Saturday, February 18, 2012

Memphis Rock City

In the early to mid-1980s I played guitar in several bands in Memphis. I was a pretty good guitarist—as soon as one of my teachers at the old Pickin’ Post on White Station heard me play, he got so excited that he called for one of the other teachers to come to the little room in which I took lessons to hear me play too, and they soon found themselves agreeing that I sounded like some famous blues musician whose name I had never heard of and cannot now recall—but I was never that serious about it (especially once I started taking classes at Memphis State), and I was certainly more straight-laced than the other musicians with whom I found myself playing. Whenever we went out to the North End or the P & H Café or the Antenna Club, I was always the one who went home early, which was to say before one or two in the morning. Yet one or two of the musicians I played with were very good friends of mine, and through them I found myself moving in circles that occasionally brought me into contact with the hippest bands and musicians in the city. I once, for example, spent an entire afternoon talking about music in the midtown apartment of the drummer of the most popular group in Memphis at the time, the Crime. I even once found myself at a nighttime party hosted by Tav Falco, who sometimes collaborated with the late Alex Chilton, in his loft apartment on Front Street. (Back then, having a loft apartment on Front Street was the ultimate in hip, something only what we called “bohemians” did.) It seems that anybody who was anybody in the local music scene at the time was at that party, including at least two people who appear in It Came from Memphis, the remarkable book by Robert Gordon under review here (Tav himself and Lorette Velvette).

When I reflect on all that and think about the curious and intellectually inclined person that I was (and still am), I realize that I should have entered my twenties knowing all about the history of Memphis music. But I did not. For some reason, I didn’t bother at the time to educate myself about the subject. But that is precisely the point. For anyone who came of age in Memphis as I did between 1975 and 1985, one had to educate oneself, to deliberately seek out information, about any history of Memphis music that extended beyond Sun Studio—and by that I mean merely the existence of the studio, not the long roster of musicians who recorded there and the songs that they recorded—and Elvis Presley. Such an education would not have come naturally, in the normal course of one’s knocking about the city, or listening to the radio, or hearing one’s elders talk. Back then, all your typical Memphian—at least your typical white Memphian—would have known about Memphis music was Sun Studios and the fact that Elvis Presley had recorded his first records there. Your typical (again, white) Memphian would have heard of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Rufus Thomas, B. B. King, and Isaac Hayes—those seven exactly—but the precise connection of those musicians to Memphis music would have been vaguely known at best. Your slightly less typical white Memphian would have heard of Stax but would have been hard-pressed to name any song that had been recorded there. I, for instance, had heard of Stax, but I could not have told you where it was, and its razing in 1989 passed without my notice. Even less typical was the white Memphian who was aware of Ardent Studios, and less typical still, who had heard of Big Star or Alex Chilton, who recorded at Ardent. The point is that Memphis neglected and often disparaged and even ridiculed its musical history. When Elvis died in 1977, my friends and I (we were about twelve at the time) regarded him as a fat old man who was always going to the hospital for one thing or another; to us eve-of-pubescent boys, the King was just this side of being a laughingstock. I still remember sitting on the sofa in the carport watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver and Hogan’s Heroes that warm Tuesday afternoon with my friend Harold Dewein when news flashed across the bottom of the screen that Elvis had been taken to the hospital. What else was new?, we said to each other. We probably even laughed. That evening, after news of his death had sunk in and hearing one Elvis song after another coming from the television in the wood-paneled den, I lay on my little twin bed in the dark and cried for what must have been hours.

For anybody who wants to educate himself about Memphis music, there are now a few good books, and Robert Gordon’s is my favorite of them. As soon as I opened It Came from Memphis, which was first published in 1995 by Faber and Faber and was republished in a slightly updated version by Pocket Books in 2001, I knew I had to purchase a copy for myself, if only for the annotated bibliography, discography, and videography, which runs to seventeen pages and where we learn, for example, about Charles Raiteri’s Red, Hot & Blue, a CD that contains on-air recordings of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, the first disc jockey to play an Elvis record on the radio. On the recordings we can hear Dewey doing his thing--and what a rip-roaring thing it was. Boisterous, loud, rowdy, Phillips was to broadcast booths what Jerry Lee Lewis was to pianos. We learn too about Old Hat Records, which issues recordings of the jug band music that used to be a staple of Beale Street, and about Calvin Newborn’s self-published book about his musical family. In short, Gordon knows where the goods are, and his knowledge is amply displayed in his book.

Gordon is a music writer’s writer; his book sidesteps the obvious and well-documented subjects of Memphis’s considerable musical past and instead takes readers on a tour of the musicians who didn’t hit the big time—at least not in the way that Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash hit the big time—but who figured into the national music scene nonetheless, a scruffy, tough, and colorful band of men and women (although there are only a few of the latter in Gordon’s book) who, despite their hard-living, rebellious ways, were serious in their conception of themselves as heirs to the musical traditions that had arisen in the cotton fields surrounding their metropolis on the river. Any city would be fortunate to claim the musical history documented in Gordon’s book; to claim that history and, on top of it, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Isaac Hayes, et al., borders on the unimaginable.

