Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Dancing at Angkor Wat

Back in 1990, after I'd returned from Japan and needed to stimulate both brain and wallet, I did some substitute teaching (supply teaching for UK readers) in the Memphis City Schools. Some of this consisted of gigs at my alma mater, Central High School, which was a strange experience, having not set foot in the building in nine years, and now returning as "The Man". It was in this context that I first met a teenage Steve Selvidge, who still refers to me as a substitute teacher.

On my first morning I was signing in in the office when I saw in the corner of my eye one Elizabeth "Libby" Williams, the Spanish teacher that I and many of my friends had teased and generally tormented for three years. I smiled at her, but she completely blanked me, walked across the room to punch her time card, and back turned, said loudly amid the buzz of teachers and students, "They must be scraping the bottom of the barrel on substitutes these days." Then she turned, strode towards me and said, "I hope they give you hell," then abruptly walked off. I approached her with caution later in the break room, but she smiled and explained that she had only sought to deliver a small fraction of the payback I was due. We actually developed something of a friendship over the next few days while I was there.

One other place I did substituting was at Sheffield High, which was a hub for English-as-a-second-language instruction, which was something I was interested in and vaguely suited for, having just spent two years doing it, or attempting to do it when so allowed, in Japan. Most of the kids in the classes were from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, countries Memphis had seen steady immigration from since 1975, when Fort Chaffee, Arkansas was converted to being a processing and relocation center for refugees from the war. The kids in this class were later arrivals, and some of them were of mixed parentage (local with black or white G.I.) and had probably seen and experienced things which don't bear much thinking about. There was a Cambodian kid in one class who seemed a bit older than the others (my guess was 19 or 20), and had a couple of tattoos, which were not fashion statements among most teenagers in Memphis in 1990. His English was also much better than the others', because he had come through Thailand and then Hong Kong, where he obviously had a chance to learn some English. He was very outgoing and told me that as a young boy he had swum across the Mekong River in his escape from Cambodia - a feat comparable to swimming across the Mississippi at Memphis, not to be advised. I wonder what ever became of him.

I've always been fascinated by Cambodian musical culture since first encountering it, particularly the lost cousin of the blues now epitomized by Kong Nay, who appears in the excellent film "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong," which I saw recently and highly recommend. I recently stumbled across this gem from 1965, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performing at Angkor Wat, which is amazing, if a little long-winded. A reminder of the time before everything went so spectacularly and savagely wrong.

Scenes from London life

Lordship Lane Santa

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Flotsam, jetsam, diamonds and dregs

As Hank Williams used to be fond of saying, "If the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise," two weeks from this Friday night I'll be playing my first live gig in about 15 years, with Linda Heck and The Train Wreck reconstituted, along with some special guests. To say that I am looking forward to it would be an understatement of epic proportion.

Those of you who have been kind enough to follow this blog so far will have noticed that the vast majority of what I've written so far has been in the nostalgic memoir vein, casting an eye back to a time and place long gone - the Memphis music scene in the 1980s and early 1990s - and my involvement in it. It was never my intention that this blog should be entirely devoted to documenting the past, but it seemed like a good place to start, and I certainly needed to get these memories and anecdotes down, for a variety of reasons. It was something I had been promising myself I would do for a long time, and I have very nearly completed the task.

However, the posts I've made so far have really covered the deeper and more enduring musical relationships I enjoyed/endured. There were many, many more which were fleeting, tenuous, short-lived by design, or some combination of all of the above. I think it's fitting to put this walk down memory lane to bed as we approach a new year and I prepare to re-enter the Memphis music present, if only fleetingly. This post is a mostly chronological round-up of other bands and recording projects with whom I had some involvement over the years. No names have been changed to protect the innocent. There are no innocent.

Barking Dog - Prior to my friend Mark Edwards and I meeting Linda Heck and forming Pseudobop, probably late 1981/early 1982, I received an invitation to audition as second guitarist for the then-popular Barking Dog, comprising Davis McCain on guitar and vocals, Deck Rees on bass, and Robert Bruce on drums. I still had the shitty little amp which I had received with my first el-cheapo Stratocaster copy when I was 14, and it proved to be inaudible to the rest of the band. They liked me but made the fair criticism that I needed to be heard. This was my inspiration to go out and buy a largely troublesome Fender Super Reverb amp, but they ultimately decided to opt for a keyboard player - the excellent Keith Tomes, who is now married to the sister of my schoolmate Greg King. Wise choices all around!

Shock Opera - One of the many bass players in Pseudobop, Sean Kerr, formed a band around 1984 called Shock Opera (not these guys), with David Skypeck on drums, a keyboard player named Hugh, and a guitarist whose name I can't remember, and whom they apparently wanted to get rid of (which explains my presence in the story). They had somehow gotten a budget together to go into the studio and make a record, with Richard Rosebrough (whom I always liked) engineering and Busta Jones producing. We laid down some basic tracks ("Happy Ending" and "African Telephones" are the only titles I can recall) at Phillips Recording, which was my first time in that amazing place. We later did a long session at Mastercraft Studio on Cleveland the night before I had a final exam. I remember sitting in the corner behind my amp reviewing my notes and textbook while Busta Jones (who seemed to be milking his recent association with Talking Heads) insisted on the most exhaustive drum miking/baffling/sound-checking in the history of recorded music. At one point he went out for some reason, and we actually cut something. When he returned, with a girlfriend in tow, he was most unhappy that anyone had done anything in his absence. I was most unhappy with the way things were progressing, or not, as it were, and subsequently declined further participation. The record eventually came out (I even had a copy at one point), but I think most of my guitar parts were wiped, and Kye Kennedy (my junior high classmate) was drafted in to play some proper guitar.

Satan's Bedpan - This was a name I stole from Ross Johnson, rather shamelessly, but it was just too good to allow to lie dormant, or so the younger me thought. In retrospect, it was probably a little out of order to appropriate it, but after all, it was only for one night in 1985. Ross played drums, Jones Rutledge played bass, and I played guitar and sang - the only time I have played lone front man. We did all covers, a mixture of things like Talking Heads' "Heaven," The Velvet Underground's "Candy Says," The Beatles' "If I Needed Someone," The Doors' "Five to One," and Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced." I had my horrible multi-effects box in full, uh, effect, and it was noisy and a bit silly at times, but not at all bad. We were opening for Chris Lea and the Moonlight Syncopators on a weeknight at The Antenna.

Possible Fossils - Back in the latter days of Four Neat Guys (1985), John McClure and I had a mutual friend named Rusty Smith (with whom I have completely lost contact - if you're out there, give me a shout), who in turn had another friend named Jeff Denson, a guitarist. Rusty had some lyrics and melody ideas, which we put together into a small batch of original songs. I think we only played a couple of shows - one at a party at my girlfriend's house, and another at the old Prince Mongo's Planet on Front Street. My brother also played there a number of times with his high school band. It was a very strange venue, with the stage up in the gallery above the ground floor, so the band was only visible to people standing right at the back of the bar near the exit, and the audience was largely invisible to the band. We had one or two songs which were fairly good, one of which I made a demo of with Rusty on vocals, and me on guitar, bass, drums, and harmony vocals. I believe it was called "27 Years," but I have always thought of it in terms of its tag line "She's got a new set of dreams."

Harris and the Hepsters - (This memory is classified as a stub - you can help improve it by pointing out any missing info/errors.) The inimitable and irrepressible Harris Scheuner fronted a couple of bands in the late 80's, Los Pimpin' and Harris and the Hepsters. I occasionally played drums with the latter. Other members I can recall included bassists Dave Wiggins, David Pound and John McClure (not all at once), and guitarists Randy Reinke and Mark Harrison (am I imagining this?). I remember gigs at Fred's Hideout and one outside in front of a dry cleaner's or hair salon of some sort on Union Avenue near Overton Square.

