You know a little about my relationship with music; that of my parents was uppermost in my mind the other day when Fats Domino’s death was announced. It’s not as though music was always echoing round our bungalow in Bournemouth when I was small, and when it was, it was a small selection: a bit of country (Slim Whitman, John Denver) and a bit of rock-and-roll (Jerry Lee Lewis). I liked the stories in the country, and the energy of Mr Lewis, although even when small I could tell that both had a considerable element of what one might now not unfairly call camp. Fats Domino was a bit different. I was intrigued by his name which struck me as very odd. He was indeed quite a portly gentleman to judge by the record sleeves, but I found it remarkable that anyone could share his name with the little black-and-white wooden gaming blocks I had a box of in the toy cupboard. Once I was aware that there were different kinds of music, I asked my dad once what sort Fats Domino’s was, and he said he wasn’t sure how to describe it, but thought it was probably more blues than anything else. It had a beguiling sort of melancholy to it.
I never fathomed my parents’ fondness for schmaltzy Country & Western (and don’t really want to; there is of course, as I’ve discovered since, country music which is far from schmaltzy, which is bleak and desperate and dark), but that aside, they did their growing-up in the 1950s and much of their taste clearly went back to that time. They went off Jerry Lee a bit in 1990 when he was booked to play in Bournemouth, no less, and they were among the crowd who waited, and waited, for him to turn up, fruitlessly. The rest of The Killer’s UK tour was cancelled. But Fats Domino remained, eternally at his piano and unfailingly beaming from those old record sleeves.
Hurricane Katrina levelled and flooded New Orleans in 2005, and the TV news showed residents being evacuated, among them ‘Rock and Roll legend Fats Domino’. He was by that point so legendary that my mum and dad had assumed he’d died years before and his continued existence came as quite a surprise. Ever since then I’d felt that his subsequent years were a bonus.
The connection was forged more powerfully when my dad died and mum had to sort out the music for his funeral. She sat with a retired priest attached to the local church and went through some options, and eventually settled on Fats’s ‘Walkin’ to New Orleans’. The song’s lyrics were far from apposite in some ways – ‘You used to be my honey/Till you spent all my money’, Fats complains – but, up to a point, that doesn’t matter on such occasions. When dad was carried out of the church to that slow, insistent swing (were the undertakers’ men, despite themselves, swinging a little, too?) he was on another journey, like Fats. He knew next to nothing about New Orleans, which in Louisiana Creole manner Fats pronounces Orlon, but the point was that New Orleans was somewhere else.
I got no time for talkin’
I got to keep on walkin’
New Orlon’ is my home
That’s the reason why I’m goin'
Yes I'm walkin' to New Orlon'
I spoke to mum the day after the news. She remembered how dad and his best friend Dave had waited with bated breath for the first Fats Domino record they bought to come in stock at Beales in Bournemouth, all the way from Imperial Records in California, and dad had called her with great excitement to say they’d got it. For years Fats was nothing more than a name, really, a link to who they’d all been all those years ago, but evocative enough for all that. Mum admitted to a tear or two. ‘You’ll think I’m silly,’ she said. It’s not silly to mourn the loss of a comrade in the battle of memory, of remembering who you are, and those who love, the battle to carry on saying ‘We matter’.