An anthology of the Memphis author’s vivid writing. By Lois Wilson.
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 Memphis Rent Party is excellent too: an anthology of Gordon’s writings, many previously unpublished, but also comprising linernotes and articles for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, LA Weekly and MOJO.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.