Jay Meehan: Sending off the good doctor of New Orleans
When news first arrived from the north shore of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchartrain that the music world had lost the cultural icon known as Dr. John, I was truly struck dumb down to the funkiest cell in my body.
What a wonderful soul was that boy born Mac Rebennack and the night-trippin’ voodoo musical personage he became. Now that a few days have passed and I’ve more fully absorbed how he massaged and brought a smile to my own sensibilities, exhilaration in memory has arrived.
Initially, just taking him all in required some jettisoning of preconceptions. Catching his flamboyant shtick, his multicolored feathers and beads and reptile skins playing off his day-of-the-dead adornments of skulls and such took you aback — and his chanting, those low-register incantations with an infectious beat well beyond the physical.
What a singular piece of work, we thought. Especially for those of us who knew the New Orleans “Indian” cosmos through oral-tradition alone. Experiencing it as an accoutrement of the “Good Doctor’s” ‘60s concert roadshows blessed us with Gris-Gris and Mojo sufficient to survive the decade.
But it would be his wry incorporation of Jazz and funk and pop and rock into a lower-ward “pastiche” of Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint that would bring on a swaying and swooning sashay. It wasn’t like we finally “got” Dr. John, it was more like we continued to get him. And continue still!
Oh, to have been a part of the “Second Line” celebration to honor Mac’s life organized for last Friday by another of N’awlins’ favorite sons, trumpet player Kermit Ruffins. Kicking it off near the front door of Kermit’s own Mother-in-Law Lounge, a few of the honored krewes led a massive turnout parading through the Treme rush hour.
Of course, with French Quarter radio outlet WWOZ-FM in the middle of a nonstop Dr. John tribute itself, we who nurture the Big Easy persuasion from afar kept the faith on a kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom route with the computer speakers cranked and beads dangling from our necks. Must say, my voodoo mask had its own soirée.
With the Dr’s repartee being so multidimensional, revisiting those joyous occasions where his performance art fully displayed itself, came most easily. When our own Randy Barton, for instance, produced a most stellar Dr. John piano jazz show at the venue-formerly-known-as-the-Memorial-Building.
The show “swung” to such a degree that remaining seated proved quite problematic for your humble scribe. I would end up being roundly scolded by the cute young thing with whom I entered for openly exhibiting my obviously embarrassing moves. She, demonstrating manners much more sophisticated than my own, refused to rise to the occasion.
Years earlier, at his “Night Tripper” shows in L.A., a couple of intervening variables served to keep one on their feet. First, there was a “scene” present that lent itself to improvisational interpretation of whatever tempo in which one found their self. And there was always the evolving Voodoo Congo line snaking about the joint. What fun!
While slaving as a late night disc jockey in Salt Lake back in the day, the record label reps out of Denver kept me properly provided. Vinyl with a shelf life that would stand the test of time routinely found my desk and turntable. Dr. John-wise, this was the era of “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night.”
Everyone loved the “Good Doctor” and not only due to the funky beat he rode in on. Mac spearheaded the homegrown traditional movement that has kept the music scene honest to its roots for 50-years. His loss is not just to the ongoing values of the French Quarter or the Louisiana bayou scene surrounding it. His phenomenon spread worldwide.
And it wasn’t solely his contribution to the burgeoning funk scene. His piano jazz had more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. With just the flick-of-his-wrist he could channel all the nuance of his longtime mentor and father figure, the late, great Allen Toussaint. Or, of course, the deep rollicking blues of Professor Longhair.
A few years back in the French Quarter, while absorbing a most-soulful tour of WWOZ-FM’s new studios down by the river at the other end of the French Market from the chicory and beignets of Cafe du Monde, I couldn’t help but be drawn to a painting of Mac Rebennack strutting his “hood” with a sheepish grin and a cane.
Joy itself. That was Dr. John. RIP Mac. You’re still “the man!”
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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