Nov 3, 2015

Memphis Noir (An imaginary soundtrack)

"Memphis is marvels and misfits -- two-faced and unabashedly so."

-- from the introduction to "Memphis Noir," by editors Laureen P. Cantwell and Leonard Gill

I think I'll move down into Memphis
And thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue

-- "I Dream a Highway," Gillian Welch

Well I've took enough pills for big Memphis town
Ol' Jerry Lee's dranked enough whiskey to lift any ship off the ground

-- "A Damn Good Country Song," Jerry Lee Lewis

A playlist -- an imaginary soundtrack, if you will -- for "Memphis Noir," a story collection with a launch event tonight at Crosstown Arts Story Booth here in Memphis.

1. "Tuesday Night in Memphis," John Lurie
2. "Oh How She Dances," Tav Falco's Panther Burns
3. "Memphis Beat," Jerry Lee Lewis
4. "Bluff City Ruckus," Porch Ghouls
5. "Kassie Jones," James Luther Dickinson & North Mississippi Allstars
6. "Memphis Flu," Elder Curry & Congregation
7. "Memphis Moon," Magnolia Electric Co.
8. "Windswept Plains of Memphis," Delta Joe Sanders
9. "Crump St." the City Champs
10. "Mystery Train," Little Junior Parker
11. "Memphis Rounders Blues," Frank Stokes
12. "All Sewn Up," Lucero
13. "Shotgun," Valerie June
14. "Jellyroll," Furry Lewis
15. "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," Bob Dylan
16. "A Damn Good Country Song," Jerry Lee Lewis

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine

-- "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," Bob Dylan

Oh, didn't we shine?
Didn't we shine?

-- "Memphis Moon," Magnolia Electric Co.

Oct 31, 2015

'Memphis Noir' is coming

I would go to the hill country
but they got me barred

-- Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere"

Cryin' won't help you
prayin' won't do no good

-- Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks"

This is a true story, made up and written down. This is a fable and a good cry, a cautionary tale, a murder ballad.

This is the story of rain and more rain, high water and the search for higher ground – Beulah Land, or that bluff in Memphis. God is high up in heaven, watching, with silver flask and furrowed brow.

This is the blues, played on a single strand of broom wire.

This happened, just not yet.

-- from my story "Her Better Devils," in Akashic Books' "Memphis Noir"

The book launch is 6 p.m. Tuesday at Memphis' Crosstown Arts Story Booth.

Sep 27, 2015

Sly Talkers and Rhythm Shouters (Small-Batch Fiction No. 42-0037-B)

Millions of hearts have been broken, yas, yas
Just because these words were spoken

-- "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," Fats Waller and his Rhythm

Swearing was much the fashion in the big house on Peabody in those days, most all of it sweet in nature. Ivy’s mama swore to God and Jesus and the ghosts of soldiers, to the local law, Rock City, and the House of Bourbon. She’d swear to whoever was singing on those records she always played. She’d stub her toe or spill a swish of drink and swear to Fats Waller or Jimmie Rodgers. She loved sly talkers and rhythm shouters, blue yodelers. She loved the old stuff.

-- from the story "I'll Take You There" and novel "Ivy Coldwater"

Aug 15, 2015

'I don't sound like nobody'

There were dim tubes all in a row, the dimness seeming like a swaying presence to him, small ghosts, a choir of them about to take up some solemn hymn of healing. 

-- from my story, "Tales of Ancient Grease (The Jukebox Repairman's Lament)"

Just a country boy, he combed his hair
And put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air
And he shook it like a chorus girl
And he shook it like a Harlem queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby
Like you never seen
Like you never seen
Never seen

-- "Elvis Presley Blues," Gillian Welch

I don't sound like nobody.

-- Elvis Presley

Aug 13, 2015

Nothing in Rambling (More songs about lighting out and bringing it all back home)

It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking.

-- Flannery O'Connor, from the essay "The Regional Writer"

Ivy thought of her wants and wishes, her lists of questions that needed answers. She thought of her wandering, and all the wondering that fueled it. She thought of the world ending. She thought of a great flood. She thought of her clawfoot tub with a sail attached and a stout southward wind gusting up. She thought of Jesus, head down, hair in his eyes, all tired out from the folly of man. That’s what this whole search for Jesus had turned into, she thought. She’d looked for God and found nothing but the damned folly of man. She could have stayed home and done as well.

