EMMETT, MAC AND PETER COYOTE
(From left) Mac Rebennack, The Blacklisted Journalist and Jerry Wexler
seated at a table at the party for Mac held in New York's Sacred Cow Restaurant in October of 1971
(Photo By Popsie)
New York, October 27, 1971 Emmett Grogan sent Tuesday Weld home early. He didn't like all the publicity that was going around about the two of them being seen together and he was determined there was nothing going to drug this particular Saturday night for him. He had been high now for two weeks, higher probably than he had ever been in his life, higher even than when he climbed the Matterhorn. You wouldn't think that an Irish kid from Brooklyn with a ring in his ear would take time out in his life to climb the Matterhorn, would you? But you'll read about it, you'll read about it.
Emmett wasn't high on dope, he was high on his own natural juices, with maybe just a little Southern Comfort mixed in. How do you expect a dude to feel when he has been just let out after spending a year and a half in slam, with the last couple of months in solitary? No, Emmett hadn't been in jail again, he had been writing a book, which is about as close to being in jail as you can possibly get if you write your book right. He had started it in the summer of 1970, trying out various pads to see if they could keep him in one place long enough.
Finally, he had settled down in Leonard Cohen's old apartment on the Lower East Side, plunk in the middle of the new barrio, where ancient synagogues with iron-spiked fences now hang out Se Habla Espanol signs and the only people out on the streets in the dead cold winter nights are possibly looking for victims. Emmett himself got mugged one icy darkness when he dropped his guard and wore a raggedy raincoat, popping out to the liquor store for some dismal joy only to be brought down from behind by three potential killers, one with a set of brass knuckles. They nearly ripped his nose off, but then there's no telling what happened to them the next time Emmett recognized their Latino bandit faces on the ever watchful street. Emmett has always lived in dangerous places, but if he hadn't, what else would there be for him to fill 526 book pages with? Through that first summer, Emmett worked on his book. drawing up an outline and then a synopsis and finally getting down to the hard ditch-digger's regimen of actually writing the motherfreaking thing. Emmett may claim to be a street fiend, but he's no dope. He attacked his book in the classic literary tradition, no cheap shortcuts in the name of holy unorthodoxy. The biggest waste of time there is for a writer isn't in looking at the blank page or staring at the ceiling or searching his poor, Godforsaken soul. It's trying to find where he put his goddamn self-discipline when he took his clothes off the last time he got ready for bed.
Oh, it most likely certainly occurred to Emmett that he could rip his publishers off for the advance and never even bother to finish writing the manuscript. His whole young life had been spent scheming for easy scores. When asked his occupation, he would say, "safecracker." Why should he go through all this trouble of trying to get rich legally at this point in his defiant manhood? There were those constant phone calls from gorgeous movie star Tuesday Weld to come out and play. Another beautiful lady wanted to take him to the sunny Caribbean. Some junkies boogied in and boosted his typewriter. His phone got shut off, also the electricity, and there were some months he thought he was going to have to steal again to pay his rent. When burglars tried to beak in through the window, he would stand there and laugh at them. There were times when his friends thought he wasn't going to make it. There were times when he thought the same thing himself.
(Photo courtesy Lisa Law from her book, FLASHING ON THE SIXTIES.)
He worked through the summer and fall and the long, cold winter, when the police strike made it impossible for anybody to go outside in his neighborhood without being covered by a battery of cannon. There were phone calls from the Coast and visits from Underground dignitaries and a whole bunch of ghosts laying for him. Emmett accumulates trouble the way Jesus saves people and the government collects taxes, and he always takes the trouble with him, like suitcases, when he travels. Yes, you'll read about it, you'll read about it.
He finished the first section of the book thinking the second section would be easier and, of course, the second section was harder yet. He finished the second section with the joyous announcement that the third section would be a breeze and, naturally, he ran into even stiffer problems. He called for microfilmed chronicles, pulled bodies out of newspaper morgues and cross-indexed a library of reference books. It turned spring and then summer and still, he hadn't finished. One by one, his friends stopped hearing from him. Some of them began sniffing the air for the stink of his corpse.
Now it was Saturday night, the book two weeks finished, Emmett still flying, and no discernible chemical necessary as fuel. Who needed Tuesday Weld? Emmett's buddy, Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John The Night Tripper, was going to be at the Beacon Theater and one of his most respected idols, Albie Baker, the now retired but still infamous international jewel thief, was going to meet him there. Peter Coyote, Emmett's sidekick from the San Francisco Digger days, was also going to be present. Emmett was planning a party afterwards in the back room of Elaine's, the hot celebrity hangout of the day. He called me up.
"Emmett Grogan," he said, sounding just a little bit wired, "the guy who liked everybody not knowing anything about 'im has completed a 526-page book telling all those people who he is."