Following an introductory chapter, Gordon’s book begins with the hyperactive Dewey Phillips (no relation, by the way, to Sam Phillips, of Sun Studio fame), whose style was so unconventional and out-of-control that, as Gordon writes, it took “forty years of corporate rock and roll to rebuild the walls Dewey Phillips broke down.” Gordon then turns his attention to the late Jim Dickinson, who, Gordon writes, “learned the ropes as the ropes were being strung.” Dickinson was one of those musicians--and there are many of them--whose influence and involvement are all out of proportion to their obscurity. He played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans”; he produced the Replacements 1986 album Pleased to Meet Me; he was close to Bob Dylan, who called him a “brother.” Next we learn about the Mar-Keys, the white band whose lineup included Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, who both would later form one-half of the legendary Stax house band Booker T. and the MGs, the half-black, half-white band that wrote and recorded what has to be the most-played instrumental in history, “Green Onions.” And at that point we are not even a quarter into Gordon’s book. Still to come—and what follows is a partial list—are Ardent Studios, where the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements, ZZ Top, and Travis Tritt have recorded; Furry Lewis, the country blues guitarist who opened twice for the Rolling Stones; the Box Tops, who had a number-one hit in 1967 with “The Letter”; Chips Moman, at whose American Sound Studio “The Letter” was recorded (and at which Elvis recorded “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “Kentucky Rain”); and the late Alex Chilton and his band, Big Star. (I could go on and on about Big Star; on my last day on earth, I want to ride around the streets of Memphis with my old friend Rusty in his mother’s Catalina convertible, listening to Big Star. Readers who do not know Big Star may know one of their songs, “On the Street,” as the theme song of the hit television show That 70s Show.) We even encounter the famous photographer and Memphis native William Eggleston, who was a good friend of Alex Chilton and who took the photograph of the red ceiling and its shade-less light bulb that is on the cover of Radio City, the band’s second album.

Most of those musicians and places appear again and again throughout Gordon’s book, which deals mainly with the Memphis scene in the 1960s and 1970s. It Came from Memphis is loaded with stories told in the words of the many musicians, producers, sound engineers, and others who were there—in the studio, at the concert, in the club—as the events unfolded.

The strength and value of Gordon’s rollicking book lie in two things. One his linking what was happening musically in Memphis with the social context out of which the music came. Gordon is not an outsider to the musicians and events he describes in his book: he grew up in Memphis and, at least as of 2001, still lived there; he ran around with the people who figure into his story, and he understands Memphis like few other writers I’ve encountered. “A town of donut shops and churches,” he says aptly of the Bluff City during the era he writes about. (A lamentable update: today, the churches are still there, but the donut shops are far fewer in number, many of them replaced by Checks Cashed operations.) In his introduction he gets right to the conflict between the races that defines the city to this day--and that is responsible for the music that came from Memphis. “The evil behind that word [nigger] lives and breathes in Memphis. The city was built on that word. Rock and roll is a response to that word. . . . On the streets today, the populations mix, but it’s a surface politeness, a charming civic trait. Oppression is not unique to Memphis, though it is neatly encapsulated there. It’s the sort of environment where great art develops in obscurity.” Or as Jim Dickinson explained in reference to a failed attempt by the city in the 1980s to engineer a music renaissance in Memphis, “The diametric opposition, the racial collision, the redneck versus the ghetto black is what it is all about, and it can’t be brought together. If it could, there wouldn’t be any music.”

The second reason Gordon’s book is so valuable has already been alluded to: it brings together in a single volume a vast number of recollections and stories, eyewitness accounts of the music and its making. For example, in the chapter that deals with the recording of Big Star 3rd in 1974, we of course hear from Alex Chilton, but also from John Fry, who engineered the recording; Jim Dickinson, who produced the album; and Danny Graflund, who was, of all things, Alex Chilton’s bodyguard. (I was surprised to learn that Chilton had hired a bodyguard. Apparently, he did so simply because it was the thing to do, not because he feared for his safety.) The impression one gets is that Gordon has, for four decades now, been recording and compiling the accounts and recollections of the many people who have been or are still making music in Memphis. I say “the impression one gets,” because Gordon is unclear about his sources. But that is as it should be: It Came from Memphis is not a scholarly treatise. It is an energetic, sensitive, and yet at times critical account by someone who cares deeply about the musicians, the music, and the city from which they came.

I began this post by saying that as soon as I opened It Came from Memphis, I knew I had to buy a copy for myself. I really should have said that I knew I had to buy again a copy for myself. I owned one when it first came out, in 1995, but a few years later I loaned it to a young woman who has begun to make for herself a successful career as a writer. I don’t blame her; It Came from Memphis, once one gets his or her hands on the book, is, despite personal evidence to the contrary, hard to part with.

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