BOOKS

An an­thol­ogy of the Mem­phis au­thor’s vivid writ­ing. By Lois Wil­son.

Mojo (UK) - - Contents -

Robert Gor­don’s vivid re­flec­tions of Mem­phis. Plus Billy Fury and a dou­ble hit of grime.

On July 4, 1975, Robert Gor­don saw the Rolling Stones in Mem­phis. He was 14 and it was a piv­otal mo­ment. Not be­cause of any­thing the Stones did that night, but be­cause of ev­ery­thing their sup­port act, the oc­to­ge­nar­ian blues-man Furry Lewis, sum­moned within him. “Furry’s in­ti­macy let me feel the wrin­kles on the hands wrapped around the gui­tar neck… The raw power of Furry’s per­son­al­ity was so in­fused into his mu­sic and sto­ries that his songs be­came his life, and he took me places I did not know, to times I couldn’t have ex­pe­ri­enced,” the au­thor en­thuses. From that mo­ment on, Gor­don be­comes “a seeker”,

“ALEX CHILTON TOOK A LEAK FROM THE STAGE.”

doc­u­ment­ing the mar­gins of Mem­phis life through an artis­tic prism cul­mi­nat­ing in 1995’s It Came From Mem­phis, a bench­mark in blues writ­ing. Mem­phis Rent Party is ex­cel­lent too: an an­thol­ogy of Gor­don’s writ­ings, many pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished, but also com­pris­ing lin­er­notes and ar­ti­cles for Rolling Stone, Ox­ford Amer­i­can, LA Weekly and MOJO. Gor­don gets into the mind­set of his sub­ject mat­ter with a rare un­der­stand­ing and em­pa­thy. An in­ter­view with Cat Power’s Chan Mar­shall for Stop Smil­ing in 2006 is so in­tense he asks her PR if it’s OK to print the piece af­ter­wards. Re­call­ing a tough day of press in France she tells him: “I took off all my clothes and I shoved them full of tow­els and I put my fake self, with shoes and the socks and ev­ery­thing on the bed with a sheet over my head to make it look like I was dead. I curled up un­der­neath the thing and was just bawl­ing”. A vivid por­trait of Ju­nior Kim­brough’s Sun­day blues jams is both blues chron­i­cle and as­tute so­cial his­tory. “It gath­ered those seek­ing a stronger jolt, higher wattage, a more in­tense es­cape. Like a church, Ju­nior’s joint was a room pul­sat­ing as one.” Else­where, there are bril­liantly put to­gether es­says about the men – Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis – who made Mem­phis great. There are also much needed dues paid to the women who made such men: the chap­ter on Mama Rose New­born, the spouse of band­leader Phineas New­born Sr and mother of jazz broth­ers Phineas Jr and Calvin New­born, is poignant and pow­er­ful, de­tail­ing the African Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence and mu­sic as lib­er­a­tion. Gor­don wrote this en­try purely for him­self in 1993, never sub­mit­ting it, pre­sum­ing (prob­a­bly cor­rectly) that no one would pub­lish it. He paid Mama Rose for her time though, not­ing, “pub­lic­ity couldn’t help with her heat­ing bill.” Mu­si­cian Jim Dick­in­son pro­vides a lighter note, re­call­ing Alex Chilton tak­ing a leak from the stage of a Pan­ther Burns gig. Alex Chilton, mean­while, says, “the world is wrong, I am right.” Gor­don be­gins that par­tic­u­lar piece: “Alex stuck his fin­ger down his throat and gagged, show­ing me that’s how much he hated his home­town… he didn’t like me much ei­ther.” Gor­don’s hon­esty is touch­ing and to­gether these writ­ings are tes­ta­ment to the peo­ple who made Mem­phis, but also to the city that in turn shaped them. And Gor­don is one of those peo­ple.

Seek­ing a stronger jolt: Robert Gor­don’s sub­jects (clock­wise from top left) Jerry Lee, Ju­nior Kim­brough, Alex Chilton, Furry Lewis, Sam Phillips.

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