Dr John, photographed in Glasgow, Scotland in 2005. The beloved fixture of New Orleans music died June 6, 2019.
The music legend, guitarist, piano man, jive talker and psychedelic godfather Malcolm John Rebennack – better known as Dr. John – died “towards the break of day” on Thursday, of a heart attack, a statement has confirmed. He was 77.
That last bit of information was something only discovered, or at least disseminated, late last year, in fact: In his fantastical 1994 autobiography Under the Hoodoo Moon, Dr. John had declared his birth date as “just before Thanksgiving 1940.” But in a column for the Times-Picayune published in November 2018, author John Wirt unearthed a birth announcement from the same paper 77 years earlier: Mac, as he was colloquially known, was actually born November 21, 1941. The factual fluidity was, in its way, appropriate to an artist who lived and worked in the shifting, hip space of the trickster, and also to one who was as iconic of New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, to whom his final album, 2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat… (The Spirit of Satch) was a tribute. (Armstrong’s real birthday was misreported for decades, too.)
Mac Rebennack started out in New Orleans as a teenage guitar slinger in the ’50s, hanging around the Dew Drop Inn, a historic black nightclub (where he received hassle more than once from police enforcing the Jim Crow laws that regulated interracial gathering), and doing session work at engineer Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studios in the French Quarter. The Dr. John character – hoodoo mystery and cool – was originally developed for his bandmate and old Jesuit High School classmate Ronnie Barron, with whom he played in the R&B group Ronnie & The Delinquents. Barron had a record contract that stopped him from taking on the role, so Mac absorbed it; as the story goes, it was during a fight that broke out after a dance he played with Barron that Mac was shot in the finger, prompting his switch from guitar to piano.
It was that altercation, plus a stretch in a Texas prison on drug charges in the mid-’60s, that prompted Dr. John to join what had become a solid community of New Orleans musicians, including Sonny & Cher musical director Harold Battiste and Wrecking Crew drummer Earl Palmer out in L.A., where he appeared on sessions with artists from the tripped-out girl group The Cake to a young Rickie Lee Jones. Also in the ’60s, of course, he introduced his cosmically cool Night Tripper persona – draped in robes and feathers and gems – and released a run of enduring albums that combined swamp grooves and psychedelic sparkle for the Atco label in the ’60s and ’70s, starting with 1968’s Gris-Gris and running through 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo, the title of which, a mix of old Creole slang and his own signature tongue-twisted hipster patois, gave the music festival in Manchester, Tenn., its name.
Stonewall Inn nightclub raid on June 28, 1969. The crowd attempts to impede police arrests.
New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Just about 50 years after New York police clashed with gay rights activists at the Stonewall Inn, the city’s police commissioner, James O’Neill, has apologized for the department’s raid on that tumultuous night in 1969.
Department officials have expressed regret about the aggressive crackdown in the past, but they have never went so far as to apologize for the raid, until now.
“The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple,” said O’Neill at police headquarters on Thursday. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize.”
A man walks past New York’s Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 uprising considered the birth of LGBTQ movement.
Before the police stormed Stonewall, it had long been the scene of police harassment, but just after 1 a.m. on June 28, 1969, police descended on the bar in hopes of closing it down for good. They began handcuffing people, many on no particular charge. And in response, patrons fought back. They pushed down police, tossed bottles and bricks and did everything they could to resist until police retreated, according to NPR interviews with raid witnesses.
The riot became a watershed moment that sparked nationwide demonstrations by LGBTQ activists demanding equal rights.
“Almost overnight, an incredible number of new gay and lesbian organizations were established—by some counts rising from 50-60 groups before the uprising to more than 1,500 a year later,” according to New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission.
The Stonewall riots happened in a decidedly different era. Leading psychologists viewed homosexuality as a mental disorder and people were routinely arrested for cross-dressing or showing affection. Bars like the Stonewall Inn often operated unlicensed and in the shadows.
The infamous clash with police has long been a painful chapter in the gay rights movement, even as laws and society have extended greater protections to the LGBT community. And so, to gay rights activists, the police commissioner’s apology on Thursday was long overdue.
“It took 50 years to get an apology for this? It’s just amazing. It’s unfathomable to me,” Mark Segal, a gay activist and journalist who was at the Stonewall Inn during the raid, said in an interview with NPR.
Police participate and help secure the annual gay rights parade remembering Stonewall, though the lack of a formal apology from the department over the 1969 raid has remained a point of tension.
Hopefully, Segal said, the law enforcement mea culpa, a rare occurrence, especially over an incident that happened nearly a half-century ago, can work toward dissipating some of the lingering discontent.
“This means a lot to LGBT youth,” Segal said. “Some of them want to go into law enforcement, and this can make them feel welcome.”
James Fallarino, a spokesman for NYC Pride, which produces the annual parade, said while the statement will not undo decades of discrimination that the LGBT community has suffered, the apology from law enforcement is a significant development.
