Micah’s Blue Heaven: On Art, Loss, Redemption and Re-Invention
by David Bottoms
Most cities of any size have an older quarter, built as the city core expanded outward and then left to its own devices as the population fled restlessly and speculatively, hacking ever-newer settlements from rolling woody hills and sleepy pastures. As often as not, the city’s creative folk settle in such enclaves, comfy in garage apartments and looming old battlements overlooking cracked concrete and tired wrought-iron fences. In Shreveport, an antebellum city tucked into the piney northern Louisiana pocket of the Ark-La-Tex, that enclave is known as Highland.
There’s a two-story wood-frame building on Kings Highway that houses Red Handed Tattoo, and it’s run by a fellow named Micah Harold whose dark eyes glitter with amusement and energy as he welcomes the day’s customers. Kings Highway was one of the narrow early roadways of Highland, and it’s a scruffy constant connecting generations of the city’s seekers, especially of the younger sort. The shop has little truck with dour, utilitarian atmospherics, its walls being covered with an explosion of Harold’s eclectic personal work as well as art gifted him by other, kindred spirits.
It’s a gallery of expression, a way-station for neophytes and colorfully limbed seekers alike, and miles away from a black night of addiction, frustration, and an entropy at once psychic, spiritual and physical.
If you leave the shop, head up Kings and hang a left onto Line, you pass through the city’s oldest and most ballyhooed commercial vein before running into 70th Street and a sharp social segue into Cedar Grove.
Cedar Grove was part of the city’s Postwar expansion westward and southward, and by the oil and gas bust of the late ‘70s was already in decline. Micah’s father, Michael Harold, grew up here, as part of a changing racial and economic milieu.
“It was a jambalaya of different people,” says Harold, “lots of Hispanics, lots of African-Americans, lots of whites. Now it’s mostly indigent property.” His uncle carried a characteristic homemade identifier, as well. “You could tell one was a ‘Grove-ite’ because they had a cross hand-poked into their finger, right below the knuckle of the second finger. The name was considered a pejorative term back then.”
Michael, an artist, met an artist/fashion designer named Debbie Wall, and Micah made his initial bows in Gerald Ford’s listless national scape on October 25th, 1975.
As the son of artists, he grew up squarely in the center of the city’s intellectual ferment, with art, music and various happenings jostling for his attention and energy. Michael was friends with Bruce Allen, an art professor at the city’s private liberal-arts college Centenary, and when Allen Ginsberg spoke at the school in 1991, the poet went back to Allen’s to hang out. A teenage Micah was there, taking it all in.
“Stuff like that was happening all the time,” he remembers. I was raised by academics and artists…it was a little bohemian. And not just one, but this whole network of local people who pretty much pioneered the art scene here in Shreveport-Bossier.”
Growing up without standard-issue certainties had its drawbacks, of course, and these included spells in both Highland and Cedar Grove, sometimes couch-surfing and always unsure about his proper way forward, until his late 20s. This life, led “…by the seat of my pants,” gave him experience and toughened his skin.
“I fall back on that a lot in life,” he observes, “just the stuff you have to do to get by, when you’re really coming from nothing, when all you have is what you can provide for yourself.”
College, then a baby necessitated some sort of plan, and not necessarily a tiresome gig with days bracketed by punching a time-clock.
He undertook training in tattooing, and thus discovered another creative outlet. Furthermore, he was good at it. It was slow going for quite a while.
“It was hell trying to stay an artist,” he says. “It was hell trying to do music, and still get rent money, as opposed to a month’s worth of bar tabs.” This new pursuit, though: it spoke to something inside of him. “[It’s] the ritual of the tattoo,” he stresses, “that’s been lost in today’s commercialization. Like the rock-star attitude on TV, vying to have top honors in tattoo reality
shows…that never was for me.”
The legs of his world were knocked out from underneath him in 2016, however, as the death of a beloved grandfather, a girlfriend’s departure, and the defection of several associates left him shattered. Complicating the losses (as well as any sort of grieving or recovery processes) were long years spent dependent on painkillers, benzodiazepines and the easiest, most faithful and readily available companion: cigarettes.
