"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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I’m sitting in Dublin Airport, looking out at a slate-grey day, feeling dead tired. I haven’t managed to blog very regularly recently, and there’s been a hell of a lot to blog about. Luther will have had his Mississippi wedding ceremony by now, and another friend, Joss Hutton (late of Bucketful of Brains, currently running the reputedly unsurpassable Sonic Reducer night) is getting hitched in Memphis in a few days. Me, I’m untroubled by thoughts of matrimony. The only burning passion I feel is the need to get this damn film made, along with the three other things I’ve been working on, lo, these long months and years past. All are sailing forward under their own, admittedly unpredictable, momentum, but until I’m standing there behind the camera I won’t believe any of it.

With ICFM in particular, things seem to be getting very interesting. I had a wild idea right when we started this whole thing, an unconventional approach that seemed right for this oddball affair – I won’t go into details for fear of, I don’t know, contempt of court? Prejudicing the witness? Whatever. Anyway, having tried the obvious routes without success, we ended up going straight to the top of this organisation, which is of course where we should have started, and were met with great and immediate enthusiasm, an unfamiliar response where ICFM is concerned, sad to say. Today I’m flying back to London for a meet with somebody important who will be able to make things happen if we convince him that that’s the best thing he could possibly do. By the time I get home and post this, I might have some idea of our chances. I might even add a postscript, if I can be arsed to after an evening spent at the Barbican watching the Sun survivors go through their rockabilly paces. My date for the evening is Michael Dillon, the owner and resident shaman of Gerry’s Club on Dean St. - my favourite Soho drinking refuge. I have a feeling we may just end up having a glass or two of something or other afterwards. Maybe we’ll manage to bring Cowboy Jack Clement back with us. Judging from the clips I’ve seen from Robert Gordon’s new documentary on the man, he’s pretty stimulating company. Johnny Cash certainly thought so.

Monday, April 11, 2005

All the Memphians have gone home, and I have a respite – time to sit quietly after a week, more than a week, of crazed running and talking and plotting and a more than adequate amount of laughing and a ferocious amount of drinking.

I haven’t had the time or the energy to blog about last Sunday week, the 3rd, when Mud Boy, the NMAs and Tav, among others, put on the greatest rock and roll performance art show imaginable. In fact, that weekend may well have been the best weekend I’ve ever had that didn’t involve sex or drugs (either would have been welcome, but maybe they would have compromised the essential purity of the experience...)

I spent that whole day at the Barbican, without much to actually do except keep an eye on things and occasionally steer somebody or something in the general direction I thought was required. My very esteemed executive producer had agreed to take a trip back in time to her earlier (much earlier) career as a multi-camera studio director, you know the kind of thing – talking live over headsets to harassed cameramen, saying things like “We’re on Camera Three, Camera Four – give me a tighter shot on the drummer’s left foot – good – coming to Four – on Four.” It’s a tough job and not one I would have liked to take on. I just wanted the chance to bask in the experience – the opportunity to see a band I really and truly never thought I’d get the opportunity to see, and not only that, the opportunity to be part of the show, to see it come together and record it for what – if I felt like a pretentious kinda type for a minute – I might call ‘posterity’. Fuckit, it IS for posterity. Posterity better be very extremely grateful too, when it realises what we’ve done for it.

The show was a kind of theatrical experience, distilling about fifty years of a particular type of Memphis experience into two and a half hours. The acoustic Mudboy set that started the night was full of hair-raisingly beautiful moments. Sid singing the field holler,Boll Weevil, acappella, in a voice that didn’t seem an iota different from when he recorded it thirty years ago...Jim singing Alex Chilton’s beautiful Nighttime, from Big Star 3rd, accompanied by Luther’s guitar, which turned it from melancholic pop into some sort of primal hill country blues lament...Big Star’s Jody Stephens taking over the drumkit as Cody Dickinson did his electric washboard set-piece, Psychedelic Sex Machine... Luther coming onstage wearing his Dad’s old jacket, familiar to me from footage of Mudboy’s ‘70s heyday of anarchy and chaos...Tav Falco stalking to his amp and whip-cracking the guitar lead out in imitation of Lash Larue or some other Wild West badman... the look of happiness on Jason Spaceman’s face as he took the stage for the final singalong of Power to the People...Jim’s outlandish, exhilarating rant during the same song, where he exhorted the audience to think next time some rock singer tells them to say “Yeah!”, because, after all, you have no idea what it is you’re agreeing to – the terms haven’t been clearly defined... Jim’s answer to the calls for more as they trooped offstage: “We don’t know any more songs. Hell, we didn’t even know half of those ones.”

