The acclaimed music chronicler tells the story of Memphis through its songs.
Gordon (Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, 2013, etc.) seeks to evoke the heart of the metropolis as reflected not only through its physical landscape, but also through its soul. The author’s latest is a collection of 20 profiles or portraits—subjects include, among others, Bobby Bland, Townes Van Zandt, Alex Chilton, and Jerry Lee Lewis—that together add up to a musical-textual collage. “I began to connect the art to the life,” he writes, referring to the Memphis blues player Furry Lewis, “to understand how Furry’s circumstances—his ramshackle dwelling and his history—were reflected in his songs.” The idea is to frame music as not just a way of life in other words, but also as life’s expression, which has been Gordon’s idea all along. Unlike his earlier books, this new work is something of a grab bag, bringing together liner notes and journalistic pieces, some never before in print. Given the subject, though, that approach seems oddly appropriate; music, after all, is complex and elusive, as are many of the people portrayed here. There’s Jim Dickinson, the legendary Memphis musician and producer who worked with Chilton and had performed on “Wild Horses.” “There’s a lot of people that can play better than me,” he declared. “But they can’t play with the Stones better than me.” Or Sam Phillips, who once carried on “a heated argument” with Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun studios: “Could the devil’s music save souls? Immediately after Sam withdrew from the room, Jerry Lee cut the master take of ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ ” Best of all is the author’s extended piece on the legal battle over Robert Johnson’s copyrights, a story originally written for LA Weekly, in which the art of business and the business of art become egregiously intertwined.
Gordon makes a convincing case that if music can’t exactly save us, it can tell us who we are.