"An emotional map of musical Memphis. If you don't know these characters, let Robert Gordon introduce you." Elvis Costello
"Robert Gordon's book is proof that Southern heritage is American heritage, and all sorts of peopleblack and white, familiar and strange, dead and aliveare what it is." Greil Marcus
Profiles and stories of Southern music from the acclaimed author of Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.
The fabled city of Memphis has been essential to American musichome of the blues, the birthplace of rock and roll, a soul music capital. We know the greatest hits, but celebrated author Robert Gordon takes us to the people and places history has yet to record. A Memphis native, he whiles away time in a crumbling duplex with blues legend Furry Lewis, stays up late with barrelhouse piano player Mose Vinson, and sips homemade whiskey at Junior Kimbrough's churning house parties. A passionate listener, he hears modern times deep in the grooves of old records by Lead Belly and Robert Johnson.
The interconnected profiles and stories in Memphis Rent Party convey more than a region. Like mint seeping into bourbon, Gordon gets into the wider world. He beholds the beauty of mistakes with producer Jim Dickinson (Replacements, Rolling Stones), charts the stars with Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star), and mulls the tragedy of Jeff Buckley's fatal swim. Gordon's Memphis inspires Cat Power, attracts Townes Van Zandt, and finds James Carr always singing at the dark end of the street.
A rent party is when friends come together to hear music, dance, and help a pal through hard times; it's a celebration in the face of looming tragedy, an optimism when the wolf is at the door. Robert Gordon finds mystery in the mundane, inspiration in the bleakness, and revels in the individualism that connects these diverse encounters.
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About the Author
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GIVE ME SOMETHING DIFFERENT
A story: well into his career, my friend and mentor Jim Dickinson was feeling embittered, was complaining about some music business bullshit. His pal cut him off, saying, "You were fortunate enough to witness the end of something truly great" — referring to the gradual dissolution of the original Memphis blues giants in the 1960s — "and you were intelligent enough to understand some of it." Memphis has always been willfully ignorant of the transcendent artists walking its streets, willfully negligent of the African-American culture that produced them. Jim had experienced a fleeting treasure that too few appreciated, a treasure no one could gentrify. The assessment chastened Jim, and bolstered him. It reset the context of everything.
I came along in Dickinson's wake, when many of the greats had already passed away — but not all of them. Not all by a long shot. When I first began hanging out at bluesman Furry Lewis's dilapidated duplex, I wasn't yet old enough to drive and it was harder for me to get a ride to that part of town than it was to buy Furry's pint of Ten High bourbon.
I'd learned of Furry at an outdoor Rolling Stones concert, Memphis, July 4, 1975. Mick Jagger delayed the band's performance until the sun went down, mistakenly assuming night in Memphis would be cooler and his makeup wouldn't run. To assuage the young audience's simmering restlessness, the Stones sent across town for a solo blues guitarist, about eighty years old, named Furry Lewis.
For this fourteen-year-old among fifty thousand rednecks on that hot football field, hearing Furry was life changing. The concert was an all-day 1970s spectacle, with three bands opening, plus the unscheduled bluesman. I'd enjoyed the warm-up acts; their big rock and roll sounds were just like their recordings, only livelier. But Furry's playing was unlike anything I could have anticipated; the still, small voice after the raging storms. His rhythms were slow, his songs full of space, his notes floated in the air. His music summoned us listeners instead of dazzling us with its size and force. His voice and laugh, the way the slide over his finger could elicit a moaning human voice from the guitar — there was an immediacy to his art that the Stones' big production could never match. The pageantry of the bands inspired awe while Furry's intimacy let me feel the wrinkles on the hands wrapped around the guitar neck, the texture of the strings; he let me hear the human being. The raw power of Furry's personality was so infused into his music and stories that his songs became his life, and he took me places I did not know, to times I couldn't have experienced. Transubstantiation.
I think I was familiar with the blues at the time — Memphis called itself "home of the blues." But I hadn't considered that the bluesmen might be alive.
And still playing.
In my town.
Thereafter, I was a seeker.
