Memphis, Memorized

On Monday, it was Dominique’s birthday, after dropping Aden at school I came back to get her breakfast in bed, and, see my bandmate off, who was still in town after working together over the weekend. I had some tasks relating to our project to do, plus pack up the studio, and help pack up the house for another flea bomb run. We were trying to eat everything in the house rather than drag stuff over to grandma’s. We made a decent dent in the supplies, and then finally at 9pm, I kissed my girls goodbye and started walking up the road, to catch the tram to the station. Always tough to leave. Tours station on a Monday night is pretty dead. There was a train heading to St. Pierre a bit earlier than the one I was booked on, so I jumped on that one instead, I think my ticket is valid for any Tours-St. Pierre shuttle, anyway, I’ve never seen the shuttle controlled. All it meant is that I was waiting on the tracks in St. Pierre as opposed to Tours, for the 30 minutes or so. Then I got on the train to Paris, slept for the hour or so of travel. I know a secret cab rank in the Paris station, but at 11.30 at night, there aren’t a hell of a lot of cabs to be had; it was a wait, but I got one. Stumbled in the door of our flat, listened to some mixes of my band and all the Phantom Sound mixes, and went to sleep.

On Tuesday I was up early, I had to go up to my bank to pick up some new checkbooks and ask about some charges on my account I didn’t understand (turns out a TV tax on one of my properties that I shouldn’t have to pay was deducted from my account, so now, I have to spend some time getting the hundred bucks back. Grr. Calculate the hourly on that one). The bank is a bit far to walk, and a bit short to take a bus– perfect for a Velib, and the weather was nice. I biked back to my hood and then it was about time to head to the airport. Amazingly I had a meeting with the manager of a band who wants to work with me in the studio, and he proposed to take me to the airport so we could speak, he had a car, so perfect. At the airport we had a coffee, and then I went thru security and on to Memphis. The flight to Atlanta was quite empty, I had a full row, and it was on Air France, so not too many movies to see, so I watched a couple (well, three) and slept a couple hours. The Air France flights leave from the M gates in Terminal 2E, which means, the newest ones, so there’s ample security points, etc, it all moves really smoothly. For once, right?

In Atlanta I passed thru immigration & security with my Global Entry status and was soon waiting at the gate for the flight to Memphis, which was a little delayed, not too bad. Jon was there, we’d been on the same flight to Atlanta, too, and had conferred a bit on business matters on the way over, but we have pretty different seat prefs so end up in opposite ends of the aircraft, usually.

In Memphis, getting in about 7.30 in the evening, we were impressed with how dead the place was. There were almost no flights coming in later than that, certainly none leaving later than that, and other than the people on our flight, less than two dozen other people, let alone passengers, in the entire airport. Memphis lost its status as a Delta hub in recent years, and since then, passenger traffic has dropped substantially. Let’s put this in perspective: Memphis is the 59th busiest passenger airport in the US, that is to say, a little less passenger traffic than, say, Albuquerque, slightly busier than…Omaha. It’s the 20th biggest city in the US–bigger than Seattle. However, Memphis airport is not hurting for business…as later, looking up in the skies around 9pm, the onslaught of FedEx incoming planes is impressive…it looks like the Berlin airlift is happening…constant approach from every conceivable direction. Memphis is by far the USA’s biggest cargo airport, 1 and a third times busier than its nearest competitor. Worldwide, only Hong Kong airport ships more cargo.

Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, came from a family of means. John Fry, the late founder of Ardent Records/Studios, producer of all of Big Star’s vintage work, was as well. In fact, the two were elite school chums and they started the label and studio together as teenagers in the 60s. Fred went on to Yale business school, where his paper outlining Federal Express’ business concept famously got a ‘C’. He’s now worth almost $4 billion and employs some 350,000 people world wide. Both Fred & John have had an immense impact on arts and culture in Memphis.

