Jim Dickinson – A tale of two cities
For many Memphis performers, the cover version stands as aesthetic key to states of mind and situations that would be too painful to express otherwise. Starting in the late 1960s, Memphis artists such as Alex Chilton, Bobby Womack and Jim Dickinson acted as archaeologists of their own demise, searching for pop detritus like dopers trying to find a buried stash. As a member of soul-music rhythm section the Dixie Flyers, Dickinson was already a renowned pianist on recordings by Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones, but on 1972’s Dixie Fried, he pulled faces in the mirror at songs by Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan and Furry Lewis.
Around the same time, Chilton went even further, doing a crazed version of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” and making three British Invasion-referential Big Star records that essentially covered themselves as they were being made. With Dickinson’s help as producer, Chilton’s 1979 Like Flies On Sherbert pissed on pop’s treasure map while paying homage to song by the Carter Family and K.C & the Sunshine Band.
That same year, Dickinson gave his respects to Memphis history at the moment of its destruction with Beale Street Saturday Night, an aural portrait of a dead culture whose hard lessons on the value of respecting your elders Dickinson took to heart. As he figured out, there’s no better cure for self-consciousness than taking refuge in some rocking synopsis of fiction or fact that you’ve retrieved from pop’s filing cabinet.
For Dickinson, at 65, devotion to the cover version helps clarify his lifelong roles as producer, singer and piano player, and makes use of the methods he’s devised to keep things fresh in his workplace, which physically comprises his Independence, Mississippi, recording studio, the Zebra Ranch, and metaphysically includes any place where rock ‘n’ roll might be hiding.
His new disc Killers From Space (out September 18 on Memphis International) is credited, as with his previous solo records, to James Luther Dickinson — the man in full, a Memphian by way of Little Rock. Listening to the album, you get the idea that heroism consists of the ability to make a philosophy out of nonexistent answers. Killers From Space questions the assumptions of a culture for whom rock ‘n’ roll is a finished product and not a way of life.
The record features the same core group of musicians who have played on Dickinson’s last three releases, which means we get to hear his sons — drummer Cody and guitarist Luther — stretch the conventions of Memphis ensemble playing. Joining them is bassist Paul Taylor, who played with the Dickinson brothers in the North Mississippi Allstars and in their early-’90s group, DDT.
“When [Taylor] left the Allstars, I said to the boys, ‘This hurts me worse than it does you,'” Dickinson remembers. “I’ve worked with better bass players, but he understands my music better than any of them.”
A multi-instrumentalist who also produced or played drums on a couple of records by singer Amy LaVere, Taylor keeps alive the Bluff City tradition of the tactful stylist who makes himself felt in every measure. He’s more than another studio musician, just as was drummer Gene Chrisman, whose work powered 1969’s Dusty In Memphis.
“The stuff he played on Amy’s records [2006’s The World Is Not My Home and this year’s Anchors & Anvils], I don’t think there’s another drummer on earth who’s referencing Gene Chrisman,” Dickinson says. “Paul, he’s got Chrisman, he’s got [Muscle Shoals drummer] Roger Hawkins. He says it’s Al Jackson, but I can hear all those guys.”
An old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll record, Killers benefits from the playing of Texas tenor saxophonist Johnny Reno, who replaces Jim Spake, the Memphis player who worked with Dickinson on 2002’s Free Beer Tomorrow and last year’s Jungle Jim And The Voodoo Tiger.
“It just dawned on me that the reason I like listening to Spake is that he’s a jazz player,” Dickinson says. “Well, I’m not. You know, I’ve got a little jazz trick I do, but I’m a rock ‘n’ roll musician, and so is Johnny Reno.” The saxophonist lays brazen licks on Texas songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams’ “You Better Rock Me Baby” (“Just an amazing dynamo of a human being,” Dickinson says of Williams, who died in 2005); elsewhere, Reno’s playing injects roadhouse grease into a record that’s already well-lubricated.
Nashville guitarist Chris Scruggs, who played on LaVere’s Dickinson-produced Anchors & Anvils, adds pedal steel to the opening track, Doug Sahm’s “Texas Me”. The performance is sparer than Sahm’s 1969 original, but still communicates the homesickness its composer intended.
“Everybody else on the record, other than Johnny Reno, was a Memphis musician, and we all basically played in the same space,” Dickinson says. “Chris Scruggs walked in and played in an entirely different melodic space than anybody else. It’s more noticeable on Amy’s record ’cause I turned him up louder, plus he was showing off, I think, on her record more than he was on mine.”
For a man whose resume includes successful versions of unlikely songs — examples would be K.C. & the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes”, which Dickinson and Chilton turn laconic on Sherbert, and the incredibly loud cover of the Night Caps’ “Wine” that leads off Dixie Fried — Dickinson seems circumspect about his ability to breathe new life into old material.
“Some of the songs on this album literally came off a tape that I had labeled ‘Too Good To Record’,” he says. “‘Texas Me’ is one of them. It always communicated to me, because I’ve got Texas history, and I did the last record that [Sahm and the Texas Tornados] did.”
One of the stranger numbers on Killers is “Roly Poly”. A song about a dance everybody is either doing or needs to do, “Roly Poly” was written by Greg Spradlin, an Arkansas musician who once fronted a band called the Skeeterhawks. “They had a deal with Warner Bros. for about fifteen minutes, and it turned into a nightmare, a typical Spinal Tap scenario,” Dickinson says. “They all went back to Arkansas and won’t talk to each other, and they made a nightmare record that was worse than the demos they did, and it never came out.”