Dr. John’s Dr. Johnston, Mad Props for the Malaprops

 

 

Polonius:  What do you read, my lord?

 Hamlet: Words, words, words.

 

Samuel Johnston in 1755-ish published the first ever dictionary in English.  He accomplished this Herculean feat single-handedly.

Imagine, idle reader, the enormity of the project.  How would you go about collecting words and defining them with no dictionary to consult? Would you start with aardvark and work your way alphabetically to zygote or start with verbs, assembling the gamut, so to speak, from states of being to acts of doing, and once you’d worked your way from is to zapped, would you then turn to the vast realm of nouns?

I ain’t know cause my mind be blown.

In 1994 with the help of a writer named Jack Rummel, Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennack) published an autobiography entitled Under a Hoodoo Moon.

Like Samuel Johnson, Dr. John, who just now died June 6, was a lover of locutions.  Like James Joyce, Mac, the Dr. (also known as the Nite Tripper) found the English language inadequate for his needs.

“So weenybeenyveenyteeny.”   James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

“Posilutely honorifficatedly medicatedly doctoratedly yours thank you.  Dr. John, from the liner notes of Desitively Bonneroo.

Sam Johnson was an eccentric. Obsessive, compulsive.   Before crossing the threshold of door, he’d go through a series of ritualistic gesticulations and when walking down the street feel compelled to touch every single post he passed.

Mac Rebennack was also an eccentric and was no stranger to wild gyratin-i-ficatin’,  as he might put it.

I’m now reading Under a Hoodoo Moon, and it occurs to me that I could honor these two doctor heroes of mine by doing a little lexicography myself, i.e., by compiling a Dr. John dictionary, a handy go-to reference when you run across a term like junk-a-dope-a-nals  or marygeranium.

The project is underway, and of course, I’ll publish it here, free of charge, despite Dr. Johnson’s oft-quoted observation: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

But, as Dr. John says, “You can’t shut the fonk up.  No, the fonk got a mind of its own.

Caricature of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Goodnight, Dr. John, May Flights of Brass Bands Blow Thee to Thy Rest

 

dr john keeper

Okay, Mac Rebennack’s dead, which means so is Dr. John, which means no more gumbo music, no more funkificated word coinages, no more “mos’ scociouses,” no more “desitively bonnaroos.”

Unique is too weak a word.  Dig this from his Nite Tripper days:

Although Dr. John put on great shows right up until recently (I’ve seen him three times over the last twenty years), I think his best album is 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo.  Music critic Nick Deriso: “Even today, there’s really no roadmap for the crazy-eyed co-mingling of R&B, jazz, island beats, blues, boogie funk and hoodoo whackadoo splashed across this LP, recorded alongside fellow New Orleans legends Allen Toussaint and the Meters more than 35 years ago.”

I still got the copy I copped from a sidewalk record sale in ’76.  Take a peek at the musicians, if you’re interested, while you listen to a snippet of the title song.

The first time I saw Dr. John live was at an outdoor street festival, again in Columbia, and I’ll never forget his entrance, sporting canary yellow socks, bopping his cane on the sidewalk, strut-dancing his way up the piano to play and croak and banter.

After Katrina, my friends Jake, Keith, and my late wife Judy Birdsong saw him at the Newberry Opera house.  You could see Katrina had taken a toll, and he kept saying throughout the show, “They put me on psych meds.”  That was back in his way-over-weight days, and he occasionally got up from the piano and do these gyrations that didn’t quite qualify as a dance.

In 2013, I saw him for the last time at the Leaf Festival where he played the guitar. He had started out as a guitarist until he got a finger shot in a scuffle and turned to the piano.

dr on guitar

photo by Wesley Moore

Given his hanging out in smokey bars and strip clubs since his teens, his three-decade heroin addiction, his doing some time in prison, I doubt that Mac would ever dream he’d make it to 77, a lucky number.  At any rate, he follows Professor Longhair, Earl King, and James Booker, whom Dr. John once described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”

So long, old friend. Gonna miss your music, gonna miss your rap.

jb_tragedy

James Booker