Music


NOTES

compiled by MARK JORDAN

Hail To The King

In the first chapter of his new autobiography, Blues All Around Me, B.B. King writes: "I struggle with words. Never could express myself the way I wanted. My mind fights my mouth, and thoughts get stuck in my throat."

Fortunately for the rest of us, with the help of esteemed music writer David Ritz, King was able to coax a few words out onto paper ÷ 313 pages of paper to be exact. Blues All Around Me is an entertaining and informative account of the life of the "king of the blues." And while it may not be objective, definitive, or even great literature, it is important that King get his own two-cents' worth in before scores of pseudo-biographers who think they know better have their way with his legacy.

This Monday, November 4th, King will be back in Memphis, the city where he got his start as the original Beale Street Blues Boy of radio station WDIA, to sign copies of his book. King will be at Bob Fisher's Musictown (4514 Summer) from 12:30 to1:30 p.m. and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers and Cafe (387 Perkins Road Extended) at 6 p.m.

According to Bob Fisher, owner of the store that bears his name, there is no special connection between King and the store. Fisher was just lucky to be given the honor by Gibson Guitars, the makers of King's guitar "Lucille." "As far as I know," Fisher says, "we were selected as the only dealer in the country to host a signing."

The Politics Of Dancing

Last spring, in honor of Mother Jones magazine's 20th anniversary, rock critic and writer Dave Marsh supplied the publication with a list of the 20 best political songs since 1976. And since this is the Flyer's political issue, we though it might be appropriate to republish Marsh's list with some of his comments from the original Mother Jones article. So, in chronological order, here they are. Remember, this list goes back only 20 years, but if any readers have suggestions of their own, from any year, please feel free to send them in.

1. "Anarchy In The U.K." ÷ the Sex Pistols. "The sound, as much as the words, constitutes the rebellion."
2. The Clash ÷ the Clash. "· an inseparable cycle, raging against disenfranchisement and seeking power anywhere, from a gun barrel to a late-night reggae show."
3. "Happy Birthday" ÷ Stevie Wonder. "So joyous and positive you have to be reminded it was a plea to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday."
4. "Bad Reputation" ÷ Joan Jett. "Jett's stance as rock-and-roll black-leather heart is archetypal proto-feminism · "
5. "Tiburon" ÷ Rubˇn Blades and Willie Colon. "The original anti-Central-America intervention protest · "
6. "The Boiler" ÷ Rhoda Dakar with the Special A.K.A. "The most harrowing account of date rape I've ever encountered in any medium."
7. "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" ÷ Cyndi Lauper. "Proto-feminism revisited ÷ a sheer assertion of female will and the exultation that comes with it."
8. "The Message" ÷ Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. " · with this sometimes tragic, sometimes comic account of urban ghetto life, [rap] took a politicized turn that accounts in large part for the form's persistence today."
9. "5 Minutes" ÷ Bonzo Goes To Washington. "Reagan's radio "joke" announcement of missile warfare. Sliced, diced, and transfigured by a band including Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison and Parliament-Funkadelic's Bootsy Collins."
10. "Sun City" ÷ Artists United Against Apartheid. " · none other than Nelson Mandela declared himself a fan of this blast against apartheid."
11. "Fight For Your Right (To Party)" ÷ the Beastie Boys. "If they can't dance, you can keep your evolution."
12. "Don't Give Up" ÷ Peter Gabriel with Kate Bush. "Plays out ravaged lives of unemployed British industrial workers. . ."
13. "Fast Car" ÷ Tracy Chapman. "A final optimistic folk-rock narrative, or the beginning of a new chapter?"
14. "People Have The Power" ÷ Patti Smith. "Spitting in the eye of the conservative hurricane · "
15. "F___ Tha Police" ÷ N.W.A. "Rails against police brutality so eloquently, the FBI waged a campaign against it.
16. "Fight The Power" ÷ Public Enemy. " · the voice of embattled black youths, doing whatever they can to survive ÷ in this case, doing it brilliantly as well as brutally."
17. "Rocking In The Free World" ÷ Neil Young. "The theme for the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and for the resistance to the emerging New World Order."
18. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ÷ Nirvana. "What were they rebelling against? What've you got? The 'Louie, Louie' of our time."
19. "Tennessee" ÷ Arrested Development. "Strange, isn't it, that a song lamenting lynching played as part of rap's 'positive' side."
20. The Ghost Of Tom Joad ÷ Bruce Springsteen. " · an inseparable cycle, baffled by our utter despair and the inability to find power anywhere."