Less than two years later, a group Dickinson played in named Mud Boy and the Neutrons took the stage at a civic blues festival on Beale Street. This was 1977, my first time seeing Jim perform. Mud Boy was a bunch of white bohemians who'd come up playing alongside elderly black bluesmen in 1960s coffeehouses, creating new friendships that defied long-standing rules of segregation. But they were rockers. Mud Boy sounded like what the Stones would have if the Brits learned the music at the feet of the players instead of from black vinyl platters. Rather than spectacle, Mud Boy honed personality, allowing space for the music to breathe. I could hear Furry at the core of Mud Boy's music even though their instrumentation and presentation, with dancing girls shaking their moneymakers in the bright light of day, was much nearer to the Stones. The festival promoters, however, were less enthused by Mud Boy's raucous, lascivious take on the blues. This was a family event. Backstage, a band ally, Danny Graflund, heard the developing kerfuffle and ran onstage to whisper this little power-packed poem into Dickinson's ear:
They don't like the rock 'n' roll.
They don't like the dancing girls.
They're gonna pull the plug.
Midsong, the massive speakers crackled to silence. Catcalls and boos erupted from the audience. The band, incensed, shouted from the stage ("Tear down Beale Street, the symbol of oppression!"), and they paced like animals newly caged. Violence in Memphis is always on a patrolled simmer — this was less than ten years after Martin Luther King had been assassinated five blocks away — and cops assembled down front. The crowd was unforgiving, and as the tension mounted, I felt the bonding of mob mentality, the sense that this mass of angry, slightly drunk people could erupt. There were negotiations onstage and off, then the band reassembled — without the dancers — and the crowd's fury never ignited. I remember thinking that behind the near riot, at the core of Mud Boy's sound, was the power of Furry's solo blues.
As I got deeper in, my interest in the mainstream and what was popular went out the door. I was hooked on the feeling of the blues, on having my soul rattled instead of my bones. Rock and roll is hormonal fireworks, a temporal shout at earthly limits (which is why parents rocking out is so funny to kids). But the blues is a more sustained illumination, against the humiliation, rage, and sadness of life, and in turn invests the artist with not eternal youth but a scarred mortality, blessed with poetry.
The blues felt like home, even though my actual residence was a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom version of the American dream complete with private schools, summer camps, and professional parents. I responded to the power of the blues, though I did not experience that kind of want. My father was an attorney and my mother had her master's degree and worked as a speech therapist. (Rebellious, I've stuttered all my life.) We had income enough to live in lovely suburban homes in nice neighborhoods. My brother and I had our own bicycles and bedrooms. We had money, we didn't suffer need, we felt safe.
I began listening to the radio late in elementary school to get in with the cool kids. I was an outsider — in addition to my speech impediment, I was Jewish with uncontrollable curly hair. The barber rolled his eyes when I asked him to cut my hair like Johnny Cash. Rough as grade school was, the situation got more difficult among the preps at my private high school. I wasn't the football-playing, blue-eyed kid that sang in the church choir.
In Memphis, African-American music and culture was all around me. The city's population has long been split fairly evenly between black and white. The downtown streets were racially mixed, and by my teens, the most blatant displays of segregation — blacks stepping in the gutter so whites could pass on the sidewalk, or performing the crushed deference that racist whites expected from all African Americans — had largely retreated. But segregation's hold was still endemic, evidenced by the racial exclusivity of neighborhoods; the money was still in white hands. Which meant "race mixing" would persist because the whites would hire the blacks at low wages for menial domestic labor. Jim Dickinson used to say we — meaning the white kids — got it — meaning the blues — from either the yard man or the maid, because these were African Americans with whom white kids had daily contact in the familiar space of home.
I got it from our housekeeper, Odessa Redmond. Odessa came to work for us in 1967. She'd quit her job in a high-end kitchen because her boss had cussed her, using the N-word. She answered our newspaper ad and worked for my parents for three decades. Odessa maintained the house, but her influence extended beyond the kitchen and laundry room. She didn't have the authority my parents had, but she was only once removed, and she could instruct and discipline me and my brother. Her husband was a city sewer worker, and the city regularly cheated him, making it difficult to collect full-time pay despite the full-time job. Odessa would occasionally share with us incidents of social humiliation — sometimes by friends of ours. As a child, I accepted this contradiction about the world: Racial prejudice was wrong, but it was universally accepted.
