Rodney Slidall was shocked at my lack of musical knowledge. This was almost two decades ago, but I can still remember the conversation and what followed.
“You been living here how long, and you still haven’t made a First Friday?” he asked.
“Rodney, you know about me and religion.”
“No, my friend, I was meaning here, at Morgan’s Bar on the Point, on the first Friday of each month, we got the rockingest band on the Westbank of New Orleans. And you haven’t heard?”
“I had no idea,” I admitted.
“Well, at least your timing is right. This Friday is the first, and now you got no excuse.”
Two nights later, Rodney introduced me to the most famous musician in Algiers Point, a man who happens to live with a dog and seven cats just two blocks past even the most liberal definition of the neighborhood. A good thing being an outsider, in this case. The Historic Districts Commission would never allow Rocket Johnny to execute his house’s exterior decor. He’s covered most of the single shotgun house with tattered cardboard club posters dating back to 1954. The names Dave Bartholomew, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Little Richard, all printed from three-inch-tall wood type onto thick poster board.
No overall color scheme is evident in the spots between the signs. Y’see, Johnny is retired. Money can be scarce. He buys whatever paint is on sale when he needs to cover bald spots on the wood. He’s color-blind, anyway, and he just can’t get excited about whether the house is red or green or mauve. It is all of those.
But playing Morgan’s the first Friday of each month, oh yes, he gets excited about that every single time. It’s the most important thing in his life. He tells me that without reservation. Says Morgan’s is his church, more than the Third Zion.
Rocket Johnny’s band agrees. They worship their leader. They like him so much that every time he isn’t watching someone unplugs his guitar.
No one wants the band’s namesake embarrassed, and the night I first see him the sounds that come crashing down on the crowd every time the Rocket touches his six strings are more than just bad music, they are deeply painful sonic disturbances.
And loud. His ancient amplifier no longer has a volume knob. Its owner had broken it off in a pique some years earlier, twisting the control violently to get the amp beyond the ten that topped its scale of loudness. Now it is either off or on, totally silent or screaming as loudly as its rattling glass tubes will allow. Of course, even if the Rocket isn’t blind drunk and playing at ear-splitting levels, the fact that he refuses to tune his instrument when he is loaded would make his instrumental performance hard to bear.
So, the band watches him carefully. They know their man. When the right side of his face begins twitching in synch with his guitar arm, they can guarantee that the Rocket is working up a fit of Old Crow bourbon electricity. They’d call it a sure bet that it won’t be long before he breaks into one of his dissonant, tooth-grinding solos. The Rocket will cut loose on his own, no matter where the band is in the song. So he’ll twitch, and they’ll realize that disaster is imminent and disconnection necessary. Band members nod to each other, then the bass player or sax man will cadge his way over near their leader’s amp and carefully pull out the cord.
If their luck holds, they catch him in time.
The solos occur at irregular intervals in the set, but are visually easy to spot. The Rocket will suddenly whack his guitar with a 360 degree swoop of his arm, drop to his knees, and send his left hand flying up and down the scale while his the fingers of his right hand brutally pull soul-scalding screams from the heart of the stained, blood-red Stratocaster. He’ll be so into his musical seizure that, more often than not, he’ll have knocked out an impassioned six to eight bars of playing before he will begin to suspect that something is amiss. Then the Rocket gets up to his feet with a puzzled look on his face, though continuing to play at the same fiery level, his fingers scrambling over the fretboard in the seemingly random pattern that is characteristic of his style.
He tilts his head to the side, listening.
No, he can hear the rest of the band, he’s sure of that. He seems to be wondering whether he has gone selectively deaf, whether he might be unable to hear just his own instrument. Resolution hits his face. Then he strikes another massive power chord and watches for a reaction on the part of the audience nearest his amp. Puzzlement turns to interrogation. He mimes: “D’jew ‘ear ‘at?” to anyone watching at the bar, usually women named Cherry or Velveeta and their escorts, or two disconcerted nurses or waitresses or secretaries or crab-shuckers from downriver in Belle Chase. The returned answer is inevitably a hand to one ear, and an extended pronouncement of the word “Whaaaat?” over the din of the continuing band.
He turns to the band with the same question on his face, but they know what to do. They all jump right in.
“Some kinda good rockin solo, man!"
“You cookin tonight, Rocketman!”
The Rocket once again figures he’s experienced another stage aberration, that he’s played well and somehow just missed it. Everything is OK. Yeah. He smiles to the band and turns back to the crowd, still strumming away. Rhythm guitar now, rather than lead. He doesn’t have to play solos all the time. He’s an unselfish man.
The song comes to a big finish, and the sax sneaks over and plugs the Rocket back in. Rocket Johnny is the leader, drunk or sober, and it is his duty to announce all the tunes. He would notice if his guitar was dead when he twanged it in the quiet between songs and heard no explosive burst of cacophony.
