19 October 2013

Celtic Swing

The cancelled Neon Picnic festival of January 1988 had one good spinoff – the amount of copy it generated for Rip It Up (even if I am still $200 out of pocket for hiring a caravan for the magazine’s campsite). I interviewed Roy Orbison, Murray Cammick interviewed Nona Hendryx, and Kerry Buchanan tried to talk to James Brown. Although Orbison died shortly after I talked with him, especially memorable was an interview I did with Philip Chevron of the Pogues. While the rest of the band was on tour, he was at home with an ulcer, and handling the interviews. He turned out to be exceptionally articulate and knowledgeable about the history of Irish pop music. Besides the courteous closing line – the idea had simply never occurred to me – for years I have been quoting his line about the boorish Irish expatriates and wannabes who appear around the world on St Patrick’s Day: “We’re a bit more subtle about our Irishness over here.” 

Sadly, Phil Chevon has recently died, of oesophageal cancer, aged 56. Contrary to the Pogues image, he was a well-read, historically minded, highly astute musician, and quite philosophical. Shortly before his death he said, “I am a gay, Irish, Catholic, alcoholic, Pogue who is about to die from cancer – and don’t think I don’t know it.” 

Along with Bob Geldof, the Pogues were one of the few acts that made it to New Zealand for the Neon Picnic. With so many people in Auckland to attend the festival that never happened, the Pogues’ gig at the Galaxy was packed to the ceiling with an audience that had already been partying all weekend. MacGowan won few friends among the audience for his slurred, out-of-it performance, and even fewer backstage where he insisted on limitless supplies of white wine and go-fast.

THE IRISH are plagued by ignorant stereotypes, but they know how to have a good time— I can personally recommend their funerals.

Sunday night is certain to be hoedown night at Neon Picnic, with the Pogues and Los Lobos on the same bill. Both bands have brought a contemporary edge and spirit to sounds that reach back over generations, and both bands know how to move the soul and the feet.

The Pogues are currently in New York, filming a video for their new single ‘Fairy Tale of New York.’ Then they tour the East Coast and Canada, finishing up at the Hollywood Palladium as guests of their friends Los Lobos.

chevron sepiaBut one Pogue who has stayed home in London is guitarist Philip Chevron. “I’ve had to stay behind because I’ve had a recurring duodenal ulcer which I need treat­ment for. But I’m feeling a bit better now,” he says.

Filling in for Chevron in North America is Joe Strummer. Last year the Clash singer and the Pogues starred, together with Elvis Costello, Grace Jones and Dennis Hopper, in Straight to Hell, a spoof spaghetti western by Sid and Nancy director Alex Cox. It re­ceived mixed reviews...

“Well I liked it!” laughs Chevron. “It was great fun to make, basically our annual summer holiday which we filmed and then forced on people in cinemas... no, it was a lot of hard work actually.”

Chevron joined the Pogues temporarily in 1985 before Rum Sodomy and the Lash – when their banjo player Jem Finer nee­ded a rest. “I liked it so much I stayed, well they invited me to.” Prior to that, he was in the seminal punk combo Radiators from Space. “We were the only punk band in Ireland, so we were quite well known for a while.” The Rad­iators, who had “terrible trouble” battling with an Australian outfit of the same name, made two albums, and Chevron has made two solo LPs, one produced by Elvis Costello.

A LOT IS MADE of the Pogues’ punk origins, with Finer and mil­lion-dollar smile Shane MacGowan being part of the Nipple Erectors. But through the Pogues’ concertina player Terry Woods, who helped form Steeleye Span, there are links back to an earlier era when traditional music was popular:

“There’s a long gap between that folk rock and us,” says Chevron. “Very early Steeleye Span were very good and adven­turous, as were early Horslips and early Fairport Convention. But somewhere along the line something went wrong and it got more rock than folk, and the two el­ements didn’t blend very well.

“I think it took another few years before the vital ingredient came along to make it work, and that was punk rock. That had the same sort of energy that Irish folk music has. It said, stop taking it seriously ’cause it’s supposed to be fun. Stop sticking your finger in your ear.”

And the respected Irish singer Christy Moore approves: he cove­red a song of the Radiators in the late 1970s, and the Pogues’ ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ on his latest album. “Christy always had a good ear for what’s going on, it doesn’t matter which strand of music of music it comes from. It was quite a radical thing to do then for a performer like Christy Moore to record what on the surface looked like a punk rock song. And to have him record ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ was like a progression of that.

“Because the Radiators, although they never ended up sounding like the Pogues, their attitude was similar in that they were using the long standing tradition of Irish ballad writing, and playing it a different way, with an upfront energy and force, but re­specting the tradition.”

Chevron says that when he grew up in Dublin, traditional Irish music was “shoved down my throat, and I hated it. It was part of the same misguided government policy which shoved the Irish lan­guage and sport down people’s throats, to the point that all you could do was vomit it back up again. That’s the wrong way to in­terest people.

“It took till that attitude cooled off a bit – for me it was a band called the Horslips, an Irish band in the 70s, who said, well fuck that, we’re gonna make this music sound like fun again. That had a big influence on me, it made it sound exciting again, and for my generation, kindled for the first time a love for Irish music.

“Now things are more relaxed, and they don’t force music or the language on you, so it’s easier to appreciate. Though there still pur­ists who despise what we do. But there will always be those people, always.”


ALONG WITH U2, the Pogues are known throughout Ireland. But Chevron stresses that only three members of the eight Pogues are actually Irish. “We’re a London band, all based there except for Terry who still lives in Ireland. But in London, there’s a very strong Irish music thing there in the Irish pubs. So that’s where a lot of the Pogues’ Irish music comes from, for the people who weren’t actu­ally born in Ireland.

“But we’ve been adopted as an Irish band in Ireland. Irish people are very proud of people who be­come internationally successful, particularly if they wear their Irish-ness on their sleeves.”

Irish pub bands play in the back­ground, “they wouldn’t have their jobs very long if they did what we do,” says Chevron. “But a lot of what those bands play, country and Irish, has some bearing on the Pogues. ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ is in that sort of mode, an Irish waltz. The pub bands play in that spirit – only we play it with a great deal more feeling than they would!”

The Irish immigrants to America had a large influence on early country music. “And therefore rock ‘n’ roll, so it’s very integral to the way rock music turned out,” says Chevron. “It’s amazing it’s taken so long for Irish music to be this popular internationally.”

Now the Pogues (particularly in their version of ‘Jesse James’ on RSL) reflect the way country has flowed back across the Atlantic. But the links go further: ‘London Girl’ thumps along with the zydeco rhythms of Louisiana. With Los Lobos, the Pogues have brought the accordion back into favour:

“Yeah – it’s been a very under­rated instrument until recently. Someone like William Schimmel who plays accordian with Tom Waits is brilliant. There are people who are using the accordian in an intelligent way these days. For a long time it had a justifiably terrible reputation.”

THE “Irish ravers” image of the Pogues has tended to obscure the fact that the band is full of ex­cellent musicians. Shane MacGowan has done the bulk of the writing, though on the new LP If I Should Fall From Grace With God various members of the band con­tribute. “Shane’s songs are pretty hard to beat – they have to be pretty shit hot to better him.

“Songs are everything. That’s one thing that unites us. With eight people in the band, there are lots of different influences and pre­ferences. But we all have got great respect for the songs. The art is the songs, which I think has become grossly devalued and debased over the past few years. We’ve got production and market­ing and so on, and the songs seem to have got lost. I’ve always regret­ted that.”

It’s been two years since Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. “We’ve had a lot of problems with our record company, and it’s taken this long to iron them out. We’ve had the album recorded for quite a while, but we weren’t prepared to let them release it except on our terms. That’s been a source of great frustration for us. We’ve been playing the stuff off the album for quite a while, but it helps if people know what you’re play­ing. And the band is very prolific, we write a helluva lot of material, so it’s frustrating not being able to record it and get on with the next one. However it’s been worth the wait.”

Fall From Grace has been prod­uced by Steve Lillywhite, and Chevron is enthusiastic about his approach:

“Without knocking anyone else who has produced the band, they haven’t really been producers but musicians. Steve Lillywhite’s a real producer, and it’s a different discipline from being a musician, you think differently. This time the album was pretty much recorded live in the studio. We added some colouring to it afterwards, but the essence of each track is live.

