Friday afternoon New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley stopped by New Orleans' WWOZ studio for Bob French's show with Dr. John, otherwise known as Mac Rebennack. The interview was already rolling when I started typing, and it was clear that this one would be off the charts. When Bob sends me a tape I can fill in the blanks, but here's what I was able to catch before heading off to Jazzfest:
"Between me being a bisexual polar bear and sitting between two extremely off the hook drummers, it makes me feel completely sane," Dr. John says. The studio explodes with laughter, and Bob discusses how their original interview was postponed when last Sunday's weather went downhill.
Mac: "I was trying to reach you the day I was meeting you at the Jazz Festival when it rained and you very skankily disappeared. I was very salty about this that you didn't answer your phone after leaving 25 kajillion messages on my phone cussing me out and I'm thinking what a guy.
The Bonnaroo festival got its title from Desitively Bonnaroo, a Dr. John tune. When Bob compliments his unique speaking style, Mac says, "I'm writing the official Dr. John objectionary on speaking." He later adds, "You see, I took a course. It's called tricknology by osmosis."
Bob: It took you an hour to get ready . . .
Mac: It's not easy for me to get up in a minute period. It's a very difficult procedure for me to get up.
The talk turns to politics and what is not being done to help New Orleans recovery, something Dr. John has not been shy about discussing since his work with Voices of the Wetlands shortly after Katrina. From the federal to the local level, he holds forth: "All the mayors since I was born, they all were jive. It's like a tradition." He adds, "Vote for a President that cares. Any one of them. Get someone that cares about people. No, it's like we gotta vote for another lemon. It's become like a fad."
Back to his musical history, Mac says, "I didn't graduate high school. My father advised me to take a job on the road. He said you're failing and you're not doing great and take a job on the road. That's all I wanted to do anyway." Talking about the chaos of the early tours, Mac says, "It had something to do with James Black. Having him room with Booker. Between the confused mentalism that he added to the band, he was playing the high hat in 7 or something. James was a master at hiding the 1 if you didn't know what you were doing in almost all of the confusements of it.
Bob: I just talked to Aaron Neville and so did you.
Mac: You tell the name of my hotel, why you don't tell Aaron's?
Bob: You got that other name.
Mac: I'm a sneaky secret kind of sucker. You see I use Dave Dixon method of staying below sea level. [Dixon gave James the name Bonzigge Darke, among other colorful tour names.]
As far as Dr. John's original band, Bob points out, "Everybody's dead but you."
Mac: No, Charlie's in Angola. He's doing 300.
After starting his career as a guitar player, Dr. John switched to piano when part of his finger was shot off while defending a fellow musician. As a band leader himself, Bob asks: How was it for you as a band leader, how many grey hairs did they put in your head?
Mac: We couldn't get to overseas gigs because of legalistical problems, including myself, but if you put it all together we had a good time, problems and all. You can't knock nothing because life in this business, we could walk out in the street and get clipped. They could just even slide it under us. We have this second and this petunia so I decided to come do this petunia with you. [Opportunity = Petunia / A Minute = A Pimento]
Bob: I really appreciate that.
Mac: I thought you would, George. [Mac calls Bob by his brother's name, singer and bass player George French, throughout the interview] Only now and then do you flare up about that. That's a very sterling quality that he possesses.
Bob: In another week you're going to be talking like you're English.
Mac: Another two seconds I'll be talking like Sigmund Freud. I could psychoanalyze the whole station in here. Are you kidding? I have my diploma.
Bob: It took you two hours to dress but you're here and we're glad to see you. You look good.
Mac: They say looks are deceitful, Bob.
Bob: We were talking for over ten minutes and you didn't cuss.
Mac: I decided before I came over here I was not going to cuss your ass out or anybody else.
Bob: You, Mac Rebennack, you can do what you want to do.
Mac: You, now you do more of what you want to do than I've got time to do. You do more ridiculous maneuvers in the time that you have to do them than most people.
Bob: Is that a compliment?
Mac: Of course.
Bob: Well thank you.
Mac: I've seen you in some other moves. I've seen you on the other side of the moon and the moon works on the noggin. They used to call New Orleans the psych ward without walls. Lunatic city. I thought you was the reason they gave it that name.
Bob: You cannot ruin my reputation.
Mac: Your reputation ruining preceded your disc jockeying.
Bob: Can you image they're hearing you everywhere? Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, San Diego, Kentucky. Remember Mississippi back in the day?
Mac: I remember quite a few gigs in Missississloppy. The governor was waiting for us at the hotel, George Wallace, and we were all thinking this is going to be some really ugly maneuver and he was passing out his book. I'm just some guy that's with the band. The bands never count in anybody's scopenology of the thing since day of Duke Ellington and Count Basey. What happened to those days? It became the singers that counted. That's why I used to resent front men.
Bob points out that Mac now is a front man and he agrees, "I don't resent myself because I'm glad to have a gig."
Mac then does a brief take on a staffer at WWOZ, speculating that he spends each night in a straightjacket and a room with a peephole and in the morning has to ask, "Do you think maybe I look sane today? What does he usually tell you Freddy? He never says the words you need to hear to have a permanent pass."
Bob attempts to get Mac to sit in on his set Sunday with Henry Butler. "I gotta get your booking agent's number, I've got 200 dollars I can spare."
Mac: "If you can add a dollar three eighty for cab fare, I may be able to arrive at the gig within 24 hours of the appointed gig time."
Bob: I'll call Arthur Q. Davis, Jr. [Quint] have him pick you up in a hearse, I mean in a limousine.
Mac: The hearse was fine, especially if it's one of them cushioned ones where I can put my mattress out on the back and lights on the ceiling.
