Back to Bonnaroo: Dr. John, The Night Tripper’s Triumphant Return (2006)
This year at Bonnaroo Dr. John and The Original Meters will perform the Desitively Bonnaroo album. Five years ago Dr. John appeared at the fest in his Night Tripper persona. Our Back to Bonnaroo series continues as we present this 2006 pre-fest conversation with the legendary musician.
A brief video clip of the Night Tripper at Bonnaroo 2006
Malcolm John “Dr. John” Rebennack has seen a hell of a lot in his 50 years in the music business. He started his studio career at 14 when his teacher couldn’t go to a session. He cut his first record in 1956. His life and his career have gone up and down. He speaks a patois all his own. In the late 1950’s, he was shot, but switched to piano and recovered. Last year, after Hurricane Katrina killed his nephew and drowned many parts of his city, Dr. John, a native of the Third Ward, found himself forced into the role of musical ambassador for the city that had suffered the worst natural disaster in the history of the country. On the Super Bowl, and closing benefit concerts, Dr. John reminded the audience of everything they loved about the city: the music, the atmosphere, and the sheer confluence of influences that made New Orleans one of the most vibrant and unique cities on the planet.
With his 1968 album Gris-Gris, a new persona was invented, named “Dr. John the Night Tripper” after an old voodoo shaman. Wild dancing, on-stage chaos, voodoo facepaint, outlandish costume, and swampy music came to characterize this period, and Dr. John has not played under this name for over 30 years. Dr. John represents the spirit of Bonnaroo, in part for having indirectly named the festival with his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo (Bonnaroo is Cajun for “a real good time). Thus it is fitting that his resurrection of the Night Tripper occurred on the festival grounds in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning. The following interview (excerpted in the Bonnaroo Beacon) took place a few days before the fest.
TH: Who is the Night Tripper, and how is he different from Dr. John? Why is he coming back to life now after being dormant for over 30 years?
MR: Ain’t no difference. It’s all one sucka in there however you want to break it down, I keep everything very simple. We been asked over a lot of years basically we haven’t had all our stuff brung up from old shows back from a long time ago. It was too much a hassle to put it all back together, so I just kind of shelved it for a long time.
I find it’s a kick to be playing for the Bonnaroo Festival, and I feel it’s connected behind the ,Desitively Bonnaroo thing, and I think this is somehow left-fieldly connected to the the old kind of set that we haven’t done in a while, and I think the band’ll get a kick out of it, and we’ll just bring something different just for that set, and that’ll be something people talk about, you caught it there, and that’s that. I’m gonna have Rev. Gold with me, we’ve got the dancers, the whole maneuver.
TH: Your new album Mercernary was inspired by the songs of Johnny Mercer, and you said you found you had a lot in common with him from reading his autobiography. What do y’all share?
MR: I had to hustle out of left-field to stay in this business, cause I was never musically trained or I wasn’t a lot of things. I just was around good guys at school, right. So, he had it because he always had a desire to be like one of them studs getting songs on Broadway. Well, I got songs in movies out of left field just because of the way it is today. I never even thought about it, but there was a thing about how it worked out. He landed out of left-field, and I landed where I landed out of left-field. And my life has landed me out of left field, into the bleachers, the parking lot wherever I landed, and it was never in my original plan.
When I became Dr. John the Night Tripper I had the idea for the record but I was gonna have somebody else do it. The guy wanted to but his manager didn’t like the idea, and I just hit the wall. I got aggravated, and my conga player, Didymus, said “Look, you know if Bob Dylan, and if Sonny & Cher can sing, then you can sing, right. You just do it. To hell with all of that.” So that was his attitude, and I figured, well, I had to respect my elders.
TH: Do you remember the first record you cut?
MR: The first record I made as an artist, I cut it in 1956. It was called “Storm Warning”. My first session, I’m not sure, I just know it was subbing for “Papoose” Nelson. I’m not sure whose session it was, but it was back when I was playing the guitar before I got shot in my finger, and that’s what I can remember.
TH: How did you get shot?
MR: A guy was trying to pistol-whip the singer with the band, and the guy’s mama said she wouldn’t like it if something happened to her son. So I was thinking about that, and went to get the gun. I thought my hand was over the handle but it was over the barrel, and that’s life.
TH: Was the piano something that you learned afterwards or did you know how to play it beforehand?
MR: My auntie taught me how to play the piano as a little kid. She showed me how to play some boogie-woogie stuff and all. But I knew I’d never get a job in New Orleans playin’ no piano with all them bad piano players around. Everybody, every neighborhood had bad piano players. I wanted to play music, so I figured that’s how I’m gonna get me a job learn the guitar.