Bob Marley T-shirt, jeans, and black leather boots. He had a cigar in his hand. In the most diverse city in America, Coco looked incongruous.
“The doormen here, they look at me like, ‘Uh, can I help you?’” said Robicheaux as we walked down 51st Street toward the East River. “It’s a trip, man. I’m always getting in somebody’s way. It’s slow down in New Orleans. There, if you’re going fast, you get blocked all the time by people just moseying along. Up here, if I mosey along, I have to do the idiot dance—I go this way, he goes that way, I go that way. ‘Just move, make your move,’ you know?”
We crossed the pedestrian bridge over FDR Drive, descended a set of stairs, and sat down on a park bench. The end of Coco’s braid curled in his lap like a ferret. The park is a sliver of concrete overlooking an industrial river scene—the 59th Street Bridge, corroded black pipes, warehouses, and barges. It reminded me of New Orleans. I asked Coco if he felt the same.
“The Mississippi’s wider,” he said, his deep voice vibrating the bench.
As we sat in the October morning light, Robicheaux told me his life story. He was born Curtis Arcenaux in Louisiana’s rural Ascension Parish, halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, among sugar canes, swamps, and rivers. His mother was Cajun, and his father, a Choctaw, was a senior chief master sergeant in the Air Force. It was here that he first fell in love with music.
“My daddy put us way out in the woods,” he said. “We were far from the town, so we had to walk everywhere. But if you walked through the woods to get to the highway, the first place you saw was little black nightclub. There would be tour buses out front—Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave. The thing had a big old ventilation fan behind it, and you could stand out there. The smoky would air blow the mosquitoes off you, out there on the swamp, and if the fan hadn’t been running, you could have touched the drummer on the back of head. It was like you were on stage with these guys.” Seeing these bands inspired the 13-year-old to start singing and playing trombone. When he was 15, his family moved closer to New Orleans. One day, he found a broken guitar on Bourbon Street. “I glued it, screwed it, and put it back together with fishing line,” he said. He didn’t know anyone who played guitar, so he taught himself, making up his own tuning—A, A, E, A, C#, E. The low strung octave on the bottom end gives Robicheaux his swampy, percussive sound. “I still play with that same tuning,” he said. “Dr. John said to me, ‘How did you fuck yourself up like that, Coco? He handed me a Telecaster one time, and I said, ‘I can’t play that!’”
He stayed in high school, but started playing music on Bourbon Street every night. “It was the ultimate lure to the country boy,” he said. “The day I graduated, I got a place on Bourbon Street.” After performing in New Orleans and cutting a couple records, Robicheaux moved out to San Francisco just in time for the hippie movement in the late 1960s.
In San Francisco, Robicheaux had the first bad break in a long string of rotten luck that would run right up through Hurricane Katrina. He lost his wallet, and it ended up in the hands of a sociopath. “I was a wanted man,” said Robicheaux. “He stole my identity—there wasn’t much of that back then—and it took me years to get straightened out. He was a criminal—killed police, bombing, smuggling drugs and guns.” Robicheaux traces his guitar style back to this incident.
“I couldn’t stay in one place and keep a band together,” he said. “In the middle of the night, I’d have to blast off. If I met somebody like you saying, ‘Hey, I’m with the paper,’ I was gone that night. So I developed a style of playing bass, rhythm, and lead all at one time.”
After this incident, Curtis Arcenaux took the name Coco Robicheaux, and he traveled all over the United States. The name comes from an old Cajun folk legend. “It’s about a little kid who wouldn’t listen,” he said. “Originally, it was a little girl who wouldn’t listen, and the boogerman got her. Eventually, it was any kid who wouldn’t listen—‘Quit that, Coco.’ If you were really acting up, they’d say “Coco Robicheaux!’ They never explained what happened to Coco; it was just that Coco had been got. Loup Garou got Coco. Loup Garou is the Cajun boogerman, like a wolfman, a swamp monster.”
Over the next twenty years, Coco married four times, and two of his wives died—one of cancer, one of hepatitis. He has one child and two step children. One lives in Atlanta, one lives in New York City, and he’s not so sure about the other. “I don’t know where he is,” said Robicheaux. “He was a rough one.”