The LGBT community will “continue to demand better treatment by and improving relationships with the NYPD and other branches of law enforcement,” Fallarino said in a statement. “That relationship has reached a turning point, and we hope that this gesture will allow for even more dialogue moving forward. “
Millions of people from around the world are expected to be in New York for this year’s World Pride events that commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
And while Segal said O’Neill’s apology will help work toward closure, he is calling on O’Neill to appear during the June 30 pride parade and apologize in person, something O’Neill has not committed to.
“We’re all going to be there, come on over and say hello to us, apologize face to face,” Segal said. “That would mean something to us.”
June marks the beginning of a summerlong celebration in which LGBTQ members and advocates across the country will hold events and march in parades.
Segal said O’Neill’s statement could inspire police departments in other cities that may have similar strained histories to re-evaluate their relationship with the LGBTQ communities in their cities “and realize that if the commissioner in New York can make an apology after 50 years,” he said. “Maybe they can do a little better on their end.”
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Thomas Hofeller once referred to the drawing of legislative districts as “the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States.” The late Republican strategist’s work may now be undone.
An ice cream truck makes its way through the streets of Brooklyn, New York, in June 2007. On Wednesday, city officials announced they have begun to seize vehicles involved in an alleged scam to avoid nearly $4.5 million in traffic fines.
Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press
Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press
I scream, you scream, New York officials scream for ice cream truck owners to stop scamming the city out of millions of dollars in fines.
On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced officials began seizing 46 ice cream trucks in a crackdown on operators who allegedly schemed for years to skirt 22,495 summonses and avoid paying nearly $4.5 million in traffic violation fees.
Investigators involved in Operation Meltdown said a group of owners conspired to create dozens of shell companies between 2009 to 2017 to escape paying tickets for a rainbow-sprinkle of violations, including running red lights, parking near fire hydrants and blocking crosswalks.
“We all know from common experience that ice cream trucks are magnets for children,” said Zachary W. Carter, the city’s corporation counsel. “In order to protect this particularly vulnerable category of pedestrians, our traffic laws must be strictly enforced.”
In a lawsuit filed last week, the city accused the truck owners of systematically re-registering trucks at the Department of Motor Vehicles under the names of various phony corporations. The rapid transfers of ownership “are intended to and do interfere with, thwart, hinder and delay the City’s collection of judgment,” the documents said.
When the Department of Finances tried to collect the debts officials found the debtors never had bank accounts, and any trace information to the corporate defendants no longer existed.
The city targeted what it called “the worst offenders” — people with more than $10,000 in judgments or fines.
“No New Yorker is above the law – especially those who try to ignore public safety laws and create dangerous situations for pedestrians, bikers and drivers,” de Blasio said. “This seizure marks the end of the road for these scofflaw ice cream vendors.”
The Federal Communications Commission is pushing phone companies to implement robocall blocking services by default.
Your phone company may start blocking robocalls without you needing to ask for it.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission passed a ruling that allows and encourages phone companies to block robocalls by default.
“We think these actions will help consumers in the near term and the long term to get the peace and the quiet that they deserve,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
At the moment many phone companies offer services that block robocalls, but consumers have to specifically ask for it, and often pay for it. The ruling requires companies to inform consumers of the change and give them an option to opt out of having their calls blocked.
Robocalls are a rising nuisance in the U.S. and many of them are illegal scams. The call-blocking company YouMail estimates that there were some 4.7 billion robocalls placed in the U.S. in May alone.
The FCC has long encouraged phone companies to take firmer action on robocalls and Pai describes stemming scam robocalls as his “top consumer protection priority.”
But historically, phone companies have appeared reluctant to take sweeping action against them — in part, because it’s not always easy to determine which calls consumers would actually want blocked. For example, some people would want an automatic call reminding them to pay an overdue bill, while others might find that call irritating.
While the FCC now says that the companies are specifically allowed to block robocalls by default, it’s still a question about whether they will be sheltered from legal liability if they block a call that the consumer wants or needs. The FCC has proposed offering a legal “safe harbor” if the companies are using an authentication framework encouraged by the commission that can verify whether a call is actually coming from where a caller ID says it is. That part of the FCC’s proposal is heading to the public for comment before it can become official.
“I think safe harbor is extremely important to the carriers because they don’t want the liability for something going wrong because they blocked a call that matters,” Alex Quilici, a robocall expert and the CEO of YouMail, tells NPR.
The ruling appears to leave the determination of what calls to block up to the companies, saying that must be “based on reasonable call analytics.”
Quilici expects companies to proceed cautiously with implementing new services. “My prediction is that carriers roll things out slowly,” he says, and they’ll likely focus on the calls that are clearly illegal. “I think it’s going to be a much bigger challenge for carriers to get comfortable at blocking a lot more robocalls by default.”
USTelecom, a trade group that represents telecommunications providers, called the FCC’s ruling an “important step.”
It acknowledged there is more work to be done, but stressed that “greater flexibility for carriers is a win for consumers.”
The ruling also opens the door for companies to offer an even more restrictive option for consumers: The FCC says providers can offer consumers the option of only allowing calls from numbers that are on their contact lists.
It’s worth noting that the ruling does not mandate that companies provide the default call-blocking service for free, though it does say that it “would expect most if not all” providers to do so.
That was a disappointment to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat. She voted for the ruling but dissented on the part about cost: “I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up.”