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music friday: dr. john

Had a different post ready for today, but made a quick change after hearing of the death of Mac Rebennack, Dr. John, The Night Tripper. This will be quicker than he deserves.

I first heard of Dr. John on his debut album, Gris-Gris, in 1968. I have written at length about the importance of the emergent FM "Underground" Radio on me as a teen. Gris-Gris came out as that radio was coming alive. Like many, I was conversant with New Orleans music because it was such a crucial element of early rock and roll. But I knew nothing of the culture, so when Gris-Gris came out, it was as if someone from Mars had made a record. There were a lot of weird records made in the psychedelic era. Many of them are junk, few of them had a lasting impact, even if I personally still listen to a lot of that music to this day. Gris-Gris may have been the most bizarre album of its time, and that's saying something. It was steeped in New Orleans' musical and cultural traditions. Not really knowing this, I experienced the album as weirder than it really was ... while it's still bizarre, listening to it now makes much more sense, because we can place it within our better knowledge of the traditions, and because we've listened to Dr. John for decades.

Here's a selection of his work. First, the lead track from Gris-Gris:

It was inevitable that the Doctor would turn to "Iko Iko", which he recorded for his excellent 1972 album, Dr. John's Gumbo. I've always been partial to this short video from some years ago which shows off his astounding piano playing:

In 1973, he finally had his hit single:

And in 1976, he turned up at The Last Waltz:

The last track on Gris-Gris was arguably its best: "I Walk on Guilded Splinters". While that entire album impressed me with its to-me other-worldliness, "Guilded Splinters" made for good cover material. One person made a Spotify playlist called "100 Versions" ... the title is a bit of an exaggeration, there are only 22 songs, but still:

Here's one of the tracks on that playlist: Cher's version from 1969.

Finally, Dr. John occasionally turned up on the late, lamented series Treme. "Tryin' to show Ron Carter somethin' on the bass, it's like tryin' to show a whore how to turn a trick. It's unpossible maneuver." (Apologies in advance for my pathetic attempt to translate what the Doctor is saying.)

Comments

Steven Rubio

David Simon, who wrote Treme, told a story on Twitter today about trying to write for Dr. John.

"Trying to write dialogue for Mac is an errand for a fool’s fool. No one talked like him. Even by standards the mangled patois of run-amok Crescent City verbiage, he has his own language. Mac invented Macspeak and somehow, even though the words were being conjured in your ears for the first and possibly onliest time in your life, he’d have you nodding as if you were somehow fluent and as if only those words would suffice."

https://twitter.com/AoDespair/status/1136814667299528704?s=20

Tomás

As an ambassador for this cultural “other world” that is New Orleans, Dr. John occupied such a unique space in popular music. One of a kind!

Steven Rubio

Reminds me a bit of Taj Mahal, who is a repository of all the music that has influenced him. Except for Taj, those influences are worldwide, so he's always making music informed by different areas. Dr. John was a repository of all things New Orleans.

Makes me want to binge-watch Treme again.

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