Stax Records, Memphis

Driving south on E McLemore I see a church on almost every block. What’s God up to in this corner of Memphis? Houses not dedicated to worship of the Almighty slump among empty lots: paint peeling, porch rails crumpled, concrete warping beneath the wheels of clapped-out cars.

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Stax, 926 E McLemore, Memphis Tennessee

It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the bright, solid lines of Stax Records. Properly, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a modern reconstruction of the iconic studio torn down in 1989 after a church failed to find a use for the shell.

If I believed in God, which I don’t, that would make me doubt. A righteous, omnipotent being wouldn’t let the finest thing on E McLemore vanish in dust. God would take better care.

Stax Records is to soul what Sun Records is to rock’n’roll. Stax was Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the M.G.s, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor.

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Booker T & the M.G.’s

Richard Pryor recorded ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ at Stax. Isaac Hayes recorded the ‘Theme from Shaft which won an Oscar and a Grammy. Otis Redding recorded ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ days before his private plane crashed into a freezing lake, killing him and four teenage members of the Bar-Kays.

Inside, Stax is clean and calm. A short film tells the Stax story. How it was founded by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (Stewart + Axton = Stax), both White. How it became a magnet for Black musicians, many of them kids from un-integrated local schools. How an alchemy of music and passion kept the place not just afloat but aloft. How Stax introduced Europe to soul and used music to bring unity to post-Watts Riots South Central LA.

Stax Records took virtually its whole roster into the South Central in 1972 for an epic concert called Wattstax. It was a joyous, defiant celebration of Black pride and unity.

I froze in front of the Wattstax display. I knew that voice: “This is a beautiful day. It is a new day.”

The next words were unfamiliar, as was the lack of piano chords beneath the voice, which rose and rose. “It is a day of Black awareness. It is a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business.”

Jesse Jackson continued with words that, once again, reverberated with my memory: “Today we are together…. on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”

I know Jackson’s soul-stirring speech as the intro to Primal Scream’s acid house masterpiece ‘Come Together’. But never, in the 15 years I’ve loved that record did I realise the Scottish ravers (or, more likely, their genius producer Andrew Weatherall) cribbed the best part of ‘Come Together’ from Stax Records.

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Jesse Jackson ‘I Am Somebody’

Rev Jesse Jackson’s face shines from an LP on a wall of record covers. I am somebody.

Across the street from the Stax parking lot, two teenage boys lark around, holding trombones. On the pavement in front a handful of workmen stretch canvas over a frame, getting ready for a fundraiser. On the marquee: Staxtacular, February 11.

Memphis writer Robert Gordon captures Stax’s rise and fall in articulate, beautiful, passionate detail in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.

He tells of the brilliance. The betrayals. The triumphs. The catastrophes. The stories of people who made some of America’s finest music then, largely, slipped through the cracks of our cultural history.

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Stax Records Museum of American Soul Music

Leaving Stax we drove past Royal Studios, erstwhile home of Hi Records. The small brick building with a bright mural painted over the door is the only thing in blocks that looks like it wouldn’t sway in a strong breeze. There’s no place to buy food in this neighbourhood apart from a couple of “grocery” stores with heavily barred windows and blistered paint. The houses look abandoned. Windows boarded, hemmed with weeds, screen doors hanging from a single hinge. The only business we pass is an AT&T outpost that looks like a prison, complete with razor-wire topped fences. Churches, though, have gleaming white porticoes and landscaping.

Subtly, lines soften as we head towards Midtown. Grass is greener. Blighted buildings give way to petrol stations to, finally, the accustomed restaurants, shops and offices.

I don’t know how to process the injustice, the beauty, the senseless repetition of tragic histories. Does anyone figure it out?

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Stax Records catalogue

“Sorrow everywhere,” Jack Gilbert wrote. “Slaughter everywhere.

If babies are not dying someplace they are dying somewhere else.

With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives, because that’s what God wants.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Highway 61, Visited

Clarksdale, Mississippi is where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The alleged swap took place at the junction of Highway 49 and Highway 61, crossroads now marked with a blue-and-white sign and a guitar. Across the street: Church’s Chicken and a gas station. Opposite, Abe’s Barbecue “Swine dining since 1924.” You can judge a place by the length of time since anything noteworthy happened.

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Carnegie Library

There is a Carnegie Library, built in 1913. Blue plaques commemorate Ike Turner and WROX Radio. Ground Zero blues club, part-owned by Morgan Freeman, looks like a cross between the set of The Wire and the toilets in an indie rock club: busted sofas, a bench seat from some ancient automobile, scrawls and music stickers slapped on the walls. Its patio looks like Miss Del’s “garden” a few blocks down — a concrete plot sprouting mismatched furniture beneath a wall blazoned “God Speed the Plow.” Miss Del’s garden, like the adjoining General Store, is slumped and peeling. The only bright spot a crisp red-and-white “For Sale by Owner” sign.