With a bit of luck I won’t have to attempt the impossible, which is what it would be like trying to describe that show. With a bit of luck, we’ll be able to offer it to you on nice, clear, high definition, surround-sound DVD with pretty pictures and lots of extras, but nothing can really capture the feeling that we all seemed to be inside on that evening.

Everything had a touch of beautiful chaos that day. Even the damn Q&A session. Picture it: five chairs, one empty, awaiting Dickinson. No sign, so they start without. Jimmy Crosthwaite, who is a stranger to being lost for words, starts to tell some kind of lengthy and doubtless fascinating story, but the Tearjerkers are soundchecking for their gig in the lobby, and over the blasts of wild guitar and drummer-thump, every single word from his mouth is rendered inaudible. Eventually the soundcheck is halted and then Jim turns up. But Jody Stephens turns up at the same time, so we go from one chair spare to one too few. As soon as that’s sorted, a fairly obnoxious Northern Irish voice is heard from the back of the room: what he wants to know is, “Why are yew all so kew-el?” Robert Gordon thinks he’s being asked why they’re so cruel. Jim, however, knows what the guy’s asking, and fixing him with the blank ovals of the patent Dickinson perscription shades, he replies, “Well, given the alternative, who wouldn’t be?”

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Robert Gordon will be reading from It Came From Memphis tonight at seven o'clock at Vox'n'Roll, the Boogaloo, Archway Rd (nearest tube station, Highgate). Tim Tooher, a man of taste and distinction (i.e. he reads this blog) will be playing some rekkids. Don't push, don't shove, there's room for one and all. Or maybe there won't be. So get there early and get the rather lovely new edition of the book signed by the author's own perfumed hand.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Saturday, the surviving members of Mud Boy — Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwaite — played together for pretty much the first time in nine years, since Lee Baker’s murder. Sunday, they went onstage at the Barbican alongside Jim’s sons, Luther and Cody, Chris Chew, the 6’7”, 27 stone bass player from North Mississippi, Tav Falco and the unapproachable Panther Burns, and a few special guests. If you weren’t there, then you missed it, and it isn’t going to happen again. If you were there, you know what it was like. I’ll just say that I haven’t been able to listen to any music over the last few days because I don’t want to drown out the echoes in my head.

I was lucky enough to be in the rehearsal studios when the guys got together on Saturday afternoon. I was a bit nervous when they all arrived, Luther grinning widely and giving me a hug, Jim looking grumpy and barely acknowledging anyone, his wife Mary Lindsay looking extremely happy to be there. I sat down and watched as the session began to take shape, and grabbed a video camera to document it as they started to play. Before all that, I wanted to introduce my co-producer, who was going to direct the live shoot on Sunday, to Jim, so I approached him a bit tentatively – he’s not a man you approach lightly. He started to talk to us about how he felt about the ten-minute trailer for the It Came From Memphis film, the one myself and Robert shot two years ago. He told us that watching it brought tears to his eyes, not just because it featured his dead friends, Lee Baker, Furry Lewis, Othar Turner, but in the way the film juxtaposed Lee and Furry with Luther and Othar. That ending, which came very late in the day as a flash of inspiration, meant a lot to him, and hearing Jim say this made worthwhile all the endless reams of shit that we’ve gone through ever since to get this film made.

Then the guys started to play. They didn’t really want to rehearse, but somebody had managed to convince them that after nine years they might be a bit rusty. Jim sat at the piano and rippled out the riff from ‘K.C. Jones’. Jimmy Crosthwaite beamed at everyone through his Old Man of the Mountains mane of grey hair, and told stories to anyone who stopped long enough to be engaged in conversation. Cody arrived late, grinning, and got a hug from his Mom. Luther tuned up and I heard the opening notes of ‘Going to Brownsville’. Jim strapped on a guitar and cranked up ‘Money Talks’, and it seemed like that ‘somebody’ might have been right – the rhythm felt a little lumpy, slightly off. I was concentrating on filming them so I just kept my head down. Jim paced back and forth from guitars to keyboards, telling his younger son Cody, on the drums, to keep the rhythm pushing it forward – “we’re old guys, we need to be pushed, keep it moving, don’t let us slide.” The next song, ‘Brownsville’, was better, deeper in the groove, with Sid Selvidge’s voice sounding as good as it did thirty years ago. Then there was a run-through of ‘Power to the People’. Jim breaks off abruptly – ‘I may feel inspired to preach here, so you just keep going underneath that. I don’t feel we need to rehearse that.’ In the event, Jim’s preaching – which had come to him in a dream the previous night – was, as all who saw it will attest, inspired indeed. “I’ll stop torturing this guitar,” he says, and moves back to the piano for ‘Shake Sugaree’, the old Fred Neil song, which for some reason they all refer to as ‘Split Pea Shell’. Things are beginning to sound good now, relaxed and tight at the same time. Sid suggests changing a key, and washboard-playing Jimmy says “Sure, I’ll do it in any key ya want.”

