Author Robert Gordon learned about the bluesmen in his backyard the way many a suburban teenage lad learned about the blues in the mid-1970s: He attended a Rolling Stones concert.
Metaphorically speaking, Gordon’s back yard was the Mississippi Delta, his hometown Memphis, and the Stones concert an outdoor bacchanal in the early July heat at the city’s biggest stadium (that last bit ain’t a metaphor).
Apparently Englishmen wither under the sweet summer sun, so while the band delayed their arrival onstage in the vain hope the heat would abate at sundown, they sent out a local musician in an attempt to, I don’t know, placate the masses while performing their ultimate mission (spreading them blues?)?
The local musician was 82-year-old Furry Lewis, who proceeded to tell a dirty joke then strum and sing away in the style of the performers who’d inspired the Rolling Stones in the first place: The Delta Bluesmen.
What many a teen boy did not realize back in those days — including me, same age as Gordon and set to see the Stones at the end of that month in an air-conditioned arena in Atlanta (unlike my childhood home, no AC in the hizzle, chew on that my Millenial friends!) — was that some of the blues’ progenitors, like Furry, were still alive and kickin’.
In Gordon’s case, at least a couple of these bluesmen were alive, kickin’ and even pickin’ in his immediate vicinity.
Eventually Gordon realized a lot more about his hometown and its vital contributions to modern music, and he turned those realizations into his book “It Came From Memphis.”
The 25-year-old tome recently was updated and re-released, and he discussed the book and its findings this week on the latest episode of Let It Roll.
As usual, it’s LItR episode well worth listening to, about a book well worth reading.
And that, loyal listeners who might be reading this blog post, concludes this, the 10th season, of Let It Roll.
I myself, the Freebird Yeller, am a loyal listener of said podcast, and I sho do plan on showing up for Season 11, in which I’m sure more will be revealed about how and why popular music happens.
Until then, keep on rollin’, my dude and dudette friends!
Listening to Peter Guralnick talk about his latest book on Let It Roll this week reminded me of an art school riddle I once learned and then spent about 20 years paying for.
The riddle is philosophical vs. literal, and it goes like this: If your house is on fire, your cat and a painting of your cat are still inside and you only have time to go in and save one of them, which one do you save?
The typical answer to this question, of course, is the cat, because, after all, the cat is a living being.
To which the wisened, art school response is, “then how are you going to appreciate the cat?”
While you scratch your chin about that, I hereby pose this question regarding one Mr. Guralnick and his contributions to the appreciation and enjoyment of popular music, during his lifetime of writing quite ably about same:
If your house is on fire, your Elvis records and your collection of Guralnick books are still inside and you only have time to go in and save either the books or the records, which do you save?
So how are you going to appreciate those records?
Disco was the Hula Hoop of popular music, an absurd moment of life imitating art disguised as journalism, based on a story in the New York Magazine about a Caucasian working-class dancing scene that in reality did not exist.
I was reminded of this dubious set of facts while listening to this week’s episode of Let It Roll’s maxi-series Technoroll about the history of the DJ.
And, as I listened, I began to wonder whether maybe that’s all pop culture really is, a dream of something — I mean, in real life the Beatles did not hang out together all day wearing matching suits and acting adorably nutty. How long do you think four guys dressed and acting like that would have lasted in the Liverpool of the early ‘60s?
Which brings me to the Monkees, the “band” responsible for the second-most successful album of the Summer of ‘67, the Summer of Love. The No. 2 album all that summer, right behind Sgt. Pepper’s camping out at No. 1, was the Monkees’ “Headquarters,” on which the pre-Fab Four played most of the instruments and wrote some of the songs.
(For the record, Roger McGuinn was the only member of the Byrds to play an instrument on their first album “Mr. Tamborine Man.” And he was known as Jim then.)
Back to the “reality” of Disco, know this, fellow travelers: At my majority-Black high school’s Junior-Senior prom in the spring of 1978, with “Saturday Night Fever” a runaway hit in theaters and on the radio, the songs I remember dancing to more than once that night were ELO’s “Turn To Stone” and the Commodores’ “Brick House.”
And no one pulled out a Hula Hoop.
My late-Boomer arrogance took another hit this week when I listened to the latest episode of Let It Roll.
Because I took seriously the instructions passed down from my elder-Boomer brethren (yeah, it’s their fault), I never trusted anyone over 30 even after I turned 30.
Hell, even Elvis was over 30 by the time these instructions were handed down, and Frank Sinatra sure as hell was!
Plus, Sinatra looked more like someone my dad’s age, even if he was 20 years older than my Pa (which didn’t stop that rascal Frank from dating and marrying Mia Farrow, who was 10 years younger than my Pa, you do the math).
Which brings me to the aforementioned episode of LItR and its examination of early Frank, via the first of James Kaplan’s two Sinatra bios, “Frank: The Voice.”
Word: Don’t trust anyone born after 1945 and do listen to this episode. Then get the book.
Imagine, for the purposes of this blog post, that a time traveler appeared in the life of Jon Zazula the same day in the early 1980s when a gang of hairy young headbangers calling themselves Metallica arrived at the Zazula household in New Jersey.
Let’s say the five boys of Metallica, their roadie included, already are helping themselves to Zazula’s liquor cabinet when his wife Marsha answers a knock at the front door. As Zazula comes up behind Marsha to see who it might be, he locks eyes with the unexpected visitor standing on his front porch — a middle-aged bearded dude wearing a “Damaged Justice” tour t-shirt.
Momentarily confused by the t-shirt, Zazula does not react as the guy breezes right past Marsha into the home’s foyer, at which point the following exchange takes place:
Jon Zazula: What’s this about, man?
The Visitor: I’m from the future, and I bear tidings about that band down in your basement right now, those hairy bastards you just used $1,500 you don’t really have to bring out here from the West Coast.
JZ: Who told you that? Are you from the feds? Are you bugging my phone, man? What the hell?
TV: I told you, I’m from the future, and I’m here to tell you those kids getting shitfaced in your basement right now will one day be among the biggest stars in American heavy metal, a musical form you are right now helping to invent.
JZ: What in the hell are you talking about? I’m not kidding, man, I don’t know who you are — maybe their old manager from San Fran, or Lars’ crazy uncle from Denmark — but if you don’t get the hell outta my house right now, I’m going to go get those drunk little bastards from the basement and have ‘em come up and kick your ass outta here.
MT: That won’t be necessary — I’ll be out of your hair right quick. And no, I’m not a former manager or anyone’s crazy uncle, at least not yet. I told you, I’m from the future, and I’m here to tell you those kids are gonna be big, and you’re gonna help ‘em get there, so don’t give up.
JZ: Ok, well, in that case thanks for the information, but now I need you to leave unless you’d like your ass kicked.
TV: Sure thing, Jon. I will be on my way. Just remember, you’re in the right track and do not give up.
The visitor turns to leave, but as he crosses the threshold and gets one foot onto the front stoop he stops and looks back at Zazula, who’s right behind him.
TV: One other thing, man: Lars’ third wife hasn’t been born yet.
Ed Legge (@freebirdyeller) is a life-long musician, long-time journalist and sometime corporate dweeb who’s writing a book about originating rock ‘n’ roll’s most absurd tradition.