Rocket Johnny is well described by his name in much more than just energy level. His slicked back sideburns climb to a riotous shock of hair that culminate in a vertical six inch cone in the dead center of his head. The point is aimed directly at the heavens, and remains in place no matter how much its owner shakes his body and flails at his instrument. He announces more than once during the set that, for an old man, he can do his job with the best of them. His job is making music, and the music’s job is making folks dance.
That’s the whole ball of wax.
Being properly attired helps him give his best. His fixed income budget being what it continually is, he spends weeks combing thrift shops for just the right assemblage. The results are striking, and appropriately metallic. His clothing is as stiff and shiny as his shoes, and neither has a natural fiber or color between them. The only moving part of his ensemble, the foot-long day-glo green fringe on his vest, looks strangely flammable. Petroleum products suit the Rocket.
Other than his pitted, purplish-black complexion, his appearance gives no clue to his ancestry or origins. Just the opposite. The Rocket exterior seems to announce definitively: “You cain’t know where I’m from, but you can be sure it ain’t around this corner of the universe. Though I was borned and raised right here, I was.”
The Rocket has a faraway look in his eyes, too. An image continually dances just beyond his range of focus. Something unrelated to bourbon consumption. Out there waiting for Rocket Johnny. But every time he stares right at it, the object disappears. Even onstage. He sees it, loses it, then glances quickly from side to side, giggling loudly into the mike, forgetting what he’s announced, and starts playing the wrong song. The Statue of Love shake their heads and change course and key to follow the Rocket’s lead.
* * *
They were all born within a few blocks of each other in the Lower Point, that small water-surrounded peninsula across the river from downtown, including the Rocket, though the memory of his origins have long since been dissolved by both circumstance and bottled cleaning products. When he retired from his job as the custodial engineer of the Opelousas Street Elementary School, Johnny Rae Turner organized his old friends into a band so quickly that they all knew he had been planning the move for a long long time. They were in the same high school marching band together when they were young, but there wasn’t much use for a triangle in a blues band, so the adult Johnny Rae decided guitar would be his thing.
He’d bought a fourteen-step instruction book back in 1973 and taught himself to play guitar between recesses, in the school basement. Got himself a used Strat and amp with his first retirement check. The widow who sold him that guitar told him that her late husband had asked to be buried with it, but she’d pulled it out right out of his stiff hands before the undertaker could close the coffin, figuring music belonged to the world of the living. She also took his golden horseshoe ring. The hundred bucks the guitar brought in from Johnny and the seventy-five she got from hocking the ring paid the rent on her one-bedroom shotgun-style house that month. It was the first time that her husband had furnished rent money in their twenty-two years of marriage. He had not been as steady a provider as he had been a philanderer. Johnny hadn’t heard her last remark as she shut the door behind him and his new purchase.
As a self-educated guitarist, Johnny has developed a unique style for his personal statements, plucking at multiple stings with his thumb and forefinger in rapid skipping motions down the keyboard, then back up again. His amp has a natural distortion that hides any distinctive difference between notes. Johnny finds that exciting, and always hits the strings as hard as he can. The sound he produces is akin to the result of pushing a diesel locomotive full of Chinese gongs down a flight of metal stairs. The boys in the neighborhood where he practices says it is more like one of those giant flaming torches NASA sends wailing into space, if they pulled out all the satellites and astronauts, and then dropped in a load of hubcaps and bowling balls and yardcats in heat. That’s how Johnny Rae Turner got the name Rocket Johnny. Guitar noise. The hair and outfit came later, to go along with the name.
When he isn’t drinking, and when his guitar is in tune – two things that don’t coincide very often -- he isn’t a bad rhythm player. But those solos are something else again.
They are less painful if he isn’t plugged in, but it’s Rocket Johnny’s energy that make audiences go crazy anyway, even if they can’t hear him.
The Rocket came up with the Statue of Love name himself. He wanted something classy, something that would complement the sentiments of a soulful blues band. Something that would draw the women. He remembered a picture he had seen in an art book back at the elementary school, an armless marble Venus.
“Now there’s a girl who got the blues,” he announced to the band. “This woman here she’s up in heaven specializin’ in good lovin’, an she got no way to get a hold on her man. Got the blues bad. Hell, I sure would. Sound right for us.”
Rocket Johnny and the Statue of Love is available for bookings the last three Fridays and any Saturday night of the month. They tape a sign on the Morgan’s jukebox whenever they play to let folks know that is the case. The bass player is a night watchman the other five days, and the sax player’s wife won’t let him out of the house after eight pm, except on weekends when she stays by her momma’s house and don’t give a damn what tomfool messes that worthless man gets hisself into.
The band plays for the hat at Morgan’s, but rarely goes home with less than twenty dollars apiece. They’d play for nothing if it came to that, but they like having some extra folding money, and they love the attention.
The Rocket gives lessons in the Fourteen Steps to Guitar Professionalism at his postered and multi-colored home, by appointment only.
Rates are negotiable on all Rocket Johnny services, but he plays weddings and funerals for free, with the proper advance notice. “It’s only right,” he says.
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