"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.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

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.
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