It was for this reason, Jon & I were coming to Memphis. In rapid succession, Ardent in house producer and engineer John Hampton and then John Fry died; Hampton had been battling cancer for some time, and was in his early 60s. Fry died suddenly of heart trouble, he was 69. People said that John Fry looked 35 all his life — when he was 14 and starting up several businesses, he already looked and sounded like a grown up; in his 60s he had a serious and thoughtful (he sounded uncannily like a slowed down Jimmy Stewart) demeanor but a youthful glint in his eye. However, when we were all inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame last year, just a month before Fry passed away, I was surprised at how frail he seemed. He shuffled towards the podium, gave a wonderful speech, but really was unsteady on his feet and had the carriage of someone 15 or more years older. Still, we didn’t expect it, and the one-two blow to the Memphis music scene was extremely hard on the community. Both Johns were characters, both were eccentric in their own ways, and both dedicated to the music, completely.

So, a memorial concert was organized at the Levitt Shell. A bit more history here; Overton Park, just a couple blocks from Ardent, was designed by the younger Olmstead whose father (and, also, uncle–they were the same man, a man who adopted his nephew) had designed Central Park. The Overton Park Shell was built as WPA project, and it was here in 1954 that a young “Ellis Presley” did his first professional appearance, opening for Slim Whitman. Mr. Levitt was a furniture magnate from New York who left behind an immense fortune and dedicated it via a foundation that bears his name to provide free live music in several venues around the country. So the shell was renamed and after a period of decrepitude has rebounded into being a wonderful addition to the cultural landscape of Memphis.

Memphis is a conundrum, a pile of contradictions. It’s where literally…*everything* we know about rock music and its descendants comes from…Elvis did not come from Memphis by accident; Memphis is where country and blues collided to give forth the postmodern era’s soundtrack. At one point, it was the home of a pumping hit machine in Stax records–the soundtrack of the 60s (Sam & Dave, Booker T, Otis Redding) the 70s (Isaac Hayes, Al Green) was…Memphis. Ardent was created in this rich period, and picked up work when Stax, Sam Philips, National…were full. And they were always full. Ardent itself went from a garage studio to a storefront and then in 1972 the current facility was built from the ground up–in fact, I would guess it was and may still be the only purpose-built recording studio in Memphis. Terry Manning moved in from Texas, John Fry nurtured the nascent Big Star, Jim Dickinson gravitated this way as Fame & Muscle Shoals went under, and this studio made history-making albums — Led Zeppelin III (Terry helped engineer & mix), the Replacements Pleased to Meet Me (Jim producing, John Hampton engineering & mixing), REM’s Green, The White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan (Hampton mixed), Cat Power’s The Greatest. And the three albums of Big Star’s original incarnation. And yet, in 2015, if it hadn’t been for John Fry… who helped fund and organize the Stax Museum, in the old Stax facility…well, let’s say that most of the history is appreciated after shit goes tits up. The local folks would rather have a mural or a museum than a living breathing music scene, it can appear. There’s a lot of people fighting hard to breathe life into Memphis tho. Business wise, the city is a daunting prospect. The closer you get downtown, the more abandoned, scary, run down stuff you find. And yet, you have something like FedEx here, one of the world’s biggest companies. Nashville is now the epicenter of cool, and cool means gentrifying/stupefying amounts of money. Like Nashville, Memphis has a hospital and a university downtown but the gentrification is nowhere to be found, except, at last, in Overton Square, the neighborhood just down the street from Ardent, which has undergone a major (welcome) renaissance. Still, Jon & I passed at least a couple of big hotels that we stayed in the past that are currently rotting hulks. There’s a couple of office towers that are largely empty, and for some reason…a big one is being built. It’s hard to figure out. I love Memphis, truly. I love that it’s still funky and not completely hipsterized (my cynical side says…a hipster is way more likely to be Caucasian, and generally does not want to look at any poverty, or too much ethnicity, at least that which doesn’t conform to hipster fashion guidelines… in one place… a hipster is just a yuppie w/o the 80s mainstream fashion damage. A hipster is a yuppie who looks down on more mainstream yuppies). As soon as the hipsters have control, that means…not everyone is welcome. And the prices go up beyond many people’s ability to keep up.

