Graded on a Curve:
Dr. John, Gris Gris

Remembering Dr. John on the eve of his birthday tomorrow.Ed.

I am happy to report there is one town in this God-obsessed land that remains under the sway of the Devil. I am talking, of course, about N’Orleans, that spirit-haunted hotbed of hedonism and home to the legendary likes of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, the prostitute Lulu White, and the never-captured Axeman of New Orleans. God has sent flood upon flood to destroy America’s most depraved and flat-out weird city—where else are you going to find public ordinances banning gargling in public and tying an alligator to a fire hydrant?—but in vain. Either God’s floods ain’t what they used to be, or sin has rendered the birthplace of Jazz, where Lucifer owns a winter home, indestructible.

The Big Easy is renowned for two things: music and voodoo. And no human being has ever combined the two with such funky finesse as Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper. Like most people, the only tune I knew by the good doctor was 1973’s funky “Right Place Wrong Time.” Then Kid Congo Powers—who honed his own voodoo chops with the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s Gun Club—suggested I check out the Night Tripper’s 1968 debut LP Gris Gris, and I promptly fell under its spooky Creole spell.

Its trance-inducing, doom-heavy grooves instantaneously transported me to a shadowy Louisiana swamp swarming with snakes and alligators, voodoo drums sounding in the distance, the Axeman of New Orleans hard on my heels. Then to an incense-choked, unpainted wooden shack on stilts situated deep in the bayou’s perpetual gloom, where I found myself shuffling and shaking to the sound of congas and the Night Tripper’s Muzippi-muddy growl. Suffice it to say Gris Gris is one the most haunting slices of hoodoo you’ll ever hear, and one of the most addictive.

A child model (his face appeared on Ivory Soap boxes) turned strip club musician and illegal teen sessions player for such legendary figures as Professor Longhair, Joe Tex, and Frankie Ford, Rebennack turned from the guitar to the piano following an altercation with a pistol-packing club owner that resulted in the near severing of his left index finger. Forced to relocate to LA in the mid-sixties due to the legal consequences of an ongoing heroin addiction, it was there Rebennack adopted his colorful voodoo-headdress-wearing Dr. John Creaux persona and stepped into the limelight with Gris Gris, that incantatory and utterly unique melange of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban, and Mardi Gras Indian-flavored R&B and psychedelia.

To make Gris Gris, Dr. John assembled a small army of musicians, including eight backup singers, eight percussionists, a varied assortment of horn players, and several guitarists/ mandolin/ banjo players. He then assigned Harold Battiste, later to become musical director of CBS TV’s The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, the daunting task of arranging the songs. The resultant LP—which featured Dr. John’s mouth-full-of-gravel vocals, witchy Creole backing vocals, strange and swampy sound effects, and alternately pounding and gently percolating percussion, not to mention liner notes by Dr. John including the cryptic lines, “Under the eight visions of Professor Longhair reincarnated the charts of now”—was so outré Atlantic Records exec Ahmet Ertegun was heard to cry in despair, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” The answer was Atlantic couldn’t, and Gris Gris tanked.

Over the years, however, its mix of snaky slow rhythm and blues and more upbeat numbers has made it a cult classic. It’s the only album I know that is both a great listen and guaranteed to convince your neighbors you’re performing arcane voodoo rituals involving masked chickens, ve-ves, and the still-blinking eyeball of a deceased enemy. Since I’ve been playing it the woman in the adjoining apartment has taken to carefully inching past me in the hallway, trembling Chihuahua clutched firmly to chest lest I seize and devour it, twitching tail and all.

Dr. John opens Gris Gris with the slow and murky “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” on which he formally introduces himself to an unready world: “They call me Dr. John, known as The Night Tripper/Got my satchel of Gris-Gris in my hand/Daily trippin’ up, and back down the bayou/I’m the last of the best/They call me the Gris-Gris man” to the distant thunder of percussion and the intricately strummed mandolins. Meanwhile female back-up singers repeat “Gris-Gris gumbo ya ya/Hey now” to the accompaniment of the occasional stabbing guitar riff and fleeting horn passage. There are no verses, no choruses—just an unrelenting flow of bewitching sound as Dr. John advertises his various magic powders in a sinister bayou drawl: “Try my Dragon Blood/My Drawen Hidin’/And my Secret Sand/Try a little black cat heart if your woman got another man.” It’s the muddiest-sounding—and most ominous—groove this side of “Exile on Main Street,” and guaranteed to send you into a trance just as effectively as the gris-gris doctor’s “easel eyes rub” or “balls fix jam.”

Dr. John doesn’t sing out the fast-paced and wonderfully bizarre “Danse Kalinba Ba Boom,” a Creole incantation of a song that opens with four heavy thumps of the drum and some tambourine, followed by female backup singers going, “Yea yea yea yea yea yea yea, yah yah yah.” Then some fancy mandolins come in and “Danse Kalinda Ba Boom”—which sounds like the musical backdrop to a voodoo celebration—takes off, with lots of mad conga, the occasional heavy drum thump, and the female backups singing “Danse kalinda ba boom/Danse Kalinda ba boom ba boom” over and over again, growing increasingly frenzied as they go along. Then comes a great conga/drum breakdown, at which point the song returns from whence it came, with more “Danse Kalinda ba booms” from the backup singers followed by a few momentous thumps of the drum, some more “Yea yea yea yea yea yea yah yah yahs,” and then a slow fade out. Unless you’re an ethnomusicologist I can guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it, and while I didn’t much care for it at first, it has grown on me like Spanish moss.

