Sunday, March 12, 2006

Dr. John's Versions

Listening the other day to an interview with Dr. John on NPR got me thinking about a version of "St. James" he did under the title "Touro Infirmary" (which refers to an actual New Orleans institution). A few people told me about this after the very first version of the "St. James Infirmary" essay was posted, a couple of years ago now. One of them actually sent me the song, which was recorded in 1982 and appeared on the record The Brightest Smile In Town (or on the CD version, at least).

Before I lived in New Orleans, I basically thought of Dr. John as the guy who did the song "Right Place, Wrong Time," which was an FM staple when I was very young, and which never did much for me. I've wised up since then: I am still not wild about that particular tune, but one of the things I learned by osmosis during our New Orleans stint is the musical context that Dr. John came out of, and I now "get" him. Actually I have a pretty specific memory of the moment that made me realize that I had totally misjudged the man: I was listening to WWOZ in the kitchen one afternoon, and they played this recording of him talking about New Orleans piano styles, and illustrating his points with music as he spoke. It was a brief but totally fascinating passage -- and of course his speaking voice is mesmerizing.

More to the point, I have to say, his "Touro Infirmary" is really great, a totally passionate and gritty performance. He rewrote the lyrics completely, to make the song not about a lover, but a "running partner."

I went down to the Touro Infirmary,
Lord knows, and I found my running partner there.
He was stretched out on a coal-black table, yes he was.
Lord, the narcotic agent left him there.

He was gone, he was gone,
God don’t you miss him?
A better man than him can never be found.
All the characters on the street all around here
They all know he’s laid his burden down. . . .

Full lyrics, to the best of my ability to transcribe them, are here.

Digging back through very old correspondence on this matter, I find that a couple of people mentioned to me that the lyrics appear in Dr. John's memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon, which everyone says is excellent. Apparently in the book he describes the song as "a pain-filled sayonara to a partner long gone." On the CD, the song is credited to "Traditional," and needless to say Dr. John is very much in the "traditional" tradition in reworking the song's story.

More recently he recorded the song again, under the title "St. James Infirmary," on a 2004 album called Dis, Dat, and D'Udda, but I'm less interested in that take. Also, I've been told of (and have seen Web references to) a bootleg version from 1996 of Dr. John performing the song live with Eric Clapton, but I have not heard this*. Finally, I should mention that the NPR interview cited above was partly tied to his recent EP, Sippiana Hericane; evidently, proceeds from that disc go to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the Jazz Foundation of America, and The Voice Of The Wetlands.

* Update, May 2, 2006: Now I have, see this post.

Thanks: Raymond Landry, Cal Morgan, Reagan Arthur, Rene Crowe, and Marie-Jeanne Trauth.

Dr. John - The Legendary Sessions, Vol. 2 - Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennnack - Touro Infirmary
"Touro Infirmary" (1982)

Dr. John - N'awlinz - Dis Dat or D'udda - St. James Infirmary
"St. James Infirmary" (2004)