“Steve Lillywhite captured that, he didn’t impose anything on us at all, he was brilliant. He’s probably the best producer in the world — apart from his technical brilliance, he knows how to get the perform­ance out of people. That’s what a producer should do. He hasn’t done anything to the sound that isn’t us, he’s listened very care­fully to what we do and translated it onto vinyl. So it won’t sound like a Steve Lillywhite record, but like a Pogues record. I was so full of admiration for the man, on every level. He was easy going, intelli­gent, imaginative.”

NEVERTHELESS, the production work Elvis Costello did on RSL and the sublime EP Poguetry in Motion seemed sympathetic to the band.

“Yeah, to some extent, but actu­ally it was on that EP that things came to a head. ’Cause we had to argue for a lot of things that we felt were right, and he didn’t. So our working relationship with him sou­red a little bit during that. In the end we more or less got what we wanted, but we felt, it’s really stupid to have to argue with your producer about what you should sound like. There are one or two things on that EP that, quite frankly, he had a lot less to do with than his credit would suggest. Because we went away and re-did certain things after he’d finished.

“But Elvis is a nice man, he’s a nice man to work with, but our working relationship with him came to an end there ’cause we were thinking differently about our sound. We had ambitions about our sound that Elvis felt weren’t really in keeping with what the Pogues should be doing. Our feel­ing was, well fuck that, ’cause we’re the Pogues, and we know what we should be doing! I think he was a bit nervous about ex­perimentation. But around the time we made Rum, Sodomy, he was in tune with our ideas.

“You see, people don’t always give the Pogues credit for inven­tion or imagination or musical know-how really, and Elvis was slightly guilty of that in the end, I think. But we’ve never been as we’re popularly imagined. We’ve always been as ambitious music­ally as the circumstances would allow, and now they allow us to be as adventurous as we want. At the time of Poguetry in Motion it was in a state of transition. So it wasn’t en­tirely Elvis’s fault. I don’t want to blame him for it. It was a natural period of transition.”

The Pogues’ music has the ability to cross over to any audi­ence, from fans of a garage sound, country or folk, to Gaelic grandmothers.

“Maybe it’s a lot to do with the eclecticism of the band,” says Chevron. “Irish music is very strong, but that’s only a part. There’s country, but on the new album it’ll be obvious there’re bits of jazz, Spanish music, Eastern folk music, ’60s rock — there’s a lot going on there.

“So it’s gratifying that people who just love music love what we do. Because we obviously love music, and I think that comes ac­ross in what we play. There’s so much music that you hear now on the radio that seems so loveless, it sounds as if the people who made it don’t really care about it, maybe they care more about their haircut or their bank balance.”

The Pogues supported U2 on many of the Joshua Tree dates, including Madison Square Gar­den. “There are people who would have us playing small pubs in London forever,” says Chevron. “But the nice thing about what we do is it seems to translate to huge audiences. We still manage to make it seem intimate. We really enjoy stadiums, but also enjoy playing small places, like recently we did a short tour of Ireland, play­ing in dance halls and large clubs. It was great fun.”

chevron1THE BAND HAS made a tradi­tion, though, of returning to London each year to play St Patrick’s Day in a small venue. But now it’s a problem: “As we get bigger, St Patrick’s Day has ten­ded to become extended be­cause not everyone can see us. We could go and do Wembley Arena and cover most people, but what we’re doing, which is nicer, is we’re gonna have St Patrick’s Week – playing six shows at the Town and Country, holding 2000 people. St Patrick’s Week with the Pogues.”

Perhaps you could stain the river green, like they do in Chicago.

“I think we’ll leave that to the Americans, actually – we’re a bit more subtle about our Irishness over here.

“The further you get away from a country, the more you celebrate your nationality, if you’re an immi­grant. Sometimes it’s emb­arrassing, but I can understand it, ‘cause if you take this country where the Irish, alongside the Scottish, are still ... curiosities as citizens. Irish people over here are regarded by English people as one step above Asians and blacks and so on, which is all of course inherent racism. But in those circumstances where a nat­ional identity is sublimated, well then I think a slightly ... kitsch el­ement comes out. You have to show your national identity a bit louder than you would in your own country. So I don’t really knock that sort of thing.

“You have a lot of us over there, and a lot of us in America. There’s a song about it on the new album: ‘Thousands are Sailing.’ The economy isn’t there to sustain the population, unfortunately. The song links the new immigration with the mass immigration of the 19th Century potato famine. People are leaving at the rate of 30,000 a year, I believe, which is a lot in a population of three million.”

But despite the dispersion for­ced by economics, music from the likes of the Pogues and Los Lobos means cultural identities are not forgotten, but celebrated. A last word from Philip Chevron:
“... Thanks very much for not asking us about drinking.”

There is also an excellent obituary of Chevron in the London Independent. Before his death, the Irish Daily Mail published a long interview with him. Page 1.. Page 2. Page 3. Page 4.

16 October 2013


My review of Stranded in Paradise appeared in the Listener’s 50th anniversary issue, 1 July 1989. The use of a plural verb after “trivia” is surely the input of the literary editor, Andrew Mason.

STRANDED IN PARADISE: New Zealand Rock’n’Roll 1955-1988, by John Dix (Paradise Publications, Wellington, $39.95).

NEW ZEALAND rock’n’roll, according to John Dix, began in 1955 when Johnny Copper, “the Maori Cowboy”, was asked to record Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, then making waves in the States. Cooper couldn’t under­stand what the song was about, or even grasp the rhythm. His backing band of Wellington jazzers struggled to play on the beat, and Cooper muffed his lines. And when New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll record was released in October, 1955 – before anything similar had been done in Australia or Britain, claims Dix — the public couldn’t understand it either. Selwyn Toogood gave it a couple of spins on his Lever Hit Parade, but the record bombed.

They had a go, nevertheless, and that is what this book is all about: New Zealanders struggling against the odds to express themselves. John Dix has shown the same tenacity with Stranded in Paradise. For eight years there has been talk of “the book”, with sceptics doubt­ing it would ever appear. After the first two publishers dropped out, Dix finally published the book himself, with the aid of two friends. New Zealand’s rock indus­try has always been a do-it-yourself business, and this book pays tribute to the doers.

Johnny DevlinStranded in Paradise is an encyclo­pedic, entertaining work, full of stories of heartbreak and heroism. The title comes from a Hammond Gamble song: “Stranded in paradise, how can a poor boy break the ice?” Tim Finn has called it “the tyranny of distance”, Dave Dobbyn a “strange itinerary”. The frustrations of isolation are the essence of the book, It begins with the first adolescent who wanted to break out of “normality” and small-town aspirations: Johnny Devlin (above). The bank clerk from Wanganui quickly went from talent shows to town hall tours, selling a phenomenal 250,000 records in a career that peaked after 12 months.

A pattern quickly emerges: the few acts that are successful “conquer New Zealand, chalk up a few hits, and set sights further afield”. Usually on Aus­tralia, where New Zealand musicians from the Invaders to the Enz, Mi-Sex to Jenny Morris, have had considerable impact on the industry.

Dix brings alive New Zealand in the 1950s, a stultifying world of six o’clock closing, short back’n’sides and Pat McMinn on the wireless. Devlin’s flame extinguished in 1959, the country settles back with safe Howard Morrison until the Shadows, and later the Beatles, inspire the beat boom.

The book is full of long-forgotten bands and songs, but the period details and cautionary tales make it a very readable history. The Chicks as young teens visit their West Auckland neigh­bour Peter Posa for his autograph. They sing him a song, and within days are in a recording studio. The Avengers (‘Love Hate Revenge’) play a gig in Nelson on Sunday night, catch the Picton ferry to Wellington, drive to Whangarei to play on Tuesday night, then back to Lower Hutt to perform on Wednesday. The Fourmyula win a trip to Britain in a talent quest, only to find they have to play their way there – and back – on the ship.

The trivia are fascinating. The vocalist of Simple Image (‘Spinning Spinning Spinning’) later sang with Frank Zappa. Shane (‘St Paul’) spent the 1970s in England, singing with a heavy metal band. Mr Lee Grant was born Bogdan Kominowski – we knew that – but in a Nazi concentration camp?

