He came on the scene like a resurrected swamp apparition. We (The Doors) were the house band at the Whisky (a Go Go), and The Night Tripper was the headliner. Dressed like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean way before its time, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. J) followed his voodoo laced backup singers down the ramp to the stage after our opening set. As the intoxicating music began, the room started to smell like the soundtrack to Beasts of the Southern Wild. Mac traipsed back and forth across the front of the stage, throwing gold sparkle dust into the audience. “They call me, Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper, got my satchel of gris-gris in my hand, cure all y’all’s ills.” He reached again into a little pouch (satchel) and covered us with his medicine.
I’d seen nothing like it then… and now. He was so “far out,” I think he even scared his record company. Mac’s relationship with the music business was like his lyrics: “walking on gilded splinters.” He walked the razor’s edge in his relationship with the industry because it was an industry. At least back in the day (the ’60s), things felt like family, with the relationship between artists and “the company” more open. As time has gone by, things have gotten more corporate — complex hoops for artists to jump through to get their music out there via the “legit” music world. Under it all, the primary survival instinct has always been what the singer in my old band (Jim Morrison) sang: “you get yours, I’ll get mine.” One would hope that competition over time would get kinder, but that’s another subject. But as the great New Orleans singer Irma Thomas said, Dr. John was kind-hearted from the beginning.
Another reason Mac was difficult for the record companies was because he couldn’t be calorized easily. He had the deep gumbo rhythms of Nawlin’s, and he could sing Tin Pan Alley ballads. He’d play jazz festivals, giving a tip of the hat to Duke Ellington. He had rock hits (Right Place, Wrong Time, Such A Night) — A true Renaissance man.
We had a few words backstage when he was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame. He had just received this honor, and all he could talk about was losing his drummer, Herman Ernst, to cancer. It reminded me of many years back, when The Doors were on tour with Dr. John, and at a rehearsal I asked Herman how he came up with what I would call “swamp drumming.” It’s a very loose style, with poly-rhythms instead of a steady back beat. He said Mac had a lot of clear ideas about how to incorporate second-line drumming into his songs.
What a gifted guy… his head was swimming with a complex gumbo mix of styles that defined the soul of New Orleans…
RIP my friend,