THE NIGHT TRIPPER SPEAKETH Dr. John

“I feel things better than I can speak
them. I try to write them into songs.” But on his Dan Auerbach-produced new
album, he’s talkin’ loud and sayin’ plenty.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Once he started to get big, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach always seemed
destined to pull a Jack White and use his fame to help shine some of the
spotlight on one of his heroes. The smart money would have been on that hero
being a forgotten bluesman, not Dr. John, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who helped
bring New Orleans
music to the masses. Yet the result, the Auerbach-produced album Locked Down, has turned out to be one of
the most successful of Dr. John’s 50+ year career, both musically and in terms
of sales.

 

Locked Down is in
many ways a return to form after many years in which Dr. John became best known
for recording pop standards and lending his voice to commercial jingles.
Thankfully, nothing on Locked Down seems destined to one day push product. Like his earliest work, the new album
combines funk, psychedelic rock, gospel, blues and Afrobeat with Dr. John’s inimitable
voodoo style into something that’s grounded in tradition yet completely unique.

 

We talked with the Doctor, born Mac Rebennack, about the collaboration and
his legacy.

 

BLURT: How did you meet Dan Auerbach?

DR. JOHN: It was spiritually correct to me. My granddaughter turned me on to
his record. After that, we did this thing the Bonnaroo Festival.  Then he came over and we wrote some songs. I
didn’t use any of them, but it started me writing songs.

        He wanted to put together a
band to do some recording. I liked that he remembered some things I said. A guy
who started my band was from Ethiopia,
so Auerbach got a drummer that was German but lived in Ethiopia and
knew Ethiopian stuff really good. That turned me toward some Afrobeat and I
liked that too. The guys he put together were a really good crew.

 

What drew you to his work?

I liked the way we did it in his studio in Nashville. He uses some old school shit
that’s way older than him. He gave me pictures and said “Write some stuff about
your life.” It was a good direction for me to go.  

 

People say Locked Down has the adventurous spirit
of your earliest albums, which you’d moved away from recently. Do you agree?

My first album has a definite voodoo thing I believe in. Maybe some people
will get a picture from that. Then there are spiritual beliefs in other areas.
Everything in the new world is connected to the sacred. I might sing a song
that’s very Christian, but I also try to make people aware that all religions
were accepted here in the spiritual church of New Orleans. It didn’t matter if you
were a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish. Whatever you were, you were accepted. It didn’t whether you were a Muslim or
anything. You were accepted into
that church.

        Children were angels. I wrote
a song for my children called “My Children, My Angels.” That’s where children
were put in the spiritual church. Women were made saints and men were workers.
When you my look at things in that way, it’s a way the world could work a lot
better. The way this world is made, oil companies and chemical companies, all
of these big corporations, run this country more than this country runs itself.

 

You recently became the second
musician to get a three-week residency at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music. You began the residency with a tribute to Louis Armstrong. Why? 

I always wanted to do a real tribute to Louis Armstrong. Not only was I born
in his neighborhood in New Orleans,
I grew up in his neighborhood. In my formative years, whenever we walked by his
house, my daddy would say, “That’s where Louis Armstrong was born.” He felt a
pride in saying that to me as a kid. The importance of him hit me when I met
him some years ago. This was a long time ago, but the vibe on him was so cool.
I realized why my father loved this guy.

 

What do you hope people take away
from seeing you perform?

It’s vital to me that they get a different picture of what the music is and what
it’s not. Maybe they’ll look at this thing and feel “This guy’s not just about
that, he’s about this.” People have perceptions
about things. I think if you can get some clarity on the world at large, that
opens the door to the next moment of clarity so people can see this is a very
unmanageable planet. We’re going to do a healing of the Gulf
of Mexico, a healing of people. We’re going to do whatever we can
to let the truth be known about what’s happening in Louisiana. We lost all our barrier islands,
this place could disappear in a second.

 

Originally, you were a session player
and didn’t want to be a frontman. Now you’re one of the faces of New Orleans music and a
member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How does that feel?

The only thing I’m grateful for with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that
maybe I can get Joe Tex in. Without him there wouldn’t have been James Brown
doing dance steps, Jackie Wilson doing mic tricks. Joe opened doors for them
and he’s still not in it. How can that be? I’m going to be working on that.
It’s just crazy to me.

        The only two people I liked
being on the road with were Joe Tex and Marvin Gaye. Marvin was a great
drummer. Steve Wonder also has that talent; he’s a good drummer. Stevie was a
guy who wrote great songs the way Marvin did with “What’s Going On.” He said
something that was a very powerful truth and made some people think. In some
ways, Marvin put an end to that ridiculous war.

        We went into that war for a
lot of three dollar bill reasons. Each time we go into war it’s a lot of three
dollar bill reasons. How long do we have to go through the jiveoisty of all of
this to find truths? How long will we be victims of our own weakness? If we’re
truly a country that can unite, why aren’t we?

        There was a long time in my
life I didn’t believe our system could work. I do believe it could work, but we
have to work as a united people. We do have voting power, we do have powers we
can take and push.

 

Is that what inspires you to keep
going after 50 years?

What’s important to me is that I can try to tell those truths that I feel are
very important for people. Sometimes they don’t get ‘em, sometimes they do. We
have a system where this country has more penitentiaries than anywhere in the
world. Why do we have them? Because companies are getting rich off this. If you
just lock people down, that’s the name of the record.

        Life is so easily twisted. I
have friends who are doing 100 years for narcotics. That’s a sick thing to do
to people. A guy that worked in my band is doing 100 years. He had it reduced
from 200 years! People like this should not be in prison for that ridiculous
amount of time.

        What’s it all about? It’s not
about anything but lock ‘em up and throw the key away. This will make it easier
for society? That’s a lie. We have to expose the lie. The truth will set you
free.

        I look at these things and I
have a great desire to be helpful to this planet. There is so much dividing
people. We don’t need to destroy the very planet we live on in order to just
make somebody richer. We need to make a balance. I see this very clearly.

        I’m not the greatest guy to
speak for anything. I’m all over the place. I feel things better than I can
speak them. I try to write them into songs. That’s my usefulness to this
planet.

 

[Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins]

 

 

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