#143: Dr. John, "Gris-Gris" (1968)

143 Gris Gris.jpg

by The Kentucky Chapter of the What’s On Fire Cabal: Moonshine Edition.


I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity, but they’ve always worked for me.    

                                                                                           —Hunter S. Thompson.


Maybe you saw him too, this old man with crow-footed, opalescent eyes that told about a life lived hard. To make the rent or earn enough for  a bite to eat, he’d picked up daywork at a paycheck loan place over on Broadway. They had him standing out on the street in a Statue of Liberty costume—green robe, foam spike headdress—flapping a sign around, inviting the tired, the poor, the prospective debtors to come on in and get robbed some more. His white mustache twitched around as he danced a little shuffle dance in traffic. Then, turning on his heel, he took off running, all hobble foot and spent white sneakers, to or away from something only his eyes could see, his robe trailing behind him like a wake.

A woman pedaling a souped-up beach cruiser with chopper handlebars, turquoise scarf around her neck, wearing shades and with a little miniature pinscher running full tilt on stiletto legs alongside her didn’t take notice as Late-Capital Liberty Man passed by like she was standing still: a fucked up little tableau to accompany the steady drone of drive-time news radio, which any shrink worth their framed diploma would tell you will grind you down to pulp with implicit and explicit threats of mass annihilation, dissociation, alienation, and chaos rendered as a tune that can be remembered almost well enough to hum along with.

I came home, got out of the truck, and nearly stepped into a string of party lights, the kind woven into a tiny copper wire, solar powered and ethereal, the kind you’d hang in the forest for a springtime fete, or a woodland fairy party. Lit up and dying in winter gray evening, they’d tangled into a circle of dim light in the gutter right next to a Ziploc bag full of hard candies. Some damned psychic foxhole, some decoy trail laid by a malicious, B-list, fifth grade conjuror.

Look, there’s probably witchcraft in the world. It’s just something that a person has to come to terms with by and by. The strange attractions, the blinking shadows that flutter at the edge of a memory which maybe was not a dream, named and nameless intuitions that come up unbidden. You’re not wrong. Your juju meter works just fine. Strange things are afoot.

Do you need an amulet to protect you against cold-sweat shiver magic? Ones and zeros that divide and never multiply?  Do you need a tour-guide, a translator, a pusher, a hustler, a heavy? A hand to hold as you pass through strange smoke? Can you swallow your dose of Snake a la Gris Gris?

The Night Tripper is as old as his tongue and older than the rows of gator teeth strung around his neck. Shake his hand and look close in his eyes. Hear his elevator sales pitch introduction, side one track one. Take his card: They call me Dr. John. Known as The Night Tripper. I got many clients come from miles around runnin’ down my prescription. I got medicine to cure all y’all’s ills. I got remedies of every description. Gris Gris gumbo. Yah Yah.

You could put the calling card away, listen to this record alone and stone sober, and your thoughts may come to rest on the appearance of cartoonish invocations of the exotic, or the illusion of physical space rendered by the newly developed stereophonic multi-track recording systems of the 1960s, or characters cut and pasted out of 19th century minstrel shows and New Orleans hoodoo lore. You may get to thinking about the difference between appropriation and organic synthesis, or the implied pastiche of cathedral service, voodoo ceremony, and midnight ramble, or the collusion between escape, evasion, invention and transmutation. But maybe every conjuror begins as a charlatan. Maybe all itinerant preachers keep some hooch in the glovebox. Wouldn’t any of them find perfect, well-worn comfort in the avocations of the other? You may conclude that all these thoughts are reason enough to never listen to Gris Gris alone or sober, and you’d be right: it’s not what the record is built for.

Gris Gris is made for many hearts in a room, many shoulders to shimmy, many legs to dip at the knee, to bring each ass down to the floor and back up. Grease magic only works when it’s shouted loud in the weird, good company of friends and strangers who might get freaky. Soon. The record needs a crew to be heard, and so does a discussion of the record. So, a creek-witch who you love beyond measure may walk down the street to poach some freaks from a hobo fiddle party, may bring them back for a word experiment, a spell casting, a listening party. Having summoned individuals and invoked a community—Gris Gris devotees and novitiates alike—and calling to order The Provisional Sub-Committee on Experimental Semiotics of the What’s On Fire Cabal, she may provide the following clear instructions: “Close your eyes. Listen close. Feel this Gris Gris at the base of your spine. Let it fill you up. Respond as you see fit.”

We eleven could have danced about it, but, for the sake of exploration and edification, we sat down to a candlelit table, passed a pipe, drank from a cold glass jar of moonlight and Dr. John (they call him The Last of the Best. They call him The Gris Gris Man) called up a collective grammerie between us, Exquisite Corpse style, in which each mind is once removed from the others and still, invariably, successfully, operating in synchrony toward a description of the numinous and nebulous.

Presented here without further comment.


All I want is to touch, find the seam, cut the cord,
roll it out, and walk it back to when the music ends.

Grease desire was not really my experience, but his breath smelled of roses
rotting, gracefully, and that’s something special: returning to soil.

Unless we seek the absolute end, no one will know what to
think about how come you got here so fast.

Hunting is cleared first with the hunter.
You fasted through the night but were always full up.

The empty limbo choir city didn’t stop me, I sang so:
Devils. Night. The South. Next time, azure.

Though them in the creek float, we take this
to the river. We take this home with us.

You are the goddamn best.
You, bouncing into blows.


Moonlight of
Good Lord love,

some good love comes
easy then, poof:


There wasn’t ever a yellow brick,
not for miles, and behind belle eyes,

tears, shame,
triumph, and will.

When the door opens,
it will not be thrown wide,

not all the way,
but it will remain cracked.


Dwayne Michael Chest Rose Up From Only Ashes

We lived in swamps and we all nearly died except
for the serpent king who said,

Let me know the way—straight or winding—is at least
tender and slow. Let me just wander into beautiful

bosom beneath kudzu jacket.
Cover me. Cover me up. Whole.

No dancing. Try not to dance, cool creep.
Just slide into constant echoes.

The reverberating death sound of those
who rattled, who stepped, who battled.


Valley of Smoke

They disappeared occasionally:
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, mostly Tuesdays.

Started the week without
everything they wanted but thanks

for how our feet tripped by better steps.
Some come crawling, dripping beautiful and tired,

falling into blind walk quicken up
and chime brings

the bang for free,
brings the blast man.

Dweebs, don’t talk smack.
Dweebs, don’t talk.

A party of devils and dweebs and
everyone closes their eyes.

Apple bob lead me to a portal. 

Sincerely, First Evil.


—Joe Manning