Friday, June 29, 2007

In Search of the Ultimate Boudin

It’s 2am, Sept 15, 1975. Two men are sitting in the front seat of a cherry ’61 Cadillac in front of the Austin Motel. The driver is a 24-year-old white kid from a middle-class Texas family and the other is a 50-year-old black man known as The King of Zydeco. The reason they are sitting immobile in the car late at night is because out of the tube radio comes the voice of an announcer describing with increasing excitement and incredulity the final rounds of the Muhammed Ali-Joe Frazier fight ten thousand miles away in steaming Manila. Both huge boxers are exhausted, reeling, hurt. The Kid and the King stare at the radio’s glowing face wondering how on earth this fight could have continued for so many rounds. Heavyweight boxers generate enough power in each blow to break ribs, bruise kidneys, shatter jawbones, and these two giants had been landing punch after punch for 14 rounds. At last Ali somewhere found the strength to launch a series of blows that sent Frazier stumbling, almost down. The bell rang. The fight was over, Frazier too beaten to come out again. Clifton Chenier turned to me and said, “Now that Ali, there’s a man. That’s a man.”

In the mid-seventies I was a DJ at the first “Progressive Country” radio station, the advertising voice of Armadillo World Headquarters, Talent Coordinator for Austin City Limits, and the Rock Music writer at the Austin American-Statesman. Austin was basking in its new air of hipness- we elected a hippie mayor, we skinny-dipped at Barton Springs and Lake Travis, good Mexican weed was cheap, and the Pearl and Shiner and Lone Star beer was cold. Sir Doug Sahm called Austin “Groover’s Paradise”, and it was. It was a heady time to live here and I was riding the groove as hard as I could.

I had seen the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, at the great blues club, Antone’s. I was playing him on my radio show and writing about him in my newspaper column, so it was a natural to book him on Austin City Limits. I was also writing features for a little journal called “Picking Up the Tempo” about various facets of Texas Music, one of which would be about Clifton, who had a big Cajun following on the Texas Gulf Coast and a big hippie following in Austin. I decided to go down to Lafayette Louisiana, where Clifton had a home, and write about him and a gig he was doing at Jay’s Cockpit and Lounge over in Crowley. Lightnin’ Hopkins was opening for him.

In Austin had been hearing reports about a long hot drunk in Breaux Bridge called the International Crawfish Festival, and people were coming back from it with massive hangovers and big bags full of a strange rice sausage called Boudin. When I arrived in Lafayette, I was talking to Clifton about the country around there where he grew up, and I said, “Clifton, will you take me to get the best boudin around here?” and he said “Joe, get in the Cadillac” and we sailed out over the swamps toward the magical sausage.

My memory of that day is faded now- I think we went to a little wood frame shop that backed up to the Bayou Teche with little ladies in hairnets and white dresses standing over big trays of steaming rice and meat, and old white and chrome butcher cases full of boudin and cut meat. Clifton told me to grab a cold sweet potato like he would always do as a child and eat one with my boudin. All the boudin ladies were excited to see Clifton, a tall handsome man with a “do” and a mouthful of gold. He showed me how to squeeze the rice mixture out of the casing onto a saltine and eat it, or directly into my mouth if I was in a hurry. It was steaming, fiery, redolent of pork and pork liver, and delicious. Cajun fast food is what it was, a portable pilaf…

Lightnin’ Hopkins opened the show that night wearing his trademark porkpie hat and RayBans with a cig dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was playing a black Strat rather than the acoustic Gibson that he played at folk clubs. He rocked the house, Cajuns and Black Creoles doing some serious Mess Around on the dance floor. When his set was over, he got paid, got into his black Cadillac, and drove back to Houston, stiffing the members of Clifton’s band who had backed him up. Typical Lightnin’…

Clifton was called the King of Zydeco because he had The Sacred Groove inside of him, because he had one of the best voices in the history of American music, and because he wore a huge gold and red velvet bejeweled crown onstage when the mood struck him. When he started playing, you could not sit still. I can’t, don’t really dance, but with a couple of Pearl Beers in me and Clifton playing a Cajun two-step, I thought I could, which is, after all, the only thing that matters.

“But when a woman gets musty, you know that she must bathe…"Lightnin' Hopkins

Now here it was 25 years later and Kimmie and I were driving out of Houston towards Louisiana with Lightnin’ Hopkins on the CD player and the top down on our little convertible, in search of the boudin joint Clifton took me to that day. He had passed away a few years before, so I was gonna have to find it by feel. We dropped down off of I-10 outside of Port Arthur and headed south towards the Sabine Pass and the border. Crossing into Louisiana has some of the same feel for me as crossing into Mexico. It is still a mysterious place, and the law gets bent more here, life gets lived a little more here, and it is the only Catholic culture in the South, which gives it an oddly laissez faire air. Whereas in other deep South states you can’t buy a bottle of wine in a grocery store, or any liquor at all on a Sunday or anyplace outside of a specifically licensed hard booze store, in Louisiana you pass by little drive-through stands selling Daiquiri’s to go. Baptists are not amused…

There was no sign at the border telling us we were Here, but when we stopped for gas at a little combo gas station, grocery, and lunch counter, the special of the day was seafood gumbo with Tater Tots and I knew where we were. On the shelves were black roux in jars, Andre Pink Champagne, whiskey and signs about Jesus.

Next stop: Breaux Bridge