“Mama Roux” is a wonderfully sprightly N’Orleans groove, catchy as influenza and the perfect voodoo cure for them Dyin’ on the Bayou Hoodoo Blues. Heavy on the drums, congas, and percussion, and featuring an organ that bounces through the song like a superball, “Mama Roux” boasts the usual host of female backup singers repeating “Mama Roux” while Dr. John fills the spaces in between with some truly cryptic lyrics: “If you see a spy, boy, sittin’ in the bush/Mess ’em on the head, give him a push/Get out the dishes, get out the pans/Oh he’s a pheasant for the medicine man.” Towards the end the backup singers commence chanting, “Chica chica chica chica/Chica chica chica chica,” which the good doctor follows with some inspired nonsense: “Wham bam thank you ma’am/Come on boy now follow me/Singin’ wham bam hangin’ ham/Come on boy now follow me/Wham bam scram Sam/Come on boy now follow me” as the song fades out.

The great “Danse Fambeaux” is one extended groove, and opens with trilling mandolin, some cool rock guitar riffs, tambourine, and a little whistling, after which some male backup singers repeat “Steak a la gris gris/The limbo, the limbo” as Dr. John leaps in, sings some, makes a pig noise, then sucks in his breath and blows it out. After that things get really strange; female backup singers vie with male backup singers as Dr. John sings, “Never do a limbo behind red beans and rice,” a church bell tolls for don’t ask who, and Dr. John and the male backup singers go back in forth in what I can only assume is Creole, Dr. John at one point spitting out the same word six or seven times in a row as the song marches on, a tambourine rattling away, until a final fade out featuring more funereal church bells, some whistling, and the female backup singers chanting, “Steak a la gris gris” over and over again.

“Croker Courtbullion”—which was written by Battiste—is my least favorite track on Gris Gris. A verging-on-smooth-jazz flute-fest that moves along at a sprightly clip, but never escapes its oily, easy-listening vibe, “Croker Courbullion” is almost (but not quite) redeemed by its increasingly frenetic jazz guitar; weird assortment of squawks, coos, hisses, and other weird noises; and Dr. John’s baroque organ solo. But then I hear the backing vocals, and they remind me of the Burt Bacharach 8-tracks my mom used to play during the days I played hooky by pretending to be ill, presumably to deter me from ever doing so again, and I want to be sick, for real this time. Nor does it help that I’ve yet to meet a flute solo I didn’t want to instantaneously silence, and not by lifting the stylus—that would require my getting off the sofa—but by blasting the palooka playing it with a sawed-off shotgun.

“Jump Sturdy” is probably the most traditionally structured song on the LP—it has, like, verses and choruses and everything. It’s also the only song off Gris Gris I could ever conceive of as a single. Perky and perfect for hopping around to, “Jump Sturdy” opens with the rattlesnake shaking of a tambourine and a male/female chorus singing, “Jump Sturdy/Jump Sturdy/Was her name/She came out the swamps like a crazy fool,” at which point Dr. John throws in a growling “Jump Sturdy!” or two then goes on to sing, “People say she used to dance with the fish/Some people say she juggled fire in a dish/Clear day on the bayou St. John/She raised her hands and caused a ‘lectrical storm.” The song features great mandolin, some odd knocking, and very shambolic drumming, but doesn’t end well for poor Jump Sturdy, who “Got tangled up with Queen Julia Jackson/Down on Melba, meeting near Rattle Street/Queen Julia Jackson dropped a Zozo Labrique/And Jump Sturdy died with her soul in defeat.” I can’t swear to the accuracy of the lyrics pertaining to Zozo Labrique—they’re every bit as hard to comprehend and in dispute as Finnegan’s Wake—but I can say I enjoy “Jump Sturdy” almost as much as Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” and Van Halen’s “Jump,” which is very high praise indeed.

Album-closer “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” is a signature song of sorts for Rebennack, and no wonder—a hypnotic, almost 8-minute conga-and finger-snap-driven dread drone, it features Dr. John at his gris-gris man best, walking through fire and flying through smoke, boasting all the while of his dark powers (“J’suis le Grand Zombie “) and uttering grim threats: “Put gris-gris on your doorstep/Soon you’ll be in the gutter/Melt your heart like butter/A-a-and I can make you stutter.” Meanwhile a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding horn weaves itself sinuously through the song while Dr. John, echoed by female backup singers, repeats, “Til I burn up” and “Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come/Walk on guilded splinters” as the congas conga on and the occasional solitary drum beat sounds like a call to make for St. Louis Cemetery #1 for a midnight black mass. “Guilded Splinters” finally fades out to the sound of Dr. John crying, “Til’ I burn up!” then slipping seamlessly into patois as the backup singers repeat the chorus in a near whisper, then make hissing sibilant sounds and sleep noises (why sleep? no clue).

Dr. John has released an extraordinary number of great songs in the 55 years that have elapsed since Gris Gris, including “The Time Had Come,” “Trader John,” “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Qualified,” “Such a Night,” “Familiar Reality,” “Where Ya At Mule,” and dozens upon dozens more. But none of them reek of the swamp, burnt offerings, and boiling voodoo potions the way the songs on Gris Gris do. For a brief period in the late sixties one Mac Rebennack dared to walk on gilded splinters and fly through smoke, and in so doing created the only album the Devil himself has been known to dance to, a solitary figure on the uppermost ironwork gallery of his candle-lit winter mansion at the intersection of Royal and St. Peter streets, high above the drunken revelers thronging the vampire-infested environs of the Vieux Carré.


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