Then something happens that changes the atmosphere in the room. Jim says, “We’re going to run semi-short here, do you wanna do ‘Outlaw’ or ‘Dark End’? They start to go through ‘Dark End of the Street’. Jim does the first verse, hesitantly. Sid can’t remember the second one. They give it a second try and it becomes a powerhouse. Somewhere during the last verse, Jim’s voice wobbles a bit. Stuck behind the viewfinder of my camera I manage to miss what the moment is about, and it’s only afterwards that I realise the memory of Lee Baker is in the room for everyone there who knew him. Sid catches the sadness from Jim, and the end of the song is ragged with emotion.

There’s a sense of relief when they move on to the less emotionally loaded ‘Outlaw’, and finally the whole crew seamlessly set their faces towards Buffy Saint-Marie’s ‘Codeine’. It starts big and gets bigger. I’m roving around, grabbing shots with the little DV camera, mouthing the words along with Sid and Jim, their voices blending – a voodoo mixture of gravel-shot rough and molasses sweet – and the riff circles endlessly, eating it’s own tail and getting stronger the more of itself it consumes. When it finally ends, not so much an ending as an implosion under it’s own insupportable weight, there’s a brief moment of quiet, then Jim says, “Well, that’s it for the electric set...”

Since they’re not going to rehearse their acoustic set, all that’s left to do is to jam something out with the incomparable Mr Tav Falco. Tav arrives, looking impeccably groomed, and there’s a stagger-through on ‘Tina the Go-Go Queen’ (“She’s as slick as Vaseline”) which suggests that none of the participants have heard, let alone played, the song in a decade. This is as it should be: Jim had earlier expressed the opinion to me that the less Tav rehearsed, the better he played. On this showing, he’s going to be Segovia tomorrow night.

We pack up our gear and leave to try and figure out how we’re going to capture this, as it happens, in all of its chaos and beauty. The people I work with, who haven’t ever really thus far understood in their bones what makes this group of musicians special, have an inspired look in their eyes. The fever is spreading.

Friday, April 01, 2005

I've just been told that the ten-minute pilot made by Robert Gordon and myself as a trailer for the ICFM documentary is going to be screened on Sunday between musical acts. As it's never been publicly screened before (well, apart from at the Horse Hospital to an audience of about twenty people) this is a sort of premiere, I suppose. I'm feeling very happy about it. If I'm not careful a smug grin might be seen emanating from my general facial area.
CAN YOU FEEL IT? That’s the cosmic countdown, baby, that’s the tick tock of time, and it’s runnin’ out. Fair’s got nothing to do with it. Fair’s what you pay when you ride the bus. Fair’s where you go when you wanna see the pigs race. And it’s just like Ma Rainey said - there ain’t never been enough, and it’s too damn late already.
----Jim Dickinson (Improvised rant from a live recording of Money Talks)

So this is it. This weekend is the culmination of everything that’s happened over the last two years. JMM, Mike McCarthy, arrives with his wife and family today. His films get shown today and tomorrow. Jim Dickinson, his wife and his two sons turn up today, rehearse tomorrow, and go onstage at the Barbican on Sunday. Christ knows what’s going to happen between now and then. I have no idea of the setlist. That will come together at the rehearsals, I imagine.

All week, we’ve been organising – or rather, Nick the Doge has been organising and I’ve been looking on in admiration – sound trucks, camera gear, technicians, contracts, access, per diems, and all the other stuff that needs to be done in order to get us in there on Sunday and to give us the coverage we need. We’re going to have a mass of footage at the end of this, whatever happens – three hours of rehearsal, three and a half of live concert times six cameras, that’s nearly twenty-four hours already, as well as whatever we shoot back at the hotel if more music starts to happen there. Then, on Monday, we interview Chuck Prophet if we can see straight or speak.

My heart is going to be beating in Memphis time for the next few days.
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