While it hasn't achieved the international renown of Seattle's grunge explosion or Gothenburg's melodic-death movement, New Orleans' underground metal scene is and has been for nearly two decades one of the world's greatest, home to groups like Down, Superjoint Ritual and Crowbar. But now that Katrina has scattered bandmates around the country, destroyed homes and shut down venues and practice spaces, the scene's future is very much in question. The storm and its aftermath has been particularly traumatic for two of NOLA's longest-standing and most revered bands: Eyehategod vocalist Mike Williams is in jail, and his home was burnt to the ground, and Soilent Green's original singer, Glenn Rambo, drowned alongside his mother in one of Louisiana's hardest-hit neighborhoods. A month and a half after the hurricane made landfall on August 29th, Revolver traveled down to New Orleans to bear witness to Katrina's trail of ruin.
Jimmy Bower has been called the Godfather of the New Orleans sound, and for a good reason. As the founding guitarist of Eyehategod and Superjoint Ritual and the founding drummer of Down and Crowbar he's shaped the NOLA scene since its inception in the late Eighties. Right now, however, he's in a very un-Godfatherly position — hunched over, covered in ash and surrounded by menacing crags of scorched brick. Bower and Eyehategod bassist Gary Mader are searching through the rubble of their singer's apartment building for a tin canteen. "Mike's parents were killed in a car accident when he was 12, 13 years old. The only things he ever had from them were a tin canteen from his dad, which had been his grandfather's when he fought in the war, and a Bible with a rose on the cover from his mom," Bower explains. "When I visited Mike in jail, he asked me to find those two things for him. I told him the Bible was lost for sure, but I'm going to find that canteen."
Bower may be the scene's godfather, but Williams is its poet laureate, his misanthropic rants as defining of bayou metal as his band's bluesy, sludgecore riffage. Says NOLA native and former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, who has played in local bands (like Down and Superjoint Ritual) all his life and known the EHG vocalist since he was a kid: "Mike Williams is New Orleans." True to this billing, while Williams' bandmates fled the hurricane, he and longtime girlfriend Alicia Morgan, formerly of all-girl crust-metal outfit 13, stayed put. They didn't own a car, Bower explains, and "Mike probably wouldn't have left anyway." He had lived at that same address for nearly 20 years. It may have been "a total [Charles] Bukowski house, full of crackheads and freaks," says Bower, referencing the legendary scumbag Beat poet, one of the singer's favorite writers, but Williams was loath to abandon it.
After the hurricane struck, no one could locate Williams or Morgan for weeks, and, of course, his bandmates imagined the worst. Then Mader got word that Williams was alive and in jail in Morgan City, a small town 70 miles west of New Orleans. Bower immediately went to see him.
The story that Williams told his guitarist was a harrowing one. He and Morgan rode out the storm, but the city around them was devastated. There was no food or drinking water to be found, and anarchy set in quickly. Gangs were running wild, even selling drugs from boats amid the flooded streets; people were looting, while others were prepared to protect their property at all cost. Scrawled warnings still adorn some neighborhood windows: "You loot, I shoot," "Have dog and shotgun." The cops, meanwhile, were just as likely to join in the mayhem as to enforce the law, Williams said.
Two or three days after the storm, a man tried to rape Morgan when she stepped outside for a smoke. Fortunately, Williams heard her screams and fought the attacker off. Later that day, the couple decided to move somewhere safer and hitchhiked to Morgan City. Their apartment building burnt to the ground shortly thereafter. (The fire was sparked, Mader theorizes, by the blown-out transformer now lying by the remnants of the front door.) Not only did the couple lose their home and everything they owned; they also soon lost their freedom. In Morgan City, they were arrested and thrown in jail. Under advice from counsel, Bower won't discuss the details of Williams' case, but he does say that the singer faces drug charges. As for Morgan, Mader says her father, who is in the NYPD, had her transferred to his jurisdiction, where she's currently in rehab.