Dix doesn’t pull his punches when musicians are the architects of their own downfall, succumbing to ego, drugs or, worse, a cabaret career. He has been writing about Australasian music since the 1960s, and has been in the right place often enough to give the book authenti­city and energy. He’s a born raconteur, and chapters on the rise and demise of such self-destructive units as Dragon, Hello Sailor and Toy Love, to whom Dix was particularly close, are some of the best. The desultory years of the 1970s, when local pop was dominated by MOR acts and most live bands were pub residencies doing cover versions, are quickly by the post-punk resurgence in New Zealand rock’n’roll.

Only a rock obsessive could have completed this book, with its band genealo­gies, obscure songs and forthright opinions. The enthusiasm is contagious, even if the fan in Dix gives his heroes – Max Merritt, Bruno Lawrence, Rick Bryant, Chris Knox – an aura of mytho­logy, and the tabloid punchiness of the writing is sometimes over the top (Max Merritt’s Meteors were as welcome in Sydney “as a busful of lepers”; Kevin Borich’s guitar playing “bit like a Queensland crocodile”; the Rumour’s “pap had wheelchairs positively burning rubber on the way to the record stores”).

There are hundreds of photos in the book’s 350 large glossy pages, and they’re as entertaining as the anecdotes. Devlin’s lame shirt and two-tone brothel creepers; the Invaders’ matching Fender guitars and monochrome lounge suits; Mr Lee Grant’s sideburns and turnover necktie; the La De Da’s tartan flares; Dinah Lee’s kiss-curls and Alison Durbin’s minis; winklepickers, cuban heels, stovepipes, bell-bottoms, pony tails, mohawks … not to mention Split Enz: three decades of dedicated followers of fashion.

Recurring themes include the reluc­tance of New Zealand’s broadcasting media to reflect their local culture, and the bland-out that occurs when they do get involved; also the chequered history of major record labels’ contribution to local music. Despite this, the valuable appendix of New Zealand acts in the charts since 1966 is testimony to what has been achieved against the odds.

The dominance of imported pop has stifled the creation of our own music. Pride in our culture is just something Michael Fay can exploit, and Mike Moore can market. Stranded in Paradise has given us our musical heritage. Let us hope that it will inspire our musicians, radio and television programmers – and their audiences – to keep on forging our own cultural identity.

13 October 2013

Southern Moonlight 6

A Mississippi Journey, 1989

Part six of a six-part series.

Part one. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Part Five.

Land of Dreams

“A boy is born / in Hard Times, Mississippi” sang Stevie Wonder in his hit ‘Living for the City’. The boy’s parents, though, probably called it Hard Times, Louisiana, if they were living there before the Mississippi River altered its course one night and changed their postal address.

Further down the river though, the plantation owners of St Francisville, Louisiana didn’t see too many hard times. Early in the 19th century half the millionaires in the United States lived between Natchez and St Francisville. The area has the perfect soil for growing cotton because, before the levees were built, the river would flood every year and deposit new, rich topsoil on the land. The silt was just like fertiliser, and with only a couple of good cotton crops, a large plantation owner could earn a million dollars.

“The wealth they had is unlike anything we see today,” said Will Mangham. “Four hundred slaves would be worth $1,500,000 to them as a commodity. That’s what they were, there were no questions of ethics.”

Will was up from Baton Rouge for the day to show us St Francisville, and his speaking voice, with its relaxed rhythms and idiomatic expressions, told us that we’d crossed the boundary from Mississippi to Louisiana: we were getting closer to New Orleans.

St Francisville is in “English Louisiana” – as opposed to the French-influenced regions. But a class consciousness comes with the name. “If your grandparents weren’t born here, you’re a newcomer. I don’t belong here, and they let me know it all the time. “

The small town’s main attraction is Rosedown, one of the first antebellum mansions to be opened to the public. Its owner, who had 450 slaves, built it in 1835, and though the house is relatively small – 6000 square feet, compared to Longwood’s 30,000 – there was no restraint when it came to the garden.

RosedownRosedown is a horticulturalist’s heaven. Its garden was inspired by those at Versailles, which was visited by the owner and his wife on their honeymoon. The 28 acres of garden are formally laid out, with a long avenue of oaks and miles of paths through forests of trees and bushes. Dotted among the ancient camellias and giant azaleas are statues, gazebos, summer houses and fountains.

The house was spared in the Civil War because General Grant took his army up the other side of the river (though the family hid their silver in a pond). But the garden was an overgrown jungle when it was bought in 1956 by Catherine Fondren Underwood of Texas. She embarked on an ambitious programme of restoration. I asked if she was one of the Underwoods of typewriter fame.

“No, they weren’t typewriter people,” said Will. “They were O-I-L people. Before there was Exxon, there was Esso. Before that it was Standard Oil. And before that there was the Fondren family. So no – she didn’t type.”

Next day, we’d be in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana state capital, and I mentioned to Will that I was interested in their celebrated politicians. “Which one?” he said. “We have so many – eccentric politicians are our specialty.”

Baton Rouge CapitolBut the legacy of Huey P Long dominates the skyline of Baton Rouge. A bronze statue of the popular demagogue, who was Governor of Louisiana during the 1930s’ Depression, stands in front of the state Capitol building he erected while in office. Considered a modern classic, the Capitol building is a skyscraper of 34 storeys, a triumph of art deco design and a tribute to the power of Long: it took just over a year to build.

In the opulent marble corridor on the ground floor though is evidence that not all Louisianan citizens were fond of Long’s benevolent dictatorship, corruption and nepotism. The walls are dotted with bullet holes from the day he was assassinated in 1935.

Ira Babin was our guide, a Baton Rouge native, and with Will he shared a witty respect for its eccentricities. His grandfather was one of Long’s many bodyguards when he was shot by a local doctor. One bullet killed Long: his bodyguards responded with 32.

Huey LongIra, though, accentuates the positive when speaking of Long. He could have been singing Randy Newman’s tribute, ‘Kingfish’: “Who built the highway to Baton Rouge? / Who put up the hospital and built your schools?” One typical Huey move turned Baton Rouge into a major port: he built a low bridge over the Mississippi so no ocean-going vessels could sail any further north, and had to unload at Baton Rouge.

Governors of Louisiana since then have continued in Long’s style. His brother Earl was committed into a mental institution by his wife during his tenure as Governor. When asked if a recent Governor was still in prison, Ira replied, “No – he’s been pardoned my dear.” A governor during the 60s, Jimmy Davis, also wrote ‘You Are My Sunshine’. “Sunshine was his horse,” said Ira. “He took him up the steps of the Capitol once and explained that Sunshine had never seen his office. Davis still sings at the First Baptist Church. He’s the only Louisiana governor in demand.”

Ira drove us through the vast grounds of the Louisiana State University – the LSU was a pet project of Long’s, so he diverted state funds for buildings and the football team (whose supporters are “the loudest and most obnoxious in the country,” said Ira, again echoing Newman).

At the LSU is an outdoor rural museum that shows the flipside to the plantation wealth: the slaves’ quarters. On the walls of one of the wooden cabins is an old newspaper advertisement:


Pay Half Cash, the Rest on a Two Year Mortgage

For sale — Two likely young Negro wenches, one 16, the other 13, both of whom have been taught and are accustomed to house duties. The 16-year-old has one eye but is a bright mulatto of mild tractable dispositions, unassuming manners and genteel appearance.

The temperature had been 105ºF when we had left Memphis; as we came south the humidity had become more debilitating. “I live for the azaleas, but the damn weather messes ’em up,” said Ira. The Spanish moss which drips like khaki lace from every tree in Louisiana wasn’t thriving that year. Was it cyclical? wondered Ira. Or the pollution?

It was probably the pollution. The 150 mile stretch of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is infamous. It has the nickname “Cancer Alley” because it has the highest concentration of toxic industries anywhere in the US. More than 130 major industrial plants line the banks, most of them producing petrochemical products such as plastics, pesticides and fuel oils. The toxic pollution they produce is about eight times the national average, causing abnormally high rates of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.

The traffic on the river was certainly building up. The Mississippi Queen was now fighting for space with tow boats, barges and tankers. It was our last night on the river, and that evening I skipped dessert at the captain’s table to go up to the pilot house and see what it was like manoeuvering the boat in the dark. At the helm was Captain John Davitt, 31 years old but with a decade’s experience on the river.

