“Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum Me and my drum.”
– Little Drummer Boy
There are few illusions left for Freddie Staehle. The phantasms haven’t all dissipated like the pounding notes of his drums into the ceiling of some run down bar. Staehle, a 62-year-old who left his Uptown roots eons ago to chase rhythmic dreams, says a musician has to hang on to some illusions, all artists do. It’s what keeps them going. It’s why, he says, an artist never retires: They always have just a few more illusions to chase; illusions that keep them alive and vibrant. They never run out of those mystical beings that lead them around by the nose. In the end, it’s all they have.
Staehle sits in front of a rum and Coca-Cola outside a battered Mid-City hangout where he’s playing this Sunday evening. Inside, the bandstand is a little larger than a kitchen table and is surrounded on three sides by a red curtain. Two American flags that look like survivors of El Alamein hang on two walls. The patrons are all hard cases, covered with tattoos, cigarettes dangling from their lips and each drinking Buds – none of this light beer stuff.
This is Freddie Staehle’s world of late. The clock is running, but at least the illusions are still there.
It’s a far cry from being the house drummer at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or drawing “oohs” and “ahhs” from the packed house as he deftly rocked out three-minute solos while Al Hirt and Pee Wee Spitalera stood off to the side and let the then 23-year-old jazz phenomenon do his thing.
Moreover, what about those long and intermittent stints with his lifelong friend, Dr. John, and about how Staehle’s limited recall of poetry played a big part in helping the Doctor win a Grammy with one of his most memorable numbers.
“We were flying back from California to Oregon, or maybe it was to California,” Staehle says. “I don’t remember. But on the plane, Mac [‘Mac’ Rebennack who uses the familiar, ‘Dr. John’] comes up to me to ask for advice. He’s coming to me! I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, he’s hummin’. He tells me he has the body of this song floating around in his head and he needs something to tie it all together. Some poetic verse. Well, the only poetry I knew was this thing we used to say about the school I went to as a kid – Wright Junior High up on Napoleon Avenue. We used to say, ‘Go in Wright … and come out wrong!” Mac’s eyes lit up. That’s was what he was looking for: ‘I was in the right place, but it was the wrong time.’ It became a classic.”
Staehle also played drums on Dr. John’s Grammy winning classic, Going Back to New Orleans album. He’s been in the spotlight since appearing on the Ed Sullivan show back in the 1960s and at one time or another, “I guess I’ve played with some of the biggest names in music, people like Eric Clapton and Z.Z. Top; so many of them. It’s too hard to remember. I’ve been all over the world and I made a lot of money … and lost it.”
He’s also had five wives and nine children – one son died of cancer in December 1999.
There are more Buds all around and another rum and Coke. The anecdotes about groupies and “this gig” or “that bass guitarist” are flying. Staehle sits under a wide brimmed straw hat and a curtain of long hair flairs out from under the brim. He’s intense and wound up and it isn’t long before he unwinds with another story.
“Al (Hirt) brings in Buddy Rich one time,” he says. “Buddy is probably the most famous drummer in the world, although my favorite was Gene Krupa. Buddy wants to date this chick that I’m datin’. She’s a hooker, but that doesn’t matter. He has somebody else tell me that he’ll give me five drum lessons if I can set him up with this chick. I tell the guy, ‘You go back and tell Buddy I might be in love with this woman … besides, I don’t come that cheap. He’s got to up the ante.’”
Staehle goes back inside to join the band for the last segment of their gig. A guy remaining outside at one of the tables remarks about how he’d like to meet the guy who put the mail slot into the front door of the bar. It slants like a ski slope and speaks volumes of this whole scenario. A woman who looks like a middleweight club fighter who’s had one too many trips to the canvas is giving a mousy guy with a ponytail hell at the next table. The guy has this “what-the-hell-did-I-do?” look on his face, then finally shoots the chick half a peace sign, then gets up and makes like a miffed mastiff before thinking better of it and walks off. There are obscenities all around and finally the two take their running battle down the street. Another guy with a beer bottle in hand is knocking at a side door and yelling at an upstairs apartment. A woman upstairs yells down a few choice words and the guy with the beer bottle walks off. A mongrel dog is standing in the middle of the street barking at nobody in particular and three Hispanics are standing on the corner pooling their quarters for a few drinks.
It’s a long way from Caesar’s Palace.
The gig is over and Staehle packs up his many drums and cymbals and foot pedals and sticks and brushes. He’s done this countless times and has it down to a science. The whole breakdown takes only about 10 minutes. He places everything on a cart and parks it next to a light pole on the corner. Another rum and Coke.
The mood turns serious and the drummer begins to talk of the innovations in percussion that got their start in his brain like the cymbals fringed with tiny rivets to prolong the hissing and carry the note beyond what should be its normal life span. He talks briefly of his late son who died at age 16 and when somebody asks, “Freddie, how many times did you say you were married?” Staehle holds up the fingers of one hand and says, “Let me see, there was unh ahh …” The brief laughter is nervous because nobody knows if Staehle is really serious.
He then turns what he says has been his real passion for the past 18 years: his all-consuming involvement with Scientology.
He quotes guru L. Ron Hubbard and gestures when he pontificates on the “life on two levels … spiritual and physical.” He talks of the relationship between the moon and the earth and the mystical side of life. He talks of studying the religion in classroom settings with the likes of Hollywood lights Karen Black, Deborah Winger and Kirstie Allie. He views the random confluence of all that has made him what he is as proof positive of the truth revealing tenets of Scientology: “Here I am, I’m successful. I’m a good musician and I’ve never had a day of formal training. Doesn’t that mean something? I mean one day, I have this dream: I’m at the gates of heaven and St. Michael is there to greet me. I’m playing and I’m leading people into heaven and the lights are bright. It’s fantastic.”
Somebody at the table offers another round of drinks, but Staehle demurs.
He tones down the religious rhetoric and brings the conversation back into the recognizable bounds that tie us to the planet; to rhythms pounded out night after night, week after week, to the death of a son and of small roles played in the legendary life of others.
“I’m studying classical music,” he says. “I’ve been doing more and more work on the piano. It’s opened a whole new world for me, new avenues, new …”
“I’m really excited about this,” he says. “Really excited!”
Freddie Staehle polishes off his final rum and Coke before he and his cart full of drums and cymbals disappear into the night.
The mongrel dog is still standing in the middle of the street, barking at nothing.