When Mac Rebennack died on June 6, we lost more than a musical force. We lost a “voodoo priest” who could see the big picture and focused his powers on bringing the earth back in balance. Chris Simunek met Dr. John in 2012 when he was leading a ceremony to cleanse the Gulf of Mexico of dark forces in the wake of a massive oil spill. Their conversation seems a fitting tribute to Dr. John.
Early in 2012—the year the Mayan apocalypse was supposed to happen but didn’t—I was contacted by photographer James Demaria who told me that on the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John was going to be hosting a voodoo ceremony that would aim its dark magick wand towards the skullfuckers at British Petroleum and then cleanse the shores of Louisiana with white witch energy. This guy Demaria told me he could get me close enough to the ritual that I could maybe catch the spiritual afterbirth in my own hands.
So I bought Demaria’s premise and actually funded it with someone else’s money, but the blood orgy I was looking forward to participating in turned out to be more of a three-day drum circle followed by a second line through the French Quarter. Still pretty cool. I got to spend a weekend in the Louisiana woods with Dr. John battling the dark forces of the meat-world with song and prayer. That this was going to purge the local waters was a longshot, I know, but in the face of the oil spill’s ecological devastation—including but not limited to oysters that glowed florescent under UV light, lobsters covered with purple tumors, and shrimp born without eyes—Dr. John at least had a plan whereas two years on, the world beyond the Gulf didn’t even have a sigh.
Dr. John playing “Right Place Wrong Time” in 2012:
Over his 70-plus years on the planet, Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr., had laid claim to the various titles of musician, producer, author, drug addict, pimp, second-story man, convict and voodoo priest. I met him for the first time in a bunkhouse in the Fontainebleau State Park north of New Orleans, where the ceremony was being held. He was a slow creature, entering a room cautiously, like a cat that had squandered eight lives and was determined to hold on to the ninth. He told me stories about how he used to move heroin across the Mexican border for the mob, and how he was once ordered to kill someone but didn’t want to, so he shot him in the leg and still felt bad about it to that day. I mentioned that I’d come down from New York to witness the great Dr. John conjure some magick to heal the Gulf. From beneath his scally cap, he cocked a single eye at me and responded in his gravestone voice, “Doctor John’s not going to heal the Gulf—we’re all going to heal the Gulf.” Then he walked off toward the beating drums and the fire’s light, our conversation to be continued.
Two days later I interviewed him on a picnic bench early enough in the morning that the sun was still behind the trees. Since the moment I met him, I had been fascinated by the walking stick he carried, a tall staff ornamented by crosses, beads, feathers, idols, bones, teeth, skulls and containers of mysterious powders. I had to touch it.
Chris: Tell me about your cane. It looks like more than just a regular walking stick.
Dr. John: You can look at it and see what you think.
Chris: Oh yeah?
Dr. John: You can ask me about it, anything.
Chris: How about this sack?
Dr. John: It’s a medicine sack.
Chris: And that’s the Hindu god Shiva?
Dr. John: Mmmhmmm
Chris: What about these skulls?
Dr. John: There are more skulls here. Look around more. There are plenty of skulls.
How come I meet so many people who are over-concerned with death? What the fuck are you even worrying about it? If you live good, you die good.
Chris: How about the cane itself?
Dr. John: I bought this one at the Angola rodeo. It’s made in Angola Penitentiary. Convicts need a little money, whether you need a pack of cigarettes or whatever. It’s a very Africanized stick. The guy that made it, he had a lot of African roots. We have to respect all our roots.
Chris: Are these feathers from specific birds?
Dr. John: Mmmhmmm.
Chris: I like this green and orange one here.
Dr. John: Yeah, that’s a parrot. [pointing to a large dangling tooth] This is something special to me because it’s from a 17-foot crawlagator [sic]…
Chris: Oh yeah?
Dr. John: Yeah. We’re watching him disappear just like we watch the turtles disappear. We watch nature going crazy because of disrespect from man. There’s no balance on this Earth because of some stupid nonsense. They wanna spray bugs. Who came up with that idea? I’m sure it was some American Medical Association guy or some chemical association guy or some goddamned Monsantos and all of these fucking people. Hell. What is their shit all about? They’re gonna tell me, I need to take this this, this, and this to kill pain? Shit, I know ways to kill pain. That ain’t gonna fuckin’ help the deal. We all think we found the answer somewhere and it turns out to be another problem.
