"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.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Okay, back to the interminable story of How I Ended Up Making This Movie.
It kind of neatly connects to the last post, in fact. And it involves late-night drunken websurfing too, demonstrating that indulging in these kinds of activities isn't necessarily such a terrible waste of time...
I had decided that I really, really wanted to see Eggleston's 'Stranded in Canton', so I googled it. No useful information there. While knocking around on the IMDB Cult Movie Board I saw a post that mentioned a Memphis-based filmmaker called JMM (John Michael McCarthy) and had a link to his website, so I checked it out. Go look, then come back and finish reading this.
Back? Okay, it's a pretty rockin' site, and I thought that this chap might well be somebody I could ask about Canton. So I emailed him and he responded, we started up quite a correspondence. Turned out we have a lot in common, both of us being the same age, adopted, and fantastically good-looking, as well as being independent filmmakers with chips on our white trash shoulders. Somewhere during the correspondence I must have mentioned that ICFM would make a great movie. Next thing I know, Mike has stopped Robert Gordon (whom he was slightly acquainted with) and told him that there's this nutty Irish filmmaker who's interested in filming his book. He gets me Robert's email address. It all snowballs from there... more later.
I was on my way back from the launderette today when I got a call from Tav Falco. He was all happy because I had told him about Guy Maddin, way back when Tav was in London a couple of months back - I mean, it seemed weird that two guys in their forties who both live in the twenties should be so ignorant of each other... so anyway, after the Sunday afternoon I spent interviewing Tav for the Memphis film I tried to get him to come to see Maddin's new movie, 'The Saddest Music in the World'. but he wanted to hang out with record company people and see if he could hustle them instead.
Anyway Tav today rang to say that he'd eventually met Guy at the Paris premiere of 'Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary', which of course he loved. Why wouldn't he? It's filled with gorgeous swooning women and darkly suggestive visual tropes, a stew of the sort of semi-comatose irony that all the best art casualties love. Plus it's funny as fuck. And now they are best buddies, bonded by a shared love of Theda Bara and of razored, thin, almost despicably thin, moustaches. So now Guy Maddin has agreed to direct Tav's next promo video, except of course Tav hasn't got a record label. So if anybody out there knows how to get the greatest rock'n'roll outlaw of the 21st century signed up to a fifteen CD deal and given all the darkest groupiecentric desires of his heart, then let us all know the secret.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Yesterday was a hell of a day for Memphicentric activity in the central London area. As I sat in the French House on Dean St waiting to go and see Mr Johnny Dowd, I opened the G2 section of the Guardian to find a two-page colour spread on William Eggleston and the movies. Since a large part of It Came From Memphis is devoted to Eggleston's adventures in video, which culminated in the sprawling verite work called Stranded in Canton, I thought there might be some reference in there - but the writer insists that "the closest (Eggleston) has come to cinema has been the odd cryptic reference to a video project." Yeah, really cryptic - try this:
"Stranded in Canton is a document of the spirit of Memphis, or more precisely, of Midtown Memphis, 1970s. Using natural light (and later infrared tubes), Eggleston shot unobtrusively in bars, backhouses, fields, cars - day and night. 'The electricity generated...was amazing,' says Mary Lindsay Dickinson. 'The maestro at work with what may have been the world's first infrared handicam! People would do absolutely anything to be in the movie.' Those few who might have been constrained by the camera assumed it was too dark, or that there was no tape in the camera, or that Eggleston was just looped and playing around. 'My idea was to shoot whatever was out there,' Eggleston says. "The second I saw the first reel I was very happy. I knew that it was perfect. I was looking forward to more of it and we just kept doing it. (It) works because of the way the whole takes came off, unedited... It was as if we were looking at something that had been shot fifty times and this was the best take. And these were always the only takes. It was just that good.'" (pp. 226-227, It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon)
For anybody who, like me, wants very badly to see a 1970's Memphis document featuring geek grudge matches, midnight Mississippi juke joint one-chord trance boogie sessions in full effect, and how people acted in front of a video camera when nobody yet knew what one was - I have good news for all you good people. Stranded in Canton is finally due for some sort of release in 2004.
And hopefully the Guardian might just get their information from a more reliable source next time.
