The night they were to play on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote their new album City That Care Forgot, Dr. John gave his band one specific instruction.
“He told us to look mad,” says guitarist John Fohl.
Mac Rebennack, who created the persona of Dr. John in the late 1960s after distinguishing himself as a local session star, is not smiling himself these days, and he wants the people who listen to him to understand why he’s pissed off. Like a lot of his friends and relations from New Orleans, he’s fed up with the political system that allowed the Louisiana wetlands to be destroyed over a period of decades and left no protection from the storm surges that wiped out a lot of the state after the double dose of destruction unleashed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. If all politics is local, there’s nothing more political than seeing everyone you know lose their homes after the levees failed and New Orleans was inundated.
So Dr. John put aside the gris gris, gumbo and jive talk that he was known for to write a series of stark observations about the current state of New Orleans, written with help from Bobby Charles, the Rev. Goat Carson and Chris Rose. The songs on City That Care Forgot are by turns grimly journalistic, achingly poetic and disturbingly emotional. Aside from “Promises, Promises,” written some 20 years ago by Bobby Charles and Willie Nelson, all the songs relate directly to the conditions that led up to Katrina and the political aftermath that followed.
Rebennack had additional reason to be pissed when he discovered that his record company, Blue Note, had no intention of releasing “another record about New Orleans.” Fortunately the situation was resolved when 429 Records stepped up to the plate and put it out. Everyone involved was gratified when City That Care Forgot was greeted with rave reviews, called the best album Dr. John has made in 20 years and brought extensive exposure on national television and radio outlets. Now that he’s got the podium, Rebennack is using it to detail his honest gripes about a city he feels is still being robbed by crooked politicians. On City…, Bush and Cheney get the blame, but he says there’s plenty more blame to go around.
Right after the storm, you released Sippiana Hericane, an incantatory album that seemed as if you were trying to exorcise the demons of the storm. I know a lot of people who were trying to come back to town and reestablish themselves found it inspirational. Were you specifically trying to raise people’s spirits?
I’m always trying to do that one way or another. We went right into the studio to cut that; sometimes it’s best to just do things without even thinking about them.
It seems that at some point, your grief and sadness turned into anger and you began to write the songs that ended up on City That Care Forgot.
My grief was very mixed with anger from the jump. The inclination I had was to do this record from the beginning, but when I told the record company I wanted to do it, they said, “No, not another record about New Orleans.” I was just grateful somebody wanted to do this record.
You had already been writing about this subject in general for the Voice of the Wetlands project.
I had some other songs that were supposed to be for this record. I had some more songs for this that Bobby Charles and I wrote. There’s still songs left over from this. I could have been cutting ’til the cows come home, but I had to finish this.
So you had an idea to make a record that would cover all these themes.
I was trying to make a record that dealt with all the information I was getting right after the storms. I think the first one I wrote with Bobby was “Black Gold” and the first one Goat and I wrote was the title song. The information kept coming in every day, from people sending stuff in on the computer machines. Very early on you could get a lot of information, and later you couldn’t get the same information.
You did some of the writing with Bobby Charles, some with the Rev. Goat Carson and some—this is a little unusual—with Chris Rose.
I did some things I got from articles that Chris Rose was writing.
So you read the article and then wrote the song.
I just took some stuff that I thought was pertinent and used it. The song about Treme [“Stripped Away”], the song about the city and how it used to be, any part of the city I’d go to—he wrote a beautiful article about that, actually two articles. The articles put me in a kind of melancholy head thinking about it, about parts of town that was destroyed and the families were no longer there.
That line, “Ya wonder how we doing / Short version is we’re gettin’ there.” Was that one of the lines?
Yeah, that came out of one of his articles. He was one of the most consistent people I noticed. After the storm, a lot of people would say, “Did you read this by Chris?” or something like that.
Did you call him after you started writing this and ask him to listen to it?
I had somebody send him the demos from the album, and he said he couldn’t understand one word of it. A demo to me is something rough, being able to get the idea what the hell I’m thinking of. That’s always what my mind works with. The idea of what I’m going to do. And then we go to put it into real life in the studio.
The idea that people took their own lives since the storm, everyone knows someone who’s done that.
There have been so many, this song could have had a neverending tag to it.
It’s really bad to me. How can so many things happen? The money that was ripped off, the millions of billions of dollars that disappeared? It’s like, how many times can New Orleans get ripped off by corruption? We used to get ripped off by the mayor and the governor, but from the federal level? It’s holy shit territory. That’s what added to my anger to the max. It was like, okay, you want to kick somebody when they’re down? I felt like…we’re not the chumps you think we are. We must look fucking pitiful, but we’re just people trying to survive shit. Who do they think they’re dealing with? And New Orleans people are tax-paying people of the United States.
Everything is new except Bobby’s song, “Promises, Promises.”
Actually, we were going to cut it for the Voice of the Wetlands album, but we couldn’t find the goddamn song. Willie Nelson wrote it with Bobby. That’s one of the reasons Willie was on it. We were trying to rush to get this record out, and we left Willie’s name off the credit on that.
Willie and him wrote that years ago for another election. It was back in Reagan days. We were going to do a show in support of the Mississippi way back when as a result of Reagan not signing the Clean Water Act. It was such a slap in the face—here’s President Reagan saying we’re not going to sign the Clean Water Act. It added to the dilemma that led to everything why the wetlands are disappearing.
