Memories of the Riverboat President.
Cyndi Laupers pixie face was streaked with sweat. Her eyes were caked with makeup. Half of her hair was shaved short if I remember correctly the other half mopped over sideways. She stood at the edge of the stage on the Riverboat President and delivered a mock speech on the importance of personal hygiene and good grooming. She was a hoot. It was the 1980s, Lauper was the princess of punk/pop, the last person youd expect to see performing while cruising down the Mississippi River.
Men at Work. Cheap Trick. The Producers. So many big acts rocked the boat back then.
James Brown. Jerry Lee Lewis. Etta James.
The President was a 1924-vintage cruise boat. Wide. White. Three decks. A cross between a manatee and a wedding cake. Ask anybody: It was the coolest nightclub in town.
Roy Orbison. Joan Jett. Tina Turner was, of course, born to go rollin, rollin, rollin on a river.
I always had the best seat in the house. I was one of the bartenders, stationed right in front of the stage, in the blare of the speakers. I was twenty-something. Its amazing that I can still hear. When Gary Numan played, the booze bottles rattled like castanets.
Doug Kershaw, King Sunny Ade. Juice Newton. Juice Newton?
It has been almost 25 years since the Riverboat President left New Orleans. The boat did weekend dance and concert cruises here from the end of World War II until the mid-1980s. Capt. Clarke Doc Hawley, who earned his New Orleans harbor license on the President in the mid 1960s, remembers that a band called the Crawford-Ferguson Night Owls played back then.
Johnny Rivers. The Mamas and the Papas. Rick Nelson.
Im thinking about the Prez we always called it the Prez because Mari Landy recently moved back to town after 20 years. She was one of the bow bartenders, along with Denise Berthiaume, who now owns LeMieux Galleries on Julia Street. They were also 20-somethings back then. A few weeks ago we had dinner on Frenchmen Street. Mari said that when the economy in Portland petered out, she and her husband found the lure of New Orleans too great to resist.
Doc Severinsen. Bobby Womack. Pee-wee Herman stood at my bar smoking a cigarette during his sound check, but since he was wearing his street clothes, I didnt know who he was. Everybody smoked back then; my bar clothes used to smell like a picnic ham at the end of the night.
Tips were good. Sometimes we filled up those big maraschino cherry jars almost to the brim. Naturally, we spent a lot of our earnings on the way home. The Jimani. The Hilton. The Quarter Scene. Baileys.
David Allan Coe, The Pointer Sisters. Gill Scott-Heron was waaay ahead of his time.
I visited with Capt. Robert Robbie Mitchell Sr. last month on the Riverboat Natchez the Presidents prettier, younger sister. He was the twenty-something chief mate on the Prez, way back when. Robbies got grandkids now. He reminded me how the decks used to leak like sieves, and how some guitar player was afraid hed be electrocuted by water on the stage.
Peter Frampton. B. B. King. Jerry Garcia played for something like three hours.
Captain Robbie reminded me of the doubleheaders during Jazz Fest, when wed work one show, clean the dance floor and start all over. He said the Prez could carry 3,100 passengers. He remembers showing an unhappy Jazz Fest big wig to the bottom of the gangplank because he didnt have a ticket, then later being congratulated for his conscientiousness. He remembers we had two brigs. He remembers how the old boat would thread its way between other ships on the river, during storms, while the band played on below deck. Captain Robbie said he had a poster covered with autographs from all the musicians that played the Prez, but it was lost in the 2005 flood. 1960s wedding dresses
Sitting on the Natchez last month in the rain, I remembered the wonderful mushroom smell of the Mississippi.
Joan Baez. Arlo Guthrie. Leon Redbone someone stole Leons cane during the show. Did he get it back? I couldn't tell you.
Does anybody else remember when one of the engineers caught this, like, 4-foot-long catfish and we all went down to the cooler to see it? Does anybody else remember that on the port mezzanine there were palm trees and cartoon monkeys embossed on the wall under something like 50 coats of paint? Does anybody else remember how the boat would list when the act was over and the crowd would shift toward the dockside exits?
Jose Feliciano. Bonnie Raitt. Id forgotten them, but Mari remembered. Everybody I talked to added to the list.
We served Dixie and no other beer. The B-52 cocktail was popular. I forgot what went in one, so I looked up the recipe: Coffee liqueur, orange liqueur, Baileys Irish Cream. The recipe said the drink should be layered, but I think we ordinarily shook them. So long as it tasted like Easter morning, I'm sure, nobody complained.
Woody Herman. Sha Na Na. Eric Burdon I missed Iggy Pop and David Crosby.
My first night was the Rolling Stones private 1981 tour party. Imagine that. I only saw one Stone close up, but he was the one I wanted to see: Keith Richards. His complexion was like concrete. He was skinny, skinny, and wore pixie boots. He sat with Deacon John in a mezzanine bar. He drank Bourbon. Denise made a gold lame dress for the occasion. It was a trip.
The Righteous Brothers. Peter Tosh. War.
We all danced behind the bars. Sometimes I was so into what was happening on stage, I forgot we were cruising, until the foghorn blasted through the music. I loved the whole scene. How could you not? Mari, who was born in New York, summed up the magic like so: Everybody was like, Oh my God, youre living in New Orleans and working on a riverboat.
Irma Thomas used to take off her shoes after a couple of songs she was right at home. The Nevilles played regularly. They were so unbelievably good. Do you remember a cover band called Ivy?
Bert Smith is currently the respected deputy chief administrative officer of Jefferson Parish, but back in the Carter/Reagan-era he played rhythm guitar with New Orleans favorite new wave band, The Cold. Smith says that the Cold played at other nightspots more often, but people still associate the group with the riverboat.
It must have been a special place, he said, more than just a place to see the band. Ironically, Smith said, performers, who were confined to the stage and dressing rooms, missed out on many of the Presidents inherent charms.
The downside was, we didnt get to enjoy the cruise, Smith said. We didnt get to go outside, look at the city, and throw up overboard like everybody else.
Smith cleared up a foggy memory for me. For years Ive wondered: Did U2 really appear on the Prez or am I imagining things? Smith says he saw the U2 concert.
By the Spring of 1988 the President moved upriver to St. Louis; later she was fitted out as a casino in Davenport, Iowa. Capt. Bill Wilson, the master of the President in the 1980s, tells me that he heard the ship had fallen on hard times and was recently purchased for some nominal amount, dismantled, and that there are plans to restore her as a landlocked hotel somewhere in the Midwest.
Dr. John. The Meters. Frogman Henry. Fats Domino. Allen Toussaint. Did I miss anybody?
Did I remember anybody who wasnt really there?
I think maybe Romeo Void was scheduled to play but didnt. Did Flock of Seagulls play the boat? I think so. The B-52s were the first band I ever saw with pre-recorded music.
Looking back, it strikes me as odd that the 1980s are remembered for being so polished, so primary-colored, so plastic. For me, for everyone on the Prez probably, the whole MTV aesthetic was shanghaied by the smell of river water, the sound of fog horns, a beer called Dixie, and giant catfish. We were working on a riverboat, after all, and living in New Orleans. Oh my God.
This story is the first of a series titled N.O. Mans Land, an irregular column about the irregular character of our home.
By: Doug MacCash