The first time I found myself in New Orleans, I wandered into the Louisiana Music Factory on Frenchmen Street and grabbed two albums.
One was a rare Miles Davis collection in its original pressing. It still holds a place of pride in my vinyl collection these many years later.
The other boasted a picture that screamed pure New Orleans voodoo and funk, through a back-lit, crimson tinged depiction of a man who called himself Dr. John the Night Tripper. The album was “Gris Gris.”
As I write this, reflecting on the June 6 passing of Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, it strikes me as a bit of a tourist-y move, this purchase. But at the time, “Gris Gris” was like a passport admitting me into the heart of New Orleans music, and thereby, into America’s music.
I already knew and loved the work of New Orleans legends Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and a whole tribe of genius musicians with the last name Marsalis. I loved the parade tradition, dug Big Chief Jolly and the “Wild Tchoupitoulas” album, felt the indomitable pull of the Second Line strut.
But “Gris Gris” was something else. It was spookier, somehow. Hazier and more psychedelic. Sexier and a bit more sinister than much of the New Orleans music I had come to know.
It scared me, frankly.
The only time I had seen Dr. John in concert up until that point – an August, 1984 tour stop at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by the first-ever Ringo Starr All-Starr Band, which featured the incredible lineup of Starr, Dr, John, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Joe Walsh, Billy Preston and Jim Keltner – he was limited to only a few songs, among them his biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time.” I thought he was amazing, but there was so much happening on stage that night that he got a bit lost in the shuffle.
But as sat I in my room in the Maison Dupuy on Toulouse Street listening to “Gris Gris” for the first time, through headphones on my portable CD player, it was impossible to feel unchanged. This was some seriously swampy, funky, uber-hip and blissfully trippy stuff, a stake stuck deep down into the loam of New Orleans and America, a wound that dripped the blood of enslaved Africans forcibly driven to these shores, their bones still calling from the ground.
It was the blues before the blues became a beer commercial soundtrack, it was funky before funk became a marketable thing, it was world music without bothering to call itself as much, it was deep and it was dark and it was beautiful. This man who had made it was something else.
“Gris Gris” was released in 1968. In the 50 years since, Dr. John never swayed from his life’s purpose. He toured, and hard. He made some fantastic records. (“Destively Bonnaroo,” “In the Right Place,” “Babylon” and “Duke Elegant” are among my favorites.) He wrote his autobiography, the immersive and elegant “Under A Hoodoo Moon.” He battled heroin addiction and reportedly won the battle. He developed a sense of cool that appeared effortless. He won six Grammy Awards. He got even funkier.
I was lucky enough to catch him in concert several more times. A killer show at Kleinhans in 2011 and an inspired set as part of the 2016 NAMM show in Anaheim, Calif. stand out as particularly awesome. The latter in particular, because I was there with my son, and felt like I was able to pass something meaningful on to him. I'll miss seeing him again. But I'll never stop listening to "Gris Gris."
“Music is the one thing that keeps me alive and happy,” Rebennack told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2011. “If it didn’t be for music, I think I would have threw in the towel.”
Yeah. Me too, brother. Me too. Rest in voodoo, Dr. John.