IT was another scorching day in New York, but in his short-sleeve shirt, black jeans and snakeskin shoes, Dr. John, the piano-playing, politically assertive singer and songwriter from New Orleans, was quite comfortable.
“I don’t like to be cold,” said Dr. John, who was born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., and is known to his friends as Mac.
At 6 on a recent evening, he was making his way along West Harlem Piers Park on 125th Street and the Hudson River. The sun was still bright and the water beckoned. Cyclists whizzed by; children ran down the walk. No one seemed to recognize the Grammy-winning performer, who adopted his stage name from a voodoo practitioner who lived in the early 1800s.
Not that he didn’t stand out with his wooden walking stick, which he clutched like a scepter; it was adorned with voodoo beads, key rings from Narcotics Anonymous, a yak bone, a subway token, an alligator tooth, feathers and crystals.
Now 20 years heroin-free, Dr. John could pass for a decade younger than his 69 years; his face is barely lined. On this particular day he said he was tired, having recently completed a monthlong European tour to promote his latest album, “Tribal” — a gumbo of jazz, funk and rock peppered with Creole and R & B — which was released earlier this month.
He sat down on a bench and lighted a Dominican cigar (which he calls a “square”) and said he liked it there, by the water; it reminded him of New Orleans, his hometown, where he spends much of the year. He also rents a “pad” in Washington Heights, where he stays on and off and where many of the residents are Hispanic. “It’s nice,” he said. “I relate to people up there that kind of hangs on the streets.”
Does he speak Spanish? “No,” he said. “I don’t even speak English.”
In a way, he’s not kidding. Talking with Dr. John is an adventure. And a treat. After all, this is the guy who is responsible for lyrics like “I walk on gilded splinters.”
Still, it can be challenging to follow him. His voice hovers between a growl and a whisper, and made-up words burst from his lips. A message is a “massage.” A text becomes a “textile.” Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, is “Bobby Jingle Bells,” as in: “For a minute during the BP mess, I liked Bobby Jingle Bells. For a minute.” And now? “He’s the kind of politician who makes me nauseated.”
He can also be vague. When asked how many children he had, he answered “A lot.” And how many grandchildren? “Enough.”
His conversation meanders with seemingly no connective thread; eventually, certain themes emerge: Louisiana, offshore drilling, Hurricane Katrina, the joys of eating goats’ eyeballs (“When you get the hard part out, they’re delicious”) and drinking, which he never enjoyed. “I killed all my mother’s plants ‘cause I poured wine in there,” he said.
And then there is Barack Obama, “The first person I voted for since John Kennedy who won,” he said. “For a lot of years I didn’t vote. After Nixon and Reagan I got disgusted with politics.”
He still is. Indeed, on this topic he is quite articulate. “I’m sitting in Europe and I see Barack Obama on TV being nice to the British prime minister” after the BP oil spill. “I ain’t prejudiced against British people. I got friends who are British. But did we really win the Revolution?”
“I don’t feel like I can trust anybody, anywhere,” he said. For that reason, he doesn’t read newspapers and doesn’t have an e-mail address or even a computer. But he does have a cellphone (Louis Armstrong’s music is one of his ringtones), which compensates for the lack of e-mail: “I can text on the phone, and even then I know it’s being monitored somewhere by someone.”
He is outraged by the government’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. His 2008 album, “City That Care Forgot,” which is about New Orleans after the deluge, won the 2009 Grammy for best contemporary blues album. He is still collecting money for New Orleans charities. On his Web site, drjohn.org, he notes that “As a gesture of thankfulnessments to his fans and with no profitabilitary to hisself, Dr. John is offerin’ up some drawers in honoroficalness of NOLA, his hometown.”
Does he have hope that things will improve? He shrugs. “One day you’re on top of the world, and the next day the world’s on top of you,” he said. “That’s life.”
As for him right now? “I’m somewhere in the middle.”