Chris: Where are the bones from?
Dr. John: Oh, different critters. Coons and squirrels. Almost everything I eat. I love to eat game.
Dr. John: I don’t care what kind of game it is.
Chris: You like squirrel?
Dr. John: I love it. If I told you what my favorite part of a squirrel is you might not like it.
Chris: Tell me.
Dr. John: Brains.
Chris: Oh yeah?
Dr. John: Mmmhmmm. I love squirrel brains. I just attack them. My friend Wardell, he was the only guy I knew that loved ‘em like I did. Wardell Querzergue, he did all the great arrangements. The guy was known as the Creole Beethoven.
Chris: I could look at this thing all day. This is a Narcotics Anonymous badge?
Dr. John: Mmmhmmm.
Chris: Does it indicate a certain time period sober?
Dr. John: Multiple years. We all have shit that’s fucked up in our heads, we all have shit that’s fucked up in our bodies, whatever. There’s a lot of things that we have confuseness [sic] about. It took me a lot of incidents to get past it all and I’m grateful I did. One of the things that makes me the most grateful is that I have met people that are spiritually blessed. You ain’t going to meet them in the game. You know the ends of the game? Jails, institutions and death.
Chris: I heard that the idea for this ceremony came from a vision you had. Can you tell me about it?
Dr. John: I have a lot of dead friends who come to me in my dreams. And my dear friend Charlie Stein came to me in one and took me to another galaxy or somewhere—I haven’t a clue where—he just grabbed my hand and took me somewhere and the next thing I saw was living things in the sky. That was one of a lot of things that were happening at the time. I started having more visions, I dreamed of the people, they came to me… coming and gathering, being united. And once they’re united, what? They can’t be divided. Amazing.
It’s a sacred thing when we’re talking about the waters, when we’re talking about the air… We need everything to balance this planet. Hey, if we don’t have the water, where we going to get the air? If we don’t have the earth, how we gonna live? If we don’t have the fire, where do we get our balances from? Fire, air, earth and water. North, east, west, south. All of those things have something to do with where we’re at, what we do, and it matters a big difference that we understand the place where we live which we, on a daily basis, trash. If we don’t take the hand of command, do something with people, become one, we’re fucked.
Chris: It’s time to get our priorities in order.
Dr. John: You said the right word. When your prioritaries [sic] is out of order, it’s very difficult to see where “in order” is. We live in a place where there’s not too much of any of that around. Most people think if they have a two-car garage they should have two cars. What is that about? Do they own a taxicab company? No.
But way more important, at least from where I see it, is the total lack of spiritual values placed on anything. How come I meet so many people who are over-concerned with death? What the fuck are you even worrying about it? If you live good, you die good. You’re not supposed to be worried about it. Something’s crazy with this world. Something distortion about all of that. People are not giving spiritual values first as a prioritary [sic]. Where do they give it? Money values. Meat-world values. What you ate today is not the most important thing if everything else is wrong in your life.
North, east, west, south. All of those things have something to do with where we’re at, what we do, and it matters a big difference that we understand the place where we live which we, on a daily basis, trash. If we don’t take the hand of command, do something with people, become one, we’re fucked.
Chris: What would you say to doubters? People who say, “Mac, you’re here, you’re banging on drums and you’re saying your prayers but the oil is still going to be in the gulf when you’ve finished?”
Dr. John: All I know is we pray. We do our work. I think that some of the people that have made it by [the ceremony] are very spiritual people. Chief Arvol Looking Horse… Each person that comes contributes something to help us on the right path. It’s hard to try to stay on this path when you live in a world that is so meat-world orientalated [sic]. So you talk to some elders… you talk to some people that are about spiritual things. What do you get? A different picture of something. It might be this little, it might be that big, but when you get that picture, it’ll make you grow. I watch people, it’s like they’re dead, they have no spiritual anything about them. At least I can talk to your ass and ya know one thing. I relate to what you’re about. I relate to what a lot of peoples are about because I know a little things about the streets, I know a little things about the meat-world—when you operate in it, you see it. I’ve been through a long road space of time here. I’m trying to pray through it and keep going. And we’re going. My strongest feeling is that if we get past certain road blocks, certain land mines that’s out there for us, we can do it, and I know that all things are possible with prayer. I’m just one little guy you know? Like a little bitty ant in a red ant nest, I can aggravate the piss out of ya. I wanna be of service. If you ain’t of service, what the fuck are you?