28 June 2009

Rythm Oil

This blog and Stanley Booth's book Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South have something in common: They both borrow their titles from a long gone curios manufacturer out of Memphis. By "curios manufacturer" I mean a hoodoo shop, which sold incense, oils and tonics with vaguely magical properties. Apparently hoodoo shops used the term "curio" to avoid accusations of mail fraud and false advertising. In any case, Rythm Oil, no doubt one of their better selling products, seems to advertise its powers clearly enough:

I don't know much about the company. All that seems to remain are a few labels people have come across in junk shops. It works well as a title for Booth's book, however, which is ostensibly about Southern music, but which really draws on all aspects of Southern culture to offer intimate portraits of forgotten icons, fill in the shadows of shining stars, create a living diorama of diverse landscapes, and splash oblique swatches of light on the author's life. Like the Lucky Mon-Gol Company, Rythm Oil has its headquarters in Memphis, TN, Booth's hometown for many years. He grew up on the swamp lands of Georgia, but moved with his family to Macon when he was sixteen and shortly after that to Memphis. There he met many of the people he writes about, including Furry Lewis, B.B. King, Sam Phillips, Charlie Freeman, Elvis Presley and practically the entire Stax recording roster, including Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

The book itself is a collection of essays, most of which were published elsewhere originally and most of which are interesting. I'm especially fond of one he wrote for Esquire on Elvis. Dated 1967, it deals with Elvis at the apex of fame and at the nadir of his music career. Just coming off several years of Hollywood mass production, Elvis was between his early success as a rebel rousing teen sensation and the bloated decadence of the 1970s, reeling from the monotony of movie work and still two years away from staging a home-coming musical resurgence. The article begins with this quote from Dewey Phillips, which Esquire declined to publish: "Talkin' about eatin' pussy, me and Sam Phillips used to make old Elvis sick with that stuff. We'd sit around the studio, down at Sun Records, and talk about how good it was, and he'd get so sick he'd go out back an puke." It ends with Elvis at Graceland, "all alone for a change, riding his motorcycle around the pool, around and around and around."

I didn't expect to like the book much. What I expected were a few interesting anecdotes drowning among intellectual snobbery, sexual objectification dressed up as realism, pretension paraded as in-the-know rock n' roll savvy, unrelated articles bound as a book, just another Greil-Marcus-rock-critic running fun music through the bowels of pompous academic inquiry. To the contrary, however, I have enjoyed the book and am struck by Booth's sincerity. He really loves his subjects and writes about that love honestly, even when its complex and compromised. The fact that he has some retrospective distance on the articles helps, as he's able to tie the separate pieces together by weaving them into an autobiographical narrative. For instance, he's able to include the above comment from Dewey Phillips without endorsing it (even though he clearly relishes the moment) because he explains first that Phillips, "gave me the lead of a lifetime. I knew anyone who saw the first four words would finish reading the piece, hoping that it contained more of the same." The most important thing about the book is that he lets the people populating its pages speak for themselves.

In an article on Al Green it seems that the "Psalmist of Soul" did most the work putting the piece together. Roughly six of the seven pages are direct quotes. And although that doesn't seem like such a good writing technique, it really pays off with passages like this:

"I woke up one morning and wanted to complain. I went to my study and wrote all the bad that had ever happened to me that I could remember. Then I thought, 'Now I'm gonna flip the page, I'm gonna write another page on the good things.' I wound up making a sermon titled 'Count Up the Cost.' What the Devil has done, compared to what God has done, can't be measured. It's not even to be mentioned. Sure, there have been some bad things, if you're about anything, you gonna have that. But I went to my wife and I said, 'You know what? The cotton-pickin' good things outweigh the cotton-pickin' bad things.' And I went out and apologized to my racoon."

"You did what?"

"Well, I had shot at my racoon, because he keeps goin' in my incinerator, and he have cans all over my yard. He digs in there, and my wife puts biscuits and things in there -- I kind of think she's putting them there on purpose, 'cause she knows he's been living out there three years. So I went out there with my pistol and went bang bang bang and he went drdrdrdr toward a tree, and he finally made it. And my pet bull, Ralph -- he weights two thousand pounds, a
big bull, black Angus and Brahma, with a big hump on on his back -- and all the animals were looking at me, they are so sensitive, they were looking at me like, 'What are you doing? Do you actually want to hurt the little racoon?' I have two horses, and they were looking very sad. The cows, the horses, the bull, they looked at me like, Thumbs down for Al. I said, 'Will you guys just clear out of here?' Because I felt real bad, real corny about shootin' at the poor racoon. So I called my horse, and he went the other way. I really got the cold shoulder from everybody. So I called out in the woods, I said, 'Hey raccoon! You can come back over here now!' And I heard him making a noise, coming back to his favorite tree. I said, 'Are you people -- excuse me, are you animals satisfied now?' "

I don't know why rac(c)oon is spelled two different ways, but the rest of the article is concerned primarily with Green's conversion from sexy soul singer to a Pentecostal preacher. Apparently he was spurred in his move toward God by two events that landed him in the hospital. The first was in 1974 -- a woman poured "Memphis napalm" (boiling grits) down his back. In 1979 he fell off a stage in Cincinnati and hit his head on a metal instrument case. After that, Al Green recorded his first all-gospel record and opened his church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, just south of Graceland, where he still preaches today. Join him for worship next time you're in Memphis. And to find out more about why you should be visiting Memphis in the first place, check out Rythm Oil or check back in with me here, as I'll have more to say on the subject soon. Oh, and also, this used to be a really good blog about Memphis, although, recently it's become something more general: at home she feels like a tourist.

Finally, here's Al Green doing a Kris Kristofferson song: For the Good Times (links to mediafire).

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