Dr John Interview: En Route To The Spirit Kingdom - The Quietus
Few musical greats have stories to tell like Dr. John. As the ultimate icon of New Orleans music, the man has seen it all. At just 14-years-old, he was an A&R man for Ace Records, working through the fifties as a songwriter, producer, session man and occasional recording artist named Mac Rebennack. This allowed him to learn firsthand from legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino, but it also meant dabbling in heroin and hustling – whether it was by forging drug prescriptions, pimping or even disposing of foetuses for a backstreet abortionist.
Despite working with the likes of Phil Spector, Professor Longhair and even Sonny & Cher, Mac’s solo ventures didn’t take off until he moved to California after a brief stint in jail. There he reinvented himself as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, with 1968’s Gris Gris - a mixture of voodoo incantations and psychedelic soul that became an instant underground classic. His distinctive growl and virtuoso piano continually incorporated funk, rock & roll, jazz and blues into his sound, veering between swampy eccentricity and traditional R&B over the course of 28 albums.
Ahead of the release of his new album, Tribal, and his performance at Glastonbury this weekend, the 69-year-old Dr. John is sounding somewhat frail and weary. He is, however, in a talkative mood, reflecting on the good times and the bad with sage-like insight, every pronunciation twisted with that indelible southern drawl.
Did you ever think of packing it in?
Dr. John: No. I think it’s the proper thing for a musician to keep playing until the last song is sung and you fall over and die. That way the band don’t have to play an encore and they will get paid for the gig. That’s the correct thing… because they have no retirement plans for musicians anyway.
Do you think you’ve got anything left to prove?
DJ: I think there’s always something to prove. It’s like when you notice the planet is just messed up. There’s a lot of stuff to deal with and you just do the best you can to make it a better place to live. Lately I’ve been tryin’ to tell some truths that I don’t think too many people like to look at.
Well you’ve been trying to revisit this persona of the Night Tripper for the first time in decades. Inspiration can come and go; you can’t always control it. So how can you summon that muse at will? You’re a different man now.
DJ: Well I am different… but put it this way: I’m different in the way that I don’t use drugs no more. I don’t do anything anymore. A lot of the things I did in the past, even if I was all messed-up in one way or another, were the correct thing to do. But I’m still the same person in other ways. I was on a mission to see if I could conjure some N’awlins voodoo when I made the Gris Gris album. I can still do that again. [Tribal] got me back into New Orleans 100 per cent and I felt like if I didn’t make this record, I couldn’t live with myself. So I had to do that. I was tryin’… and nothin’ beats failure but a try. If you don’t be tryin’, you’ll never get to do nothin’. Bein’ persistent is a great character to have, if you ask me.
Gris Gris is probably your most popular album. I don’t think anyone likes to admit that their best is behind them, so how have you dealt with that during your career?
DJ: Well I never look at records as a best or a worst or anything else. Listen, a record is one thing. But all things put together, music has its way of standin’ up or not standin’ up when you play somethin’ to-day. As long as you play good, that’s what’s important. If you didn’t, you better find out why and don’t do that again. People aren’t goin’ to want you back if you’ve had too many bad gigs. That’s not deep, that’s just common sense. You know what I mean? It doesn’t take a lot to figure that out.
Was there ever a point where you had to work out what was going wrong?
DJ: Of course. You’ve got to do it on a daily basis, though. You can’t do that once every purple moon. If you play a couple of bad gigs – ho! You’ve got a problem on your hands and you’ve gotta do somethin’ fast. What I usually do is call a band meeting and say, “Okay – what happened? Let’s all figure it out.” It could be something strange but whatever it happens to be at that time, you’ve got to deal with that and roll with it.
Roy Montrell, your first guitar tutor, chopped up your first guitar with an axe and then later you were shot in the finger, which meant you couldn’t play the guitar properly. Did you ever feel like something was steering you towards the piano?
DJ: Nah. I look at it like I probably wouldn’t have got shot in my finger had I not been so nervous about [then bandmate] Ronny Barron getting beat to death with a guy’s gun. Ronny’s mother said she would chop my cojones off with a butcher knife if anything happened to him. And he was strung when he was a kid, probably too young to be on the road. But the point was we played a lot of dangerous joints; I’m surprised it didn’t happen before that. I never thought I would get shot in my finger… I just thought I’d get killed or somethin’ in one of them fights because there was a lot of shootin’.
What did your own parents make of that? They were quite religious.
DJ: My father suggested I go! “Take a job,” he said. “If you’re doin’ this bad at school, my suggestion is that you take a job on the road.” He backed me playin’ with musicians whether it was in strip joints or wherever it was at. He was cool with it. I think my mother worried but I don’t think my father looked at it the same way. It was cool. I’m blessed that I had people who were behind me and let me do what I was gonna do anyway.
Was there ever anything there to rebel against?