The title of Emmett's book is Ringolevio, taken from the ancient New York street game of the same name. The street is where Emmett came from and the street is where he vows he'll go down fighting, no matter how much bread his royalties pop into his toaster. Little, Brown, his publishers, are going to sell the book for $10 a copy or roughly two cents a page, which is plenty cheap a price to learn all the secrets which have made Emmett the mysterious Underground legend he has become. But then, to turn famous is to lose the streets. It aint easy to walk down to the corner to get a paper when your picture's always on the front page, and so Emmett made sure to doge all the inquiring photographer types who were at the party which Jerry Wexler threw for Mac Rebennack at the Sacred Cow on 72d Street between shows at the Beacon that Saturday night.
If you've never seen Emmett at a party, imagine a baseball player who touches all the bases twice just to make sure, even after he's hit one into the stands. I've always counted the Irish as among the best story-tellers on earth, and Emmett has whatever it takes to make everyone at a party ask, "Who's that guy?" without ever getting a satisfactory answer. Only Jerry Wexler, the executive vice president of Atlantic Records and the world's A-No. 1, self-confessed writer's groupie, crossed Emmett up with an announcement designed to let the crowd share in Emmett's joyous highness.
"The long-awaited, historically, politically relevant book by a man only a few people know," Jerry told the crowd. Or, as Emmett aped him, "dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah." Emmett blushed, cracked the kind of smile you'd expect from Joey Gallo after the cops had freshly arrived to tell him that his chief rival had just been knocked off, and looked very handsome in his unzippered brown leather jacket. This was the kind of partying Emmett does every night when he's not writing a book or otherwise incarcerated and he might have seemed a little embarrassed at being given the spotlight without having had to threaten anyone to get it.
After all, Emmett had been crossed before and word about him was already spreading, anyway. On one of his first nights celebrating the completion of his book up at Elaine's, he had double-touched a base being guarded by Tom Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times, who immediately filed a story that ended up syndicated across the country. It didn't get into print in New York, but somebody at the party had a clipping:
New York, Oct. 9---Abbie Hoffman walked past the crowd at the bar in Elaine's Restaurant and headed for the room at the rear where the private party was being held.
He looked through the door, smiled and waved as he saw Jack Nicholson, the actor, sitting at the first table. A few tables away sat Candy Bergen. Abbie smiled again.
Then he saw the wiry looking guy with the gold earring in his left ear and Abbie stopped smiling. Emmett Grogan, the man with the earring, showed no expression. Neither did Abbie, he just turned and headed for the exit. For Abbie, the party was over.
Emmett Grogan is one of the fabled Underground figures of the day and he and Abbie go back quite a few years. This is a period during which Grogan formed several opinions about Abbie and has never been averse to expounding upon them.
"Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin have never done anything for the people," Grogan was saying now. "He got all that stuff he put in Steal This Book from us and the only thing it did was to reveal the way poor people steal to exist.
"He did it for his own self-aggrandizement. After that, they started putting guards on everything and that's when we told him we didn't want him with us any more."
Grogan's group was called the Diggers and the thing they did was to steal food and clothing every day and distribute it to poor people in New York City. Before that, he had done the same thing in San Francisco.
"So then, Hoffman and Rubin pull this Eddie Cantor act and call themselves Yippies," Grogan continued. "What the hell did they ever do? They held press conferences, that's all.
"I remember in the Newark riot they made a big deal about bringing food over for the black people.
"You know how much food they brought? They brought three boxes of canned food they got from Greenwich Village. The people used the cans to throw at the police. It was nothing but a media scam."
Grogan touched the earring and then smashed his cigaret into the ash tray in front of him. . ."
Emmett scanned the clipping and frowned. "dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah," he said. "You know I don't talk like that. 'He smashed his cigaret into the ash tray.' Can you imagine me smashing my cigaret into the ash tray?"
It may have turned out seeming like Emmett's party up there at the Sacred Cow that Saturday night but Jerry Wexler had still thrown it for Dr. John, that wondrous sage swamprat from New Orleans' Louisiana bayou weirdness, who must sometimes even scare himself with his amazing unseen powers. What was it that happened in Toronto once? Dr. John was playing at an open air festival and suddenly produced a thundercloud in the middle of a clear blue sky. Something like that.
Just the look of him is awe-inspiring, Dr. John The Night Tripper, a large, somber man with the kind of subdued regal saintliness of a professional killer trying to be polite, friendly and warm at a family reunion. You could take him for one of Jean Lafitte's men, a pirate incarnate, a little overwhelmed by the modern world but still with all his wits about him after stumbling unexpectedly into the 20th Century through some Twilight Zone time warp, with his bandanna cap and patches of stage makeup and silver dust still unwiped from his fierce, puffy, bearded face.
