Back in my teens, if you had asked me to dream up the ideal musician, I would have imagined an unholy combination of Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Roky Erickson, and I wouldn't have known that the thing I was dreaming already existed, and that it was named Dr. John. There's an occasion for this post, a birthday, and as a result it isn't a post where I'll speculate endlessly on the reticulations of relationships or the finer points of consciousness. I'll just say that Dr. John was born on November 21, 1940, and leave it at that. I mean, mostly. Maybe I'll also confess that while I have admiration for his New Orleans piano records like Gumbo and his eighties forays into standards (In a Sentimental Mood), the only records of his I really love, the only ones that are located at the eccentric trivium I described above, are the earliest solo records, the ones where he indulged his Night Tripper persona most extremely. There's Gris-Gris, of course, from 1968, but there's also Babylon from the following year. It's a lesser-known album, almost to the point of being unknown, and it's easy to see why: the vocals sound closer to Van Morrison than to a voodoo priest, the arrangements are sometimes chaotic, and the songs are weak both in conception and execution (nothing approaches "Mama Roux," let alone "I Walk on Gilded Splinters"). Still, it's an eerie experience, especially "Twilight Zone," which comes on like a treatment from the television show of the same name, if it had been set at the height of the sixties:
Martians kidnap the First Family
They're gonna demand New York City for ransom money
We're gonna outsmart 'em, leave a note for 'em to read
The best they can get is Milwaukee
The piano swells; Dr. John practices his supernatural medicine on the Kennedys and King. Like the rest of Babylon, it's overwritten and spacey--underwhelming despite a tremendous middle section with echoing female backing vocals and keyboards that sound like alien horns--and maybe that's why I have such affection for it. It's Dr. John, in full regalia, not quite getting over, sinking into the swamp of the time. The next song, "The Patriotic Flag Waver," is a funky urban portrait that begins with a children's choir singing "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" and imagines a protagonist who belongs to both the KKK and the NAACP, and it's normal--boringly so--by comparison. Whenever the album gets to that point, I go backwards, into the Twilight Zone.