News item: New Orleans singer-songwriter Dr. John, born Malcolm Rebennack, is dead at 77.
Another piece of my kids’ childhood is gone.
A weird way to remember Dr. John, I suppose, but that’s how it works around here.
When our first son came along, my wife and I were adamant that we wouldn’t give in and listen to crappy kids’ music. We knew that bland singalongs and squeaky voices and little-kid gimmickry would drive us mad if we heard it again and again.
No, we were gonna feed our son’s ears the same music we liked. Go straight to quality. Now for the good stuff, later for the garbage, as John Lee Hooker used to say.
We discovered, sadly, that it is in kids’ nature to demand what they like over and over again, no matter what that thing is.
So instead of getting sick of Barney and the Wiggles played ten times through, we got sick of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits and Dr. John’s best-of Mos’ Scocious and a couple of Los Lobos albums played ten times through.
Enough time has passed since then that I can stand to hear Dr. John again. And so, in the tradition of my long-simmering Five for the Record feature, I offer five of my favorite Dr. John tunes to send the man off.
(OK, one other point to address before I get to that. I’ve gotten a dim sense over the years that some musicians in New Orleans resented Dr. John for the same reason that some people resented Elvis Presley. Musicians of color created the musical culture; a white guy made money from it. I can understand those complaints, but I think it goes both ways. I suspect Dr. John — who was good about giving credit to his inspirations — sold plenty of New Orleans records for others, serving as a sort of gateway drug for the likes of Professor Longhair. If you disagree, feel free to flame me in the comments.)
Let’s get ready to rhumba:
1. “Mama Roux.” What’s cooler than David Bowie yelling, “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am”? Maybe, just maybe, Dr. John’s stroked-out “Wham, bam / Scraaam, Sam.” He sounds like he’s chasing a little kid away from the back door of a cathouse. Perhaps he is at that.
Anyway, this is about as low-key funky as music comes, like they scraped it off the bottom of the river at midnight. Extra points for the use of New Orleans nonsense patois in the “oola malla tralla walla” verse. I get the sense that you either know what that means, or you don’t.
2. “Junko Partner.” I originally bought the Mos’ Scocious collection for my dad. It ended up back with me because, as I recall, many of the songs were a little too poppy or rocky or mainstream. It didn’t go heavy enough on that courtly, sidewinding N’Awlins funk that my dad (and many others) find so irresistible.
This old New Orleans heroin song is one of those on Mos’ Scocious that makes it abundantly and unmistakably clear where the singer came from. Features a great greasy sax solo (what exactly is Dr. John doing on piano behind the first chorus?) As the man says: “Give me heav-vunnnnn / Before I die.”
3. “Sahara.”A funky, offbeat instrumental released under Rebennack’s own name, before he adopted the Dr. John persona. Sometimes the best tunes are the simplest and this is one example.
If I were a relief pitcher, this would be my coming-in-from-the-bullpen music.
Seriously: When I hear it I imagine Fenway on a stinking humid Friday night in July, with thousands of beer-loose people dancing in the bleachers, while yours truly jogs implacably in to lay his knuckleball on some hapless Orioles or Tigers with the unknowable, potent force of a John the Conqueroo.
(If you’re gonna be Walter Mitty, do the hell out of it, says I.)
4. “Mardi Gras Day.” The only time I ever went to New Orleans was about three months after Hurricane Katrina. I remember houses with those bright orange quadrant logos spray-painted on them (the ones that signified whether the house had been searched, and whether bodies had been found there), and little stores in the French Quarter with their entire inventories piled on the sidewalk, water-trashed.
It would have been nice to know the New Orleans that comes to life in this song, which is so loose that “loose” seems an insufficient descriptor.
The tempo gets faster and slower, mostly slower. Dr. John croaks his entrance at 3:30 like a parched partygoer. And there’s what sounds like the entire Ninth Ward shit-talking each other in the background.
If this was the final version they put on the record, I would love to hear what they sounded like when they were warming up.
5. “Wash, Mama, Wash.” I guess I oughta put one song on this list that isn’t a slice of High Delta Weirdness. There’s a conventional song at the heart of this, overlain with some offbeat New Orleans funk and a little soul. “After you rub it a while, you dub it in the tub,” our hero proclaims with great good humor, after warning his heroine away from playing the numbers.
This was, apparently, a Top 15 hit in Louisville, Kentucky, in July 1970, riding the charts alongside “Ball of Confusion,” “The Love You Save,” “The Wonder of You” and “Make It With You.” A most agreeable city, Louisville, and not without musical discernment.