Aug 16, 2014

Ode to August 16 (Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and a reason to believe)

Evidently, in August 1938, Johnson was playing at a dance in Three Forks, some fifteen miles out of Greenwood, as Honeyboy Edwards suggested. He and Honeyboy had been playing out there for several weeks running, by Honeyboy's account.

-- from "Searching for Robert Johnson," by Peter Guralnick

He must have chosen the wrong woman in Three Forks. His death certificate, finally discovered by Gayle Dean Wardlow in 1968, lists no cause of death, but supposed eyewitnesses have told that Johnson died after drinking whiskey laced with strychnine. Some have said that Johnson crawled on his hands and knees and barked like a dog before he died...

-- from the chapter, "Robert Johnson's Satanic Verses," in Frances Davis's "The History of the Blues"

I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying and ordered a Jack Daniels, straight from Tennessee, just like Elvis Presley's first 45s.

-- Greil Marcus, upon hearing the news, writing in "Dead Elvis"

You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride

-- "Me and the Devil Blues," Robert Johnson

I straddled that greyhound
and rode him into Raleigh
and I went across Carolin'

-- "Promised Land," Elvis Presley (singing Chuck Berry)

We’re going to Memphis, the sacred muck, the shining jewel of all sad backwaters. We’re going to Memphis, great lost city of sound. You can walk on whiskey in Memphis. You can bang your blue guitar.

-- from "Long Gone Daddies," John F. Blair, Publisher

But I've reason to believe
we all will be received

-- "Graceland," Paul Simon

Aug 9, 2014

The Jukebox Repairman (Small-Batch Fiction No. 99)

You can bust your feet
And you can rock this joint
But oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?

-- "Down in the Flood," Flatt & Scruggs

The jukebox repairman sat at the bar, drinking black coffee thick as sludge, and the old man stood behind it, washing highball and pint and shot glasses, and then setting them on the nubbed rubber mat to dry. The silence in the place was far too noisy and suited neither of them – the creak of the plank-wood floor as the old man shifted his weight while he washed the glasses, the metal wheeze of the barstool as the jukebox repairman leaned forward to sip of the sludge. The low hum of refrigeration and the resigned sigh of the heating unit seemed to be speaking to one another; there seemed to be the makings of some truce between them. There was the blink and flicker of the lights overhead and busy fritz of neon in the front window. There might have been a cricket, somewhere in the crevices of the old joint, shivering and covering its ears.

“Can I get you something for that coffee?”

The old man’s coffee, it was said, could raise the dead and rob banks.

The jukebox repairman drank his black, but preferred liquid to sludge, and so he said, “Sure, some cream if you’ve got it.”

The old man said, “I meant a little shot of something.”

“People put whiskey in their coffee?” The jukebox repairman was not much of a drinker; at the age his contemporaries first discovered drink he was holed up in his bedroom, listening to records as if for clues. His first love had been an old Etta James album cover, the “Tell Mama” LP, from his father’s collection.

-- from the story, "Tales of Ancient Grease"

Aug 2, 2014

Down in Memphis (More songs about day dreams and night trains)

I never did it blindfolded, but I think I could have. Out McLemore Avenue to Thomas Street. Thomas Street past where I spent so many nights playing bass with Ben Branch at Currie's Club Tropicana.

-- Booker T. Jones, from the liner notes to "The Road From Memphis"

We take a drive in the big, powder-blue car. It moves like a good run of days.

We drive the streets of the city, the radio tuned to the soul oldies station.

“Memphis,” my daddy says. “Damnedest place ever was, but I do love it. Memphis slouches and Memphis grins and Memphis is real, in the best and worst ways and most ways in between. Memphis, with its eye shine. Memphis, with its chin stubble.”

“Memphis,” I say, “with a song lounging there with an unlit cigarette on those licked Memphis lips.”

“Rock ‘n’ roll, yeah,” my daddy says. “Three chords, piss, and hokum. You hear what I’m saying, son?”

“I hear you, daddy. I hear you.”

