A career music journalist and historian born in Memphis, Gordon grew up during a crucial boom when the whole world wanted a piece of the blues, and he's closely followed its ups and downs ever since. Representing 20 or so years of research, intentional and otherwise, ICFM tells the story of a group of artists, musicians and other misfits 10 to 20 years Gordon’s senior, whom he calls “the witnesses.” This designation comes from a conversation quoted near the end of the book, which I’ll reproduce below for context. (Whether or not you know the rest of his catalog, you probably know Jim Dickinson as a contributor to The Rolling Stones’ sessions for Sticky Fingers in Muscle Shoals, Ala.):
While on a world tour with Ry Cooder in 1983, Jim Dickinson reunited with Memphis entrepreneur Isaac Tigrett in London. In the course of the day, Tigrett played a tape by a since-deceased Memphis barrelhouse piano player, Big Sam Clark. "I made some sort of bitter remark," says Dickinson, "and Isaac got furious. 'You have no right to be bitter,' he told me. 'You were fortunate enough to witness the end of something truly great, and intelligent enough to understand some of it.' On the road, alone in a hotel room, I thought about that a lot. He is absolutely right. I’m not bitter anymore. I may remain pissed off, but I’m not bitter."
As youths, the witnesses sought out Delta blues players who were still alive — men like Furry Lewis. Like any kid with a sense of justice, the witnesses tried to get the powers that be to pay attention to these all-but-ignored musicians; though their efforts seldom had the direct, positive impact they were hoping for, the witnesses would sit with the guitar and piano players and learn their techniques first-hand, picking up by osmosis things you can’t teach through language. In this way, they brought the players something more important than fortune and fame — they became new vessels for their traditions. Besides serving as producers, sidemen and aides-de-camp to many of the Memphis rock acts of the '70s, several of the witnesses performed as Mud Boy and the Neutrons, whose music was “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Furry Lewis. … Where the Stones had come up emulating blues records, Mud Boy emulated bluesmen.” The Civil Rights Act may have been signed in Washington, but it was up to the people of each community to enforce the law — to take a stand against segregation and discrimination, in whatever ways they could.
In florid prose that reads more like a novel than a historical work, through anecdotes frequently too bizarre to be made up, Gordon celebrates these and other characters who carried on the legacy. They ran venues, bounced rough customers (and anyone who coughs funny) out of said venues, staged puppet shows and Electric Dream Carnivals, made a sport of throwing beer mugs, ate Quaaludes like they were Necco wafers and made strangely candid documentary films. Behind-the-scenes soul legends Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and Chips Moman all make appearances, as do Alex Chilton and Big Star, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, Moloch (purveyors of the finest in heavy, acid-fried blues), professional wrestler Sputnik Monroe, Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips (no relation), the DJ who broke Elvis as well as just about every rule in the book on broadcasting.
In the paragraph following the explanation of the term “witness,” Gordon talks about Nashville’s history as a company town, whose strictures musicians would typically escape by working in Memphis. Times have changed, though: Today, the town has just as many opportunities for oddballs as straight types, and we’ve got people from all over coming here to get at them. A friend recommended this book to me, and it’s a fun enough read to recommend to anyone were the contents a complete fantasy. I find it especially potent now, however, because of the witnessing opportunities we have in Music City, as long as we don’t quit looking.
I’ll leave you with this 1979 promo clip of Memphis’ first all-female punk group, The Klitz, with producer Jim Dickinson as “Captain Memphis” (geek trivia: Klitz guitarist Lesa Aldridge was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend around the time of Big Star's Third; because Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was also dating Aldridge’s sister, the working title for the record was Sister Lovers). How much does this remind you of our fair city circa 2009? The best bits, besides Dickinson’s lucha mask, are his voice overs starting around 2:00, 3:40, and 6:27.