NOTE: For the edification of Blue Journalism subscribers, I have re-inserted Dr. John's verbatim potty mouthed quotes.
By Buddy Blue
Personally and professionally, Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John the Night Tripper, is among the music world's great characters - or, as Rebennack articulates one of his pet terms of endearment, "care-ACT- ters."
Chasing him down for an interview required several year's worth of sometimes-slapstick, hit-and-miss effort -- he'd once returned a call in the middle of the night, two weeks after the scheduled appointment -- but finally, here was the elusive, enigmatic Doctor, trapped on his cell phone while traveling to a gig in Philly, reluctantly if colorfully pontificatin' and elucidatin' like some Crescent City Yoda. He didn't disappoint, although much of what he said was unusable here.
For starters, our hero busted out more profanity during a 30-minute conversation than one encounters during an entire season of HBO's infamously vulgar "Deadwood," requiring much transcript-tampering. Then there's Rebennack's speaking voice, possessed of a quirky cadence that's impossible to capture with the written word; something akin to a bullfrog with a strep throat croaking in a moonlit marsh. There's also the matter of an accent that's a blend of muddy N'awlins drawl and oak-thick Ebonics; more the curious as Rebennack is - technically if not culturally - a Caucasian fellow.
As if all this weren't tuff enough, Rebennack's upcoming Johnny Mercer tribute album - a Johnny Mercer tribute album featuring a percolating jungle of a rhythm section and psychotic wah-wah guitar, as it turns out - was blasting from a stereo during the entire interview.
So Mac, what's up with the Mercer?
"I just try to find shit that makes me feel good when I'm doing it," he said. "I'm open to anything. There's shit I like and shit I don't like. I don't like everything by me or nobody else."
The Doctor and I differ here, as in the course of a career that began in the mid-'50s and spans some 30- odd solo albums and countless outside sessions, I don't believe he's ever played a note that didn't ring true.
Dr. John albums have encompassed psychedelic voodoo-rock; solo piano boogie; straight-up New Orleans jazz, blues and R&B; standards (before they became fashionable among the rock set); tributes to myriad musical mentors and his own signature brand of bubbling, booty-bumpin,' bog-borne funk -- or as Rebennack spells and pronounces it, "fonk."
"Long as I can remember -- and I can still remember the very first date I ever worked, with Earl Palmer's band in the middle-'50s -- the first word in New Orleans was 'Fonky Butt,'" he said. "That's what it was all about."
Rebennack, 64, has flown his fonk flag with everyone from B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, the Band, Van Morrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan to more curious collusions with Christina Aguilera, Carly Simon, Neil Diamond and Spiritualized - not to mention just about every New Orleans musician to co-exist with Rebennack during his lifetime. His astounding roster of credits encompasses five web pages on allmusic.com.
Yet when plied for anecdotes on his most memorable sessions (see sidebar), Rebennack most fondly recalls some of the more modest names on his resume. No warm memories of high-profile acts like the Stones, Mac?
"I don't know nothin' about no fuckin' high profile bullshit," he harrumphed. "Listen - profiles is what the po-lice and DEA keep on people. Me, I don't do that shit."
As a musician, Rebennack is best known for his virtuoso, Professor Longhair-inspired piano work, but he plays a variety of instruments and was primarily a guitarist in the early years. His six-string employment was curtailed in 1960 by what's frequently referred to as a "gun accident" in his press, but according to Rebennack, "wasn't no accident about it. I was trying to get a gun out of a guy's hand that
was pistol-whippin' [friend and singer] Ronnie Barron. "After that I started playing bass on a Dixieland gig," he continued. "I had this big thing on my hand
where they sewed my finger back on. It was very difficult playing upright bass with it, so then I started playing drums in an R&B gig, but I didn't know how to set up a drum kit, so James Booker got me my first keyboard gig, playing organ. I was playing organ four hours a night, 365 nights a year, and my chops was probably better then than they've ever been since."
So whose chops is the Doc diggin' these days?
"The days when I liked a lot of music was back when shit was real," he said. "I used to love all that old Afro-Cuban music, the real shit like Machito. I loved the old Miles Davis records, the old Horace Silver records, the old Ray Charles records. Now people make records and everything's perfect, they over-dub ten tons of bullshit on everything. I like care-ACT-ers of their own thing. Real music isn't perfect, it's just what happened.
"Still, you know, there's a million bad cats out there playing today," said Rebennack, reciting a litany of young keyboardists from all over the world whom I'd never heard of.
"If it weren't for those cats, there'd be nothing but old-ass chumps like me out there, playing the same old-ass shit."
Dr. John, June 11 at the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros in Solana Beach, 9 p.m., $35 adv/$37 day of show, (858) 481-8140.
Sidebar 1: DR. JOHN'S MOST MEMORABLE SESSIONS
JOE TEX "The first time I heard him was when we were doing one of his very early records. We all knew Joe was gonna make it. He just sang and wrote great songs, he had so much that he didn't even know what to do with it all. He was something else."
CHARLES BROWN "I was just a kid playing with a hero of mine. I'm sure it didn't mean shit to Charles Brown, but it meant a lot to me."
DR JOHN "IN THE RIGHT PLACE" AND "DESITIVELY BONNAROO" SESSIONS "That was some ratty shit. We did that with the Meters, the girls sang their asses off and Allen Toussaint did a great job producing. Can't beat it. Those was two fonky 'nuff records. Obviously, a lot of them hip hop kids think so too, 'cause they been sampling stuff off those records for over 15 years."
