Treme is a departure for Simon in several ways—most obviously because it’s not about Baltimore, his life’s work (with one break to film the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, set in Iraq). But it’s a personal shift as well. After years as a bristling outsider, Simon is a big deal, enough of a celebrity that strangers “go civilian” in his presence, to use the phrase he himself used to describe meeting director Joel Coen. A P.A. on the set told me The Wire had changed his life, then added, “I can’t look him in the eye! I’m intimidated, like, This is the guy.”
“I’m in the David Simon business,” former HBO executive Carolyn Strauss assured Simon when he pitched Treme. And it’s true that for many, Simon is a hero and a brand, an odd role for a man convinced that power corrupts. “He couldn’t organize his own closet,” his old Sun editor Rebecca Corbett says of Simon’s days as a “phenom” at the paper. “And the idea that he’s running this big operation is amazing and impressive. He clearly has managerial skills that weren’t necessarily evident back then.”
There is a way to break the ice with Simon, but it’s not about journalism. It’s about music. “You always try to get a feel for one another’s iPod,” Tom Piazza, a novelist and the author of Why New Orleans Matters, says of his initial meetings with the other Treme writers. “It’s the lingua franca for all of us.”
The Treme creative team is stocked with music-obsessed Simon veterans, including Wire actors like Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters and writers like Mills and Pelecanos (whom Piazza describes as “a completely depraved music addict”). This group communicates in a weave of references so dense it’s easy to feel excluded. Lippman jokingly paraphrases a Nick Hornby line about a woman married to a music geek: “He made me feel like I was bad at listening to music.”
While filming a scene in a storm-damaged bar, Simon shoots musical notes to Peters like a flare—a Miles Davis melody. As the two discuss ways to play the scene, an assistant director jokes they should add a number.
“For this scene, the song would be ‘Beware, Brother, Beware,’ ” Simon says.
Simon’s and Peters’s faces light up, and they start chanting the Louis Jordan lyrics.
“If you go to a show and she wanna sit in the back row?”
They call out the words together: “Bring her down front! Bring her right down front!”
For many, Simon is now a hero and a brand, an odd role for a man convinced that power corrupts.
And then they’re off, singing snatches of “Jack, You’re Dead” and “What’s the Use of Gettin’ Sober,” the way other people might trade sports stats. Simon collects Professor Longhair albums and when he was younger played guitar and harmonica. His 15-year-old son, Ethan, from his second marriage, is the musician now: “To her great credit, his mother insisted he learn classical piano.” Simon then hired Davis Rogan to give Ethan “a rhythm-and-blues intervention.”
During a break in filming, I ask about the Mardi Gras Indians, the esoteric culture that inspired Clarke’s character (they’re the black performers who wear elaborate headdresses in the Zulu parade). Simon got C’s in college, but he is a brilliant autodidact. When you ask him about something—the Ninth Ward, the nature of R&B—he scrolls the answer out in dense detail. He’s lit with his desire to help you understand, but there’s also something brutal about his communication style, which can feel like lecturing.
He goes into full Simon mode. Locking in eye contact, he explains the historical taboo against black people wearing masks; the way African-Americans adopted Native American culture as a coded gesture of rebellion; the origins of the chant “Iko Iko,” the song covered by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in the fifties. After several minutes, I interrupt, but he brushes it off, goes back to delivering information.
I ask if there was some point when he’d started to feel confident making television. He pauses, then says he can’t remember any such point. Or maybe he finds the question absurd, which is the same thing—it’s impossible to get Simon to talk about his life now the way he readily does about his days as a reporter. (A sample: “I was making less than 50K, but I couldn’t have cared less, because most people don’t get to do that! Don’t get to say what they think about their bosses, about the product in the paper, who’s good, who’s bad, who cooked a quote. It was a perfect profession for somebody who is willing to sacrifice a certain amount of tangible shit in life for the opportunity to—voice. And the editors who were great could handle those personalities: ‘He’s a fucking hothead, but he’s our hothead.’ ”)