But there was a record that came out of it, out of a strummed intro produced when Harold was mired in pain, paralytic with fogged withdrawal.
“I had to re-wire myself,” he says of the time. “I had to re-wire my brain to operate without narcotics, without the nicotine, all the habits. I was lost. Burnt. You can’t explain to anyone what it’s like, coming off of opiates. You kind of dismiss it a little, because you don’t understand what a difficult task that may be.” Incredibly, in one single day, he quit drugs, cigarettes, as well as sugar, wheat and dairy for good measure. “Probably the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he says, the memories still all too fresh, yet it opened the door to early morning walks after nights of little sleep—times for getting down to the business of stability, of simple survival.
About that record—Micah and the JazzGrass Apocalypse. It’s no less than a travelogue of that scorched time, waiting for the clouds to break and “…the sun to start getting back in again.”
He sits in the upstairs salon-of-sorts at Red Handed, relaxed on a vintage low-slung sofa, overseen by a 6-foot-tall T. Rex and huge, movie-prop portrait of Abraham Lincoln, and shakes his head in wonder.
He’s thinking back to those bad days. He had a simple, strummed intro, one riff of many he’d played to himself and somehow managed to save over the years. Where was this meager melody going, though? Was there something—anything—there?
By the late 1990s rock ‘n’ roll had painted itself into a corner of post-Seattle pretenders, nű-metal silliness and the cod-nihilism of acts like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Lifting the yoke were bands like Chapel Hill’s Squirrel Nut Zippers, who offered a brilliant take on Prewar jazz, and Combustible Edison, a combo risen from the ashes of Indie outfit Christmas and born again as a lounge act. Uncle Tupelo sought to revisit the singer-songwriter aesthetic, and upon its dissolution appeared both Wilco and Son Volt, with songs passionate and close to the bone.
The music, thankfully, has never really shaken its roots. From the Stones covering Roy Acuff to Papa John Creech’s fiddle underpinning Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna to the Byrds’ celebrated Bluegrass nod Sweetheart of the Rodeo, it’s always shaken down the past for influence and texture. In 2003, a group of musicians circulating in the rich, swirling eddies of Shreveport’s music scene began Dirtfoot, defining their celebratory jubilee as “Gypsy Punk Country Grumble Boogie,” and so ensued festival days and parking-lot nights of gleeful shouts, deft, dense musical interplay and above all, dancing.
Harold, internalizing everything he’d seen and heard about music began to see that a cross-pollination could work, or—thought of in simpler terms—hauling out what he wanted to express and conveying that to his assembly of fellow musicians, which included the guys from Dirtfoot as well as several other local lights. The arrangements, the songs, would assume their own shapes.
Addiction informed the music as the recording took shape.
“I would go over the parts. Obsess. Just like I would with opiates or cigarettes, take that same addictive anxiety, and obsessiveness and fixation, and mull over all the different parts in the music. I can close my eyes and go into that clarinet part all by itself, then pull back to hear how all the other parts are interacting with it.” He makes direct connections to transference and projection: personal relationships and creative work alike complicated by addictive behaviors.
“Without having some healthy basis with which to compare one’s own relationships,” he continues, “you can fall back into patterns of obsessing over certain types of people—these Kill Bill villains—and you never know where you’re going with people like that.” He chuckles, considering both his avocations, inked and aural: “The weird thing about artists and musicians,” he notes, “is…you can give a plumber a bad habit and he’ll lose his business. But you give a musician or an artist a bad habit, and they get better at it sometimes. I had that going for me, y’know? Sometimes it lends itself to the creativity. I was able to thrive under those conditions.”
What emerged from this period was, often against the odds, a finished album. It stunned Harold when he heard the finished master, as it stuns the listener first encountering it.
Back to the strummed intro, and a mind in freefall.
