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Mermaid Lounge Was a Total Circus

The New Orleans music venue was a bastion of consequence-free chaos and eccentricity.

I don’t know if the story happened exactly like this, but since when has that ever mattered?

I do know that I was, for a time, in a group called the World/Inferno Friendship Society—a nine-piece “cabaret-punk orchestra.” It was as much a gang, spectacle and inciting idea as it was a band. In April 2002 we were not quite two weeks into our annual attempt at an American tour. The band was nine; the touring party was 12, with three ride-alongs: a genial cat herder with tarantula dreadlocks who was the driver and de facto tour manager; the band’s “fire technician” and “chaos coordinator,” whose own dreads had retreated from his forehead and advanced down his back; and our minder on German tours, who had flown over to hawk merchandise and scope out the American scene.

Under normal circumstances, a touring band might choose to play with local acts to get a few more bodies through the door, or travel as a package with other groups who might help. We were traveling as a three-band package, assembled by factors unrelated to cumulative draw. There was the Robocop Kraus, a German band we’d invited; the Independents, a kind of ska version of the Misfits from Myrtle Beach whose singer went by Evil Presly [sic]; and us. The Independents were a brother act, a pair of hulking biker types in leather jackets backed by a band filled out by a 50-something strip club DJ with ass-length straight-ironed black hair whom the brothers had nicknamed Grampire. Their bass player, though, was young, clean cut and, crucially, dating World/Inferno’s percussionist. “We’ll headline in the Southeast,” they said. “We draw well there.” They didn’t—but they carried themselves like they were in Mötley Crüe, with local strippers and bottles of Jack Daniels backstage.

As the three vans pulled up after a nine-hour drive from Jacksonville, torrential rain poured off the highway overpass next to the Mermaid Lounge in New Orleans. The bar was a two-story building sided in shaggy clapboard and painted two shades of aquamarine. It humbly announced itself with two hand-lettered signs. We loaded in through the foamy gutter rivers that pressed the low, cracked curb and, inside, stripped off our sodden socks. Two or three mic stands drooped, like scarecrow skeletons, over a pocket stage. Only one employee had braved the downpour. He, it turned out, had recently been fired, or something, but had been pressured to cover this one last shift, or something: Point was, his loyalties to the venue were at a nadir—and ebbing.

We had simpatico friends in New Orleans, a scatological sideshow offshoot of the late-’90s fervor for transgression and body mortification called the Know Nothing Family Zirkus, with whom we shared expansive membership and a taste for exuberant nihilism. Their scabrous emcee, famous for forking his tongue with a razor blade in a motel room, went by Dr. Eric von Know-Nothing. Stix the Clown, who had clown makeup tattooed on his face, once bored his urethra with a power drill. There were a few others, including Ludwig, whose nom-de-clown was Piss Puddles and who would take a song request, then gargle it, on mic, with a swig of urine. They were off-duty the night we played the Mermaid Lounge, though, and constituted our welcoming committee and only audience. Not that they would’ve paid, but there wasn’t anyone at the door; the sole representative of the establishment had already begun the process of applying the equivalent of his last paycheck’s worth of alcohol to his bloodstream.

The benefit of a touring party of two dozen is that you form a rolling bacchanal that can set the terms for each night’s debauch, that can absorb the locals you outnumber like a tornado—not that the clowns required encouragement or instigation. We wrapped up our set, and the bartender came to break down the gear. He stumbled over the short lip of the stage into the coils of cable and the damp estuaries of spilled beer. He made a cursory attempt to get up, then succumbed, curled around a mic stand. As his eyes closed, someone heard him mutter, “Take anything you want.”

Evil Presly and one of the clowns took up positions behind the bar and lined up every shot glass in the establishment. Then, a kind of bucket brigade formed between the bar and the street, loading bottles from behind the bar through the downpour into the waiting vans. The mist steamed through the open doors as we abandoned the bartender to the empty bar, the dawn and his fate.

We were 400 miles away in Houston the next day, our soaked show clothes baking and moldering as the Texas sun turned the back of the van into a greenhouse. Furious phone calls began to pour in to our one cellphone: “You people are criminals,” raged the club’s representative. “You’ll never work in this town again. We’re going to call ahead and tell every place you’re going to what you did. We’re going to ruin your tour.” Cackling, amorally pleased with ourselves, we let the calls go straight to voicemail, and eventually they petered out and stopped. By the time we returned to New Orleans, in 2006, the Mermaid Lounge had been closed for two years.

The bar was, by many accounts, a pillar of the local music scene for a decade. It was welcoming of the artsy and eccentric, and its booker and promoter prolific and admired. Even the most sympathetic venue, though, is ultimately conscripted into the role of authority. They’re the rule-makers and limit-setters, the stooge in a pantomime of rebellion. Piss Puddles moved back in with his parents in Connecticut. Another one of the clowns works computer security on Wall Street. Bars ultimately become banks or boutiques or, in the case of the Mermaid, “a small, friendly neighborhood bar” called the Rusty Nail.

It’s proof that the arc of our moral education is long, but it tends toward day jobs—that both punk bands and dive bars sell the fantasy of circumscribed, consequence-free chaos. But also that bands and bars and the fantasy business are transient things: Few of them last longer than the memories of ecstatic self-destruction they enabled.

This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.

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Franz Nicolay is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, the Kenyon Review, The Paris Review and elsewhere. His first book, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar (New Press, 2016), was named a “Season’s Best Travel Book” by the New York Times.