DJ: Rebellion is a pretty stupid thing to do. I don’t think I was thinkin’ about a lot of that as a child. But on the other hand, I think I probably was rebellin’ against a lot of things I was told to do, when it came to takin’ drugs and stuff. I was in a time zone where it was cheaper to get drugs than it was to get alcohol. And I didn’t like alcohol, so between the two things it was the perfect thing for me. But then it backfired later.
How much did you know about heroin before you tried it?
DJ: I watched a lot of people doin’ it all the time, throwin’ their lives away. I didn’t respect them. But somewhere along the line I decided to try it. I don’t know what happened between one and the other or how it transpired, but I looked at guys who did something stupid and ignorant and then all of a sudden I’m doin’ the very same thing they did. I was a pretty young man, you know? I’m grateful for the 20 years I’ve been away from it all. I’m blessed. I survived a lot of things. Gettin’ shot in my finger was one thing; gettin’ shot in my knee was another thing; gettin’ shot in my ass was another thing; so was gettin’ shanked in my back. You get stabbed enough times, that’s not healthy either.
What was the moment you decided you wanted to get clean?
DJ: Well I was some 50 years old and between the FBI and the DEA interrogating me, I think that had somethin’ to do with it. I saw how it was affecting my daughter. She’d call me up sometimes and you could it hear it in hear voice that she was worried about me. She’d say, “I’m worried that every time you go to a bathroom, you're not goin’ to make it out alive.” That bothered me too.
You’ve teamed up with Allen Toussaint again, who is another New Orleans legend. Given the similarities in your career and the status you both share, was there ever a point where you would have been considered rivals?
DJ: I was producin’ records and a lot of other stuff before Allen, but Allen was a lot more successful as a record producer and as a songwriter. He plugged into all that. We had a lot of things that happened in common; we cut a lot of sessions together and we’ve been friends for a long time. I don’t think any of us looked at each other like we were rivals. You got a gig and that was about it. Despite the fact that N’awlins wasn’t such a good place to live, you could honour the music and the food; we could honour a lot of things about our culture. It was something sacred to us.
But when record companies started bringing their artists in to record there in the hope of getting a hit, was there not a lot of competition to get in on the more lucrative sessions?
DJ: Not really. Everybody was doing so many gigs. Sessions weren’t the big thing. We earned more money playin’ nightclubs than we did on recording sessions. When I first started doing recordings, I got paid $22.50 for a session. If we worked on a gig, we probably made more than that for a tip for one song. Myself, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, George Davis – we were all the younger guys comin’ up. None of it meant that much to any of us except that it was another gig during the day.
A lot of the time we couldn’t make it because we had so many gigs at night. It was inconvenient. I had my first recording session when my second guitar teacher sent me in to sub for him one day. I was a student. I’ll never forget that. I was playing a lot of T-Bone Walker stuff then, so they started calling me ‘Little Bone’. I swear to God. That’s the way it was in N’awlins – everyone had a different nickname in different parts of town. And that’s kinda nice. It shows we have a sense of humour and we care about each other.
You got in a bit of trouble with the unions back then. How do you think that affected your career?
DJ: I didn’t care. They gave me headaches. When the unions were segregated, both unions gave me headaches. When they became one, I still got headaches. Even when I belonged to other unions, it was still the same thing. I got headaches from all of it. What am I gonna do? Sit there and get caught up in the ignorance?
When I got to California, where I’m sittin’ talk to you right now, they’d tell me “well you can’t do this and you can’t do that”. And I’d respect that but to be honest with you, they had things here we didn’t even have in N’awlins. We didn’t have such a thing as a contract for a recording session. I went all over town, recording with different people, and sometimes you wouldn’t even ask how much the money was.
Sounds easygoing. How did that compare to recording with Phil Spector?
DJ: I felt that that was different because that was before I even did the Dr. John stuff. They were callin’ it the ‘wall of sound’ and all them kinds of things. I thought it was something called ‘paddin’ the payroll’.
Are you surprised his music has endured so well and became so influential?
DJ: I’m never surprised with music. Listen, everyone has their own taste. Just because something is a big hit… I love what Louis Armstrong said: “There are two kinds of music. Good and bad.” And it’s kinda true. It’s a simple way to break it down. Sometimes I like a song yesterday and I might not like it today.
When Jim Garrison became district attorney in the sixties, he began a crackdown on New Orleans’ bars and clubs. How much do you that affected the city’s music scene?
DJ: I think he really crippled a lot of musicians. He started padlocking all these clubs so they couldn’t reopen, clubs that had been there forever. Strips of music clubs were never re- opened. This was the saddest part to me: it was mostly the clubs that local people went to. St. Charles Avenue, Canal Street, Jackson Street, Louisiana Avenue. He shut most of that down.
I didn’t think that was anything but stupid, even though I know he was putting a stop to a certain crew of gangsters who wanted to get gambling legalised in N’awlins. Even as a kid, not that I was a gangster or nothin’, I could have told them, “Hey, not all of Louisiana is goin’ to go for this. You got half a state here that would probably nix that.” But he was caught up in all of that; that was his route to get into office, etc. We played parties to fight for that cause, so I was right in the middle of it all.
