It was always the right place, never the wrong time, to hear Dr. John

There may never have been a more oddly mesmerizing musical stage presence than Dr. John. The outlandish, stunningly talented New Orleans music legend died June 6 at age 77, more than 60 years after his first professional gigs. To watch him on stage was to understand how genius and a form of madness can easily coincide.

Dr. John, born Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack, was flamboyantly funky with a stage voodoo persona complete with walking stick featuring what I thought was a snake’s head, but what the New York Times identified as “voodoo beads, a yak bone, an alligator tooth and key rings from Narcotics Anonymous.” His musicianship owed much to the unique New Orleans melding of R&B, boogie-woogie, and percussive funk, with occasional hints of his early psychedelic rock phase. But his sensibilities inhabited a bizarro world: Imagine, perhaps, Warren Zevon and Louis Armstrong somehow melding into one.

You had to see it and hear it to believe it.

This has been a tough three weeks for New Orleans. Dr. John’s death comes on the heels of the passing of famed chef, civil rights icon, and arts patron Leah Chase, which came just a fortnight after the demise of New Orleans media favorite Ronnie Virgets.

Virgets and Rebennack were childhood running buddies. Virgets once wrote a markedly endearing column about how he and his buddy Rebennack once happened into a downtown music instrument store and started fiddling with the piano keys. Virgets thought they were just cutting up, the way young boys do. Rebennack, whose father sold records as a side business, had other ideas.

For Rebennack, despite his later top-10 hit “Right Place, Wrong Time,” this was the right place and time together. Thus did Rebennack start on the path to becoming Dr. John, while Virgets had to be satisfied with becoming a storyteller and racetrack railbird.

Only New Orleans produces such characters in such wild abundance. Only in New Orleans do their potholed paths cross and recross with quite such frequent randomness. Or with such humor.

Listen, if you will, to Dr. John singing “How come my dog don’t bark when you come around?” Listen, and chuckle, and marvel. There always was a sly, engaging drollery behind Dr. John’s staged barking madness.

This article was originally published on June 9, 2019 in The Washington Examiner.

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