MS at nightA powerful searchlight scanned the river in front of the boat. Lighting up the small room was a radar with a constantly changing picture of bends in the river and foreign objects. Piloting at night was no big deal, said Davitt. “You just have to use instruments. But it takes a lot of practice to get good. The radar might show an object, but is it a log or a buoy? The weather’s a big factor. In rainstorms you can’t see a thing, and squalls can send anchored ships everywhere.

“A pilot is an expert over his route. He knows how to interpret the radar, knows the currents and the channel you’re in. The traffic here is tremendous – America is feeding the world via the Mississippi.”

He was in constant radio contact with other vessels on the river. “I’m behind you ... I’ll stick to the left bank ... All right captain, I’ll get out of your way quick as I can.”

“You’re always thinking ahead: where are we gonna meet? Is he big or small? Have we met before? Do you know the voice – is he any good? You have to have confidence so you don’t let another pilot put you in a tough spot. It’s easy to get rattled, like on the highway.”

Davitt was scornful of Jonathan Raban taking on the Mississippi in a small boat (though in this stretch he hitched a lift on a tanker). “You don’t want to be out here in a small boat. There’s so much traffic, you can get run over. We can’t stop in a hurry. The current is so swift and there’s so much driftwood it can knock your engine off ... no, there’s too many good places to go, plenty of bayous and lakes ... you’d have to be nuts.”

The river has changed since Mark Twain’s day, said Davitt, but piloting hasn’t. Twain said a pilot “was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived the earth.” You can see why the job usually passes from father to son.

It was our last night on the boat. After dessert with my prim tablemates, we all had to go through the ritual of tipping the crew-members we had dealt with: waiters, porters, bar staff, cleaners. The tips were well deserved, it was the method that was odd: each person had to receive theirs in an individual envelope, making it embarrassing for both parties. The Mississippi Queen experience had been friendly but formal, in that American corporate way: that night the barmaids told me that the steamer had made an unscheduled stop after midnight earlier that week, to drop off a young male attendant who had been sacked for fraternising with the daughter of two passengers. When I finally went to my cabin, I found two glasses of liqueur on my bedside table, sickly sweet and undrinkable. An appreciated, subversive gesture – or the wrong cabin?

imageAT FIRST LIGHT the steamboat docked at the Robin Street wharf in New Orleans. My Mississippi journey, and visit to the United States, was over. As the elderly passengers caught cabs to the French Quarter, or to the airport to fly home to the Midwest or California, I went to the Delta Queen Steamboat Company office to thank the benefactors I’d never met. They seemed amused with me: no one from so far away, with a pack full of worn out clothes, had been on the boat before.

New Orleans has been described as an “aging courtesan, selling off her party clothes one at a time.” That’s certainly what it’s like outside of the Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival around Easter, when the city enjoys its heritage for more than the tourist dollars it brings.

The rest of the year, by day buskers gather in Jackson Square, running though ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ one more time for a few quarters; tired horses drag cartloads of tourists around the narrow, shabby streets of the Quarter; all the shops seem to be full of tacky souvenirs with corny slogans on a Dixieland jazz or gumbo theme. At night male visitors in town for a convention shuffle around Bourbon Street in suits, their ties unravelled and nametags still attached, taking in the journeyman bar bands or the sleazy strip shows.

I went to stay one last night with a friend on the edge of the Garden District. The area deserves its name, being full of lovely old homes built for plantation owners who came into town with their debutante daughters for the ball season. When I’d stayed there four months earlier, a brass band of young blacks boogied their way down the street one morning in a spontaneous parade, the “second line” syncopations enticing kids out from behind the screen doors. “Oh, we don’t need a reason for a parade here,” said my host.

The next morning she drove me to the railway station, through streets that oozed poverty: tenement buildings, deteriorating shacks. After the luxury of the Mississippi Queen, the train ride to New York was to be a trip back to reality: 30 hours sitting up, in a carriage not unlike the old express on New Zealand’s Main Trunk Line. As the train pulled out of New Orleans, past the fishing shacks on poles out in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain, I flicked on my radio. The song was ‘Route 66’.


That’s it, folks. I headed north on the Amtrak train to New York, a 30 hour journey that passed quickly thanks to two fascinating passengers, that are still memorable 24 years on: an academic with the nickname “Dr Death”, for that was his subject; and a fabric buyer from Virginia who was an encyclopaedia of Southern Culture almost as knowledgeable as the fat, heavy, wonderful book of that name, which I carried all the way home. Thanks again to local friends Ben Sandmel and Lorraine Achee; and Patti Young of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans. The journey took place in July 1989, and I wrote it at an Utiku hideaway a year later. In November 1990 the river sections of the story – parts three to six – were published in More magazine, edited by Shelley Clement. 

12 October 2013

Southern Moonlight 5

A Mississippi Journey, 1989

Part five of a six-part series.

Part one. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

Rebel Yell

We awoke to find the boat berthed at Vicksburg, and waves going up the Mississippi. This curious phenomenon is caused by Hurricane Chantel, blowing north from the Gulf of Mexico.

Vicksburg viewVicksburg has a habit of bucking the system. Our first sight in the small city was of the mayor, helping out a visitor by breaking into his car. Although Vicksburg (pop: 25,000) is in the heart of the Deep South, its mayor Robert Walker is a black man who won by an 80 percent margin. Much of his support came from white, elderly voters.

“Race relations are very calm here,” said our guide Stacy Douglas, with a refined Southern accent. Vicksburg has always been more easy-going than other Mississippi towns, the river saw to that. Carousing boatmen last century could always find a drink or a card game here.

The locals even welcomed the filmmakers of Mississippi Burning. “They needed a liberal town,” said Stacy. “They’d been turned down in over 50 Mississippi towns.” But like post-war carpetbaggers, the outsiders were “hell to work with. Very haughty.”

Vicksburg is a place that has always adapted to its circumstances. When the Mississippi changed its course away from the town in 1876, as it occasionally does, Vicksburg didn’t die like so many others. The locals responded by diverting the nearby Yazoo River back towards the town so the Mississippi steamboats could still visit.

Its economy seems to be thriving while other towns in Mississippi experience recession. A disproportionate number of PhDs live there, thanks to various projects of the federal government, the city’s largest employer. The Army Corps of Engineers test everything from tidal waves and river flooding to nuclear weapons.

Despite this, over a million tourists a year visit Vicksburg. They come to remember the Civil War. Because of its geographic location – it sits high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi – Vicksburg played an essential role in the war. Whoever held Vicksburg had control of the river, so the battle for the town was one of the most grueling of the war.

Vicksburg mapThe terrain tells the story as vividly as a war gamer, and the battle is studied to this day at Westpoint. The hills around Vicksburg made it difficult to take quickly, so General Grant resorted to siege warfare. He surrounded Vicksburg with troops, dug 15 miles of trenches, and bombarded the town with cannon fire from the hills and gunboats on the river.

For 47 days the town held on, with 30,000 Confederate soldiers defending against 75,000 Union troops. For six weeks the townsfolk lived in caves as, in Twain’s words, the “sky was cobwebbed with the criss-crossing of shells.” Eventually, after 23,000 soldiers had lost their lives, and with the town cut off from supplies, Grant starved Vicksburg into submission.

In a cruel irony, the town surrendered on the 4th of July, 1363 – Independence Day. Vicksburg didn’t celebrate the national holiday for nearly 100 years. “It’s still not a very big day,” said Stacy. “This year the Mayor thought his councillors were going to organise it, and vice versa. So nothing happened.”

Vicksburg battleVicksburg had been a reluctant rebel in the first place, voting against Mississippi splitting from the Union, and now the town was devastated. These days the battleground surrounding the city is a lush, 1700 acre national park, with opposing trenches and cannons placed so close to each other that the soldiers could hear the conversations of their enemies at night. The horror of hand-to-hand combat is almost tangible, and it’s a shock to realise the Civil War is such recent history: the last Confederate veteran died in 1959, the year I was born.

