"It's easier to bone the President's wife than to get a movie made." Ray Charles.

How a cult music book became a cult music documentary, and it only took ten years.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Jerry McGill, Curtis Buck, Jerry Lloyd Cole, Billy Thurman, Geronimo - RIP, all of you. 

Jerry McGill died on Thursday, and today's my birthday. Thursday was the birthday of Jerry's late sparring partner and travelling buddy Paul Clements too. I want to write about this but I'm not feeling too good (physically, not psychologically). I'll come back to it. For now, it's enough to say that Jerry was a larger than life presence and it was an honour to be involved in his rediscovery - a rediscovery that continues, I hope, as his recordings move towards becoming available to a (doubtless) grateful & overwhelmed public.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Seems like this job is always a race against time. Coming up on a year now since Jim Dickinson's untimely death and it still hurts to know we didn't get the film about him funded, so much stuff left unfilmed, so many stories untold. Only a couple of months back my friend Sebastian Horsley, the last punk dandy in the world, died too, and I'd spent three years trying to convince people to give me money to make a film about his crazy, sordid, visionary life. Now he's safely dead, there's two films about him already up and running.

Whatever. It isn't worth regretting the things you don't do, when there are so many things you did do that you need to spend time regretting. One thing I won't regret is bailing out in a big hurry to go to Memphis and start filming with Jerry McGill. The harebrained three months myself and Robert Gordon spent chasing him all over the South was at times stressful, other times fun, but most of all irreplacable.

Jerry's finally had his lung cancer surgery - had it a few weeks back. The DAY after the surgery he was on the phone to me and Robert, sounding like he was sitting at the corner of his local bar, the Twilght Zone, holding forth. Sadly, that state of affairs didn't last, and as I write he's back in the hospital - the doctors have discovered his extraordinary dependency on prescription painkillers and are trying to make him go cold turkey - the nurses have blown out his veins with bad shots and now he can only take his antibiotics orally - the oral antibiotics cost $6K - and there's a concern that the cancer may have gone to his lymphatic system. Has Jerry McGill's legendary luck, which saw him evade capture by the FBI for thirteen years, all the while he was touring and playing guitar with Waylon Jennings as a wanted man, sometimes appearing in drag to escape police attention - has this man's extraordinary streak of luck run out?

Fuck no - I just heard a sample of Big Jim Lancaster's forthcoming CD, coming out on his own Playground label, drawn from McGill's various recording escapades over the past six decades. Only two of the tracks - the A and B sides of his Sun 45, Lovestruck, from '59 - have ever been heard, anywhere. The rest includes material with Dickinson (the storming Hoochie Coochie Man, the heartbreaking Desperadoes, the downright terrifying Civil War anthem With Sabers in Our Hands) and stuff recorded this year with the North Mississippi Allstars and the remaining members of Mud Boy and the Neutrons. It is going to live forever, this music, and it's all down to the pack-rat instincts of Jim Lancaster - a man who never throws anything away - that half of this stuff has survived.

So, one way or another, McGill's legendary status will endure. I just hope he's around for the premiere of this dark and crazy movie about his life, and I really, really wish Dickinson could be there too. However, small mercies - and as long as there's never-before-heard music from Zebra Ranch waiting to be released, Jim hasn't left us.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

OK, now that it's nearly done, I can talk about the new Memphis-related project - a film about the remarkable life and outlandish history of Jerry McGill, aka Curtis Buck, aka Jerry Cole, and he had and has nine other names he's gone under at various times. I've been filming with Robert Gordon for the past three months and we have got some mindblowing material, not for the fainthearted. McGill's star turn in William Eggleston's Stranded in Canton showed him to have been one scary fucker in 1973. My recent experience has showed that not much has changed in the intervening years. The film - working title: Very Extremely Dangerous - should start editing sometime late summer or early autumn, all going well. Also, a career-spanning record release - McGill's first in fifty years (!) - from Florida's Playground Recording should be out around the same time, containing stuff McGill cut in the '70s with Jim Dickinson, Dan Penn, Waylon Jennings and others, as well as more recent material laid down at Sam Phillips Recording Services, with Roland Janes at the mixing desk and Luther & Cody Dickinson, among other Memphis luminaries, playing back-up to the outlaw.

