Monday, March 5, 2012

February Reading

Here's What I Read in February
February was a busy month.  On the scale of busy-ness, February 2012 ranks right up there with January of 2012.  It's been a busy year so far, folks, but I ain't complaining.  Here's what I read this month.

1. It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon

This book has been on my why haven't I read this yet? list for years (c.f. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk.)  When I got a copy of of It Came From Memphis in a box of donations to my school library, I snatched it up and started reading.

I was amazed at how much I learned from this book.  You would think that if there was one thing I was fairly well educated about, it would be the history of the outsider music scene in Memphis.  Once I got into it, though, I realized how clueless I was about so much that had gone on in my city in the last fifty years.  Below are of a few things I learned about from reading this book.
  • The center of the "beatnik" or "underground" music scene in the 1960s was a coffeeshop called "The Bitter Lemon" that was located on Madison where the long-defunct French Quarter hotel now stands mouldering into ruin.  (NOT TRUE!  See comments below.)
  • Another hot spot that I had never heard of was Procape Gardens.  Ask 100 Memphis hipsters to tell you where this place, a haunt for Alex Chilton, William Eggleston and Sid Selvidge, was located, and I'd be surprised if three could tell ya.  
  • Dewey Phillips's "Red Hot and Blue" radio show.  I had never heard of him!
  • I had likewise never heard of Phineas Newborn, the fantastic jazz pianist whose star shone brightly for a brief period before fading.  His sound was more Manhattan than Memphis, but, man, could he play that piano.  I would like to get more recordings from this guy.
  • Furry Lewis doing "When I Lay My Burden Down.
  • The Ellis Auditorium was apparently the place to hear amazing music.  The first concert I ever saw (The Black Crowes, with The Jayhawks opening) was at the Ellis, and I was present for the last ever concert there (Bruce Springsteen solo.)  However, I didn't realize what a large part it played in Memphis music history.  Everyone from Elvis to Led Zeppelin played there.  To quote Gordon, "In the early spring of 1966, Dylan played Ellis Auditorium, previewing his Blonde on Blonde material with the Hawks."  Wow.
  • Cordell Jackson!
I learned much more from reading this book and buying the two compilation CDs that go along with it, but what I have listed above will give you some idea of how much information there is to dig into.  Check it out, and then come down to Memphis for a visit.  I'll put you up.

2. The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Since I started this blog, I haven't read anything by John Updike, Philip Roth, or Raymond Carver.  I've been disciplined in my reading since I started this little page, and I've used the opportunity to read authors that normally I wouldn't encounter.  This month, I decided to get over myself and return to Updike, one of my favorite writers of them all.

The Witches of Eastwick is a prickly little book that Updike reportedly wrote in response to feminist criticism of his work.  There are three witches in Eastwick, of course, (and, no, none of them are Cher), and they are nasty, heartless, murderous things.  But they're also sort of heroic, raising children, playing the cello, summoning thunderstorms from a clear blue sky, et cetera, et cetera.

And isn't a witch, after all, a perfect example of a liberated woman?  Put the three of these characters together at one of their all-female Thursday night rendezvous and they can see the future, turn tennis balls into frogs, or, in the most delightful detail of the book, cause their rival to find her mouth full of feathers, pins, and straw.  There is, of course, a man who enters the picture and ultimately throws all of their plans into chaos, but they survive his devilish charms and live into an ironic domesticity in the final pages of the novel.

I don't like to make arguments on the topic of feminism, because real feminists tend to kick my ass at it and leave me with the opinion that I have missed the point entirely.  A feminist might read The Witches of Eastwick and find nothing but misogyny by that old fascist Updike, and I wouldn't argue with them in public.  In private, though, I would think they were missing the point.

I liked The Witches of Eastwick.  It didn't reach the rarefied heights of Rabbit, Redux, say, but the prose sparkles brightly enough to let you know you are reading a real pro.  Updike never fails to stun you with his observation or his choice of the perfect words almost every time.  And The Witches of Eastwick never fails to shock, even when it's clearly pulling your leg.

(By the way, I tried watching the movie.  It was terrible.  Don't do it.)

Source Cited:
Godwin, Gail. "The witches of Eastwick." The New Republic 4 June 1984: 28+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Mar.     


  1. You've missed one on the pop quiz. The Bitter Lemon was in that oddly shaped building just east of the Poplar viaduct, south side (before Ronnie Grisanti's). The owner of the Bitter Lemon, John McIntire, lived where the French Quarter Inn now moulders; his place was a major hangout and was called Beatnik Manor.
    For more on Dewey Phillips, hunt up the CD of clips from his radio show. The disc is called "Red Hot and Blue." You couldn't script this stuff.
    Otherwise, you done good. Hope you learn as much from my forthcoming book about Stax, due out in about a year.
    Thanks for reading,

  2. Thanks for the reply! I will most definitely check out your new one when it comes out.