Big star

Robert Gordon's new book reveals Memphis is once and forever music's Shangri-La

Memphis is a city that has long thrived on tourism. After all, for many of the world's countless blues enthusiasts who annually plan trips to the United States, Memphis and New Orleans and Chicago are the only cities that matter. Memphis city officials strive so eagerly to please tourists that they tore down the remnants of the once-vital Beale Street and replaced it with a slick, Disney-esque version of its former gritty self.

But if one had to suggest a good stop for anyone visiting the Bluff City, it wouldn't be Beale Street. Nor would it be Graceland, Sun Studio, or any of the more obvious tourist magnets. To get a quick dose of Memphis' mythical, ineffable essence, you need travel no further than a tiny, avocado-green wood-frame building in the heart of midtown that houses Shangri-La Records.

Some indie rock zealots know Shangri-La the record label, the imprint of choice for two of the city's finest--and most adventurous--bands, the Grifters and the Simple Ones. But Memphians best know Shangri-La as the record store that defiantly refuses to accept anyone else's definitions of "Memphis music" or "alternative rock."

Municipal authorities may have allowed the unconscionable 1989 destruction of the Stax Studio building, but at Shangri-La, they stubbornly keep a stack of bricks from that hallowed house of Southern soul. In Shangri-La record bins, Elvis isn't some trumped-up monarch; he's just one of many local yokels, and his presence is overshadowed by the secret heroes--the untamed underground mavericks who better define the creative spirit that makes Memphis the most important city in the history of popular music, people like Jim Dickinson, Travis "Scratchy" Wammack, Teenie Hodges, Phineas Newborn Jr., and Alex Chilton. At Shangri-La, Memphis emerges not as a cheesy home base for Priscilla Presley's empire, but as a town loaded with funky eccentrics who won't play ball with the music industry.

This is the Memphis that Robert Gordon grew up with, and it's a vision he lovingly celebrates in It Came from Memphis (Faber and Faber, $23.95), a loosely chronological collection of historical vignettes that seem to tell a million fragmented tales but inevitably goes a long way toward solving a single, inexplicable mystery. Which is: the secret to Memphis' uncanny string of musical innovations, from Furry Lewis' raw country blues to the Grifters' finely honed guitar dissonance.

Gordon suggests that all of Memphis' explosive musical breakthroughs have been the result of "cultural collisions," sparks generated by the interaction of traditions that couldn't meet anywhere else. Some of these collisions are clearly racial, such as producer-musician-elder statesman Jim Dickinson learning his first guitar chords from a blues-playing friend of his family's yard man. In some cases, they're simply aesthetic, as when Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper (of Booker T. and the MGs fame) reluctantly adds some soulful licks to the murky despair of Big Star Third.

As someone who was born in the early 1960s, Gordon is old enough to have be-friended Furry Lewis and other Delta blues pioneers, but young enough to have escaped the mind-numbing cult of Elvis that grips older Memphians who remember the glory days on The Ed Sullivan Show and choose to forget the humiliations of Harum Scarum and Tickle Me. Gordon knows that Presley was an inexplicable aberration. Yes, he was a true product of Memphis' distinctive cultural mix, but hardly a representative one.

Elvis' dominance in the industry clouds the fact that Memphis, unlike Nashville, has never been a company town. Most of the city's greatest recordings were re-leased by locally run independent labels such as Sun (which turned out Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie "Memphis Blues Boy" Nix and other immortals), Stax (home to the Bar-Keys, Rufus "Hound Dog" Thomas, Booker T. Jones, and so many more R&B legends), or Hi Records (the latter being home to Al Green). Many legendary documents of the Memphis sound--such as the work of Tav Falco or Big Star-Replacements producer Jim Dickinson's lone solo album Dixie Fried--are either out of print or impossible to find. Nashville behaves itself and makes hits. Memphis stirs up an inspired mess so idiosyncratic that no one can sort it out for several years, by which time the artist is bitter, broken, or profoundly irrelevant. Or in the case of Alex Chilton, maybe all three at once.