“I do something questionable by comparing a relationship, in the core analogy, to the Nazi march across Europe,” he says of “Gold Tooth Feelings,” which his tormentor-subject blithely collects. “Not cool to do, but it made a really good song,” and the song is good: contemplative, quietly insistent and reflexive. The early track, based on a circle of fifths, created interest in those who heard it and caused other feelings and musical impulses to break free. Co-written with Jay Bratlie, who provided the very banjo melody Harold needed, the track also features a buttery, warm intro by Micah.
A freewheeling ensemble effort, “Strung Out on You,” was chosen to open the record, and its biting lyrics (even Harold’s scatting!) and exuberance put paid to the threadbare nature of most music we endure these days. Tim Brogan (fiddle), Leonard Service (mandolin), Doug Dicharry (trombone) and Philip Bradbury (clarinet) soar over the arrangement.
Harold read Dante as a youth, and it left a deep impression. His personal path seemed marked by a descent into a very real hell of doubt, and this informs a multi-part suite called “The Crimson Beast.” It’s a tempo-shifting fever dream of impressions—moving decisively and deftly from the Asian East to Eastern Europe, Brian Basco’s stunning piano leading the charge. Harold and Brogan step in for a gypsy interlude, punched up by Darren and Onya Osborn’s percussion. Spencer Teekell (upright bass), Caleb Elliott (cello) and Mark Griffith (guitar) join in this virtuoso number, culminating in a sweeping, hypnotic net impression that’d be perfectly at home in a lost ‘70s rock opera or spy-flick soundtrack. Interwoven time signatures (that sync up every twelve measures) brought to mind the work of acts like King Crimson, and the piece now had a name.
Dirtfoot frontman Matt Hazelton takes the lead vocal on “Babylon,” wherein the strings and the bottom end (featuring Wrecking Crew member Joe Osborn, who calls Shreveport home) join Brogan’s lysergic fiddle in a driving, uptempo effort. Five tracks in, and it’s already a swirling psychic travelogue.
Wayne Anderson’s nimble picking (recalling such ’30s acts as the Delmore Brothers) enlivens an homage to randy pursuits called “Heartbreaker Tattoo,” itself also a showcase for Bradbury’s agile clarinet work, while “Blades of Grass” is another work in search of a film score. Elliott’s cello plays off Harold’s banjo work in a musical bazaar that promises either peril or delight: the band doesn’t make you choose.
Micah trades the banjo for guitar for a buoyant/melancholy admixture called “Go Into the Night.” Memories and regrets draw close in the drawing shadows as he exhorts a woman on her deathbed to “…whisper softly your goodbyes tonight,” in a murky meditation on mortality, yet this is followed by a wide-eyed delivery of Eminem’s “Without Me,” albeit re-scored by Bradbury. The outfit pulls it off seamlessly, with Harold’s vocal interplay meshing wonderfully with Karen Wissing’s through the rollicking groove and time changes.
The beautiful disquiet of “Dumpster Fire” addresses, perhaps, a bullet dodged, and sets up the devastating minor-chord set piece, “Worst Day of Your Life.” That intro swaggers, establishing an irresistible momentum, that cracks into shards of breakdown led by Elliot’s cello. Drums and piano whip the tempo back toward a galloping nightmare, though, underscored by Teekell’s thumping, loping bass which finally subsides into a heartbeat, a dirge that succumbs to the blasted “Hell’s Lament.” The clouds break under the supernal weight of “Ooh La La La,” the glorious repetitions of which would make even Brian Wilson sit up and take notice. This dawn then fully breaks with “All the Feels,” co-written by Brogan and featuring his fiddle joined by strong piano work from Basco.
Catchy and alive, “Crazy Ways” closes us out, with joyful Doug Dicharry brass and both drum and guitar work from Darren Osborn, and this is capped by “The Big F,” a wonder of mood and texture named for its dominant chord.
