"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.

Monday, November 22, 2004

This didn't start out as a good day, at all, at all. Possibly something to do with the time of year always bringing to mind some spectacularly nasty stuff that happened around this time a few years back. Or possibly something to do with my questionable decision to dine on a bag of Kettle Chips and two cans of Stella rather than eating something nutritious before sleeping last night. Either way, the odds seemed to be against fun. i very nearly didn't go to the Eggleston private view at the Victoria Miro Gallery, I mean my years as an art student exposed me to enough exhibition openings and enough cheap free wine to forever remove any vestige of glamour from that kind of thing. But I had to be over the East End to have a production meeting for a friend's no-budget short that I've agreed to AD next weekend - so there was as good a place as any to meet.

The first surprise was that I was met with the unmistakable sounds of Furry Lewis' guitar from a darkened room on the right hand side of the entrance as I walked in. In fact there was a looped screening of footage from 'Canton' going on in there all evening, and continuing through the run of the exhibition. Leaving that behind, I saw the familiar face of Winston Eggleston, whom I had last seen when we were both gulled into assisting with a nudie photo shoot on behalf of JMM, right out on the deserted streets of downtown Memphis in the sunny Sunday afternoon light. He informed me that his dad and he had arrived in time for the screening last night but Bill had felt too tired (or too bored by the prospect of seeing it for the zillionth time) to bother going.

I spotted Bill in the back room, wearing a suit, bow tie and the kind of glasses that Lionel Barrymore might have worn. He looked like a slightly less fearsome version of William Burroughs.

The rest of the evening was a bit blurry but I met Jason Spaceman again, and introduced him to both Bill and Winston, with the result that 'Canton' now looks like it will get a screening in the Newcastle fest. Jason also has tentative good news about a new record deal for Tav Falco which he told me about while juggling the demands of his two very small children, in a manner markedly unlike the hardbitten rock'n'roller the legends would suggest he is.

On the way out I introduced myself to Sean O'Hagan, who's off to Memphis on Friday to do an in-depth piece that will run next year just preceding the Barbican festival. He tells me that he originally saw bits of 'Stranded in Canton' years ago when Harmony Korine screened them for him, and that kind of makes sense given Korine's Tennessee upbringing. He could be a descendent of Eggleston's southern-Gothic-throw-enough-blood-at-the-walls-and-see-what-sticks, woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks, swamp-Warhol sensibility.

There seems to be something in the air about this material right now. The room filled up with greasy Hoxtonites and glassy-eyed art buyers. A man who turned out to have been one of the happy few who were present when I screened 'It Came From Memphis' at the Horse Hospital, however long ago that was, and who turned out to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things to do with that music and those people, told me that he'd been offered a print of 'Greenwood, Mississippi' (otherwise known as the iconic cover of 'Big Star 3rd') for £10K back in 1995. A few weeks ago it sold for a quarter of a million. As I left I spotted Grayson Perry and said to my evening's Viewing Companion, "Look - there's Grayson Perry." "Oh! Which one is he?" she asked. "The transvestite one," I replied wittily. But when you have Turner Prizewinners and most of the East End's buzzword crew turning up for a show that features old Furry, Jim Dickinson and Randall Lyon, then I know the day of Memphis is almost upon us.
So - Stranded in Canton.
I've excerpted some of the email I sent to Robert Gordon in response to the film:

"I've had three or so hours to swill those images around in my mind, and many of them become sharper with memory - the proud look in that girl's eye when Campbell Kensinger calls her "straight - a straight chick"; the shock on the faces of the bar patrons watching Lady What's-her-name's routine, sung over (and completely ignoring) the jukebox; Jim Dickinson, drunker and more fucked up (these days I believe they call it 'crunk') than any human being has a right to be, wearing a lounge suit and a huge grin; Molasses and Booth; Randall's beer bottle technique; the few tantalising glimpses of Wild Bill himself, whether physically present, through his voice or the way others speak to him; Jerry McGill, moving from party entertainment to homicidal sociopath in one smooth and almost unnoticeable transition. It was, for me, a fascinating eighty or whatever minutes, and a film I will want to see again, many times. Thank you for the invite.

There was, as I'm sure you've heard, a full house - a scrum of people trying to get tickets - it was the hottest show in town. And they were a great audience, they went with it, up to a point. But at somewhere around the halfway mark I became aware of restiveness, people shifting uneasily, the occasional bit of intrusive chatter, and some walkouts (though none, surprisingly, during or after the geek-off).

