In a career marked by many strange phone calls – an occupational hazard for a newspaperman – one I got in the fall of 2005 was a true corker.
The voice on the other end of the line was unmistakable. One of the most familiar voices the city of New Orleans has ever produced. Which is saying a lot, considering that unique and unusual accents are among the city’s more pronounced cultural identifiers.
“This is Mac,” the voice said.
I knew that Dr. John’s real name was Mac Rebennack – Malcolm John Michael Creaux Rebennack to be precise. But having only met him a couple times in passing – and quite sure he would not know me from Adam if we passed on the street – I would not have considered myself on such intimate terms with him.
Truthfully, I thought it was a joke. I thought someone was punking me. After all, his voice – that trademark mashup of Tom Waits, Phyllis Diller and a bull frog in heat – is much and famously imitated. If for no other reason than it’s fun to do.
Love that chicken at Popeyes, right?
But it was, indeed, Mac Rebennack. The Night Tripper himself. At the time, he was living in New York City and had been taking in the news of Hurricane Katrina from afar, from friends and family and TV. And, it turned out, my stories in the Times-Picayune.
“You da’ only one who gets it,” he told me. And thus, we actually became friends. He called me every now and then to talk, to vent, to spleen. And then one day he called with a favor to ask. He was coming to New Orleans for the first time since the flood and he asked if I would show him around.
Me? Give a disaster tour for Dr. John? What ya’ gonna do?
So I picked him up at his hotel on Canal Street and drove him around. I asked if it would be OK if I ran a tape recorder while we drove (ever the astute reporter) and he said that was cool. But even though we drove around for about two hours, I had little to work with on tape. Here’s an excerpt from the story I wrote for the paper:
“Every angle you look at something, it looks worse than the other angle,” he said. “There’s stuff where there wasn’t nothing before and where there was stuff – is gone.”
Mostly, he just groaned a lot. Gasped for air. Muttered expletives of grief. “Aw, Gawd!” he said, over and over.
He pointed out some sights to me — or where sights use to be — where he partied or gigged with guys he called Smokey and Google Eyes and Piano and Twelve.
Only in New Orleans does someone have friends named Google Eyes and Twelve. Or, I don’t know, maybe the Tenderloin or the Bronx has that, but just hearing it in Dr. John’s verse was such a reminder of what an exotic army of night creatures we have — or had — here.
When I brought him back to his hotel, I felt like I was leaving a broken man behind. This cat is mad and passionate for New Orleans and he looked physically afflicted by it all.
Then the last thing he said to me, the last words of the story, entered the permanent New Orleans lexicon. “Brother, I thank you, he said. But I need to tell you: I am traumaticalized.”
It’s a word I’ve heard a thousand times since, from folks who are feeling less than well, about anything from the storm to health issues to financial problems to any old thing that brings you down. It’s New Orleans’ singular state of mind for grief.
And so time passed. Mac and I fell out of touch for a while. He was writing and recording new music. I was going insane, getting divorced and getting addicted. And then came another call from Mac, out of the blue, this one even stranger than the first one.
He said he was working on a new record that would be called “City That Care Forgot,” by far the most political and angry record of his career. He told me that a couple of unfinished songs were inspired or based on some of my newspaper stories. And then he asked me if I would write them with him, polish them off for him.
Whoa. Giving Dr. John a disaster tour was one thing. Now he wants me to write songs with him? What the hell do you say to that?
Sure, I said. And then: Umm, how do you write songs?
He said he’d already started them, two songs from the record called, “We Gettin’ There” and “Stripped Away.” He said they were based on stuff we saw and talked about during our drive, stuff I wrote a lot about that fall. Songs about insurance companies, crooked cops, incompetent politicians, greed, violence, broken buildings, broken lives and suicide. Topics I was well versed in.
Sounds great, I said. What exactly do you want me to do?
He said he’d been recording some stuff alone in his apartment. Rough stuff. Primitive demos. Unfinished compositions. Finding his way through the words and music. He said he wanted to send me the demos to listen to and then fill in the words.
Again, what are you going to say to that. And so he did. And here’s where it got a little, shall we say, awkward?
He sent me a CD and I listened to it over and over and was absolutely flummoxed. I couldn’t understand a word on it. Not a single word. I mean, Dr. John was nearly incomprehensible when speaking or singing in public; you can only imagine what he sounds like when he’s just singing to himself!
So I called him. He asked what I thought. So I told him the truth: I couldn’t understand a single word. But it sounded really cool. And seriously, Mac – you think I’m going to edit you? Not gonna happen.
He was gracious about it all. So gracious, in fact, that he gave me writing credits for both songs in the liner notes on the CD. When I listened to the finished version, I’m pretty sure my only contribution was one line in “We Gettin’ There.” And it was that exact phrase: “If you wonder how we doin’/Short answer is/We gettin’ there.”
And boom, the record won the 2008 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album! Eric Clapton played guitar on one of my songs. My collaborators, Slow Hand and the Night Tripper. My songs. My Grammy!
Well, technically. Sort of.
Not really, I guess. But it’s right there, in the liner notes. You can check it out. Then again, nobody reads liner notes anymore.
Mac and I stayed in distant touch for a while. When he eventually moved back to New Orleans for good, we had dinner a couple times. We did a couple interviews together. We had lunch one day at Liuzza’s by the Track with Spencer Bohren. Fate.
Mac and Spencer both died this past weekend, directly on the heels of Leah Chase. Three of the most gracious, gifted, eloquent cultural ambassadors this city has ever known.
Funny, the last time I spoke to Leah Chase, we were both waiting in line at the Pandora snowball stand on Carrollton Avenue. I got the raspberry cream. She ordered tamales.
This town. This place. These people. The right place, no matter what time.