At the Walnut Hills restaurant lunch was served family style. The lazy Susan on the round table was groaning with plates of Southern soul food – fried chicken, okra, butter beans, black rice, coleslaw and corn bread – and as they were being passed around Stacy related some happier anecdotes from Vicksburg’s history. Walnut HillsHere, in 1894, a beverage called Coca-Cola was first bottled. And a few years later the town gave birth to the teddy-bear, after a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt. His hosts had taken him hunting, and offered him a bear cub to shoot. But it was tied to a stake, so Roosevelt declined, and a cuddly toy got its name.

“Poor Vicksburg,” sympathise the people of Natchez, “they lost all their buildings.” Natchez, about 70 miles downriver, was left virtually untouched by the Civil War. So it has 500 antebellum homes, many of them mansions built by cotton barons who had their plantations over the river in Louisiana. Now, its main industry seems to be the Old South; it is often the backdrop to plantation mini-series on television.

“I’m taking y’all to Auburn,” said our host Rhonda Souderes with a singsong lilt. She looks and sounds like the archetypal Southern belle. Hollywood has stereotyped the Southern accent as something crude and unsophisticated. In fact, it has countless regional variations, always sounds lyrical and often cultured.

AuburnAuburn turns out to be a Southern mansion right out of another Hollywood stereotype. Built in 1807, it’s a vast red brick home, with a colonnade of four Corinthian columns, set in a garden of oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Impeccably restored and full of Regency antiques, it now functions – like many Southern mansions – as a bed-and-breakfast guest house.

But you might be unmoved by the opulence inside: the rococo mirrors, Waterford chandeliers, Mallard four-posters. For this is the slave economy staring right at you. Auburn needed 27 servants to operate; its owner, a local doctor, also owned over a thousand slaves.

LongwoodLongwood interior

The wealth of the plantation elite – just a few thousand families – created an ostentatious building boom to emulate the indulgences of the European aristocracy. Another Natchez home, Longwood, almost rivals the Taj Mahal, and has a pathetic tale to match. Built by another cotton baron/doctor, it’s a six-storey castle topped by a huge turret and onion-shaped dome. It was to have 32 rooms, but only the outside and bottom floor were finished when the Civil War interrupted. The builders downed tools and headed north to join the Union army. Although the owner-was a Union sympathiser, his 23,000 acres of cotton fields were burned or confiscated during the war, and he never had the money to finish Longwood. Heartbroken, he died before the war was over, and his family lived on the bottom floor for the next 100 years.

The history of Natchez seems to be bound up in the failings of human nature: greed, lust, racism, murder. The area’s first inhabitants, the Natchez Indians, had been slaughtered by the French, and since then the district had been fought over by the British, Spanish, and American pioneers.

We’d been told of a famous old whorehouse called Nellie’s that sold souvenir T-shirts. Arky was keen to go there, to buy one for his wife. Rhonda wasn’t. The “historified” bar we’d expected, maybe with giftshop attached, turned out to be a rundown clapboard bungalow. Arky wasn’t shy, so I tagged along. “Y’all remember I’m on my own,” sang Rhonda, locking the car doors from the inside.

Nellies 1

We walked through a screen door into a house as cluttered as Miss Haversham’s. Sitting at a kitchen table were a large black woman and a pale, skinny white girl. Five small dogs yapped around them. All were having lunch, but the girl was in her underwear. She had peroxided hair, a large tattoo on her protruding shoulder blade, and was all of 15. “Can I help?” she said.

As Arky paid for the T-shirt, he asked “How’s business?”

“Oh, good,” she replied brightly. “I’m here on my own. I’ve only been here since Saturday. Two more girls are supposed to come up from Mobile tomorrow. Most of the business is selling T-shirts.”

We could have been buying milk at a dairy, the conversation was so matter-of-fact. Later, I realised this was the place Jerry Lee Lewis sang lasciviously about in ‘Rockin’ My Life Away’. He and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart grew up across the river in Ferriday, Louisiana. It was a sad, sleazy dive, but it seemed more like real life in notorious Natchez (“a moral sty” – Twain) than the antique-stuffed mansions pretending to forget the past.

tumblr_lo51mbKi5G1qm840io1_500It was time for a drink, so Rhonda took us to the Old South Winery which produces Muscadine wines. The vintner, Scott Galbreath, is a retired vet and quite a raconteur. His wines were sweet and very grapey, almost like fortified Kool-Aid, and have names like “Sweet Magnolia”, “Southern Belle” and “Blue Bayou”.

“No use calling ’em Cab’nay S’vinyin,” he said. “You gotta give ’em names the good ole boys can pronounce.


The meal at Walnut Hills restaurant, Vicksburg, was one of the best I’ve ever experienced, not only because the quality seesawed during the months in the US according to budget and generosity of friends. It wasn’t because it was fine dining, it was family dining, done at its finest. Luckily the establishment still survives, 24 years on. Until I find my own photos, I have borrowed the mansion photos from an excellent blog, Our Mississippi Vacation, which covers much the same itinerary, only by car. Tragically, exactly a year after Arky and I visited Nellie’s to buy her famous T-Shirts, the much loved madame was viciously murdered by a drunk student she had turned away. For a black woman to run such a business for 60 years, right through segregation and out the other side, gives an indication how highly she was regarded in the community.

Little Brother Montgomery’s signature tune is where I first got to hear about Vicksburg; legendary Chess songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon was born there in 1915, so let’s shout out to him, also.

11 October 2013

Southern Moonlight 4

A Mississippi Journey, 1989

Part four of a six-part series. Part one. Part Two. Part Three.

Muddy Waters

Sailing down the Mississippi is like driving along an interstate highway. There is no scenery. Sure, there’s plenty of action – the produce of middle America goes by on barges the size of floating football fields; people zip around on pleasure craft – but not much to look at.

All you can see are its uniform banks, the thousands of miles of neat levees built to save the Mississippi Valley from flood. Beyond the levees the land is flat, and covered by non­descript scrub and trees. Occasionally there is a small town, its rundown jetty a symbol of an earlier, bustling economy: but the river doesn’t stop there anymore.

Perversely, the impact of the Mississippi is reduced by its size. It’s over a mile wide in parts, so the current, though swift, looks deceptively gentle. The drama and beauty of the world’s most famous river are hidden.

Its colour isn’t blue but a deep tan, its muddy waters giving the great bluesman his name. The Indians called it the “Father of Waters”; the name Mississippi is thought to come from two Choctaw words, missah (“old big”) and sippah (“strong river”).

The Mississippi formed the South, both literally and figuratively. Over eons, its tributaries took soil from the slopes of the Appalachians in the east and the Rockies in the west, from the prairies and plains, and carried it downstream to form the fertile valley and delta. Over a million tons of mud a day is deposited into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ol Man RiverOle Man River keeps on rolling, seemingly unchanged. Even the standard from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 musical Show Boat has less permanence: over the years the song’s lyrics have often been toned down to make them less offensive. The original version opened with “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / Niggers all work while the white folks play.” In the next 10 years the “niggers” became “darkies” then “coloured folks”. Finally the line became: “Here we all work on the Mississippi / Here we all work while the white folks play ...”

The Mississippi and its steamboats have, however, made many contributions to the language. “Highfalutin’” came from the fluted steamboat chimneys, which became symbols of wealth and power. The “riff-raff” were the poor immigrants who travelled on rafts, using oars called rifs. Steamboats carried live hogs onboard to be killed and cooked fresh; they were washed down before boarding and the water – hogwash – thrown out.

For many people, their impressions of life on a paddlesteamer were formed by the 1936 film version of Show Boat, and the Mississippi Queen experience does all it can to fulfil the fantasies of its passengers. A troupe of entertainers is on board to recreate the showboat era, and their vast repertoire of musical Americana changes each night. Be it ragtime revue, Broadway extravaganza, or “radio days” big band, the music takes the passengers back to the ballrooms of their youth – all but a few are on the slower side of 70. Show Boat posterAnd for those without a dancing partner, the boat provides a couple of dapper professional minglers to whisk the wallflowers onto the parquet.

Every activity onboard maintains the theme of steamboatin’ through the South, from the Mardi Gras costume ball to Sunday’s “hymns of Dixie” non-denominational service. It’s like Huck Finn goes to Hi-De-Hi. And the lavish gourmet meals – available from 6.45am till midnight – also celebrate the South. The menu could be the lyrics of Hank Williams’s ‘Jambalaya’: crawfish pie, filet gumbo, Creole chicken, shrimp étoufée.

