Page Two

Contemplating life, death, and the bell curve at the annual meeting of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in New Orleans.

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Less than two weeks ago, I was walking along in the funeral procession for Ernie K-Doe as it crossed over Canal Street in New Orleans. It was the middle of the day, but the spectacle and power of this tribute was hard to ignore. I bear no special affection for his hit "Mother-in-Law," but respect K-Doe as one of the legion of larger-than-life creators who enrich the New Orleans/American music scene. The night before, we had been at a viewing of the body, resplendently laid out in white suit and crown (K-Doe was the self-proclaimed Emperor of the World). Any number of local musicians performed as an unending line of folks, black and white, in suits and shorts, in tie-dye and Dockers, in coveralls and city uniforms, paid their respects. There was a sense of loss and of community in the room. Irma Thomas sang before we got there, but Marva Wright offered a powerful "Mr. Big Shot" and "My Toot Toot" (as a deejay, K-Doe helped break Rockin' Sidney's version of the song, playing it 15 times in a row). The band just cooked, Allen Toussaint on keyboards, while the folks just kept coming.

The next day, in the muddy heat of midafternoon New Orleans, we walked with the jazz funeral procession all the way to the legendary St. Louis No. 2 Cemetery, where a family had donated crypt space. A jazz funeral is so stylized that it encapsulates the anarchist swirl of friends, family, tourists, onlookers, passersby, and ranting drunks as part of the action. There was an absolutely liberating air to the procession, first mournful, then joyous; it was truly a celebration of K-Doe's life rather than simply a declaration of his death.

We were in New Orleans for the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), a gathering of staff from papers like ours around the country. Even 15 years ago or so, when we first began to go, we were surprised at how much this was a gathering of trade concerns rather than revolutionary conspiracy.

I believe in the bell curve. I think most things happen on some form of the bell curve, mutated or not. In the very early days of AAN, we were the hungry orphans at the window, excited by the sweets inside. We didn't know very many of the people from the other papers attending the event. But it was a liberating experience, having spent a few years just doing the Chronicle in an insane theatre-of-the-absurd execution, it was great to talk to people who were doing the same thing we were. We attended many sessions and learned a lot. A lot of time was spent looking at other publications.

Over the years, especially after we started South by Southwest, we had a certain hip status. Nick Barbaro and I were regarded as leaders of an almost hippie tribe; other publishers speculated about whether we could actually handle the paper's growth. We were admired for our editorial, but our business acumen didn't chart. This was brought home at one seminar where Nick, on a panel, announced to all that we tried not to make a profit. By then we knew and were known by most of the attendees.

In the late Nineties, as the boom hit Austin and impacted the paper, our status changed again. Suddenly, lots of smaller and midsized papers wanted to talk business with us, find out how we did things, and ask our advice. We were always happy to oblige, remembering how we were helped.

I missed a couple of years for different reasons. Last year and this year, things had changed even more. A lot of our generation had retired or moved on to other jobs, and there were tons of new people and new papers (around 125 in the organization now). Once again, I felt like I didn't recognize far more people than I recognized. Old friends and I swapped stories and compared notes. Business was done. Still, it was different. The conversation with most papers wasn't about Joe Ely, Threadgill's, Central Texas barbecue, or SXSW, but whether Pattie Moon (our former advertising director, who left last year) was there or if they could meet Carol Flagg (our new ad director).

So there I was spending two or three hours proceeding down the streets of New Orleans with three brass bands and a horse pulling the hearse with Ernie K-Doe's corpse. Joy and grief, spiritual testifying and public display -- it was all about life and death.

I came home to find out Jeff Whittington had died. In my almost-shot memory, already, that march in New Orleans seems to be my private ceremony honoring Jeff, though of course, I knew nothing about his death at the time. It is about who he was, what he did and what he left, and a few brass bands ripping up the too-hot streets is the right way to say goodbye. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ernie K-Doe, New Orleans, Mother-in-Law, Emperor of the World, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright, Allen Toussaint, jazz funeral, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, AAN, South by Southwest, SXSW, Nick Barbaro, Pattie Moon, Carol Flagg, Jeff Whittington

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