I had been looking forward to including something by Mac Rebennack , better known as Dr John, in this blog for two reasons – firstly, because his best songs are terrific and, secondly and less importantly, he was alive. It’s a gloomy fact that many of my Friday Songs have been by people who are now playing the big gig in the sky.
Too late. Last week, on 6th June, Dr John joined that chorus.
He was 77, and that in itself was impressive. I saw him playing at a small venue in New York during the 1980s and he looked in bad shape then – apparently he kicked a heroin habit in 1989. In this 2010 interview for Time magazine, he looked considerably better than he had 25 years before.
Until 1976, Dr John had for me been one of those great counter-culture figures I knew about – his was a hip name to drop in the late 1960s – but rarely listened to. His astonishing, show-stopping performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, playing his song ‘Such a Night’ with The Band changed all that.
‘Y’all know the Doctor?’ Robbie Robertson announces from the stage, and a big, bearded figure with an absurd bow-tie ambles on to the stage and sits down at at the piano. There’s probably just three minutes of ‘Such a Night’ but from the moment it opens with a brief piano intro and the sexy major to minor first line, the atmosphere of the show lifts.
‘Such a night. Such a night…’
Even at the time, it seemed to cut through the rock solemnity of the occasion. It’s a song of such gamy badness, such unashamed randiness, all played with effortlessly bluesy piano and a twinkling, evil smile, that it couldn’t – and can’t – fail to make everyone feel better.
‘Your eyes caught mine, and at a glance
You let me know that this was my chance
But you came here with my best friend Jim
And here I am, tryin’ to steal you away from him…’
And then one of the great singalong lines of the 1970s – one that, in retrospect, goes a long way to sum of the spirit of the decade.
‘If I don’t do it, somebody else will…’
I’ve dropped in and out of love with Dr John since then. Some of his stuff is too raw for me (‘Walk on Gilded Splinters‘, for example), and when I read about his funk phase, I just-know it’s not going to be for me. There’s a good blog about this phase of his career here.
I like him best when he’s playing that unmistakable New Orleans style of piano, preferably unaccompanied, and singing songs which feel personal, heartfelt and direct – ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ is one, as is this week’s Friday Song ‘Your Average Kind of Guy’.
As far as I can discover – it’s not one of the Doctor’s better-known songs – this was co-written with the great Doc Pomus who helped write some of the greatest pop songs of the past half-century.
‘I’m overworked and underpaid
Under loved and overlaid
Oh, me, me oh, my
I’m your average kind of guy…’
From its opening lines, the lyrics of ‘Your Average Kind of Guy’ are clearly going to reach a place rarely visited by songwriters – the daily, unsatisfactory grind of everyday life. I love the jaunty cynicism of the tune and the Randy Newmanesque, take-no-prisoners bitterness of the lyrics.
‘I hate my job and I hate my wife
I hate my house and I hate my life
I love to drink and I love to play
I love to make love each and every day…’
Few writers can capture in music and words the mess, frustrations and bad behaviour of life and yet convey hope, humour and love. There has been no one quite like Dr John, the Night Tripper.