Considering rock 'n' roll's dual emphasis on the individual male singer, its roll call of great, instantly identifiable male voices is surprisingly short: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Robert Plant--even allowing for borderline calls like the solo Beatles, the list barely comes to a dozen. All of which puts Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, the possessor of a great, instantly identifiable rock 'n' roll voice if ever there was one, in some very select company.
Those who doubt Rebennack's qualifications need only listen to Anutha Zone, his new album for Virgin Records and the twenty-fourth official solo release (give or take a live album or compilation or two) of his long and varied career. His most commercial offering in more than a decade, Anutha Zone finds him not only giving slyly sinister voice to his trademark voodoo-inflected musings but also doing so amid some uncharacteristically hip accompaniment.
On paper, with two tracks apiece featuring the British tripsters Spiritualized ("Hello God," "John Gris"), members of Portishead and Primal Scream ("Voices in My Head," "Sweet Home New Orleans"), and Paul Weller, Jools Holland, and other assorted Britrockers ("Party Hellfire," John Martyn's "I Don't Wanna Know About Evil"), the album looks like a desperation move--the Dr. John equivalent of a Frank Sinatra-duets album. On the CD player, however, Anutha Zone cuts a warm, funky groove, the richness of which is, if anything, enhanced by the pop savvy of the Doctor's youthful collaborators.
"I was familiar with Supergrass and Primal Scream because my kids listen to their records," says Rebennack, "and I'd recorded with Jools Holland and some of the other people [he appears on Spiritualized's 1997 album, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating], but I wasn't familiar with Portishead, and I hadn't heard Ocean Colour Scene or the Beta Band. John Leckie, my producer, said, 'Well, we'll try this, and if it works, cool. If not, we'll just go do a record with your band in the States.'"
They ended up doing both. "We cut half the record at Abbey Road Studios in London. Then I had to come back to do some gigs in the States, and at the end of those, I caught the flu. So instead of going back to London, we cut tracks in New York with my band." The album's transatlantic plot thickened. "John started mixing the stuff we'd cut at Abbey Road in New York. Then, when we went back to gig in Europe, he started mixing the stuff we'd cut in New York at the Townhouse Studio in London. By using real studio tricknology he made it all sound real cohesive."
Rebennack will turn fifty-six, fifty-seven, or fifty-eight this fall (depending on whether one believes his Virgin bio, his autobiography, or The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll respectively--"I'm not too good at names, dates, and places," he chuckles), and he uses words like "tricknology" a lot. His vocabulary, like his hometown of New Orleans, bears the traces of many traditions and subcultures.
Rebennack has traveled down more back roads, dark alleys, and dead ends than most Grammy-winning legends of indeterminate age. These travels were the subject of his 1994 as-told-to autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon (St. Martin's). In it, Rebennack shared details about his New Orleans upbringing, his days in the mid-'60's as an El-Lay session musician (On Sonny Bono: "[E]very song he wrote used the same two chords over and over"; on Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound": "[I]n New Orleans we put out just as much sound with only six guys"), and his nearly life-long heroin habit, which he finally kicked in 1989.
According to Rebennack, he dictated the book to his co-author, Jack Rummel under both financial duress and the influence of "lithium poisoning." "There's a lot of confusement over things I put and didn't put in that book," he explains in typical Dr. John slang. "It was writ in the situate where I was on a drug called lithium that I didn't know I was being poisoned by at the time. If I hadn't been in the jackpot coming out of a rehab owing the IRS a whole bunch of money--I couldn't even pay the band--I probably would've waited a while to write it. But that's how life is. You do what you do when you do it, and it's done and did-with now."
One statement in the book that he still stands by is his contention that he's more of a "shucker" than a singer. "I consider Johnny Adams and Aaron Neville singers. Art Neville's a singer. Chuck Carbo's a singer. Jimmy Scott's a singer. Whatever knowledge I have of singing comes from being a songwriter and showing singers my songs from back in the game." In other words, when he worked as a studio musician, songwriter, and producer. "I wrote a lot of songs, and I could shuck my way through them enough to show somebody where I thought the melody and the groove should go. What gave me the balls to sing was hearing some early Bob Dylan records and working sessions with Sonny and Cher. When I did the first Dr. John record, I was planning to get [the New Orleans singer] Ronnie Barron to be Dr. John, but that didn't work out, so I just got an attitude and did it. I figured it'd be a one-off deal. I didn't have a clue that thirty-some years later I'd still be doing that."
About his piano playing he remains more confident. It's his piano playing, in fact, that lands him more session work than practically any other big-name musician. One recent on-line search of his in-print appearances turned up ninety-eight albums, most of them by other artists. Still, as he nears the completion of his first heroin-free decade in years, it's his own plans that occupy his time. Anutha Zone itself was a Plan B. "A couple of years ago, some people were talking to me about doing a record with Dr. Henry Butler, a great piano player from New Orleans, and a record with Little Jimmy Scott. It didn't work out, but I thought it was one of my better ideas for a production at the time, and I'd still like to do it. Nobody had told me the idea was dumped anyways by the label, but then the people that makes records is usually the last ones to know something."
That's another theme of his book that Rebennack still stands by: the perfidy of the music industry. "Since I've been away from my old lifestyle, everything's been easier because it's more pleasant, but it ain't nothing to do with the business, and it ain't nothing to do with financially. I just live different." He pauses, then adds, "It's like the music is killer, but the business really sucks a big one."
Whether or not the music business really does suck a big one, Rebennack is certainly right about one thing: His current music is killer. Here's hoping that, his restless muse to the contrary, he spends a little more time in Anutha Zone before moving on.