"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, September 05, 2005

It’s been a while. I’ve been busy - earning a living, really, bringing myself back down to the commonplace business of money in the bank, after the extraordinary things that happened back in April when Memphis came to London. Around that time, myself and my co-conspirators decided that the way to get our film made was to trade up - to make two films rather than one, and to sell a package of four films rather than two. Initially, that seemed a brilliant move, and we grinned at each other and drank our cold beers with a sense that we were moving into the centre of things. The broadcaster we’d targeted seemed to be vulnerable to this full scale, guns blazing approach - I envisioned them seeing the possibilities of a weekend, a week, a month of programming devoted to unpicking the myths and chronicling the unsung heroes of Memphis rock’n’roll.

Down the line, having - after many, many positives - finally received the big negative, I look back on the period of optimism as some kind of beautiful hangover. Having done one impossible thing - having brought Mud Boy to London and filmed it - we’d thought nothing else would be much bother. Myself and Robert were fuelled by the memory of the shared grin, the brotherhood of knowing that we’d made this happen and it wasn’t supposed to happen, it was never meant to be this way - Jim Dickinson didn’t fly, Mud Boy didn’t play any more, nobody could make them. But he did, and they did, and it was better than anyone could have expected it to be, and it was filmed in high definition video and recorded on fifty-six channels of digital audio. And that can’t be made to unhappen, so our lack of success in persuading anyone else that this film needs to be made has to be seen in that light. I’ve been around long enough to know that, like it says in the Bible, the stone that was rejected by the builders may become, eventually, the cornerstone. Corner of what, exactly, I can’t say - I’d settle for a corner bar, the kind that nothing ever happens in, but the beer’s cheap and they don’t have sports on the TV, ever.

So. Some months have passed. I’ve ended up back where I grew up, or fifty miles away from where I grew up, making what they call a living, doing some documentaries for television, putting my heart into it but not my soul, they don’t pay me enough for my soul. In fact, what it is is, they pay me to keep my soul out of the picture. So I’m in a corner of the earth where, paradoxically, I know no-one and no-one knows me. The strategies I’ve used to meet people and have fun in the past don’t seem to work here, maybe because a lot of them were based on my being not from ‘around here’, being just exotic enough to get away with being conversational with complete strangers. And also, face it - I left Ireland for a reason. I’m back for a reason. The latter reason doesn’t really involve enjoying myself. I listen to a lot of music, I read, I drink some wine and I go to bed at a reasonable hour - two of the above didn’t figure largely in my life over the past few years, take a wild guess which.

I’m not saying making films has lost its charm, I’m not saying that at all - it’s still the only way I can imagine myself ever making a living, the phrase ‘otherwise unemployable’ drifts through my mind way too often - but I’ve been doing it for long enough that it’s a job. Watching films is part of the job. Talking about them, that too. None of these things that I used to live and breathe for excite me now - I remember the days of watching, over and over, the truncated VHS copy of Mean Streets, taped off the telly and incomplete, that I’d stolen from the meagre video library in college. We imbibed it - along with Stranger than Paradise, and Raging Bull, and Bresson’s L’Argent, and a few others, we stole their inner meanings for ourselves and measured ourselves against them. I can’t seem to feel like that about films, any more.

Music, now - that’s another matter entirely.

Even in the last week, I’ve had probably three transcendent moments brought on by music, though it was in combination, admittedly, with proscribed substances in two cases, and with entirely legal endorphin-related activity in another. No matter - that’s a whole lot more times than I’ve felt transcendent while sat in front of a screen over the past year or so.

What this means is that I can’t depend on films to give meaning to my life anymore. Music has to do it. I’m certain of that. So, in the grip of that conviction, I’ve made a decision or two that will change the way I do things during the next bit of my life on earth.

I’ve never played an instrument properly, written a song, or been in a real band, but I’ve tried to do all three. A close friend of mine for the past twenty years, Liam, has spent a good deal of time trying to persuade me to start making music with him, based on the laudable notion that our shared, and excellent, taste in music, and our combined force of personality, make up for any shortcomings where talent is concerned. In the past I’ve nodded and agreed completely with him and ordered another round and waited for the conversation to take another turn. It’s not that I disagree with him - it just seems like a ludicrous idea. The problem is, I’m deeply attracted to ludicrous ideas. This one, however, didn’t seem to be troubling my mind too much, the reason being - I’ve since discovered - that it wasn’t quite ludicrous enough.

So, out for a walk this afternoon, thinking, as Warren Zevon said, “of my friends and the troubles they had, to stop me from thinking of mine,” I thought about dying, and wondered what I’d do given, say, a year to live. Make a film? You must be fucking joking.

I knew that whatever I’d do would be around the whole area of music in my life. It would have to be, nothing else could cover the ground that I’d need to cover in that year.

Somehow or other, from this hackneyed reverie, the kind of thing that thirty-nine year old men everywhere constantly rehearse in their teenage backbrains, I ended up making the decision that I’d devote the next six months to working on my guitar playing, trying to write a song or two, and then - along with Liam - I’d go back to Memphis and persuade my only living musical hero, the man they call James Luther Dickinson, to record us in his Zebra Ranch studio, and that - no matter what happened, no matter how it turned out - I would have done something real.

Then I knew I had to tell somebody about it quick, so that I wouldn’t back down. I called Liam and the way he answered, I knew we were going on a trip - that’s for sure. He said, ‘That’s the kind of idea I’ve been waiting for. You’ve made my fuckin’ day. We’re goin’ to Memphis.’

Next thing I’ve gotta do is, I’ve gotta try to book some studio time with Jim - and then it’ll be serious, because there’s no-one in the world I’m less eager to let down than him. He has a way of looking at you through his overstrength spectacles that makes you be the best version of yourself that you’re capable of being at that moment, and even if we’re only communicating via the phone, hell - even if we were communicating via Sanskrit carved in bone chips then entrusted to faithful native bearers - I know I’d be seeing that look aimed at me.

And now, putting this on my poor, oxygen-deprived, fed-thru-a-tube, asking-for-the-last-rites and a shot of morphine (and a little cocaine on the side), long-ignored and probably unread blog, I’m letting a few more people in on it so that I’ve got a few more reasons not to back out of it. Because, knowing what I’m like, I’ll soon start figuring out reasons why this can’t and shouldn’t happen. That’s why I’ve managed to get to be thirty-nine without having done much apart from trying to get films made. And not doing anything that might lead me to fall flat on my face in front of the world.

As for that: “I used to care, but - things have changed.” Like Bob Dylan put it.
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