Everyone from New Orleans has their own Dr John song. Mine is World I Never Made, which he recorded a year after Hurricane Katrina.
By the summer of 2006, my family and some friends had moved back to the city, but most of it remained derelict. Entire neighbourhoods were still without power. Turn off your headlights, and you'd be shrouded in silent, utter blackness. Sometimes, my friends and I would do this, and listen to music. It was some odd way of reflecting on what was lost.
Dr John was normally such a joyous performer — that gravelly voice evoking afternoons in the riverfront Woldenberg Park with a warm beer, the loose piano the equivalent of a half-remembered sticky night in the Marigny. So to hear him sing a lyric like "I'm a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made ... There's no one here who knows me / And no one here I know" in the inky night encapsulated the feeling of terror, hopelessness and loneliness we all felt after the storm.
The musical legend died last week of a heart attack at 77, leaving a treasure trove of songs reminding us to live every day as if there won't be another.
To many New Orleanians, Dr John was New Orleans.
It wasn't just the way our mothers would say his name with their slight Creole accents ("Doctah John," as Mindy, my own mama, is prone to pronouncing it) or that he was a ubiquitous presence at Jazz Fest and the city's many other celebrations. It wasn't the sense of civic duty he showcased when leading protests against the Government and BP in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Spill.
It was the way he kept burrowing down in the city and its sounds, even after he went national with the release of his 1968 debut, Gris-Gris, which would bring New Orleans R&B closer to the mainstream than it's ever been.
Malcolm John Rebennack jnr fell into drug addiction and petty crime when he was still a teenager — he switched from guitar to piano after a gunshot wound to his finger — but managed to rise out of it years later.
New Orleans has a nickname that feels like a double-edge sword: The City that Care Forgot. It can mean the city feels carefree, or it can feel that the world forgot about it. Dr John perfectly embodied this thought.
What's so astonishing about Dr John, and what makes him particularly special to New Orleans expats is how he managed to break into mainstream music without compromising his roots or losing his identity. New Orleans is a deeply insular city. When its culture manages to escape the city, it's often co-opted by big corporations trying to profit from nostalgia.
And Dr John could have done just that, too. After all, he first broke big by mixing the city's sound with psychedelic rock. He rubbed shoulders with stardom, appearing in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, jamming along with The Band, playing with everyone from Eric Clapton to Bruce Springsteen to the Allman Brothers, even recording Disney songs such as Bare Necessities. He departed the world having earned six Grammy awards.
But he also clung fast to his unique voodoo persona throughout his career, often wearing colourful headdresses or wild fedoras along with neon-colored suits onstage, where he was sometimes accompanied by a live snake. (He was really into snakes.)
He spent his life reminding expats that our city makes us special and the pride we have in it was never misplaced, even as it was dealt death blow after death blow. Instead of writing Billboard-charting rock ballads, he finished his career mining the traditional sounds of New Orleans, incorporating everything from funk to chants by Mardi Gras Indians into his music, which he played with homegrown icons such as the Neville Brothers and Pete Fountain.
And when asked by Rolling Stone if he could become more popular playing more typical rock songs, he gave an emphatic, "No! If you're gonna get off on somethin' you don't need to know nothin' about it, music is a universable language," he said in his distinct dialect.