Back To Memphis

Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis returns with a new companion CD.

| November 06, 2001
Relative to its size, Memphis may be America's most written-about music city, and for good reason. But amid the myriad tomes on the city's successive cultural eruptions, local writer/filmmaker Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis stands alone -- telling the story not of Beale and Elvis and Stax but of the subterranean culture of power-pop cult heroes Big Star, of wrestling icon Sputnik Monroe, and, most of all, of a '60s/'70s counterculture scene that mirrored those then popping up around the country but which was still a world entirely unto itself.

Six years after its initial 1995 publication, Gordon's beloved tour of the bohemian byways of Memphis music culture returns with a new edition due out next week and a second CD listening companion scheduled to hit stores this week.

Gordon, 40, has spent much of the intervening years working on a biography of blues legend Muddy Waters for publisher Little, Brown. The bio, to be titled Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, is set to be published next May and will be accompanied by an hour-long documentary Gordon is producing and directing. Gordon is hoping to find a television outlet for the doc, possibly PBS.

Speaking from his Memphis home, Gordon says that he always thought It Came From Memphis would see another run. "I always expected that the interest in Memphis music is broad and eternal and that when [original publisher] Faber and Faber was done with it and I got the rights back it would be published again, and I immediately sold it to Simon and Schuster [which is publishing the book through its Pocket Books division]. Part of the attraction, I'm sure, was that I had this Muddy book on tap."

In addition to a new cover, the changes to the new edition are minimal. A new introduction pays homage to some of the book's major players who have passed away since the initial publication, including raconteur Randall Lyon, guitarist Lee Baker, and venerable rock critic Robert Palmer. The book's notes have been significantly updated and fleshed out. Additions include more reading and research tips as well as a critical guide to Memphis bands of the last few years, which Gordon deems in the spirit of the culture his book celebrates, such as the North Mississippi Allstars, Lucero, and the Reigning Sound.

This new edition may not offer much for those who've already read the book, but it offers a great excuse for the uninitiated to dig in. It also serves as a reminder of just how good the book is. Gordon unearths a wealth of great stories from this underreported segment of the city's musical heritage, but, equally important, he brings a strong critical eye to the tale as well. What makes It Came From Memphis such a compelling read is that it's as filled with ideas as anecdotes but also manages to keep the author's analysis from obscuring his subjects' stories.

But the real treasure for new and old readers alike is the new companion album, It Came From Memphis, Volume 2 (Birdman Records). This is a more focused and more explicitly archival collection than the first volume, which ranged from Dewey Phillips to Big Ass Truck. Rather, Volume 2 focuses on the core story of the book -- the city's blues and jug-band heritage and the inspired twist the city's white, '60s/'70s counterculture put on that heritage. Gordon calls Jim Dickinson the "secret hero" of the book, and Dickinson and his Mud Boy and the Neutrons comrades Sid Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwait, and the late Lee Baker appear, in one form or another, on nine of the record's 17 tracks. One highlight of the record is an overpowering version of the Howlin' Wolf classic "Smokestack Lightning" performed by Mud Boy contemporaries Moloch at the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival. Selvidge sings lead on the song and Baker's guitar cuts forcefully through everything.

"I love the Moloch track," Gordon confesses. "To me, the sound of Baker's guitar, right there in the beginning when it's sort of the only instrument, [is] the amplified Delta blues at its pinnacle. It's so powerful. That track sort of inspired the second disc, because I heard it after the first CD was put to bed but before it came out. It was important to have a Moloch track on the first CD, but [the first disc's 'Cocaine Katy'] didn't represent what the band was [as much as 'Smokestack Lightning']."

Equally great is "You'll Do It All the Time," a jug-band cut from Jim Dickinson and the New Beale Street Sheiks recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service in 1964, where Dickinson's vocal gusto is matched only by Crosthwait's nimble washboard playing.

At the time, as the mid-'60s folk and blues revivals were being transformed by the drug-centered counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, similar subcultures were popping up around the country, particularly in the Northeast and California, but Gordon contends that the Mud-Boy-and-Moloch-centered Memphis scene was special.

"I think what happened here was totally unique and different from what happened in the Northeast and West Coast in particular, because what happened here was more organic and what happened in other places was more fabricated," Gordon says. "People here intersected and interacted with the Delta blues artists because they lived in the same place. The two groups had wildly diverse but still shared backgrounds. When you took Delta blues performers out of their home community and put them on stage at a folk festival somewhere, it couldn't help but have an anthropological feel. What happened here was about enthusiasm and not anthropology. People in the Northeast didn't really have to face the facts about the circumstances of these peoples' lives. They only had to interact with them in unreal environments -- hotel rooms, backstage areas. They didn't see Mississippi Fred McDowell pumping gas at Stuckey's. They didn't have to go to Jessie Mae Hemphill's trailer, Furry Lewis' duplex."

Gordon plans a formal release party for the book and CD, featuring musical acts and film screenings, on December 22nd at Earnestine and Hazel's.

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