“Aint afraid of no tom cat, fill my brains with poison.”
The Lizard points to an advertisement on the tube train written in Spanish.
“What does that say?”
The Lizard is half Italian. His dad owned a restaurant in Hook, which was frequented by the likes of The Stones and Bowie, in the `80s, before tax exiled them. Signed photographs used to decorate the walls. He studied Spanish at Uni and spent a year riding a scooter through the narrow streets and standing up bars of Malaga. For two or three minutes I squint in silence trying to translate the text, then I notice that the English version of the ad is posted next to the Spanish. I read out the English.
“How did you do that?”
“The English is next to the Spanish.”
The Lizard is cracking up laughing. This kind of gurgle / snort he does as he sucks air in behind his teeth. It`s Summer. Rather than go away anywhere we have both taken a week off work and with a bag full of records I`ve moved into The Lizard`s off Upper Street with the intention of spending it hitting record shops and the mid-week clubs that jobs and lack of self restraint usually prevent us from visiting. Balanced on my head is a child-sized baseball cap that I found in The Lizard`s spare room – along with a Polaroid of him in make-up and his girlfriend`s underwear – and have completely forgotten I have on. Around my left nostril is a large ring of white powder. It`s before lunch. I`ve already amused the staff of the Islington branch of Reckless Records in this condition. Looking for promos. They said nothing. We are now on our way to Covent Garden and Soho. We have a load of weed, a bag of pills and we bought an ounce of coke off Colin. We are two days in.
Colin had arrived after me on the Sunday night. I`d never met Colin but I`d heard about him. Caught conversations almost out of earshot. He was a friend of The Lizard`s older brother Peter. All of Pete`s friends seemed to be weirdoes. The last one I`d met, Mark, had offered me a coke joint that looked like it had been constructed from a toilet roll, and, as he explained to me how to inhale correctly, told me how he was experimenting with homosexuality at The Ministry Of Sound. Told me that you couldn`t really get Garage unless you were gay. Colin was a sort of handsome Ferrari mechanic, who until the ecstasy revolution had lived a normal life. With the advent of the Ministry Of Sound and E he came out in every way, and then started dealing. As you do. Pete met him at his city office which was owned by a smooth, but real gangster-type, and where everyone was basically a complete headcase. Colin used to stop by to deal and fix cars, and eventually the latter only. When the office went bust, the boss fled to Argentina. Colin was in an incestuous relationship with his sister, which he allegedly flaunted, groping her in public. The couple shared a council flat in Elephant & Castle with Martin, who had brought Colin over on his bike. Both of them in black leathers. Martin, was a recovering heroin addict who had taken up body building. Incredibly intense, with an unshakeable stare, he appeared to have no sense of humour, but I got the feeling that there was a lovely person in there, somewhere. Martin took off his leathers and did bicep pumps with The Lizard`s dumb bells while Colin went about his show. Very often the man has a show. Not always, but nearly always.
“Hey amico mio, what do you have to drink?”
The Lizard ends up opening a bottle of champagne. I`m saying nothing. Introductions haven`t been asked for. I`m not sure Colin can even see me. He kind of crashes down onto the coffee table, outstretched glass first. I was sure it would shatter. He takes out our gear. He then takes out his gear, and as he knocks himself out a couple of lines, me and The Lizard shoot each other a quick look. Shit. He`s gonna stay. Colin then chops out lines for everyone. Accept and you are opening yourself up to a potentially long night, a captive audience for a drug dealer`s ego / sadism. Decline and you may possibly offend said drug dealer, and since you just bought a weight, on what grounds are you declining? We just wanted to get high and play records. Without the weirdoes.
We take the lines. Colin takes our cash.
“Thanks guys. Enjoy.”
Bravado wins out. Our relief hopefully not palpable. An ounce. We were going to sell half to an older work mate of The Lizard`s.
“Imagine still doing coke in your forties.”
In the queue for the Drum Club on Thursday, we meet Craig. Meet isn`t really the right word, since Craig doesn`t know who we are other than we regularly buy records from him. He pushes in with us, is sullen, and responds only to questions about his upcoming DJ gigs. He has a large boil on his right cheek. He ditches us as soon as we get in. Heaven is perhaps predictably sparsely populated. It is a Thursday. Young straight guys jump around to Underworld`s Cow Girl. The Sanctuary below is packed and seems exclusively gay. I have fallen into a wide-eyed stoned wonder as is often my want. When a boy comes up to us at the bar and says,
“You look like a pussy cat.”
The Lizard hits hm with a huge smile and replies, “You look like a tiger.”, showing his teeth and clawing the air between them.
