RIP DR JOHN — (via The Atlantic) It’s hard to talk about Dr. John without giving in to New Orleans cliché. The Mephistophelian pianist, singer, and songwriter, who died Thursday, at 77, was happy to tempt that indulgence, just like he tempted listeners with so many other vices. There were the Mardi Gras Indian costumes he wore onstage; the checkered past, including an accidental gunshot wound; the hard living; the wry humor.
Just take the opening moments of his first solo record, which came out in 1968. First, a miasmatic swamp-guitar lick. Then the man himself, half singing, half talking huskily: “They call me”—beat—“Dr. John, the Night Tripper. Got my satchel of gris-gris in my hand.”
If this seems a little too redolent of Bourbon Street play-acting for tipsy tourists—Gris-Gris, the name of the album, comes from a voodoo amulet—let the record keep spinning, or streaming. Fifty-one years since its release, it remains shockingly weird. The mix of funk, blues, psychedelia, and Latin and African music prefigured jam bands (only actually greasy and less meandering) as well as the cross-cultural borrowing common in today’s music. The album’s hit is the last track, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” It’s nearly eight minutes long and built on a repeating bass vamp and marginally intelligible lyrics. Yet it’s also irresistibly catchy: Cher released an excellent version of the song, at one-third the length, the following year.
Dr. John was born Mac Rebennack. He spent his nearly eight decades of life gleefully ignoring barriers: between pop music and outré explorations, black and white culture, authenticity and commerciality, tradition and innovation. That this, too, represents something of a New Orleans trope does not make it less true.
New Orleans is a piano town and a place where musical traditions are handed down from generation to generation through personal connections, and young Mac Rebennack was a product of both those customs. He learned to play at the feet of Professor Longhair, perhaps the greatest of the Crescent City keyboard titans. (Rebennack also played guitar, but the bullet wound to a finger, sustained when he tried to break up a fight, forced him to focus on piano and organ.)
Rebennack headed to Los Angeles in the mid-1960’s, following a stint in prison for heroin possession. (He struggled with the addiction for years, making his advanced age seem like a miracle—or perhaps, more fittingly, a testament to the mystical power of voodoo.) In California, he became an accomplished session musician, playing with Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew and backing artists from Sonny and Cher to Frank Zappa. Even after adopting his nom de piano and launching a solo career, he continued to be an in-demand sideman, including playing on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.
But Gris-Gris made him a powerful musical force in his own right. Then, after disagreements with his managers hobbled The Sun, Moon, and Herbs, which was to be a sprawling fourth album, Dr. John was persuaded to make a record of New Orleans classics. The concept isn’t inspiring: It sounds like the sort of thing pushed on an unwilling artist by a greedy executive, and likely to produce a dull, dutiful reading of standards. Instead, Dr. John’s Gumbo includes tip-top renditions of “Iko Iko,” Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” and the like. It’s reverent without being fawning or rote.
Dr. John wasn’t afraid of this vein of commercialism, and in fact said he’d made his best money from writing jingles for brands like Oreo and Scott, the tissue company. But he never got less weird. In The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film of The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, Dr. John is one of the most memorable guests. Wearing oversize sunglasses, a beret, and a narcotized leer, he delivers a performance of “Such a Night” that somehow manages to out-swamp Muddy Waters, out-lech Ronnie Hawkins, and out-mystic Van Morrison, all of whom also appeared at the concert.
Despite his personal struggles, or perhaps because of them, Dr. John continued to record consistently throughout his career. He continued to make tribute records—a 2000 Duke Ellington homage is another idea that sounds dubious in theory yet won plaudits in practice—but also continued to search for new ingredients for his gumbo. His 2012 Locked Down, which is by turns menacing and uplifting, is steeped in Ethiopian jazz and Nigerian Afrobeat. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
This decade has not been kind to New Orleans piano players. Dr. John completes a troika of losses, starting with Allen Toussaint in 2015 and continuing through to Fats Domino in 2017, a combined 240-some years of experience. Musicians of this caliber are said to have achieved metaphorical immortality. But with his voodoo trappings and mischievous mien, it’s easy to imagine Dr. John is still out there, tripping through the night.
