Friday, April 09, 2021

1970 Album of the Week, April 9-15: Remedies, by Dr. John

The word most often associated with Dr. John seems to be "flamboyant" ("tending to attract attention because of their exuberance, confidence, and stylishness"). And the locale associated with Dr. John is, quite justifiably, almost always New Orleans -- as much for its own flamboyant influence on his flamboyance as for its obvious influence on his music.

All of that tends to distract from what a damn fine musician he was.

He was performing professionally at 13, signed as a songwriter and recording artist by Aladdin Records at 15, then as a producer at Ace Records at 16.

And all that was before he took up piano as his main instrument! Guitar was his thing, until he got shot in the ring finger at a 1960 club gig.

It was also before he did two years in federal prison on drug and brothel operation charges.

And before he became a first call session musician, part of the iconic "Wrecking Crew," in Los Angeles.

And before he came up with the idea of "Dr. John, the Night Tripper" as a one-off concept idea and ended up sticking with it for the rest of his life (before that he was Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr.).

The literally thousands of recordings he appeared on included 39 albums -- 30 studio and nine live -- of his own. If he kept a trophy shelf in his home, it boasted six Grammy awards.

Was Remedies (released on April 9, 1970) his best album? I don't know. I haven't heard all 39 of his albums. Of those I've heard, I'd have to flip a coin to choose between this one and his debut, Gris-Gris.

The feature track can't possibly be anything but "Angola Anthem," which takes up the entire second side of the vinyl version, but let's talk about that before cutting to it. Here's what David Gancher of Rolling Stone had to say about it back in the day:

Side Two consists of a 17-minute voo-doo aria called “Angola Anthem.” It is a long, meandering lyric on top of some good but aimless Afro drumming. The instrumental parts are sparse, weak, and easily lost. The lyrics, where they can be heard, do little to redeem the piece. They try to invoke the terror of living under a fascist regime in Angola, but the piece fails. And in a 17-minute piece, if you do not succeed, you really fail. Despite an occasional interesting part, the piece lacks drama, lacks words, lacks music. You can’t listen to it, and you can’t even dance to it.

 But here's what Dr. John himself had to say about it in 2012:

My managers put me in a psych ward. These guys were very bad people – I had gotten busted on a deal, and they got me bonded out of jail, and so when they did I could have got a parole violation. All of this stuff was so unconnected to music that it’s hard to relate it. A friend of mine had just come out of doing 40-something years in Angola [the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary], he was just someone special in my heart – called Tangleye. And Tangleye says, ‘I’m gonna sell you this song. Got it in Angola, but ain’t nobody ever cut this song …’ Even now guys I know getting out of Angola know this song.

The moral of the story: Never trust Rolling Stone's reviewers to know what the hell they're talking about. Apart from R.E.M.'s Murmur, I can't think offhand of an album review of theirs that's matched my own experience with a record. I mean, I'm sure there are some. I just haven't noticed them.

As for dancing to it, well, I can't really dance to anything. But if I could dance, I could find a way to dance to this.

No comments: