All Hail the Maharajah

Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. [ . . . ] By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself . . . A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable off revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.
—Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

James Booker was a New Orleans piano prodigy who was difficult to work with, so he ended up playing solo piano gigs. There’s a recording of a solo gig he played realeased as the album Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah, which is one of the best things ever captured by magnetic tape.

Over two sides, medleys of whatever comes into his head sprawl through a series of unbelievable piano acrobatics, stop for digressions into classical runs, and mutate into paranoid tunes about how the CIA is after everyone. It’s an insane, baroque mess spilling all over the place, an admixture of the history of New Orleans piano as presented by a hierophant whose connections have been swapped and resoldered. By all accounts, Booker was a genius—the liner notes of this album detail an incident when he tells a headlining musician that he’d hit a bum note in his solo, then proceeds to play the headliner’s entire solo from memory, and then play the whole thing again, backwards.

By the time I’d heard of James Booker he was dead and interred, and only crossed paths with his music because one Friday I was walking home from work and I stopped in the liquor store, where I ran into an acquaintance. Actually, that’s too generous a term—I’d met the guy once at a bar. We had mutual friends. He was a writer and from the South and was wearing a cream-colored blazer, which was enough to seem fairly exotic to me at that time. Bleary-eyed, two bottles of gin in hand, he didn’t recognize me when I said hi, but asked me to come back to his apartment and talk about writing—it turned out we lived about 2 blocks from each other.

His apartment was fantastic and there were these plots of dirt out back where he was doing gardening, supposedly, although nothing was growing there. He poured gin into a pint glass and added a splash of soda. I opted for whisky, and was given my own pint. “This is a sipping drink,” he explained.

There wasn’t really much in the apartment except for alcohol, some furniture, and CD racks lining the walls. The guy clearly had money coming in from somewhere, On closer inspection, it was all blues and jazz stuff—a really impressive collection. So we were talking about music for a while, and he knew everything. It was like talking to what’s his face, Alan Lomax. Like a gin-soaked Alan Lomax with a totally dead garden. Our conversation moved to writing, which is always more awkward for me (and I don’t know why, that’s probably something worth examining but who has the time). He was going to be reading some of his stuff later that night, and showed me a really good poem he’d written.

I finally had to go because I had to meet my lady, at which point my host began demanding to know about her. I told him a thing or two—she used to work for the circus, she like experimental theatre, she was from Oakland—and he began scrambling along the CDs, chuckling to himself. “Oh shit my friend, you are in luck, you are gonna get laid tonight friend, oh shit.”

He thrust a copy of Bayou Maharajah in my hand and I crept out the door, shitfaced and happy. He made it clear that this was an important album, and I thanked him and promised to return it, which I never did. I never hung out with the guy again. I have no idea what happened to him.

I was weightless as I climbed up to my fourth-floor walkup. Sarah was eating a Mango and listening to Hot 97, which was the usual Friday routine. I put on the James Booker CD and it unfolded into the room, a weird angular buzzing cloud that that sparkled. We tried to talk about our plans but instead hunched around the apartment singing Boney Maroney. The world was rife with possibility, and we vowed to have great adventures together.

In the weeks to come, that album never left our stereo. We still listen to it all the time—it feels like the apotheosis of New Orleans R&B and about 13 other strains of American music. You can hear the audience on this recording, they’re loving it—Booker had a residency at this club, and I don’t know how this show stacks up to his other performances, but this is the one that got recorded and the one I listened to. It’s still around and still means things, and as long as humanity is still crawling along the face of the earth, it’s still going to resonate within a small circle from one generation to the next.

There are a lot of non-fiction books that trace the origins of cultural phenomena. The root of a certain religious practice, the evolution of political theories, technology. Music fanatics like to trace the pedigree of certain bands or artists. Someone could probably write a tome on James Booker, who seems to effortlessly channel the entire history of New Orleans music. It's hard to articulate what this means to me. I'm reduced to thrusting this album at other people and telling them that it's the real shit. I'm not sure why I can never say why this particular album is important, whenever I try I just feel like I'm somehow pointing my finger at centuries worth of music and saying "it's all that, because of all that."

Also he had an eyepatch with a star on it, which is nothing if not classy.