FROM THE ARCHIVES: Originally published in StoryBoard’s Quarterly print edition Volume I, Issue II, in April, 2022
This past February 18th, the stage play Best of Enemies, based on Robert Gordon’s 2017 documentary about the famous 1968 televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal, ended its 3-month run in London’s West End Noel Coward Theatre.
This past February 24th, the needle dropped on Steve Selvidge’s album MEM_MODS Vol. 1, recorded remotely during the pandemic with his pals Luther Dickinson and Paul Taylor. The album was produced under Steve’s relaunch of Peabody Records, the label his father (the late, great Sid Selvidge) created and whose last vinyl was cut in 1986.
In honor of these two ever-convergent forces of Memphis lore and their respect projects, we thought it would be treat to dig into our archives and resurrect the conversation you’re about to read.
(Me, I edited this down from a draft of a transcript last year, and it’s the most fun I’ve had editing a conversation. It still rocks, just like these two living legends.)
The conversation starts below.
For you readers who don’t know these gentlemen – well, you should! – you’re in for a treat. To have Steve Selvidge and Robert Gordon in the same room for an interview is to witness two men with so much Memphis music and stories in their DNA as to defy containment.
In October 2020, musician Steve Selvidge interviewed author-filmmaker Robert Gordon about his seminal book It Came From Memphis, updated and revised for its 25th anniversary edition. The interview was recorded in the Shell’s green room for Third Man Books and was released on The Shellcast, Overton Park Shell’s podcast about music, culture, and Memphis, and for the inaugural, filmed interview in the Shell’s Tales from the Greenroom. The recording is archived in two parts on Memphis’s FM 91.7 WYXR – to listen to the full interview, click on the link at the bottom of this interview.
In direct contrast with the Buckley/Vidal debates, the following conversation has more in common with the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews (one legendary director interviews another legendary director; look ‘em up). Meetings like these are the stuff of legend.
Filmed and recorded by Cole Early in October, 2020, in the Overton Park Shell green room. Transcribed and printed with permission from the Overton Park Shell’s Shellcast, this interview appeared in our print edition in April, 2022. It appears now online, for the first time.
Steve Selvidge: Robert Gordon!
Robert Gordon: Steve Selvidge, good to see ya!
Steve: 25 years later!
Robert: We were making a video for Big Ass Truck about 25 years ago.
Steve: That’s right. I was thinking about that because, while it came out in ‘96, I very much think of that as 1995, and we were all sort of in cahoots together doing stuff.
So you got an updated and revised It Came From Memphis. It’s nice to see it get a fresh coat of paint.
Robert: Let me tell you, the photos look great. I’ve been living with a really crappy addition that just doesn’t look right, and Third Man (Books) stepped up and said they would do it, and I was thrilled.
Steve: So obviously this gives you the opportunity to… after 25 years lots of things change, certainly.
Robert: One of the most interesting things was I got a letter. I got a lot of letters, calls and complaints, and assaults in restaurants, like “I should have been in the book!” But one really hung with me. A woman I didn’t know at the time wrote and said, My first husband is in the book and I’m the wife of the husband-wife Puppeteer Duo. My second husband is in the book and I helped him research Dewey Phillips, and she cited Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’s female assistant who helped discover Elvis, and she cited Abigail Adams, John Adams wife, and said “Remember the ladies.”
And so, 24 years later, I called her up, I said, “Linda Crosthwait, for Terry, I finally have a chance to fix this, to amend this.” I wanted to get more dimension in by getting a more female perspective; in the book. I interviewed about 10 more. And I feathered them in – I didn’t want to change the footprint of the book, but I just wanted to let in a little more light. And I had some old errors . . . like the Box Tops got on me because they had recorded more than I said. I was just quoting what they said. . . but the other one said “No, he was wrong . . .”
Steve: (laughing) Right, because Rock ‘n’ Roll is so clear-cut.
Robert: Haha, ya everybody remembers!
Steve: Yeah! And then we’re talking 2020 . . . you included a bit of an update.
Robert: Yes! And including a new foreword, I added a last chapter that sort of updates the scene – you’re in it, sir. And then a whole buying guide at the back, like things to read, listen to, and watch.
Steve: One of the things I remember you telling me about this book when it first came out, that still holds true, is how you can pick it up, wherever.
Robert: Yeah, I wrote it thinking about bands and vans. I just wanted anybody to open a page – Oh look here, we’re opening up to Jim Blake – and I wanted readers to be able go to any paragraph and go up or down one paragraph and be able to start a story. And I read it, and. . . it still works.
Steve: I think it’s great. There’s a lot of talk about gaze and I think you’ve widened the gaze in terms of not being such a “guy” book.
Robert: It’s still a guy’s book even with the improvements, because it was a guy’s world at the time.
