Bluesman and local icon Coco Robicheaux died Friday evening after suffering a heart attack at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street, bar staff said. According to witnesses, paramedics were able to briefly revive the local legend. Bar staff said he passed an hour later at a local hospital. One confidante described his last words simply as, "I'm home."
Coco's last words have been disupted by family and friends, but the ascription is a reminder of the many-parted legend that grew up around the gruff-voiced Louisiana native. Robicheaux's life was proof of the maxim that New Orleans musicians are more than just guitar noodlers capable of summoning catchy tunes for a few hours a night. His spirit came to typify and inspire Frenchen Street, if not the entire Crescent City. It is easy to smile about the stories of Robicheaux's eccentricities: the incident in which he burned down his apartment, the famed voodoo sacrifice at WWOZ, or his recent adventures fishing off the Alaskan Coast. Likewise, his music is easy to praise: "Spiritland," "HaHa," or the covers of House of the Rising Sun that he strummed to amuse tourists at the Barrel. However, his life transcended metaphorical checkboxes.
By most accounts, the 64-year-old was born Curtis John Arceneaux to Choctaw and Cajun parents in Ascension Parish. He was heavily influenced by the Native American-derived Hoodoo religious practices of that were passed down through his family. He lead a blues band on Bourbon Street by the time he was a teen, and recorded his first record before he was 20. But the first time his name was heard in national circles did not come on his own recording.
On Dr. John's 1968 classic, "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," ol' Mac Rebennack shouts "Coco Robicheaux" repeatedly in the background as the song winds into a groove. Some stories persist that Coco took his stage name after that song. In a 2008 interview with BOMB Magazine, Coco isn't conclusive. The interviewer asks about how that section of the song came about, but Coco just proceeds to detail the story of how the Dr. John moniker was born, staying mum on Coco Robicheaux.
During a 2006 interview with John Sinclair, he indicated that the name came from an old wives' tale about a boy who was abducted by a loup garou, or werewolf.
"They would call kids that when they would be doing wrong, to scare you," he told Sinclair. "I started using it full-time after some dude stole my ID in San Francisco and did a bunch of terrible crimes under my name."
Following the true path of all people called to the blues, Robicheaux recorded sparely, worked hard labor during the day and held barstool sessions almost nightly. At one point, he broke his back while working construction, but the incident did not necessarily force Coco to face mortality.
"I just kept on, kept on, and after a while I got to where I could move, and then it took me a couple of years to learn how to walk properly without stubbin’ my toe and trippin’ all the time," he told BOMB Magazine in 2008. "Everybody figured I was loaded, walkin’ down the street all wobbly like that. They told me, don’t you lift anything over 25 pounds, or you’ll be in that chair, but I went right back to working construction."
Coco's second album came about 30 years after his first recording. Released in 1995, Spiritland featured huge choirs and a searing insturmental stew, all whirling around Coco's world-weary, gravelly voice. While the album was far from a traditional commercial success, the 10-song recording set the table for Robicheaux's lengthy run on the festival circuit, which included appearances at Jazz Fest every year since 1997.
But when he wasn't on stage, Coco always found his home in New Orleans bars, notably Apple Barrel and the former Bywater joint, the Yellow Moon. Even on busy Frenchmen Street, he was a comrade to all, more often than not found holding court on a bench outside the Apple Barrel. His likeness appeared in the opening of Treme, and the rooster incident was later re-enacted in the TV show. For many, the fact that David Simon and co. managed to find Coco meant that the TV people understood. Coco was also a friend to this publication, offering up slightly unintelligible, but seemingly profound advice, in the early days, and later, interviews to young reporters in need of a break.
The object that leaves his mark most indelibly on the New Orleans music community does not, once again, showcase Coco himself. Robicheaux was the creator of the bronze Professor Longhair bust that graces the lobby of Tipitina's, only built after "hundreds of pennies collected from friends, and a little help from the Spirit," his bio states.
As for the way this bluesman rode out the Big One, NoDef asked Robicheaux about his experience after the federal flood during an interview about Treme earlier this year.
“Fucking hell, man. That shit is still etched in my memory," he told us. "I came back the day after Hurricane Katrina. I went over to Texas, and they wouldn’t let me in (the shelter) because I had alcohol on my breath. I said, fuck it, I’m going back to New Orleans, man."
Robicheaux's life wasn't always pretty, but then again neither is New Orleans; yet, like the city he loved, his life sure was beautiful.