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Dr John

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 14, 2010
Category: Rock

I was in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time
I was sayin’ the right things, but I must have used the wrong line
I was on the right trip, but I must have used the wrong car
Head is in a bad place and I wonder what it’s good for
I was in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time
My head is in a bad place, but I’m havin’ such a good time

Anyone who can write those lines — to say nothing of "What goes around, comes around" — and set them to an irresistibly funky beat is not, shall we say, sitting in some suburb and drawing on poetic inspiration fueled by a drink you can buy at Starbucks.

This is knowledge that is hard won. "Right time, wrong place" — that’s something you think around 3 AM, after you’ve poured Lord knows what down your throat and your money is gone and hyou can’t remember the name of the woman who just left. Or when it’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans and a juiced up crowd is primed to strut.

Dr. John — no one would mistake him for a healer in the traditional sense — was born Mac Rebennack. He grew up in New Orleans, where music is in the blood at a tender age. School was not his thing. By l6, he was a working guitarist and, the books say, a heroin addict. Something went wrong, and he spent a season or two in jail. Something went wrong again — a gun, a disagreement, the details are AWOL — and he was shot in the hand, ending his career as a guitarist. But New Orleans was the right place, right time; he had cut his teeth on Fats Domino, Little Richard and Professor Longhair. The piano beckoned.

As did the particular charms of the mid-’60s. To New Orleans Creole lore, he added the spice of psychedelics. He wore Mardi Gras duds onstage. He invoked voodoo. And soon he was “Dr. John the Night Tripper” — a kind of Cajun Jimi Hendrix.

Over the years, I’ve worn out, had stolen, given away many copies of “The Very Best of Dr. John.” [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download from Amazon, click here.]

Through the haze, I recall the first time I heard him. A good time was being had, and then someone put on what can only be called swamp music, with lyrics to match. Here are 7:30 minutes of "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" for those of you who are hard-core:

Over the top? Only a lot. This guy flew considerably higher than Mary Poppins. He was fun. And not shallow. "Refried confusion is making itself clear" — those six words will speak to many survivors of an earlier time. And, with equal accuracy, to the present.

Music that sounds this simple is, paradoxically, the result of great thought. And great elegance. You can see that in the records Dr. John made after he made his classics — traditional R&B CDs that are long on history and short on tricks. And, sometimes, he just liked to play piano; the truly cool CD to buy is Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack: The Legendary Sessions. Watch him, in this video, do some crazy syncopation with his left hand. Amateur pianists: please don’t try this trick at home.

BONUS: a charming ditty called "How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You’re Around?"