Big Mouth Bass - This was a one-night-only outfit sometime around the same period, fronted by Belinda Killough on vocals, with Harris on drums, an odd dual-bass pairing of Linda Heck and me, with John McClure on guitar, and I think Randy Reinke too. An opening gig for someone else at the Antenna, my only recollections are that Belinda had a bottle of wine shaped like a fish, and we played Gene Pitney's "It Hurts to be in Love" and "Fight the Power" by the Isley Brothers.

The Marilyns - I was never in this group, but I was a huge fan and friend of the band, and made a quick-and-dirty four-track recording of them at Jim Duckworth's house in 1988, before I left for Japan. The band at that point had a triple guitar lineup - Cheryl, Leigh Anne, and Marilyn Albert (then Duckworth), all of whom sang, along with Jeannie Tomlinson on bass and vocals, Betsy Elias on keyboards, and the late Thomas Smith on drums. The recording we made was very basic, but I liked the feel of it, because it captured the real sound of the band. It was all recorded live, with a few vocal overdubs added. The cassette was "released" on a fairly limited basis, and once again, I once had a copy, somewhere. I think there were about eight songs, of which I can only remember "Libertyland" (an ode to Memphis' white trash attempt at a theme park), "Quit" (which was like a cheerleader routine - "Quit, quit, q-u-i-t"), "Nutbush City Limits," "I'll Blow You a Kiss in the Wind" (a Boyce and Hart song which had featured in an episode of "Bewitched") and a haunting love song called "Back from the Grave."

The Menstrels - Upon my return from Japan in 1990, I was much more musically promiscuous than before, probably because there was more happening on "the scene," and also because I knew more people. I could be wrong, but I think one of the first things I got involved in was at a Hell on Earth show in 1990. I came back from Japan with a beard, and I kept it for a while, which was a bit awkward given that this was a drag band. Mike Cupp (a.k.a. Mick Cock) and Geoff Marsh, both formerly of Four Neat Guys and now of the spectacular Whateverdude, Randy Reinke, also of Four Neat Guys, and I appeared as "The Menstrels" (spelling?). The three front men were fully decked out, including heels and fright wigs, but I, as the drummer, decided to pay homage to one of Memphis' legendary female drummers, Misty White, of Hellcats and Alluring Strange fame. Back during those days, I frequently remember seeing Misty in a black turtleneck, cut off army fatigue trousers, and wing-tip brogue shoes, all of which I had in my own wardrobe. So I arrived at Hell on Earth in all of the above, with a long blonde wig, plus a rock tied around my neck with some twine (instead of a crystal). It was a pretty perfect rendition, except for the beard, of course. Misty's twin sister Kristi walked up to me and asked, "Who are you supposed to be?" I asked her to take a step back and think about it. She burst into incredulous laughter and told me I was a wicked man. I seem to remember Misty actually liked it, and there may photos somewhere of us together

Slaw - Another project I got involved with was Slaw, which featured the double-threat of Marilyn Albert and Elizabeth Pritchartt on guitars and vocals, the wonderful Greg Easterly on bass and occasional violin, and me on drums. I think we only played one or two shows, and I can't recall any of the songs apart from "Captain of Your Ship." I particularly liked the idea of being in a band where the members had absurd names, mine being "The Slaw," a title I still fiercely defend to this day.


Snakehips/Compulsive Gamblers/The Grifters - My largely painful forays into the tenor saxophone with The Grundies and The Bumnotes generated a surprising level of interest from other bands looking to add some shitty, unstable and skronky horns to their sound. Among them, I occasionally played live with both Snakehips and Compulsive Gamblers, and recorded evidence (incriminating or otherwise) can be found on "Walk Down the Street" on the Snakehips album "Lit," and "Bad Taste" by the Gamblers, which appears on Shangri-La Records' "A History Of Memphis Garage Rock: The '90s." I also played in the skronky horn section with Fields Trimble, Jack Adcock and Robert Gordon on the song "I Arise" from the Grifters' album "One Sock Missing." This track, unusually, was recorded in the back room of a flower shop on Poplar, where David Shouse worked at the time.


Feisty Javelinas - Another side project where I played drums, The Feisty Javelinas, was a short-lived band comprising Randy Reinke and culinary genius John Pearson on guitars and vocals, Alex Greene (of Big Ass Truck and Reigning Sound fame) on keyboards and vocals, David Pound on bass, and me. The material was a refreshing melange of slightly offbeat country music, including "White Line Fever" (one of my favorite Merle Haggard songs), George Jones' "Developing My Pictures," and a lot of other interesting tunes which I can't remember at the moment. I can only remember one or two shows with this band, but I do recall that Cheryl Paine made the front men some very ornate (but I assumed ironic) Nudie's-style western shirts, which they wore with pride.

Bob's Lead Hyena - One of Memphis' best bands of the early '90s, the original lineup was former Odd Jobs co-front Stoten Outlan on vocals, Mark Gooch (also an Odd Jobs alumnus) and Jim Duckworth on guitars, Roy Berry on drums, and a guy I only ever knew as Hippie Johnny on bass. They pretty much emerged at the same time as The Grundies, and we all knew and liked one another. I thought their song "Jelly" was particularly fine. At some point Hippie Johnny, who was a pretty formidable bass player, decided to move back to, I think, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the band needed a bass player. By this time Jim Duckworth had also left. I knew their songs from having seen them live and also listened obsessively to a tape of them playing live on WEVL, so I floated the idea of at least filling in. We rehearsed a couple of times and sounded pretty decent, and I think there was an impromptu small gig at Mark Gooch's Sad Pad. However, there were clear expectations from Mark that I should focus on one band (his), but I thought musical monogamy was overrated, and still do, so I withdrew.

An All-Gourd Band - Strictly speaking, this was a mostly gourd band, not an all-gourd band. Mark Gooch and my friend Jack Adcock both made instruments from gourds, often sourced from Jeff Green's backyard, where he had a large patch on the go at the time (1993 or thereabouts). I had a gourd saxophone and a gourd spike fiddle made by Jack, and Mark had made a very nice flute, sax, and also an upright bass (from a calabash) with a proper neck attached. The band itself was Mark on gourd flute and sax, me on gourd spike fiddle, Craig Shindler on gourd bass, Lee Swets on Fender bass, and the spectacular Roy Berry on drums. We played one gig as far as I can recall, at some wealthy person's house in East Memphis, who booked us as a "wacky novelty" and looked vaguely uncomfortable when the rag-tag mob actually turned up. We also made a recording, "O My Calabash," which can be found on the Loverly Records compilation. While the band churns away in a pseudo-jazz vamp, Trey recites a Polynesian poem, an ode to a calabash, which was used as a navigation instrument: "My calabash turns over and over on the crested waves/Oh my calabash, revealing the naked wisdom of the stars/Oh my calabash, bringing me a brother's life-saving love!"

Whew, I think that may be it, just maybe. It may not have all been good, but it was all fun, at least for a little while, sometimes longer. If you can think of anything or anyone I have left out, let me know. I'm really pleased to have reached the end of my nostalgia tour before heading back to Memphis to embrace the musical present/future on 01/01/10. Hope to see you there.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Mid-South fair 1975

Photo badge of my dad and me, Mid-South fair, 1975

Life, Libertyland and the pursuit of happiness

I used to love the Fairgrounds and Libertyland, and I wasn't alone. Formidable Memphis band The Marilyns had a great song dedicated to our shabby little theme park. The Zippin Pippin in particular was a delight (hell, Elvis liked it), certainly one of the world's great historic roller coaster experiences, and the subject of this tribute by the inimitable Misty White. However, in my humble opinion, one of the finest-ever moments of the Mid-South Fair was the unveiling of a life-size statue of Dolly Parton, sculpted entirely in butter. The old ways are dying...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

London life meets Memphis life

New Year's day flier

Looking forward to this more than I can say. Jimi Inc is my nom de plectrum. The venue used to be known as Fred's Hideout, which has appeared in previous posts. Lots of history in the background, but this show will really be about the present, and the future. Hope to see you there.

