Travels with the Night Tripper

He knows some characters. He's done some things. But Dr John ain't dead yet. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
Mac Rebennack, alias Dr John the Night Tripper, is in remarkably good shape, considering. He's still got all his limbs and is mentally more or less intact. His sleepy-eyed Tom-and-Jerry's-bulldog face still lights up with the same sly grin, even if, when he walks, the trademark voodoo walking-cane comes in more useful than it ever did before. What's really noteworthy is that he's still here to walk and talk at all. Though he has made more records than he can remember in the 40 years or so of his professional career (he's now 53, but he started young), he has consumed quite heroic quantities of drugs along the way.

As he explains in his entertaining volume of memoirs, Under a Hoodoo Moon (St Martin's Press, New York, 1994), Rebennack was a heroin addict from his mid-teens to just a few years ago. He's pretty matter of fact about it, too; after all, it wasn't as if the drugs were something that arrived with the trappings of fame, only that there were more of them. In the early Sixties, when he was still unknown outside New Orleans, he was arrested and sent down to Texas for a prison cure. The resident psychologist there had pictures of famous "ex-addicts" pinned up on the wall for encouragement. Mac wasn't tempted for a moment: he knew for sure that Bela Lugosi had died a junkie. "I think I would have croaked a lot sooner," he says, between cheroots, "if I had ever thought there was something else. One day somebody told me that if you ain't looking where you're going, you're gonna wind up going where you're not looking, and I'd been going there too long. But, man, I was getting too old for it. There's kids out there with Uzis - it used to be baseball bats - and I didn't even notice when it changed."

Rebennack left prison to join a bunch of expatriate New Orleans musicians who had muscled into the session mafia of Los Angeles, and eventually his moment of fame arrived. In 1967, using leftover studio time from a Sonny and Cher session, he and the band recorded the album Gris Gris, taking the name Dr John in honour of a 19th-century voodooist. Atlantic released the album (Marsha Hunt, of all people, covered the single "Walk on Gilded Splinters" in the UK) and the weird visuals of their stage act led it to become a big hit on the college circuit.

Strangely, even for those strange days, the old rhythm and blues reprobates suddenly became part of the peace and love movement. "We thought we was so slick," Rebennack remembers, "but one day some little kid comes up to us at a gig and says, 'You guys are like dinosaurs. Everyone else is up-to-date and doing acid, but you're a bunch of junkies.' It was like, wow, even a little kid knows this. It was embarrassing, we were out of sync."

His book vividly evokes the lost world of New Orleans R&B: learning piano from Professor Longhair and guitar from Roy Montrell; cutting records for labels like Specialty, Imperial, Ace, Ric and Ron; and touring the boondocks pretending to be the latest chart-topping act. It's also a carnivalesque read, full of hookers, pimps and con-artists with names like Stalebread Charlie, Opium Rose, Wimpy and Herbert, and Betty Boobs. District Attorney Jim Garrison (as played by Kevin Costner in JFK) even gets a walk-on part, though in Rebennack's view he was a real baddie as he helped to close down the bars and bordellos - the city's vibrant musical culture never recovered. According to Rebennack, Garrison used to hang around Stalebread Charlie's brothel, too.

Some of the tales in the book are horrific, as when he tells about a job he once had disposing of aborted foetuses (he threw them in the river), but if you want to know where to hide a cut-throat razor about your person in prison (between the buttocks), or are curious about the drugs-and-black- magic rock and roll scene, then this is the book for you.

It's also a book that Rebennack co-wrote (with Jack Rummel) but didn't bother to read. It was only when his sister told him that if it came out unexpurgated, there'd soon be a contract out on his life, that he got round to looking at it again. "I think the fact that I had just come out of rehab and they had put me on lithium - even though I had a toxic reaction to it - might have affected it, but my sister said, 'You leave this in the book and you're crazy.' So that was the one bit I really read, to see what she was talking about, and I couldn't work out any way to clean it up without taking two chapters out, even though it leaves some gaps and stuff." He continues, "One of them was around the time of Desitively Bonaroo (1974), and the other was old New Orleans stuff to do with jails and institutions and suchlike, which some of the guys who was there, or might be coming out, would have resented big-time."

Because of the lithium, Rebennack had an unhappy detoxification until a psycho-pharmacologist diagnosed the aversion and took him off the drug. His memories of the raw material for the book remain, to say the least, hazy. "A lot of people pointed out inaccuracies of times and things, but it's the best that I can remember it. You know, somebody said to me that the only people who remember those times weren't there."

Despite the drugs, Rebennack has released some terrific records over the years, but now that he's cleaned up his act, he's really enjoying a new lease of life. His excellent new album, Afterglow (for which the legendary Blue Thumb label was re-activated), sees him in Harry Connick Jr big band territory (he's a friend of Harry Sr), singing the sophisticated blues of Charles Brown and Louis Jordan which his mother was so fond of. Once again he has a band made up of old New Orleans reprobates.

As he's about to go off for a photo session in Leicester Square, I remember the question I had meant to ask: "So, Mac," I say, "you remember when you played the Jazz Cafe last year? Jimmy Page was in the audience. Were you, like, acquainted?" "We had a couple of interests in common," he drawls. The other one, of course, was magic, but that's another story.