So it was we arrived to Ardent, and found a nice party in progress, a lot of folks were in town for the memorial. While gear was being set up for the rehearsal, we had a beer with the team from the Big Star documentary, who came to pay their respects. Then we got to work, and ran thru the set. Jody, Jon & myself. Plus the second generation of Memphis music — two gents whose dads were intrinsic parts of the scene going back to the 60s. Rick Steff, keyboardist, whose dad was a horn player for Elvis, Dusty Springfield and others, joined us on keys and cowbell. Rick plays on the upcoming Orange Humble Band album. Steve Selvidge, whose dad was a local guitarist and troubadour, joined us on guitar. Steve plays guitar in the Hold Steady, the Donkeys, and more. We set up in studio C, our buddy Adam Hill, in house engineer and archivist at Ardent, provided the gear. It was good to rehearse, but coming off the plane I was pretty fried. Still, gotta get those vocal chords used to the idea. We wrapped about 11.30 and spent some time catching up w Jody, then we went back to the hotel, checked in crashed.


That morning, with the jet lag, I was up at 6. Breakfast at the hotel, and then I had errands to run. Stock up on gingko and a heap of locally made gluten/sugar/corn free granola from Whole Foods; wifi from the Otherlands coffee shop (the hotel wifi was awful, and I had mixes and parts from various albums to down/up load); computer stuff from Best Buy. Lunch was at the Tops BBQ by the hotel. It’s not the best in town, but time was running out. Then it was time to head to Ardent and grab the guitars/bass/cowbell, and head to the Shell. A scheduled Big Star concert at the Shell in 2010 became a memorial for Alex when he passed away two months before the show. We gotta stop meeting like this was said more than once. But still, it was a happy occasion too, as we met many friends here tonite. The music lives on, the community lives on, and we count the blessings we have by still being here, and having friends to celebrate who are still with us. Enter Dawn, the in house engineer at the Shell. She’s incredible. Outdoor venues are notoriously tricky, and the onstage sound can be a nightmare. Dawn has it down to an art & science here. We felt comfortable here and soundcheck was painless. So painless, we found ourselves sitting backstage at 3pm with nothing to do. Time to head somewhere w wifi!

We came back to the venue as things were getting underway. We ran into many friends — Pat Rainier who is part of the team at Posies/Big Star reissuing label Omnivore, as well as a great travel agent; the team from Yep Roc, who released my album Soft Commands and many other items…plus many fans and friends from all over (Canada, Alabama…). The first item was a presentation of a brass note on Beale St. for John Fry. Then, music. Tora Tora was a Memphis hard rock band signed out of Ardent and produced by John Hampton, who had a string of successful records in the late 80s/early 90s. They don’t play often these days, but they united for this event. You can hear southern rock, Led Zeppelin, 80s rock…what’s unusual is singer Anthony Cordell plays acoustic guitar, which softens the blow, gives the band an unusual texture. They sounded great, and then…the Gin Blossoms! Also produced by John Hampton. The Gin Blossoms are a band with many common fans, friends & colleagues with the Posies. They sold a helluva lot more records. We played together in 1993 at the first KROQ Weenie Roast (along with X, the Lemonheads, Suede, Rocket from the Crypt, Bettie Serveert), but as we were on at different times of the day we didn’t really hang. So, meeting them at last was overdue and already familiar. We found singer Robin Wilson warming up that afternoon and we went and rocked up the song for the show later on. They took the stage, fresh from playing a show in NY the night before and flying at 4am, and just kicked in to gear from the get go. Tight as it gets. They seem to give away a fair amount of tambourines, too. Robin has one of those voices, instantly recognizable, it sounds just like a (hit) record when he gets going.

Then, it was time for our tribute to John Fry. Now, to keep all the words in my head, and the notes in my fingers, I refrained from any preshow beer or wine. I also was worried about the dryness of the air, and was keeping things hydrated with water. But, I did too good of a job, and had to pee, like…every two minutes. And when the Gin Blossom’s finished their set, suddenly there were like 50 friends and what not backstage, so the two backstage toilets were constantly full. Argh. I pee’d like 2 minutes before going on, but just as I was walking on, I had to pee again. Oh well. At least it would keep me alert!

