Record of the Week – Dr John – Babylon (Atco, 1969)

One Eleven Heavy guitar player James Toth on how Dr John’s Babylon almost made him a fan of “the ol’ Night Tripper”.

When working together in our band One Eleven Heavy, my bandmate Nick and I tend to speak in three distinct but overlapping vocabularies.

The first of these is the fraternal vocabulary, which is the result of our close personal friendship; often we know who or what our respective songs are about without having to discuss them.

The second category is the musical vocabulary, common to all bands: “Maybe sing a third here”; “can we duck the Nord during the bridge?” Here, too, we can often anticipate each other’s wishes and instincts. 

The third category is the language of records. Sometimes I think that this is the most important of the three lexicons. When Nick and I met many years ago, we discovered that we had a surprising number of “favorite artists” in common, and so it was only natural that we’d eventually start a band. Separated by thousands of miles, we still often share music with each other via email, as much to provide grist for the One Eleven Heavy mill as to turn one another on to cool shit, as friends often do. He’s introduced me to tons of Latin psych, various Funkadelic side projects, and several private press jammers I somehow missed. I think I got him into Los Lobos.

I have always played in bands with a seemingly disproportionate number of people who are passionate about the music of Dr. John.

James Toth

Nick is also the latest in an unbroken string of people with whom I have performed music who really, really likes Dr. John.     

I think amenability is one of my greatest assets as a listener. Over the years I have on many occasions been coaxed, goaded, prodded, bribed, and even threatened into listening to particular music that I initially thought I didn’t like, only to find, once given the proper context, that I liked it a lot. See, I’ll give almost anything a chance. And—if I trust you—a second chance, and a third chance, and probably a few more beyond that.

Like I said, I have always played in bands with a seemingly disproportionate number of people who are passionate about the music of Dr. John. Me? I’ve never been a fan. I always found him a little corny. I enter into evidence: his hammy performance in The Last Waltz; his only Top 10 hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which is the only record I know that makes the fabulous Meters sound a little dull; and his theme song for the 90s sitcom Blossom, a jingle sung (though not written) by Dr. John that remains flame-grilled into my brain all these years later despite not having heard it in over twenty years. “In my opinionation…?” Hard, hard pass, Mister Rebbenack.  

James Toth giving Dr John a third chance.

In 2003, a member of my then-current band insisted I listen to Dr. John’s good stuff: the “dark and eerie” early stuff, the tripped-out voodoo jams. This person could not understand how I—a lover of all things spooky and psychedelic and funky—could reject the body of work of a man who embodies all of those things.

And so, despite my negative associations, I purchased the first Dr. John album, Gris Gris—reputedly and tantalizingly recorded at LA’s Gold Star studios between sessions for a Sonny & Cher album—which was pitched to me as a life-changing, brain chemistry-altering experience. I bought it despite feeling that Dr. John is a textbook example of what results when an adopted stage persona—a character—becomes indistinguishable from caricature.

Please note that I do not reflexively reject the notion of a musical persona, per se. I love Sun Ra, Tom Waits, and MF DOOM. It’s just that Dr. John’s particular persona was one that didn’t appeal to me. The irony is not lost on me: Dr. John grew up in New Orleans’ third ward and led the life of a brothel-operating, drug-running convicted felon. As such he was more authentically a damaged mystical medicine show Grand Zombie badass than DOOM was a comic book supervillain, Tom Waits was a besotted Beatnik, or Sun Ra was from Saturn (though the jury’s still out on that last one). His bonafides notwithstanding, I still found Dr. John’s schtick more a tourist trap Hurricane on Bourbon Street than a dive bar Sazerac in the Marigny. I mean, come on: the line between the man himself and his Muppet counterpart is pretty thin, no?

I’m a hard guy to freak out. I spent my teen years dropping acid and listening to Mercyful Fate records, trying to give myself nightmares.