"Hey, man, don't hang no jackets on me," he is wont to say. You can't really put him into any category.
At the party, he tried to be just plain Mac Rebennack, hanging out with friends, but how can someone be inconspicuous who obviously talks to the spirits, has the ability to "dement" your mirrors and sings about his power to make you stutter or melt your heart like butter? Mike Klefner tells the story of Dr. John at a rehearsal at the Fillmore East one day. A technician in a bosun's chair suspended from the theater ceiling was re-focusing the fly lights when the rope slipped, letting the chair and the technician fall to the seats below. Dr. John and his band watched the whole thing without missing a beat or blinking an eye. Mac Rebennack is too different to go unnoticed. All his life, he's been cursed with being different.
There was Mac and his wife and his band and his girl singers. There was Emmett and Peter Coyote. There was Jerry Wexler, to whose label Mac is signed, and Bennett Glotzer, who is now Mac's personal manager on behalf of the Albert B. Grossman company. Rick Danko of the Band had come down from Woodstock to be with Mac, accompanied by Michael J. Pollard and Bobby Charles, who wrote See You Later, Alligator and the Fats Domino hit, I'm Walkin' to New Orleans. Certainly Rick was there more as a fan of Mac's than of Emmett's. He expressed concern over talk he'd heard that Mac's singing sounds like Leon Russell's when, as he insisted, everybody knows Mac came first.
I think it was 1967 when Emmett and Peter Coyote arrived from the Coast with Gris-Gris, Mac's debut album as Dr. John, playing it for everybody within earshot and telling insane stories that made Mac sound even more mysterious than Emmett and Peter Coyote themselves. Who couldn't help but come under the spell of a character who wore witch doctor outfits and crazy headdresses and who sang about walking through fire, flying through smoke and consorting with the King of the Zulus?
But most of all, Emmett and Peter came bearing Mac's vocabulary, a new language born of the Cajun-Creole Underground. Tit Alberta? That's the A-tier in one of the Louisiana prisons where Mac claimed once to have made his home. Don't bother trying to talk to Emmett Grogan unless you have something important to say and even then, don't try to talk to him unless you have a spectacular way of saying it.
Dr. John's legend began sprouting nicely in the Underground hot house but then word started going around that underneath all that mumbo-jumbo costume and gris-gris makeup was Mac Rebennack, a well-known studio musician from L.A. "Hype!" came the counter judgment from the Counterculture, "Hype!" Dr. John was "Hype!"
As Mac Rebennack himself might say, man, that was some kind of bad charts. He was having other problems aside from his record not selling a million copies, but here was an original in-person protege of Professor Longhair, the legendary piano genius of New Orleans R&B, in which blues, ragtime and rumba played incestuous games with one another, and they were calling him hype. Hey, baby, he even grew up through the Storyville honky-tonk scene belonging to the black Jim Crow local of the musicians' union and they were calling him hype. To Rick Danko and The Band, he was the most original musician they had listened to since they first played with Bob Dylan and they were calling him hype.
In the end, Gris-Gris became an Underground classic. It whetted the people's palate for swamp music, which now is delivered to the home antiseptically bottled, via Top 40 radio. Did Dr. John stir up a tidal wave from the brackish waters of the bayou? Not exactly, but something washed up on the shores of Berkeley, California, to instill swamp music in the sounds of a suburban San Francisco band called Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Either the Lord or the devil knows what was going through Mac Rebennack's head at that party at the Sacred Cow, but if you would have gone up to him and told him that he was the father of Voodoo Rock, he would have answered:
"Hey, man, don't hang no jackets on me!"
Back at the Beacon Theater, a half block across 72d Street and two blocks up Broadway, Jeanie Clark stood amid the long ago attempted but inevitably faded elegance of the rotunda lobby glowing charm through her floor-length purple velour gown like the kind of madam you'd expect to find if the UN kept a brothel in its 41st floor penthouse for visiting chiefs of state. I mean Jeanie's got class. Weather Report had already finished the opening set of the second show and Dr. John was about 20 minutes late getting back from the Sacred Cow to wind up the weekend wit his razzle-dazzle. But Jeanie kept radiating a smile that was as contagious as a gold strike.
Dr. John had attracted only little more than half a house for all four weekend shows and Jeanie's total investment in the Beacon had now risen to more than $200,000. The lighting still wasn't all that together, the sound system was making public announcements asking for its own improvement and anywhere that Jeanie's sparkling eyes could look, there wasn't a penny of profit in sight. But the Beacon was catching on as a place to hear music. You could tell by the Cadillac limos double-parked out front. You could tell by the DJs and Underground rock writers and the unemployed musicians hanging out in the lobby. You could tell by the way the kids who could afford it lined up at the box office for tickets and the kids who couldn't afford it sat on the sidewalk leaning against the adjacent storefronts. These were kids who were hooked on music. You could tell they had gotten their training at the Fillmore East.