What does all this cost? A three night cruise ranges between USD $435 and $1410, depending on your cabin. The cheapest cabin has a single bed and no window; top of the line is the “captain’s veranda suite” at the front of the boat. The longest cruise is 14 nights; to stay in the most luxurious suite for that time costs $6790.

I had a companion on the journey down the Mississippi, an American called Arturo (“Arky”) Gonzalez. He was a travel writer – a real one – in his late 50s. Built for comfort, not speed, it was only fair that he had a cabin a couple of notches above mine. It was about time his luck changed, going by some of the anecdotes of this marvellous globe-trotting raconteur.

In the 1950s Arky had worked at Time magazine with Joseph Heller, who was writing Catch 22 at the time. “One day Joe said, I’ve written a character with your name, though he’s nasty: nothing like you. D’you mind?” I said, well if the book’s a failure it doesn’t matter. But if it’s a huge success – and I want it to be – how would you feel if you knew Herman Wouk and your name was Queeg?”

So the character became Arfy, and Arky lost his chance at infamy. Shortly afterwards though, while working at Fortune he had another opportunity. “Victor Lowndes asked me if I wanted to be a promo manager for a new magazine based in Chicago, with bunny ears as a logo. I said, are you crazy? Leave Fortune to join a new mag that might fold in a year? In Chicago? With bunny ears as a logo?”

Together we enjoyed the hospitality of the Mississippi Queen and explored the small towns that the boat stopped at on its way down the river. Once, the steamboats were vital to the survival of the isolated river towns and farms. The boats came with news, gossip, visitors, tools and luxuries; they left with farm produce, family and friends.

The river is riz!” declared a river town newspaper in the 1840s. “The boat bells are ringing, ships are loading, draymen swearing, Negroes singing, clerks marking, captains busy, merchants selling, packages rolling, boxes tumbling, wares rumbling, and everybody appears up to his eyes in business.”

Now, the towns depend on other industries, such as tourism. But the sight of a steamboat still creates the excitement it did in Twain’s day. Leaving Memphis, the Mississippi Queen was farewelled by a flotilla of small boats and by crowds on the river bank, honking their car horns and waving. And every small town the boat visited – Vicksburg, Natchez, St Francisville – seemed to come alive for the day.

steamboatThe scene has hardly changed from Twain’s description in Life on the Mississippi, when the sleepy river towns shake themselves awake when a black drayman, “famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice,” notices a film of dark smoke appear above a remote point and cries “S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin’! ... The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, every house and store pours out a human contribution. In a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving.”

Soon, the paddle steamer comes into sight on “the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun.”

Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again, the town dies down, and the town drunkard is asleep once more.


The US Public Broadcasting System had an excellent series on the Mississippi called River of Song – its website is still online, with a thorough explanation of the social and economic context behind the river’s connection with music. Mississippi River enthusiast Dean Klinkenberg has assembled a lengthy list of river-related songs. And for a novel set in the 1920s, combining the fading days of the paddle steamer with the arrival of jazz, plus a gripping tale of “guilt and vengeance”, I thoroughly recommend Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing. Roger Miller paid tribute to his hero Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with his Broadway musical Big River. Here he sings one of the highlights, the moving ‘River in the Rain’.

10 October 2013

Southern Moonlight 3

A Mississippi Journey, 1989

Part three of a six-part series. Part one. Part Two.

Ol’ Man River

Seeing the Mississippi River for the first time is not the religious experience you might expect. In a bestselling guidebook for river traders published in 1814, Zadok Cramer wrote: “To a stranger, the first view of the Mississippi conveys not that idea of grandeur which he may have pictured to himself: his first judgment will rest upon the appearance of its breadth, in which respect it is inferior to many rivers of much less note.”

Cramer wrote those words three years after the first steamboat had been built; I was contemplating them from my cabin in the last. “Someday,” predicted Mark Twain, “they’ll build the biggest steamboat the world has ever known, and she’ll be long, white and gleaming in the sunshine, with her twin black stacks. And that one shall be the Queen of the Mississippi.”

Mississippi Queen 1

The Mississippi Queen became a reality in 1976. It is the largest steamboat ever built and, with the Delta Queen (built 1926), is one of the last two overnight paddle steamers to ply the Mississippi. Built at a cost of US $27 million, and designed by the same person as the QE2, the Mississippi Queen is certainly luxurious: a floating hotel for 400 guests. I couldn’t believe my luck to be one of them.

It happened like this. Shortly after canoeing down the Wanganui River – New Zealand’s Mississippi equivalent, in legend and commerce – I had read Old Glory, Jonathan Raban’s eloquent account of his trip down the Mississippi in a small boat. A month later I was in New Orleans, at the start of a backpacking trip around the States, and asked Ben Sandmel, a local writer, musician and folklorist, if he knew anyone – an old pilot, maybe – I could interview for a story about the Mississippi.

“Give this company a ring,” he had said. “They run cruises down the Mississippi on paddle steamers.” When I rang the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, a voice said, “Sure. What part of the river do you want to go on?”

The same day, an itinerary arrived by courier. The accompanying letter read: “Your coming from one of the great maritime nations of the world gives me no surprise that you would be interested in writing a story about America’s only two overnight paddlewheel passenger steamboats.”

Finally, after four months of sleeping on people’s floors and in crowded, often squalid hostels, I was on the Mississippi Queen about to cruise from Memphis to New Orleans. Although only 400 miles as the crow flies, with all the twists in the river, plus stopovers in historic towns like Vicksburg, Natchez and Baton Rouge, the journey would take a week.

However, it would include none of the hardships encountered by Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador who in 1541 became the first European to see the Mississippi. On the Mississippi Queen’s top deck, beside the twin smoke stacks and calliope steam organ, was a jacuzzi; on the bottom was a movie theatre. In between were bars, a ballroom, dining room, library, gymnasium and sauna. The seven decks were trimmed with New Orleans-style wrought-iron railings, and linked by a grand staircase with brass bannisters. At the stern was the bright red steam-powered paddlewheel, 12 metres wide.

Mississippi Queen 2My cabin had twin beds, wide windows, its own bathroom and a private veranda. I unpacked the library I’d bought for the journey in Burke’s, the great Memphis second-hand bookshop. Inevitably, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi; Raban’s Old Glory; the Penguin collections Stories of the Modern South, with work by Faulkner, Agee, Welty, O’Connor, McCullers, Capote; Bruce Catton’s Short History of the Civil War, and the just-published Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, a magnificent, all-encompassing work the size of a family Bible.

I flicked on the radio, and heard Dwight Yoakam singing ‘South of Cincinnati’: “If you ever get south of the Mason and Dixon ...” Opening Life on the Mississippi, I read Twain’s introduction: “The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. “

The place for river-buffs was at the bow of the boat, in the passenger wheelhouse. Situated just beneath the pilot house, it was a haven for Walter Mitty boatmen, with a ship’s wheel, navigating instruments and detailed charts from which to follow the boat’s journey down the river, mile by mile.

In the pilot house above sat Captain Lawrence Keeton, a Mississippi boatman with 55 years’ experience. “I was a Huckleberry Finn guy, myself,” he said in a relaxed Southern drawl. “I grew up in Memphis, above the river, and it was my big playground. My mother would say ‘Don’t go down to the river,’ but I always did. Where we put in at Memphis was where I learnt to swim. We dug up an old rowboat there, went fishing, fooled around, like kids do.”

Piloting is just like it’s always been, though there are more navigational aids now: channel lights, buoys (boo-oys), radar. When Keeton first started, there was no radar and only “dot-dash” radio. “You used natural things to help you. You’d look out for big rocks, or a special tree at the head of a bend. During World War Two there was so much traffic, they started boo-oying the river. Now it’s like a picket fence.”

A lot of engineering work has been done this century to keep the Mississippi navigable. Dykes and wire-mesh coverings protect the banks from erosion. “There’s always something washing away. The dykes keep the river from being wide and shallow.” On the banks of the river there are markings to show the water level. “If you get aground on a low river, you’re in trouble. A towboat with barges can get caught for two months. And you’re paid by the mile. But if you get a running start, your barges can drag your boat over. So a lot of it’s like it used to be.

