"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.

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.
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