Dr. John at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (photo: Derek Bridges)
There was a press junket, and at the last minute someone with real credibility dropped out, and I was invited to fill in even though I was only a teenager. A number of us journalists were bused out to a beautiful old country estate. Frank Zappa was there, deep in conversation with a bunch of record collectors. Candy, the publicist, took me by the hand and led me to the back porch. Mac Rebennack was out there in full Dr. John regalia, with a modified turban wrapped around his head, and feathers and rings and voodoo beads, a carved walking stick by his side, and he was slouched there, a walking Mardi Gras, a sitting Mardi Gras, and the makeup on his face was starting to run, with the sun beating down on us like that, and he lifted his eyes and gave me a nod before he lowered his head. And then he closed his eyes. And nodded off.
I was seventeen, what did I know about pills or publicists or the dangers of the road, all I knew was that this wasted, beautiful man in front of me was exhausted, his soul left behind in some barroom far away, and he’d gone too many miles, played too many shows, had to explain himself to too many strangers, and I was one of them.
Was I supposed to address him as Doctor? As John? I settled for Sir.
“Maybe we can do this later, Sir. Seems you could use a little sleep. I can come back.”
“No,” he said. “No.” He seemed genuinely concerned, and he opened his eyes and tilted his head, he looked suspicious, like maybe I’d been playing with his beads. “No. I got to edumacate the peoples. Tell them things. I got to.”
I said something about getting some rest.
He gave me a look.
“Listen. How you know I’m not asleep right now?” He stared at me hard. If he had a third eye, it was staring at me, too. “How you know I’m not asleep right now, and you simply part of my dream?”
Dr John’s been treated as the embodiment of New Orleans, its myth and its music, but he was so much more than that. And though he’d absorbed all the lessons of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair and James Booker, Snooks Eaglin and Jelly Roll Morton and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, all the hustlers and dream merchants of Congo Square, the world of black candles that give no light, of debts you pay in blood and bone, he still had the elegance of Duke Ellington in his touch: piano so light it wafted through the air like a cloud, and blues so deep they never hit bottom. He could swing, and he could float, and he could do both at the same time. Even in a city of characters, he stood out, wrapped in his own language. “You speak Spanish?” a journalist asked him. “No, man,” he said. “I don’t even speak English.”
He put on the mantle of Dr. John, the gris-gris man, the night tripper, high priest of voodoo and soul; he put on the clothes of Dr. John thinking he could take them off at any time, but he never could. They fit too well, they fit too tight and, besides, they paid his bills too well to ever well and truly put them away.
Once, years later, I stopped by Doc Pomus’s apartment. Doc was a songwriter, and for many he was the songwriter: he’d written “Save The Last Dance For Me,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Lonely Avenue,” and most of the songs that had been imprinted on my brain from growing up with New York radio. But he was also rather fond of the racetrack, the holy game of poker, and the women who ran in those circles. Doc was confined to a wheelchair, but that didn’t stop him from getting into trouble and frequenting three or four clubs a night. Dr. John was an old friend of his, and a frequent collaborator, and that day, the two of them were sitting in the living room. Not even facing each other, just sitting. There were coffee cups everywhere and more than a few ashtrays. The coffee cups were empty, the ashtrays were full, and no one had thought to open a window for a couple of months.
I moved an ashtray off of a low-back chair and sat down. The room was quiet and smelled of men and smoke.
“We writin’,” Dr. John said after a few minutes had gone by.
Doc Pomus pushed a coffee cup away and picked up a newspaper folded to the racing page.
“A song,” Dr. John explained.
That was my cue to go, but I was mesmerized by the stillness of the room and the heaviness of the air. I sat for a moment.
Dr. John looked over at Doc Pomus, and shook his head. When he did, bits of glitter fell to the floor.
“He keep sitting there, we gonna maybe have to give him a cowrite.”
Years later, at Doc Pomus’s funeral, Dr. John delivered a eulogy: “Bye bye, Doc. I don’t know where you is now. But I didn’t really know where you was when you was here.”
Mac made every recording session, every gig, and every musical encounter better just by being there. He knew what to add. He knew what to subtract. He brought the best out of everyone in the room and did it with such casual grace and style that it seemed effortless. That same sense of ease pervaded his wardrobe. He could walk into a hat store and find a chapeau last worn by Mamie Eisenhower, and somehow, just by adding a few feathers or turning up the brim, he’d make it look like it’d been made for him. But most every other part of his life was a disaster. With drugs or women or business dealings, he’d make terrible decisions, and then he’d stop, step back, brush off his clothes, and make the same mistakes all over again, but this time in a different key.
Sometime back then he played a solo gig under his own name at Seventh Avenue South. Lester Bangs was there, and he was on the wagon. He lifted up a ginger ale to toast sobriety. “They call this ginger ale,” he marveled. “It’s pretty good.” Dr. John was also on the wagon, and he was nervous being there without his feathers, without his elegant disguise. He circled the piano two or three times before sitting down to play. It was a white piano, it matched his suit. He sat down … and even then, he waited a moment, like he was praying or trying to remember if he’d locked the front door. Then he launched into a history of the American keyboard, moving from a staccato Earl Hines into a loopy Professor Longhair medley by way of Thelonious Monk, and you could hear the underpinnings of plantation melodies, the naughty blue notes of Jelly Roll Morton mixed with the churchified lurch of Ray Charles, those come-to-Jesus-then-come-back-to-bed chords filling the air even after he’d stopped. The whole world tilted. There was a standing ovation, and no one could stop applauding, it felt so good, and it felt even better to let him know, and we were standing and hollering, all of us, and it felt so good we might’ve never stopped. He shook his head, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say he was blushing.
“That’s not right,” he said. And then he said it again. “That’s just not right. I’m supposed to be doctoratin’ you, and here you is doctoratin’ me.”
Bye bye, Mac.
I don’t know where you is now.
But I didn’t really know where you was when you was here.
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.
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