Sunday, March 18, 2007

Memphis, Tennessee

Lord almighty, how fast they grow!

Young Freddie Jingo, aged 13 going on approximately 24, contributes the rhythm guitar to this loose little studio jam on Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee," one of my most favorite songs of all time. He's playing the sweet little Squier Strat we gave him for Christmas, and we knocked out his part in a couple of hours. I tried to get him to sing an Everly Brothers–style harmony vocal, but he wasn't having any of it. Singing, apparently, is for buttmunches.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you for the very first time ever on the international stage, Freddie Jingo!

Memphis, Tennessee (pops).

(Freddie's on the left of your radio dial.)

You can keep your Dylans and your Springsteens and your Davieses; for my money the premiere rock lyricist is Chuck Berry. In four brief verses in this tune, a simple one-sided telephone conversation, he sketches an entire short story, a whole open-ended drama. His genius in this song is to fool our conventional expectations of a narrative like this one; we believe, because we've heard hundreds of other love-songs, that the Marie he's trying to call is an absent girlfriend. Only through details dropped through the lyric do we find out the truth of who Marie really is, and why Chuck needs to speak to her so badly.

The telling details are revealed slowly. First we get the fact that our caller's living with his uncle (who writes phone messages "on the wall"! -- what kind of house does he run?). Then the delicious, nutty, and wonderfully comedic description of the physical location of Marie's house in Memphis -- as though knowing that Marie lives "on the south side, high up on a ridge" is going to help the operator find the phone number. Picture the desperation of this poor man -- it's both hilarious and quite sad.

Next, we get the detail that "we were pulled apart because her Mom did not agree"; since we're still laboring under the delusion that this is a conventional love song, it's still possible that this is a Romeo-and-Juliet situation, that cruel parents disapprove of the liaison and have acted to forbid it.

Then Chuck hits us with the kicker, "Marie is only six years old!" and suddenly the entire song has to be reevaluated. We realize that the Mom who "did not agree" is a divorced wife, that Chuck's so completely estranged from her that he doesn't even know her phone number in Memphis, he's living with his uncle in the sort of hovel where nobody cares if you write on the walls, and in his loneliness and desperation he's pouring out his heart to a completely anonymous telephone operator who is extremely unlikely to be able to help him -- or even care.

It's perhaps the saddest little rock-n-roll shuffle ever written.

Chuck Berry: Here's to you, man.

And to you, Freddie. I hope there's lots more of these in the future. Maybe I'll even convince you you're not a buttmunch if you sing.


Jeremy said...

Good rockin' this morning!

But Ned, you might be a bit of a buttmuncher yourself, putting the vocals so far back in the mix, especially given all that schtick about what a great little story you're telling.

Expect to see you both soon, headlining at pjbmonys

Employee of the Month said...

Fun stuff. At what point in the song did Freddie fire his bass player?

blue girl said...

That's great, you guys!

And Freddie may be right. Singing may be for buttmunches.

But cool buttmunches. Make no mistake.

I hope you two do a lot more of that!

Neddie said...

putting the vocals so far back in the mix

I don't think they're that far back! I'll admit, I did mix this one in a bit of a hurry, because my neighbor just lent me his Rickenbacker 360-12, and I want to spend all my waking hours basking in its jangly glory. Maybe a version of "Mr. Tambourine Man"? "A Hard Day's Night"? (That chord! Gsus4/A, if the BeatleBook is to be believed.) How about XTC's "Sense Working Overtime"? The Plimsouls' "A Million Miles Away"? The La's "There She Goes"? The possibilities are marvelously endless.

Anonymous said...

For interests sake, same twist, revoltingly handled.

Neddie said...

For interests sake, same twist, revoltingly handled.

Jesus. How awful!


The Seventies. What a fucking nightmare....

Will Divide said...

Awww. . . you must be so proud. Where'd he pick up that little hiccup in the vocal?

The Seventies. What a fucking nightmare....

Cry me a fucking river.