In the early 1990s, Robicheaux moved back to New Orleans and worked his way into the top echelon of local musicians. In 1994, he signed a record contract. The next day, he was hit by a car.
“I was supposed to be in studio next day,” he said. “I had a pocket full of dough, and I walked out, I was waving to people, and I look up to see this car doing forty miles an hour, and POW! It sounded like bullets going, all those broken bones. You’re sitting on top of the world one second…”
While he was in the hospital, his landlord evicted him and threw all of his belongings out on the street. When he got out of the hospital and went back to his apartment, he found some panhandling punk rockers who were on the verge of being evicted.
“I said, ‘How much you owe?’ They said, ‘Forty bucks, but we don’t have it.’ I said, ‘I’ll pay your fucking rent, man.’ I was helpless, I couldn’t wipe my ass, brush my teeth…I was crucified. They took me in, took care of me, combed my hair, took me to the bathroom. They found me a wheelchair and took me out for rides.”
Once he was able to walk, he started playing music again. He recorded another album and went on a tour of Europe and Australia. In 1999, he got engaged to his current wife. A week before the wedding, a local magazine came to his apartment on Frenchmen Street to do a photo shoot for a story.
“They were doing an article on beautiful homes of New Orleans musicians,” he said. “The guy needed more light—he should have brought more lights—so we turned on all the lights. It was an old place. They finished the shoot and interview, and I walked around the corner to get my mail. When I came back, my wife was in the street. It was already over.”
The apartment had caught fire. His fiancée ran back and retrieved her wedding dress, but they lost everything else. The music community threw a concert at House of Blues to raise money for him, and he managed to get his life back on track for the next few years.
In the summer of 2005, Robicheaux was eating dinner in the French Quarter when a crazy local came up and picked a fight. “This guy came up and started wailing on me,” said Robicheaux. “He said, ‘Let’s see you hold that microphone now,’ and tried to break my hand. He’s a crazy guy, always talking to himself. I don’t know who he thought I was. Anyway, the police believed him.”
The man claimed that Robicheaux made racist comments, so they charged him with a hate crime in addition to assault and battery. However, he claims that the records blew away when Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans Courthouse. “I don’t know, I could be a fugitive,” he said, smiling. “There’s no way to tell. I can’t call them. Not that I’d want to anyway. ‘Hey, you looking for me?” I don’t think so!”
After Robicheaux escaped Hurricane Katrina, he went to Hilton Head, South Carolina, with his daughter. Hurricane Ophelia met them there, and after evacuating to Texas, he had to flee Hurricane Rita. It was then that he decided to come to New York.
“It’s so weird to go from a big city with nobody in it to a city like this with everybody doing everything,” he said. “I keep thinking this weird thought. I see people around here, I know how much rent is, how they have all the luxuries and the nannies, and I think, ‘That could be taken away from you in a twinkling of an eye, and you don’t even realize it. You don’t realize how lucky you are, how good you got it.’ You can enjoy the luxuries and that life forever, but you could lose it that quick.
“I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me many times,” Robicheaux continued, “but this one’s like ‘Ouch!’ This one hurts. Before, at least I had New Orleans to take my misery to, you know?”
Coco and his friends drove through Gretna and took U.S. 90 out toward the swamps. At Boutte, they caught the I-310 up to I-10. It was 260 more miles to Texas. Another friend of Coco’s had a quiet place out in the woods there where they could stay for a while. The battered buildings and splintered trees along I-10 looked like they had just absorbed an atomic bomb blast.
Coco found an open gas station off the highway and pulled into line. The line was long, and the people in it were agitated. A confused old lady was inside asking how to use her credit card, and her husband sat terrified in an old Cadillac by the pump. People in the line cursed at him and honked their horns. “Push her out of the way!” someone yelled. “Wait your turn,” Coco thought, looking down at his gun.
Eventually, someone got out of a car and helped the couple. Coco pumped his gas and pulled back onto the I-10. His caravan made it out of the swamps, crossed the Sabine River, and cruised through the quiet, cloudy cotton fields of Texas.