"You no longer have to sell the house for music," Jeanie said. "Someone will call and say, 'Who do you have this weekend?' and not, 'Are you having any music this weekend?' Whether they see our ad or not, they know this is a place to come and that's taken a long, long time. When one of us picks up the phone to call somebody and says, 'This is so-and-so from Bow Wow Productions,' they know who we are now Everywhere, except Premier Talent. We've been in business now since June and I still can't get Frank Barsalona on the telephone."
Neither can hardly anyone else. Barsalona has built Premier up to a position of near-monopolistic control over the bookings of almost all the heavy-drawing teenybopper acts now playing the live music circuit. Schlock? Hype? Class? Frank's got 'em. I mean on the one hand he books Jethro Tull and on the other he books Traffic. Barsalona can book Nick Ungano's Ritz Theater and a couple dozen other music promoters out of business with a slam of the telephone receiver. For Jeanie Clark to open up the Beacon Theater as a music hall without Frank Barsalona's cooperation was probably the most courageous act of heroism since Pete Rademacher went into the ring with Floyd Patterson for his first professional fight. It took Floyd, the champion, six rounds to do Rademacher in. Jeanie may last a little while longer. She laughingly put her hands on the velour bulge of her tummy.
I've lost 15 pounds," she said. "The entire staff is on a brown rice diet."
Even without Barsalona, she had Wilson Pickett booked for November 5 and 6 and Ike and Tina Turner booked for November 27 and 28. When you've started out against the odds that Jeanie took on, just to get anybody on your stage is a triumph. One by one, she fussed over the dignitaries honoring her house with their presence, hugging some, kissing others and introducing them to her staff to make sure their faces would be remembered the next time.
That Dr. John was late didn't bother anybody. That he would come at all is what counted. His dressing room had been draped with madras for the occasion, giving you the feeling that you were inside some desert chieftain's tent. Peter Coyote's baby was asleep on a pillow. Michael J. Pollard was passing around a bottle of tequila and a much-used slice of lemon. There also was some apple juice rumored to be spiked with sunshine.
Bennett Glotzer was the first to arrive back from the Sacred Cow party. Jerry Wexler came with a befitting retinue and promptly took his crowd up to the balcony so they could dig the music better. Finally, Dr. John appeared, as if in a puff of smoke, got into his makeup, his gown and his headdress and rushed onstage. He hardly gave Jeanie a chance to introduce him. The crowd roared and Dr. John grinned. By the time Emmett Grogan got to the theater, the show was well under way.
Dr. John started out with Snake a la Gris-gris: ". . .Calimbo, calimbo. . .Snake a la gris-gris. . .Calimbo la flambeaux. . .Jack de limbo. . .Jack de slick. . ." He sang I walk on Gilded Splinters and Mama Roux and Craney Crow the Congueror. When he got to Mardi Gras, he climbed off the stage with part of his troupe, formed a procession, marched up the side aisle, into the lobby, back down the center aisle and onto the stage again. Dr. John knows about show business, or haven't you noticed his headdress, made out of a loon's breast and exotic bird feathers?
Through it all, Kay the Dancing Lady, never once stopped her body language, weaving and slithering like some Egyptian slave girl at a command performance for one of Sam Spiegel's cameras, a silent instrument, another piece in the band. There were two other girls on the stage with Dr. John, one an ex-Ikette and the other a former member of Shirley and Lee, Dr. John's witches' choir, their voices rising like ecstatic shrieks at some Black Mass. You wouldn't think the devil's functions would be so musically virtuous, would you?
It's true that Dr. John and Leon Russell sound similar, with the same raspy edge and the same swampy, drawl to their singing voices. But Leon comes from Oklahoma, too many cultures away from the bayous, and Dr. John comes not only from Louisiana but from another dimension. His whole band was out of New Orleans. Hand-picked like some Jolly Roger cutthroat crew, they'd all seen the inside of weirdness. It was a new band, just put together by Dr. John. This gig at the Beacon was their first time out.
Up in the balcony, Jerry Wexler was saying that Dr. John had a classic second-line rhythm section, a term taken from those famous New Orleans parades, in which groups like the Eagle Brass Band would play Dixieland with a march beat while all the kids would stomp along behind them, mimicking the instruments. The kids marching behind the band were the second line and although they'd try to play the same thing the band was playing, it would always come out looser.
"New Orleans is the important matrix of rhythm and blues and subsequent rock and roll," Jerry said. How often do you find a record executive using a word like matrix?
He was sitting clustered with his friends, some Atlantic people, Michael J. Pollard, Bennett Glotzer and Jerry Leiber, who kept insisting that Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, was Jewish.
"His father was a tailor," Leiber said.
