I was a big fan of Dr. John’s 2013 album, Locked Down. Sure it wasn’t going to rival his finest work. (How could it?) A year or so later he kinda knocked it out of the park again, really. But again, how could these new/ish albums really stand up against his greatest stuff. The point is – they don’t have to. They’re examples of a great player, and writer, and singer, and interpreter still doing Good Work.
Also, they became catalysts for major Dr. John re-evaluation/re-appreciation for me. And that’s what I’m truly grateful for – that might even be what I love best about those newer albums.
They are certainly not Babylon or Remedies or Gris-Gris or In The Right Place – but those albums are otherworldly, those albums are just something else; so special. And Locked Down took me back to those albums – so that is part of its strength. Part of its legacy is that it celebrates (and circumnavigates) the Dr. John legacy.
I first heard Dr John – as far as I know anyway – when I was about 10 years old. My favourite thing to watch, and I wore out a VHS copy of this, was B.B. King and Friends. Home from school each day I would set up this videotape and watch all my new heroes jamming – Eric Clapton and B.B. King and Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King and Phil Collins (on drums!) This TV special, filmed by mum and dad late one Sunday night, enjoyed by the whole family many times after, became an obsession for me. I would watch this show day after day, five times a week, seven times a week, sometimes more.
His duet with the great Etta James (I’d Rather Go Blind) made such an impact on me that I wrote about it, calling it the best duet in the world. I stand by that. For me, it’s the best – it’s had the most impact, it carries the most weight. I am stunned, still, by this performance. If I had to ever defend my obsession with music, try without using words to defend what I do, why I do what I do, what this art form means to me – I would show whoever was asking that video-clip.
And then, in the chronology of my life, Dr. John turned up on The Last Waltz. And that became a new favourite concert to watch over and again.
I bought 1992’s Goin’ Back To New Orleans because by this point I was a devotee to guitar and drum magazines and when I saw ads for albums in the pages of Guitar World and Modern Drummer I was always curious. I hadn’t listened, all the way through, to a Dr. John album until I bought Back To New Orleans.
There’s been no turning back since buying that cassette tape from a crummy wee shop in Hastings 25 years ago.
Then when Locked Down came out I got back to listening to my Gris-Gris and In The Right Place LPs more than I had in previous years. I’ve gone back to the other recent/ish albums – The Best Of The Parlophone Years, The City That Care Forgot, Mercernary, Duke Elegant, N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or d’Udda.
I was inspired to visit the library to check out Dr. John’s autobiography. A great read.
What I got from that book – which you get from his music, certainly – is that this is a guy who never wanted to be a star, who never had any interest at all in “the business”, who has no room for ego, for lifestyle/image clichés that are played up and played upon. In his book he dismisses Keith Richards for being an arrogant jerk, for playing up the rock-star/junkie aesthetic, for trying it on, modelling it for kudos. He also joins the long line of people ready to point out that Van Morrison is probably the rudest man in the industry – but he sums up Morrison’s career longevity by suggesting that when he opens his mouth and that unique sound comes out all is forgiven, all is forgotten.
The version of The Rolling Stones that Dr. John saw – and heard, and played with – were, as far as he could see, and hear, a pack of pretenders. They weren’t, at all, the real deal. Now I love the Stones, sure, but I got what he was saying. I understood his take on it. Respected where he was at. Because for Dr. John it’s never been about being industry, about being part of anything – beyond living inside the music; living to love the music, to serve the music, to honour the tradition and to chip away at the work, offering your life up to the cause.
I respect that. So much. I take so much in from listening to this man at his best. And this year I’ve returned to so many of the albums I’ve learned about and loved over the years – Van Morrison’s A Period Of Transition being another example. Always a favourite – but great to listen to after hearing about its difficult gestation period.
There is so much to love from Dr. John. Such a character, such a huge presence – that voice, that sound. That feel. The groove. The soul. The attitude. He serves the music. He carries the voodoo. The gris-gris. The shuffle and funk and soul and feel of New Orleans is there, living inside his songs. Psychedelic rock is there. Jazz. Blues. Drama. Great songs he’s written, great songs he’s rewritten.
I just wanted to tell you that. I guess. It seemed about time.
So any Dr. John fans out there? And what do you like about the man? Favourite albums? Favourite songs or sessions from the extensive work he has performed with other musicians? And what of this ethos he seems to represent – of caring only for being a musician, never interested in being a rock-star? To me he’s one of the greats. And we’re lucky to have his kind, lucky to have him still dishing out the good-goods.
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