Dr. David Evans of the University of Memphis, using the kind of reverent tones one usually associates with a place of worship, was the first person in Memphis to tell me about the sweltering July day in 1975 when Memphis blues guitarist Furry Lewis, packed among a star-studded lineup, opened for the Rolling Stones and stole the show. Since then, a parade of Memphians have recounted the time they waited in the field of a hot, crowded stadium to see the Rolling Stones. But only writer and filmmaker Robert Gordon, in his new book, Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown (Bloomsbury Publishing), made the day so vivid I could imagine the sweat on my skin — and the chills that might have run down my spine when Lewis began to play.
Gordon describes Lewis' set as a ground zero meeting-point with the blues and with all kinds of underground music, and a different side of life that acts as a breeding ground for artists. The young writer was aware of the blues, but not that he shared time and space with living legends. The event, which serves as Gordon's entrance into a wider world, is the reader's introduction to Memphis Rent Party. "Furry not only made me question my assumptions," Gordon writes, "he made me aware of the privilege that produced them."
Memphis Rent Party is a collection of interconnected profiles and interviews about the musicians who live and work in Memphis, and those who were drawn here to record, to live, or to lose themselves. The material, some of which was previously unpublished, has been collected from Gordon's notes and interview transcripts, from Oxford American, from the liner notes of albums, from LA Weekly and The Memphis Flyer.
Though taken from various sources and covering a wide range of styles, the common thread linking the chapters of Memphis Rent Party is a distinctly Memphis orneriness. Everyone who steps into the spotlight in Gordon's collection shares a compulsion to do things her own way, to dance to his own off-tempo beat, trends and audiences — and success — be damned. Whether it's the plug being pulled on a raucous Mudboy and the Neutrons mid-show, Alex Chilton's punk-like antics on stage with Panther Burns, or Junior Kimbrough's droning, 15-minute version of "All Night Long," the musicians highlighted in Memphis Rent Party go where few else dare, dancing on the edge with eyes closed, jiving to the pulse of a beat only they hear. "Jim [Dickinson] helped me understand the Memphis aesthetic as the inverse of a hit factory like Nashville. Oddballs and individuals thrive here, not homogeny," Gordon writes. "That doesn't mean Memphis doesn't want hits. It means Memphis insists on dictating its own terms, delivered via take it or leave it."
The subjects, though united by a shared rebelliousness, are nonetheless varied. Memphis Rent Party is no blues biography or soul exegesis. The subject is neither Stax nor Sun, but a range of artists as diverse and multifaceted as the Bluff City itself. The Tav Falco interview resonates with a "pleasing intensity," but Cat Power's interview is heartbreakingly intimate, so unguarded that Gordon recalls, "I worried at the time that I shouldn't publish this and I contacted her longtime press agent." The profile on soul singer James Carr smashes the reader to pieces. Producer and musician Jim Dickinson is a recurring character in these pages, appearing only to break off a line of sly wisdom before shuffling off the page.
Memphis Rent Party succeeds in describing the particulars by examining the circumstances that helped produce them. It is impossible to study Memphis music divorced from the economic and social conditions that allowed these sounds to thrive, so at times, this collection is a study of the South, of its mores and norms, its casual cruelties and discriminations. But, as Gordon writes of the blues (and surely the same can be said of all music), "[b]lues is the mind's escape from the body's obligation. Blues amplifies the relief whenever and wherever relief can be found. The scarcity of that respite makes it ecstatic."
Reading, signing, and music celebrating the release of Robert Gordon's collection Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown at Ernestine & Hazel's, Saturday, March 10th at 8 p.m.