"No, Wexler answered. "his father was a record salesman for the distributor who used to handle Atlantic in New Orleans."
What would Mac become for Jerry if it turned out he wasn't really Cajun? Here he was up at the Beacon with Aretha playing Madison Square Garden that very Saturday night.
"Mac's speech," Jerry said. "is the most colorful I've ever heard. He's created his own private language, and he's never even conscious of it."
He started telling about listening to Mac talk of growing up in New Orleans and wondering how some of the other musicians in the 14 blocks of the Ninth Ward could do double-note crossovers, musicians like Melvin Lastie, the trumpeter, and Little Papoose, the writer of Oo Poo Poo Doo. "He said," Jerry remembered, "that their middle finger stuck out longer and the last joint on the finger was shaped like a triangle so he always figured they came from the same tribe. Then I asked him about Harold Batiste, the sax and piano player, is he from the same people? And Mac said, 'No, man he's from another ward, he's a Creoledelic.'"
Harold Batiste was Mac's best buddy during those days when Mac was trying to scuffle up a living doing sessions for outfits like Specialty Records. Then Harold had to split after another New Orleans musician, Sonny Bono, made it big, moved to Hollywood and summoned Harold to become his arranger. You've heard of Sonny Bono. Certainly you've heard of Sonny and Cher. They did pretty well for a while. Well enough for Harold Batiste to have his turn in summoning Mac Rebennack to Hollywood. Once on the L.A. scene, Mac found himself in growing demand as a session man. Eventually, Sonny Bono signed him to a production contract and financed the recording of Gris-Gris, the first Dr. John album. It just happened to come out on Jerry Wexler's label.
There were a couple of other Dr. John albums. Mac's contract went from Sonny Bono to Charlie Green. GriGris may have become an Underground classic. People like Mick Jagger may have called Dr. John the most brilliant musician in the world. But Mac Rebennack wasn't having much success. Then, one day, a doctor in the psychiatric ward of the UCLA Medical Center called up Jerry Wexler to tell him that Mac had turned up there in a very toxic condition.
"Somebody must help this man," the doctor said. "He must give up his band and go off the road and go on methadone maintenance."
Can you see Jerry Wexler of New York City, East Marion, L.I., and Allison Island, Florida, doing social work?
"I took Mac on a reclamation project," Jerry said. "I put him on staff, gave him $300 a week and let him just write and record. Did you hear that organ fill on Aretha's Spanish Harlem" That was Mac. Behind the gris-gris facade, he's an incredibly brilliant musician. Like he says, Man, he's gonna change their charts around. He only just put this band together and decided to go out on the road again. This is their first gig. I'm sticking with Mac until he makes it. I have a divine belief in his genius."
I was one of those friends who had lost touch with Emmett after he locked himself up in solitary, chaining himself to that dark, deep but happy torture of transfusing his spirit into the last roaring chapters of Ringolevio. Like going to the toilet and like dying, there are some things that no one else can do for you. To write an honest book, in the end you have to do it yourself, alone. Emmett had planned to unmask himself in Ringolevio, and it always ends up agonizing to learn who it is really living in your skin. Emmett was pleased with whom he had found.
He was standing in the Beacon Theater lobby digging Dr. John through the open aisle doors, a half-smile on his face. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that was going to drug this Saturday night for Emmett. We resumed the conversation where we had left off the last time we were together. Emmett has a lot of dialogues going on like that, with people all over the world. He can disappear in the middle of a phrase, show up two years later and finish his sentence. He started talking about a phone call from Lawrence Ferlinghetti and we walked down the aisle to find a couple of seats. If you've never seen Emmett walk, think of Peter Pan with a Brooklyn street fighter's swagger.
He had spent the last couple of nights driving through the city in a limousine with Jerry Wexler. Jerry reads a book a day to keep Old Man Stagnation away and there's nothing he can't discourse on. As for Emmett, he may seem all words, but don't try him. Just to hold a conversation with him can leave you black and blue; Emmett very often makes his point with a finger on your upper arm. Of course he enjoyed the show, although he talked through most of it.
We went backstage before the last number, with Emmett getting busy making all the arrangements for the party afterwards in the back room at Elaine's. It wasn't that Emmett was trying to usurp any of manager Bennett Glotzer's functions, it was just that Emmett was Dr. John's connection in New York. Up in the dressing room, they closeted themselves in the bathroom, just like in the old days, Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote. I picked up a clipping of Tom Fitzpatrick's article about Emmett in the Chicago Sun-Times and read some of it:
"I was a junkie by the time I was 12," he said, "and got out of the Raymond Street jail only because a Jesuit high school gave me a scholarship to play basketball."
While going to the school, Grogan learned the addresses of all the other students whose parents had money. In the evenings, he would climb up the dumbwaiter shafts, enter their apartments and steal their safes.