Williams' heroin addiction is infamous — as is the drug habit of his band in general (EHG's definitive '96 album is called Dopesick, after all) — and Bower knows that some people will find it hard to pity a junkie. But he points out that before Katrina, Williams was working hard to get clean. He'd quit everything — even cigarettes — except for methadone, which he got from a local clinic and was trying to kick as well. Some of Williams' other friends who Revolver talked to are adamant that the only drug found on the singer in Morgan City was the one the state was providing him. Many are also outraged that, at a time when so many greater crimes were ravaging New Orleans, the cops would single Williams out.
With Eyehategod indefinitely on hold, Bower has found a new cause. Williams' battle with drugs — as well as the death of Bower's girlfriend, who OD'd in March — has inspired him to go clean. Newly sober, he is dedicated to freeing Williams or at least ensuring that if he does time, it's in rehab, not prison. Bower has helped organize numerous benefits (in NYC, London and San Francisco, to name a few cities) for Williams, and all the proceeds from Eyehategod merch sales are going to the singer's defense. The band is even releasing a special benefit live CD, whose title Williams contributed from jail: Intoxication and Incarceration.
At this particular moment, however, Bower and Mader are focusing their efforts on nding that canteen. "So this is what it feels like to be an archaeologist," jokes the guitarist, rummaging through the ashes of what he says was once an unparalleled music and zine collection. Bower and Mader uncover a scorched but, amazingly, intact notebook full of song lyrics, and a few pages of the manuscript of Williams' self-published book, Cancer as a Social Activity: Affirmations of World's End, a collection of short stories and poetry. (Bower says Williams, a compulsive writer, has penned a whole new book while in jail.) The bandmates decide to satisfy themselves with these finds and return another day with shovels. Though it's October, the midday sun is hot, and the tem- perature has soared into the 80s; tired and thirsty, Bower gives Down bandmate Pepper Keenan (also of Corrosion of Conformity) a call to see if he will open up his bar, Le Bon Temps Roule, for us. Keenan had evacuated with Bower to Lake Charles, Louisiana, then pulled COC off tour to return to New Orleans and start rebuilding.
Despite being looted and its roof caving in, Le Bon Temps Roule was one of the first places in its area to reopen. "We didn't reopen officially for awhile," Keenan qualifies, when he meets up with us. "But when I was fixing the place up, people around here working on their homes would come over thirsty and ask for a drink, and I couldn't say no. Next thing I knew, 50 people would be at the bar."
When Keenan is asked about Williams, who he has known since he was a teenager, he replies simply: "I hope he gets out of jail soon."
One of the most respected and innovative death-metal bands on the planet, Soilent Green were in the middle of a national headlining tour when Katrina struck. "Tensions were high," says current vocalist Ben Falgoust (also of Goatwhore), as he drives Revolver around the city in his 15-passenger van. "We couldn't get in touch with anyone back home — landlines were down, cellphones weren't working. Some of the dudes [in the band] wanted to go back, but we could see on TV that we wouldn't be able to get into the city, so we just stayed on the road. We'd stop into every truck stop to check the news and watched the TV nonstop in our motel rooms at night."
When Soilent were finally able to re-enter their city, they found life turned upside down. Falgoust lost his day job — working in a frame shop (now shut down for lack of business) — though he's busier than ever, helping his parents, three sisters, friends and bandmates clear away downed trees and gut houses. Bassist Scott Crochet, meanwhile, returned to discover his home gutted already, looted of such "necessities" as his TV and DVD machine. As for playing music, Soilent can't even get into their practice space, Fountainebleau Storage/Rehearsal Studios, which they share with Goatwhore, Crowbar, the Nevilles and numerous jazz bands; the owners won't let anyone in, even just to retrieve their equipment, unless they pay full September rent. And all the NOLA metal venues are shut down. One of the best, the Dixie Taverne, was swamped under four feet of water. As with all the buildings in the neighborhood, a dark muddy line stains the exterior walls where the floodwaters crested. There's also a hole kicked through the side of the venue, where — according to Mader, who lived in an apartment right above the Dixie (he and his wife are staying at Bower's house, which was miraculously spared by the storm) — looters broke in and took a video-poker machine and a bunch of alcohol. Falgoust is unsure when, if ever, the club will reopen, since the owner didn't have flood insurance. "The insurance companies told lots of people that their property wasn't in flood areas. But, of course, the whole city's under sea level," the singer says with a mirthless chuckle. Simply put, Soilent returned home to find the NOLA metal scene effectively silenced.
