The Filial Hook: Johnny Rivers, “Memphis” (1964)

Phone on wall

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find a party that tried to get in touch with me

Dear Mom,

You’re gone these twenty years and more, so I can’t ask you the Hooks question that’s on my mind now that I’ve heard Johnny Rivers’ great cover of “Memphis” again; but even if I could ask you, I’m not sure the question would hook you.

As I grew up, we both loved music, mostly the same music—especially Broadway, especially West Side Story. But then I became a teenager in the 60s, and a lot of other things happened in popular music, and our paths of listening seriously diverged.

With one big exception that I remember. You really liked the Johnny Rivers Golden Hits album (1966) that someone had given me. It’s an album I still esteem highly, especially for the rough elegance of “Memphis” recorded live at the Whisky-à-Go-Go.

I’ve never understood why you liked it. You weren’t looking to rock, so I doubt you were responding to the same qualities I was: the edge, the drive, the trebly blare of the guitar theme. Is it possible that Johnny Rivers had an appealing personal presence for you comparable to other male vocalists you liked? That would have been exactly what I was not into.

But maybe I am into it. It’s worth thinking about. Maybe the moderately braying, somewhat plaintive young man (a little to the right of Dylan and Van Morrison on the 60s spectrum) is an archetype I recognize, a strong human role I want played. The young guy horning in, claiming his place. A Southern guy, in this case, with a winning simplicity.

You couldn’t play that role yourself, but maybe you were tickled to hear it played. Maybe you would have liked me to play it.

And while I’m thinking these butterfly-dream thoughts . . . maybe you were looking to rock, though you wouldn’t have said so. After all, you lived in a human body.

Maybe you were I and I was you.

Who knows?

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had

“Memphis” end


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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