New Orleans in the ’50s and ’60s was a world of juke joints, all-night jams, black Indian tribes, gangsters, and dope fiends. Legendary musicians like Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint mixed freely with street hustlers with names like Opium Rose and Stalebread Charlie. Among those who wobbled back and forth across the line between genius and criminal was recording artist, session man, and producer Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John the Night Tripper).
Dr. John: Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper is full of these characters’ misadventures—maybe too full. Dr. John is so busy focusing on his bizarre cohorts that he becomes a bit player in his own story. Despite his entertaining hipster’s prose (”I was twixted and tweened and jacked up”), Dr. John provides maddeningly little information about himself. Not until page 197, for instance, does he mention the fact that he has any children. We do learn of his 34-year drug dependency, his near loss of a finger in a shooting accident, and his stay in Fort Worth’s federal prison. But because of his preoccupation with musicians he’s met and bands he’s led, these episodes have the detached feel of barroom tales that are intended more to amuse than to enlighten.
As a memoir of a special time and place in American musical history, Under a Hoodoo Moon is often a lush canvas. But when forced to focus on himself, Dr. John provides us, unfortunately, with nothing more than light brush strokes.