Beekman Place had been the street of Irving Berlin and John D. Rockefeller, III—gaslamps, cobblestone street, iron fences, flowerboxes, elegant townhouses. The East River peeked out from between two buildings. Coco stood in front of a townhouse on the corner of Beekman and 51st Street. He had two suitcases, one handbag, and a guitar in a canvas case on his back. On one of the suitcases, a white Stetson sat mounted on a brown derby. I asked him what kind of boots he was wearing.
“Snakeskin. Got ’em in Texas. When I left, I only had flip-flops, and I never wear flip-flops. They said, ‘Come on, we’re going shopping.’ That’s a good friend.”
The boots. The guitar someone had shipped to him in New York. The leather jacket he picked up from his apartment when he flew back briefly to New Orleans. He had managed to reassemble his image in the middle of all this chaos.
I marveled at how thin line was between the person and the persona. I wondered which of his stories were Curtis Arceneaux’s and which were Coco Robicheaux’s. But it doesn’t matter. That’s what we want out of our bluesmen, and especially out of New Orleans. It’s America’s foundational culture—the voodoo, the tall tales, the way songs and legends are passed on orally, the direct link to Africa and the West Indies.
Everyone wants a piece of the real New Orleans, but if it’s going to remain authentic, they have to keep it for themselves and present it to us as a myth, a chimera, a mirage. They are the keepers of the alchemy that transforms American suffering into American joy. When the rest of us try to do it, our hands wind up covered in a grimy residue of irony and nervous laughter, or perhaps simple melodrama. If we want their gift, we have to accept their version of the truth.
I asked Robicheaux if he wanted me to call him a cab for the airport. “Not yet,” he said, pulling out a cigar. “One must retain one’s civility in times like these.” After chatting for a while, I walked up to First Avenue and hailed a cab. The driver put the cab in reverse and sped backwards down the block, swerving around a garbage truck. He backed around the corner and parked, and Coco got in.
“LaGuardia,” Robicheaux barked.
As we sped over the Triboro Bridge, I asked him if he had any last reflections on New York before he went home for good.
“Well, yeah, they treated us really good. Luckily they kept us so busy that I kept my mind off of it. I was reading paper all the time, but eventually it just disappeared.
“I had kind of an opportunity to stay here, but my friends back home were telling me, ‘I don’t think you would make it, man. New York’s cold as anything. You’ll be trying to haul equipment, and you’ll be miserable. The winter lasts forever.’ Then I called up my friend. He said, ‘Man, we need you down here. Morale is sinking. We need to get somebody enthusiastic. We need some musicians, man.’”
The cab pulled up to the Delta terminal at LaGuardia. I held Coco’s hats while he loaded his bags onto a cart. We shook hands, and he wheeled his luggage through the terminal doors.
It had been a wild escape, and a weird quiet cushioned the Texas night sky. Coco and Jimmy poured glasses of whiskey and started writing a song about a man who thinks he survived the hurricane, but didn’t. His friends try to explain it to him, but he doesn’t understand until a child tugs on his jacket and tells him.
I dream that I’m alive,
I imagine that I survived.
Now they tell me that I died,
But I don’t believe ‘em.
All the people in this town,
Searchin’ for higher ground.
That’s why I had to stay around.
How could I leave ‘em?
Wading in the water,
Carrying sons and daughters,
Husbands and their wives,
Trying to save their lives.
But now the sun went down,
They can’t see their way around.
Nobody hears their voice,
No angel rescuers rejoice.
There’s not a sound but “Help us.”
I wish this sounded better,
but it’s the best that I can do.
I’m so far under water
As I sing this song to you.
Why must all these people have to wait?
Don’t they realize they’re running late?
They say, “Look at all we’ve lost,
And who will pay the cost?”
But if I don’t find you,
Baby, it’s all through.
They try to tell him, “Move along.”
He says, “Well, I heard my friend call,
Can’t you hear him? They’re calling.”
“Daddy, are you through with this old town?”
I said, “Honey, I don’t think that we’ll be found, Come on, let’s find your mother.
Then we’ll find the others, and
We’ll go home, because that’s where the heart is.
We’ll go home.”