Thursday, 16 September 2010

Before they were famous

Returning from my second stint in Japan in summer 1990, I made a wrong turn in 1991/1992, enrolling in Memphis State University's graduate program in urban planning. It's a topic I'm still very much interested in, and arguably it's a more pertinent discipline now than ever, but two events convinced me to quit after just one year. The first was a visit to observe a meeting of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board, which was dominated by property developers, each of whom recused themselves from cases in which they were conflicted, and all of whom clearly scratched each other's backs in the pursuit of ever-greater urban sprawl. I found it to be a sickening display. The second was an encounter with a student just completing the program, who had quit a job as an engineer with BellSouth and racked up a lot of debt in pursuing the degree, only to find himself facing the prospect of earning less than as a telecom engineer, if he could get a job at all. I decided I would ride out the rest of the year and move on.

Sometime late in that spring semester of 1992, I was walking across campus when I heard a sampled drumbeat in the distance, with a whirling, Middle Eastern shawm-like sound above it. I followed the sound to the front of the student center building, where a P.A. system had been set up, and this group of very enthusiastic young people was dancing around before the sound segued into this very song. I think it was late afternoon on a Friday, and Memphis State then being predominantly a commuting school with lots of kids working part-time jobs to make ends meet, there was only a handful of people around, perhaps 30 or so. Unfortunately, just as the song began to move into high gear, the power died. I and a few of the other onlookers waited around for ten minutes or so, but there was no sign of the power being restored, and the poor band looked very disappointed. I finally decided to cut out. A few months later, watching MTV one night, I worked out who the unfortunate group had been, and I wished that I'd hung on a bit longer, just in case someone found that uncooperative fuse.

An unusual Memphis sunset, New Year's Eve 2007

Weird clouds over the Mississippi

Non-textbook Memphibians, volume 2

Memphis's musical heritage is so rich and varied that inevitably people have to resort to categorization, stereotypes and cliches to try to make some sense of it all. I see it all as one continuum, but I guess some people find it easier to ghetto-ize it as "country," "rockabilly," "soul," "blues," "funk," "trashabilly," "lo-fi shitrock," etc. The term "avant garde" doesn't get bandied about much, because I guess Memphis is seen as having made very little contribution to this arena, at least in the sense of "serious music," but it did give the world one very remarkable and influential character in the shape of Jon Hassell.

Most Memphians have probably never heard of him, and to be fair, he doesn't make much of his affiliation with his home town, yet for all his relative obscurity, his profound influence has been acknowledged by many more familiar musicians. The seminal Eno/Byrne collaboration "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," which I listened to religiously upon its release, had a tremendous and lasting influence on the direction of electronic music (hello Moby?), and it was initially conceived around Jon Hassell, though he seems to have been rather abruptly written out of the project before it really began - a turn of events which he seems to have been very bitter about for many years. His rich and varied body of work rewards exploration, and he just keeps on going.

A New Morning Will Come

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Non-textbook Memphibians, volume 1

Living in London for 15 years, I fear that my accent no longer immediately betrays my roots as it once might have. At times I am terrified that I might eventually end up sounding like Loyd Grossman. When someone does pick up on my accent and asks where I am from, I am typically greeted with the "Ah, Elvis-country" response, if, indeed, the person in question knows anything about Memphis at all. It's more rare, but not at all unknown, that the person will be a Stax fan, though if the conversation progresses that far, many people confuse some of the Stax output for Atlantic thanks to the shambolic outcome of the Stax-Atlantic deal. Some people confuse Memphis for Nashville, which leads me to have to explain the rivalry, and Memphis' rightful place as the capital of Mississippi (or, rather, some notional Delta superstate). I have yet to encounter anyone who mentions Martin Luther King's assassination, which always strikes me as odd, given that it seemed to hang over the place so ominously while I was growing up.

I have never had cause to discuss the Kronos Quartet in the context of Memphis, but sure enough, their former cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud, is a Memphibian. I was fortunate enough to see them on a rare (actually, I think, unprecedented) visit to Memphis in 1993 or so, at the Cordova Cellars Vineyard, which I believe her mother owned (perhaps she still does). "Pieces of Africa" was out the previous year, and several pieces from it were played on that beautiful sunny afternoon, including the enchanting "Escalay" by Hamza El Din (if you don't know him, you should). This meditative piece builds in intensity, with a lot of heavy-duty percussive cellistry going on, and in this particular performance, Joan Jeanrenaud managed to pop a string. Everything stopped instantly, and there was an audible collective intake of breath from the audience, who, scattered around the lawn of the vineyard, had been mesmerized up to this point. Speaking purely for myself, I had completely lost myself in the music, and the sudden silence might as well have been an explosion.

