The Edge: 'It's all about the vision'

U2's guitarist, tells Andy Gill how the musicians of New Orleans are rebuilding their culture - and livelihood - with a little help from their friends
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The Independent Culture

It has often been noted that America has scant regard for its cultural heritage, particularly when that is African-American in origin. Black jazz musicians touring Europe in the Forties and Fifties were so shocked at the respectful welcome they received - "They called me sir!" - that several opted to spend long periods of their lives here.

Many were the ageing black bluesmen rescued from obscurity in the Sixties by the attentions of white British kids such as the Stones. The great Son House no longer owned a guitar when he was plucked from ignominy to reestablish his profile late in that decade. If it had been left up to America, he would have remained a figure of myth, like Robert Johnson.

The latest example of that country's cavalier attitude towards its black artists has been the disregard with which its establishment agencies have treated New Orleans, arguably the most significant musical city on the continent, the American Vienna. "For me, in DNA terms, it's like the original of the rock'n'roll species," says U2 guitarist, The Edge. "That area is where that particular combination of influences created the musical environment that spawned jazz, blues and rock'n'roll. It's that obvious African influence, mingled with other European musics - the Scots and Irish influence, the French influence - that's where it just seemed to go off."

The results have been powerfully influential: the jazz of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, the piano flavours of Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair and Dr John, the seminal rock'n'roll of Little Richard and Fats Domino, and the spicy R&B of The Meters, Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey.

"The piano and brass were more the New Orleans thing," reckons The Edge. "That early rock'n'roll stuff was all piano, which got crossed with other instruments when people like Chuck Berry took piano riffs and put them on guitar. I don't think rock'n'roll would have existed without New Orleans, and there's a huge debt of gratitude owed by anyone out there who earns their living from contemporary rock'n'roll music, to remember that this place did kick-start the whole thing. There'd be no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Elvis."

To many, it appears as if the city's musical heritage has been left to die in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Last November, Edge flew into this cauldron of popular culture, and was struck by the aerial view. "Coming in to land, all you saw was that every second roof had a blue tarpaulin over it, so the entire city was this patchwork of blue tarpaulin," he recalls. "I went there three weeks ago, and in the Lower Ninth Ward, it's exactly the same, almost a year later. They haven't done anything."

The Lower Ninth Ward is the musical heartbeat of the city. Tourists may flock to the jazz bars and hokey Dixieland bands playing in the picturesque French Quarter, but the true source of the music is in the poor black neighbourhood that spawned the city's rich jazz and R&B heritage, home to Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers and countless other giants of rock'n'roll. Today, the best part of a year after the disaster, it remains in ruins.

"While certain other districts were getting their utilities turned back on, there were still National Guard or police stopping people going into the Ninth Ward to even view their homes: they just did not want people to go back there," says The Edge.

It is mind-boggling how wrong-headed the official response has been to the disaster. It's apparently possible to get a grant to knock down your old house, but you have to apply online. Presumably with your waterlogged computer. And according to a CNN reporter The Edge spoke to, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's initial action was to spend $180m (£95m) building a huge, hi-tech morgue a few miles outside the city, with accommodation and living facilities for hundreds of staff. In the event, a mere 60 autopsies were carried out there, after which it was quietly mothballed and placed under security guard, like the Millennium Dome. You couldn't make it up.

There was a longer-term danger of New Orleans' creative spirit being allowed to wither through inaction, as the musicians who provide the core industry of America's favourite party town have been flung far and wide.

"Other parts of America have music scenes, but it really is a completely self-sufficient music culture in New Orleans," explains The Edge. "It's like the city is one giant music academy: everyone is into music, everyone's learning how to play from other musicians. And with Katrina, that whole system has been completely shattered."

Faced with the incompetence of the federal agencies, it has been left up to musicians, and the music industry, to try to restore the city's musical foundations. With The Edge and producer Bob Ezrin at its head, an alliance of promoters and manufacturers, notably Gibson Guitars, last year started Music Rising, a charity that aimed to put instruments back in the hands of professional musicians whose axes had been destroyed in the flood.

Grants of $1,000 are being disbursed to the needy, who were given the chance to buy replacement gear at cost price. So far, the charity has helped out some 1,500 musicians, including the blues guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington, saxophonist Brian "Breeze" Cayolle, and Deacon John Moore, who played the nimble guitar licks on Robert Parker's classic "Barefootin'". The great Fats Domino was provided with a new Baldwin piano by Gibson.

The company also replaced the equipment of the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In town for the recent annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he guested with The Dave Matthews Band and sang "Stand By Me" with The New Birth Brass Band, The Edge also sat in with the Preservation Hall band, most of whom are in their sixties and seventies. "They ended up learning a kind of Dixieland version of "Vertigo", which was so brilliant!" he chuckles.

Musicians have rallied around the city, with charity events such as the New York MTV/MusiCares concert featuring Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Dr John and a host of other notables. Quint Davis, organiser of the annual New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, was elated that the likes of Costello, Springsteen and Bob Dylan all agreed to play this year, ensuring a sizeable audience. Other initiatives included a ticket auction which raised more than $100,000, and Gibson's Music Rising guitar, a limited-edition Les Paul made from wood sourced from the devastated area, which quickly sold out.

Gibson is now planning a more affordable, larger edition of a Music Rising Epiphone Casino, the guitar used by John and George in The Beatles' early years, and subsequently by such as Noel Gallagher and, indeed, The Edge. "What we're trying to do now with Music Rising is broaden things a little," he says. "We haven't done any press in Europe, primarily because it's an American initiative, but the Epiphone Music Rising guitar should have more relevance to Europe; and we'll be using a design that will also be available as a T-shirt. We're just trying to come up with ideas to raise cash.

The charity's next priority is to assist in the rebuilding of churches. "We rely on politicians too m\uch," The Edge concludes. "They don't necessarily have the skills to deal with a situation like this, or the vision. So it's down to the artists and the musicians who understand what's at stake. While I was walking around at the jazz festival, four or five musicians came up to me and said, 'Thanks for the new amp, man, it's got me back on the road,' or 'Thanks for the guitar.' It was really inspiring, an amazing feeling, and it showed that this really is making a difference."

Visit www.musicrising.org for more information, to buy T-shirts and make donations

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