Twenty-three years later, that ending still seems premature to Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, the band's drummer and all-around polyrhythmic innovator. "Everything is time," he explains in his Big Easy accent. "If you play drums, everything is time. And it was just bad timing.
"Just when we were really starting to feel like there were some things we could do even better than we had done, the group disbanded. I thought we were at a critical point because we were just about to make that next step."
Funk aficionados, hip hop producers, the Rolling Stones, and everyone else whose life was touched by the Meters can only imagine what that new direction might have been. This Saturday at the Warfield, however, the Meters will reunite for one show, possibly providing a glimpse of those days of future past.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed with reunion gigs, especially when they are this long in coming. The original four members -- Modeliste, George Porter Jr. on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and Neville on keyboards -- have played together only once during the last two decades, and that was for a single song, "Hey Pocky A-Way," at the end of a 1991 gig with Nocentelli's solo band. ("And it was a short "Hey Pocky A-Way' at that," Porter remembers.) What's more, because of obligations to other bands, the quartet's rehearsal time for the reunion has been limited to three six-hour sessions.
Modeliste, who lives in Oakland and posed the idea of a Bay Area reunion to the other members, acknowledges that, while the timing may not be perfect, it's as good as it's going to get. "If the band had a chance to rehearse for a month, learn all of that stuff all over again -- I mean everything -- you'd get the full quality of what it was. But right now, because of the time and because it was the only slot that we had to pull it off in this area this year, we had to do it like this."
In the history of popular music -- before the band and since -- the Meters stand out as an aberration. According to any conventional models for success, the Meters should have never happened, or at least never made it beyond the bayous of Louisiana. An instrumental R&B group that was stingy on the vocals and even stingier on melody, built around the outlandish syncopation of New Orleans marching bands? As Modeliste puts it, "That was just unheard of."
The band wasn't born out of a self-conscious desire to break any molds; it just happened that way. Neville, who was 10 years older than the other Meters, had already made a name for himself in 1955 with the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo." After quitting that band, Neville's brother Aaron scored a big hit with "Tell It Like It Is," and Neville joined him on tour to support it.
When he came back home, he decided to form his own band, the Neville Sound Band. Soon Modeliste, Porter, Nocentelli, and a tenor saxophonist named Gary Brown were gigging with Neville regularly on Louisiana Avenue at the Nite Cap Lounge. They covered popular soul songs by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, along with local hits by Fats Domino and Earl King. Neville sang lead, his brothers Cyril and Aaron frequently stopping by to sit in.
Between sets of vocal numbers, the group would shift the energy with some free-form instrumental jams. Well-known Crescent City producer Allen Toussaint caught a show and heard in these numbers a musicianship that rivaled Booker T. & the MG's, the instrumental group that Modeliste recalls "was really burnin' the air up." The next thing they knew they were in the studio recording an album -- minus Gary Brown and Art's brothers -- under a new name.
In 1969 the Meters released a string of nationally successful singles for the small Josie label -- "Sophisticated Cissy," "Live Wire," and "Cissy Strut" chief among them -- which have since been sampled by rap artists as diverse as Del the Funky Homosapien, Run-D.M.C., NWA, Salt "N' Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, and Boogie Down Productions. Each player's parts were balanced against the whole with a deceptive simplicity, which often obscured how unorthodox and involved the song arrangements actually were. At the heart of these down-home, almost painfully funky dance tunes were the intuitive songwriting of Neville and the monstrous drums of the 21-year-old Modeliste.
Looking back on it, Porter says, "I would have to think that what made what we did so special was [Modeliste's] ability to be syncopated to that level. I like to say that his syncopation was melodic. ... It allowed the other three of us to play melodic lines that coincided with his syncopation, we could play around his syncopation, or we could play against it. In every song, we did one of those three, or a combination of them."
Modeliste has been credited with originating the style known as second-line drumming, which became a fundamental element of funk music and, eventually, hip hop production. The second line refers to the string of percussionists who follow behind the bass drum player in raucous New Orleans funeral processions.
"What Zig used to play were percussive parts that were usually played on cowbells and tambourines," Porter explains, "where the bass drummer would play a solid, straight-ahead groove and the percussion stuff would happen all around that. What he was able to do was formulate a concept that a single player could play and get all of those sounds together. He did things with his right hand on a cowbell and a cymbal together so that it had the sound like another guy was playing with him. That's what made what he did so hip. And nobody else on the planet was doing that."
Modeliste takes a more humble tack, preferring to view his role as a synthesist rather than as founder. "Nobody owns anything. We all have our own interpretation of the feel. The origin that I picked up on was from hearing all these guys playing in New Orleans. Those cats were just treacherous, man -- just flipped my head right around. 'Cause I couldn't even play what they were playing, so I had to blend all of these street beats together to make my own sound."
The rest of the band also did its fair share of turning musical convention inside out. Neville played his keyboard with an overactive, boogie-woogie left hand, laying down bass lines along with his spare melodic fills. This gave Porter room to play in tandem with Nocentelli's guitar, another stylistic rarity for the time. And when playing all together, the Meters constantly blurred the traditional line between soloing and rhythm accompaniment, somehow seeming to do both at the same time.
On the strength of several charting singles, the band landed a deal with Reprise/ Warner in 1975; the following year they went on tour with the Stones. But given these accouterments of success, the band maintains it never received fitting payment from its albums. According to Porter, the first three releases were heavily bootlegged by the Meters' management outside the U.S., and Warner Bros. never figured out how to market the band.
As the years went on, the individual players began receiving requests to record sessions outside the Meters for more money than they could ever make inside it. Modeliste even turned down a chance to play with Miles Davis.
"And on top of all that," Porter says, "we had a tour manager who wanted to be the manager, [who was] feeding Art a bunch of crap. The divide-and-conquer thing had begun to happen. By the time any one of us realized what was going down, Art had left the band and started the Neville Brothers."
Modeliste and Nocentelli continued playing as the Meters for a few years before finally calling it quits. Porter fell into heavy cocaine use and played on Bourbon Street with a tourist band. Neville was the only member to find success that outshone his status as a former Meter, recording a number of R&B crossover hits with his brothers.
After a marginally satisfying reunion show in 1980 in their hometown, Modeliste and Nocentelli moved to California separately, and communication between members fell off. They did pursue litigation against their former management for unpaid royalties, a legal battle Modeliste is still fighting today. (The other three settled out of court in 1989.)
Around that same time, Porter finished a treatment program and started playing in New Orleans again. He hooked up with Nocentelli on a visit and they decided to form the Funky Meters, which Neville eventually joined. There is disagreement among the band members as to the issue of Modeliste's involvement -- Porter says he was invited to join but felt the business conditions were not properly resolved, while Modeliste maintains he was never asked.
Modeliste eventually settled in Oakland and assembled a solo band that this year earned a Wammie with its Zigaboo.com album. About two years ago he suggested the idea of a full reunion in the Bay Area, where he believes the Meters' music is most ardently supported today. His hope is that the band will finally be able to salute its fans in a manner befitting its legacy.
"It's really all for the people," Modeliste says. "It's not for the musicians. When you make music, you don't make music that people can't stand. That's not a way to communicate. You do it to reach people."