By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
For much of the '90s, rock 'n' roll scenesters--from Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson to Alex Chilton and Peter Buck--have moved to New Orleans, drawn as much by the city's Flowers of Evil darkness and spirit of perpetual carnival as by its musical heritage.
It's interesting, then, that Cowboy Mouth, the finest of the town's tide of successful rock bands (including Better Than Ezra and Dead Eye Dick), has built a devoted following through a decidedly non-Dionysian "celebration of life." As evidenced by their stormtrooping concerts, or by Are You With Me?, their inaugural major-label release for MCA, Cowboy Mouth blasts out a literate, primal-screamin', pop-music-as-the-new-Chautauqua brand of Louisiana rock 'n' roll--and the underlying premise is that life is a voyage best navigated with passion and abandon, but tempered by a responsibility to oneself and to fellow humans.
It's a message that's spreading across U.S. radio on the strength of "Jenny Says," the album's hit single, which is memorable for a chorus which exhorts: "Let it go, let it go, let it go/When the world is coming down on me/I let it go!" While the song, at its most basic level, is a remembrance of babes past penned by drummer-front man Fred LeBlanc, it says just as much about Cowboy Mouth's view of the world as a fascinating, arduous, wonderful, and terrible place.
"The first night we broke up," LeBlanc says of his relationship with the titular Jenny, whose name is peppered throughout his songbook, "I took off all my clothes and drove down the interstate at 110 miles per hour screaming my guts out. Then, when I actually made it home, I taped paper all over my apartment walls and wrote LET IT GO as big as I fuckin' could, over and over. And the song kinda came to me. It occurred to me later that 'let it go' applies to a variety of life's circumstances."
As a veteran of numerous bands and years as a hard-boozing, disenfranchised N'Awlins punk, LeBlanc had an epiphany the morning he woke up and found bile-infused vomit--the fruit of a long night of heavy drink--completely coating a pile of neatly folded laundry he'd spent the previous day washing.
"Something clicked in my head," LeBlanc says of that golden dawn, "and I thought, 'I'm really tired of doing this to myself, and I don't deserve this. I've drunk some since then--this is the city of Mardi Gras, after all--but I went through my period where I wanted to die young, and I'm over it. This may not be in vogue to say, but I want to live a long, healthy, full life."
Gradually, LeBlanc evolved a philosophy which is, in many ways, expressed by the "let it go" litany of "Jenny Says." He thought back, for instance, to watching a Sunday morning television show which emanated from an old New Orleans black Baptist church.
"It came on right before Bugs Bunny," LeBlanc explains, "and I thought, 'Man, these people rock.' Because they were celebrating: They took all their problems and frustrations--and they were pretty harsh--and worked 'em out in a constructive, energetic, and passionate manner to where they could go face the week again totally cleansed."
He pauses. "What I learned was that life's never going to be easy, but you can make it work for you if you approach it with an attitude of making sure that whatever it is inside of you that's bringing you down, just get it out of your system. And there are a lot of ways to do that--some better than others, obviously--but I choose to do it with Louisiana rock 'n' roll."
Hence the exorcism of "Jenny Says," which actually surfaced back when LeBlanc was in his final days as a member of New Orleans' notorious and wildly popular drunk-rock act, Dash Rip Rock. Like its composer (who, by the way, has been happily engaged to a post-Jenny woman for some time now), the tune has aged gracefully since LeBlanc quit Dash in the late '80s and formed Cowboy Mouth with Paul Sanchez and John Thomas "The Griff" Griffith.
The musicians, both guitar players, had sterling musical pedigrees: Sanchez played with LeBlanc in the Backbeats, a synth-pop outfit, and later established an enviable solo reputation as a folk-rocker; Griffith was a member of Red Rockers, the city's prototypical new wave band whose "China" was an MTV hit in the early '80s.
With original bassist Steve Walters, Cowboy Mouth recorded three increasingly successful indie releases for the Monkey Hill label: It Means Escape, Word of Mouth, and Mouthing Off Live. When Walters retired, he was replaced by Rob Savoy, founder of Lafayette's zydeco/rock Bluerunners. With four lead vocalist-songwriters and a live show focusing on LeBlanc's front-and-center drum kit and Sgt. Carter-on-acid stage persona, the band began to draw an exponentially rippling crowd through the South's fraternity circuit.
In performance, Sanchez, Griffith, and Savoy lay down a second-line amalgamation of gospel, Cajun punk, country, and rhythm 'n' roll, while LeBlanc courts the manic crowds like a lunatic mixture of Billy Sunday, Vince Lombardi, Ted Nugent, and Dale Carnegie. It wasn't long before major labels came sniffing around.