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You can have your “Monster Mash” and your Spooky Sounds sound effects records; pound-for-pound, spell-for-spell, I think Dr. John’s debut 1969 record, Gris-Gris, is the spookiest album ever recorded. It’s my number one go-to album to create an atmosphere of supernatural otherworldliness.
Spell-for-spell, Gris-Gris, is the spookiest album ever recorded
Around All Hallows Eve, they say the invisible wall that separates our physical world from the realm of the spirits becomes thin and permeable, allowing us mortals to parlay with the dead and, perhaps more importantly, allowing the dead to freak us out. The reason for the season is communing with the unseen, and with Gris-Gris on the sound system, every day becomes Halloween, no backwards-masking required.
But to be clear, when I say “spooky” I don’t mean “evil”—Gris-Gris’ theatricality carries a feeling of menace and danger, but it never resorts to cheap scares or dime-store “Satanic” bull. Crafted by a group of New Orleans exiles in Los Angeles, led by a hustling musician named Mac Rebennack, and cobbled together in-between sessions for the likes of Sonny and Cher, Gris-Gris is part miasmatic séance, part ritualized jam, and in just about 35 minutes it opens a window into a truly occult world—it’s the soundtrack of being initiated into something heavy, and once you’ve been brought into the fold, you can’t ever be the same ever again.
This isn’t mysticism of the hippy-dippy, peace and love variety; this is something darker, with a little more street and a little more blood in it. It’s on this record that Rebennack took on the name of a legendary New Orleans root doctor named Dr. John, fused the myth and legend with his own knowledge of the deeper mysteries of his hometown, added a little bit of showbiz spice, and created more than a character—he made himself a whole new identity that he inhabits like the best Halloween costume ever. Played loud enough, Gris-Gris feels like a summoning, a magical working, and you can hear the history and the hustle throughout the record.
The record’s opener and thesis statement, “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya,” lays its intentions out plain: you’re being introduced to a new type of society, a demimonde that only a few people get a chance to enter; a slinky, echo-filled backing track accompanies a rasped/sung/chanted advertisement for the services of one Dr. John, your friendly neighborhood conjurer and root doctor, a spiritual fixer who’ll solve your prosaic, everyday problems (bad lover, bad boss, etc.) for the right price. Other tunes—“Danse Kalinda Ba Doom,” “Croker Courtbullion” and “Danse Fambeaux”—are ecstatic, psychedelic B-horror movie underscores, perfect accompaniment for dancing naked around a bonfire in a plastic monster mask.
This is the type of voodoo that your pastor warned you about
Even the tracks that could almost be crack pop songs, like the lo-fi junkyard funk of “Jump Sturdy” and the percolating, hazy afternoon groove of “Mama Roux” have a whiff of the thrilling and the illicit. And the album’s epic closing track, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” finds Dr. John returning, not to invite the listener into the fold but to give warning in hypnotic hepster speak: if you try to get over on him, it’s at your own peril. It’s a trance-like, dirge, driven by shuffling percussion that vibrates the air and makes everything hazy. It’s an ominous threat delivered with a wink and a smile, and something that sounds like it comes from the type of voodoo that your pastor warned you about. It sounds like it could snuff out any candle in the room, and it’s spooky as all get out. When it’s over and the room fills with an ominous silence, I defy you not to glance over your shoulder, looking for something lurking there.
And if you see something staring back at you, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.