Monday, 30 November 2009


"Happiness is within you, and it can be today." Hot damn, Linda Heck Trio (Linda Heck, John McClure bass, Kurt Ruleman drums) with special guest Jim Duckworth live at Nocturnal (The Antenna Club) Memphis, 28 November, 2009. Wish I'd been there. This was always one of my favorite songs to play, and the only way it could possibly be better is if I'd been singing harmony. And Linda moves now - she didn't move before...

Scenes from London life

Clapham Common

Friday, 27 November 2009

My grandad's W.P.A. joke

I wrote previously about my maternal grandfather's personality change later in life, and the fact that while it ultimately led to a sad place, the journey itself contained quite a lot of humor. Last night I remembered another joke he told during this period. I got the impression from listening to him talk about life during the Depression that there was a lot of satire around the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), which, no doubt, did an awful lot of good work, but also seems to have been regarded as being prone to overstaffing - for obvious reasons. My grandad's joke was an example of what must have been a much wider tendency to poke fun at the W.P.A. during the New Deal.

An old man with a large front lawn looked out his window and realised that the grass in his yard was nearly knee-high. Because he was old with a weak heart, he didn't want to risk cutting it himself. His neighbor suggested that he call the W.P.A. to see if they had someone who could do it.

"Hello, is that the W.P.A.?"
"I was wondering if you could send someone over to cut the grass in my front yard. It's gotten out of control."
"Sure, give me your address and we'll send over four men and a Johnny-on-the-job."
"Four men and a Johnny-on-the-job? What do I need all that for?"
"Well, sir, that's one comin', one goin', one restin', and one mowin'."

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Thank You Friends

My fourteenth year of fish and chips on Turkey Day. A happy Thanksgiving to you and your'n!

Scenes from London life

Dreamland is now closed

Monday, 23 November 2009

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Bumnotes/drum circle/Skronkadelic: 1990 - 1994

When I returned from my second stay in Japan in late summer 1990, I was thinner than when I left and had a pretty full beard, which I had insisted on growing in my second year on the JET Programme, mainly to piss off some of the conservative ideologues in the local office which had hired me. We're not talking ZZ Top, but nevertheless a respectable beard. I think I had only been back in Memphis a day or two when I went to see a band, I believe it was K9 Arts, at The Pyramid Club on Madison downtown. The Pyramid was a venue which had sprung up in my absence, about which I had heard varying reports, and my sense of displacement when I got there was heightened by the fact that my beard seemed to make me unrecognizable to a large number of people I had known for years. I decided to just roll with it, as a kind of experiment, and for most of that night, I felt like I was in some sort of parallel universe where I did not exist. Like George Bailey, or some sort of ghost.

It had never previously occurred to me that only two years away from Memphis would make re-entry such a strange experience. Time may flow slowly in Memphis, but it flows nevertheless, much like the Mississippi, which appears placid at the surface, but deceptively hides violent churning currents beneath. When you take yourself out of it, you may think that you can return to the place you left and dive back in, but it doesn't work that way. At least not for me, it didn't. As an older man, I now take all this for granted, but the younger me found it all a bit jarring.

Familiar music venues had gone, and new ones sprung up. There was the scene taking shape around Shangri-La and its emerging aspirations as a record label. The trio A Band Called Bud, which I had seen at Skateland Summer during my summer visit in 1989, had been threatened with legal action by Anheuser-Busch and had since become a quartet known as The Grifters. There was a definite sense of momentum building in the music scene, of ferment of some sort taking place. New bands, new people, a different vibe. Most of the musical projects I had been connected with were either on hold, defunct, or only required sporadic input from me. I would have to explore something different.

The Grundies and the revitalized Linda Heck phase was yet to come, and I started hanging out with my old friends Jack Adcock and Amy Blumenthal (now Adcock), who at that time lived in an oddly shaped building in an oddly shaped part of town - the forlorn virtual no-man's land between Union and Madison west of Forrest Park downtown. This area had seen widespread property accumulation in the 1970s and 1980s by some of Memphis' most prominent real estate speculators, in anticipation of some sort of boom which never materialized.

Jack and Amy lived on Marshall, around the corner from both Sun and Phillips Studios, and just down the street from the Bluff City Body Shop where the early Hell on Earth events took place. The body shop itself was adjacent to another locus of music making and band formation, Mark Gooch's loft space, also known by many as "The Sad Pad." Mark was the guitarist in legendary 1980s Memphis band The Odd Jobs, and also in the fantastic, but far too short-lived early 1990's band Bob's Lead Hyena, the drummer of which was Sad Pad resident Roy Berry, now of Lucero, and certainly one of the most interesting and refined drummers I have ever had the pleasure of hearing and playing with.

Mark Gooch also had one of the greatest guitar anecdotes I have ever heard. As I recall it, he had, as a teenager, owned a Gibson SG, which was stolen sometime in the 1970s in a burglary. Sometime in the early 1990s, he had walked past a pawn shop and seen an SG hanging on the wall through the window. Feeling nostalgic, he went in and had a look at it. Realizing that it was, in fact, his long lost guitar, he informed the pawn shop owner, went home to find the original purchase receipt with serial number, involved the police, returned to the shop, and reclaimed his guitar.

Anyway, back to Jack and Amy. I had known Amy since my university days, and I had met Jack back during the early days of Linda Heck and The Train Wreck. They had gotten together personally and musically, and their oddly-shaped apartment on Marshall had a sizable rehearsal room for the various things they were involved in. One of these was The Bumnotes, which had formed some time earlier, I don't know exactly when, how or why. However, the lineup during my involvement with the band was usually Jack on percussion and occasional drums, Amy on bass, Randy Uhlig also on bass, the incredible Bob Elbrecht on guitar, Wally Hall on vocals, slide guitar, and keyboards, Joey Pegram on drums, Brian Collins (who had played with Jack in 611, the first band to release a single on Shangri-La Records) on guitar and vocals, and me on tenor sax, percussion, guitar, or drums.


The mention of Randy Uhlig indirectly brings to mind another amusing anecdote. Randy, who has been involved in the production of many Memphis films, also played the A&R man in the Roy Barnes film "Gone Down South," which features the Hellcats. Besides contributing an awful faux speed metal song to the soundtrack, which Randy's A&R man character plays for the Hellcats as an example of the kind of music he produces, I also contributed some sound effects for the film. These included a radio DJ voiceover used in the film, featuring WEVL announcer Catman, a German rockabilly enthusiast and tour promoter who was married to Barbara Pittman. (I never knew Catman's real name, but in writing this piece I have discovered it is/was Willie Gutt.) Catman was to come to my apartment on Forrest one evening to record the voiceover, and Roy arrived earlier to work on some sound effects with me first. My downstairs neighbor at the time was a very straight-laced and highly strung young woman, and unfortunately, Catman had gotten the apartment number wrong and knocked on her door first. She opened her door to find a fairly muscular German with greased-back hair, leather jacket, and motorcycle boots, whose first words to her were, "I'm looking for a guy named Barnes. He's makin' a movie." She apparently said, "Leave now or I'll call the police." God knows what she thought was about to take place upstairs, but it was nothing more exotic than Catman standing in my closet while he recited his DJ rap into a mic.

But alas, I once again digress. The Bumnotes used to rehearse at Jack and Amy's place every Monday evening, which made a nice start to the week after a first day back at work. We played gigs mostly at The Loose End/Epicenter Lounge, Antenna, and Barristers, and our material consisted of a roughly equal split between improvised psychedelic/ambient instrumental jams and psychedelic and blues covers. I recall we also once played a gig in the heat of the midday sun during the summer, on Mud Island (beside the River Walk model, not in the amphitheater, sadly). Jack, who is originally from Louisiana and has a wide range of unusual sayings, was suffering in the heat, and in a quiet moment blurted out, "I'm sweatin' like a whore in church!"

Most of the band's material escapes my recall, but I remember we had a great version of Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" which featured Bob's scintillating guitar playing and Wally on vocals. There is also recorded evidence in the form of a number of live recordings I have on cassette but have not listened to recently, as well as two tracks recorded at Easley-McCain for the Loverly Records compilation: a Yoko Ono song called "Move on Fast," with vocals by Brian Collins, on which I play sax; and Butch Hancock's "Boxcars," with vocals by Wally Hall, on which I for some mysterious reason ended up playing Hammond organ, and it sounds surprisingly good.

