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Henry Rollins: The Column! Memphis on My Mind

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

Sitting on the tour bus, the Bon Jovi Mobile-Def Leppard Express (no offense to either corporations), here in Knoxville, Tenn. It is a beautiful early spring afternoon. On the turntable (yes, we actually have one on board) is a Lol Coxhill 10" called The Inimitable. We have just listened to Coxhill's version of the Rodgers & Hart composition Spring Is Here. Road manager Ward found this about an hour ago at a local store for a mere five bucks. We are now listening to a Paul Bley album called Turns that features John Gilmore of Sun Ra Arkestra fame on saxophone. We do our best to keep things eclectic, lest our ears become rusty.

The clocks have moved forward and spring has definitely been sprung upon us. I often listen to music seasonally, as some records and bands seem to be right for different temperatures and daylight cycles.

It was a great winter of listening. I went deep into Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, Neu!, early Kraftwerk, Joy Division's second album, Closer (because I often don't play it enough) and other artists that are, to me, cold-weather music.

With the weather warming up, I feel a lot of Japanese music coming on. Acid Mothers Temple, Keiji Haino, Takashi Mizutani, Flower Travellin' Band, Speed and Glue & Shinki will be in rotation as the days grow longer and the nights more eventful.

I sit slightly north and very east of Memphis, home of Sun Studios and one of if not the most well-known launch pad for rock & roll. Much has been said and written about this very small and no-frills studio. Elvis, Roy O, Jerry Lee, Mr. Cash and Ike Turner all turned in sessions in this room that altered the course of music and culture as we know it. It's a great tour to take if you are ever in the area.

After 6 p.m. or so, Sun closes to tourists and serves as a fully functional studio. In the '90s, I was visiting Sun one day before a show; the owners gave me their card and suggested that at some point I come in and put some music onto tape. I knew I was going to take them up on that proposition.

 

About a year later, I did. We were on tour and had a night off on the way to a show in Texas. I had called ahead and booked the session but didn't tell my bandmates until we pulled up. When they were told what we were about to do, they were extremely happy. I made sure to have the engineer set up my mic in the area where Jerry Lee Lewis sat during the sessions for Great Balls of Fire.

We were in there recording from early evening until early the next morning and then back on the bus and down the road. At some point, I'll mix those tracks and see if anything interesting happens.

For me, Memphis has always been a city that holds a great deal of meaning and also leads me to a lot of thinking. Besides Sun Studio, which helped put rock & roll on the map all over the world, the legendary Stax Studio also called Memphis home. Sadly, the city also is the location of the Lorraine Motel, where in April of 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. The two studios made music that ruined the careers of many a segregationist and helped bring Americans together in ways that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could not. This seems quite at odds with the murder of Dr. King.

I think one can learn a lot about the American identity by digging into its music history, which is as rich and as fascinating as one could possibly imagine. It's all here, as they say, and not one original note was conceived without intensity, brilliance and bravery.

When I interviewed R&B visionary and full-time Stax man Isaac Hayes years ago, between marathon sessions at the studio, he told me he and some of the others would take breaks and go to the Lorraine to eat and swim in the pool. The main appeal was that it was a hotel where it was legal for a black person to swim. Imagine making music with that kind of static around you. How anyone kept his cool in those days is beyond me.

 

Here is a quote from that interview that perhaps explains what allowed him to keep his eyes on the prize:

"If we are to go into the next millennium, we have to get it together or there will be nothing left for the kids. That is my goal. And to do it through music and communication and the arts, I will do what I can to make a difference for the better on this planet. Hats off to people like Chuck D for doing what he does. Through the arts, we can be very effective. The arts cross all barriers, lines and languages. Music is more important than just for pleasure. You can communicate. That's why so much responsibility goes along with the notoriety that people in the arts and athletes have."

Tell it! America in an election year is one frustrating kettle of fish, but American music is the high bar. If you have never heard the Isaac Hayes album Hot Buttered Soul, you should fire that one up this fine spring weekend. You might find it to be hyperbolicsyllablecsesquidalymistic-ally to your liking.

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