Friday, August 15, 2008

Robert Johnson, RIP: In Heaven Or In Hell, Your Spirit Lives On In The Mississippi Delta

In Me And The Devil Blues, Robert Johnson gave the instructions for his own funeral. The song begins with Satan knocking at the singer’s door, and ends in a mood of fatalistic defiance, as Johnson’s explains that he doesn’t care where his body is buried.
“You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit, can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Seventy years ago, on 16 August, 1938, Johnson got his wish, and if his evil spirit didn’t catch a Greyhound, its influence echoed down the generations, forming a cornerstone of the rebellious myth of rock’n’roll, and shaping the music of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and just about every rock band whose music was coloured by the blues. The latest devotee is Bob Dylan, whose forthcoming album Tell Tale Signs includes a version of Johnson’s 32-20 Blues.
Johnson died on the same date as Elvis Presley, but while Graceland becomes a place of pilgrimage in mid-August, blues fans have a tougher job. Johnson might as well have been buried by the roadside, because there is no certainty about his final resting place. He has three gravestones outside Greenwood, Mississippi, where he died, allegedly after being poisoned by a jealous husband. The first, a modest marker erected in 1991 by the rock group The Tombstones, is located out through the cotton fields at the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The second, an ugly obelisk at the Little Zion MB Church in Morgan City, was paid for by Sony/Columbia, after the success of their Grammy-winning compilation of Johnson’s music in 1990. The third, and currently most reputable grave site, is located out on Money Road at the Little Zion MB church, after blues historian Steven LaVere location coaxed a testimony from an eyewitness, Rose Estridge, who claimed her husband, “Peter Rabbit” dug Johnson’s grave by an old pecan tree in the graveyard.
The veracity of this site was underlined in May 2007, when the Mississippi Blues Commission erected a “blues marker” at the site, celebrating it as a place of cultural importance. The sign was promptly shot at, then stolen.
Johnson’s reputation thrives on the absence of detail about his life, and the posthumous myth that he learned to play the guitar after doing a deal with the devil at a crossroads. This is an irresistible story, but it obscured Johnson’s musical versatility. He may, as the myth suggests, have been a genius, but he was never a primitive, and the stuff about the devil – if he ever said it – was most likely a joke.
“Anyone who sold their soul to the devil, died after drinking poisoned whisky, and has three grave sites is going to attract attention,” says Luther Brown, director of the Delta Centre for Culture and Learning. “And the fact that he wrote music that has been covered in basically every genre from rock to jazz to mountain dulcimer just adds to the story.
“As far as I can tell, Johnson never actually said he’d sold his soul to the devil, although he apparently didn’t deny it either, and the story was part of his persona even during his own lifetime.”
The crossroads, says Brown, is a common folk tale in the Delta. “There is no ‘true crossroads’, despite the desire of tourists to see the place where ‘it really happened’. But crossroads are places of decision, and often of danger, and are associated with choice and risk in many cultures.
“Historians have made a big deal about it, sometimes claiming that the devil isn’t the Christian one, but the Yoruba trickster god Eshu, re-placed in American Voodoo as Papa Legba, the keeper of the ‘crossroads’ between the physical and spirit worlds. Others think the whole story is a metaphor for Johnson’s decision to follow ‘the devil’s music’ instead of the church, and I’m sure there was tension between the preacher and the bluesman since they both relied on their own congregations for support. Crossroads Blues has lyrics that sound simply like someone going to the crossroads to flag a ride, not sell their soul, but it’s clear from Johnson’s songs that he was committed to the devil’s music and the lifestyle that required.”
A proper appreciation of Johnson has been hampered by the habit of comparing him to the musicians he influenced. Even sympathetic listeners hear him as the “real” version of the music which informed the Rolling Stones. “One of the big appeals of black music has been this dangerous primitive ‘other’,” says Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. “But one of the most striking things is that, compared to the performers in his world, his voice and enunciation are very clear. He sounds less removed from white people and the modern world than someone like Charley Patton, who’s virtually incomprehensible. Or even Leadbelly. There is a clear knowledge of what was happening in the urban blues world: his diction is good and he has a lot of the smoothness of the more commercial urban singers. So it’s funny that he’s been saddled with this myth of the delta primitive.”
Wald is a blues revisionist, arguing both that Johnson’s contribution to the culture is overrated – “It’s as if Eric Clapton were the only musician of British rock in the 1960s, and everything that had been done in that period was thought of as essentially Eric Clapton” – and misunderstood, because his music is considered in relation to its gift to rock.
“The jazz people had been putting him forward as an example of the roots of jazz as early as John Hammond’s Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in 1938. Johnson was not even dead six months and they were playing his records on the stage of Carnegie Hall! But he was being played as ‘that deep sound from before jazz’, when in fact it was barely a year old.”
Steven LaVere, who runs the Blues Heritage Museum in Greenwood – and who discovered the two known photographs of Johnson – takes a more traditional view, saying Johnson was a “watershed artist”: who absorbed what had gone before, notably Charley Patton, Leroy Carr, Son House and Skip James, and defined what came after.