I think it was sometime around 1992 that Jack and Amy moved to a house on South Cox in the pre-gentrification Cooper-Young neighborhood, and I began joining in with their Sunday afternoon percussion group, which typically featured them, Joey Pegram, Amy's brother Mike, Memphis artist David Hall, and sometimes the amazing Richard Graham, who in addition to being a very talented percussionist, is also a serious scholar of Latin percussion traditions. We played a variety of traditional African, Asian and Latin instruments, but Jack, who was always a very enthusiastic and energetic experimenter, had also made a variety of instruments, including berimbau, spike fiddles with gourd resonators, slit drums, a diddly bow, a kora, and a peculiar instrument called The Hell Harp, which consisted of the gas tank from a pickup truck with a metal arch welded on, from which a number of guitar strings were strung and anchored in the gas can resonator. It was played with a bow, and genuinely sounded like something from the bowels of Hades. Joey Pegram and I had both learned to throat sing around the same time, and I have some recordings made at the house which feature this along with the unusual mix of instruments on hand at the time.

The drum circle, which never had a proper name, played a number of public shows, all of which were organized by Richard Graham. One was during the dinner hour at the refectory at Rhodes College, wherein we marched around tables of very unimpressed frat boys and sorority girls playing our miniature version of a Brazilian batucada ensemble. This lineup was also featured in a performance in Handy Park on Beale Street, during the Memphis in May festival in 1994, when we accompanied a large steel band from Trinidad on a version of "Brazil." We also played at the Overton Park Shell opening for a children's percussion and dance ensemble called "Watoto d'Afrique."

In early 1991, I decided to create a free-jazz big band for one performance. I had for some time thought about this, and had earmarked the name Skronkadelic for such an event - a combination of Funkadelic and the word "skronk," which I had heard Robert Palmer use to describe the less melodic sounds produced by wind instruments. I managed to convince about 20 people to join me in this enterprise - most of them amateur or non-horn players, but with John McClure on bass and I think both Ross Johnson and Keith Padgett on drums, Jack and Amy on percussion, and accomplished alto sax player John Ingle joining as well. I came up with some suggestive titles and general instructions to give the players, and we just played, with me playing tenor and attempting to guide/conduct them. Some of the horn players thought the point was to play as cacophonously as possible throughout, but the others got the idea as we went along. It was fairly chaotic, as I had expected, but there were moments of beauty.


As the flier states, our performance of February 2, 1991 was to be a debut/farewell performance, which was my intention and recollection. However, I recently came across a second flier, from an apparent second show in April of that year, of which I have no recollection. It could be that what I recall as the single show is an amalgamation of memories from both. If anyone out there took part in either and can clarify what went on and who else was there, I will amend the post accordingly. (UPDATE: Jill Johnson has pinged me to remind me that a scaled down version of Skronkadelic played with the drum circle at her apartment during a Cheap Art event. I think the lineup was me, John Ingle and Fields Trimble on horns, with Jack, Amy, Joey and David Hall (?) on percussion.)


Jack and Amy remain good friends across the Atlantic in coastal Virginia. I always highly valued their companionship and generosity during my time back in Memphis, and our various musical adventures and misadventures. They also turned me on to some great music along the way.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Friday, 13 November 2009

Drivin' Nails in My Coffin

God, I used to love seeing The Country Rockers live, and I listened to this album obsessively when I was in Japan in 1988 - 90. Doug Easley had kindly sent me a copy of it (it was recorded at his studio, of course) on cassette, and on the flip-side was an interview Robert Gordon had conducted with the band, mainly Sam Baird (guitar, vocals) and Gaius Farnham, a.k.a. Ringo (drums, vocals). As I recall, Sam spent some considerable time talking about how wrestling was probably fake, while Gaius complained about the sizes of buttons on his shirts - he had very short fingers, which is where the nickname "Ringo" apparently came from, way before the lovable Liverpudlian - or so it was claimed. There was more to it than that, but those are my stand-out memories. I also recall Ron Easley (a.k.a. Durand Mysterion, bass, vocals, guitar) recounting how he had discovered Sam and Gaius (who I think was about 74 at the time this track was recorded) playing in some strange bar in South Memphis somewhere, and decided to take them under his wing. Thank God he did, because they were an absolute delight. This was about as real and elemental as music has ever come, in my book. Sam played a strange, cheap, generic electric guitar which I think I can recall seeing in the pages of a Fred P. Gattas catalogue as a kid, and apparently used to cut his guitar picks out of the tops of the plastic lids on Folgers Coffee cans. Gaius once told me he hadn't changed the heads on his drums (which were sheepskin) since the early 1960s. "There Stands the Glass" and "Barrooms to Bedrooms" were always my favorites, but this will more than do - even better that the TV Sam is watching in the video belonged to my friend John McClure. (The notes to the video on the YouTube site are enlightening. It turns out that the young Oriental women seen with the band sporadically in the closing seconds of the video, backstage at CBGB's, are none other than Shonen Knife.)

Monday, 9 November 2009

The original WYSIWYG

Scenes from London life


My grandad's naughty joke

My maternal grandfather was very much a man of his time and place. Humble and soft-spoken, he had grown up with nothing in rural Georgia, but was imbued with religious faith and a respect for learning and self-improvement. He was very affectionate to me, and I have very fond memories of him from my childhood. He was typically pretty reserved, and I can't ever remember him swearing or making off-color remarks of any sort.

In the early 1980's, however, he had to have heart bypass surgery, and something happened while he was on the table - something we couldn't ever really work out, and which he could never really articulate. We think he might have regained some level of consciousness while they had him opened up, because he seemed to be very traumatized by the experience. Whatever happened, he was never the same, and his health deteriorated over the years which followed.

But in the months after the surgery, he underwent a fascinating change of personality, partly, I think, due to the cocktail of drugs and steroids he was on, but also, I believe, due to some sort of organic change in his brain resulting from the operation. During this period, he actually became talkative, funny and irreverent in a way we had never seen before. He was dis-inhibited. He told me stories about working in the shipyards on the Gulf Coast of Texas during the war, building destroyers for the Navy, and other adventures he had during his younger life.

He also told a few risque jokes, which was certainly a new twist. These often involved a fictitious character, called "the country boy," who was forever getting into situations he didn't understand and embarrassing himself. I have always assumed that this was an idiom of joke-telling from a time when migrants to the cities from the country were keen to distance themselves from their greener cousins back home. Anyway, one day he told me the following joke, which I still struggle to grasp came from the mouth of my mild-mannered, tee-total, Bible-reading grandfather:

The country boy was in town, and he went to a saloon to drink some beer. After a while he had a powerful urge to go to the bathroom, so he went to the men's room, but the saloon was crowded and there was a long line of guys ahead of him. He noticed the ladies' room down the hall, and because he couldn't wait any longer, and because there didn't seem to be any women in the saloon, he went in, locked the door, and got down to business. Sure enough, just as soon as he'd started to relieve himself, there was a knock at the door. He said, "Hang on, I'll be out in a minute." The woman on the other side of the door was angry to hear a man's voice coming from inside, and she shouted, "Hey, don't you know that thing's for women to use?" The country boy said, "Yeah, I know, but right now I'm peein' through it!"

Strange as it may sound, I've always treasured this memory of him. I have many others which make me smile, but as a 40-something father, this memory in particular resonates because it gives me some idea of what was going on inside his head, of the person he really was behind my idealized notions of a grandfather, and of the power of humor to cope with fear and tragedy.

Scenes from London life

Multimedia message


As any Memphibian of standing will tell you, the other thing, besides music, which made Memphis great was old school professional wrestling. Memphis really invented the idiom, which in those more innocent days, also had its tender, human side, as Lance Russell shows us here at Christmas, 1976.