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Ground Zero Blues Club

 

Whoever sells these signs has the only growth industry in town. The grocery store is boarded over; sheets drape the windows of Dependable Appliances; the Sunflower Building is a rambling corrugated iron shed that betrays no sense of purpose; “Customer parking only / Others towed at owner’s expense” warns a sign in front of a derelict drive-through. Mag-pie Gift shop is one of the few establishments that looks alive but it’s Sunday afternoon. What business gets done in Clarksdale doesn’t happen on the Lord’s day. Especially not as dull a one as this.

Highway 61 runs through pancake flats of mud broken by lines of black, leafless trees. Rain falls, unremitting, feeding shallow silver pools of water. Occasionally a line of bright green-and-yellow John Deere tractors breaks the monotony; less predictably, a shack roofed yellow parachute fabric. God gave good advice: If you want some killing done, no one will notice here.

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Highway 61, Mississippi delta

Above, flat silvery clouds; alongside, sodden fields; ahead, burnished concrete ribbon unspooling at the speed of our tires. For an open space, it feels awfully cramped. Tension splits the sullen sky and black Delta mud. This land’s richest days sprang from the slavery. Its finest heritage is heart-cries of anguish distilled through despair to bittersweet blues. What becomes of a place whose only pride is the beauty of its ugliness?

 

Judging by Clarksdale, it crumbles, contracting in a permanent spasm of hopelessness, too broke to sustain even the liquor store. You can buy beer at the gas station next door, though. A big, elderly black woman stands between thebattered gas-pumps and the shop’s iron-barred door, her red sun hat blooming like a flower above a royal purple dress. She’s the only sign of life on the streets, apart from a heavysetman wrangling two small children across an empty intersection. Do they bother to teach kids to look both ways here? Is anyone ever coming?

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Clarksdale town center

Levon’s Bar and Grill is the only place to get a drink or assurance you’ve not stumbled into a nightmare. Two white-haired white guys play the blues. On the guitar, Mr Pony-tail, beret and handlebar mustache; on harmonica, vocals and kick-drum, Mr Clean-shaven in a loose-fitting black button-down, says he has a wife but doesn’t wear a ring. They play “Sunshine of Your Love” and “It’s Alright Mama”, run through a joke about topless hippies that’s as threadbare as knees on old Levi’s.

 

Behind the bar, Mr Birdsong chirps. His daddy is a retired firefighter-cum-blues historian who tends bar across town. Mr B the younger, a “fourth or fifth generation” Clarksdaler, got away all the way to Tupelo (two hours east) to apprentice as a portrait painter. Spent 13 years learning his art then moved back, 14 years ago, tended bar with his daddy till Levon wrangled him. “I have kids running around, ex-wives on my nerves,” he says, grinning.

There are half a dozen of us in the room. A tattooed tourist from Milan wearing a fancy-dress take on Easy Rider chic: denim vest over a leather jacket, cowboy boots, red bandana tied over a frizzy curls that swish around his shoulders, rings on every finger. Sharing his table, a big man with bloodhound jowls wearing overalls and hoodie. Tucked in the corner is a tidy, middle aged couple in matching black puffa jackets. They’re from Brazil, which means they must have read about the Delta Blues Museum and Highway 61, must have come looking for some magic. I wonder if this enough.

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Crossroads, Clarksdale

Blues was survival music. Here in Clarksdale, whose famous sons and daughters include John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Son House, Sam Cooke, Johnny B. Moore, and many others, it still is. Those fields of Mississippi mud aren’t likely to birth anything better and it is a long way to somewhere else on Highway 61.

Read: Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters, Ted Gioia

Listen: Bob Dylan, Hwy 61 Revisited

 

Loving Someone – The 1975

22 December 2016, Cardiff

The sky above Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena is thin, clear blue. Seagulls wheel, squall, then drop to the pavement and shoulder aside the pigeons stumping towards the McDonald’s bags and empty cellophane sandwich wrappers abandoned by a loose cluster of teenagers.

Natasha’s mum made her a veggie curry, which is tucked in the 16-year-old’s black rucksack along with a copy of Anna Karenina. She wraps herself in her grey faux-sheepskin. This will be her first The 1975 show; she hopes they play ‘Undo’.

“I love them all,” she says. “Matty’s lyrics and persona are incredibly honest but… as a drummer myself, George is so understated and talented.”

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I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

The 1975 were little known outside of teenage girl world until their second album, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, topped the US and UK charts on its February 2016 release. They are in the midst of an endless tour. In the past year they’ve been to Singapore, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Philippines and South Korea; they played Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show; they crisscrossed Europe and the UK; they performed with the BBC Philharmonic in Blackpool (reducing half the band to tears); they’ve gigged in Edmonton and Ypsilanti; London and LA; weathered mid-summer snow at Red Rocks and apocalyptic lightning in Nuremberg.

My first brush with The 1975 was Christmas, 2015. Teenage girls stood three, four, five deep on the wet pavement outside Portland’s Roseland Theater, the December chill biting through hooded sweatshirts and flimsy jackets. Some huddled beneath blankets, trading warm thighs for damp backsides. They hovered over their phones as if the glowing screens were a heat source. With the exception of one couple canoodling at the distant end of the queue (which stretched around a city block) they were just girls. Girls doing what girls have done since Elvis swiveled his hips and the Beatles shook their mop tops: waiting for a band.