You’ve worked with Willie before?
Yeah, I did. I was on his Milk Cow Blues record. I met him years and years ago actually. Bobby introduced us. We was at Bobby’s place at a crawfish boil. I knew who he was because he had a lot of songs that I liked. I was impressed when I met him because he knows how to eat crawfish. People come down here and don’t have a clue about how to eat crawfish, right?
The line “fought in your wars, paid with our lives,” now that applies to the people who died in the storm and paid with their lives.
After we finally got a hold of this song, it was like, man, it was an important thing coming from a lot of areas. It all connected. The dots were obvious to me on how this connects to this. I remember I was playing the demo for the band, and they got excited.
Some of the other things you wrote with Bobby were more inspirational, like “You Might be Surprised.”
Yeah, somebody gave me this card that said, “Life is a near death experience, so enjoy.” I said this is a really good line, and it’s going to be a song next time you hear it. I called Bobby up and would you believe, it wasn’t even an hour later he called me back with plenty of lyrics. Everything just fell together like BAM.
“Land Grab” is an interesting concept, the idea that somebody was going to profit off of all these people losing their homes.
And they want to dig for oil. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who’s going to profit from all the lands that are disappearing. Every year Bobby would tell me, “I’m getting closer and closer to having Gulf Coast property that I never wanted.” It’s disgusting. After Rita, there was no more anything. Bobby, where he was living is in the Gulf. That’s so many places that now are in the Gulf. It’s disgusting. There’s no excuse. Our wetlands could have saved a chunk of Mississippi, a chunk of Louisiana, but nobody cares. When you get down to it the people care, but who cares about the people? Does FEMA care about people? No.
“Time for a Change,” this is encouraging people to vote?
Yes, I’m trying to get people aware of what’s going on with the same maneuver of John McCain bringing it down even to a lower level of pathetic mess in this world.
The message of that song is close to what Barack Obama was saying during the Democratic primary race.
I offered it to him as a song for his speaking engagements, but, whether he uses it, I don’t care. We wrote this song, and Bobby and me were talking about him. And we thought this guy said something different. Wow. And I started checking this guy out, and believe me, I’ve got stuff on the guy, good and bad. We waded through it and tried to make some calls and we decided to roll with it. The alternatives are the same old, same old. Let’s try to go with anything that looks like anything new.
Since the storm I’ve lost a lot of friends—recently Chuck Carbo, people who were gonna be on this record. Willie Tee passed away, Alvin Batiste passed away.
There was a song of Willie’s I wanted to do desperately bad about the crack in the Liberty Bell. There was a song Alvin Batiste had that I wanted to put in between songs on this record, and Alvin passed away. It was just on and on with this record, plans were passing away. Earl Turbinton passed away. I wanted him to play on this record. He wasn’t in good health, but I wanted Earl bad. All of those people were really a part of New Orleans. That’s why everybody that’s on this record is someone that cared. I felt really blessed that I could pull whoever we could pull on there while we were doing it. Terence volunteered before the album, Trombone Shorty and James Andrews.
Eric Clapton seems an odd inclusion.
Eric said he probably had time to do one track. He came in and did three tracks. That showed a lot of heart. He overdubbed in New York after we did the record. I said, “Eric, I ain’t gonna give you no instructions, Just play what you feel.” That’s what he does best.
Did you know Ani DiFranco before?
Ani offered her services way back; it was the first Mardi Gras after the storm. She was on the band bus. We was playing at the House of Blues. She said, “Anything you want me to do, I’ll do.” I liked her. She’s one of them people, I didn’t know I would dig her that hard. She just slid into my life some kinda way.
The songs you wrote with Rev. Goat Carson, “Dream Warrior” and the title track, have a more mystical, poetic feel.
I put Goat on just because he plays that thing, that one string buffalo harp. There’s something about Goat that’s so off the hook that he fits right in. When it came time to do the title track, we were talking about old names for New Orleans, nicknames and joke names like “The Psych Ward Without Walls,” but nobody knew about it outside of New Orleans. So we used “City That Care Forgot.”
Those songs are filled with detail and strong imagery. Toxic mold under fresh paint, it’s a powerful image that makes you think of papering over the problem.
They always do it. You know this, and that thought is in the record a lot in different songs, in different ways. “Stripped Away” got that idea in it. It’s what they always did in New Orleans. They ripped out the projects. Why didn’t they leave the projects that were in decent shape where some of those people were living? The housing in New Orleans that lasted through millions of hurricanes and shit, they’re going to tear them down. And it was on and on. There was so many things that I was furious about. It’s like elementary Dr. Watson, and people say wow, this is really clever. I say there’s nothing clever here; this is just stuff talking about the truth. Is the truth clever?
Another one you wrote with Goat is “My People Need a Second Line.” Did you write that after they arrested musicians in Tremé for second lining?
Originally we were invited to put together a second line in D.C. Later, when we did make it into a song, you don’t know how many of these things came out of phone calls, people would send stuff from the papers. I called a girl that wrote an article from that, and I said, “Thank you. Thank you for mentioning these kinds of things in the paper. We need more people like you.” I didn’t know this girl from shit. She became one of those hero people, you know what I mean? Anybody who told the truth, I love.
Published August 2008, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 21, No. 8.