Jim Dickinson – A tale of two cities
As Dickinson says, “I would’ve never picked ‘Roly Poly’ myself, but as I was recording a record on Shannon McNally, which hasn’t come out and probably won’t, she said, ‘That “Roly Poly”, that’d be a real good song.'”
This could well be true. It’s basic and catchy, with a beautifully rendered descending melodic figure, played on slide guitar, that turns it into a pop song. For all that, it’s not clear what’s going on in “Roly Poly”, although the words presuppose a wholeness that might be the result of an activity being performed outside the song’s narrative. “It’s one thing that’s mighty clear to everybody here/You got to roly-poly,” Dickinson sings, backed by a female chorus that sounds convinced of the song’s rightness.
Even more perplexing is “Nature Boy”, written by Memphis musician Tommy Hull. Guitar chords that sound diseased introduce the track, while Dickinson’s electric piano skitters around its edges. “When the dew falls on the slick asphalt/I want to walk with you all in my pocket,” intones Dickinson, who continues, “Tell your barefoot girls, call me the nature boy.” A chorus of sexy female voices sing, “B-O-Y, nature boy,” making it a send-up of ’50s jazz-with-poetry excursions.
Why, one might ask, does Dickinson choose to record songs such as “Roly Poly” or “You Better Rock Me Baby”, which appears to be about the various ways a nymphomaniac can entreat a willing but ineffective male partner? (“She made me a promise/That it wouldn’t take that long,” the song goes.) “In 1957 or 1958, when I started to play music, it didn’t dawn on people, normally, to write their own material,” Dickinson explains. “I wanted to play Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed songs. The Beatles changed all that, God bless ’em, and it’s wonderful for people to sing their own songs, but I still want to sing other people’s songs. I write songs, I just don’t like to sing them.”
Killers features one Dickinson original. “The Morning After The Night Before” lays down a jaunty shuffle, with lines on the order of, “Wonder how I got tied up in panty hose.” Dickinson’s production is fat and spacious, especially the drum sounds. “I’ve built a drum room in my studio that’s pretty unique,” he says. “I was copying the cave in Morocco where the Jujuka musicians play. It’s lava rock and concrete, and I’ve been looking for that drum sound for 40 years. At the door of this room, I’ve got a canopy over the top of the door, and I can mike that canopy and get a tent sound. Canvas makes a compression that nothing else makes.”
As is usual in our conversation, a technical explanation veers off into something approximating the mystical. Equally trenchant is his explanation of why Memphis crowds are hard to impress.
“The Memphis audience is as hostile as it can be possibly be. They’ve seen everything, and they’ve seen everything turn to shit,” Dickinson says. “Not only did they see Elvis, they saw Elvis fall apart. Not only did they see Stax, they saw Stax turn bad. They won’t go see anything twice; they wouldn’t go see the Second Coming in Memphis, unless it was at the Pyramid.”
Dickinson’s production of Like Flies On Sherbert and Beale Street Saturday Night helped close a chapter in Memphis history that began in the late ’60s, when producers such as Chips Moman were making hits in a city rocked by the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Sherbert sneers at the idea of the pop song, but the record rocks in a telegraphic manner that testifies to the intensity of music that is epigrammatic and funny. “Sherbert, that’s Alex’s revenge,” Dickinson says. “See, Alex was pissed off because I mixed [Big Star’s] Third without him, so he mixed Sherbert without me. There was no engineer — somebody would start the tape recorder in the control room, then we’d run out and play.”
As with Dickinson’s solo records, only in a more extreme manner, Sherbert — recorded in 1978 and ’79 with a crew of well-schooled musicians that included the late guitarist Lee Baker and drummer Richard Rosebrough — pits the ingenuity of the players against the stone of songs such as Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas”. It’s creepy and fascinating, like watching a drunk pass out to a fading radio-station signal.
On Beale Street Saturday Night (released on LP by the Memphis Development Foundation, it’s never been issued on CD), Dickinson produced a devastating portrait of a once-thriving culture that was far removed from the tourist attraction it is today. Narrated by Thomas Pinkston, who had worked on Beale Street in its heyday, it combines performances by Sleepy John Estes, Teenie Hodges and Sid Selvidge for a crepuscular remembrance of a part of Memphis history the city was trying its best to destroy, and forget.
He might disavow the magnificent version of Furry Lewis’ “On The Road Again” that he and his band, Mud Boy & the Neutrons, cut for Beale Street (“That’s me playing drums, and I’m just not a drummer,” he complains), but he made a document that unearths bulldozed history in an unsentimental manner, and speaks volumes about the way Memphis music cuts up, gets theatrical, retreats, and refutes.
It could be that the lessons of records such as Big Star’s Third, Sherbert, Beale Street Saturday Night and Dixie Fried are too painful to revisit, even for a man who seems as lucid, and as confident in his drum sound, as James Luther Dickinson. Talking about Dixie Fried, he says, “It took me six months to make, and cost me more than you’ll ever know.” Certainly, Killers From Space contains its rueful moments, and none more so than “Sweet Peace Within”, the gorgeous Mylon LeFevre song that closes out the record. Sounding like a southern John Cale, Dickinson sings the tale of a man who has, perhaps inadvertently, glimpsed the limits of freedom:
I’ve been thinking about lots of things
About the joy that freedom brings
That’s the reason I’ve got to sing my song all day long
All day long, all day long
Once I was lost and all alone
Next of kin to a rolling stone
I feel thankful just to be alive today
Alive today, alive today
The song acknowledges perfection by calling the idea into question, and makes for a pretty fair forestalling of the inevitable.
The first song Edd Hurt ever learned all the way through was the Rooftop Singers’ recording of Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In”. It wasn’t until much later that he realized it was a cover.