After the Flood

Ned Sublette: "The Year Before the Flood" (2009, 452 pp.)

After mentioning that I “love love love” Ned Sublette’s all too obscure The Year Before the Flood in Xgau Sez I recalled that I’d reviewed it in 2011 when Expert Witness was still on MSN, although the piece is hard to find on my site unless you know it’s there: locatable via Google Search at the lower left rather than the Book Reviews tab because it was one of the occasional non-Consumer Guide entries I put up there. (Bookwise I also recall James Brown and Leonard Cohen bios and there are probably others.) But you can read it here.

Having spelunked through in this book I love for a few hours, let me add a few things. The Year Before the Flood is not a seamless narrative—it jumps around. Sublette’s critical-historical specialty is Cuban music: Cuba and Its Music is truly the definitive history in any language. He’s also performed as something like a singer-songwriter for most of his life, although sensibility-wise I know of no one remotely like him, and this is where I’ll mention that in 2006 his 1981 “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” was covered by Willie Nelson in the wake of Brokeback Mountain. Yet just because he’s an outsider who’s thought about both rhythm and lyrics for most of his life, his writing about New Orleans hip-hop is both incisive and sui generis. (As a bonus let me link to another superb outsider’s take on that world from the Oxford American.) I should also mention that with his wife, Constance Sublette, he co-authored the exhaustive, eloquent, appalling 752-page 2017 The American Slave Coast, one of those black history books people ought to be going back to right now. And finally I’ll note that early on here he briefly but acutely recalls his boyhood in northern Louisiana, with accounts of Elvis Presley and Fats Domino so culturally specific and musically original that I taught both of them at NYU.

But the material I reread front to back while reaccessing this remarkable book is about hurricanes. Not Katrina—by then he and Constance were back in Manhattan’s rent-controlled Soho/Little Italy, hence the “Before” of the title. Instead the chapter in question is called “Ivan the Terrible,” after 2004’s forgotten Hurricane Ivan, one of the longest-lived hurricanes in meteorological history. As a Category 4 and strong Category 3, it did heavy damage in Jamaica, Cuba (which was so well-prepared it suffered zero fatalaties), the Grand Caymans, and the Florida Panhandle. But hurricanes are fickle creatures, and so it veered away from New Orleans—which doesn’t mean Sublette, who was back in New York briefly at the time, wasn’t proud he’d presciently nabbed one of the last plane tickets out for Constance. He’d never thought much about hurricanes in New Orleans before. But Ivan woke him up. Inevitably, he knew, there’d be a Katrina. So this is how the chapter ends:

 By then I realized that moving to New Orleans was one of the stupidest things I’d ever done.

Except for one thing. Despite the fact that we had to live in New Orleans, we were getting to live in New Orleans.

We hadn’t been there a month yet