God damn, I wish I’d been in New Orleans last night. That must have been a hell of a good party. Missing someone though.
Not me, obviously. Well, not just me. It was missing Dr. John, who died from a heart attack on Thursday just as the sun was coming up. On Friday night, the streets outside Kermit’s in the Treme were thronged with what looked like thousands of people, gathered to play and sing his music loud and raw as part of the great New Orleans tradition of the Second Line parade. Disappointingly for me I’m gleaning this only from YouTube clips. Although, watching those Second Line videos did make me wonder whether Dr. John will be given the full jazz funeral treatment in due course? He must do, right? I need to see coverage of that exactly like Princess Diana’s, ideally with the same presenters. I want to see professional Royal observers forced to try and interpret not just the pomp and ceremony but also Dr John’s intoxicating blend of voodoo ritual and pure rock’n’roll. Live on two different channels so I can pick the best commentators.
Dr. John’s name was not John, and he never qualified as any sort of medical professional. Although having said that, he did become pretty familiar with which was the sharp end of a needle. Dr. John was born Malcolm John Rebennack on 20 November 1941, although most people just called him Mac. He was born in New Orleans, because of course he was. His music began there and spread out across the United States, like Mark Twain’s river boat going up the Mississippi. The same way jazz and blues and R&B went.
Dr. John was the name of the persona Mac adopted sometime in the late 1960s, although nobody’s ever quite sure exactly when. This is customary when you start calling yourself something like “Dr. John, The Night Tripper”. Beware anyone who has documentary evidence of when they acquired a nickname like “Dr. John, The Night Tripper”.
Malcolm John Rebennack was also the name of Malcolm John Rebennack, who was Malcolm John Rebennack’s father. The elder Malcolm John Rebennack, the one who was Dr. John’s dad, ran a shop that fixed TV sets [which were all big and boxy in those days] and radios [which was this sort of talking box people had in their homes before they had Alexa or Google or that chip that goes directly in your brain]. The reason this biographical detail is relevant is that he also sold records. These records would become a literally formative influence on the intellectual development of Malcolm John Rebennack, the younger one, the one who I’ll just call Dr. John from now on to avoid any more of the confusion that’s really dogged this last paragraph.
He listened to the blues, of course. Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. He listened to jazz by Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and he listened to country music by Hank Williams and Roy Rogers. The music he played didn’t sound anything like any of those people though, for all sorts of reasons but maybe partly because of the fact that he had part of his finger shot off in 1960 in Jackson, Mississippi. Why is it always Jackson? The story goes that he was on tour with this other kid called Ronnie Barron. Ronnie’s mother had told Dr. John: “If anything happens to my son while he’s on the road with you, I’m gonna cut your cojones off.” And Dr. John did not want to have his cojones cut off. So when he saw some punk pistol-whipping poor young Ronnie Barron, literally pistol-whipping him with a pistol, Dr. John had stepped in to save him. He had struggled with the punk, and he had thought he was grabbing the gun by the handle, but his left ring finger was over the barrel, and the gun was fired, and the bullet went through Dr. John’s left ring finger, and then Dr. John’s left ring finger was hanging on by a bit of skin, and then they went to the hospital, and they reattached Dr. John’s left ring finger, but it never did work right, and that’s around when Dr. John stopped playing so much guitar.
He got into heroin pretty bad, as I crudely alluded to earlier. Heroin, of course, is famously very easy to get into pretty bad. He went to prison in Fort Worth for a couple of years for possession, then when he got out he moved to LA and played keys on a tonne of great records by people like the Ronettes, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. He played with Zappa for a while actually, until he was sacked for taking drugs. Which must have been a real wake up call, coming as it did from Frank Zappa.
He released his own debut album ‘Gris-Gris’ in 1968, which, if you don’t know it. Fuck. Go and put ‘Mama Roux’ on, or ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’, and tell me you’re not having a good time. After that album, and people may disagree with me here, but I think then go ahead and skip ahead to his fifth album ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’. It’s pretty much a perfect record. He followed that with ‘In The Right Place’, an album that included both ‘Such A Night’, which he famously plays in The Last Waltz, and ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’, which has the coolest opening to any song ever recorded. That’s a matter of public record.
On top of his vast, technicolour musical achievements, Dr. John also carved out a flamboyant self-image. I remember the first time I ever saw him on television. I must have been very young, but I clearly remember wondering how this elderly pirate had managed to get so good at piano. His eccentricity extended to his esoteric grasp of nomenclature and his particular, peculiar vernacular. David Simon, who cast Dr. John in several episodes of Treme (playing Dr. John, naturally) reminisced on Twitter this week about the challenge of trying to write dialogue for him. After stealing the phrase “righteous confusement” from something Dr. John had actually said to him, Simon wrote it into a script. When it came time to perform… I’ll let Simon tell the rest: “He said the line and metastasized the noun even further. ‘Man, I don’t know what you tryin’ to say to me but that’s just some confusementalism right chear’. Then he looked at me over by the video monitor and smiled. And even before the director called cut he said: ‘No one gonna write like the doctor talk. You can just give up that tragical mess right now.’ I quit moving pages then and there. ‘Say whatever you want, Mac.’ And for the rest of the show, he did.”
His words may be finite now, but the whole point of making records is that we still have an unlimited supply of his music. It’ll play on forever, especially in New Orleans, and especially in the night when it’s hot and sweaty and there’s a party in the streets, which is often enough in New Orleans.