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.

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