What was special about your neighbourhood, the Third Ward?
DJ: Louis Armstrong was from the Third Ward. That was kinda special. My father always told me that. Right on the corner where I grew up, there was a guy who could only play piano in the key of f-sharp. He could play more blues in that key than I could ever think of playin’ to this day. I have no idea how he learned to do that. It’s always been a mystery to me. It was guys like him that tried to convince me, "Don’t even try to be a piano player". My aunty taught me to play the Texas boogie or whatever as a kid.
But I was never thinkin’ about playin’ professional. And that was my first dream, even hearin’ Pete Johnson and Joe Turner from Kansas City. I thought all music was from N’awlins. I had no idea. But I wanted to be Pete Johnson as a little bitty kid. Then that shifted when I decided I’d never get a gig playin’ the piano with all these better players around. There was Professor Longhair, George Washington – so many greats. The list is endless. There was so much going on with keyboard players, it was just overwhelming.
What would you say you learned from Professor Longhair?
DJ: Well, I tell you what: he taught us all something. He would play a bit more fonky but the thing that 'Fess always said was to ‘frollock’. He wanted the whole band to ‘frollock’ behind the guy’s solo. That was his word. He had a million words that he used how he used them and meant what he meant by them. Once you got that, he was wonderful to work for. He was special. There were a million things he had names for on the piano like, "Oh, that’s a double-note crossover" or "Overs and unders". That’s not musical terminology! That’s Professor Longhair terminology, so I love that. I wish I was him.
When it does come time for you to go, how would you like to be remembered?
DJ: Hey! It won’t matter to me by then. But I would like to have done enough good stuff so that maybe somebody who does remember something will say, "He did the best he could with it all". That’s all anybody can do. I’d like to have that thought somewhere along the line, if there’s a thought at all. I mean I come from the city of spirits. N’awlins has more people in touch with the spirit kingdom than most places. The point is that we respect our ancestors. In day by day livin’ and survivin’, it’s not your first thought. Right? Music keeps things alive in its own way.
It’s a powerful thing. That’s why I believe if you touch someone with music, then we’ve done something. I’ve been tryin’ to reach different angles of hittin’ people with some truths, making nice music and hittin’ them with something that’s not really a nice thing to say. If you hit them from both angles, maybe they’ll get something out of it because it doesn’t seem like a real dismal event. I have fond memories of Bobby Charles and dedicated this record to him because there were some songs we didn’t get to finish that would have been on there. He didn’t even get to hear his new record. It’s just how it goes. We never know. I might go tomorrow; I might go in 20-years. Whenever it’s my call.
Well David Simon’s been saying the whole history of New Orleans is in your head. When it does come time for you to go, is there any danger you might take some of that with you?
DJ: No, no… I think it’s in a lot of people’s heads. The important thing is that if it’s in the air, then my head or anybody else’s head don’t count. It’s in their spirit. And there are a lot of people who have the spirit. Listen, we got a guy by the name of Johnny Cleary who’s been livin’ in N’awlins for a long time. He’s got the spirit. You can’t beat that. It doesn’t matter where you’re from as long as you catch the spirit. That’s important.
What are you spiritual beliefs?
DJ: The spirit kingdom is more powerful than the meat world we live in. We bleed from the spirit kingdom. This meat world we live in is the temple for that. When this meat gets wore out, you’re gonna croak. Once you croak, they bury you six feet in the ground. If you’ve really done right, then you’ll feel like, “it’s all okay. I did the best I could.” If you don’t feel right, if you didn’t do somethin’ that you feel good about, you just wasted a lot of time. That’s where I’m at. I don’t want to be one of them people that wasted a lot of time livin’ the lifestyle of the rich and the wealthy. I would rather find happiness, peace of mind – the things that, to me, are way more important.
Tell me a bit more about this spirit kingdom…
DJ: Well life’s about not getting’ caught up in a lot of meat world values. People get caught up with a tonne of things that don’t have nothin’ do with anything spiritual. I don’t wish to go there so I try to do everything I can. Listen, nobody’s perfect. We all make some serious, crucial mistakes. We all do some things that sidetrack us from the direction you was goin’ on. You wind up takin’ a detour somewhere and you didn’t intend that, but it happens. You’ve got to do everything you can that’s possible to make a better world to live in, to get to a point where you can say, "Hey – I feel good about this".
It’s hard to do. N’awlins has been through a lot of mess. I’ve been through a lot of mess. Everything goes through a lot of mess. The way to get past all of that is to take action. If you do it right, you’ll get somewhere beyond all that. Sometimes you take a path that feels right and down the line, it turns out not be the path you wanted. It may have wound you up in some place you never wanted to be in the first place. Well, you gotta get a look at that and make an ol’ manoeuvre and so something else. This kind of stuff happens. Freq-uently.