Here's a piece from the Memphis Commercial Appeal about McGill's one-off performance at the Hi-Tone Cafe last week:


One of the more mysterious musical legends in Memphis history, Jerry McGill returns to town for a special performance at the Hi-Tone Café. A former garage-band great, a onetime Sun recording artist, a longtime foil for Waylon Jennings, and a notorious hell-raiser during the Bluff City's mid-'70s music scene -- as vividly captured in William Eggleston's film "Stranded in Canton" -- McGill will play a mini-set at the start of a bill that includes local burlesque group The Memphis Belles as well as scuzz-rockers The Dirty Streets and Tanks. McGill's performance is being filmed by director and author Robert Gordon ("It Came From Memphis") as part of a documentary being made with Irish filmmaker Paul Duane.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Going back to Memphis on Saturday. This is a bit of a conundrum, as I don't quite know what I'm doing when I get there, apart from filming a quite unusual recording session on Monday. Jerry McGill's last record, Lovestruck, was released in 1959, and he's recording something new Monday night with Jim Dickinson's sons Luther and Cody, in Sam Phillips Recording Services. I'm flying over to film a bit with Jerry before and after the session, just to see what happens. If you don't know who Jerry is you haven't seen Stranded in Canton, in which case just go to YouTube right now and find it - the whole movie's on there. If you have seen it you know he's the original rock'n'roll outlaw. No others I know of fulfil the criteria the way he does. I may write some more about this when I come back, if I come back. There's a lot could happen in the next few days.

A strange side effect of this shoot is that I'll be in Memphis just two days after Alex Chilton stepped off the planet. I wish I had something great to write about him here, but I never met the man. I saw him live, twice - once at the London Astoria with Big Star, putting his heart and soul into playing sides that he had often said he didn't believe in or enjoy playing any more. You'd never have known that to see him play. They were great. Next time was in Dublin, where - in the middle of a horrible break-up with somebody I thought I was deeply in love with - I brought the girl to see him do a solo show in Whelan's, my favourite Dublin venue. That was a frustrating and also mesmerising show, he was aware of the Big Star cultists making up most of his audience and enjoyed toying with them/us, and I just wanted this girl to see the magic in this man and understand why I'd brought her here. I don't think she got it and I can't blame her, it was an evening short on magic, but I'm glad I went. Afterwards we sat in the bar and had an awkward drink, knowing we were going home separately to separate beds. September Gurls played and I sang along, "I loved you, well, never mind - " but couldn't finish the line because it was too close to the bone, really. I don't remember anything more about that evening, but it came back to mind this morning when I heard the news, and remembered standing ten feet away from Alex as he refused, with a smile, to play my request, Let's Get Lost, instead responding "That's exactly what I plan to do." And then he left the stage, and didn't return.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A message from Mary Lindsay Dickinson, via Robert Gordon:

"People have been asking me what they could do to help us. I didn't know
what to say until yesterday when I woke up with Jim's voice in my head,
saying as he often did, "I am never insulted by money." This fits into
Cody and Luther's plan for the Zebra Ranch Studio, which is to continue to
record there with the benefit of Jim's sonic genius and musical ambiance.

If people want to participate in keeping Jim Dickinson's dream alive, they
can donate to friendsofjimdickinson@gmail.com through paypal or mail to
Mary Dickinson
P.O. Box 1015
Coldwater, MS 38618

Please help us spread the word that the Zebra Ranch studio is always open
for business, either as a rental or with the addition of Cody as producer,
Luther as guitarist and aesthetic consultant,and Jim smiling down on us
from Heaven."

Monday, August 17, 2009

I really, really don't want to write about this. I don't think I'm able to do justice to the man who died on Saturday, James Luther Dickinson, and I don't want to fail. So I'll reprint the best thing I've found about him written online, and let you read it, and I'll come back and write about this another time, when I feel able to take it on. For now, I'll just write some words that I find it hard to type and harder to look at. James Luther Dickinson, 1941-2009. Rest in peace, brother, world boogie is coming.