-- from "Long Gone Daddies," (John F. Blair, Publisher)

A Saturday-night playlist...

1. "Feelin' Bad," Little Junior Parker
2. "B.B. Blues," B.B. King
3. "Flat Tire," Albert King
4. "Vandalize," Luther Dickinson
5. "The Creeper Returns," Little Sonny
6. "Son of Shaft," Bar-Kays
7. "Take It Off," Alex Chilton
8. "Juice Head Baby," Charlie Rich
9. "Everybody Knows (The River Song)," O.V. Wright
10. "Down in Memphis," Booker T. Jones
11. "Bluff City Ruckus," Porch Ghouls
12. "Jellyroll," Furry Lewis
13. "Bar B Q," Wendy Rene
14. "Back to Memphis," The Band
15. "Night Train to Memphis," Jerry Lee Lewis
16. "Tuesday Night in Memphis," John Lurie
17. "Crump St." the City Champs
18. "Belle," Al Green
19. "Electrified Love," Ernie Hines
20. "Feelin' Good," Little Junior Parker
21. "Memphis Shakedown," Memphis Jug Band

There are no lyrics per se – just a lot of shouting, scatting and otherwise exhorting – but does any song better capture the wild-hair spirit of Memphis music than this three-minute hoot?

-- from the "Memphis Shakedown" entry in The Commercial Appeal's "100 Best Songs About Memphis"

Jul 28, 2014

These Thirteen (More songs about skinny legs and cemetery hips)

Fool's gold in your teeth and cemetery hips
Get outside of your graveyard lips

-- "Tell Me, Momma," Bob Dylan

He read a commercial for self-rising flour, and another for pickup trucks with lots of torque. He said torque was where it was at, truck-wise. He touted the state fair, without saying which state, said there would be bear wrestling and wax figures of famous outlaws, fried pies and pig races. He read the weather report, to banjo backing: blues skies, hot temps, boys on bikes chasing girls on skates, old folks on front porches holding hands, drag races out on the old farm road, fireworks come dark, kissing, some drinking, minor mischief, night caps, last call, sleep, dreams. He played some records – old gospel songs about present joys and pure religion...

-- from a novel-in-digress, "Ivy Coldwater & the Summer of Strange Things Happening"

A Monday-morning playlist ...

1. "High Ball Stepper," Jack White
2. "Hang It On the Wall," Charley Patton
3. "Tennessee Time," Valerie June
4. "Skinny Leg Blues," Geeshie Wiley
5. "Tell Me, Momma," Boy Dylan
6. "Mean Low Blues," Blues Birdhead
7. "Day Grifter," Wise Old Moon
8. "Two White Horses in a Line," Two Poor Boys
9. "Six White Horses," Gillian Welch
10. "Mississippi Swamp Moan," Alfred Lewis
11. "Vandalize," Luther Dickinson
12. "Get the 'L' on Down the Road," Bill Johnson's Louisiana Jug Band
13. "Thunder Chicken," the Mighty Imperials

Jul 12, 2014

Cab Ride to Sin City (Small-Batch Fiction No. 6)

It’s so lonesome in the afternoon
when you're the only one with nothing to do

-- "Day Drinker," Adam Faucett

Lucy Miles’ mama sat on the hood of the wood-paneled cab, drinking bourbon in her best shabby dress. She was showing some leg and thinking about the back seat. She was thinking about a song she used to like but couldn’t call its name. It rhymed slink with drink and had a guitar lick that liked to get all up under her dress. It had horns on it, too. Horns got to her. And that drum beat – lord, that jungle thump. But mostly it was the guitar part that did it to her. Tammy Miles didn’t think it was any accident they called them licks.

But then the song gave out suddenly – a broken string, a pulled plug, the law called, there in the house-rent party in her head. And so now she found herself thinking about home and her girl Lucy and that sad damn case of a man, Joe Miles. She missed her Lucy girl, but damn. Here she was on the road to something more, and that road didn’t go but one way. She tried to conjure a band in her head and have it strike up that good old dirty song. She tried mightily. She fell into something of a trance; the bourbon helped in this regard. She heard that lick again, but played on a church organ. So she prayed. It wasn’t one from any book. She prayed, "Jesus I’m a sinner but lighten up will you just this once?"