I had no idea then that waiting for a band would become my life, too, albeit vicariously. When your boyfriend is on the road with The 1975 it trickles down. Their schedule is his schedule, which became mine. This gave me a glimpse behind the steel doors and black felt curtains that separate band and fans.

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The 1975 have lift off

“Matty’s my inspiration,” says Thomas, 17, in a Welsh lilt. “I sing too. I want to be like him when I grow up.” His lips are as blue as the rubber bands on his braces, his thin body quivering with cold. I have an urge to find him a blanket.

What does Thomas imagine being Matty Healy is like? Is the dream worth hypothermia? From what I see, Matty’s life looks exhausting, boring and more than a little lonely. Tonight’s show will be the 192nd gig of the year. That’s 300-plus days of interchangeable hotel rooms and cramped tour buses, interminable hours in airports, bland meals, living out of suitcases.

It is a hard way to live, especially for the sensitive and talented. Maybe that’s why Matty seems smaller by the day, clothes too big, mop of hair bigger. He is Peter Pan by way of Edward Scissorhands, a corkscrew-curled Pied Piper who wears his heart on the outside of his chest and his philosophy tattooed on his forearm: Weak messages create bad situations.
A lot of times, Healy looks as if he’d like to disappear. Yet he walks on stage every night, an ostentatious, heartfelt, overblown, egotistical, tremulous star on the brink of “super”-dom burning like one of Keroac’s Roman candles. A rock idol changing his socks in the corridor, a fashion plate scoffing roast beef slathered in horseradish, an impish heartthrob with a taste for boys and girls.

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Set lists, old and new

There is a complicity between The 1975 and its fans. They may not understand each others lives but they share a longing, a desire to be loved.

Anisha sits cross-legged on the pavement, waiting for her friends to return. ‘Robbers’ was probably was the first song the 18-year-old heard. “They’re different from anyone else,” she says shyly. “Matty—he’s different from all the other male artists. He’s not afraid to stand out from the crowd.” Her other favourite singer is Zayn Malik.

Beside her Jon eats a panini. Nineteen, with a goatee and a black Ivy Park baseball cap, he was a late convert. “I didn’t like them at first. I thought they were boring.” His friends liked them, though and gradually Jon saw what the fuss was about. Now he’s prepared to wait seven hours for doors, perched on the ground beside a bang of Christmas shopping. He got stuck babysitting last time the band was in town so this will be his first gig, but he knows the set from YouTube. “I like the ‘Loving Someone’ visuals because they represent LGBT [rights],” he says. “That’s really important. They know what’s going on.”

Matty’s politics are as heartfelt and outspoken as his hits. He’s in the habit of giving a mid-show speech that touches on Brexit and Trump and ends in a plea for compassion. He is sincere rather than polished, which is fitting. It was a bad year for experts, a terrible year for anyone who put their faith in votes or protests. Loving someone might not change the world, but it could change a life and that’s enough.

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‘Loving Someone’ light show

Fans reflect the band’s intensity. The front row of any show looks like an old-fashioned revival meeting for the under-age, complete with upraised arms and transfigured faces. The morning’s blue sky gave way to monotonous rain by lunchtime. Most of the kids crowding the barriers spent hours huddled under umbrellas but none look worse, or disgruntled, for wear.

I spent the day was writing and drinking tea in a coffee shop across the street from the Arena. Mid-afternoon my boyfriend and some of his colleagues came in, black coats rain-drenched. It was only then I realised there was a solid line of young bodies extending back from the arena doors, around the corner and into the distance. It occurred to me the neon green “Audio Guest” sticker in my pocket would fetch a good price in that crowd.

Behind the scenes is unromantic, though. It is gritty concrete floors, chilly corridors, folding chairs circled around sagging tables, and shabby fluorescent-lit boxes called “dressing rooms”. An access all areas pass offers a glimpse at the boredom and exhaustion of tour life. Because Cardiff is the last show of 2016 the band wants a crew photo. Everyone duly assembles in front of the stage. Matty, George, Ross and Adam walk in single file and bodies rearrange like iron filings around a magnet. Someone snaps a few frames and the group dissolves. Matty shuffles past in fluffy slippers, narrow shoulders slumped beneath a red duffel coat. Later, he’ll be a rock star, right now it’s dinnertime.

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The calm before The Sound

Most of The 1975 singles are balls-out pop songs: ‘Sex‘, ‘Chocolate’, ‘The Sound’ and ‘UGH!’. Matty struts through them, tossing his dark curls, pouting, knocking back red wine. The songs he highlights, though, have a different emotional tenor: “This is one of my favourites,” he says, introducing heartbreak lullaby ‘Change of Heart’. Downbeat, woozy ‘Paris’ is also a “favourite” and Matty seems most in his element with the God-baiting confessional ‘If I Believe You’.

The contradiction is part of the appeal. The 1975 doesn’t quite have a niche any more, and that suits its fans just fine. They’re growing up together, with all the confusion and complexity that entails. They want to get wasted and have fun. They want to change the world. They want sex. They want transcendence. They want to be loved. Ultimately, they just want to believe.