By around midnight on Friday, we`ve both had enough. We`ve exhausted the dream. Dates and clocks rendered meaningless. Despite our intake, we agree that we no longer feel high, just vaguely seedy and definitely dirty. In need of sunlight. I`m packing my things, getting ready to call a cab. I can`t wait to get home, and The Lizard wants to sleep, but for others the weekend is starting and they know we have drugs. The phone keeps ringing. Everyone is on the way. The Lizard`s girlfriend`s younger sister is over with her friends trying to buy weed. We`ve been warned to sell them, give them, nothing. I`ve been too out of it for too long to even notice the implications of the situation, but The Lizard has and pours them all wine. The coke is thankfully gone. It had become our sole purpose to finish it. I have three pills left. A balding guy who looks like Max Schreck from Murnau`s Nosferatu is sitting in an armchair, rushing. I`ve got no idea how he got there. I give them to him.
Back in the early 1990s when I first heard Andrew Weatherall play Dr. John’s I Walk On Gilded Splinters it was a “Wow” moment. The way-past-midnight drug-addled Gospel came out of the radio at 3AM, and I was hooked on its heavily opiated otherness. I could instantly hear its influence in Weatherall`s work with Primal Scream. Higher Than The Sun especially. Its queasy, uneasy ambience and a chemical imbalance. The song even boasted of it. Filled its chalice with it, and became another anthem that seemed to justify the path I`d chosen.
I mail-ordered a CD reissue from British label Demon, which I eventually managed to trade with a Dutch friend and R&B collector for vinyl. You needed the vinyl to fully appreciate the cover. I`m not sure what the intended market was upon its 1968 release. Since the photograph on the front has the good doctor looking like Frankenstein`s hunchbacked assistant, Igor, in a hippy wig gone-a-week-of-being-slept-in, back-combed and back-lit by bright yellows and reds. Thrown in Psychedelic shadow, twisted and, frankly, terrifying. One Glastonbury night I lost a mate, Gavin, while tripping. When he turned up the next morning, battered and suffering in the sunlight, with his face painted in day-glo green runes (he had met some “artistic” girls) he looked like Dr. John on the cover of that record. When I finally got to see Dr. John live I`d been warned by the Dutch guy to be prepared for disappointment. Any danger had been replaced by showmanship and staged razzamattazz. There were no junkies or high priestesses in the audience, only middle class rugby chaps. I remember Tom Waits dissing the doctor for allowing his music to be used to sell loo rolls. I guess that was the point of “crossover”. Like Waits – who famously sued Frito-Lay when they mimicked him in a commercial – Dr. John’s style was so distinctive that it was easy to parody or lampoon. He must have figured that he might as well do it himself and pocket the cash. Born Mac Rebennack, in New Orleans, he`d already lived the life of dealer, addict and pimp. When he finally got clean in the late 80s maybe he just didn’t care about that shit anymore. So forgive him the songs for Disney and Curious George.
A protegee of Professor Longhair and Harold Battiste, Mac was playing sessions, producing and writing Rock & Roll hits, by the age of sixteen. He`d worked with Big Joe Turner, B.B. King, and Sam Cooke. Had a chart-topper of his own, in the Bo Diddley-inspired Storm Warning.
Guitar was his instrument of choice, until he was shot in the hand – during a fight with a promoter – at which point he switched to piano. Attempting to evade trouble he moved to L.A. and hooked up with the “Wrecking Crew”. The collective of in-demand musicians who “doubled” for Pop acts – The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Monkees – when said acts` schedules or skills were found wanting. They were effectively Phil “Wall Of Sound” Spector`s House band. Mac sat in with Eric Clapton, Ricky Lee Jones, Van Morrison, and Zappa. Sang with The Band. He hung out with The Stones when they were exiled on Main Street.
A fasciation with Louisiana Voodoo led to the creation of Dr. John, The Night Tripper. Breathing lysergic life into traditional charms, medicines, and local folklore. A performance committed to the invocation and service of the Loa. He recorded the he persona`s debut LP in downtime during Sonny & Cher sessions.
The Doc had the Funk and then some. A spar of Alain Toussaint, and steeped in the tribes of Mardi Gras, the big chief dropped an Ultimate Break when he recorded Right Place, Wrong Time with The Meters. Johnny Jenkins did the same, when he covered I Walk On Gilded Splinters. Mac even went Electro, with 1984`s Jet Set. Produced by Duke Bootee, of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and released on Arthur Baker’s Streetwise.
For all the “sell out”, his last real parting missive, 2012`s Locked Down was a return to the Church of Li Grand Zombi, Damballah, and The Splendours. Wild Magnolia beats, and prayers to Orisha. Singing a Blues for My children, My Angels. Railing against institutionalized racism, recession and austerity. Blind justice and indifferent powers that be. His Ice Age found us all in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Written in memory of Malcolm John Rebennack: November 20, 1941 – June 6, 2019.