As a native Texan who grew up believing Al Green was God and Carl Perkins was the Almighty's gift to rockabilly, I approached my first visit to Memphis with only slightly less seriousness than I would reserve for a reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I found myself caught up in the city's mystique, always aware that I was walking in the footsteps of giants.

After more than a year of living in Memphis, my foolish romanticism remains so strong I am still stunned to meet residents who are deeply negative about the place. Some of these people probably resent the city's callous disregard for its own history. Gordon quotes long-time Beale Street resident Abraham Schwab as saying, with a mixture of regret and pride, "Memphis has torn down more history than most cities even have." Ironically, some local malcontents complain that Memphis makes too much of its history. Some young musicians tire of walking in the shadow of distant legends, insisting that this generation of Memphis music gets overlooked in the process.

But the unspoken complaint behind much of this frustration is that Memphis has never become a cosmopolitan "New South" city like Atlanta, the kind of region-neutral metropolis where no one has an accent except for Atlanta resident Elton John and his British tennis buddies. Mem-phis' collective ego is so fragile that the National Football League's decision in 1993 not to award the city an expansion franchise sent much of the city into a lengthy funk.

In It Came from Memphis, Gordon rails against this type of thinking. Memphis may be a sleepy river city, but it is also the hub of the Mississippi Delta, a region that remains this country's essential source for blues, gospel, bluegrass, and R&B. It is hard to imagine any other region producing anyone like Dewey Phillips, the groundbreaking voice of WHBQ-AM's "Red, Hot and Blue" show. Though Phillips has been extensively chronicled in both Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins' Sun Records tome Good Rockin' Tonight and Peter Guralnick's recent Elvis bio Last Train to Memphis, among others, Gordon not only finds fresh material on this potentially tired subject, but in Phillips he finds a figure who symbolizes all the contradictions of the Memphis experience.

Phillips talked like a backwoods hillbilly (referring to the radio station's "magazine" floor studio when he meant mezzanine) and acted like a crazed anarchist. No rule of broadcasting influenced Dewey. If he felt like playing a song 20 times in a row, he'd do it. If he felt like yakking about Falstaff beer over half a song, he'd do that, too. If he hated a record, he'd scratch the needle across the grooves and proclaim, "Well, that ain't gonna get it." And, most importantly, he didn't hesitate to mix blues, country, gospel, and pop records at a time when segregation ruled the South.

Phillips' uncompromising acceptance of any music--black or white--that moved him opened the door for the brilliant hybrids of Stax and Sun Records, and anticipated the early '60s rediscovery of the Delta blues greats. He also created a mindset that, however indirectly, still influences Memphis' best young bands. Dewey had no patience for the high-falutin', the pseudo-intellectual, or the pretentious. His intuitive grasp of music led him to whatever gave him a visceral jolt. Even the smartest of Memphis' current crop of bands give off none of that collegiate intellectual odor Dewey would have despised. As Jim Dickinson says of Phillips, "The mindset I learned, listening to that music, is what has enabled me to make a living in the music business."

Gordon's book possesses an intimacy rare among music books. In much the same way that his obvious model, Peter Guralnick, recently rescued Elvis from the crass bumpkin image contrived by "biographer" Albert Goldman, Gordon liberates Memphis from the shadow of Presley to reveal a wellspring of creativity that continues to flow. In fact, Memphis' Easley Recording may currently be the hottest studio in the country: in the last year alone, such bands as Pavement, Come, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Guided by Voices (all of whom are on Matador, oddly enough) and, most recently, the Breeders have recorded albums at Easley. Next month, Sonic Youth will begin recording there.

Which begs the question: what continues to draw so many people to this old town? Perhaps Gordon says it best in the first chapter of his wonderful book when he observes, "If aerial photographs could reveal energy the way infrared photographs reveal heat, Memphis would be surrounded by vectors pointing toward it: This is the place."

Gilbert Garcia is a former music editor of the Dallas Observer. He currently lives in Memphis, where he leads his very own rock and roll band.

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