“Sometimes people say they’ve taken all the fun out of it. But no, there’s still plenty of fun, even with all the books and notes. But time is money. If you’re doing five miles-per-hour rather than three-and-a-half, you’re using less fuel and doing more miles – so the companies encourage speed.

“Mark Twain had a reason to race – to make time and deliver cargo. They raced to get their cargo. The cotton and the passengers were all lined up, waiting. That caused a lot of boats to burn up. Sparks would blow out of the stacks onto the cotton, and there’d be a fire.”

Even today, with steel construction, fires occur. “Some of the towboats burn up. Their windows all pop out, and bulkheads warp. Just because they’re steel doesn’t mean they can’t burn. We’re very conscious of fire.”

The pilot house is now high tech. Radar scans the river for foreign objects, a depth sounder sets off an alarm if the river gets shallower than eight feet; a radio is tuned to the Coast Guard for weather warnings and three-day forecasts from “river sages”. When Keeton first became a pilot, “We didn’t want to fool with the radios. Now you can’t get the guys off them. People help each other out here. The pilot who last went around the bend is in the best position to warn you.”

Keeton preferred the Mississippi to the Cinncinati or Ohio rivers. “Too many locks up there. Here, it’s all open – the way I like it.”

Rolling down the river is a mixture of freedom and familiarity. “It gets to be like walking through your house in the dark. You know where everything is.”


Sadly, after several owners, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company is no more, and neither is the Mississippi Queen. It was taken out of service in 2008, after 32 years on the river, and broken down for scrap in 2011. Thanks to Ben Sandmel, who is collecting awards for his recent biography of Ernie K-Doe. 

09 October 2013

Southern Moonlight 2

A Mississippi Journey, 1989

Part two of a six-part series. Part one here.

Memphis in the Meantime

Memphis has so much history, they don’t know what to do with it. Once the city was notorious as a rough-and-tumble frontier-town, a haven for Mississippi flatboatmen wanting to party on their way down to New Orleans. Now, immortalised for nurturing the blues and rock’n’roll, it is a musical Mecca legendary for Beale Street, the Sun Studios and Stax Records.

Musicians around the world have sung about going to Memphis, falling in love there, leaving it, or not being able to get a f1ight.

Chuck Berry wanted long distance information to give him Memphis, Tennessee. The Rolling Stones met a gin-soaked barroom queen there, and Little Feat a Southern belle under a street lamp. Paul Simon was drawn to Graceland. Meanwhile Bob Dylan couldn’t make it, being stuck in Mobile (Alabama) with the Memphis blues again.

These are just the most obvious examples. But when you see the position of the city, it’s easy to understand why it’s been so romanticised. Situated just 400 miles north of New Orleans, it’s a gateway to the South, or out of it. You can get there by boat on the Mississippi, or by driving along Highway 61. Or go by rail, using the same route thousands of Southern blacks took when migrating north to St Louis and Chicago, taking their blues and jazz with them. That train is called the Midnight Special, and I feel another song coming on.

The locals are at once bemused but respectful of their heritage. When they talk of the Elvis phenomenon, they separate the music from “the deity.” The former revolutionised the world, the latter draws 1.5 million visitors to Graceland each year. Underground musicians who revere more contemporary local heroes such as Alex Chilton relate with affection anecdotes about living legends. “I bumped into Al Green last week at Ardent Studios, talking to Willie Mitchell. Manic as ever.” “Did you hear Jerry Lee’s neighbours complained again? He keeps shooting off guns in his fancy apartment.”

During the heyday of Beale Street, Memphis was known as the “murder capital of the US.” A police station on the street contains a museum that recalls the lawlessness that went with the saloons, casinos, brothels, and pawn shops. One gets the feeling that the only problems the police deal with now are lost tourists. For Beale Street, like much of America that has a past, has been “historified.” Anything still standing from its sordid past has received a lick of paint and a bronze plaque. There are statues of Elvis and W C Handy, and the barrooms have been renovated into chintzy but still funky juke joints.

“It was the greatest place on earth,” said an old blues musician, “until they rurnt it.” But some symbols still remain untouched. Schwab’s department store is like a five-and-dime from the age when things did cost five or ten cents, and you can still find on its chaotic shelves voodoo powders, magic potions, clerical collars and handcuffs. And across the street stands Lansky’s Menswear, the place Sam Phillips of Sun Records sent Elvis Presley to learn how to dress cool (ie, like a black man). In the window are some striped winklepickers and a yellow suit with leopard skin lapels.

Memphis SunOn Union Avenue, a stone’s throw from the end of Beale, is Sun Studios, where the visionary Phillips made the first recordings of Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich. The small building is once again a studio – and tourist attraction – but thankfully the people who used it for 30 years as a refrigerator repair store didn’t alter the decor. The worn lino and grimy acoustic tiles are the same ones that first heard ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’. The curators are just as awe-struck as their visitors, for this is the sacred spot of “the rockabilly moment”, when Elvis, doodling with pick-up band, was stopped by Sam Phillips, who heard something special: “Fine, fine, man, hell that’s different! That’s a pop song now. That’s good!”

Graceland is a 10-minute drive south, down Elvis Presley Boulevard, and also a moving experience. The patter of the guides is sterile and bored; 4000 teary-eyed fans will pass before them today. But shuffling through the rooms stuffed with lurid furnishings and grotesque fittings, all in the best veneer money can buy, you realise Elvis simply had no idea – of how to handle his wealth, his fame, or his talent.

An alternative view of Memphis is provided by the black history tour, whose militant guides give the details usually left out by the publicists. They point out a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who is revered by whites but hated by blacks. A brilliant cavalry leader who developed guerilla warfare, he later founded the original Ku Klux Klan. He also ran a slave farm, keeping his strongest slaves in cages for breeding.

They explain why Memphis, unlike most of the other major US cities, has never had a black mayor. There is no one area of black housing, but many scattered pockets, all producing their own candidates and splitting the vote. It’s a town planning legacy of Edward H “Boss” Crump, the man who dominated Memphis politics for nearly 50 years earlier this century. Blacks were allowed to vote; Crump’s machine told them who to vote for.

Despite the billion dollars that has been spent on redeveloping the city in the past decade, downtown Memphis has a ghostliness about it. Grand old buildings stand empty as businesses and their customers have moved out to the suburban malls. The city has turned its back on the Mississippi, once the lifeblood of its economy. Half of the US cotton crop still goes through Memphis, but it leaves by train, and the cotton warehouses facing the river are being turned into yuppie apartments.

Memphis StaxMemphis morale suffered a severe blow when Martin Luther King was assassinated there in April, 1963. Up till then, the 1960s had been years of prosperity and pride, thanks to the music from Sun and Stax, and local success stories like the Holiday Inn chain and the Piggly Wiggly stores (the first supermarket was opened in Memphis, and now there’s a museum to go with it).

“Start something great in Memphis” is the slogan of the city’s publicists, an appropriate line considering the city’s impact on Western culture. We have all, as local writer Stanley Booth points out, shopped at supermarkets, eaten at drive-in restaurants, slept in Holiday Inns, and heard blues, rock’n’roll and soul because people in Memphis found ways to convert these things into groceries. Now the city has decided tourism will be its saviour. The complex on Mud Island, with its Mississippi museum and magnificent working scale model of the river, is a step in the right direction.

Memphis LorraineI’m not so sure about the civil rights museum planned for the site of the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot. Included among its exhibits will be a laser beam display tracing the path of the bullet from James Earl Ray’s rifle to King. Protesting against the development is Jacqueline Smith, who has been camping outside for two years. She says the US$5.5 million would be better spent turning the motel into housing for the poor, or a training centre for the unemployed. “This museum is not the way Memphis should remember Dr King,” she says. “It’s nothing but a circus freak show.”

The problem Memphis faces is living up to all its history, and making it work for the city, tastefully.