The night was pleasant, we’d had a close call with rain, which sprinkled a tiny bit in the afternoon. We’d had the following night held as a rain date, but it proved unnecessary. As we took the stage, there about 4000 people there, ready to listen. I really don’t know how it kicked off… “When My Baby’s Beside Me” I think? The show, being a sustained moment of pure mindfulness, really didn’t imprint in my memory. I was in a pure ‘moment’, out of time. For much of the show, it was just Jon, Jody & myself as a three piece. But, for a significant portion, Steve and Rick were with us. We also had Jim Spake join us for “Feel” on sax; Robin Wilson sang “Back of A Car” and Anthony from Tora Tora sang “Don’t Like to Me”. I’ve been back to see some videos from the evening, and I think we nailed it!

Daisy Glaze
In the Street
Way Out West

For me, the most intense part was “Look Up“, Chris Bell’s heartbreaking meditation on spirituality. I requested we do this song, I felt it related to what I knew of John Fry’s own Christian views. I did an introductory speech, and pointed out how Memphis’ music scene is often described as a family, and how we were so honored to be part of that family, and how we feel the loss of John & John as the loss of family too. I mentioned, referencing Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, and other recent losses to Memphis music history, that, pointing up, “it was getting a little too crowded up there for my liking”. For the first part of the song my voice was breaking with emotion, but I got it together. I owed the song a good performance. In general, my 46-year-old vocal chords have some issues with singing the songs written and sung by 24-year-olds in chest voice, I had to do a couple things falsetto that in the past I could hit full voice. Still, it’s to be expected, and most of what I had I still have. Phew.

And then it was done. Being in that moment, a show is always a brief flicker. The conscious mind, the one that is aware of the passage of time, takes a back seat to the superconscious mind, when you’re in the moment of a performance. We packed up, and went to Bosco’s, to have drinks and hang, with the Gin Blossoms, Anthony, and some more friends.

Uh, that was some intense wine! I woke up a little hazy the next day, I think as much from the show’s impact on me as from the three generously poured glasses of syrah at Bosco’s. Either way, there wasn’t going to be much rehearsing today. We had lunch at the Trolley Stop Market, a farm-to-table cafe that has excellent coconut cake (or at least had, I think I killed the supply) which struck me as odd as last I checked there weren’t a hell of a lot of coconut trees in Tennessee. That afternoon we set up at Ardent and were interviewed by a team making a new documentary about Alex Chilton, going more in depth about his musical development post Big Star. Then, Jon, Jody & I sang backing vocals on Lucero‘s version of Big Star’s “I’m in Love With a Girl”. Then we had a big post-show dinner at the world famous Rendezvous. We took over three tables in the room with the Gin Blossoms & crew, a bunch of folks from Ardent, some of my out of town friends, and the Levitt Shell folks. We piled down on a heap of ribs, brisket, and trimmings. With the intensity of the show the night before, the fact that jet lag kept waking me up in the early single digit hours, etc…when dinner wrapped at 9.30, there was no question of where I was going–multiple zzz’s. In bed by 10.

The next day, there was a farewell lunch at Bahn Thai restaurant (Jon & I were like… more meat, just for a bit…kay?). We flew to Atlanta, had a glass each of chardonnay in the airport Belgian beer bar way out at the end of the int’l terminal. I watched a couple of films and zonked out. Landed in Paris Saturday morning, took the bus to my hood, walked (with a properly rolling suitcase, now) home and soon my girls were there, and we were having lunch. Big day that day, the main tasks were fielding visits from various workers to bid on jobs to refresh my rental property before we get another renter in there. Some new paint, new cabinets, new flooring. Sounds huge, but it’s small stuff. And we have some electrical updating to do at our Paris residence, it’s always needed it, we’re getting around to it now. So, we had that guy come over too. Mixes to listen to. Files to receive, send out. Same old! The three of us had dinner (really, it’s mezze, so appetizers only, but we had a lot of them) at the Welcome Bio restaurant. I recommend it more for lunch, it’s a bit more special what they do at that time. After dinner I had a meeting with a band about an upcoming production project, since it’s not yet confirmed I’ll be discreet here, but still, good meeting. That and a lengthy bath got me past the midnite change-of-time-zone-minimum-curfew and I didn’t feel too groggy this morning. Breakfast with Dom at a quiet neighborhood cafe and then I took the train to Tours, have a lot to prepare for my performances this week.