And He did. Or anyway, seemed to. Lucy Miles’ mama took a slug of the bourbon, Old Adage it was called, and she leaned back on the hood of the cab. She closed her eyes. A band played, a singer sang. Rasped, really, like he'd swigged more than freely from the same bottle, or maybe had his own. He rhymed slink with drink and juice with loose and then he broke into a new one, all wild with rollick.

I’m goin’ to Sin City
I got people there
Dolls in their finery
and the devil’s the mayor

-- from the novel, "The Very Last Night of Boys and Girls"

Jul 11, 2014

Kentucky Stomp (More songs about steep hills, deep hollows, and home)

The moon rises to cry
And the sun wonders why
Eminence, Kentucky

-- "Eminence, Kentucky," Jim Mize

So they crossed Kentucky, the Bluegrass state. The land of sweet bourbon and swift horses. They crossed the gentle rolling fields where lolled those horses – nay, racehorses, thoroughbreds. Louis cashed a winning ticket on a bay colt named Bless My Soul and with his winnings bought rations for a week and nine jugs of wine. The boys were all well fed and light of head, and Louis, he said, ‘Now sleep off your good times, boys, and awake with clear heads and determined hearts, for it’s hard country ahead.’ And so it was, Mr. Luke, and so it was. It was Appalachia now. Appalachia – that’s an Indian word for ‘We shoulda stayed in St. Louie, Louie.’ It was Kentucky, still, but you wouldn’t have guessed it. It was steep hills and deep hollows, hard country for horses. There were men with guns and women with spells. There were crevices in the land that opened to other times, the Iron Age and the Great Potato Famine and the Salt Lick World’s Fair. The sun faltered and the dark stood high on its hind legs like something out of the devil’s stable.

-- from a novel-in-digress, "Strange Things Happening Every Day"

A Friday playlist ...
1. "Kentucky Stomp," Dixie Four
2. "Panbowl," Sturgill Simpson
3. "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky" (alternate), Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys
4. "Bowling Green," Everly Brothers
5. "Eminence, Kentucky," Jim Mize
6. "Ginseng Blues," Kentucky Ramblers
7. "The Bear" (demo), My Morning Jacket
8. "Low Down Ramblin' Blues," Chris Knight
9. "Big Foot Feller," Buell Kazee
10. "My Old Kentucky Home (Turpentine & Dandelion Wine)," Ry Cooder
11. "My Old Kentucky Home," Bill Frizell
12. "Paradise," John Prine
13. "Maysville," Reed Island Rounders
14. "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere," Dwight Yoakam

I'd give anything to go
all the way back to Panbowl
All the way back
to the days when I was young

-- "Panbowl," Sturgill Simpson

Jun 17, 2014

A Town Called Bertha (Small-Batch Fiction No. 3)

It was a sad, little town that hadn’t had a moment’s joy, by the sorry look of it, since who knew when – maybe since the days they were still naming gal babies Bertha. The gas station was the one fanciful thing about the place. It had something of an Art Deco design. It was old and the paint mostly all peeled off, but it was striking, even so. It was all curves and columns and, yes, flower motifs; what paint remained was a pastel pink. It might have been an old nightclub called the Boll Rivage or Bertha’s Club Grandeur, converted for some reason to a gas station. The smooth, stone walls – gray, but seeming almost silver in the morning light – might have told tales of gangsters and their molls, hot jazz, blue hooch, and the night Shifty Vaughan shot Cooney Wells over some damned woman in an incident immortalized in a film directed by Howard Hawks with a script that bore the fingerprints and Four Roses-stains of Mississippi’s own William Faulkner. Ivy closed her eyes and heard dancing, saw music, smelled paint. Suddenly she was there, on the edge, done up and dolled out – but was it really her? Was it her mother?

It was impossible to say, what with all the smoke in the joint. A man in a cream-colored suit appeared, and then they were dancing, and the house orchestra played one wild rag and then another, and then slowed it down for a torch number – a leaving song, a sad lament – and he had his hand on the small of her bare back. She couldn’t get a look at his face, for hers buried in the crook of his neck. He smelled like whiskey, gun powder, train smoke, typewriter ribbon, gumbo with fresh okra, the Gulf of Mexico. He spoke, but not words; it was as if he were humming in some foreign tongue. Ivy felt trade winds upon her neck. He kissed her there. She smelled spice routes and summer rain, and trouble, of a sort.

-- from a work-in-digress, "Strange Things Happening Every Day"

May 19, 2014

Eating barbecue with Johnny, Robert and Otis on Lamar Avenue in Memphis

Like a bitter weed
I'm a bad seed
But when that levee's through
and I am too
Let the honky tonk roll on
Come mornin' I'll be gone
I'm goin' to Memphis

-- "I'm Going to Memphis," Johnny Cash

Memphis was something of a decaying land. It was rusted and busted and frayed about the edges. It was an old car on blocks, but with the radio still playing, the soul oldies station. It was an old couch out in the sun, mildewed, with an old stench-ridden bum curled up and dozing sweet dreams. But Old Willie loved Memphis, the ol’ gal. It was a place where things had happened and might yet again. It was real, not plastic or come from some factory mold; it was not smooth to the touch or shiny to the eye. It had barbs and stubble, sharp edges. You could cut yourself on a Memphis summer morning, and when it rained in Memphis, those were real human tears, serious, no lie. Memphis wanted to be loved by the world but could not be bothered to change out of the clothes it woke up in. You had to take the place as it was, and then it would take you in. Memphis, ol’ gal, bit of a floozy, it’s true, smoked and drank and talked smutty and went to church regular. Memphis ate well, too – well, too well and too much, and everything fried that wasn’t smoked. The most famous barbecue joint in town was in an alley and had such strange working hours that you about needed a secret password and a black cat bone to get a rack of ribs there, and Old Willie’s favorite barbecue joint in town was in an old, converted gas station that did not stay open past six on any night but Friday, and then only until 6:30, and closed on Sundays and Mondays and Rufus Thomas’s birthday, and would not take credit cards or sell you alcohol, don’t ask.

-- from my novel, "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home"

The description of Old Willie's "favorite barbecue joint" is based on Payne's, on Lamar Avenue. They serve a big, messy shoulder sandwich that's one of the best in Memphis, which is to say, the world. I stopped by for lunch a couple of weeks ago, and on the drive back to work, the murals caught my eye. Holy shit -- a brooding Johnny Cash, a possessed Robert Johnson, an anguished Otis Redding, and a fourth I've yet to identify. I pulled into the parking lot and took some pictures. Mostly, I marveled.

I can't tell you much about them. Some research turned up the artist, Kyle Taylor, but I can't tell you anything about him. The name doesn't sound familiar. The newspaper doesn't seem to have written about him. All of which seems like a very Memphis thing -- somebody with talent and a wild hair, taking it from there, creating art. Or a really great barbecue sandwich. You can get them both -- and lots more -- I suspect, down on Lamar Avenue in Memphis.

May 7, 2014

Black coffee and two chord angry songs: R.J. Looney's "A Crow's Breakfast"

I'm no good at reading poetry. I want to rush when I ought to savor. But sometimes, it happens. Sometimes, I take it slow and let the words have their way. It comes down to the writing, of course, and also to subject matter. They both need to hit home, stop me in my tracks. When that happens, why, it's as good as sipping whiskey. So it is with R.J. Looney's "A Crow's Breakfast." Our man writes about catfish, tractor sheds, FEMA trailers, two chord angry songs, bird shit, black coffee, gun play, Woody Guthrie, '51 Pontiacs.

He asks questions like, "wonder what people that don't drink do for fun?"

