For music writer and filmmaker Robert Gordon, Memphis “is a verb [that] means to seek and embrace what’s different.” Gordon should know: he’s already written two of the very best books on Memphis and its music, It Came from Memphis (Faber & Faber) and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (Bloomsbury).
With his new book, Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown (Bloomsbury), a collection of essays and interviews — some never-before published and some previously published, all with new introductions — Gordon paints a shimmering montage of images drawn from the musical shadows and stages of Memphis and its environs. As his subtitle indicates, his collected pieces focus on the riotous variety of music in his hometown and range over subjects from the familiar — Sam Phillips and Sun Studio, Jerry Lee Lewis — to the less familiar, or at least to the less talked-about, since these artists are well-known in their own ways — Jim Dickinson, Mama Rose Newborn.
His profiles and portraits resemble Howard Finster’s art: Gordon finds the mystery in the mundane, and it’s not a coincidence that he takes a sentence from photographer Sally Mann — she who juxtaposed in her startling photos the unseen with the little scenes of daily life — as the book’s epigraph: “At once, the humdrum and the miraculous, the inelegant and the ineffable.” Gordon captures in his own portraits the serrated edges of joy, the ragged desolation of poverty and the unrelenting necessity to play the blues, and the grittiness of the can’t-get-out-of-here-alive character of music and Memphis. There’s no better guide to the back streets, studios, picnics, and juke joints of Memphis and north Mississippi than Gordon.
Gordon’s preface, which is a mini-autobiography, is alone worth the price of admission. He recalls the summer afternoon — July 4, 1975 — when he first heard Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis, squeezed between three rock bands and the headlining Rolling Stones. Hearing Lewis that hot afternoon changed Gordon’s life, for on that stage he saw and heard a blues guitarist — “I think I was familiar with the blues at the time … but I hadn’t considered that the bluesmen might be alive.” In those few moments, Gordon discovers the ineffability of music, its ability to transcend place even while emanating solidly from a particular place. Looking back on that afternoon he finds the theme that will haunt him the rest of his days and the magic that he can’t shake. “Furry’s playing was unlike anything I could have anticipated; the still, small voice after the raging storms. His rhythms were slow, his songs full of space, his notes floated in the air. His music summoned us listeners instead of dazzling us with its size and force. His voice and laugh, the way the slide over his finger could elicit a moaning human voice from the guitar — there was an immediacy to his art that the Stones’ big production could never match…Furry’s intimacy let me feel the wrinkle on the hands wrapped around the guitar neck, the texture of the strings; he let me hear the human being. The raw power of Furry’s personality was so infused into his music and stories that his songs became his life, and he took me to places I did not know, to times I couldn’t have experienced. Transubstantiation.”
Gordon eventually visits Lewis many times in the bluesman’s dilapidated duplex, trading pints of bourbon and a raw Wendy’s hamburger for a glimpse into the mystery of the blues. Gordon learns a lifetime of lessons, as much about blues as about race and class, and he starts to see the connections between art and life. “Furry adapted to modern times — electric guitars, urban and suburban audiences — but what he played sprang from particular conditions in a particular place; not just the absence of wealth and comfort but the presence of distress and discomfort, the realities of poverty and the joys of transcending it, even if only for a moment. Blues is the mind’s escape from the body’s obligation. Blues amplifies the relief whenever and wherever relief can be found. The scarcity of that respite makes it ecstatic.”
Gordon’s interview with musician and producer Jim Dickinson captures much of the impermeable mystery of Memphis, revealing Dickinson’s take on why musicians come to Memphis. According to Gordon, Dickinson “helped me understand the Memphis aesthetic as the inverse of a hit factory like Nashville. Oddballs and individuals thrive here, not homogeny, hegemony, and harmony … Memphis insists on dictating its own terms, delivered via take it or leave it. Life may be short, buster, but art is long.” As if to illustrate the ways that art and commerce don’t intersect, Dickinson reflects on his work with Mud Boy and the Neutrons, one of the most important bands, but least remembered — except by Memphians — to come out of Memphis: “It’s hard to say what Mud Boy is. The Mud Boy sound is like a spirit we try to summon, like the Pygmies in the rain forest summon the shaman.”
Gordon so brings to life his subjects that the best way to experience this book is to quote from almost every page. Each interview or essay, and Gordon’s introductions to them, brilliantly shines, illuminating the corners and the shadows where blues, soul, and rock have lived, and live, in Memphis.
In his own way, Gordon comes to us as a priest of words, inviting us to sit down at a feast he’s prepared, delivering to us the elements of this mystical, magical communion of music that turns the earthly moments around us into an indescribable moment when nothing around us any longer looks the same.