“Nobody knew who those people were. Then in the 1950s, many of Johnson’s songs were reborn as Chicago blues classics. Kind Hearted Woman, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Walking Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, and Dust My Broom; my God, Elmore James made a career out of that guitar lick. And it all came from Robert Johnson. The post-war blues Diaspora was dotted with his music.”
Wald, whose next book is called How The Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll concedes that Johnson was a great talent, while stressing that he wasn’t alone.
“If you had to pick one artist from that period, he’s a good choice. But you don’t. Every single pre-war blues record is available on CD. It’s the best-documented period on the planet. The whole style would be better served if Robert Johnson was seen as a way into this world, rather than as the one person people listen to.”
On a Greyhound bus somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson is laughing.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Elvis, Memphis, and the Ghosts of Libertyland

Wild Bill's
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
By the time we got to the Zippin’ Pippin it was midnight. My guide, Mike McCarthy, had taken me on a ghost tour of Beale Street – a thoroughfare routinely described as the birthplace of the blues - which ended at the knock-kneed statue of the young Elvis Presley. Then, the real tour began. We drove through midtown in the dark, pausing at the site of the world’s first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, and again beneath the busted neon of the derelict Lamar Theater, a cinema which gained notoriety during the Deep Throat obscenity trial and had a starring role in Jim Jarmusch’s Memphis film, Mystery Train. Then we rode on to the abandoned state fairgrounds, where the Pippin, the second oldest wooden rollercoaster in the world, was rotting behind a fence.
Why were we there? Because the Pippin has become a kind of accidental symbol of Memphis, Tennessee. It used to sit at the centre of Libertyland, and was Elvis Presley’s favourite rollercoaster. He rented it from 1am to 7am in the week before his death, and rode it endlessly through the night. But Libertyland and Elvis are gone, and what remains is real estate, and an argument about the value of ghosts.
The campaign to save the Zippin’ Pippin is both simple and complicated. The simple bit is that Save Libertyland, a group of campaigners which includes McCarthy, want to revive the magic of their childhood memories on this site. The city of Memphis would like to develop the site. A complicated legal process has arrived at a stalemate: the city owns the land, but the ownership of the coaster – which has now been added to the register of historic landmarks – is disputed. The city claims to own it, but so does Save Libertyland. And nobody has any money to do anything about it.
It is a very Memphis story, and its appeal to someone like Mike McCarthy is obvious. When he wasn’t directing exploitation movies such as Sore Losers (“They Wanted Meat So They Ate The Flower Children”) and Teenage Tupelo (which speculates about what might have happened if Elvis’s stillborn twin had lived) the Tupelo-born artist had a job on a different ghost tour, showing tourists round Sun Studio, the soundproofed room on Union Avenue which gave birth to rock’n’roll.
Memphis is defined by Elvis. But at Sun, McCarthy would explain the history to them, noting quietly that Presley didn’t write Blue Suede Shoes: that was Carl Perkins, who had a car crash and had to watch from a hospital bed while Elvis performed the song on television.
And, McCarthy argues, as much as the flamboyance of Presley, it’s the spirit of Perkins - “the loser’s quality” - which defines Memphis. “People go to Nashville to get famous or make money or lose their artistic integrity. Elvis did. But nothing compares to the art he created at Sun.”
The same goes for Johnny Cash, McCarthy says, and for countless black artists whose contribution to the culture has been overlooked. And it stretches into the visual arts, where the Memphian eccentric William Eggleston redefined colour photography without ever shaking off his status as an outsider.
McCarthy has a few theories about this, some of them coherent, some of them fantastic. His broad contention is that the golden age of American pop culture was encapsulated within Elvis’s 42 years on the planet. “Everything happened within that time frame, everything that’s worthwhile, that becomes retro in retrospect, from Bride of Frankenstein to Star Wars and punk rock.”
Needless to say, this is not a perspective you get at Graceland, the most obvious tourist attraction in Memphis, and a salutary reminder of what happens when you give a truck driver the means to satisfy his every lusty whim. But it remains to be seen whether the shagpile charm of the place will survive the reinvention planned by Robert F.X. Sillerman, who bought Elvis’s name and image from Lisa Marie Presley in 2005.
Sillerman’s plans centre on the development of a Graceland “campus”. The fact that Sillerman’s company CKX is the subject of a buy-out bid by another of his companies, 19X, – a partnership with Simon “Pop Idol” Fuller – may be a portent of what is to come. And it will not be a celebration of the loser aesthetic.
Oddly, it’s Johnny Cash, not Elvis, who has been at the centre of a more interesting renaissance in Memphis. Following the success of Walk The Line, great efforts have been made to emphasise the city’s suitability as a movie location, a plan made more plausible by the decision of local filmmaker Craig Brewer to locate his office on Main Street.