-- from my novel "Ivy Coldwater"

Just one horse shy
of a one-horse town
This ain't the first time
it tried to burn itself down

-- "Needle & Thread," Eilen Jewell

Songs about leaving home and coming back again ...

1. "Nothing in Rambling," Memphis Minnie
2. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Lucinda Williams
3-4. "Walking Far From Home" and "Homeward These Shoes," Iron & Wine
5. "Feel Like Going Home," Charlie Rich
6. "The Red, Red Dirt of Home," Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires
7. "Dark Bird is Home," The Tallest Man on Earth
8. "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," The Decemberists
9. "Sister's Coming Home," Emmylou Harris
10. "Sing Me Back Home," Flying Burrito Brothers
11. "I'm Coming Home," Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue
12-13. "Needle & Thread" and "My Hometown," Eilen Jewell
14. "Long Way Home," Tom Waits
15-17. "The Weight," "This Wheel's on Fire," and "Home Cookin'," The Band
18. "Sing Me Back Home," Merle Haggard
19. "Grace for Saints and Ramblers," Iron & Wine
20. "Why Don't You Just Go Home," Greg Brown

If sweetness had a sound
It would sound like my hometown

-- "My Hometown," Eilen Jewell

Jul 15, 2015

Memphis Minnie's Ashes (Small-Batch Fiction No. 34)

I got ice man in the spring, coal man in the fall
All I need now to get my ashes hauled

-- "Ice Man," Memphis Minnie

“And then there was Memphis Minnie,” Lucy said. She had scolded him and chided him and now set about to teach him, about life and the blues, about women and men, and what one poet of the dark chord called the stuff you gotta watch. “Her real name was Lizzie Douglas, from down in Louisiana. She sang ice man, ice man, come on up. My, oh. And she sang about her butcher man and her strange man and another man who was a sandhog in the sea. I don't know what a sandhog is, but anyhow he died. Reckon he drowned doing a sandhog’s dirty business. But what’s one man, more or less? Minnie didn’t need ’em none, just kind of liked having ’em around. But only kind of. She’d cut a man if he crossed her. I mean, drain him pale. Slice me if I’m lying, Billy Heavens. Minnie, she went through men enough to fill this cemetery. Corpses stacked double, men piled high.”

She stopped and turned to face him, as if to watch the chill settle on him. It was the first little bit of power she’d had in life. “You looking a little drained yourself there, Billy.” She felt a bit woozy, herself.

-- from my novel, "The Very Last Night"

Note: Photos are from the Blues Hall of Fame, now open down on South Main in Memphis. You should haul your ass there, first chance.

Jul 5, 2015

Fireflies and molasses: Reading Faulkner's 'Light in August'

She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow, sad, faraway.

― from "Light in August"

... the finish is spicy and longer than a Faulkner sentence.

― from a description of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, in "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit," by Clay Risen

“Now, this one,” she said, “belonged to Mr. Faulkner. It was one of his.”

The old woman nudged with her scuffed sneakers a dusty, black manual typewriter. The keys were marked with flaking, gold letters, and the space bar listed heavily to one side, the right, like a seesaw at rest. She nudged the typewriter as if it might pick up the story from there.

“When he lived over to Oxford,” she said finally. “That’s when he owned this particular one. Rowan Oak, the house where he lived. Mr. Faulkner wrote 'Light in August' on this typewriter.”

― from "Typewriters of the Stars," a chapter in my novel, "The Very Last Night"

And then there is Faulkner, the poet laureate of corn whiskey. I read 'Light in August' over the course of about seven shifts that first summer. A significant portion of the book concerns the exploits of a pair of bootleggers — a topic with which Faulkner was familiar, having run boatfuls of illegal whiskey into New Orleans during Prohibition. There are lovely passages describing the act of drinking whiskey, which goes down “cold as molasses” before beginning its slow, warm uncoiling.

-- from "Faulkner’s Cocktail of Choice," Robert Moor, The Paris Review (Dec. 31, 2013)

"It's peas," he said, aloud. "For Sweet Jesus. Field peas cooked with molasses."