By Malcolm Jones

"He left a big hole" is such an obit cliché, but it sure doesn't help when the hole is in your heart. Jim Dickinson, who died Aug 15, was not a famous musician, but he was a great one. He truly was one of those mysterious people who could get more out of two notes than most people get out of 20, maybe because he knew that less is more, or more likely because he knew where to put them. When I got the word from a mutual friend that Dickinson, 67, contrary to expectations, would not be coming back from bypass surgery, all I could think was, now the world will be a poorer place. Music never dies, but now and then it takes a hit that there's no recovering from.

Dickinson was in no way famous, unless being famous among one's peers counts. With his wife and family, he lived in two trailers, one of them a recording studio, on a spread in northern Mississippi he called the Zebra Ranch. A Memphis denizen since childhood, he never traveled far. Instead, people came to him. He was the rock and roll doctor (whenever I hear Lowell George's song of the same name—"two degrees in bebop, a PhD. In swing, he's the master of rhythm, he's the rock n roll king"—I think of Dickinson. The song may not be about him, but it sure could have been).

He spent most of his life helping other people get their music on wax, disc, tape—realize their vision, in other words. Not many people know how to do that and those who do rarely do it with the inspiring generosity Dickinson brought to the studio or the recording booth (and the concert stage: bidding his audience goodbye at the end of one album, he said "Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else"). He was a selfless sideman: he played keyboards on the Stones' "Wild Horses" and Dylan's comeback breakthrough "Time Out of Mind," but those works don't sound a thing alike. He cut albums on musicians as disparate as Big Star, the Replacements, Toots Hibbert, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Mudboy and the Neutrons and the Dickinson boys, Luther and Cody, two-thirds of the North Mississippi All-Stars. With Cooder he co-wrote "The Wildwood Boys" and "Down Below the Borderline." Toward the end of his life, he returned to recording himself and produced a handful of idiosyncratic albums that each defy categorization—blues, soul, swing tunes, novelty numbers and plain old rock n roll. The unifying aspect resides less in the grooves than in the mind of the listener: the unmistakable realization that on the other end of the microphone is a real live human being who is holding nothing back. Listening to a track from Dickinson's first solo album, "Dixie Fried" (1972), Dr. John was heard to remark, "That boy is SELLING that song."

A self-deprecating man who never left his sense of humor in his other pants, Dickinson deflected any suggestion that he was a walking encyclopedia of American popular music, or that he was some torch bearer of white Southern soul or that he knew how to reach down to the very roots of American song and then communicate that essence to you in his music or the music he helped others make. He made no claims for his piano playing or his singing—before turning his sandpapery growl loose on a cover of the Dan Penn song "Pain and Strain" on his live album, "A Thousand Footprints in the Sand," he told the audience, "I can't sing it like Dan Penn, but ... use your imagination." But while there are plenty of people with better chops and more golden throats, Dickinson always did the most he could with what he had. And somehow he always reached back and found just the right note, the right inflection, to make you lean forward and listen. When Dickinson sang a lyric, you believed every word. If he'd said he learned what he knew from selling his soul to the devil at some crossroads at midnight, you wouldn't be too quick to call him a liar. In fact, when someone did ask him where he learned what he knew, the middle-class Memphis white boy never got above his raising: "From the yard man, like everybody else."

I met him just once, for a moment, n a New York City club where he was performing with his sons. I got the chance to thank him for all the hours of pleasure he'd given me on his albums and the albums he helped produce. He was very gracious, but as we parted, I thought how strange it is, this world of recorded sound, where a man puts his soul on record, where you feel like you know him as well as you know your best friend, and yet, when you meet, you're strangers again. Until you flip the on switch to listen again.

Jim Dickinson was a great musician who led by example. He never cut a dishonest track in his life. If you never heard him, it's your loss, because he was the real deal. He said he wanted his epitaph to read, "I'm just dead. I'm not gone." I wish.

http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/popvox/archive/2009/08/16/jim-dickinson -1941-2009-farewell-to-the-original-north-mississippi-all-star.aspx

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Just had some absolutely remarkable news which, well, wait and see how things develop but somebody who was never expected to return from oblivion is about to get in touch with me and just possibly is going to take part in some filming. If this works out the way I hope it might, it could mean a very sudden revitalisation of this project. About time too. Fingers crossed and watch this space! The South's gonna rise again.
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