Scenes from London life


So Long, Eric

Incredible to find something like this on YouTube showing "0 views," but that's what it said when I found it. Anyway, there's been a meme going round on Facebook lately, in which one takes 15 minutes to think of 15 albums which have had a major influence on one's life. They don't qualify as a single album, and I'm not sure they would make the cut even if they were, but the various live recordings from the European tour of this ill-fated Mingus outfit of 1964 were in heavy rotation for me after I discovered them in Japan in 1990 or so. Here we see Johnny Coles in fine form before his collapse onstage in Paris, and Mingus seeming to enjoy himself thoroughly, even when his bass slides away from him at the abortive start of this song, written in honor of Eric Dolphy, who was to depart the band (and later the planet) at the end of the tour. Sadly, this version, like Dolphy's career, is cut short, with the best still yet to come.

Lou, Laurie, and Jakarta Joey

Someone posted this ludicrous, but highly entertaining, deadpan 1974 interview with Lou Reed on Facebook not long ago, and it reminded me of an anecdote related to me many years ago (1995 is my guess) by Memphibian friend and former musical collaborator, Joseph Pegram, now resident in Jakarta.

Joey, as we all knew him then, had gotten a gig with Hot Monkey (Grifter Scott Taylor's side project, which at that point consisted of Scott, Memphis artist and percussionist David Hall, and Joey. Coincidentally, the first Linda Heck release, "Dig My Own Hole," was on the flip-side of the "Sain" single.) as one of the opening bands for Laurie Anderson at The Knitting Factory in New York City.

The band had already played and were outside getting some fresh air, when Laurie and partner Lou Reed were seen approaching the club. Joey's roommate at the time was an artist and Laurie Anderson fanatic, who wanted to give her one of his very large prints, and he had entrusted Joey with a letter and photo of the print to be hand-delivered to her. Dutifully, Joey made his way back to the dressing room, letter and photo in one hand, beer in the other, to wait until the crowd thinned enough to approach her. Finally his moment came, and he delivered the precious consignment, explaining that he was in the opening act (apparently Laurie Anderson liked the name "Hot Monkey") and that his friend had put him up to approaching her in this way. She listened graciously and patiently, taking it all in.

At one point, Joey turned to see that Lou Reed had walked into the dressing room. Now, Joey was a big Laurie Anderson fan, but did a good job of keeping it cool in her presence, unlike some of the stream of shamelessly fawning hangers-on that had preceded his audience with her. But this was Lou Reed, and I remember Joey saying that he was standing there thinking something along the lines of, "It's Lou Reed, one of my absolute biggest heroes, and now he's walking towards me. I bet he's going to say something amazing."

Lou walked straight up to Joey and said, "Hey, where did you get that beer?"

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Here we have a nice short film, shot entirely on an iPhone 3GS, with the exception of three 10-second segments supplied by the festival organizers and required for inclusion. The Memphibian angle here is the music, by Memphis' own Overjoid (Roy Berry of Lucero and artist Terance Brown).

Monday, 6 September 2010

A little bit of f*ckin' fairy dust

My friend and band mate John McClure somehow came by a compilation tape in the mid 80s which contained this masterpiece (which the uber-awesome Linda Heck pointed me to), as well as some other priceless pieces from Al Kooper's "Kapusta" albums, most notably the Buddy Rich and Barry White outbursts. We used to end up in crippling fits of laughter over these pieces, which, in the pre-internet age, were particularly precious rarities.

Me & (the Italian) Elvis

My brother recently stumbled across this forgotten gem. July 1989, I was home for a month from my job in Japan, and agreed to help out my friend Roy Barnes in a class film project. This involved getting up early one day and driving out to the Hickory Ridge Mall (at that time the pinnacle of White Flight retailing in Memphis) to interview Columbo, "The Italian Elvis," who worked in a pizzeria in the mall food court. I recall him as a nice guy, fairly unassuming. At one point, apparently not filmed, I asked him about his time in the States. He said he had lived for ten years or so in Houston (I think I recall him saying it was Houston), where he had fallen in love with a woman, gotten married and had a son. "Then one day I come home and she tell me the kid's not mine."

Teddy Bear

Sometimes you come across something so strange that it just stops you in your tracks and demands that you take notice. Red Sovine's execrable trucker tearjerker, "Teddy Bear," on 8-track, on video. Thank you, Internet.