Scenes from London life

Multimedia message

Walkin'? In Memphis?

Before I moved to London in July, 1995, I spent the last couple of months living in my parents' house off North Mendenhall in East Memphis. The lease on my tiny Midtown apartment had expired, and I needed to save some money, plus it was a good chance to spend some time with them before I flew off to the great unknown Blighty.

One day I felt a bit restless, so I decided to go out for a walk around some of the beauty spots of East Memphis, such as Summer Avenue. Heading back home, I was walking on White Station Road, when in the corner of my eye I perceived a car slowing down next to me at the curb. The passenger-side window rolled down to reveal that the driver was Tommy Hull, legendary songwriter, possessor of a heavenly singing voice, and co-founder of the Randy Band, the first live band I ever saw in Memphis - an experience which changed my life. I had known Tommy for years, and always liked him, and he me, apparently.

He shouted out of the car, "Hey, are you okay?" "Hi Tommy, yeah, I'm fine." "Has your car broken down or something?" "No, I'm just taking a walk." "Get in, I'll give you a lift home." "That's very kind, but I actually want to walk. I'm just out walking for a bit of exercise."

He cocked his head and knitted his brow, uncomprehendingly, and said "Okay, whatever, take it easy." I think I even saw him shaking his head as he drove off.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

My Pal Foot Foot

I remember the first time I played this song for The Grundies' drummer Bob Fordyce. He was mesmerized, and when it was over, he said, "I want to play in a band that sounds like that." I knew exactly what he meant.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Grundies, 1991 - 92

Does anyone remember the Grundies?

The four faces looking out at you from another decade are those of a long-forgotten Memphis band called The Grundies, in their second incarnation. From left to right: Bob "Slyce" Fordyce (drums, vocals), Trey Harrison (guitar, vocals), James Enck (tenor sax, guitar, bass, vocals), and Jeff Green (bass, guitar, vocals). The picture was taken on a very cold night in the winter of 1991/92, in the backyard of Jeff's house on Rembert Street in Midtown Memphis. I lived just down the road at the intersection with Poplar, and the street was also at the time the home of now-eminent music writers Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams, and the uber-talented chef John Pearson. Jeff Buckley also lived on Rembert Street when he made his move to Memphis to record "My Sweetheart the Drunk," in a house that was just a stone's throw from my apartment, though I was already in London by that time. Trey, a very talented and enthusiastic photographer, had brought his camera and some lights over to Jeff's house, and we set up in the backyard to take some band photos. The photo was actually snapped by Bob, which is why he is so far forward in the frame.

The Grundies began as a trio of Bob, Jeff and Trey, sometime in 1990, I think, and by the time I encountered them, they had written and recorded a number of songs at the new Easley Recording studio, two of which ("McLemore Avenue" and "Eyepatch") I later added horns to. I began sitting in with them on tenor sax (which I had acquired from Jim Duckworth and played primitively and often painfully - my primary obvious influence being the squeakier output of Pharoah Sanders), and eventually joined as a fully-fledged member. We had, however, all known one another for many years. I first met Jeff in 1980, when I started working at the barftastic Steak and Ale on Poplar, where he trained me on my first night on the dishwasher. It was also through Jeff that I would meet his classmate, Kurt Ruleman, drummer in my first band Pseudobop with Linda Heck, who now plays with Linda once again. I met Bob sometime in 1982 or so, and I don't remember where or how, but I suspect it might have been because he was the drummer for the great and all-too-short-lived band Shagnasty, which also included Mark Harrison of Snakehips. Trey I knew of, but didn't actually properly meet until 1986, ironically on a trip to see my former Pseudobop band mates Mark Edwards and Richard Young in Berkeley, California.

The Grundies were an interesting musical collision between the primitive and the refined, which generated occasional moments of brilliance and beauty, but was forever on the verge of spinning out of control and crossing the line into The Unlistenable - territory we unfortunately spent a lot of time probing during our live sets. Bob was an exceptionally talented drummer, with formal training gained through participation in his high school's drum corps, and lengthy experience in a number of bands. I was a reasonably proficient guitarist, and had played with a number of bands. Jeff and Trey were much less experienced. Trey had been an occasional member of the Odd Jobs, probably one of Memphis' best, bravest and most challenging bands of the 1980s, but I think he might have only played slide guitar then, and Jeff had never played in a band before as far as I am aware. But Trey and Jeff were both naturally talented and charismatic vocalists, with a highly developed appreciation of the absurd, and this force of personality had instant appeal for almost anyone who saw them play - well, it certainly did for me.

In the first incarnation of the band, sans moi, this tension between experience and raw enthusiasm created an interesting dynamic, with the drums really providing the focal point for the listener in search of movement and accent, because most of what was going on with the bass and guitar was very stripped down indeed. I have a tape of the original Grundies sessions at Easley, which contains some fantastic performances, which I hope to obtain in digital format at some point.

For my money, the definitive Grundies song comes from these sessions, and it is called "Fire in the Driveway." The performance is fast-paced, with the guitar recorded very hot, and Trey's characteristically powerful vocal dry and right up front, with fantastic drum fills from Bob during the frequent stops. It is a concise and irresistible encapsulation of The Grundies' proposition - simple, hard-rocking, and absurd:

Well, there's a fire in the driveway (Jeff on backing vocals, "Yea-uh, yea-uh"),
And I can't quite figure it out,

Well, there's a fire in the driveway,

And everybody's rushing about,

Is it the carburetor?

He said, "No!"
Is it the radiator?
He said, "No!"

Is it the potentator?

He said, "No!"
Is it the lickulater?
He said, "No, no, no, no!"

This early recording contains many other gems:

"McLemore Avenue" (for those not aware, this is the South Memphis street which was home to Stax Records, as well as the name of the fine Booker T. & the MGs album covering "Abbey Road"), on which I appear as a sort of zombified version of the Memphis Horns, is a funky instrumental featuring what we described as the "pyramid of entertainment" - in which Jeff's funky bass riff opens and is later joined by Trey's guitar, then Bob's drums, and lastly my horns. The suspense is almost unbearable!

"Go-Kart Track" is another defining piece of Grundiania. We used to rehearse at Jeff's family business, a landscape architecture company with a complex of nurseries and buildings on Summer Avenue, right next to the go-kart track at the Putt Putt miniature golf site. Before I joined, I guess on the 4th of July, the guys emerged from the rehearsal space to note that there was no one left at the go-kart track. This would probably account for the only lyrics of the song, which were:

There's nobody left at the go-kart track (x3),
And it's the 4th of July.

Another great song from that first session is "Pyroflatulence," which has a very delicate and understated instrumental opening, with vocal to match. Things gradually build to a crescendo and eventual disintegration.

Feeling like a fool,
In a brand new school,
Thought I was hip,
I had a pocket full of French Dip.

Hey, what's your name?
I am a human flame (x3).


My personal favorite from this session was "Cinco de Mayo," alternatively known as "Cinco de Mayonnaise." As the name suggests, it is an instrumental in 5/8 time signature, with the amazing Bob playing drum rolls throughout, while the bass and guitar (and sax in subsequent live performances) play an E chord in a 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5 rhythmic pattern, punctuated by a bluesy refrain in between. It's difficult to describe, and I'm not sure that my description does the piece any justice, but I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking that it was totally infectious. Robert Gordon shot a music video of this song in Jeff's backyard, which I used to have a copy of, and would love to see again.

While the group was musically fairly erratic, the strong graphic arts background and sensibility of most the members meant that we excelled at non-musical representations of the group. At some point, I found a couple of painted gourds in a thrift (charity) shop on Summer Avenue, one of which had an unusual shape and the word "Jim" written on it. This became the de facto icon for The Grundies, which featured on numerous fliers and a T-shirt which I wish I still had (I think I gave it to a girlfriend). There was also a limited edition of pennants, one of which I still have and is pictured later in this post.