He writes,

My father was a gambler
in his early days
would blow his paycheck
on a Friday night
against a guy
he knew he couldn't beat
my mom would get so mad
that she'd buy a new dress
on credit when he lost


Autumn floats in
on a distant Dollar Store rug
freedom close behind

These are not quaint or homespun poems. Some fun is had, but it's rough in here. It's like life, that way. One called "Cornbread" begins with a pistol shot -- all the better for stopping you in your tracks.

May 6, 2014

My favorite books: "Cannery Row"

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

-- The opening of Steinbeck's "Cannery Row"

My latest visit to the Memphis public library's used-book store -- eight books, $9.85 -- was a grand success, as always. I found a couple of copies of "Cannery Row," surely one of my five favorite books of all time. (The only serious question is whether its mate, "Sweet Thursday," makes the list, as well.) Yes, I already had a copy of "Cannery Row," bought in college, I believe, but I couldn't pass them up, cheap as they were. I told myself I'd give them away, to friends or strangers who don't know the pleasures of the place, Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," the poetry of it, the stink ...

May 2, 2014

Heavenly days and Cadillac nights (More songs about Elvis and Eve)

They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple
But man, I ain't going for that
I know it was her pink Cadillac

-- "Pink Cadillac," Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen

Yes my heart was opened
No, no I don't look back
Because I'm riding around heaven
In Elvis Cadillac

-- "Elvis Cadillac," Rickie Lee Jones

The song is called "Elvis ’53." It’s about the king before he became something you couldn’t take your eyes from. It’s before his hillbilly superpowers were fully developed. It’s before he had that last little bit of nerve it took to climb that stage and shake what Gladys gave him.

-- from "Long Gone Daddies," John F. Blair, Publisher

A Friday-night playlist ...

1. "Brand New Cadillac," The Clash
2. "Cadillac Man," The Jesters
3. "Cadillac Ranch," Bruce Springsteen
4. "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache," Warren Smith
5. "Elvis Cadillac," Rickie Lee Jones
6. "Cadillac Limousine," Wrinkle Neck Mules
7. "Neck Tatts, Cadillacs," Blitzen Trapper
8. "Long White Cadillac," The Blasters
9. "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache," Bob Dylan
10. "Brand New Cadillac," The Clash
11. "Pink Cadillac," Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen
12-14. "Rip It Up," "Rubberneckin'," and "I Got a Feelin' in My Body (Take 4)," Elvis Presley
15. "Elvis Presley Blues," Gillian Welch

Just a country boy
He combed his hair
He put a shirt his mother made
and went on the air

-- "Elvis Presley Blues," Gillian Welch

Apr 25, 2014

Now batting, for the Swamp Angels ...

She drove slantwise across the Delta, headed for the Hill Country. She made poor time of it, stopping for the smallest of reasons and no reason at all. She played her music loud along the way, so as to rouse the ghosts from their graves. A few appeared, and appeared confused, was all. She took in the land about her: Cotton fields and fields of scruff, and in one field of freshly plowed dirt, a scarecrow dressed in old baseball flannels, road grays, with the name Swamp Angels stitched across the chest in baby-blue cursive.

-- from the one after next one, "Strange Things Happening Every Day"

Apr 18, 2014

Brittle hymns and natural anthems (More songs about America, by Americans, mostly)

Well, it's a howl from the desert, a scream from the slums
The Mississippi rollin' to the beat of the drums
They wanna hear some American music, American music
They wanna hear that sound right from the U.S.A.

-- "American Music," The Blasters

The songs were born in the British Isles and brought on ships to America. They settled in the mountains and then set out on foot for the cities and towns. They met and mingled with the blues. The songs awoke in strange beds and stirred to strange sounds. They walked just like a man. They were songs of sweet evil and blue ruckus. They were murder ballads, odes to ghosts. They were drinking hymns. Love went south and there turned dark. Knives were unsheathed and shown to fair maiden skin; the skin didn’t flinch, but it bled when cut. There were shootings and drownings. There was rain by the torrent, high water everywhere. The world would come just shy of ending, and most always there was a woman, a wife, back home. Sometimes there would be a song about her, but only sometimes.