Still, the biggest blow for the band was the discovery that a key member of their extended family, original vocalist Glenn Rambo, had drowned to death in his home in Violet, a tiny suburb of New Orleans. For Soilent, it was the latest tragedy in a stunning run of bad fortune: Between 2001 and 2002, they were in two serious auto wrecks while on tour; then last year, former bassist Scott Williams was killed in a murder-suicide. "It's crazy, man," Falgoust says. "We always jab about there being a curse. Like, should we be giving it up?"
As hard as Rambo's death hit Soilent, it also resonated through the entire NOLA underground; the former singer was a beloved fixture of the scene, which, more so than most "scenes," really is a small, close-knit group of musicians (12 to 15 in all, according to Bower) who have played together for years. Rambo first made his name with the thrash unit Nuclear Crucifixion, which he played in alongside current Soilent/Eyehategod guitarist Brian Patton from 1987 to '89, when the two left to form Soilent Green. In this new band, Rambo made an indelible impression with his weird, Butthole Surfers–like take on performance. "One time, he made this outfit from these long johns that he'd sewed all these tampons on, with ketchup on the tips," recalls Falgoust, who roadied for Soilent before replacing Rambo in 1993. "He wore it once, then kept it in this bag. A while later, he played another show, took it out, and it was all moldy and smelled real bad. But he put it on anyway. By the end of the show, he'd torn it off and thrown it into the crowd: 'Man, this shit stinks!'" Even after Rambo split with Soilent, the other members of the NOLA scene would often see him at metal shows — or, as Bower remembers, at the methadone clinic. On the nolaunderground.com message board (the online hub of the scene), a friend of Rambo's posted a simple epitaph: "He looked like Charles Manson but had the kindness of a child."
According to a number of other friends who Revolver talked to, Rambo had gotten into a car accident shortly before Katrina struck and broke his leg. Immobilized, he, along with his mother — both were epileptic and poor — would have had few evacuation options. On October 1st, Rambo's ex- girlfriend, Stacy Peterson, who had been frantically trying to reach him, led the National Guard to his house, where they found him and his mother dead in the attic.
To take us to the house where Rambo died, Falgoust has to drive through the Ninth Ward, which still, nearly two months after the storm, looks like a postapocalyptic wasteland: cars on top of houses, boats in the middle of the freeway, windows shattered, buildings twisted to the point of bursting, a dry, crackling mud coating everything and a distinctly toxic smell riding the thick dust in the air. Next comes the town of Chalmette, where the Murphy Oil production plant ruptured, deluging everything under not just 25 feet of water but also a layer of crude oil. Finally, we arrive in Violet, which has fared no better. Falgoust turns down Rambo's street but finds it blockaded by a military armed vehicle. A national guardsman explains that they're inspecting the houses for dead bodies a second time and that the street should be open tomorrow.
Two days later, Revolver returns with Bower and Mader. Rambo's house is instantly recognizable — there are two old-school Soilent Green stickers on the front window. Bower points out the only other sticker on the pane — for the Slugs, a sludge band he played in with Kirk Windstein (Crowbar, Down) from '89 to '91. Bower takes us through a fence to the backyard, where he says Rambo's ex had led the National Guard. An air-conditioning unit lies on the ground, presumably pulled from the window to allow the guardsmen a way into the house. The floodwaters had risen to consume nearly all of the one-story structure, which is now covered in a crusty mud. The stench is overpowering. "It's the smell of death," Bower mutters. He's clearly shaken, tears apparent in his eyes, and quickly retreats back to the car.
It remains to be seen if Katrina destroyed the NOLA metal scene as we know it. No one Revolver met in New Orleans is confident of an answer; they all agree, however, that life must go on. So in a few weeks, Falgoust will be joining his Goatwhore bandmates in Phoenix to write and record their Metal Blade debut. Bower is working with a lawyer on Williams' case and continuing to raise money. Mader is back working as a cook at a downtown restaurant, Cooter Brown's. And at press time, nolaunderground.com is accepting donations to a burial fund for Glenn Rambo.