― from "Light in August"

William Faulkner has abandoned, one may say, the cruel brutality of 'Sanctuary' for the brutal cruelty in writing his new novel, 'Light in August.'

― review of "Light in August" by George Grimes in the Omaha World-Herald, Oct. 9, 1932

It is much more palatable for the average reader than 'Sanctuary,' but still a bad choice for those who dislike pictures of life in the raw.

― review of "Light in August" by Henry George Hoch, Detroit News, Oct. 16, 1932

To conclude, William Faulkner writes well enough not to write so badly, if such a phrase may be excused. He is frittering away a genuine talent.

― review of "Light in August" by Barry Bingham, The Courier-Journal, Nov. 20, 1932

My, my. A body does get around.

― from "Light in August"

Jun 29, 2015

Old Crow (Small-Batch Fiction No. 94)

I can't say your name
without a crow flying by

-- "The Way It Will Be," Gillian Welch

One minute passed, taking slightly more than its allotted time. An unseen crow mocked the minute and the seconds that made it so.

The crow cawed proverbs and river stages. The crow cawed sermons of doom. And the boy wondered how much farther to the devil’s place.

“Up over the rise and down again, Billy Heavens, if you dare,” Lucy sang. “Up over the rise and down, Billy, if you do.”

-- from "The Very Last Night"

Jun 22, 2015

One Minute to Post (Small-Batch Fiction No. 7)

Poor boy in a red-hot town
Out beyond the twinklin’ stars
Ridin’ first-class trains, makin' the rounds
Tryin’ to keep from fallin’ between the cars

-- "Po' Boy," Bob Dylan

One minute to post.

Joe walked up to the window and said it how he’d practiced it.

“Eighth race,” he said in a slow, flat, unsteady voice. “Twenty to win on the seven dog.”

A woman pushing fifty with peach-colored hair and a Viceroy rasp took his money and handed him a slip. She did not inquire as to why a man would chance his last twenty dollars on the cross-eared red fawn with those soft haunches and an underbody the color of jalopy rust. She had to know it was something like this, even just knowing the dogs as numbers on a screen. Any woman who ever had looked into any man’s eyes could see it was the last shred of money he had in the world, and that the man knew, too, in his head and his heart, deep in his gut, down to his own soft haunches, that he was pissing it away. She might even have guessed the name of the dog, by looking at the man.

“Good luck, hon,” she said.

Joe stood there, still, staring at the betting slip as if there might be some small print upon it that explained what he was to do next. As he studied the slip, his lips seeming to move or perhaps tremble, she wanted to tell him it was a dog race he’d come to, not a Chinese meal. But she’d been warned by management about her mouth.

“They’s about to run,” she said, to shoo him.

It was then he told her, if only because he had to tell someone.

“It’s the old man,” Joe said. “My father, I mean. My daddy. He’s dying, down in New Orleans. I got to go down to see him, before – well, I got to get the money up, for fare. Bus or train. Bus, I guess, would be cheaper.”

He wanted to tell her more. He wanted to tell it all. He wanted her to ask. But she only said, “Well, I surely do hope he gets better, hon.”

Joe turned and walked away.

“It ain’t even about that,” he said to himself, to no one.

-- from "Poor Boy, Long Way from Home"

One day they will be as giants
Stronger than the sun
But that day ain't yet come

-- "Poor Boy, Minor Key," M. Ward

May 20, 2015

The book of jazz

Back then he'd hammered out rags as rough as the planks that made up that schoolhouse stage. Over the years he's taken a saw and rasp to those tunes and smoothed them at the edges, sanded them slowly over time with finer and finer grit paper, and applied a polish to them. The songs are comfortable now. People can take their shoes off to dance without fear of a spike in the foot; they can lie back on that smooth and waxed wood to take a nap in the afternoon or make love all night long. Oliver sees himself as a carpenter, a craftsman putting notes and melodies together ...