Grogan spent some time in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and that was where he had an experience with films that had a strange parallel to his own life.
"I was doing a showing of that W.C. Fields movie called The Bank Dick for our free theater," Grogan related.
"Well, we have a big crowd and we're all having a great time. But then the swami that runs the Hare Krishna joint next door complains to the police that the laughter is destroying his meditation.
"So, in come the police and just as they get there, on the screen there's a scene with a guy in the film called Repulsive Grogan being chased and beaten by the police.
"It's hilarious because now the police are moving on me and I hit one of them with a right hand and now I'm in worse shape than Repulsive Grogan on the screen because they are all around me, working me over with clubs and down I go and the lights go out."
Grogan laughed at that.
"So then one of the cops goes in a back room and starts hollering that he's found dope.
"So now, the next thing I know I'm down at the station and they're charging me with running an opium den. Hell, that's a charge they hadn't made since 1890."
Grogan laughed again.
"The next day when we go before the judge it turns out there's a loophole in the law, that you can't charge a man with running an opium den unless there's an oriental on the premises.
"The cop says, 'I don't know about that, your honor, but there sure were a lot of people with long hair.'"
It was after 2 a.m. but the night was just getting its second wind. Rick Danko was talking about how The Band was going to record a live album at Howard Stein's Academy of Music on a weekend in December. Michael J. Pollard was telling about his Billy the Kid movie. Bennett Glotzer was saying he was going to book more acts into the Beacon. The tiny dressing room was getting so packed it seemed on its way to exploding like one of Emmett Grogan's sentences. Peter Coyote began collecting his family. There were several false starts out the door, but Emmett hadn't gotten everything arranged yet. Finally, he said, "C'mon, let's go to Elaine's."
(Photo by Greg Gorman)
Peter Coyote had transported a gift across the country for Mac Rebennack, something for his satchel of gris-gris. What is it that a doctor carries in his bag but power? Up from Colorado through the dry red dust, down the foothills and across the plains he had traveled with it, driving his '49 Chevy one-ton, a Conestoga wagon with steel bows and canvas roof and its provisions and supplies, a household on wheels containing all his worldly possessions, never too much not to be mobile, traveled like an Okie, like a Gypsy, like a pioneer, drawn to our lawless frontier city with his old lady, Eileen, and their baby, Ariel, and Eileen's 10-year-old daughter, Colleen, with his welding tank and his tools and his two dogs and his guitar, drawn to New York for lots of reasons, not the least of which was that he was going to meet up with Emmett and Mac at the Beacon Theater.
He had transported the gift in a little black box from the mountains of the West, something rare, something special, something mysterious, something with a meaning so strange that it could force tricks on other people's minds. What else is gris-gris used for, anyway?
"I brought it for him because it was an article of power," Peter Coyote said. "And I knew Mac would understand it."
What had he brought? In the mountains of the West, someone had found the mummified corpse of a black woman dried and withered in the sun. Inside the little black box was the woman's hand.
"Like I say," Peter reiterated, "I knew Mac would understand it."
He was trying to back his Chevy one-ton into a parking space on Second Avenue in front of Elaine's, but the front wheels couldn't make a sharp enough arc. A couple of cops pulled up in a patrol car and started to give him some static. Who was this behatted character with his sparse, shaggy beard and wash tubs and other strange equipment hanging from his truck, anyway? A couple of friends came running out of Elaine's to tell the cops it was all right and Peter left his truck double-parked.
"You don't think they'll come back and give me a ticket, do you?" he asked, like some hick just in from the stump-trumpers. You'd never know that Peter originally came from Jersey.
I had met him years before when he was the most commanding actor in the San Francisco Mime Troupe, with a voice that rang out with a distinctiveness and charisma that somehow reminded me of FDR. I don't mean to say that Peter could have run for President, but when I first saw him on the stage, I thought him a major talent. He could make people laugh and he could make people cry but most of all he could make an audience feel comfortable. He had timing, and confidence and he was a standout.
Everybody was sure Peter Coyote was going to become a star, but Peter crossed everybody up. There weren't enough kicks in acting; he couldn't get off behind make-believe. The real theater was on the street and Peter teamed up with Emmett. They rode with the Hells Angels for a while and there was one period when I heard stories about Peter hiding out on a farm with a few other figures wanted by the police for a murder or two.
"Acting on the stage gives you an edge and that edge deprives you of a real test of your worth," Peter explained. "When you're on the stage, there's nobody who can come up and really challenge you. You're on a private turf. Of course you're going to look great. That's not true on the street."
We walked into Elaine's and headed for the back room. Jerry Wexler was already sitting at a table listening to Jack Richardson tell him how he was $8,000 ahead on the horses.
