Music: The World of Keith Spera

A music writer with stories to tell

Ben Thomson Photograph

Keith Spera has one of those jobs that the unwashed denizens of the great New Orleans bohemia all envy. Where uncountable bloggers project hidden envy about the music life (wouldn’t you like a permanent Jazz Fest pass?), the hustling Times-Picayune music reporter is there, not just on the ground, but everywhere, even inside the Music Shed on a blazing July afternoon 11 months post-Hurricane Katrina, while composer Terence Blanchard does soundtrack scoring for the documentary When the Levees Broke with director Spike Lee.

“Clad in white with matching sneakers, the director peered at a TV monitor occupying his entire field of vision,” writes Spera in Groove Interrupted, a book that builds on his newspaper work. “Blanchard slumped in a chair nearby, resting his weary head in his hands. A dozen musicians and assistants arrayed behind them watched silently. The mood was calm, but focused.”

 Raised in New Orleans East, Spera found his calling in the pages of Gambit and OffBeat, then vaulted to the big daily. The city and its neighborhood culture yield a soundtrack to Spera much as the court system and parade of political felons sing for James Gill’s morning meditations on virtues of the Constitution. But where opinion is Gill’s stiletto, Spera serves an ecumenical filter for sounds of the urban story.

The book, subtitled Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans, is a post-flood chronicle whose transitions might seem forced in other hands. A musical cicerone, Spera moves seamlessly from one idiom and disparate artist to another, carrying a contagious sense of wonder. Turn the page on trumpeter Jeremy Davenport, recording We’ll Dance ’Til Dawn, as he makes the Ritz-Carlton synonymous with jazz, to Michael Tyler, aka the rapper “Mystikal.”

Spera did a 1998 Times-Picayune profile of Mystikal, who was then living with his mother in a Baton Rouge gated community, gaining distance from the grim streets of yore, ending up neighbors with former governor Edwin Edwards before going to prison. “I came away convinced that [Mystikal] was unlikely to court serious trouble,” writes Spera. “Two days after that story ran, news broke that police had busted Tyler with a joint and gun in his car.” Worse trouble followed. He accused his hair stylist of “pilfering thousands of dollars’ worth of unauthorized checks from his account, a charge she denied. He allegedly offered not to report her to police if she performed ‘degrading’ sexual acts with him and two bodyguards. She complied, then contacted police herself.”

Ah, but the video. Mystikal and company “filmed their encounter with the stylist, surely one of the most damning sex tapes in recent history.” That adverb, “surely,” leaning into the adjective, “damning,” speaks volumes about Spera’s civility. The music journalist isn’t a crime reporter occupying parallel universes where the orderly life (wife, home, family) reels from rote coverage of drug and gun horrors that prosecutors distill from cop reports into narratives for the jury. A beat of rock concerts can get boring; the occupational hazard of covering cops and courts is a burnout on the human experiment.

“I didn’t go to jail for praying too loud in church,” Mystikal tells Spera after six years in the can. He did a lot of weightlifting. Spera calls those years “akin to boot camp: guards in his face, laying down the law.” Of this, says Mystikal, “They might as well have gave me a violin and a guitar, because they tried to blues me over there. That was my shock therapy. Had I given them a reason, they would have whupped the rapper. But I never gave them a reason to put their hands on me ... I went in there humble, with my mind right.

“It was destiny,” Mystikal declaims. “What do you want me to do? Go crumble in the corner? I’m not going to do that. So those who are in opposition of me being out here, I’m sorry. I’m out here. And you got me wrong.”

Mystikal lost a fortune; he’s back now, making rap records.

Groove Interrupted shows Spera keen to descriptive material that music life serves a reporter in juicy chunks. He writes of vocalist Phil Anselmo with the “ultra hard rock band Pantera,” likening his voice to “a hard-core growl from the abyss, riding atop the ‘power groove’ – buzzsaw guitars grafted to a fat, rhythmic undercurrent, generated by his bandmates.”

And then we have Spera on Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain, after celebrating his 70th birthday at a Biloxi, Miss., casino gig.

“Apropos of nothing, he offered to show me his new tattoo. Beverly [Pete’s wife] rolled her eyes as her husband unbuttoned his shirt to reveal an owl pulling a snake out of his belly button ... Pete stood amid the slot machines and retirees, grinning broadly. He said the tattoo had something to do with Native American culture.” A few pages later, Katrina destroys Fountain’s house at Bay St. Louis, Miss. Several months after that, he underwent a quadruple bypass. His first post-Katrina performance was at Jazz Fest, with his cardiologist sitting in Economy Hall. Now he’s closing in on 82.

As Spera chronicles the baroque human stories of music in these latitudes, the city functions as a leitmotif, a place where sounds get made – nay, a metaphysical force that draws a lyrical essence from this surreal cosmos at the bottom of America.

Another voice

Along with Keith Spera, author Tom Piazza  shoulders the yoke of representing New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s music through the written word. Piazza’s most recent opus was Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, in which he draws from selections of his own work but also touches on politics in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Piazza is author of 10 books altogether, including Why New Orleans Matters, in which he explores local history; and City of Refuge, a novelized account of life in New Orleans immediately after Katrina. He currently writes for HBO’s “Treme” and is working on a new novel.

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