The local culture cops took issue with Saturday's second line for David Bowie. Do they have a point?

david bowie photo
David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth"

Considering the static on Facebook I saw when a poster sounded out people on whether a bicycle second line in honor of David Bowie’s passing was disrespectful to New Orleans tradition, I expected the social media shitrain to fall over the non-vehicular one that took place Saturday in the French Quarter. It was organized in part by Arcade Fire, whose Win Butler and Regine Chassagne bought a house in New Orleans last year, and they were honoring an international star, not a part of the New Orleans community. They were doing it with Preservation Hall, but out-of-towners celebrating out-of-towners was too much for some, though not as many as I anticipated. 

Jarret Loftsted of The People Say Project touched off the closest to the predictable handwringing when he posted the gnomic “The Bowie Parade” is one of the great cultural dividing lines of the post-Reconstruction Era.” One commenter wrote, Shouldn’t you have at least some tie to New Orleans to get a second line? Or throw one, evidently. You can see the disapproval dripping off the letters where another typed simply and in quotes, “arcade fire.” And inevitably, someone wrote, Great for tourists, carpet baggers, and hipsters. That’s right. The fans of a man who died at 69 and whose career started in the early 1970s are lumberjack-bearded, craft beer-swilling scamps on skyscraper bikes, every balding, thickening, graying one of them.

My first response was suspicion too, but then I remembered that I have never been to the pure second line. No band that I’ve seen played dirges to the cemetery. If one plays a dirge for 10 to 15 minutes, that’s almost retro in its commitment before it gets to the party, and I’ve only been to one second line that went to the cemetery. When Lionel Ferbos died, we second lined five or so blocks, and when the hearse took a right, the band took left, went around the neutral ground, and danced the five or so blocks back toward the church. For Lionel Batiste, there was a pre-second line—one that involved bands, parading, and dancing. Everything a second line needs but the body, which was scheduled for something smaller a day or two later. If the tradition isn’t what it once was, it’s not Arcade Fire, Preservation Hall or David Bowie’s fault.

I understand the anxiety when it’s not clear if traditions are finding new expressions or are being bastardized, but I wish the message was more You’re playing with forces you don’t understand and less Hey you kids! Get off my lawn! The scolding often sounds more like one about taste than culture, the fear being that the honoree doesn’t make “real” music and the people honoring them don’t get it. It’s a fear that something that was once a part of a true-believing New Orleanian’s lifestyle—along with ‘OZ listening and SAPC-following—could be done by anyone, even someone who’s never heard of Snooks Eaglin or Eddie Bo.

The awkward irony is that for many New Orleanians, Eddie Bo, Bo Dollis, and Benny Spellman are like countries in Eastern Europe or West Africa—names they heard when they were half-listening, know are important, but can’t locate on a map. As much as Threadheads and fans of New Orleans music scorn the Acura Stage, that’s the stage a lot of New Orleanians love for good reason. If you’re in another city, you can see Springsteen or Elton John or The Who there; if you’re in New Orleans, their appearances on the Acura Stage are your chances to see them. And popular music is popular here just like everywhere else. There’s a reason why New Orleans biggest stars play clubs and theaters while national touring acts start in theaters and scale up to arenas.

For those people, a second line for David Bowie likely meant more than any of the ones for the city’s musical heroes. Their deaths are like the deaths of foreign dignitaries in that something just changed but it’s not clear what or why it matters. The loss is abstract. Bowie dies and they know why they feel sad. The Bowie second line gave them an opportunity to participate in a classic New Orleans ritual when they felt connected and weren’t simply completing a Civics extra credit assignment.

Not surprisingly, the crowd in the French Quarter Saturday wasn’t just hipsters, tourists and "carpetbaggers"—one word in the cultural conversation vocabulary I’d love to see retired since it’s always shorthand for Nothing you say matters. Bowie meant enough to some parents near me that they brought their kids to see the second line. Obviously, Arcade Fire’s fame helped boost the size of the crowd, but as per the instructions, there were a lot Bowies in the streets. A lot of Aladdin Sane face paints, and a surprising number of Labyrinth Goblin Kings. I liked a Lazarus, and only noticed when I was editing my video of the second line that a Thin White Duke emerged from the crowd to vogue her way out of the frame. Despite any anxiety that the crowd represented a commodified New Orleans, the scene reminded a few friends who would know of the ’70s when the French Quarter was gayer, freakier, funkier and less genteel.    

I found a good vantage point to shoot the second line (Thanks Jeffrey Dupuis!), and was surprised at how moving I found the sea of people who followed the band. I shot video for five minutes and planned to shoot until everybody passed to give viewers an idea of how many people were there, but things slowed down and a DJ at One Eyed Jacks played “Fame.” It soon became clear that some people weren’t going to leave that block of Toulouse for the next few hours, and the end of the second line might never pass. (Photographer Erika Goldring captured the size of the crowd in her photos for AXS.

When the band passed, it was playing “Heroes,” with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler singing inaudibly through a small bullhorn while Regine Chassagne played a keytar that wasn’t obviously plugged in. I wasn’t sure they brought anything but the idea and star power to the party at first, but once the group has passed, you can hear a bass line played more evenly than I expect from a sousaphone, so maybe Chassagne contributed more than we could easily see. After the second line, Butler took over the DJ job on the One Eyed Jacks balcony.

In case there was any cynicism about his motivation, days before the second line was announced, Butler told Rolling Stone:

David Bowie was one of the band's earliest supporters and champions," the group said. "He not only created the world that made it possible for our band to exist, he welcomed us into it with grace and warmth. We will take to the grave the moments we shared; talking, playing music and collaborating as some of the most profound and memorable moments of our lives. A true artist even in his passing, the world is more bright and mysterious because of him, and we will continue to shout prayers into the atmosphere he created.

I’m glad people question and contest steps as culture-based traditions take on new forms. I wish it didn’t come so often with a side of condescension, but the constant conversation keeps any change in traditions from happening too easily or too thoughtlessly. These kinds of conversations make potential slippery slopes less slippery. My one disappointment is that Bowie’s death and the second line made the untimely passing of Jimmy Glickman of New Orleans Music Exchange page two news. Glickman’s willingness to work with musicians made it possible for a lot of people get into music, whether for a hobby or a career. As I was typing this, musician Jesse Hall wrote on Facebook:

No offense to David Bowie -- I love Bowie -- but if you're gonna have a second line in New Orleans for him (featuring Arcade Fire, cos you can't write the history of American music without them), you sure better have one for Jimmy Glickman. That guy did as much for working New Orleans musicians as anyone. He went out of his way to support everybody any way he could. I remember once he didn't have exactly the drumhead I wanted so he LOANED me one until he got the other one in ... If you want to honor an important figure in NOLA music, someone who helped keep the music alive, remember Jimmy.

In a just world, he gets some of the love Bowie got Saturday, but that’s the difference between being a multi-platinum selling artist whose career affect millions and, well, everybody. And maybe that’s why the Bowie second line didn’t seem so wrong. Last year, B.B. King and Ornette Coleman died, and the year before that Pete Seeger did, and none of them got second lines. Maybe they should have, but I think in this case has a lot more to do with not only Bowie’s popularity but the specific nature of his art. The guy who could tell people they could be heroes without losing an undercurrent of melancholy or making the thought mawkish was special. That he said it in a way that made millions believe him is all the more impressive.