There was a decent but sort of stunned ovation after the McGill blackout ending. But then the credit sequence was met with a palpable relief from the crowd - not because the end was near, but because there was a guiding voice telling us who was who, and what became of them, and when, and there was another, far surer ovation then...What you've given us is the 100% proof, uncompromised vision of Eggleston's Sony portapak. I am able to watch it and bring to it the context that your book provides. It seems to me that if the film is ever going to find a popular audience outside of those who are already converts, some cinematic/narrative equivalent of that context is going to be necessary...I know that the 100% proof Eggleston version of the film is what you set out to achieve.

However, it's tantalising how the final section of the film becomes much more legible, using multiple screens, voiceover and titles to give the viewer more to hold on to, and how the audience responded to this sudden change in delivery. They were hanging on every word."

The second screening of Canton is in early December, and I have a feeling I'll be going again, and may write more about it at that point.
It's late, way too late to post another post. But today I finally got to see Stranded in Canton - the unmixed, unfinished rough cut anyway - and images from it will be whirling through my mind as I try to get some much needed sleep tonight. Sounds, too - Johnny Woods singing through his harp, about how "you gonna look jes' like a monkey when you get old." Jim Dickinson duetting on 'Wild Bill Jones' with the bankrobbing, wildcatting streak of murderous impulse that is Jerry McGill. Furry Lewis, hammering his elbow on the neck of his guitar to make a noise that drives the crowd just crazy. I will take time to catalogue some of these stray thoughts and put them right on down here for you all, soon, but now is just not going to be that time - now I need to figure out exactly how I feel about seeing something that up till now was a sort of a legend. Pinning these things to reality always robs them of something, but in this case I don't feel even slightly diminished by the experience. It's screening again in December, and if you haven't seen it, see it, and if you haven't read the book, (It Came From Memphis is the name of the book in case you can't remember as far back as the top of your screen) then read it first. Then go and order all the CDs. Then sit back and wait for next April. The South's gonna rise again!

Monday, November 08, 2004

Just a quick mention for the current issue of the reliably mediocre Uncut magazine: they've got, not one, but two cover mounted CDs with the current issue. If you get the 'Best of 2004's Reissues' one, you'll find the epochal 'Bangkok' by Alex Chilton (can't believe I didn't play that when DJing the other week. Dammit.) and an Eddie Hinton track that I haven't yet heard - but any Eddie Hinton beats pretty much anything else when it comes to blue-eyed soul.
An aside: while in Dublin I found a second-hand copy of Stanley Booth's book, 'Rythm (sic) Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South'. Flipping it open to his first-hand account of sitting in the studio and watching Otis Redding and Steve Cropper making up 'Dock of the Bay' as they went along, I showed it to my friend and writing partner Stephen Walsh. He read a paragraph or two, and when he got to the line where Otis muses, "I got him sittin' there, but I don't know why he's sittin'", his eyes glazed over slightly and he marched in a slightly zomboid manner to the cashdesk to fork out his four euros. From what he told me later having read more of the book, it may be the best four euros he's spent recently. And as far as I can recall, that's the exact same second-hand bookshop where I bought 'It Came From Memphis' lo, these many years gone by. Maybe it's on a ley line or something.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Inspired by the above, here's the playlist on the Memphis CD I recently burned for my new co-producer:
Skin - Dan Penn (Nobody's Fool)
Going to brownsville - Furry Lewis (It Came From Memphis)
Boll Weevil - Sid Selvidge (It Came From Memphis)
In the Army of the Lord- Rev. Robert Wilkins ("...Remember Me")
Jumper on the Line - RL Burnside (Deep Blues)
She Wolf - Jessie Mae Hemphill (It Came From Memphis)
Oh How She Dances - Jim Dickinson (Dixie Fried)
Sad Song - Eddie Hinton (Hard Luck Guy)
Let Your Light Shine On Me - Mud Boy and the Neutrons (It Came From Memphis Vol. 2)
The Letter- The Boxtops
September Gurls- Big Star
Telstar - Compulsive Gamblers (Gamblin' Days Are Over)
You'll Do It All the Time - Jim Dickinson & the New Beale St Sheiks (It Came From Memphis Vol. 2)
Smokestack Lightning - Moloch (It Came From Memphis Vol. 2 )
Money Talks - MudBoy and the Neutrons (They Walk Among Us)
Shake 'Em on Down - North Missisippi Allstars (Shake Hands With Shorty)
She's My Witch - Tav Falco & Panther Burns (The World We Knew)
Story of my Life - Lesa Aldridge (It Came From Memphis)
Ballad of Billy and Oscar - Jim Dickinson (Free Beer Tomorrow)
Just back from Dublin, and while I was away I learned that the Barbican will as I'd expected be releasing a tie-in CD, called It Came From Memphis, to coincide with the festival. If you've seen either of their excellent Beyond Nashville CDs, both of which were beautifully compiled from the best of country music both old-school and No Depression-era, you'll have some idea what to expect. Just another thing to look forward to.
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