“It wasn’t all peaches and cream,” says Harold, speaking of the two-year effort and the recording and mastering with Darren Osborn. “When people are passionate about something, there are ups and downs…you stand your ground. There are disagreements, you’re gonna have that. It made the whole album a rollercoaster, but like with any traumatic event, we’re better friends for it!” he laughs.
From dropping sixty pounds in five months to holding a master recording in his hand, he now knows about the human response to maintaining creativity—indeed, humanity—amid crisis.
“Where are you,” he asks emphatically, “if everything you thought you are is taken away? What are you gonna do about it?” For him, there was no being eaten up and spat out. “I changed physically,” he says, “and my heart changed.”
Through a confluence, finally, of recovery, craft and music, Harold is amazed at what the future yet holds.
“My reality tunnel blew up!” he exclaims, wide-eyed. “The reality highway—I’m driving fast down this thing! There’s nothing ‘solid’ about it. Literally…if I can think it, and I take that thought—with my passion and heart—then put the third part, my physical work into it, I make this thing. I give it to the universe, and I say thank you for letting me make it.”
Harold is effusive in his praise for his bandmates’ varied projects: from Wayne Anderson’s Dragstrip Phantoms to Tim Brogan’s trio to Doug Dicharry and Caleb Elliot’s varied pursuits. “They all have their own light,” he says. “I wanna be around ‘em.” He was happy to work with Clint McCommon and Fairfield Studios on a couple of boisterous videos that rope in the band’s wild inventiveness. And as for future activity, be it more recording or a foray into a festival scenario, he says he’s taking all that one step at a time.
“There was no plan,” he states, still a bit amazed at it all. “There was just the music. But it happened, and now I feel honor-bound to put it out there.” To that end, he’s launched the record on Soundcloud, and is hammering out details for its release on CD and vinyl. Joining him on the creation of the album artwork were the sign-painter Chastin Brand, in a solid nod to the rich history of such fellow craftsman, as well as several of the city’s fine photographers.
It’s been quite a journey, begun as a child and outfitted with his parents’ “…big ol’ gawky headphones” and absorbed in Houses of the Holy. Joining his junior-high band and picking up guitar and sax displayed the explosive power available during the enclosure of a pep rally, and subsequent exposures to punk and other musical forms amazed him and began to give him a fierce appreciation for personal expression. As his mom has also carried on a decades-long struggle in activism, he shares such convictions as well.
“In many ways, I’m still the same way,” he says, speaking of that young man in combat boots who was “anti-everything.” He chafes inside boxes. “I defy man-made institutions. They compromise everything. Like your spirituality, if you let another entity into that. If you wanna worship, you can worship, you don’t have to fall under anyone’s banner.” The current political ferment illustrates such frustrations.
“In politics, you’ve got this false Left-Right paradigm,” he notes. “You’ve got the one hand telling you to do this, the other telling you to do that, but it’s really just the same person. All of this keeps my opinions influenced by only my own thoughts and experiences.” Accordingly, he’s adamant about the need for introspection: “Question yourself,” he says. “Test yourself.” There are solutions to our woes, some of which may be found in his new clarity.
“You put two people together who don’t talk politics, and they can become good friends.” From supporting fellow artists in the shop to charity outreach, he seeks to “…pay it forward in the community.” His life is largely now about connections, his work, and a sanguine and hard-won state of mind.
“You may not be able to save the world, but what you can do is offer light. Wherever you go, you have that opportunity.” From a person dropping into the shop to the final, finished version of a song, he now has just one criterion: “How can I make this into something that might give someone some joy, or even just make their day a little better?”
In the midst of a city trying to shape an identity for the 21st Century, Harold models one way forward. Amid Shreveport’s creeping shadows of decline, undercurrents of apprehension, and a keening desire to keep alive the city’s rich history of creative expression, he pursues life the best way he knows: with a heightened appreciation for the opportunities of his art, craft, music and relationships. He is the city, in a very real sense. He is without question its past, with its echoes both joyful and sorrowful; most certainly its present and—blessedly—he’s emblematic of its future. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” wrote Thoreau, and Micah Harold is nothing if not awake.