-- from "Long Gone Daddies," John F. Blair, Publisher

A Friday-night playlist, with photos from Graceland and the Vicksburg, Miss., floodwall mural...

1. "This Land is Your Land," Woody Guthrie
2. "America Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)," Elvis Costello & the Attractions
3. "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," Iron & Wine
4. "Wild American," Kris Kristofferson
5. "American Land," Bruce Springsteen
6. "America," Laura Veirs
7-11. "Stayin' Power," "Coastline," "Union Man," "Comin' Apart at Every Nail," "Hawks & Doves," Neil Young (side two, "Hawks & Doves")
12. "American Dream," Lucinda Williams
13. "America," John Fahey
14. "This Land is Your Land," Neil Young & Crazy Horse
15. "Back in the USA," Chuck Berry
16. "American Music," The Blasters
17. "Crawling to the USA," Elvis Costello & the Attractions
18. "USA," The Pogues
19. "American Made Machine," Cary Ann Hearst
20. "American Man," Chuck Prophet
21. "KMAG YOYO," Hayes Carll
22. "An American Trilogy," Elvis Presley

Ain't getting old, ain't getting younger, though
Just getting used to the lay of the land
I ain't tongue-tied, just don't got nothin' to say
I'm proud to be livin' in the U.S.A.

-- "Hawks & Doves," Neil Young

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said 'Private Property'
But on the back side it didn't say nothing
This land was made for you and me

-- "This Land is Your Land," Woody Guthrie

Apr 8, 2014

Getaway Car (Small-Batch Fiction No. 49)

And on she drove – north to Memphis or south through time, she could not say.

The tape played a stretch of leaving songs. It played “Down the Dirt Road Blues” by Charley Patton and “Down the Road A Piece,” the Jerry Lee Lewis version. All the best songs were leaving songs, it seemed to Ivy. Or hurting songs – there were lots of good ones of those. Life was hard and life hurt and you had to drive fast and drive far, Ivy thought, to get clear of it. When the rains came and the world ended, you’d have to float hard and paddle fast. There was no end to it. A hearse, she thought, was nothing but one more getaway car.

Now Billie Holiday sang “One More for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” and then a band she liked, the Long Gone Daddies, sang,

I’m gone, I’m gone
I’m three days late
I’m a tectonic shift
with stolen plates

-- from a novel in digress, "Strange Things Happening Every Day"

Apr 4, 2014

Moonshine & Mercy (More songs about the mysteries of life)

I went to the river, couldn’t get across
I jumped on your papa ’cause I thought he was a horse
And I rode him over, give him a Coca-Cola
Lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
It takes soap and water for to keep it clean

-- "Keep It Clean," Charley Jordan

1. "Walk Right In," Bill Harvey & His Orchestra
2. "Beautician Blues," B.B. King
3. "Moonshine Minnie," Charlie Rich
4. "New Orleans Stop Time," Memphis Minnie
5. "Sophisticated Cissy," The Meters
6. "Yes We Can," Lee Dorsey
7. "Cherry Ball Blues," Ry Cooder
8. "Fat Man in the Bathtub," Little Feat
9. "Kassie Jones," James Luther Dickinson
10. "Keep It Clean," Charley Jordan
11. "A Spoonful Blues," Charley Patton
12. "The Mystery of Number Five," Jimmie Rodgers
13. "Mystery Train," Little Junior Parker
14. "Get With It," Charlie Feathers
15. "Mercy," Petunia & The Vipers
16. "Honey Now," Gillian Welch
17. "Odds n' Ends," David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and the Old Crow Medicine Show
18. "Minglewood Blues," Old Crow Medicine Show
19-20. "Rootie Tootie" and "Honky Tonk Blues," Hank Williams

Yeah, now, Moonshine Minnie wear a fuzzy dress
made from a nanny goat's hair
and every Saturday night
she gets a-feeling just right
And does the twist with a grizzly bear

-- "Moonshine Minnie," Charlie Rich