Riding a Parade Float with Mardi Gras's First Rock Band
The afternoon included a lot of pink costumes, an insanely elaborate hat, a crowd of rowdy families, and a semi-serious head injury suffered by the singer—all in all, a pretty typical performance from Mardi Gras band Pink Slip.
Sue Ford on the float. All photos by the author
In 1987, singer and guitarist Sue Ford moved from Boston to New Orleans and became firmly entrenched in the city’s rock scene. She’s currently married to Jimmy Ford, a drummer, former bar owner, and one-time manager for acts like the dB's and Richard Hell. The couple plays together in the heavy rock band DiNOLA, but Sue is perhaps best known as the woman who first injected rock ’n’ roll into the city’s traditional Mardi Gras parades.
Sue rightfully felt the parades didn’t reflect the wide variety of music New Orleans offers, and so she did her damnedest to get her all-female rock band Pink Slip onto a float. Her idea to screw with traditions stretching back hundreds of years met with resistance until 2000, when New Orleans’s first all-female parade krewe, the Muses, put out a call for female musicians and bands outside of the jazz and blues genres, which normally dominate the festivities.
A man prepares a float—loaded with beads—for the Mardi Gras parade in Chalmette Lousiana, on February 22.
Nowadays, Pink Slip rocks several parades every Mardi Gras season. On the more crowded routes, fans hold signs demanding “Show Us Your Pink!” Police officers occassionally request the DiNOLA song “I Wanna Die in New Orleans,” which the Fords wrote with Dave Catching, who owns the famed Rancho de la Luna studios in Joshua Tree and who often joins Pink Slip on the parade route. Other frequent special guests include former White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult, Tony Maimone of Pere Ubu, and New Orleans’s legendary singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill, of the Cowsill family band.
Over the years, all the other female musicians who were in Pink Slip have dropped out or been, well, given the pink slip. Eric Laws of DiNOLA now plays lead guitar, and Eddie Payne plays bass. After serving as Pink Slip’s roadie for six years, Sue’s husband Jimmy plays drums on the float while simultaneously running sound.
When I talked to her for a 2012 OffBeat magazine piece I wrote about her role in Mardi Gras, Sue told me about the process of selecting companions for this annual adventure: “When picking my krewe, it’s like going on a canoe trip. First, you’re thinking about all the great friends you want to bring. Then it starts raining and the canoe gets stuck, and you think, ‘OK, who would not deal with this well?’ and you start crossing people off that list.”
So I was honored to be chosen as Pink Slip’s guest bartender for the Knights of Nemesis parade, on the afternoon of February 22 in outlying Chalmette, beyond the Lower Ninth Ward.
Pink Slip on the band's float
Chalmette is very different from the New Orleans beloved by tourists. I’ve always been fond of Chalmations, as the residents are called, though Chalmette can look a lot like suburbia. Instead of charmingly crammed-together shotgun homes, Chalmations live in regular middle-class houses on double lots with army-green boats round back. In place of music clubs, Chalmette has strip malls and chain stores, and an amazing array of drive-through daiquiri shops.
I step out of my truck in the Walmart parking lot near the parade’s start and take in the sight of St. Bernard Parish’s Creole Tomato Queen adjusting her crown and sash and another lady spray-painting purple fleurs-de-lis onto a horse while telling her friends how she used to live in New Orleans proper but “city life just isn’t for me.”
Pink Slip hasn’t arrived, yet so I walk over to where the other floats are lined up. Heavy-duty speakers strapped to floats blast Drake, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” Three Dog Night, and the Mardi Gras Indian anthem “New Suit.” Above me men load colorful floats with bags and bags of beads and toys to throw. Emptied bags dance in the wind all around the parking lot. More than one guy is wearing Duck Dynasty gear, and one has a football helmet on because he’s on blood thinners, he tells me—getting hit with beads could be fatal.
This will be the first year for Pink Slip’s new float, which is far nicer than the smaller vehicle they rented from the Lyon’s Club for the last 13 years. This one has more space, a sweet little Honda generator, and a private bathroom featuring a bucket full of kitty litter.
With ten minutes left till parade time, Jimmy and Sue mount two heavy, expensive speakers onto the roof and slide similar monitors into a compartment above where Sue will sing. Sue rushes to screw the soundboard into the float in such a way that Jimmy can run sound while also playing drums.
Everyone’s dressed in rocker gear with pink accessories, while bass player Eddie wears an amazing suit he’s adorned with fuzzy balls and thousands of plastic googly eyes. The project took him two years to complete. “I would force myself to watch shitty movies that I didn’t have to pay attention to, just so I could sit with the glue gun,” he tells me. Ed’s tall pointed hat is sort of a Muppet version of the traditional capuchin worn by krewes in the Mamou region of southern Louisiana—the kind of hat that makes crowds stop and point and forces teenagers to look up from their iPhones.
