Wednesday, May 26, 2010

NPR: A 'Patchwork' Tour Of New Orleans With Anders Osborn

You can find the renaissance of post-Katrina New Orleans echoed in the life of musician Anders Osborne.

Anders Osborne

Osborne is an import to New Orleans — he was born and raised in Sweden. He left home at 16 to travel and make music. He landed in New Orleans 25 years ago, and he's become a musical fixture of the city.

"New Orleans has a beautiful way of integrating everyone that comes here," Osborne says.

He's a bluesy songwriter and a fiery guitar player, with lots of troubles behind him. Osborne is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. There were relapses over the years, as well as rehab.

Osborne has a wife and young children. And now he also has a new album, titled American Patchwork.


That title, American Patchwork, is symbolic. As Osborne puts it, it represents "the patching back together of a man scattered to the wind, broken and in pieces."

The CD's opening cut is called "On the Road to Charlie Parker." It's his nod to the great jazz saxophonist, who died at 34 after years of devastating drug and alcohol abuse.

"Being a big Charlie Parker fan — and knowing his destiny — I was kind of talking to myself, third person, saying, 'You know, this is where you're going if you continue like this,' " Osborne says.

On a recent visit, I asked Anders Osborne to give me a tour of some of his favorite, most meaningful spots in New Orleans. So we headed out into the morning. He had a coffee mug in hand, so I asked him how many cups of coffee it takes to get him going.

"Two," he says. "One and a half I try to do, 'cause I'm friendlier that way. But two, that's when I feel better."

As we walk through the city, Osborne will nod to people passing by. He'll raise his coffee cup a bit and greet people: "All right," he'll say.

He's pretty striking, with tattoos inked up and down his arms and a long, thick mountain-man beard — gold streaked with gray.

Fixing A Green Oasis

Osborne takes me first to City Park, a lush, green refuge not far from his house. It's shaded by giant live oaks.

"Lots of Spanish moss hanging down into the water, the little bayou area," he says. "And it's all just kind of slow and lazy, but it feels like a center for me. This has always been like a really — whew — central part of my New Orleans."

City Park took a big wallop from Hurricane Katrina. Osborne remembers coming back to New Orleans about a month after the storm.

"It's extremely bizarre, 'cause everything's dead," he says. "You wouldn't hear these birds. They're gone. There are no worms when you're digging to get all the stuff, clean up — and nothing there. Nothing. There's nothing green anywhere. Nothing green. Nothing."

A previous album of Osborne's features a song called "Oh Katrina." I asked him how much Katrina is still on people's minds — or on his.

Anders Osborne
Melissa Block/NPR

Osborne stands in St. Louis Cemetery #3, where he proposed to his wife, Sarah.

"Oh, it's — I think it's a way of life now," he says. "It's before and then there's after. I can't quite remember what life was without Katrina. I don't know. For me personally, it's been a lot of different kinds of healing, you know? Fixing stuff, and then fixing yourself, and then fixing the ones you love and then fixing each other. I don't know — you keep fixing stuff. Slowly."

Got Your Heart

"Now I was thinking we should go to a place where I met my wife — and where I proposed to her. It's a graveyard," Osborne says, laughing.

So off we head to St. Louis Cemetery #3, with its vast expanses of above-ground marble crypts. The crosses on top are outlined against a bright blue sky. We stop at one tomb, on the edge of the cemetery. Behind a chain-link fence is a house where Osborne used to live.

As the story goes, he threw a party during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Sarah, the woman he'd later marry, was there. One thing led to another.

"We jumped the fence ... and we were romantically hanging out here," he says.

That was a turning point. About six months later, he led Sarah back over the fence, back up onto this tomb.

"I had a cake and the ring and lit candles that I had ran out and lit before," Osborne says. "So we came out, and I proposed."

On The Banks

Our last stop on our New Orleans tour is the French Quarter, where Osborne lived on and off for a dozen years.

It was on Decatur Street that he sat at his piano by the balcony and wrote "Summertime in New Orleans," a song about sticky, slow summer days in the city.

We stand beside the Mississippi River and watch the tugboats and barges churn by. This is another place Osborne likes to come to clear his head.

"So here's the big crescent that creates this whole thing. So if you imagine it's been swirling and swirling and swirling, but it makes a pretty radical turn like this," he says, gesturing to make his point. "Hence the Crescent City. So there's a lot of energy here."

And the soundtrack for Anders Osborne, here in the French Quarter?

"Just [a] subterranean kind of lifestyle and attitude, and a little bit [of] dirt under your fingernails," he says. "People playing extremely in the moment and tough and so forth. At the same time, the most romantic soundtrack you can ever imagine, I feel down here, too. So those are the two extremes, I think.

"Yeah! It's like really beautiful love made with a really dirty hooker."

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