Music That Still Matters

An Elegy for Dr. John

A musician as unique and authentic as his hometown New Orleans

By: Ray Hogan

“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” — Hunter St. Thompson, “Fear  and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Inevitable yet impossible, Malcom John Rebennack Jr., known professionally as Dr. John, has died. As unique, authentic and funky as his hometown New Orleans, Dr. John succeeded Louis Armstrong in being a portal into — and a musical and cultural ambassador for — the city he and his music were so intrinsically intertwined with.

Although 77 years old at the time of his death June 6, Rebennack’s scope included the whole of New Orleans’ music and heritage. From the birth of jazz at the turn of last century with Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, through piano professors and golden era of R&B, cutting a straight line into the only-in-New Orleans rhythms that were born in Congo Square and continue today and are defined loosely as a second-line rhythm (which also grew out of a funeral tradition), Rebennack was a repository of more than 110 years of New Orleans’ music. He was just as versed culturally. His creation of the Dr. John Creaux , The Night Tripper, was based — at least in name — after a 19th century voodoo priest. From the 1960s until his death, his wardrobe usually included elements of the voodoo tradition, beads, feathers, a yak bone and alligator tooth.  “I believe very strongly that the only thing wrong with any religion is man,” he told Time magazine late in his career. He also created his own way of speaking, a one-of-a-kind mixture of hipster jive and sometimes invented words. “Maneuver” became kind of a catchall term that could mean instrumental movement or a life choice. Both would represented in albums titles such as “Gris-Gris” and “ The Sun, Moon & Herbs” as well as “Desitively Bonnaroo” (obviously where the music festival took its name) and “N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or d’Udda.” Asked by The New York Times in 2010 if he spoke Spanish, he responded, “I don’t even speak English.”

The best fiction writers in history couldn’t write a character this cool.

Yet, Dr. John story begins inauspiciously. Born to a model mother and electronics repairman, Rebennack would accompany his father to fix sound systems at nightclubs. He found an early mentor in Walter “Papoose” Nelson,” guitarist for Fats Domino. Initially a guitarist he would change to piano after he took a bullet to the finger defending a friend in a 1961 gun/bar fight. By then he was a first call session player. After a jail stint (heroin would play a role in his life until 1989) he felt district attorney Jim Garrison was railroading him and split for Los Angeles, where he quickly established himself on hundreds of sessions. It was California that the Dr. John persona was created for his debut solo album “Gris-Gris,” named for a voodoo amulet originating in Africa, and released in 1968. He once told me that “never in his wildest insanity” did he think he would take on the persona. Dr. John, synonymous with “the city that care forgot” was born on the West Coast. He would return to New Orleans as royalty.

When Mac Rebennack became Dr. John an excellent studio musician became a true American legend. He would release more than 30 albums under that moniker and it seemed that no form of music was out of his reach, yet it would carry elements of the New Orleans tradition. His piano playing ranks with the city’s immortals (Huey “Piano” Smith, Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint), his uniqueness made him a natural for the classic rock generation (he appears in The Band’s “The Last Waltz” and collaborated with marquee names such as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. He seemed to have an endless well of ideas to frame albums around. Check our the Youtube video of him dueting with Etta James on “I’d Rather Go Blind.” I still wish people made music this pure.

His voice was a wonder of nature. He talked and sang like he treated his throat and tonsils with sandpaper every morning, yet was always able to tackle the melody and range that was required of anything from a Mardi Gras chant to a children’s song.

He had a handful of hits (“Right Place Wrong Time” “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” and “Such a Night”) and did soundtrack work for major motion pictures (Disney’s “101 Dalmations”) but that kind of success wasn’t the point, at least I don’t think it was. Disemanting New Orleans music was the goal. Street anthems “Junko Partner,” “Iko-Iko” and “Big Chief” might not ever have travelled beyond Louisiana if it weren’t for Dr. John having the leverage and foresight to record them at the height of his career.

It was telling that the ending of the great HBO series “Treme,” named after the city’s poor but highly musical neighborhood, ends with the character Antoine Batiste finally landing his dream gig of appearing with Dr. John.  He would sometimes leave New Orleans for a Duke Ellington tribute, a jazz trio with Art Blakey and David “Fathead” Newman or other flights of fancy. He was one of the few musicians that absolutely put his stamp on everything he recorded or participated in.

I remember interviewing him on a morning when he was suffering from a cold and none too talkative. I asked a generic question about his next recording, which was building an advanced hype. “It’s a New Orleans album,” he responded. “How could it be anything else?” I remember thinking of the aborted interview. When he was feeling right, Dr. John would go out of his way to educate writers on all things NOLA, from its forgotten stars to its Mardi Gras Indian traditions to its cuisine, almost always deferring the credit to the older masters.

There’s an old African proverb than when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. A music that is as unique as the city that it emanates from will hopefully never die. But with Mac Rebennack gone, so go at least a few wings and part of the foundation of that library.

 

I leave this hopefully loving tribute with what I consider one of his lyrical masterpieces, a portion of “I Walk On Guilded Splinters”:

Some people think they jive me

But I know they must be crazy

Don’t see their misfortune

I guess they’re just too lazy

Je suie le grand zombie

My yellow belt of chosen

Ain’t afraid of no tomcat

Fill my brains with poison

Walk through the fire

Fly through the smoke

See my enemy

At the end of their rope

Walk on pins and needles

See what they can do

Walk on guilded splinters

With the King of the Zulu

Walk to me, get it, come, come

Walk on guilded splinters

Walk to me, get it, come, come

Walk on guilded splinters

 

Keep a candle in the window. So long for now, podnah.

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