Steve: It’s funny because I look back into the stories that I’ve heard, and me and Luther and Winston (Eggleston), we joke about it – like our adult life is way more sane than what seems to be what it was like with our dads. Like, I remember people just showing up at the house, this kind of hippie culture thing or whatever.
I was thinkin’ if somebody just showed up at my house now, I’d be like . . . What are you doing?
Robert: It was a really different world, a really tight world. And the Memphis scene, from my perspective, Mud Boy [and the Neutrons] was at the heart of it.
Steve: So, Mud Boy was your entry point to the Memphis music scene?
Robert: Mud Boy was the second dot that made a line. The first dot was hearing Furry Lewis opening for the Rolling Stones, Liberty Bowl Stadium 1975. Then when I heard Mud Boy at one of Beale Street’s music festivals, it was the first time that old chestnut ever made sense. That old chestnut being rock ‘n’ roll is nothing but Blues played faster. I’d listen to the Stones and it didn’t sound like Blues played faster to me, it sounded like rock ‘n’ roll. But when Mud Boy played I thought, oh I hear Furry Lewis in this. This line was connected, and then I found my way to a third dimension under that line.
Steve: You were a teenager? Were you partying and hanging out?
Robert: I was a teenager, and I definitely was. I watched Mud Boy with one hand over one eye in the middle of the day.
Steve: What did they look like to you? If you were a teenager, I’m assuming they were in their 30s, and that’s a big difference.
Robert: They had the spirit, man. They didn’t look like a dad band. It didn’t look like old guys trying to be young. They were completely present. I remember the incident that sealed my fate. Mud Boy comes out and starts to play, and Marcia [Hare] and Connie [Edwards] are dancing down front. I’m a teenager down front and I’m going, “Wow, look at these ladies dancing like this…” And the plug got pulled on the band because this was a family event, and the managers thought this was not family entertainment. There was a big fight that ensued, and I remember, Randall Lyon – who I didn’t know at the time – came on stage and was just . . . inciting a riot. I was like, Man! This is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about, a riot!
Steve: Randall didn’t look like how your average person looked like in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1975, or ‘77.
Robert: This was pre-Punk. Punk was on the edge. At this point it was ‘77, Alex [Chilton] came out playing “The Letter,” a very punk rock version.
Steve: That mic stand didn’t stand a chance; it was like, buckling underneath him. And Dickinson shouting . . .
(both mimick a punk-rocker)
Robert: Yes, and I was a kid! I was literally down front. Pat Rainer’s got a video. I found my afro in the video down front.
Steve: That kind of scene, it would have made total sense if [Memphis wrestler] Tojo Yamamoto came through with a chair…
Robert: Yes, it could have turned into an Andy Kaufman-esque moment at any time.
Steve: Continuing with that era, I’m fascinated with Memphis in the 70s. That’s one of the parts of the book I’m most fascinated about – this Overton Square, liquor by the drink . . . and it’s an interesting document. At some point you must have accessed that scene. You might have been a little young to be rocking at Trader Dick’s, but do you remember . . . ?
Robert: I was rocking at Trader Dick’s, but it was later… I seem to recall (Ardent producer) John Hampton getting arrested for playing drums behind Keith Sykes underage. And if he was underage, I was definitely underage. . . I was an East Memphis high schooler. We came into Midtown at some point and found the Ritz Ballroom and found Birth of the Blues across the street. That was definitely when Jimmy Carter was President because they were selling Billy Beer.
Steve: Describe an average night out.
Robert: Ha, if you were there you can’t remember . . . For me, it was usually hitting Midtown. Those two places were across the street from each other. When Birth of the Blues, which is now where the Bar-B-Q Shop is, on Madison, would take a break, we stumbled across the street. All underage. We’d go in a pack…a pack to avoid the bouncer, just plowing through. Inside might be Keith Sykes or Mac McAnally or Danny Green. Then they would go on break, and we would go right back across the street. On the way home, we stopped at Gibson’s Donuts, got some fuel, then hit the hay.
Steve: Nowadays, there’s so much media and there’s so many things vying for your attention. It seems to me, coming from a generation after this and talking to people like Dave Smith, that there were always people available and ready to see music. A band could really pack a club and not be a big band on the up-and-up or anything. You could just be a band playing music.
Robert: There were a lot of opportunities. There were a lot of outdoor festivals that I would go to all the time. See Jimmy [Crosthwait] doing his puppet show. And there was always an audience, definitely. I remember one night behind Overton Square, when I was there with my parents, so I was really a kid. A guy had big speakers outside his house playing The White Album real loud, and people were just hanging out outside because somebody was providing music. It was a lot looser. I would interview old Blues guys. Booker T. Lowry would talk about Beale Street being wide open. It wasn’t until I got in my 30s or 40s and began to reflect on my teenage years that I realized, oh it was kind of wide open for me too. Not in the same way that Booker described, but very similar looseness to the atmosphere.