Bob: Like Screaming Jay?
Mac: That's old school man, Jay did that show. I remember when he changed his show and it didn't work. He was in a cage and would dress up like Sherlock Homes singing to a guy in a gorilla suit outside of the cage, and they wanted to see him in a coffin again. He made some very sick records. Constipation Blues. That was one of his last big records.
Bob: You think you can extend your vacation?
Mac: I mean, this is my home.
Bob: I don't want to make you start crying on the radio.
Mac: You want to make me cry? Go ahead and try. If I'm lying I'm dying baby you ain't gonna achieve that. Except for Dumbo the Flying Elephant, or if you got a copy of . . .
Bob: I would never want to upset you sir.
Mac: I always felt like if you could cry it's a very relievingful thing.
Bob mentions that he's hoping someone documents the experience and Mac asks, "Document what?"
Bob: This cool language you have. And whoever is calling you just wasting your time because we ain't gonna answer the phone.
They expound on George Bush visiting New Orleans and "pretending to second line," and Mac discusses his concept of a citywide second line. Earth Day was offered, but "If we did it on Earth Day who's gonna notice it? That sucks. Then I cussed the wrong people out and that was the end of that but the fact is, we're supposed to have our own day. The whole City of New Orleans needs a second line and that's one of the songs on my new record. I'm plugging it.
Dr. John's song, "My People Need a Second Line" is featured in The City that Care Forgot, to be released on June 3. "I got dropped from one label to do this record. That's okay, I'm on another label and I don't care. I'd have done it for myself and I'd have figured some way to get it out there. I'm very ornery about it if I get something in my heart to do.
Songs by Bobby Charles and Rev. Goat Carson are on the cd, and Mac was going to work with the late Alvin Batiste and the late Willie Tee, but they have both passed away since Katrina.
Bob: I'm not doing any songs for you.
Mac: I didn't ask your ass.
Bob: You got that gris gris working.
Mac: Willie Tee had a tune about a crack in the liberty bell revamping the lyricals to make it about New Orleans and how the crack in the levee affect the city of New Orleans. It used to be like a little crack in the window pane.
Now it looks like you could fit your fat ass through there.
Much laughter in the studio.
Bob: There's nobody else I would let tell me this on my own show.
Mac and Bob talk about new Orleans drummer James Black, and how the last two years of his life he kept asking Mac to find him a copy of a record, "And never would tell me what record." He later found out it was Monkey Puzzle, an album by a young Ellis Marsalis. In a city of unsung heroes, Black was one of the great pioneering jazz drummers.
Bob: We sat in front of his house on Gov Nichols street one of greatest conversations in the world. He couldn't play the music he wanted to play. You know how talented he was. That was getting him. He was always pushing nervous things onto the cats. In some weird way James had a big impact on cats doing those things. So much intensity and force, you had to acknowledge it.
Mac: He really turned around bass players. In the second verse, just turned the beat around on them.
Bob: He used to try to do George like this. George would laugh at him "Right on, do what you're doing. You'll be back sometime." The rhythm section better be on top of it cause he would get you."
Discussing the Grammy-winning Dis Dat or d'Udda, Bob told Dr. John, "You looked for people who weren't hard to find, like Smokey Johnson is on here. Smokey's playing bass drum. Earl Palmer who is very very sick right now is the drummer as far as recording sessions are concerned, he's playing snare drum. Smokey's playing bass drum and they're playing that second line thing and it's killing. Then he recites The Monkey Speaks his Mind written by Dave Bartholomew. This is the man that never got his credit for all the million sellers, 22 million sellers in a row in the late 40s and 50s. People in this town in positions of authority don't even consider him. He gets totally disrespected. He's in his middle 80s, or past that, and he's knocking the walls down . . . He don't run behind nobody and do anything. He ain't gonna do that, never did it in his life. So I'm glad you did what you did because you got a lot of respect for everybody. Dave knocked it out, so did Smokey.
Mac: I always thought Dave was the baddest blues trumpet player in the world. Ain't nobody plays the blues like Dave. First session I ever saw on my life on Dumaine . . .
Bob: Cossimo [Cossimo Matassa's studio pioneered early rock and roll. He still runs Matassa's Grocery Store in the French Quarter.]
Mac: Dave's in the studio and I'm watching all of a sudden we get to the end of the song and he played to fatten the note at the end. It hit me without even knowing nothing about it he just opened he ending of the song up that's the kind of way Dave thought. He ain't gonna play no bunch of notes, but it's gonna be the right maneuvers. If you ain't saying something, just stop playing.
Bob discusses sound men and the need to work with the best. "Loud music is not pleasant for the ears."
Mac: How many deaf cats we know who played in rhythm section. "What kind of hearing aid you got Jake? Oh, it's 3 o'clock."
Bob: We gonna wind this up, you ready? I'm talking to Dr. John, born and raised Mac Rebennack. And we also . . . [it sounds like a someone is taking a cell phone call in the studio]. Would you wait a minute with your little nervous self? I'm gonna stomp your feet boy. We're talking to Herlin Riley. I'm about to commit murder on the radio. I'm gonna stab you in your heart. Anyway this is Bob French, gonna go out to the fairgrounds in a minute. I want y'all to hear the intro on this, and Dave Bartholomew is playing.
[Cue track from the Grammy Winning Dis Dat and D'Other.]
So there it is, as Mac would say. Two New Orleans legends holding forth on Jazzfest weekend. The City that Care Forgot will be released on June 3. Based on an early preview it's already my pick for album of the year, and Dream Warrior for best song. His Wade in the Water is on the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund's ReDefine 8/29 charity download.
Follow Karen Dalton-Beninato on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kbeninato