I know we've just started but I feel like digressing slightly. There's a chap called Johnny Dowd and his first recording was called 'The Wrong Side of Memphis'. I bought one of his records way back in the late 20th, when there was a thing called 'alternative country' that was getting people all excited, lots of bands named after drinks who liked Gram Parsons a lot. But this Dowd fellow was different. I put his record on and it made my bones hurt. It sounded more like Mark E Smith than Mike Nesmith. His version of Hank William's 'Pictures From Life's Other Side' was excruciating, fingernails down a blackboard, angular untuneful and downright nasty. So I put Mr Dowd and all of his works to one side but could never quite get his noise out of my brain.
Years later I was sitting in Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio out in the wilds of the Mississippi hill country, and Jim, whom I have revered for quite a long stretch, says that he had to break off recording his record 'Free Beer Tomorrow' (a record that took something like ten years to get down on tape) when he heard Dowd's first release. The absolute rawness that he heard inspired him to go off and put something completely different down, an as yet unreleased work called 'Topless Bowling'. He was unable to continue until he'd made his riposte to Dowd, got Dowd's unholy cacophony out of his system.
So when I got back to London and there was a Johnny Dowd gig advertised at the Borderline (around the corner from my then residence) I felt there was no point in avoiding it. I attended.
What I saw was one of the greatest rock'n'roll shows I've ever experienced. The fact that the frontman is in his fifties, and has only been performing for about six years, had nothing to do with it. He exuded pure showmanship.
Well, tonight I saw Mr Dowd a second time, in the pokey and wonderful 12-Bar Club on Denmark St. Backed by his drummer/keyboardist Brian Wilson (AKA Willie B) he did my brains in all over again. It was pure performance art, from the moment Willie B took the stage and removed his left shoe, all the better to play the keyboard with his left foot.
Silence. Mr Dowd started, very slowly, rolling a cigarette. He asked the crowd if they'd heard of "a musician and film-maker by the name of Dolemite?" My quiet "Uh-huh" of assent was the only sound, and heads turned to stare at me. Mr Dowd went on to tell a spectacularly unamusing joke from the repertoire of Rudy Ray Moore, or Dolemite. The fact that this didn't dent his charisma is quite astonishing. He stopped talking and continued to tune up, very slowly.
Then he and his accompanist lashed into 'Pictures From Life's Other Side'. This slab of offensive, carnivalesque non-music - in waltz time - was like a bucket of cold water over the already freezing crowd. Mr Dowd's voice is like that of a heartsick mongrel in an empty cowshed, rising as the wind slams doors on his stubby little tail. He inhabits the stage with an innate showmanship and knows exactly the effect he is creating on the audience. Once they have been shocked into submission by his disregard for their comfort zone, he takes them on an exhilarating rock'n'roll journey. Sounding at times like early Black Sabbath, at others like 'Trout Mask Replica', he is a beatnik Charlie Feathers. He hits a dark subterranean groove just when you least expect to be grooved.
In short, he does exactly what I most seek and least often find in the world. He provides a constant sense that - no matter how familiar you are with what he's doing - you can never predict what's going to happen next. A feedback-loving Andy Griffith presiding over a whirlpool of cosmic chaos, Mr Johnny Dowd is nothing like anything you or any of your supposedly 'hip', 'well-informed' peer group has ever seen. Really.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Some years ago - I can't actually remember how many, though it is certainly more than five - I picked up a book called It Came From Memphis, in Tower Records, Dublin. At the time I was intrigued by the Memphis power-pop band Big Star, so I flipped to the index and read those bits. Very quickly I understood that what I had in my hands wasn't the usual kind of rock book written by one of the usual addled bozos who populate that subsector of that particularly compromised industry... This was something very different.
But of course I had no money, being a broke-ass dependent film-maker. So I put it back on the shelf.
Some unquantifiable amount of time later, I came across a hardback copy of The Memphis Book (as I had begun to think of it) in The Secret Book and Record Shop, only a couple of doors from Tower but a universe away in terms of attitude and pricing policy. This time I was able to afford it. Years later, examining my copy, the author - Robert Gordon - was able to tell me that this was a US first edition of the book. How it got to Dublin I don't know. But then, how did that signed Harry Partch album on green vinyl end up in the canalside junk shop where I found it in 1987? Things find people.
This blog is about the journey between then and now, and how the vague dream that I'd fostered of filming this book, meeting the people that populate it, and contributing something of my own to this strange and beautiful world, became reality.
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