We learned from Odessa, and yet there was this: She picked up our dirty underwear from the floor, washed it, and put it back in our drawer, folded. She sometimes missed dinners with her family to serve Jewish holiday dinners at our house; sometimes her kids would help, which could mean we were served by our peers. That made me uncomfortable, but it was also a stark lesson in the haves and have-nots. Whatever the 1967 passing of the Civil Rights Act meant in Washington, D.C., in Memphis in the early 1970s, this was our normal. Skin color in the American South was still the first and ultimate signifier (even before gender) and pretty much everything was determined by that. That doesn't mean that love and kindness didn't exist, that relationships didn't thrive, that hearts didn't rebel against dehumanization. But by participating in the racial caste system, we validated it. We rejected its unfairness and its ugliness, but we were also a part of it. Reflecting, I marvel at the dignity and wholeheartedness of Odessa and her family, and I'm grateful we were able to love and be loved by her.
The hours we spent with Odessa affected not only how we kids saw the world but also how we heard it. When Odessa drove us to swim team practice, her car radio played black gospel. When she ironed clothes or cleaned the house, she hummed gospel melodies. (A gospel song without words sounds very much like a soul song.) When I got excited by the outlandishly funky Stax Records entertainer Rufus Thomas, both as a singer and as a local shill on TV commercials, she encouraged my interest. Over the years, I just kept getting in deeper, finding more folds beneath the surface, understanding through individual lives how racism had expressed itself, how it had metastasized and damaged the structure of society — and how society had done shoddy repairs that created ever more problems.
The defining moment of race in my Memphis childhood was the 1968 sanitation workers' strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King. I was seven years old. Six weeks in, garbage rotting in the spring heat, Dr. King arrived to lead a community march and the city's simmer boiled. The National Guard was called; I remember my mom aghast at seeing tanks on the main streets where cars usually traveled. To counter the violence and to reestablish the peaceful nature of his work, Dr. King called a follow-up march. I remember the massive April snow that postponed the second march, the snow that gave time for the assassin, James Earl Ray, to get to Memphis. I remember, days later, learning the word curfew when Dr. King was murdered, when martial law was established in this place that proclaimed itself the "City of Good Abode." At that young age, I felt race through three main channels: the riots outside, Odessa inside, and a music I would come to think of as the soundtrack of the two colliding.
When I next encountered Furry, he was performing during lunchtime at my high school to a crowd of about fifty. An upperclassman had brought him; he told me, I just called him, here's his number. Furry invited me to visit (he asked for that pint and also a raw Wendy's hamburger; I had them cook it a little bit). When I sat in Furry Lewis's duplex, I was keenly aware of the distance between his home and my comfortable suburban life, the ten miles stretched immeasurably if calculated by race, economics, age — so many differences. He'd worked for more than three decades as a street sweeper, and when he retired, a white boss looked at his wooden leg and said if he'd worked all that time as a gimp, he couldn't have done the job right — pension denied.
I visited Furry many times, my naïveté slowly ebbing. We would sip Ten High, and when he'd set his shot glass on the nightstand by his bed, he'd top it with a jelly jar lid. You see someone do this enough times, you've got to ask. He had a craggy voice, wore thick eyeglasses, and would often refer to himself in the third person. He answered, Furry's eyesight ain't too good and he don't want to get bit by a spider when he takes a sip. That was not a problem we had in my house, and it took a moment for me to digest all that it implied — that the spiders in his place were rampant enough to be a problem in his tableware, that he couldn't afford a pest control company or proper eyeglasses, that he'd probably been bitten on the lip or had a close call. All my other friends were middle class, and most of the old people I knew were related to me. Furry not only made me question my assumptions, he made me aware of the privilege that produced them.