In 2012, he released an album called Locked Down and I just adored it. I actually saw him walking on 55th street in NYC once and just stopped in my tracks. Imaginative, eclectic, awe-inspiring, that was Dr. John. Here’s the video to “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzHUP3fVN0Y .
Eric Clapton said in a FB post … I’m in shock; I thought he’d live forever. RIP Dr. John.
WYNTON AT LINCOLN CENTER — We were honored to have been present at the closing night of Wynton Marsalis’ yearly run at Lincoln Center Saturday night – the end of his 31st year no less. The twelve selections performed by the 16-piece band were just terrific; especially the final selection of then night, “We The People” written by Marsalis himself. Als0 spectacular were “A Hot Jam On Grand,” featuring Sherman Irby and “The Sound of Colors,” which featured horn-man Victor Goines. Special mention must also be made of the drummer, Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s brother.
While the orchestra played, a series of terrific art paintings was projected onto the back-screen of the stage, which provided a terrific visual addition to the proceedings.
Not to be trite, but programs like this are just so essential and the fact that Marsalis has just closed out his 31st season, is to be continually applauded. Looking around the audience, I saw a terrific mix of ages, races and genders. True trad jazz, as performed this night, is an American-institution. America’s biggest export has always been their art .. . and, it hopefully, it always will be. Just a sensational night.
SHORT TAKES — We watched the first two episodes of Keifer Sutherland’s Designated Survivor (now on Netflix) that we loved when it was on ABC. As several people posted, it’s been Netflix-ified. Better cameras; saucier language; new characters. The show has been through at least 8 showrunners, so there were quite a few differences from season to season. This new cycle has Anthony Edwards, of all people, in a major new role. Unfortunately, he failed to ignite. Lauren Holly, from Picket Fences and NCIS, is also here as Edward’s opiod-addicted wife. Sutherland is great; I’ve been a fan for years. Episode one was far better than Episode 2, but we’ll keep watching … Also on Netflix, we started watching Russian Doll; created by actress Natasha Lyonne (and, Amy Poelher). Playing Nadia, a young woman who is on a journey to be the guest of honor at a party in New York City. But she gets caught in a mysterious loop as she repeatedly attends the same event and dies at the end of the night each time. It’s a neat idea (not totally new), although brace yourself for a rather anxiety-ridden time. Only eight episodes; we loved it. Also, as an added plus, the first scene opens up with Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” Another reminder how terrific Nilsson was. Btw: that track was from Harry’s simply magnificent Nilsson Schmilson album in 1971 … The 50 Years Ago Today tour with Todd Rundgren, Christoper Cross and Micky Dolenz as the lead names is a great idea. They’ll come out, do their signature solo songs and then the chestnuts from The Beatles classic White Album. Here in NY, they play The St. George Theater in Staten Island and Westbury Music Fair. Must-see for sure. Dolenz, meanwhile, has been in Australia and New Zealand for the past week wowing audiences with the last dates of his tour with Michael Nesmith … Author Mark Bego at the Cher Show Friday night at the Neil Simon Theater in NYC … Film Festival Traveler’s interviewed author Greg Messel on his Dreams That Never Were book (released last Friday); based on RFK. Will be out this week. here’s a trailer for the book via YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJS9pybFbrw … And, we referenced social-influencer Wendy Stuart Kaplan’s series of NY’s Explorers Club on World Oceans last week, but gremlins kept the photo from appearing – here it is.
NAMES IN THE NEWS — Steve Walter; Greg Messel; Susan Levin; Savanah Guthrie; Anthony Pomes; Rudy Shur; Curtis Urbina; Andy Greene; Randy Alexander; Glass Onion; Tom & Lisa Cuddy; Walker’s; Cindy Adams; Roger Friedman; Susan Hathaway; Jeff Smith; and, CHIP.