Brewer broke through with a no-budget film called The Poor and Hungry, set in the P and H, an atmospheric cafĂ© in midtown, and consolidated his reputation with the rap movie Hustle and Flow. His first studio picture, Blake Snake Moan, confused critics who weren’t sure how to respond to an almost-naked Christina Ricci being kept in chains by Samuel L Jackson: this anxiety about the imagery of slavery was, surely, the point, but the film was an honest attempt to capture the sin and guilt which infected the delta blues. When I visited Brewer’s downtown office, he was in a Hollywood edit-suite, but his assistant raised him on the phone, and he explained that he remained dedicated to making films based on a love of Memphis, inspired by childhood trips to the home of the blues, Beale Street, “before Beale Street became Disneyland.”
“There was something very depressing and rather tragic about downtown at that time. Now it’s booming and everybody’s downtown, but back then there were still bluesmen playing out on the street, with a hat.
“So from a very early age I couldn’t help but view Memphis, even in its dilapidation – as a very beautiful city. But even more important was that it had its own soundtrack. I’ll give you it exactly. I remember I was driving over Madison Avenue; if you’re driving westbound on Madison, and you’re just passing Sam Phillips’ recording service [Sun] on your right, and there’s an overpass; when you go over it, there’s a unique skyline view, and the sun was going down, when on the radio, Al Green’s song Jesus is Waiting was playing. It was a wonderful moment. I’d listened to a lot of Al Green, and I’d heard that song before, but I hadn’t been able to cruise in Memphis, when the sun was going down behind the buildings, and listen to that music. And I thought, I don’t think that this music or this city could have existed, separate from each other.”
Brewer has just started work on $5 Cover, a collaboration involving local musicians in a 15-episode series of short films which will help promote Memphis culture to the world. This is the culture beyond Elvis – the garagebands, the b-movies, the denizens of the trash aesthetic.
The feeling you get in Memphis is similar to that which pertains in Austin, Texas, of a city awash with creativity almost despite its surroundings. “I have not been criticised by my city officials,” Brewer says. “They’ve always been very encouraging. I think, the reason is that there’s a history in our city of people pushing the envelope and being criticised, and then later having to name streets after them. [They complained about ] that gyrating pompadoured bolero-wearing guy named Elvis Presley… now people from all over the world come to see his house.”
I asked Brewer to provide a routemap to the Memphis he loved, and he started with Graceland (“You can’t go through life and not see the Jungle Room”), and ended at Wild Bill’s, a vibrant club on Vollintine Avenue run, until his death last year, by Willie ‘Wild Bill’ Storey, who sat on the door with a fistful of dollars.
“There’s also a real set community there,” Brewer said. “They’re dressed up: it’s men taking their ladies out, and they’re gonna dance, damnit. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how skinny or fat you are. If the evening is right, you’ll be bumping into the drummer, right there on the floor.”
I took Brewer’s advice and hitched a ride in the 1955 pink Cadillac driven by Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari tours. Tad makes his living ferrying visitors around the Memphis of their imaginations, and Wild Bill’s is a popular destination, though it sits in a neighbourhood which might ordinarily make a white European nervous. Inside, it was wonderland; a narrow, dark room with red walls and fairy lights, and the band – the Memphis Soul Survivors – playing in the corner.
This was not pub rock. The Soul Survivors are veterans of the Memphis music scene – the keyboard player, Archie “Hubbie” Turner is the stepson of the Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell (best known for his work with Al Green). They were playing Soul Serenade, a fine tune on record, but in this context it sounded far dirtier.
I sat next to James Thompson, an ageless gentleman in a homburg. I asked where he bought his yellow checked suit. “Hollywood,” he replied. There was a pause of 30 seconds before his face cracked. (Hollywood is a district in North Memphis.)
The music in Wild Bill’s is soul in the old sense of the word, meaning the driving dance music which came out of Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio, and Stax (now reborn as a museum). But one of the most influential studios is also one of the least celebrated: Ardent, founded in 1966 by John Fry, who modelled himself on George Martin, and made his studio the Abbey Road of Memphis.
Ardent started out with Sam and Dave and Booker T and the MGs, but soon branched into rock, mixing Led Zeppelin III, recording ZZ Top’s Afterburner, and acting as a home-from-home for Memphis legends Big Star (whose drummer Jody Stephen now manages the studio.) Jack White used Ardent to mix albums by The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
It’s hard, at first, to see what ZZ Top might have in common with Sam and Dave, but this lack of homogeneity is really the essence of Memphis music. Elvis fused country and rhythm’n’blues, while his later Memphis recordings were great monuments of Southern Soul. Fry compared Memphis to a crossroads where styles overlap: “There’s so much history and tradition. It’s an intangible quality, but it works – if somebody feels like they’re in a place where something special happened, if that puts them in a more creative mood, then it really does change something. It’s not just ju-ju.”
In Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch makes this quality overt: Elvis’s phantom appears in a hotel room and sings Blue Moon. Back at the Zippin’ Pippin, Mike McCarthy had tried to define the essence of this city of ghosts.
“You’re only 19 miles from Mississippi,” McCarthy said. “The blues was created there. Rock’n’roll seeped into Memphis from that mentality – white people trying sound black, white people who were just as poor as black people, and were just as good as indentured servants.”
He embarked again on his riff about Memphis being a city of losers. This, clearly, was a blessing. “It’s a spiritual thing,” he said, adjusting his quiff. “Jesus was a loser.”