7 "Jack is really a good guitar player," Jerry said. Then he started talking about how important the count of "one" is to a rhythm section. "Lots of times, in the studio, the band will loose the groove, and I'll go out and ask them, 'Who's taking care of "One?"' If somebody's taking care of 'one,' the other numbers will take care of themselves."
Just about then, somebody showed Elaine the hand in the black box and she freaked. It was so shriveled up that at first she thought it was a spider.
Peter had brought his guitar to jam with Mac.
"He's a gentleman," Peter explained, meaning that if you made mistakes while playing along with Mac, he was the kind of guy who didn't make you feel bad about it. "The thing about Mac," Peter said, "is that when you ask does he practice voodoo, the answer is that his show is created for the music, which creates a form for the spirit to evoke magic, not practice it---to evoke a reality where anything can happen. It's good theater and the spine of it is music. And behind the music is the really spiritual consciousness that Mac has. His frame of reference is that the earth and the sky are coming together. He says that all the time, the earth and sky are coming together."
Emmett and Mac were behind the partition leading to the men's room. Peter Coyote got up and joined them. The little black box was left in a corner. No one seemed to want to touch it. Meanwhile, Colleen, Peter's 10-year-old stepdaughter, ordered a dish of ice cream.
Mac Rebennack came out from behind the partition and went directly to the piano, like he was stepping from the wings to center stage to do a show. What could he say to this strange conglomerate of people, top guns all, that would charm them more than his songs? If they didn't like his music, they certainly weren't going to be knocked out by his syntax.
They had gathered here in the back room at Elaine's upon Emmett's summons, not his. He didn't know half of them. You could see him avoiding any eye contact with anybody, his face armed with a mask of innocent impassivity, but still the ferociously bearded face of an off-duty pirate, with a red bandanna knotted over his hair and smudges of silver dust and makeup unwiped from his cheeks. If this grown child of New Orleans madness looked awesome to New York, think of how terrifying these representatives of New York madness looked to him. Would you believe that, offstage, Dr. John The Night Tripper, is a shy one?
Elaine had closed the sliding steel gate across her storefront and the last of her regulars had gone home, except for the two or three with muscle enough to come join Emmett's party. As host, Emmett made me think of what Vito Genovese might have been like throwing a blast for a brother who had just entered the priesthood, proper, polite, genteel, and with time and small talk for everybody. Even cutthroats have a family life.
There is a certain Upper East Side woodsy atmosphere to the back room at Elaine's which never lets you forget that George Plimpton hangs out there. With everybody crowded around the tables next to the piano, I also got the feeling that this was the kind of party the maitre d' throws for his friends after all the guests at a catered affair have left.. I mean they took of the tablecloths for us.
Mac began playing the piano and singing. Peter Coyote, still wearing his wide-brimmed hat, pulled up a chair, took out his guitar and, with his head bent low over it, began picking along with Mac. As Emmett said, the piano was just enough out of tune to make everything right. Emmett started talking to Albie Baker, a film producer and a script writer now, while Jerry Wexler began banging out the rhythm with the palms of his hands on the black formica table top. Pretty soon, the whole crowd had joined the rhythm section, using fingers, feet, spoons or slapping their thighs. My 15-year-old son, Myles, pulled out a couple of Jews' harps and he and Eileen, Peter Coyote's old lady, went to work.
"My sister sniffs cocaine," Mac was singing, and everybody laughed. Peter Coyote said it was a line from a Jack Dupree tune called Junko Partner. Mac also sang something about getting him a mojo hand. "Yeah," Peter Coyote said, "we thought Mac deserved a hand, a mojo hand."
When Rick Danko arrived, just a little late, he took over the guitar. The music and the singing were getting heavy now. Some of the people from Mac's band were there and the party was loosening up.
"Mac aint got no sissies with him," Peter said. "They all did hard time. You know, this whole New Orleans voodoo mumbo magic number, there are a lot of people in it. Mac grew up in all of those knuckle-funky scenes. His past is a mystery even to his friends. The way he got his name, they say it comes from Dr. John Crow, a Cajun medicine man who died in the early 1900s. There's also a rumor that he had a little band that ran the circuit around Bozier City, Louisiana, on the gulf, and after the show, somebody would rob the drug store and they'd go around the swamps and peddle the medicine. But that's only a rumor. Mac aint derivative of nothing we know."
There was somebody who started asking to see the mummified hand in the little black box that Peter Coyote had brought for Mac.
"You just don't open up magic in the wrong places," Mac sweetly told him. Peter tried to explain that it had to be treated with respect. It was too heavy to be used for a sideshow. Emmett, meanwhile, was roaring.
"There are four generations of the street in here, four generations!" he said. "From Albie Baker, who is 55, to Colleen Puteen, who is 10, going on 25, moving around the country with Peter Coyote, who travels with his house on his back. Four generations of the street! Do you realize the significance of that?"
