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By The Time I Get To Memphis

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
I know Alex Chilton so well that he is barred from my house.

Chuck Prophet is hot now. He was always hot personally and musically but now he's hot commercially too. Lucinda Williams has recorded one of his songs, he's getting played on the radio, last time I saw him live he was hiring Dylan's drummer.

He's come a long way since I first saw him with Green on Red at The Buttery in Dublin when Chuck looked like a lost existential kid in search of his sister. That night was a sweaty grungy thing to remember. With Panther Burns, The Gun Club, and Alex Chilton, Green on Red enjoyed a broad cultural cachet in the circles I moved in, a world of bookish punk rock art school Super 8 rockabilly pseudo-homo wannabe junkies who didn't know exactly where one went to cop junk or get punked. (Some of them later found out that that place was called London, a $40 Ryanair flight and a train into King's Cross away.)

Me and my pal Frank Rynne got to know Chuck and Dan Stuart years later in London when Green on Red Mark 2 (Chuck and Dan as the Phil and Don of Bukowski Rock) became a deservedly popular live act in Europe. We saw a lot more of Chuck post-Green on Red as he worked away patiently on a solo career which took a lot of tender loving care before it finally got cooking. We produced two tracks by Chuck. One featured Herbert Huncke (the man who gave the word "beat" to the Beat Generation) and the other starred the great rememberer of the Memphis scene, Stanley Booth. Everything to do with that project was infinitely rewarding. Now Chuck is coming to London to play the It Came From Memphis festival at the Barbican.

Producer Jim Dickinson is the golden thread connecting Chuck, Alex Chilton, and Panther Burns. Dickinson wrote Across the Borderline for Freddy Fender, worked with the Stones back in the days, and played on Dylan's best album, Love and Theft. In addition to his significant production work, he is part of a spiritual triumvirate with Stanley Booth and color photographer William Eggleston.

Frank Rynne and I went to see Ry Cooder live in Dublin during his Little Sister phase because Jim Dickinson was supposed to be playing keyboards in his band. The piano playing that night was superb so we went back to the Gresham Hotel afterwards with the intention of talking with Dickinson. We assailed the moustachioed keyboard player and, in our naive country bumpkin way, asked him is he was Jim Dickinson. This piano man, who turned out to be the equally legendary Van Dyke Parks, said, "Jim Dickinson? I'll be Jim Dickinson if you want me to be Jim Dickinson. If you're talking about the same Jim Dickinson that I know, he's on the flat of his back in a Memphis hospital. He may not make it through the week."

Well, he made it through the week and, just to prove it, he too is coming to London to play at the It Came From Memphis festival, where he will share the bill on the Ardent Studios night (April 3) with his sons in the North Mississippi All Stars, Chuck, and Tav Falco's Panther Burns.

When me and Frank went on the road to promote the album which eventually featured the Prophet/Huncke/ Booth tracks we washed up in Madrid where we were asked to perform at the Festimad festival along with John Cale, Richard Hell, Hamri the Painter of Morocco, Lydia Lunch, and Tav. It was the ideal town and artistic context within which to meet Tav, a town full of ancient storied tango halls and supple creatures of the night.

When I saw Panther Burns last year in London they were as pioneering, as new, and as vital as they every have been. They attract a louche and racy crowd of dressed-up women, rich rockabillies, small town guys with big imaginations, and characters (like Nick Cave and Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream) who can't come up with any good ideas of their own so they need to check out what Tav's up to. Tav is up to art.

Take Jungle Rock, add in some Frank Sinatra, jump on board the Mystery Train, learn how to tango, to do the fandango, get hip, get ripped, go with the flow, don't be slow, and you've got the beginnings of the Panther Burns musical formula. On top of the music you've got a man like Tav who is also a visual artist, an actor, a moviemaker, a wild card, and an authentic aesthete.

The only person from that scene missing from It Came From Memphis is the Jack of Hearts, Alex Chilton. Last time I saw him, masquerading as Big Star, it was a truly poor and soporific affair played out in front of a full house of designer assholes who never in their entire lives bought a record by Alex Chilton or any other known user. When I met Stanley Booth I asked him if he knew Alex Chilton. Stanley fixed me with an intimidating stare and said, "Alex Chilton? I know Alex Chilton so well that he is barred from my house."

Not coming to London, in addition to Chilton, are Stanley, Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Isaac Hayes. They'll be very much missed - each and every one of them is a true Jack of Hearts - but curator Robert Gordon has done a proper job. One of the most readable and incisive of rock writers, Gordon edited the best literary rock magazine I ever saw, Asymptote. He has also compiled an eponymous 2CD - released to tie in with the London bash - rammed full of hot stuff conjuring up the cultures in collision which make up Memphis. Normally I hate compilations, aural graveyards full of the usual suspects, but in this case I'll make an exception. Gordon has eschewed the average compiler's tendency, when dealing with black acts, to go for the MOR end of the spectrum. He has also delved into the zany world of folks who can think for themselves - the influence of Dickinson and Chilton pervades his choice. In addition to most of the people coming to London, the It Came From Memphis album features inspired practitioners most people will never have heard of like Mose Vinson, Sid Selvidge, Elder Beck, and Travis Wammack.

Funky skunky Tony Joe White will be playing, along with Mavis Staples, on a night of Muscle Shoals music (April 9). It's a small world, that Memphis scene. Chuck Prophet has a great story about the time Green on Red got Tony Joe into the studio to play some harp on their Scapegoats album. After years of semi-obscurity, White re-emerged in the 90s when Tina Turner recorded his Steamy Windows. Diva Era Tina is not much to write home about - though it's great that she made a fortune - but her version of Steamy Windows is a rare slice of funk amid the detritus of Simply The Best and We Don't Need Another Hero.

To enjoy Tina you've got to go back to the time when Ike Turner had his nasty claws into her and they made Nutbush City Limits together. Ike, now rehabilitated and treated with the respect he deserves, tops the bill on the Sun Records night. His indecently rude guitar playing on Nutbush was a seminal influence on subsequent recordings in the areas of punk, funk, and rock. And as for him banging all the Ikettes, well...who can blame Ike? Before you accuse Ike, take a good look at yourself. And at the Ikettes, especially Claudia Linnear.

Also appearing on the Sun Records night (April 18) are the considerable talents of Jack Clement, Sonny Burgess, and Billy Lee Riley.

Be there or be square.

www.barbican.org.uk/memphis

Or at least check out the sounds! It Came from Memphis

see more stories from outsideleft's Music archive »»

Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.

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