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The Big Gamble: "Washboard" Lissa Driscoll

After growing up near Seattle and hitchhiking around the country, Lissa Driscoll moved to New Orleans with a boyfriend. He left, she stayed. Since then, "Washboard" Lissa has been a fixture in the French Quarter and on Frenchman Street for over thirty years, playing at Checkpoint Charlie’s, the Apple Barrel, and, most recently, Rare Form, where she performed with her longtime friend (and next-door neighbor) “Nervous” Duane. Lately Lissa has retreated from the music scene, preferring to focus on her health and, in her words, "solitude without distractions."

I visited Lissa one Sunday afternoon on her porch in St Roch, where she lives with her dog, Bingo. She was busy chatting with Donald, a Dallas native who’d recently bought a house on the other side of North Prieur Street. When Lissa ducked inside for a moment, he grinned and said to me, “Man, Lissa is fun. I enjoy her. And honest, straight-up honest! She’s like, ‘This is what I see. This is it.’”

Lissa Driscoll (photo by Ben Saxton)

Lissa returned to the porch with a book and some wine. "Now, tell me why they want to cut out your tongue," Donald said. "I don’t understand. The doctor said it’s cancer there?"

Lissa: Oh, it is cancer, for sure. I already had a biopsy. I didn’t want to think about this shit at all, ever, anymore, so the only reason I got a biopsy was because my tongue had a little bump.

Ben Saxton: They would cut out a piece of your tongue?

Lissa: That’s the idea. I won't let them take my whole tongue. I'm going to talk to the dude and see about this robot surgery thing. I haven't really made up my mind. I wouldn't let them do surgery with the throat. Maybe if the technology was advanced enough, for somebody that doesn't really have money—say you could program those voicebox things to sound however you wanted.

Donald: What an interesting idea!

Lissa: Sort of like Steven Hawking: he just types into his computer so he can communicate. Maybe he wants to be some chick. Or another day he wants to be George Bush. Or another day he wants to be…

What would your voice sound like, if you could choose?

Whatever I want.  I'm already pretty limited now.

Has it been a year since you’ve been able to sing, or longer?

Longer.

How was your benefit concert?

It was great. Made out like a bandit. One of my exes is an auctioneer, so he gave an auction. It went from ten in the morning to, I don't know, four in the morning—I left at about ten at night—but it went on and on and on, we made a bunch of money, and I have a Go Fund Me account.

I’ll link to your account in the piece.

Yeah, tell ‘em. People can still put money in.

The benefit was at Rare Form, right? Do you guys still play there?

Duane still plays. I don’t play with anybody anymore.

I remember when I saw Duane at Rare Form—this is a while back, maybe a year or so ago—you were there, too, playing the washboard.

Yeah, I was going to Quebec City a lot to see my mom. She just died recently.

Are you from Quebec, or from Seattle?

I was born in Babylon, New York. Then I grew up in a small logging town thirty miles east of Seattle called North Bend. If you ever saw that TV show Twin Peaks, that’s the exact town.

How did you find your way down to New Orleans?

I just started hitchhiking down.

Why New Orleans, though? Of all places?

Why not?

I don’t know.

I went everywhere else, I was traveling with this guy, we were playing music, and we came to New Orleans. I was about eighteen. At first I lived in St. Roch near a little store. Me and Amzie Adams rented a place for a while, and then Ned, the dude I was traveling with, left. I stayed.

performing in the French Quarter (photo by Henry Byrd)

How do you like this neighborhood?

This is a good neighborhood. I lived in the Treme for a long time, but not anymore. They pretty much took everything away from the Treme.

What did they take away?

Everything. I’d come home from playing and people would be selling dope, cutting airplane cards on my porch. It was cool because it didn't matter what time it was, I could leave my amp sitting on the street and nobody would fuck with anything. People were playing music all the time, everything was just really loose. Now it's just a bunch of Caucasians and coffee shops.

How long were you in the Treme?

I don't really know.

You’ve been here for six years.

In this house, yeah. I bounced around a bitUptown for a bit, Central City for a bit, and then from there to here. I was in Treme during Katrina. All together maybe ten, fifteen years in the Treme.

That's a long time.

I've done a couple things for twenty-five years, but nothing worth bragging about.

There's gotta be something worth bragging about.

Plenty, but I don't feel like it.

Donald: So you ain't gonna write that story. You need to let somebody else write it.

Lissa: No, I’m gonna write the story. Nobody else can write it.

What’s it gonna be a story about?

It’s too much...it’s multidimensional. It’s about people, how’s that? I really hate when people ask—that’s such a stupid question.

Will it be a memoir or a novel?

Not a novel.

A memoir?

Maybe a combo of my mom and me. It’s gonna have a cookbook. Yeah, I guess it would be more of a memoir. I’ve got all of my mother’s writings—I told you that already, I’m sure, when I was being such a blabbermouth—I’ve got all of her journals and shit.

Do you have any memorable mom stories?

I don’t feel like talking about my mother with you. Not right this minute. I can’t think of a single thing about my mother that’s not memorable, or extraordinary. I’m not gonna trivialize it by sitting on the porch and saying some kind of thing.

When you’re ready, I’m sure it’ll come out.

Yeah, when I feel like it. I’m still kind of cozying up to her, just feeling her through me and in me and all around me. We’re practically the same person. Two birds of a feather, only she’s a lot more interesting than me, and really brilliant. I have a vision for it all, but it’s in the incubation stage. Maybe you understand why I’d rather sit out here and drink wine for a little while. Work my way into it.

Ben Saxton is a professor at the McGovern Medical School and Bard Early College.  He’s currently working on a book about New Orleans poker players. To contact Ben with thoughts, feedback, or questions, you can email him at saxtonb@gmail.com or visit his website at bensaxton.com.