Twenty-four years later, this article has of course dated. Saying it had so much history, but didn’t know what to do with it, was a reflection of locals I spoke to who did know what the place had to offer, but despaired at the lack of initiative taken to celebrate that; or that what had been done was in a corporate way missing the soul. Since then, there has been a lot of regentrification and redevelopment of the downtown area. There are also museums devoted to Stax (reconstructing the original building, seen above just before it was demolished in 1989) and, on Beale Street, Memphis rock’n’roll. Perhaps the city’s establishment and its attitude towards music and other elements of its history has changed, but race and class are barriers that don’t evaporate easily, and buildings of architectural or cultural value are always under threat. Last I heard, Jacqueline Smith was still going strong, 24 years on. Historic Memphis is an excellent non-sanitised site to explore. A pioneering alternative view of the city’s pop culture is former Shangri La Records’ proprietor Sherman Willmott’s Low-Life Guide to Memphis tours. Local music writer Robert Gordon is about to follow up his classic 1994 book on the city’s underground music It Came From Memphis with what is likely to be the best book on Stax, Respect Yourself, and early 1980s psychobilly star Tav Falco has written a fascinating history of lowlife Memphis, Ghosts Behind the Sun. Thanks to David Nicholson of the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, who after I cold-called him was tireless in his efforts to help, though he probably wondered if I was legitimate. Once he heard where I was staying – a hostel that was dis-affiliated from the YHA, the owners seemed to resent the guests, and there was one toilet for 17 people – he shuddered and sorted out a room at the Sheraton, and drove me around town sharing the insights of a Brit who had lived there for eight years. The visitor’s bureau has a great website with much more recent articles on things like Memphis and civil rights, black history, its music legacy and current status (eg Justin Timberlake, Amy LaVere), its entrepreneurial history, film-making, food, bars, etc.

It would be wrong not to include this very 80s clip of John Hiatt at Fisk University, Tennessee, with many guests including Carl Perkins, Rodney Crowell and what looks like the Jordanaires.

08 October 2013

Southern Moonlight 1

A Mississippi Journey, 1989

Great Balls of Fire

The Devil made me do it. Or Doubting Thomas, at least. In July 1989, I was in Memphis, and the local newspaper said that Jimmy Swaggart was holding a crusade in a local venue. It was the first time the controversial evangelist had appeared in the city since his fall from grace a year earlier.

Swaggart 1The leader of the Jimmy Swaggart World Ministry – which at its peak took in USD $150 million a year – had been caught in early 1988 making his regular visit to a prostitute in a New Orleans motel. “He was cheap, but he was quick,” the woman later said of her illustrious client, who never tipped or stayed more than 15 minutes.

Swaggart was exposed by another brother of the cloth. It was an act of revenge. His accuser, a man with a rival TV ministry, had made the mistake of confessing to Swaggart of an affair with one of his flock. Swaggart passed this on to the executive of the Assemblies of God, who swiftly defrocked him.

When Swaggart's sins came to light, the Assemblies of God executive revoked his preaching license for a year. After three months, Swaggart defied them, and returned to the pulpit. He too was defrocked, so the Jimmy Swaggart World Ministry split from the Assemblies of God to evangelise alone. Well not quite alone – 1500 people worked for Swaggart, many from the $1.5 billion World Ministry Headquarters in Baton Rouge.

Some would say it was a just reward for Swaggart. When Jim Bakker, his main competitor in the televangelism business, had fallen amid scandal, Swaggart had damned him as “a cancer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ.”

No one falls so heavily as a moralist caught with their pants down. But if a sinner wanted to beg for forgiveness (and money) the Lord said we must listen. It was my duty to attend the Jimmy Swaggart Crusade. I might even be saved.

The foyer of Memphis’s Dixon-Myers Hall was lined with trestle tables covered in ministry merchandise. $40 Jimmy Swaggart Bibles. $25 “Jesus pins”. Videotapes, records, songbooks, sweatshirts. Both salespeople and customers looked like McDonald’s managers in their Sunday best: the Swaggart crusaders.

The neatly blazered ushers told me the ground-floor was full. So I took another entrance, and found they were telling fibs. Half of the 4500 seats were empty, but I could see why they’d wanted me upstairs. The meeting was being filmed for broadcast on a Swaggart TV show, and in my day-glo striped shirt I stood out like the proverbial pork chop in a synagogue.

The faithful seemed to be either elderly couples, with hard-­bitten faces out of Steinbeck, or chubby middle-agers. Beside me was a bouffant blonde – hair and nails lacquered like Tammy Wynette – with her husband, in Elvis quiff and sideboards. There were only half a dozen blacks in the hall.

On stage was a man in a 1940s double-breasted suit: Swaggart’s son Donnie. Before the main event, he was selling records, books and salvation. Everything seemed to be going cheap. “Prophecy packages” were down from $52 to $30, “prayer packages” from $40 to $20. It was an “urgent appeal”, with all the proceeds going “to defray the operational costs of the Swaggart child-care ministries” in Africa.

A choir and a six-piece crusade band entered to warm up the congregation. The crowd was ready to Hosanna! as Swaggart entered, looking like Keith Quinn on a mission from God.

For the first couple of hours, the crusade was more concert than church service. The music was white-bread gospel, lively as a funeral parlour, but the response was instantaneous. The congregation threw its arms in the air and cried, Amen! The rows of people started swaying, clapping in unison and stomping their feet. Hands were held aloft and eyes firmly shut as the fires of Pentecost descended, ignited with natural gas precision.

After a dozen Christian pop songs, it was time for business. I waited for a breakout of glossolalia, but there would be no speaking in tongues tonight — Jimmy would do the talking.

But there was a curious lack of fire and brimstone from the man who once described himself as an “old-fashioned, Holy Ghost, heaven-sent, Devil-chasin’, sin-killing, true-blood, red-hot, blood-bought, God-given, Jesus-lovin’” preacher. The soul-saving clichés rolled off his tongue, but Swaggart quickly moved to the main item on the agenda. The way to save souls was to save Swaggart’s TV “stations” (actually bought air-time on Memphis channels). They were in trouble.

“I don’t know how much the debt is, or what the stations are called – but we need the money to keep saving souls. If you want to save souls, every dollar will go towards these stations, here in Memphis.”

Ushers appeared with plastic buckets to pass along the rows of people who have whipped out their greenbacks. Then Swaggart upped the ante:

“We have a gift for those who give. These beautiful family Bibles. At home we always have a Bible open on the coffee table. These Bibles will go to anyone who comes up with $100.”

A pallet-load of silver-leafed Bibles had silently been wheeled out. Immediately a queue formed. The band was playing, the choir singing; it was communion. The faithful parted with their cheques, received a Bible, then shook Swaggart’s hand. Twenty-seven Bibles, cheques and handshakes later, the Swaggart debt was eased by $2700, not counting the plastic buckets which were filling rapidly. And this was just the first of a three-night season in Memphis. “By Sunday this place will be burning!” said Swaggart.

He brought his wife Frances forward to do a few fundamentalist numbers. She sang about being saved, saving souls, and feeling wonderful, but her voice quickly became ragged and incoherent. So Jimmy sat down at the piano.

He dedicated his first number to his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, a soul certainly in need of saving. “We had dinner together last night – corn, ham, potato salad. He would have been here, but he had to go to Canada.”

Rock’n’roll may be inviting “the powers of darkness, the demons of evil”, but Swaggart’s piano runs were straight from the Jerry Lee songbook. Soloists stepped forward from the choir: a redhead to sing country, a young black man singing gospel more like Charley Pride than Al Green. The crowd was ecstatic.

From the piano Swaggart said, “We are all tempted by the Devil, I am, you are ...” It was an oblique reference to his disgrace, but in mid-sentence he changed tack. It could have been Jerry Lee talking: “I know there will be a journalist here, and I know what they’re going to write about me. But I want them to write about you – all your happy faces.”

I was indeed surrounded by happy faces.


The first of a six-part series, written in 1990; part two is here. This particular part was unpublished. In 1991, two years after witnessing Swaggart’s comeback, Swaggart was caught driving on the wrong side of a Californian highway, with a prostitute as his passenger. And this syndicated story appeared in the New Zealand Herald:

Swaggart NZH 1991

Twenty-four years on, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries prospers, its fervour undiminished. Swaggart’s official biography is here, and an alternative one is here. His official TV channel the SonLife Broadcasting Network can be viewed here, and illustrates the evangelical experience well. There are many Swaggart music clips on YouTube, most slow-tempo religious ballads. But for historic interest, his live-on-TV confession in 1988 is worth seeing also: