Monday, 23 August 2010

The Hole

Stumbled across this peculiar relic on the Internet Archive today. Dizzie Gillespie and George Matthews voice cartoon characters discussing the psychology of nuclear deterrence and the risks of accidental Armageddon. Vintage Cold War stuff, with interesting animation. Diz recounts the making of this Academy Award-winning short in his autobiography, "To Be or Not to Bop."

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Scenes from London life



It's nearly Notting Hill Carnival time again. I haven't been in recent years, and on the occasions when I have gone in the past, I've pretty much avoided the crush of the parade route in favor of some of the peripheral attractions, discovering along the way some old school reggae and dub sound systems with amazing music and a nice atmosphere. One year, however, I did spend some time along the very crowded parade route, and witnessed the following little vignette. I related this anecdote to someone the other day, and they seemed to find it amusing - it certainly amused me at the time, and it was a beautiful example of the little human dramas you can see unfolding around you if you take the time to watch.

I was standing in the crowd along the parade route, and in a lull in the action, I noticed a young couple nearby who were having some sort of disagreement. She was unloading a long stream of something I couldn't hear because of the incredible volume of the music, but it was clearly either a litany of complaints, a torrent of invective, or some combination of the two. He was more or less speechless, occasionally shrugging or holding up his hands in a defensive gesture. Eventually she stopped and turned to face the parade action, ignoring him.

He paused for a moment, and I could see there was something going on behind his eyes. Suddenly he turned, and tip-toed gingerly a few feet away in the sort of exaggerated manner you might expect to see from a masked burglar character in a children's cartoon. When he was ten feet or so away, looking over his shoulder with an expression containing something like a mixture of incredulous satisfaction and residual dread, he smiled when he saw that his absence was still unrecognized, and broke into a trot. By fifty feet away he had melted into the crowd completely, but just as he disappeared, I'm sure I saw him look over his shoulder one last time with a wry smile.

Hearts and minds

Lester School

One of the important formative experiences in my early life was attending Lester Junior High School in Memphis for three years, 1975 - 78. My family had arrived in Memphis in 1974, and I spent sixth grade at the MSU Campus School, providing me my first brush with Memphis musical greatness. Lester was located in a very tough black neighborhood called Binghampton, about three miles from my home, and I lived in its catchment area due to the court-ordered desegregation of the Memphis City Schools, which had begun in the early '70s.

While this attempt at social engineering ultimately proved a boon to property developers and religious private schools capitalizing on the white flight which ensued, in the first few years there were some examples of schools which managed to maintain some sort of racial balance. Lester at the time was under the leadership of "Bud" Garrett, a charismatic teacher and basketball coach who had managed to sell the proposition of a ghetto school built on academic excellence to a relatively affluent white liberal audience in East Memphis.

I think when I started there in seventh grade the racial mix might have been something like 70/30 black/white, which was a pretty remarkable achievement given all the historic mistrust and fear stemming from what up to that point had been an apartheid system in all but name. By the time I left at the end of ninth grade, the mix had skewed to 90/10 or so (my school bus route in that final year served precisely four children), as the white liberals of East Memphis abandoned the experiment and the "optional schools" magnet program drew the more advantaged and socially mobile to other schools. Still, I had some fantastic teachers there, and I learned a lot about the realities of life which has stood me in good stead through the years that followed. And for a couple of years in the mid-70s, it was a beacon of hope, possibly even a model school of sorts.

The school was also the scene of numerous ridiculous anecdotes, which I often revisit with the good friends I made there, whenever we happen to speak. This one came to mind the other day. It was first period, in seventh grade (1975/76), and we were in our P.E. class, playing softball under the direction of our teacher, whose name escapes me at the moment (lifelong friend and unofficial Lester historian Jon McKamie reminds me his name was Mr. Johnston). At one point a new kid was brought out from the office to join the class, a Vietnamese boy on his first day of school. As I previously mentioned here, there was a resettlement center at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and the local Catholic charities sponsored settlement for a significant number of Southeast Asian refugees in Memphis in the mid and late '70s.

This new arrival didn't speak a word of English as far as we could tell, but he smiled with remarkable confidence in the face of such an alien situation (imagine trading Danang for Binghampton), and joined our team. I was next up at bat, and made a base hit. I duly ran toward first base, which was being manned by a very tall and "big-boned" girl, whose identity I cannot recall with certainty, but it may have been Afrika Hathaway (Dr. McKamie corrects me, it was the equally formidable Annette Sanders). Unfortunately, she was straddling the baseline about two feet in front of the bag, and I expected her to move, but she didn't, so I knocked her down hard in an effort to get safely to first base. She was unhappy with this, understandably, and there was a bit of commotion and a lot of laughter before our teacher came over to explain that it might be safer for her to stand next to the bag or slightly behind it.

Next up was our new Vietnamese classmate, who, it transpired later, was actually a couple of years older than originally thought, and was soon moved up to his appropriate grade level, which is why I never knew his name or anything else about him. He had apparently never played softball/baseball before, but swung the bat with authority and actually connected with the ball on the first try. He smiled, a bit stunned with surprise at his success, and we all shouted and pointed at first base, encouraging him to run, which he did, and very fast at that. The girl playing first base, whom I had decked just seconds before, was now standing well behind the bag on the baseline, having learned her lesson. The new arrival from Fort Chaffee blazed down the first base line, past the bag, and dealt a brutal body check to the poor, innocent first base woman, knocking her flat on her ass. Pandemonium broke out, with most of us in tears of laughter, and even our teacher struggling to contain his amusement as he dusted off the unfortunate victim and tried to explain to the new kid that knocking people to the ground was not a normal part of the game.

God only knows what sort of story the kid told his family when he got home from school that night, about this great new contact sport called "softball."

Scenes from London life

Ancient Brooklyn taxi, Wood Vale, SE23

Watusi Rodeo

Well, I'm now 0-for-2 on Antenna Club reunions, having missed the recent lovefest organised this time by the club's long-time owner Steve McGehee. I heard mixed reviews, but I understand there were some outstanding performances along the way, undeterred by the oppressive heatwave Memphis has been suffering. However, both of the reunions held to date have just encompassed local bands, or bands/musicians who were local at the time. The local scene was a huge part of the appeal of the club in its day, as were the occasional big name acts who passed through, but there was also a steady stream of regional bands which came through in pretty heavy rotation, I can recall. Among these were The Bad Brains, Pylon, Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, Love Tractor, R.E.M. (before they got too big), and Guadalcanal Diary.

This remarkable video comes from the latter, and features footage (at 1:10 and 2:48) of the late James Grantham, a.k.a. "Dancin' Jimmy," a homeless Midtown Memphis alcoholic who, on the rare occasion when he could manage to sneak into the Antenna Club, would perform some unusual interpretive dance before being thrown out. (Here he is seen in Madison Avenue in front of Murphy's bar, with the Antenna sign visible in the background.) He was essentially a harmless character whom everyone around Midtown recognised, and some did what they could to help him out.

My friend and local film maker, Roy Barnes, at one time had some interview footage of Dancin' Jimmy, in which he claimed to have been a classmate of Elvis Presley's at Humes High School and also claimed that Elvis' first pink blazer was his inadvertent invention. The way I recall the anecdote, Jimmy had washed a pair of red socks in the bathtub with a white blazer, "...and when I come back that water'd done turned. I was gonna throw it away, but Elvis said, 'I'll take it.'" He was about the right age, and someone once said that they had managed to confirm that he did go to Humes High School, but who knows?

Payin' dues, the old school way

I've had a lot of posts backing up in my mind lately which I haven't found (or made) the time to write, but this log jam must be broken. It seems appropriate to start with a tidbit which recently came my way from my brother Mike. This apparently aired on the NBC Prime Time Sunday show hosted by Tom Snyder, two days before Christmas in 1979. In it we see Memphis' own Jerry "The King" Lawler during one of his many phases spent on the dark side, with his inimitable manager, Jimmy Hart, himself a Memphis music legend of sorts (Lawler is also a musician and vocalist). His nemesis in this segment, Bill "Superstar" Dundee, first arrived in Memphis in the mid-70s, as part of a tag team who claimed to be Australian, despite Dundee's obviously Scottish accent - that he could pull off being an Australian was evidence of how isolated Memphis was back then. I waited on Bill Dundee once at the barftastic Steak and Ale on Summer Avenue, and unlike Charlie Rich, he seemed to accept (somewhat grudgingly) the attention he attracted from the other patrons as part of the job.

I attended the WMC Saturday morning TV show once, and the Monday night matches at the Midsouth Coliseum on many occasions, once of twice in the cheap seats up top, where there was a thick fug of marijuana smoke. My recollection of the experience is very much as it is portrayed here - a lot of angry people with questionable dentition venting their frustration at the beginning of another thankless work week. I remember Lawler himself at the time saying something along the lines of, "You know what's got ten teeth and an IQ of 100? The first four rows at a wrestling match." There were always a few spectators at ringside who I suspected (and still suspect) were plants by the promoters used to whip up the audience, in particular an ancient black woman who always had with her some fried chicken legs wrapped in foil, which she would eat during the matches, occasionally standing up and hurling abuse at one of the bad guys while stabbing her drumstick in the air. I guess it didn't help matters that referee Jerry Calhoun seemed to be easily distracted and had terrible vision.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


As I've said before, local "wrasslin'" was an important part of the lives of many young Memphibians of the bygone era, long before the rise of the crass commercialism and corporate consolidation which has so cheapened this fine art form.

A friend recently alerted me to the existence of this wonderful site, which uses some clever algorithms to convert ordinary names to wrasslin' names. It occurred to me the other day that, a city so deeply influenced by both wrasslin' and music as Memphis should have its musical luminaries immortalized with wrasslin' names, just because it's possible, and it might even yield some interesting results. And maybe because I've got too much time on my hands.

So, reflecting the unfortunately high casualty rate among Memphis musicians in recent months, I've started with the recently departed:

Jim Dickinson - "Triple Jackal"
Alex Chilton - "Cerebral Ice"
Tommy Hoehn - "Dash Assassin"
Andy Hummel - "Dark Darkshadow"
Jay Reatard - "Smooth Swarm" (though his real name, Jimmy Lee Lindsey, Jr., yields the more interesting "Cerebral Magnum")

Obviously, this exercise could be almost infinite in scope, so I have focused on people I have played or worked with in the past, many of whom appear in the pages of this humble bloglet. I have omitted anyone whose name generated a dull wrasslin' name, because that just ain't right.

Alex Greene - "Sundance Pounder"
Amy Adcock - "Ravishing Vixen"
Bob Elbrecht - "Legendary Champ"
Brian Collins - "Love Sweet Cakes"
Cordell Jackson - "Molly Dame"
Craig Shindler - "Falcon the Ambassador"
Dave Shouse - "Double Blazer"
David Hall - "Andre Swarm"
David Skypeck - "Napalm Shadow"
Davis McCain - "Big Tempest"
Doug Easley - "Cerebral Geek"
Doug Garrison - "Abdullah the Hammer"
Fields Trimble - "Titanic Assassin"
Geoff Marsh - "Evil Daddy"
Greg Cartwright - "Diamond the Ambassador"
Greg Easterly - "Ivan Fury"
Hans Faulhaber - "Jack Disciple"
Harris Scheuner - "Lord Giant"
Jack Adcock - "Titanic Apocalypse"
Jack Yarber - "Grizzly Shadow"
Jean Tomlinson - "Frumpy Actress"
Jeff Green - "Rowdy Sterling"
Jim Duckworth - "Farmer Titan"
Jim Spake - "Cardiac Legend"
Joey Pegram - "Bad News Ranger"
John McClure - "Sweet Blazer"
John Pearson - "Professor Freak"
Jones Rutledge - "Farmer Barbarian"
Kai Eric - "Dark Joker"
Kurt Ruleman - "Sundance Satan"
Linda Heck - "Promiscuous Freak"
Mark Edwards - "Butch Frost"
Mark Harrison - "Diamond Ironstorm"
Mike Cupp - "Kid Ninja"
Rich Trosper - "Admiral Ironstorm"
Richard Graham - "Sweet Bull"
Richard Young - "Ringo Atlas"
Robert Fordyce - "Demolition Dog"
Robert Palmer - "The Grand Kahn"
Ross Johnson - "Doctor Striker"
Roy Berry - "Atomic Volcano"
Roy Brewer - "Napalm Barbarian"
Scott Taylor - "Dash Bull"
Sean Kerr - "Buzz Python"
Stoughten Outlan - "Nature Boy Punisher"
Tav Falco - "King Kong Venus"
Tony Pantuso - "Cardiac Satan"
Trey Harrison - "Rowdy Terminator"
Wally Hall - "Cardiac Nova"

Boarding the wayback machine

I can't wait to see this documentary on Memphis' legendary Antenna Club, a place I practically lived in the period 1982 - 85, and visited/played at with varying frequency over subsequent years. I know pretty much everyone interviewed here (nice to see you all again!), including surprise appearances by my old schoolmate Laura Goodman, and the young woman I am 99.5% sure is my late classmate Jamie Thomas, and I am amazed at how the makers have managed to get their hands on some of the footage seen here.

For those unable to remember a time before the internet, it's probably impossible to convey just how significant this club (and other clubs like it around the country) was to the lives of those who gathered there to play or listen to music. It gave us a sense of connection to the outside world, as well as a nexus for all the various strands of local music to attract, intertwine, or repel.

I played more gigs there than I can possibly recall, some of which I'm still proud of, and also witnessed or perpetrated a number of heinous crimes against music. I also was privileged to catch amazing shows by a very young R.E.M. (whose first single had just been released, and whose equipment had been stolen from their van the night before, requiring that they borrow kit from opening act Barking Dog), N.R.B.Q., Firehose, The Replacements, The Meat Puppets (twice), Shockabilly, and many others by now forgotten bands, local and otherwise, all of which stay with me to this day.

It would be easy, however, to get caught up in the nostalgia and ignore the fact that many of us who frequented the club had a love/hate relationship with it. It was an unpleasant environment: smoky, claustrophobic, oppressively hot, filthy (even the "dressing room" for bands was unspeakable), and depending on the night the management could be a bit surly. And as it developed more or less into a local monopoly over time, musicians and fans began to look for other places to play and listen. Thus, Antenna's repelling effect was arguably the catalyst for other scenes to take shape: Fred's Hideout, Barristers, The Pyramid Club, The Loose End/Epicenter Lounge, Barristers 2 (which I am proud to say I booked the first show into), and others I am no doubt forgetting for the moment.

It was by turns seductive and repugnant, glorious and embarrassing, a jewel in the crown of Memphis' chequered and confused cultural heritage, and it was important. I miss it, sometimes.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010