Steve: Going back to Mud Boy . . . at what point did you start to know individually who these people were and interface with them?
Robert: So, [Jim] Dickinson was a known quantity because I read the newspaper. I read Walter Dawson, the music critic, and he was always quoting Dickinson. As soon as I became a writer, I was always quoting him too. Stanley Booth called Dickinson a quote whore, which is a great term. He was extremely quotable, extremely sharp, and dependable. So when I saw that incident on Beale, I knew who Jim was and by that point, one of my high school good friends was good friends with Adam Hohenberg.
We were 16. My friend picked me up and said “One of Adam’s older sisters is having a birthday party at Adam’s house, and Sid Selvidge is going to play, come on.” We went, and we were standing around about to smoke a bone, your dad walks up with his guitar case. First thing he says, “Anybody got any reefer?” We smoked a bone outside with your dad, went inside, and he played. I just remember being on a sofa, laying back, listening to his pristine voice just go into my ears in what seemed like a vaulted room. It was kind of an Eggelstonian world. . . I didn’t realize at the time. But it was all these nice girls and cool outfits and a big 100 year old home in Midtown.
That’s when I sort of began to know your dad. I would go down and see him at Jefferson Square. He was not approachable from the audience. I don’t know how I broke that barrier, but he would come walking into Jefferson Square in a leather jacket, go right to the front, pick up his guitar, and start playing. If Jimmy was joining him, the two of them would have banter that you could make out every fifth word. Jimmy was always he, he, he . . . and you’re in the audience going “It sure looks funny but I don’t know what it was. . .”
Steve: Jeff Square was something else. I remember being there as a little bitty kid…Jake [Schorr] would open up the centipede machine and give me a hundred credits. I got the most fruit in my Shirley Temple. It was great… I obviously have a different perspective of my dad’s gig, but I like the way you describe that he didn’t even know if anybody was there.
Robert: It was. You could see that the bright light was on, and the thing that was so cool was he didn’t care. He was there, he was going to be on stage for 45 minutes. If one person was in the audience or 100 were in the audience, he was going to do the same thing, which was mesmerize us with his voice. And then at 45 minutes, he was going to take his damn break and he was going to disappear. He’s going to walk right past…It was a magnificent show, a magnificent set every time.
Steve: The one thing that strikes me, going back to how different it is from now, is that they played so long and so late. Frank Bruno put up a picture of like an average Jefferson Square set, and it was like 9 to 2. No way, man.
So what about Lee Baker?
Robert: I’m trying to remember when I made a personal connection with Lee. I don’t know, but a couple of Lee things pop to mind. One is when I got my first galley of the book [It Came from Memphis]. At that point, I’d let Dickinson read it to fact check it, and no one else had read it. Lee Baker had a gig up at Huey’s, and I was living around the corner, so I walked up to Huey’s with a galley to give him, and as I was walking up, it occurred to me, “Wow, I wonder if I’ve just made this up? Have I connected all these people in a way that makes sense to me, but isn’t going to make any sense to them?” It was giving that book to Lee that was the beginning of letting go. Saying I’ve made this, and I can’t unmake it at this point. I hope Lee finds it true and appropriate, and he did.
Steve: So he agreed with you and with the dots you connected and all that?
Robert: Yes. I called him quickly after, and these guys were interested in what I was doing. It’s their lives, you know, so they read it quickly. I also remember going over to interview Lee for the book…I had accumulated a bunch of interviews over time, but I did a bunch of interviews specific for the book. I remember, we went in the afternoon. He’d been bush hogging some of the Horseshoe [Lake] property that day. We sat around, we had a great time. It was dark as hell when I left. The sky was full of stars. It was really cool.
Steve: I’ve heard some of those interviews. That was mesmerizing hearing his voice again. It was such a comforting thing…For me, obviously being in Son of Mud Boy, it’s really, really fortunate to have these musical recordings.
Robert: I think the thing about Mud Boy is it’s a dialogue…You can hear the four musicians, or the six or seven musicians, in discussion. Because like Jim said, they rehearsed for a Warner Brothers demo in 1973, and it took him 12 years to get over the rehearsal.
Steve: Exactly. Don’t rehearse. Whatever you do, don’t rehearse. I remember that . . . You have to respect that sort of spirit.
It’s funny that Mud Boy contains such a well noted producer in Jim Dickinson, and it’s a band that almost defies production. <>
Thanks again to the Overton Park Shell and Shellcast for use of the audio for this transcription. To listen to this full interview, visit our friends at 91.7 WYXR and this link to the Shellcast Archives, and look for episodes Season 1, episodes 19 and 20 (S1E19, S1E20).