As we prepare to finally roll I make sure everyone has a drink. Jimmy warns me that this U-turn of a parade route takes four to five hours to complete, meaning we’ll have to pace ourselves with the drinks. Like Mardi Gras itself, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Our cooler is full of tall boys plus six thermoses full of mandarin-flavored vodka and soda with the smallest splash of cranberry juice—a drink known in more than a couple of local bars as a “Jimmy Ford.”
Eddie in his hat
A bit before 2 PM we are finally off, the float subtly swaying like a boat as it moves down the road. Almost no one in the Chalmette crowd is costumed, though their necks are draped with beads, the traditional Mardi Gras currency. We’re noticeably not besieged by beggars like the floats in front of us and behind. A few in the crowd observe that I don’t have an instrument in my hands and gesture for some kind of offering like ducks lusting after breadcrusts. “Giving them the gift of music is good enough,” Sue replies when I ask if they have anything on board I can throw.
I’m not feeling Pink Slip’s cover of the late-period U2 song “Get on Your Boots,” but Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” slays the crowd. I am about to request they play DiNOLA’s heaviest song, “Vaporizer,” when Sue calls it out. After it’s over, someone in the crowd hands Erik up a beer. Jimmy advises him not to let it go to his head. Soon afterward, the parade stalls out and our float comes to a stop.
Pink Slip continue to play for about ten minutes before a cop comes over and explains that one of the float’s tractor drivers got into an argument with his krewe and abandoned his duties. They were now looking for someone else who could drive a tractor. Eventually, somehow, the parade rolls on.
This daytime Chalmette route lacks the debauchery associated with Mardi Gras (tit flashing as a tradition has almost disappeared, even on Bourbon Street, thanks to digital cameras and the internet; you never know which pictures are going to make you infamous). The modest Chalmation crowd is made up mostly of families of every size, shape, and color. But though things start out quiet, as time passes folks get visibly drunker and wilder. More air guitarists step up. Dads bounce little girls on sloppy shoulders. In lieu of beads I hand out a few tall boys to those in the crowd wearing costumes or otherwise clearly deserving of something.
At around three, Pink Slip plays “Fashion” by David Bowie, and we spot the blue-and-white marching band at the start of the parade passing us on the other side of the neutral ground. Then it's my turn to take the stage and sing Madonna’s “Vogue.”
I’ve been singing in front of audiences since I was 15, but performing on the float feels strange. People stare and point; I feel like more of an object. When the song is done, Sue pats the top of her head to signal the band to start the song again “from the top.” Moving along the route you could play the same tune over and over, and no one but the band would even notice.
The author trying his best to channel Madonna
At 3:30, we finally U-turn around the neutral ground to the tune of War’s “Cisco Kid.” The float’s floor is littered with plastic googly eyes that have dropped off Eddie’s hat—I pick them up so he can glue them back on later. Then our day takes a sudden turn. As I sit back down, I watch as the big monitor slides free of its moorings and hits Sue in the head. She continues singing, somehow, but her voice slows down like a dying vinyl record as she gradually slumps down in a chair.
The band stops. The truck stops. The float stops. The parade behind us stops, and the float ahead of us rolls away. Everyone rushes to Sue, who claims she’s fine. Her hair isn’t bloody, at least. I wrap up some ice for her head as she moves to the back of the float to lie down across the coolers.
This means I have to sing again. I don’t know many songs on the band’s set list, so we play ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” the same four verses, on a loop, for about 15 minutes. The crowd cheers but the band is looking back worriedly at Sue, who is holding ice on her head with the woozy smile of someone who just got bonked on the head with a roughly 70-pound speaker. She gives me a thumbs-up.
Finally Sue, against all common sense, stands back up to reclaim her microphone. Holding ice to her head she sings “Dragging the Line” by Tommy James and the Shondells, chosen because it includes the refrain “I feel fine.” The set list then shifts to original DiNOLA tunes—which, truth be told, sound better than the band’s covers—until finally we pull back into the Walmart parking lot.
In the end, no one drank more than four drinks. The cooler is still stocked with food the band never had time to eat, beers they didn’t drink, and three full thermoses of Jimmy Fords.
Jimmy Ford on drums
Jimmy finally has time now to worry over Sue. “She got two different concussions during Mardi Gras last year,” he tells me, kissing his wife’s still-throbbing head. “She got smacked in the head with a piece of wood while working on the float, and then someone hit her in the head with a giant bag of beads. And she just kept on going.”
When I left them, the was packing up to do it all again.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: The Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.