Reflections on a backstreet New Orleans cruise with the doctor and his infinite gris-gris gumbo
By BILL BENTLEY
R.I.P. DR. JOHN (June 6, 2019). Who knows why I bought this album in 1970? There was just something otherworldly about it, which proved to be true way more than I could ever have imagined then. Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, created music that opened up a whole new world for me, zeroing in on New Orleans as a place with infinite secrets and absolute frivolity.
Flash-forward 25 years and Mac and manager Stanley Chaisson are steering the big cream-colored Oldsmobile to the curb in front of Tujague’s bar on Decatur Street in the French Quarter one sunny afternoon. We’re scheduled to do interviews that day for Mac’s new album Going Back to New Orleans, but duty calls.
We start cruising around all the backstreets of the City that Care Forgot, with Mac giving a colorful commentary about his years running those streets as a young musician, someday to change the world with his poly-personality of sounds that can never be equaled.
He was looking that day for a certain cologne he favored, as well as a hard-to-find denture cream. We hit several drug stores, with a continuing commentary from Mac about the incredible players and some of the problems life in the Big Easy had bestowed on him. I sat in the backseat, my head spinning, trying to understand how in the world I ended up there. In the end I chalked it up to divine providence. It was like a living dream.
“I’d look at Mac then, and come to understand that our lives hold secrets which don’t really need to be explained.”
Sometimes he would turn around to me and say in his oh-so-unique drawl, “Billy knows what I’m talkin’ ’bout – don’t ‘cha Billy?” I was sure learning, that beautiful day.
We stopped at a hospital in Metairie to visit his ex-father-in-law, and then went to Bozo’s restaurant, a place where Mac was proud to report, “Pete Fountain’s father used to shuck oysters here.” Of course he did!
I think of those years working and being buddies with Mac Rebennack as a gift for staying alive. Even the period before he pulled himself together when he’d come to my office at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, sit on the long orange couch and take a little catnap, the cigarette burning down to his fingers.
I’d look at Mac then, and come to understand that our lives hold secrets which don’t really need to be explained. Rather they are here to inspire us forever as we move ahead, staying in the dance and sharing what we see.
The last time I saw Mac was backstage at the Hollywood Bowl a couple of years ago. We had a short talk, and I kissed his hand when I was leaving. I’m not sure why, but I just felt that’s what needed to happen. He’d given me so much, both in music and a way of understanding life.
Mac looked at me, with a heartwarming soft smile only he had and both eyes twinkling, and said softly, “I’m gonna see you down the road, Billy.”
Yeah you right, Mac, yeah you right.
Bill Bentley has long been one of songwriting’s best champions. The author of `Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen,’ he’s a native of Houston. He was music editor for the L.A. Weekly from 1980 to ’82, and then a publicist at Slash Records first and then an exec at Warners Bros. and has championed many of the great artists of our time, including Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, The Blasters, Green Day, X, Lou Reed, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Doug Sahm, ZZ Top, Wilco, Neil Young and more. He got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He’s been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He’s worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard Records. He still plays drums. He also has a fondness for producing tribute albums, and has done them for Roky Erickson, Skip Spence, Sir Doug Sahm, and Lou Reed. He’s known to have been especially kind to music journalists, even.