When I learned that Dr. John passed away, I went into a state of shock. Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr. had been ill for some time and had stopped performing, but it was still hard to imagine a world without him. Mac was somehow a direct link to the essence of everything I love about New Orleans music, from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, through Champion Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair, James Booker and Allen Toussaint, and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that he is gone.
Even before I ever set foot in New Orleans, Dr. John brought the spirit of New Orleans music into my heart. I had heard him on records before I knew who he was, but when I heard the Gris-Gris album, and then Babylon, Remedies, and The Sun, Moon & Herbs, I was a total fan. When I heard the Gumbo album, it was the first time I put together all the different strands of New Orleans music history that Mac walked us through, from Professor Longhair to Huey Piano Smith, James “Sugarboy” Crawford, Earl King and more. It was through Mac’s music that I first discovered the Mardi Gras Indians. I was hooked.
I saw him play some astonishing shows around the New York metro area, starting in 1969 at the Atlantic City Pop Festival, where I was introduced to dimensions outside of the world previously known to my teenage reality. The impressions of that performance were more mythic than specific, but there were many other shows in those amazing days and years, when I would see him perform his ritual music at the Beacon Theater, or in a small New Jersey club called Mr. D’s, at the Schaefer Pavilion in Central Park, or at Ultrasonic Studios in Long Island. There were shows where Mac introduced me to a new world, a world I am still trying to understand, playing with a band that at times included Booker on organ, John Boudreaux on drums, Red Tyler on saxophone, Jessie Hill on vocals and percussion, vocalist Tami Lynn, Didymus on congas, and so many other classic New Orleans players.
After the success of In the Right Place, with its top 10 hit “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Crawdaddy! magazine assigned me to write a cover story on Mac, just as the Desitively Bonnaroo album was coming out.
I went up to the Gorham Hotel where he was staying, and Mac was lying in bed under the covers. It was a New York hotel but it felt like it was a secret grotto, dark, with incense and candles and strange looking objects placed with great care around the room. I started asking him some questions on his background, and he went into a Homeric odyssey of stories about New Orleans during the 1950s and early ’60s, “when all the record companies from Atlantic to Pacific came to New Orleans looking for what we had.” He told me about recording his first album with studio time left over by Sonny and Cher. Midway through the interview Mac, uh, “fell asleep” for ten minutes. I sat there by his bedside, transfixed by what I had just heard and almost afraid to move lest I break the spell. Then, just as suddenly as he had dropped off, he was awake again, picking up the sentence right where he had left off. I felt like I was in some kind of extra-terrestrial world, a time warp where it was Mac time, and I was just trying to hang on by my fingernails and dig what was going down. I dropped all thoughts of interviewing him. I just wanted to learn whatever it was he was willing to share with me about this secret world of music that he decoded, layer by layer, to my astonished young mind. I got a first-hand introduction to some of the secrets of how New Orleans music got its foundations right then and there in the Gorham Hotel.
Over the years I kept running into Mac, marveling at his music and falling under the mystery of his words. It was only a matter of time before I finally made it to New Orleans in the mid-’80s, then found a home here in 1999 within walking distance of the OffBeat office on Frenchmen Street.
In New Orleans I discovered a whole new understanding of Mac’s greatness: countless nights at Tipitina’s, memorable shows at Jazz Fest, one spectacular Carnival night at Spanish Plaza when he wore an Indian headdress that must have been ten feet tall. Back when Voodoo Fest featured mostly New Orleans musicians Mac stood out there, playing one fiercely political show a couple of years after Katrina, based on songs from City That Care Forgot, then another show years later when he revisited his Night Tripper persona with a lot of songs from the first four albums. Those were the last times I saw him when he was hands down, chills-up-your-spine great.
A lot of people don’t know how deeply political Mac could get, but it was a measure of his moral strength. Babylon was social criticism as scathing as it could get back at the end of the 1960s. He was a founding member of Tab Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands project and a passionate critic of the devastation the oil industry brought to Louisiana’s wetlands. In my book New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Future of New Orleans, the chapter called City That Care Forgot includes some hot-blooded conversation with Mac about the political betrayal of New Orleans after Katrina that has never seen print anywhere else. He went so far as to speak out against Jazz Fest sponsor Shell for its role in despoiling the wetlands. His management released a statement walking back that criticism, but Mac’s intention was clear, and it’s written in history with his angry, vituperative charges in City That Care Forgot that New Orleans was sold out by Big Oil and politicians.
I was not a particularly special friend of his. Mac offered his kindness to countless others. He was in his own way one of the greatest ambassadors for New Orleans music ever, taking it around the world and introducing it to countless other musicians like Doug Sahm, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Rickie Lee Jones. The British rockers Humble Pie did an over-the-top version of “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” that was a highlight of their live shows. Mac joined forces with Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond for the Triumvirate album. He formed a band with the great jazz drummer Art Blakey called Bluesiana Triangle. He wrote songs with the incomparable Doc Pomus. He produced and played on one of the most soulful albums Van Morrison ever recorded, A Period of Transition.
So Mac was a bridge from the inside of the secret world of New Orleans music, to the world at large. It was his special gift, something that just dropped off his fingertips, something to which he never gave a second thought.
I wish I could come up with the words to say how much he meant to me and to so many others. I feel that I am at a loss. All I can do is remember the last time I had a heartfelt exchange with him. I interviewed him again and spoke to him on occasion afterwards, but we bonded in a few minutes after Wardell Quezergue’s funeral outside the Corpus Christi church on St. Bernard Ave. Right after the ceremony, a second line formed and started Wardell’s last sendoff. Mac stood wistfully on the curb and watched. Wardell was his main man, his favorite arranger and a close friend. I asked him if he was going to participate in the second line and go to the ceremony. He was bitterly unhappy. “I have to go back to Nashville to finish this botheration,” he said. He was talking about the sessions for Locked Down, the album that would give him his last Grammy. Missing his friend’s funeral was more important to him than making the album. He was upset that so many of his running partners from the old days were passing, but this one cut the deepest. Now I understand a little better how he felt.
So here I am sitting by my radio, listening to WWOZ play a nonstop tribute to Mac, whose eyes are closed again and his spirit gone from what he called the “meat world.” Sitting here waiting quietly for him to finish the sentence, to bring me back into the alternate reality of Mac time. I can wait.