They Write the Songs

Local songwriters' nights put the tunesmiths in the spotlight, where the song is the thing.

by MATT HANKS

The Blues City Cafe is a quiet place for a Beale Street nightspot. Tourists in varying stages of intoxication loudly file past outside, but the capacity crowd at Blues City is deliberately silent. It's songwriters' night at Blues City, and, up on stage, Keith Sykes is trading jokes, stories, and songs ÷ sometimes all at once ÷ with his esteemed guests, Nashville songwriters Tony Arata and Fred Knobloch. It's a rare treat for this group of hit-makers, commanding the kind of respect that is usually reserved for the artists who perform their songs. But on this night, they too are rock stars.

These days, the songwriter's job isn't just thankless, it's stigmatic. In their ever-elusive quest for "authenticity," an increasing number of recording "artists" are juggling the roles of writer and performer.

But the assumption that performance and songcraft should flow from the same source hasn't always been the industry standard; quite the opposite, really. Back in the pre-Beatles days of popular music, the pop song was the product of a musical assembly line. The duties of writer and performer were strictly divided.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney changed all of that, but their streamlining of the songwriting process was supported by their indisputable gifts. And even the Beatles could have benefited from some of the checks and balances that the assembly-line approach provided ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer," anyone?).

For the run-of-the-mill recording artist, the blurring of the lines between writer and performer can have disastrous effects. Authentic or not, it often makes good sense, not to mention healthy capitalism, for the two entities to remain autonomous of one another. "I wish somebody would tell that to some of the performers," bemoans Ray Davis, a member of the Memphis Songwriters Association.

Well, it seems that somebody has, because lately songwriting seems to be on the upswing in Memphis. In addition to the strides being made by the recently revamped MSA, local "songwriters showcases" are also growing in number. Most of the participants in these showcases are songwriters in the traditional vein. To them, writing is a craft whose history stretches well past Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. Showcases afford them a luxury that those places did not, allowing them to hone their craft on the basis of audience response. It's a useful tool, and, Davis adds, "It's some of the best entertainment going."

The blueprint for the new local brand of songwriters' showcases was designed by Keith Sykes. While his monthly songwriters' nights at the Blues City Cafe have been gathering steam for four years, Sykes' own songwriting experiences span nearly three decades. He grew up in Memphis worshipping at the feet and guitar of Hank Williams. Since then his talents have taken him from the late '60s coffeehouse circuit of New York to million-selling songwriting collaborations with Jimmy Buffett. Most recently he's founded a music publishing company, built his own studio, and even tried his hand at artist management. "Through it all, I've always written," says Sykes. "That's the one constant of my career."

One tends to acquire quite a few colleagues in a 30-year stretch, and Sykes' songwriting cronies were the main inspiration for his showcases. He explains, "I started doing it because I would go to similar [showcases] around the country and have a ball. Then I'd come back to Memphis and nobody was doing anything. So I thought 'I can do this.' So I invited people who are into it, ya' know." These "into it" people are an impressive lot. Rodney Crowell, Dan Pen, Billy Joe Shaver, and Spooner Oldham are a few of the notables who have joined Sykes for his songwriters' nights.

One Sykes disciple was so taken with the showcase experience that she decided to start a series of her own. Nancy Apple, Memphis' own "Cadillac Cowgirl," hosted a weekly open-mike night at Newby's last year. After an extended hiatus for touring, Apple has changed format and venue. Her new showcase debuted last Tuesday at the High Point Pinch. The reason for the changes was simple. "[The showcases at Newby's] were getting away from songwriting, and turning into jam sessions," explains Apple. She promises that the showcases at the Pinch, "will be patterned after what Keith's doing. Each time, I'll invite three songwriters to join me, and we'll just swap songs."

But whereas Sykes draws on a national talent pool, Apple is determined to keep the focus of her showcases local. "I'm just trying to encourage local songwriters," she says. "I'm not excluding anybody. They get the benefit of the doubt once, and if they're good I'll invite them back."

Songwriters' showcases also figure into the Memphis Songwriters Association's crusade to gain a higher profile in the local music community. Starting in November, the MSA songwriters night will convene on the first Monday of every month at the Bel Air Club on Macon Road. According to MSA president David Edmaiston, the showcase and other planned events, such as a guest speaker and a jam-session series, are long overdue.

"When I joined [the MSA] it was basically a coffee club," Edmaiston admits. "We would just sit around drinking our coffee and talking about country-music has-beens. But we're trying to get people involved that are doing things right now, and any kind of music is welcome."

Davis agrees that diversity is one of the new MSA's top priorities. "There's really some great material coming out of this group, and I mean all sorts of different music: country, rhythm & blues, blues," he cracks a smile, "there's even some goddamn good Christian rock."

Sykes may not have had all this in mind when he organized his first songwriters' night, but he's philosophical about what he has wrought. "Songwriting isn't something you can teach. You can show somebody the things you do and give them some tools to work with, but I believe it's a natural gift you have. It's just up to you how far you take it."

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