I began to connect the art to the life, to understand how Furry's circumstances — his ramshackle dwelling and his history — were reflected in his songs. Furry's music was an extension of his life, defined by geography and temporality. He played what the rural Mississippi Delta land evoked. And demanded. His banter in the 1970s was direct from the medicine shows he'd worked in the 1920s, when he'd engage a crowd that — black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural — convened to buy medicinal hooch. Furry adapted to modern times — electric guitars, urban and suburban audiences — but what he played sprang from particular conditions in a particular place; not just the absence of wealth and comfort but the presence of distress and discomfort, the realities of poverty and the joys of transcending it, even if only for a moment. Blues is the mind's escape from the body's obligation. Blues amplifies the relief whenever and wherever relief can be found. The scarcity of that respite makes it ecstatic.
The more I sought, the more there was to find. When I'd return after moving to the East Coast for college in 1979, the magic and the substance of what I'd tapped into at home was in high relief. I dug deeper into the marginal characters who were inspiring the contemporary culture — even as that same culture shunted them aside. Their shadow influence captivated me, and soon I was writing about them for magazines.
I'd thought I was going to be a fiction writer, but one day in the early 1980s — when I should have been making career moves and my parents were concerned about my foggy future (I was happy in my foggy present) — my father suggested I write about some of the unusual figures I'd come to know in Memphis such as Furry Lewis or barrelhouse piano banger Mose Vinson, whose face hung on his skull like three sheets to the wind.
In Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, not Philadelphia, Mississippi), after college, I began to write for a neighborhood weekly. I did one article, maybe two. A friend invited me to dinner and another guest was Ken Tucker, then the pop music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. We had fun telling Alex Chilton stories, and when the night was through I asked Ken if he ever hired freelance writers. He told me to bring him my clips.
I did. It was the right place and time, no talent or experience. The published material was not about music, and the one music piece was an unpublished interview transcript with the then up-and-coming indie band Camper Van Beethoven. The deal was, Ken was having kids and didn't want to cover late-night shows anymore. He asked me if I liked Sonic Youth and I told him I loved Sonic Youth. They were playing that weekend at a punk club, so he would cover Journey at the Spectrum and be home asleep before my show began. I left my meeting at the Inquirer and went to my punk rock roommate, Eddie "Hacksaw" Richard, and asked if he had any Sonic Youth records — I'd never heard of the group.
My first big lesson as a writer came with that review's publication. Untrained, I'd fashioned a piece that built to a climactic image — Sonic Youth leaving the stage, a boombox at the center playing Madonna's "Into the Groove." When the piece ran, the last line was lopped off to make space for a lingerie ad. I thought what was left made no sense and went to a friend's older brother at the paper to vent.
Don't worry, he told me, it's just words.
Even after all these years, I still find that advice liberating. For one thing, the power of the printed piece would overcome: Most people wouldn't notice that anything was missing, they'd just finish the article and go to the next page ... after studying the lingerie ad. For another, all words are not created equal. Some can be cut without diminishing the piece, but others are worth fighting for. Since then, I've been easy to edit.
Excerpted from "Memphis Rent Party"
Copyright © 2018 Robert Gordon.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: Give Me Something Different 1
Sam Phillips: Sam on Dave 11
Jim Dickinson: On the Edge 20
Ernest Willis: Mississippi Reverie 36
Mose Vinson: No Pain Pill 44
The Fieldstones: Got to Move on Down the Line 47
Lead Belly: Nobody in This World 52
Robert Johnson: Hellhound on the Money Trail 61
Junior Kimbrough: Mississippi Juke Joint 78
Charlie Feathers: The Onliest 86
James Carr: Way Out on a Voyage 96
Otha Turner's Fife and Drum Picnic: Let Us Eat Goat 112
Mama Rose Newborn: Useless Are the Flowers 121
Townes Van Zandt: All the Federales Say 135
Jeff Buckley: Northern Light 140
Bobby "Blue" Bland: Love Throat 147
Tav Falco: Panther Burns Forever Lasting 153
Jerry Lee Lewis: Last Killer Standing 166
Cat Power: Kool Kween 186
Jerry McGill: Very Extremely Dangerous 200
Alex Chilton: No Chitterlings Today 206
Afterword: Stuck Inside the Memphis Blues Again 213
A Note on the Photographers 223
Digging Deeper for Different-Further Listening and Reading 225