THELONIOUS MONK TRIBUTE ALBUM, "THAT'S THE WAY I FEEL NOW" "We had [drummer] Edward Blackwell from New Orleans, Steve Swallow on bass and Steve Lacy on saxophone. I'd done a million sessions with Ed in New Orleans before he went on the road with Ornette Coleman, and he never said one word to me, he'd just say, 'Hey Guitar-ski' or some shit. But this time he had a lot to say, a LOT to say. The session was way out there, too."
ARETHA FRANKLIN "YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK" SESSIONS "Aretha's shit always killed my ass. She was beautiful to work with. She'd put up with all this bullshit in her life and she was still just very special."
Sidebar 2: FIVE ESSENTIAL DR. JOHN ALBUMS
"GRIS-GRIS" (1968) The scintillating debut of Dr. John the Night Tripper is a lush, roiling, exotic chowder of Mardi Gras celebration music and cosmos-traveling psychedelia, colored throughout with a spine-chilling voodoo sensibility to do Screamin' Jay Hawkins proud.
"DR. JOHN'S GUMBO" (1972) This is Rebennack's maiden solo voyage into the more tradition-rooted New Orleans terra firma he further embraced in later years. Many of these songs - "Iko Iko," "Stackalee," "Tipitina," "Li'l Liza Jane," etc. - have since become standards, but when this album was released, few young people outside Louisiana
had heard their like.
"IN THE RIGHT PLACE" (1973) Abetted by Crescent City cronies the Meters and Allen Toussaint; still boasting the finest roster of originals he's ever written (including the hits "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such A Night"), Rebennack paints his enduring "fonk" masterpiece.
"GOIN' BACK TO NEW ORLEANS" (1993) An ambitious, expansive primer on New Orleans music from Jelly Roll Morton to the Neville Brothers, with a dizzying roster of generation-spanning talent from patriarchal jazz banjoist Danny Barker through youngblood trumpeters Jamil and Umar Sharif.
"ANUTHA ZONE" (1998) In which Rebennack joins with a litany of trendy rockers - among them Paul Weller, Jools Holland and members of Supergrass, Primal Scream and Portishead - to somehow emerge with his best voodoo-fonk album since the '70s.
BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
A few weeks ago, I wrote an item for another publication on Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, one of my favorite artists to surface in the past decade, a man whose talent I revere. A snippet of the piece read:
I was delighted when Alvin Youngblood Hart returned to his country blues roots (and true calling) with 2002's "Down in the Alley," an inspired collection of traditional acoustic tunes..."Alley" was a particularly welcome return to form, coming as it did on the heels of Hart's previous, disappointing effort, a surprisingly mundane, rock-based affair misleadingly titled "Start With Your Soul." Hart is among the few youngish black performers left keeping the old-time blues flame burning; we need him now more than ever."
Much to my surprise, the piece drew an incensed retort from the man himself. Hart's email read, in part:
I don't think you know enough about me, my people & way of life to understand one iota about my "true calling." I'm not here to tap dance for the pontificating, narrow-minded blues community. If that's what you're into, more power to ya. It ain't me. I know America has programmed its people to segregate every !$&*@ thing, but that ain't what music is for. START WITH THE SOUL was titled as a message to people trying to be free. Basically it meant that you can't claim to have cast off the yoke of the oppressor, yet embrace his Jesus or whatever. You have to free your own soul first and give his lies (Christians, 4th of July...) all back to him, then put a hatchet in his !$&*@ head. Understand?
Errr...well, no, 'Blood, I'm not sure I do, although I suspect you're implying I'm a bigot because I prefer it when you record amazing, soul-stirring country blues albums to when you record run-of-the-mill rock albums, and because I believe it's important for all serious musicians to maintain the precious, endangered traditions of their forebears.
Ironically, after my piece was published but before I received Hart's email, I was sent an advance copy of Hart's latest, "Motivational Speaker" - an electric, rock-based album!
While I don't know if the title is intended as a call to cast off yokes or put hatchets in anyone's head, I hereby penitently, publicly state this to be one categorically fine album. Eclectic but eminently musical, thunderous but mournful, haunted by the ghosts of such disparate predecessors as John Lee Hooker, Cream, Hendrix, the Meters and Merle Haggard on the one hand, and of kindred spirit with modern artists including Steve Earle, Robert Randolph, Gov't Mule and Derek Trucks on the other, all while remaining unique to Hart's singular vision, this album is as remarkable, as "motivational," if you will, as "Soul" was curiously routine. And if this isn't something I'll ever consider a blues album, per se, I will always consider Hart a blues artist, whatever roads he travels and whether he likes it or not. So there.
Hart, unfortunately, currentlly has no concerts scheduled for the San Diego area, but there are plenty of other blues-related acts in town this week, whose people and way of life I don't understand but who I expect to tap dance for my narrow-minded, pontificating amusement all the same. To wit:
* Keb' Mo' - like Hart, a fine country bluesman who sometimes plays inferior, electric music - appears at Humphrey's By the Bay Friday evening. * Dr. John - high voodoo priest of N'Awlins blues, jazz & R&B - appears at the Belly Up Tavern Saturday night.
* Tab Benoit - superb vendor of swamp-steeped Cajun blues - appears at Humphrey's By the Bay Saturday evening. * ZZ Top - still the living personification of roadhouse-steeped Texas blooze-rawk - appear at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on Monday.
* Al Green - perhaps the finest living purveyor of blues-enriched deep soul and gospel - appears at Viejas Concerts In The Park Tuesday evening. * Lucinda Williams - whose embittered blues/country/roots rock has surely served as the soundtrack to many a suicide -- appears at Humphrey's By The Bay Wednesday evening.