The Grundies played a few highly unusual shows during the short life of the band. We played in a soybean field next to a tenant farmer's shack near Horseshoe Lake in Arkansas, which was a very odd experience. The day was sunny and beautiful, and a large part of it was captured on video by Robert Gordon, though I have never seen any of the footage. The locals, all poor black tenant farmers, were very welcoming, and we found ourselves the guests of honor at a fish fry that night, where the music on offer consisted entirely of a peculiar mix of Michael Jackson's Bad, NWA, and Z.Z. Hill.

We also played a gig with legendary Memphis hard rockers Neighborhood Texture Jam (NTJ) and the unintentionally hilarious epic metal band False Facade, at a stock car racing track (dirt) north of Memphis - I think it was in Woodstock. Jeff had organized this show around some event his Ultimate Frisbee team was involved in, but unfortunately it hadn't been given adequate publicity, so virtually no one turned up. Normally we wouldn't have cared, except that he had given the NTJ guys a guarantee. I had to leave after our set to play a show with Linda Heck back in town, but everyone else stayed at the race track and drove their cars around the circuit, which was apparently part of the package for hiring the venue.

A few weeks later, we played another gig with NTJ on the 5th of July at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street. The night before, there had been a professional boxing match held in the venue, and NTJ had somehow convinced the management to leave the ring set up for the bands to play in. I wore some suitable gym shorts and a robe, and bounced off the ropes like a professional wrestler as we played our set, which I recall was one of our best ever, and certainly the most fun. By this time I was mostly playing guitar, and I had forced the other members in the band to learn NTJ's signature piece "Borax Factory," which we played very convincingly as our last song, both as a genuine tribute to their musical genius, but also because they had insisted on being paid their guarantee at the racetrack despite the obvious failure of the event and the fact that we all believed we were friends up to that point. I left that night before the fireworks started, but apparently Jeff and Trey were involved in some backstage slanging with some NTJ members around the issues of money and ethics, the outcome of which I'm still not sure about.

Throughout the life of the group, we had played a couple of times in Memphis with the Chicago band Shrimp Boat, which contained former Memphians Eric and Ian Schneller, the latter of whom had been in the Odd Jobs and was still close to Trey and Bob. In August, 1992, we traveled to Chicago to play a gig with them. I recall that when we left Memphis, it was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but we arrived in Chicago the next morning to find that it was rainy and 45 or so. Jeff, who had come up in shorts, a tank top and flip-flops, was taken immediately to a local thrift store to buy some more substantive clothing. Our show in Chicago was a failure on the whole, as the recording of the event validates. I think our self-deprecating, absurdist Southern humor and primitivist musical approach was lost on the audience, who were really there to see the far more sophisticated Shrimp Boat. We probably also didn't help our case by playing an atonal version of "Beer Barrel Polka" as a tribute to the citizens of Chicago. By this point in the band's evolution, we were overindulging in atonal free-form stuff, which did not show us at our best. Shrimp Boat themselves were wonderful hosts, and I enjoyed the few days we spent hanging out at their warehouse space. Ian and Eric were great fun, and I recall that Sam was deeply into the jazz thing, as was I, and had a fantastic vinyl collection. But, alas, I had a new job to return to in Memphis and realized that the wild and wacky life of touring penury was not for me.


It was the new job, my growing fatigue with loud music (we were very loud), as well as a general sense that we had pretty much exhausted our potential and were not particularly enjoying one another's company that much anymore, which led me to exit in September, 1992. The band pretty much ended then, though we did a recording session at Easley - McCain Studios after our return from Chicago, which sounds great in retrospect and yielded a single on Ed Porter's Loverly Records, and can be found on the fine double CD compilation "The Singles: 1993 - 1994". I have seen it available on the net for as little as 89 cents, which is ludicrously good value. The single was "San Antonio"/"You Look Good," on both of which I played bass, and horns on "You Look Good". "San Antonio" has one of the best opening lines of any Grundies song: "I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, I read a book, I didn't know what it was about, down in San Antonio." If you have a vinyl copy of this single, you are part of a very small club, because I don't think any effort was ever mounted to distribute or promote it. The real gems of the session, however, were both obscure covers, "I Found My Love in Memphis" and "Lawman."

"I Found My Love in Memphis" was a song I discovered in a thrift store in Binghampton when I was living briefly on Forrest Street near East Parkway and Summer Avenue after my return from Japan in 1990. This thrift store had multiple copies of what looked like vanity singles from obscure local labels with names like "Pretty Girl," all of which seemed to be connected in some way. I bought several of them one day, most of which were terrible in an unremarkable way, but "I Found My Love in Memphis," written and sung by a long-forgotten man named George Clappes, was terrible in a really special way. I went back to the shop the next day and bought several more copies, which I gave to friends whom I thought would appreciate it. It feels more like a song poem than a song, I suppose, but the musical structure is so peculiar, and the lyrics so daftly charming, that it was screaming to be covered. It was recorded as a mid-tempo country song, but The Grundies' version rocked it, which actually seemed more appropriate to the strange chord changes (verses: B - C sharp - B - C sharp - A - E - F sharp - A - B - C sharp - B; bridge: B - E - F sharp - E - F sharp - E - F sharp - E - F sharp - B - E - B - A - B - A - B). I often wondered if the lyrics were written sincerely, or if George Clappes was gunning for a lucrative deal with the Chamber of Commerce, because for a song about love, it's very long on municipal amenities and very short on love.

I traveled over many a land,
Even through the desert sand,
Nowhere was I satisfied,
'Til I came to the riverside of Memphis

I got me a job and I settled down,
Right here in this nice big town,
Lots of girls there are around,
I found my love in Memphis

Now I have plenty of everything,
Even to my wedding ring,
I just go around and sing,
I found my love in Memphis


Listen to me friends wherever you are,
All round close or way off far,
There's lots of music and lots of fun,
I found my love in Memphis

We've got more churches and fillin' stations,
One of the best cities in the nation,
And there are industries everywhere,
I found my love in Memphis

We've got new buildings up to the sky,
Come on friends and start a new life,
Well that's exactly what I did,
I found my love in Memphis,
I found my love in Memphis

If you never heard The Grundies perform this song, you're probably not encouraged by my description, but trust me it was very, very good, particularly the version we recorded at that final session.

Our other epic cover, "Lawman," was a fairly lame country recording by Eddie Bond, one of his many musical tributes to Buford Pusser, with whom he had something of an obsession. The Grundies also had something of an Eddie Bond obsession: one of the early Grundies songs was "Eddie Bond" (the sole lyrics of which were his name), Jeff had a number of Eddie Bond albums, and he also produced an Eddie Bond frisbee featuring an unflattering caricature of the man drawn by Bob. We reworked it as a southern rock anthem, in which Trey, Jeff, and Bob all took turns singing the verses, ending with the singalong chorus from "Hey Jude," re-purposed as "Na, na, na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey Buford." This was frequently a set-closer for the band, and I think it often made up for a wealth of musical transgressions perpetrated earlier in the evening.

Black smoke's rising from the poplar trees,
They're making moonshine liquor down in Tennessee,
Look out, bootleggers, Buford comes around,
He's got a nose for whiskey like a hot bloodhound,
He's a lawman

Well he could stare down the barrel of a 44,
And leave six men lying on a barroom floor,
Buford won't back down when the going gets tough,
If he comes to getcha, you can pack your stuff,
'Cause he's a lawman

God help you boy if you carry a bounty,
Don't plant your feet in McNairy County,
They got a man with a plan for upholding the law,
Standin' proud and walkin' tall

Towhead White's been comin' around,
He told the whole dang town he's gonna gun you down,
Towhead White, I'd hate to be in your shoes,
When Buford comes around and starts looking for you
'Cause he's a lawman

Well they said "Buford why don't you get outta town while you've still got your life?,
You've been shot six times, now they've killed your wife,"
He said, "They buried my Pauline in the cold, cold ground,
Nah boy, nah, I ain't leavin' town.
I'm a lawman."

