Close Encounters of the Rock Star Variety

Dr. John loses focus; Focus are unintelligble

Dr. John, 1968

When I was in college at the University of Miami — a school once rightly referred to as “Sunshine U” — I had the good fortune to be on the student entertainment committee, the group responsible for bringing bands to campus.

It was a grand experience, and the fact that I was elected by an overwhelming margin still makes it a source of great pride all these many years later. Being on the student newspaper gave me added access to the artists, and even now, I have fond memories of my very first rock star interview with Steve Winwood of Traffic (who procured a joint in the process) and playing frisbee in the halls of the student union with none other than the legendary Al Kooper.

I met any number of artists back there in the day, and when I have opportunity to meet up with them now, I’m always eager to recount those early encounters, hoping to rekindle their memories as well.

Of course, things didn’t always go as planned. I once attempted to interview Dr. John backstage and got nowhere. This was during the good doctor’s “Night Tripper” phase, long before he settled down to devote himself to the archival sounds of his native New Orleans. He fancied himself a voodoo witch doctor, parading about in elaborate wizard garb, singing about ju-ju, shuffling around the stage, sharing his magical charms, and singing his psychedelic chants with acid-frayed embellishment. It was scary and subversive all at the same time, but gave plenty of cause for the Stones, Eric Clapton and others of their ilk to be held in sway and contribute to his musical musings.

Personally, I found it all a bit too heady and excessive for my tastes, but being the good reporter that I was, I opted to interview the good doctor backstage prior to the gig. He had an intimidating presence while bedecked in his headdress and flowing robes, sitting solemnly and looking  surprisingly droopy-eyed for someone who might otherwise be prepping for performance.

It follows then that the conversation didn’t go as planned. I asked a couple of basic questions for starters — the usual queries about influences, musical motivations etc. — but Mr. Rebbenack, the doctor’s alter ego, seemed to want no part of it. He grumbled a few incoherent responses in that famous gravelly growl of his and then clammed up entirely. I pressed on, knowing full well things weren’t panning out. Finally, seemingly fed up with my persistence, he pointed towards the individual who was likely his road manager and said, “Ask him. He can answer your questions.”

Naturally, the good doctor had failed to give me anything that was near a perfect prescription. Interviewing a road manager in lieu of an artist isn’t exactly ideal for pursuing a profile piece.

Needless to say, the assignment was a bust. The road manager seemed as befuddled by the suggestion as I was.

I suspect that Dr. John was going through that dark period when he was hooked on heroin. His lackadaisical demeanor offered all the evidence needed. Nevertheless, it was a lesson learned. Never bother with a junkie, no matter how awesome they might seem otherwise.

 

Focus

Of course, there are times when the language barrier gets in the way as well. We Americans seem to assume that the whole world speaks English and eagerly confirms to out form of communication. Not so, I found out, when I was backstage attempting to interview another act we had on campus, the Dutch band known as Focus. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember their sole international chart topper  “Hocus Pocus.” They were what one would commonly refer to as a “one hit wonder.”

Still, they were a capable bunch in concert. Sadly, they only spoke Dutch. So when I attempted to initiate conversation, all I got in return were quizzical looks and the shrug of their collective shoulders.

Fortunately, as that hit “Hocus Pocus” proved, they were damn good at yodelling.

 

 

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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