-- from "Five Night Stand," Richard Alley

"Five Night Stand" is my favorite sort of book. It's full of heart and bursting with music. It's written for all the right reasons, because the writer, Richard Alley, has these stories inside him and he's compelled to tell them, whether the world gives three damns about them or not. He doesn't conform to the trends or pay attention to what's selling these days. This isn't a literary thriller, which is a thing now, and it doesn't call to mind, for me, anyway, anything else you might have read lately. Hell, the main character is an aging jazz man. Is there a less marketable premise going today? But Oliver Pleasant is the best character I've come across in ages. He's real. He's genuine. He's also a tortured soul full of regret, too many miles, too many late nights, and too much hooch. But he's wise and he has stories to tell and some songs yet to play. You'll love him, like his author loves him. Oh and speaking of ... there's a reading Thursday night. If you're lucky enough to live in Memphis, or be in Memphis, you'll want to go. Details here.

Apr 13, 2015

Happy birthday, Eudora Welty

The boys had a surprise -- an alligator on board. One of them pulled it by a chain around the deck, between the cars and trucks, like a toy -- a hide that could walk.

-- from "No Place For You, My Love"

No work today, friends, but only heavy reading, light gardening, and later, some bourbon sipping. It's Eudora Welty's birthday, and we should, by all means, treat it as the national holiday it ought to be.

The distant point of the ridge, like the tongue of a calf, put its red lick on the sky.

-- from "Losing Battles"

The land was perfectly flat and level but it shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragonfly. It seemed strummed, as though it were an instrument and something had touched it.

-- from "Delta Wedding"

I've lost Hazel, she's vanished, she went to drown herself."

"Why, that ain't like Hazel," Virgil said.

William Wallace reached out and shook him. "You heard me. Don't you know we have to drag the river?"

"Right this minute?"

-- from "The Wide Net"

As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.

-- from "One Writer's Beginnings"

Apr 7, 2015

Cigarette Kisses and Typewriter Dreams (Small-Batch Fiction, No. 18)

It's such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green
It's memories that I'm stealing
but you're innocent when you dream

"Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)," Tom Waits

So the boy had been kissed and a cigarette had touched his lips. He wondered if the rest of the literary vices would find him as lost and wanting, and he thought about being a real writer and telling tales and acting all literary and holding forth and having a muse or several. He wondered if he could be a writer without smoking cigarettes, wondered if pecking letters on a typewriter would be enough something to do for his hands.

-- from "The Very Last Night"

Mar 2, 2015

The Ballad of Kentucky Jones (Small-Batch Fiction No. 68)

It'll make a toad spit in a black snake's face
Make a hard shell preacher fall from grace

-- "Kentucky Moonshiner," Fruit Jar Guzzlers

The manager’s name – the name he gave – was Kentucky Jones. He was an old carny barker with a master’s degree in economics from Providence and another in philosophy from Vanderbilt. There was a whiff of the South to him, and a hint of older country, too. But wherever he was bred, or whatever he was bred to be, he could sell anything. It was his gift. Bear wrestling or a crucifixion, it didn’t make a damn to Kentucky Jones. He was as short as the singer but wide around as a full gospel choir. He wore dark rumpled suits with a string tie and cowboy hat, looked like he’d come hustling straight from a lost weekend to Uncle Dave Macon’s funeral. But he never drank and had no time for the dead. You couldn’t sell tickets to a funeral; at least, Kentucky Jones had yet to find the way.

-- from the story, "Sanctuary & Desire in the American South"

Feb 9, 2015

Ode to Typewriter

Monday morning. Coffee and writing and Tom Waits singing, "Forgive me pretty baby / but I always take the long way home."

The books in the picture are from a nice little weekend haul at a local used-book store. The Tom Waits song is from the movie version of Larry Brown's "Big Bad Love," which my wife calls "Big Bad Movie." I understand why -- it's a movie about a writer as a fairly lousy human being. He busts up his family, drinks to the point of fighting, and generally can't get, or keep, his shit together. I love it, still and all, for all sorts of reasons, from the Mississippi setting with its high kudzu count to the soundtrack with R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, Tom Waits and Steve Earle. I especially like that it's a movie about a writer in which the writer actually writes during the movie. Typewriters were harmed in the making of this film!

For the record, though: I do fully disagree with the premise that you have to be a shitheel to be a successful writer (and by successful, I just mean write great books), despite this movie and all the real-life evidence that suggest otherwise, and of course that thing Faulkner said:

The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies.