Written by Mark Folse | Dec 5, 2011
When news of the death of local blues and spiritual icon Coco Robicheaux went viral on the Internet Nov. 25, some said his last words were, "I'm home." Bartender Sara Shaw at the Apple Barrel bar on Frenchmen Street, who attended to him in his last moments, as well as the patrons seated next to him when he collapsed, remember them as "The next round is on me."
Either would fit. The Barrel is a cramped space with a single unisex bathroom, walls covered with dollars and photographs, its best feature a mural of musicians behind the stage. There is a tricky step up to the bar that often trips up drunk tourists, and there are never enough ashtrays for the mostly smoking crowd. The stage is one narrow end of the room, at ground level, with no amplification. The tip bucket is an old spittoon atop a barstool patrons must pass to get in or out.
It was Robicheaux's favorite bar — that Quarter Rat second living room, a place many tourists miss — where everyone is a friend or a tolerated eccentric. "Sometimes he would pop in and out all day; [other times] he would come in mid-afternoon and stay all evening," says bartender and friend J.D. Furlong. Among Robicheaux's best friends was Jimmy May, another artist and bartender there, who died in September 2009.
Years ago, Apple Barrel owner Liz Montoya saw Robicheaux at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and asked him one night what it would take for him to play the Barrel. "Make me an offer," Robicheaux told her, and so began a 10-year Saturday night gig.
That long run ended in an argument one night — a tequila-fueled misunderstanding, according to Furlong — between May and the owner. May quit, and Robicheaux followed his friend, moving his regular Saturday night gig up the street to Check Point Charlie, but he never stopped coming to the Barrel.
A photograph of Robicheaux on one wall bears a Hitler mustache added by Robicheaux himself. "He asked for a pen ... and said someone was going to do it, so it might as well be him," Furlong says. A set of caricatures that lines the stairs going up to Adolfo's restaurant above the bar includes one of Robicheaux.
Robicheaux had just returned from a week-long Thanksgiving visit with his daughter and granddaughter in Atlanta when he walked into the Apple Barrel Friday night. "He adored that child," Montoya said. "He tried to quit smoking cigars once after she started imitating him with a stick." Robicheaux sat down next to regular patrons Leigh and Jim Crawford, who confirmed the "next round" last words. He greeted Leigh and bartender Sara Shaw with a friendly kiss. Shaw said she turned around to mix Robicheaux's usual drink — Sauza Reposado tequila, shaken over ice — and when she turned back around, she saw Robicheaux slumped over the bar before he fell to the barroom floor.
Robicheaux's roommate, fellow musician John Williams, was playing when he collapsed. He and his drummer rushed over, searching for a pulse. They found one, briefly, and then it was gone. An ambulance arrived to take him to Tulane Medical Center, but those at the Apple Barrel say it came too late to save him. "I was holding him when he passed," Williams says.
"We were the last women Coco kissed," Crawford and Shaw say.
Word spread quickly up and down Frenchmen Street and over the Internet. Later that night, the bar was packed with musicians and friends. "I couldn't name them all. That night was such a blur of just trying to keep up with orders," Furlong says.
On the following Monday, the bar was quiet; the New Orleans Saints game ignored on the small corner television. Montoya and Williams were scheduled to perform during halftime and after the game. Williams, who said he was not ready to talk — "I'll call you tomorrow" — sat at a table near the door nursing a draft beer. A handful of regulars stopping in, paused at his table a moment for a few words or a hug.
Furlong told of a call from Robicheaux on the previous Tuesday, wishing him a Happy Thanksgiving. "I knew him pretty well but would never expect a call like that," he says, adding that several of the musicians with whom Robicheaux had played in the past, as they visited the Barrel to mourn with friends and pay their respects, told a similar story of an unexpected call. When Robicheaux ended the call, "He said, 'Goodbye, Douglas' in a very final way," which Furlong found strange.
"Losing Jimmy May and Kenny Holladay really hit Coco hard," Furlong adds. (Holladay, another musician and Frenchmen Street regular, died of cancer the month before.)
Montoya, at the end of the bar, nods in agreement. "I just think he was ready to go see Jimmy and play with Kenny."
Two second lines are scheduled to honor Coco Robicheaux. At press time, the first was scheduled to take place Dec. 3 with a memorial service at Marie's Bar (2483 Burgundy St.), proceeding to the Apple Barrel. A second on Dec. 12 begins on Frenchmen Street at 3:30 p.m., and proceed to the House of Blues (225 Decatur St.), where many of Robicheaux's past musical collaborators will play a tribute concert at 6 p.m.