It was during those frenzied day-glo San Francisco Digger days of acid lights and runaway love children, of flower tripping and drug wars and hilarious public sex, of stealing sides of beef and bushels of vegetables from the commission markets to cook up free meals, free music and free hope for the freaked-out kids in the panhandle that Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote first got to know one another. Mac was making his San Francisco debut as Dr. John The Night Tripper in a ballroom then known as the Carousel and later taken over by Bill Graham as the Fillmore West. Emmett and Peter happened to drop in the same way they would check out any new act in town. Afterwards, Peter went up to meet Dr. John in the dressing room.
"We exchanged a few words and then went off together to do some business," Peter Coyote remembered. "We just flashed on each other."
One of the first of the San Francisco people Peter took Mac to meet was Briden, known only to those plugged into the deepest Underground cables as an artist of genius and magical proportions, who lived in a world of archangels, wizards, alchemists and rainbow women and who could see them and draw them and make them come to life in his paintings. There are still very few people who even know about Briden because he refuses to sell his paintings or exhibit them and only gives them away to friends, of whom he has few.
"He and Mac understood each other very well," Peter remembered.
In those days, Mac was about as easy to get next to as Briden. But then, so were Emmett and Peter.
"We were all really broke and busted out and strung out," Peter said. "Mac needed some dope and we gave him some. He said, 'What do you need?' We said, 'We need some money.' He said, 'Get me something with earth colors in it.' So I went down to the Good Will Store. I remember it was the night after the Free City Convention. That was in the Carousel and we had a boxing ring up there and people were building fires in the middle of the dance floor and we had TV camera units and one guy got his cock sucked on TV.
"It was around then that everybody was talking about the election and someone started handing out buttons that said, 'Vote For Me.' So, I started wearing one of those 'Vote For Me' buttons and I went to the Good Will Store to get a green and brown blanket. And I looked at the clerk and he was wearing one of those 'Vote For Me' buttons, too, and he looked at me and he said, 'You go out and I'll throw it out the window for you.' So I went outside and waited and he not only threw down the green and brown blanket but he also threw down a couple of sleeping bags, a canteen and a leather coat.
"So, I brought the blanket home and gave it to Mac. It's the same blanket he wears on the Dr. John Babylon album cover. And a week after he splits, this chick shows up, she just knocks on our door. I remember when I got home, the other guys were sitting on the floor washing her feet. She was whacked out. They said, 'This is Barbara. She just inherited 22 million dollars and she don't know what to do with it.'"
In the back room at Elaine's, Mac introduced his friend, the Reverent Ether, who got up and sang Good News in a voice like Sam Cooke's, "Comin' home, comin' home. . . I got a letter just the other day. . . It said my baby's comin' home to stay. . ." Good News. A lot of glasses were getting emptied, but God only knew when Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote would see one another and get drunk again. Mac gave Peter's baby daughter, Ariel, a magic tooth and a bronze plaque with a horoscope engraved on one side and her name on the other. Then, Peter called Colleen to come and meet Mac. He stared at her a long while, touched her on the forehead and said only one word, "Puteen." He didn't even know what it meant but Emmett explained it was an illegal white lightning that the Irish revolutionaries have been cooking up for generations. Emmett always sounds authoritative.
The night was running out of darkness. Somebody came over and asked to look at the mummified hand in the little black box again and Mac told him, "Man, if it was an atom bomb in it, you wouldn't want me to open the box, would you?"
Everybody was getting petrified drunk. Emmett was talking about the times he had to burn his friends when he was a junkie.
"They couldn't conceive that a guy would be able to bounce back," he said. Mac took out a boa constrictor skin, wrapped it around his head and pinned it closed with a "Vote For Me" button from Peter's vest. "I like what you sayin'," he told Emmett and Peter, "and I like the way you sayin' it." They would meet again somewhere, some time, and get drunk together once more.
"Mac," Peter said, "he don't forget nobody he ever knew. The only people who think he's hype are the people who can't imagine anything that far out can be real."
When they staggered out to the sidewalk, it was dawn. Emmett had a plane ticket out of the country. Mac was going to Woodstock and then L.A. Peter was headed for another farm in the mountains.
"There were four generations of the street at that party," Emmett said again. "Do you realize the significance of that?"
Later that day, when Elaine opened her restaurant, she discovered that Mac had forgotten to take his little black box with the mummified hand in it.
[On April 6, 1978, 35-year-old Emmett Grogan was found dead on a New York City subway car, the victim of a heart attack possibly induced by chronic heroin use. As of March 1, 1996, Mac Rebennack continued touring as Dr. John The Night Tripper. Peter Coyote, meanwhile, continued his distinguished acting career.]
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