Between the two very different recording sessions at the beginning and end of the band's life, there is adequate material for an album, almost all of it very good. I have a compilation tape of the two which contains:

Fire in the Driveway
McLemore Avenue
Tip, or Dump
Mary's Head (two versions, one fast, one ambient)
Cinco de Mayonnaise
Eddie Bond
Hurry Up and Stop
Go-Kart Track
Clam Ranch
Jimma Lee
You Look Good
San Antonio
Cowboy Song (written by Trey's then-toddler son, Red)
Buddy Up
Wise Without Study
Fire in the Driveway (flamenco version)
I Found My Love in Memphis

Assuming that the tapes survived the Easley - McCain studio fire, I would love it if someone assembled a definitive collection, to share the vision of The Grundies with the world. I think we could all use a smile right about now. Thanks for the memory, fellas.

Grundies pennant

Scenes from London life

South London culture

Friday, 6 November 2009

An English joke

Jeremy Clarkson, famous Francophobe, advocate of ozone depletion, proponent of homicidal driving behavior, and all-round pompous cock, is shooting an episode of Top Gear in France. During a break, he goes to a local restaurant for lunch. The waiter is, of course, dismissive and inattentive, as Clarkson knew he would be. Unable to contain his rising ire as the waiter ignores yet another beckoning gesture, Clarkson shouts out, "Bloody French, what makes you think your country is so superior? Take away the cuisine, viniculture, literature, painting, cinema, philosophy, fashion, and beautiful women, and what have you got, tell me?" The waiter smiles and replies, "England."

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Monday, 2 November 2009

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Time is tight

After my family moved to Memphis in 1974, I went to sixth grade at the MSU Campus School, which I have to honestly say was a pretty shambolic example of 1970s-style open-classroom independent learning. One of my teachers there was a woman by the name of Barbara Jackson, who sported a frighteningly unrealistic wig and amazing array of super-flared pant suits in a variety of garish colors and materials, including leather. We kids preferred the leather ones, because we could hear her squeaking down the hall back towards the classroom after one of her frequent forays elsewhere in the building. We preferred to have advance warning of her return so as to avoid being told off for rowdiness.

Anyway, this frequently terrifying figure was actually married to none other than Al Jackson, who visited the school on a number of occasions, and looked very cool indeed. They lived just around the corner from the school on Central, giving Barbara almost certainly the shortest commute of any teacher in the Memphis City School system, though she still drove her Cadillac, of course. This was Memphis, after all. It was in this house that Al Jackson would be killed a year later. For as long as I lived in Memphis, I thought about this whenever I drove past that house, and wondered what really went on that night, because the accounts all sounded very strange at the time.

Thirty years later, in April 2005, the "It Came From Memphis" season at the Barbican presented a Stax reunion show, and the fabulous Jim Spake got me a backstage pass. I arrived early at the venue to meet up with Jim and managed to catch him with Ben Cauley and Booker T. & the MGs rehearsing "Your Good Thing (is About to End)" with Mable John, which sent chills down my spine. After this we retreated to the catering room for a curry, which we ate with William Bell (who seemed like a really nice guy) and Skip Pitts. At one point I had to find the men's room, and on my way back I encountered Booker T. and his wife, attempting to find the dining room (the Barbican is notorious as a place where people get hopelessly lost), and I showed them the way, for which they seemed very thankful.

Later on, I was hanging out backstage, standing next to Deanie Parker, when up walked a very friendly and unassuming Eddie Floyd. He asked me who I was, and I shook his hand, told him it was a great pleasure to meet him, and asked him if he could possibly sing "I Stand Accused," one of my favorites. He looked into the middle distance, as if mentally time-traveling, and then said with a vaguely pained expression, "You know, I sure wish I could, but I only have time for three songs." Mable John won the audience's heart before her song when she thanked them and said how nice it was to be back in London, where people had treated her so well when she had last visited - in 1967. It was an amazing night. As I have just celebrated yet another birthday, I'm reminded that sadly time is tight for these remaining treasures of Memphis music (as it is for us all) and I'm glad to have crossed paths with and witnessed as many as I have over the years, and grateful for this music like no other.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The most minimalist fan video ever

I don't know who you are Creaturebuilder, but dude, I like your style - and taste in music!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Hot Joe (sporadically 1987 - 94)

It's a curious and oddly satisfying thing to have a band take shape around you, and then to watch it take on a life of its own in your absence, both when you're out of the country and also back in again. Such was the case with Hot Joe, still one of Memphis' finest and weirdest groups, in my humble and probably irrelevant opinion.

As a natural extension of the friendship between Linda Heck and The Train Wreck and K9 Arts, I started hanging out with K9 guitarist Jim Duckworth and my band mate John McClure in 1987 and working up some songs, mostly old standards, with me as the vocalist. Jim had an amazing music collection and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz from its earliest roots to the modern experimental scene, and he turned me on to a lot of wonderful music. These afternoons spent at Jim's house were usually accompanied by copious amounts of coffee, so naming the group was a very easy exercise indeed.

Our first gig was with Rich Trosper on drums, I believe at some sort of art opening or party in Downtown Memphis, though the venue and occasion totally evades me, probably because I was fairly terrified at the time by the prospect of fronting a band as vocalist for only the second time ever. I can't recall exactly what our set was, but it contained "Cheek to Cheek," "Moody's Mood for Love," "Strawberry Fields Forever" (yes, a straight jazz version), and God knows what else. At some point we debuted a version of "Ornithology" with original lyrics by me, which so exited an apparently well-known local "jazz dude" in the audience that said enthusiast mounted the stage and commandeered the microphone to "scat". I've always hated scat. I was very irritated by this man at the time, but ended up being mightily amused by the fact that, whenever the imperious scat-cat wannabe in question ordered (rather than requested) Rich to "lay out," Rich responded with a very loud rim-shot or flam of some sort to piss the interloper off. Eventually he gave up and left the stage.

From these humble beginnings arose Hot Joe, and the group, in various permutations, began to get real paying gigs, mostly weddings and cocktail receptions, which, in addition to a civilized audience and a guaranteed pay check, also typically included free food and drink - not a bad alternative to the thankless smoke-filled dives we were used to. The line-up of the group evolved over time, though the core was typically Jim and John, plus Jim Spake on saxes and either Ross Johnson or Doug Garrison on drums (sometimes both together). On a couple of occasions Jim Duckworth had other obligations, and I recall doing two nice gigs with John Gaskill (a wedding) and Ed Finney (some sort of corporate event in the garden at Brooks Museum) on guitar. I was intrigued by Ed, who wore a compass on his wrist as opposed to a watch - which he explained something along the lines of "I may not be on time, but at least I know which way I'm headed."

Sometime after I left for Japan in 1988, Robert Palmer turned up in Memphis and became part of the band - his skronky clarinet an interesting foil to Jim Spake's refined playing. This line-up, which often included both drummers, became very popular over the next two years, and while maintaining the civilized paying gigs, also played harder-edged material in the clubs. They worked up a rocking mash-up of two of the best Mingus tunes, "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" and "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," a very fast, Klezmeric version of "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," with Jim Spake and Bob Palmer trading solos, and expanded "Strawberry Fields" into a long medley improbably including "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," "Haitian Fight Song," "The Immigrant Song," and "When the Saints Go Marching In." There were also a few fine originals by Jim Duckworth, including "Mimi" (a K9 Arts song) and "Jonah," which was a beautiful song, and Linda Heck's "Look Out for Love."

In the summer of 1989, I came back to Memphis during the summer break, and the guys very kindly arranged a recording session while I was in town, and we also played a gig at the P&H Cafe, which I think might have been a WEVL benefit. I don't remember that much about the gig, apart from the fact that we played versions of "My Favorite Things" and "'Round Midnight" with original lyrics I had written. The recording session, on the other hand, I remember very well, and still have tapes from it to remind me of what a pleasant experience it was. The full line-up (Jim D., Jim S., John, Ross, Doug, Bob, me and Linda Heck) went into Doug Easley's studio behind his house on Marion Street off South Highland on a Saturday night and recorded into the wee hours. We cut "Better Get Hit/Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down," "Mimi," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "'Round Midnight" (with my lyrics), "Ornithology" (ditto), an old Linda Heck and The Train Wreck song "My Crying is Done," two versions of "Look Out for Love" (one with Linda on vocals, and an "answer version" with me substituting my own lyrics), and a very short "Cottontail." It was a blast, and the music still sounds wonderful today.

