Book reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Robert Gordon – Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown

Robert Gordon – Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown
(Bloomsbury, £18.99, 265pp. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Anyone who’s read any of Robert Gordon’s previous books – the self-explanatory It Came from Memphis, the Muddy Waters biography Can’t Be Satisfied, or the definitive study of Stax, Respect Yourself – will not be surprised to learn that his latest offering is a Memphis-themed anthology of writings about the more esoteric features of the city’s artistic legacy, imbued with his love of and knowledge about authentic, from-the-soul music-making in all its forms.

Although firmly grounded in the blues – a form Keith Richards’s publicity quote rightly calls “the wellspring of all American music for over a century” – Memphis music also embraces rock and rockabilly, soul and punk, and if it’s worth listening to, Gordon is right there every time, bringing a wealth of easily assumed, unpretentious learning to the party, but always alive to the human story behind the artistry. Memphis Rent Party is a collection of interviews and record liner notes, some unpublished, some previously appearing in specialist magazines, but all overflowing with humanity and integrity, from both the interviewer and his subjects.

These subjects range from the most celebrated legends (Furry Lewis, James Carr, Mose Vinson) through to undersung figures such as Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton and Charlie Feathers, but the collection also includes musings on the Memphis connections of such artists as Cat Power, Townes Van Zandt and – most affectingly – the ultimate protean talent, Jeff Buckley, who died in a senseless swimming accident in the Mississippi in 1997. Gordon himself, despite staying sensibly in the background where necessary (his job is to listen, and he does this superbly, whether to an interviewee or to their music), is also occasionally the subject: he worries that his presence might conceivably distort the fragile truth of what he’s witnessing, and has some highly pertinent things to say about the sociological issues raised in this process.

Interesting as these issues are, though, it is the music that shines through everything Gordon writes: he is basically a truffle-hound, rooting through the city’s undergrowth and emerging with hidden, toothsome gems, all meticulously listed in easily accessible form in a valuable “further listening” section at the back of the book, appropriately titled Digging Deeper for Different. It brings this fascinating collection full circle: its Preface is headed Give Me Something Different – a vital request in this increasingly homogenised world.

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