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.