File under, music I want to follow me from bar to bar on a long, bingeful night: Bar-Kays, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1968). Also file under: Friday Night. Also see: the entirety of the wonderful Stax-Volt: The Complete Singles 1959-1968.
I’ve been thinking about Memphis all day. In light of MLK Day. In light of the excellent Joe Brouwer poem “Lines in Memphis, Tennessee.” In light of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. In light of his speech the day prior where he gloried in having lived through a previous stabbing and a little girl’s letter professing happiness that he didn’t sneeze when even a sneeze would have killed him. In light of King’s joy at having lived to having seen the sit-ins, the Bill, the marches, the mountaintop. In light of his refusal to fear, as he arrived in Memphis, the threats of “sick white brothers.” For he had seen the mountaintop. And was ready to face Memphis.
I’ve never been to Memphis. But I think of it often. Certainly, because of King. But also because it’s home to the greatest song ever written about a city. Or about fatherly love.
Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” (sometimes recorded just as “Memphis”) may not match King’s gravity or rhetoric, but it’s own small miracle. Against a jaunty jangled blues lick, Berry starts it off as a classic torch song for a distant love. Calling a long distance operator to try to get in touch with his baby. And as a torch song, it’s a near perfect example of the form. But then. Oh my. The reveal in the last stanza. And the song’s bottom drops out. And so does my stomach.
Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee
And within twenty seconds, the song reverses itself. From erotic to paternal love. From staid to heart-wrenching. From a great song to one of the greatest songs ever recorded.
Covers abound, with a surprising amount of good versions. And even the bad versions couldn’t wear away the brilliance of the song.
Faces: A subdued pedal guitar draws this version out. A fair version that fails to get that brevity being the soul of this song’s wit, but with a fun barnstorming ending. Rod Stewart’s vocals don’t suggest he has a particularly strong understanding of fatherly love. Sorry, Rod’s seven kids. Wait, what? He has another on the way at age 66?
The Beatles: Neither this version, nor the Plastic Ono Band’s live take with Chuck Berry, are very good. But this version, live at the BBC, sure beats the crap out of the one for their Decca audition tape, which makes me doubt they had even heard the song before recording it. (The Stones also did a version. It sucks. Keith Richards solo demo is slightly better.)
Foggy Mountain Boys: Surprisingly, one of the better covers is the Foggy Mountain Boys’ bluegrass version. Keeps the tenderness, amplifies the song’s teasing jokiness.
Sandy Bull: The best cover, however, is a complete shocker. Ignoring Shakespeare’s advice about brevity, Bull stretches the song into an endless, perfect groove. Who knew this song could accommodate psychfolk so perfectly?
The worst cover: This video of Hank Williams Jr. where he trades off every instrument. Like an asshole. He’s so busy playing all the instruments that he forgets to do the last verse. You know. The verse with the reveal. The most important verse. The worst. I hope his father called long distance (from the grave) to tell him what a crime against music he committed with this song. And everything else he’s done since.
Other covers of note: For some reason, as far as I can tell, Nina Simone didn’t cover this song. Why? “Memphis in June” is such a tease. Del Shannon has a solid straight-up version. The Statler Brothers do it country gospel style. The Silicon Teens come close to ruining this song with their cheesy new wave. Faron Young does a decent honkey tonk. The Ventures do a decent surf rock. John Cale does a sneering version that doesn’t really have a reason to exit.
This week, Noise Narcs answers the age-old question: What five bands would you travel back in time to see in their prime? To see other responses, jump in the hot tub.
I was going to write a post that just said “Coldplay,” no date, no justification. [I would have just assumed it was because of your dreadful (but pretty) doppleganger's husband, Chris Martin. -Ed ] But then I realized that little joke didn’t really even make me laugh, so I started thinking of other acts I could name to better effect. Several Toby Keiths later, I finally just decided to take the assignment seriously, and offer you my best bets.
1. The Beatles rooftop concert, 1969. Even though they hated each other. The idea of sitting that close to them at the end of their era, without anyone else in the way — it’s just hard to see how anything else could beat it. Plus, I’ve always been a big fan of the Let It Be album, maybe more than is reasonable. Of course I only know about the show from the documentary, which means I’ve sort of already seen it (without actually having seen it in its entirety), but I’m pretty sure the real, live experience, with the London wind in my hair would trump anything I could ever see on film.
2. Sam Cooke, Harlem Square Club, 1963. Really, I’d take any show in 63 or 64 where he sings “Bring It On Home To Me,” but from the noise the crowd is making, this one sounds like the most fun. His voice is purer in other live recordings, but he really throws it down here in a way I would’ve loved to have seen.