Jim Duckworth drove me back to my parents' house that night, and Bob Palmer, who was along for the ride, regaled us with some very funny stories of his adventures. My parents' house is not far from the home of the late Sam Phillips, whom I saw many times over the years mowing his own grass, and this triggered an anecdote from Bob, which he attributed to Sam Phillips himself. It seems that when Fidel Castro was in New York City in 1959, Sam Phillips managed to get the number of his hotel room, and possibly somewhat the worse for wear at the time, called it. Bob claimed that Fidel's brother Raul had answered the phone, and told Sam that Fidel was unavailable, to which Sam apparently said, "Well, I just want to wish him well with that revolution down in Cuba, but tell him that if it doesn't work out, he always has a home in Memphis, Tennessee, and that comes from Sam C. Phillips."

I have no idea whether this story was true at all, but I found Bob Palmer to be a delightful storyteller and a very funny man. And he was into Persian classical music, as was I, and I seem to recall we ended up talking about parallels between the Charles Mingus band in 1964 and Persian classical ensemble performances, which are punctuated by unaccompanied solo segments from each of the instruments. That was the sort of conversational side alley you could find yourself wandering down when talking to Bob Palmer. Wish I'd had a chance to get to know him better.

I would really like to see a comprehensive list of all the songs played during the life of Hot Joe, because it would almost certainly run to hundreds. The paying gigs, when they required a vocalist (which was by no means always the case) often came with an obligation to learn some new songs, and I recall that we worked up a really nice version of "I've Never Been in Love Before" for some newlyweds' first dance, and another couple wanted the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't it be Nice?" for their first song. We played it faithfully, and luckily I have a pretty wide vocal range, because it's a hell of a song to sing as the first of the night.

The paying gigs, particularly the corporate stuff, gave license for some fairly subversive material, because typically no one was really paying attention, so it was not uncommon to hear the likes of "See Emily Play" slipped in among the Chet Baker numbers. It was also an interesting opportunity to observe people, because the band members were typically ignored and I was singing maybe one in three songs, so I had ample opportunity to look around the room. At one wedding reception, I remember Jim Spake was featured on a particularly fine version of (I think) "In a Sentimental Mood" and a very old woman stood close by and cried her eyes out until someone took her back to her seat to comfort her.

My abiding memory of the remarkable experiences I had with this group, beyond the awesome recording session, was a Christmas show we did on Wally Hall's Memphis Beat program on WEVL, I believe in 1991. The full line-up was there, minus Bob Palmer, and Linda Heck and I traded vocal duties, teaming up on "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow" and "Christmas Time is Here." The evening ended with me behind Ross' drum kit beside Doug Garrison as we all accompanied Ross doing a predictably hilarious reading of "The Night Before Christmas" (including ad libs such as in the description of Santa Claus, "There were broken veins in his nose - he'd been drinkin'") which I have on tape somewhere and is still one of the funniest things I have ever heard.

I always enjoyed getting to see these guys play up close - being allowed to sing with them, and even getting paid, was purely a bonus.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Great Memphis Earthquake of 2003

Back in the 1980s, Memphis was still struggling to come to terms with the disregard it had shown for its musical heritage. The Beale Street renovation wasn't complete until October 1983, and even with this positive step forward, it felt to me (and I'm sure I wasn't alone) that the comeback strategy was more about emulating Bourbon Street than about highlighting what was really special about the musical legacy. It's not as if there was any shortage of raw material to work with at that time, but opportunities were missed or deferred, and the city still has a lot to answer for in its treatment of both people and historical sites - I still find it unfathomable that both the Stax and American studios were demolished. It was a time when giants wandered forgotten and unrecognized. On the positive side, there was always a chance that you could run into a hero or two if you were in the right place at the right time.

Sometime in 1983, I remember dropping by Dan and Linda's "Green Acres" shack in Binghampton, and there sitting on the sofa, was an older man who was introduced to me as Paul Burlison. I mean, Paul Burlison, hanging out in the ghetto with some impoverished kids, goddamn! Someone told me later that he hadn't touched a guitar in years at that point, and might have even forgotten some of the old Rock-n-Roll Trio numbers.

Sometime in the winter of 1987/88, Hans Faulhaber, an architect and musician I knew, invited me to play rhythm guitar on a single he was going to record at Phillips Recording, around the corner from Sun Studios. Just the chance to set foot in such a hallowed studio again (I had done another session there in 1984) was enough for me, but to make it even better, I was going to get to play with Roy Brewer (drums), Doug Easley (bass), and Bruce Lester, the lead guitarist from The Beat Cowboys, a hot-ass Nashville-style guitar picker of the Telecaster-slinging variety. I think I was going to get paid too, which was a rare surprise in my musical career. But the real surprise was still in store, for when I arrived at the studio, I discovered that the session was going to be engineered by none other than Roland Janes. Roland Janes - the most influential and recognizable unknown guitarist of his age, creator of some of the wildest and most provocative guitar stylings of the rock-n-roll era.

He was a really nice man, very funny and curious about things. There didn't seem to be that much going on at Phillips Recording back then, and I don't know how connected to the wider music world he really was at that point. Like Paul Burlison, he was eventually given the attention and recognition he so richly deserved, but at that point in time I sense that he was still living through the nuclear winter which all but the most popular of his generation were enduring. As he and Doug were setting the levels on the drums, I was already in position with the acoustic guitar, absentmindedly playing and singing a few songs to amuse myself, one of which was an early Beatles' song, possibly "I Should Have Known Better." Roland hit the studio intercom button. "What's that song you're playing? I like that." He didn't seem overly familiar with the Beatles' catalogue. George Harrison would probably have given his favorite sitar for a chance to be there with that man just then, and he (Roland) may not really have had that much idea of his own influence on the world. Presumably he got some inkling once things picked up for him.

We recorded two songs that day, written and sung by Hans, and released as a 45. The songs were:

Evil - A song inspired by an altercation with some belligerent rednecks at (I believe) an Elvis Costello show. It was a fast country number with some unbelievable guitar playing, and an almost out-of-control vocal performance by Hans.

"There's evil in the home of rock-n-roll,
Of that I'm sure, how much I just don't know,
It comes out in the night,
It's dressed in red and it likes to fight,
I don't."

2003 - This was an odd sort of loping country-reggae song, which I would really like to hear again if I could only find my copy. It's the only song I can think of on the topic of earthquake preparedness, something which Hans, as an architect, was very concerned about - with just cause, of course, because the last major New Madrid Fault quake was so fierce that the Mississippi flowed backwards in some places and church bells rang on the East Coast. In the last line of the song, he sings, "I can't say when it will be, my choice would be 2003." Indeed 2003 seemed to be a long way off back in 1987, but it sure came and went fast, luckily with no earthquake. That's no excuse for complacency.

"Big quake's comin', now you better beware,
It's gonna get the best of me and you,
It's gonna tumble old Memphis down,
We're gonna really be the Home of the Blues.

That fault's gonna open so wide,
Ain't gonna be no place to hide.

It happened here once before,
When we weren't even around,
Next one's gonna be twice as bad,
It's gonna shake this city down.

That fault's gonna open so wide,
Ain't gonna be no place to hide.

So get your people settled down,
And talk to 'em logically,
Explain in no uncertain terms,
What is and what will be,
Prepare them for the time,
They gotta start a brand new life,
They gotta start out on their own,
They gotta build a brand new home."

I always really liked this song, both the music and the message, which still seems to go largely unheeded. Hans delivered my copy of the single in person, when he came to visit me in Tsuru City, Japan, shortly after I moved there on a two-year teaching gig in August, 1988. We hung out for a week, he played me some amazing recordings he had made with Tommy Hull, and I even arranged a few proper Japanese earthquakes for him.