I also love a great deal of music that originated in Louisiana, much of it in New Orleans, specifically: the Neville Brothers, Doug and Rusty Kershaw, Wynton and Branford Marsalsis, Allan Touissant, Blind Uncle Gaspard, Delma Lachney, Louie Armstrong, Irma Thomas, Clifton Chenier, Bobby Charles, and, err, Eyehategod. And I have occasionally enjoyed the music of Professor Longhair, whose merging of fellow Louisianan Jelly Roll Morton’s rolling boogie woogie piano style with West African rhythms is where his protégé Dr. John copped a lot of his style—or so I am told by Nick. But the small sample size of “creepy psychedelic Cajun” LPs on the market never much appealed to me. I don’t really love the Exuma albums, either. I’m a hard guy to freak out. I spent my teen years dropping acid and listening to Mercyful Fate records, trying to give myself nightmares. White guys in headdresses singing about potions and graveyards just look silly and ridiculous to me.

But as I said, my friend, bandmate, and constant collaborator Nick loves Dr. John, particularly his early work. He insisted I listen to 1969’s Babylon, Dr. John’s second album, written in the midst of the Vietnam war and full of odd time signatures and trippy incantations.

So, on a whim, I loaded Babylon onto my iPod and took a walk along the Fox River, near where I live, and listened closely. The album, I was relieved to discover, mercifully contains a minimum of the good doctor’s yabba-zabba-deux tomfoolery, and is far more indebted to West Coast psychedelia and jazz than the witchy bayou funk that comprises Gris Gris.

What I also heard in Babylon, though, was Nick. I’m a big Nick fan, and I always marvel at his compositional acumen and guitar prowess, and I can usually spot when he’s musically referencing one of our mutual favorites—Funkadelic or the Stones or the Dead or Neil—but listening to Babylon felt like discovering a previously missing piece of Nick’s inspiration jigsaw puzzle.

Dr. John does some dead-on guitar impersonations of Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Gabor Szabo, among others (the Ravi Shankar impression is less convincing)…

I also immediately liked the way the album was recorded: it’s spacious and direct, lacking the murk of Gris Gris. The record, on the whole, sounds ‘mixed for the hallucinations.’ The guitar tones are searing, and the background vocals, presented very high in the mix, are riveting, but also fun.

On the title track that opens the album, the ol’ Night Tripper, sounding passably like Beefheart with a narrower range, intones over a jazzy cauldron of LSD murk in 10/4 time, complete with stereo-panned vocals riding atop a thick broth of electric piano, horns and heavy percussion. It’s alright.

“Glowin,” though, which follows, is extremely my shit: like a funhouse mirror David Axelrod, or the kind of psilocybin R&B the GOAT George Clinton could have recorded before his morning coffee. The tune bounces back and forth between zero gravity second line psych and the sort of Tin Pan Alley-meets-School House Rocks vibe of certain Leon Russell jams I like. Good stuff. But it is the background vocals that really bring it home for me. Jessie Hill, Shirley Goodman, and Tami Lynn, all of whom went on to have their own careers in funk and R&B (and, in the case of Goodman, disco) are the MVPs on this tune, and on the album in general. Sure, it occasionally sounds like Little Shop of Horrors—but I like Little Shop of Horrors.

“Black Widow Spider” is also really good: an insistent, pumping vamp in 5/4 time in which the listener get the sense the Gris-Gris Man isn’t sure what notes he’s gonna sing before they escape his gold teeth. There’s no way to imagine a song like this being written at a piano stool. Which is cool.

Things take a turn for the worse with “Barefoot Lady” and the obnoxious “Patriotic Flag Waver” (moratorium on tuneless children’s choirs, please), which both feel like inconsequential filler. Sandwiched between these, though, is the foggy and excellent “Twilight Zone,” the album’s longest cut at over eight minutes, which is like the Stooges’ “We Will Fall” reimagined as a dubwise Mardi Gras doo-wop ritual sacrifice.

Closing track “Lonesome Guitar Strangler” is, like “Patriotic Flag Waver,” something of a novelty song, but I actually dig this one, on which Dr. John does some dead-on guitar impersonations of Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Gabor Szabo, among others (the Ravi Shankar impression is less convincing).  

I’m coming around. I don’t think I’ll ever be at the ‘bootlegs and rarities’ level of Dr. John fandom, but I can at least appreciate him more than I had previously. I really do like Babylon, and I’m just getting around to 1971’s The Sun, Moon, & Herbs, and I think I might end up liking this one, too.

But it remains my opinionation that Dr. John really should have let someone else sing.