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De La Soul’s Two Testaments

[As it happens, it’s one year to the day since I last updated this site. I started it several years ago for two main reasons: To republish some old writing I still felt worthy and to publish some new lists as I worked my way through the entirety of my own record collection and used the project as an excuse to fill in some gaps. I lost the thread on the first a long time ago, and the second more recently. Will this get me back here more frequently? I don’t know.

But Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, one of the three members of De La Soul, died today. De La’s debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out during my freshman year of high school and was a kind of foundational text as I found my way in life and in culture. It remains one of my very favorite albums. In 2009, for the Memphis Flyer — What was the occasion? They must have been playing a show in town. – I wrote a piece about that album and the group’s deeply overlooked 2001 album AOI: Bionix, which I dubbed the band’s two testaments. I still very much feel that way.

For what it’s worth – and I know that it isn’t much, but a mention for posterity – this was one of three pieces that year I submitted for the annual awards contest for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, a collection that took second place in music criticism in the Flyer’s circulation category. Republished here with a few small edits. ]

Hip-hop has produced more momentous artists than De La Soul. Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, Notorious B.I.G., Outkast, and a few others perhaps have a greater claim to the genre’s Mt. Rushmore. But in a culture so far short on longevity and mutability, I know of no other hip-hop artists whose peaks are more than a decade apart and who have had as much to say to the music’s fans — once referred to as the hip-hop generation — about living a rewarding life.

As Long Island teenagers making their debut with the precocious epic 3 Feet High and Rising, this trio — Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “Mase” Mason— bravely tested hip-hop’s cultural boundaries, burrowing deeply into their own idiosyncratic personalities. Later, as thirtysomething fathers on the deep and subtle AOI: Bionix, they crafted the most convincing argument yet for what hip-hop as stable grown folks’ music might sound like.

“Sony Walkmans keep us moving/De La Soul can help us breathe.”

— “Tread Water,” 3 Feet High and Rising

Released in 1989, 3 Feet High and Rising spearheaded a hip-hop movement known as the Native Tongues, a loose affiliation (or, in Tongues parlance, a tribe) of artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, and Queen Latifah united by an Afrohumanist philosophy and a playful sense of sonic exploration. The Native Tongues offered both a middle-class alternative to a form born in the New York City streets and housing projects and a gentler alternative within a genre then divided by the political militance of Public Enemy on the East Coast and the gangsta aesthetic of N.W.A. on the West Coast.

De La’s debut was a commercial hit and a relative critical smash, winning 1989’s Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” national critics poll, becoming the first teen winner and first debut-album winner since the Sex Pistols. But even then some found it too slight to be a Great Album, its full-fledged songs interrupted by recurring skits (a practice it launched, for better or worse), esoteric jokes, and other aural experiments, and its perspective too unreadable and navel-gazing.

Fans dubbed it “the hip-hop Sgt. Pepper’s,” but in retrospect “the hip-hop White Album” is probably a more apt Beatles comparison. More audacious and more definitive than anything else to come out of the Native Tongues crew, it’s a sprawling 24-track invitation to an unknown world, filled with in-group solidarity (“The Magic Number,” “Me Myself and I”), social commentary (“Ghetto Thang,” “Say No Go”), inspired DJ cut-and-paste (“Cool Breeze on the Rocks”), Aesop-like fables (“Tread Water”), and total weirdness (“Transmitting Live From Mars,” 66 seconds of a scratchy French spoken-word record over a Turtles sample).

It’s an album that contains both hip-hop’s first convincing love song with “Eye Know” (right, LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” came first, but he just wanted to get in your pants) and the genre’s healthiest sex song with the posse cut “Buddy.” And despite its teen-oriented self-absorption, it has a fierce spirit. The first rapped verse on the record, courtesy of 19-year-old Posdnuos: “Difficult preaching is Posdnuos’ pleasure/Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart.”

With its “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” rhetoric (which stands for “Da Inner Sound, Y’all” — don’t laugh), Day-Glo color schemes, private lingo, unexpected references (stray lyrics about Fred Astaire and Waiting for Godot), and inscrutable in-jokes (“Posdnuos has a lot of dandruff”), 3 Feet High and Rising was the sound of creative teenagers energized by their own brains. 

As much as indie-rock kings-in-waiting Pavement, who emerged soon after, these were modestly privileged suburban bohemians turning their surfeit of leisure time and their overactive intellects into something familiar yet totally new, its verbal imagination actually topped by its sonic imagination.

Two years earlier, fellow Long Islander Rakim — as culturally conservative as De La Soul were radical — had made a claim for the genre: “Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up/Convert it into hip-hop form.” It’s a classic lyric, one that announced the genre’s voracious musical appetite. But Rakim couldn’t think past mainstream African-American forms. De La, inspired by George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and partnered with sampling genius Prince Paul, took Rakim’s manifesto and added to the list Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, “Schoolhouse Rock”, and a French-language instructional record, just for starters.

Underground mix-masters like Double Dee & Steinksi were earlier to the game, and the Beastie Boys would double-down on De La’s achievement later the same year with Paul’s Boutique, but more than anything else, 3 Feet High and Rising expanded hip-hop’s sonic vocabulary.

As insistent as the trio had been initially to confront hip-hop’s cultural boundaries (perhaps captured best in the comically put-upon “Me Myself and I” video), they did succumb to peer pressure, recording the fed-up defense to a stupid recurring description, “Ain’t Hip To Be Labeled a Hippie,” and then following up 3 Feet with the self-conscious and self-negating De La Soul Is Dead.

But 3 Feet‘s influence won out. The sonic message was that absolutely anything could be turned into hip-hop. But the personal message was that hip-hop could be anyone’s vehicle for self-expression, a message later embraced by white trailer-park products (Eminem), mixed-race Midwesterners (Atmosphere), nice middle-class white girls (Northern State), Third World survivors (M.I.A., K’ Naan), and lots of other people with something to say and a beat to say it over.

“No need to spit a cipher to show you I’m a lifer in rap/I cultivate moves larger than that.”

— “Bionix,” AOI: Bionix

3 Feet High and Rising‘s sonic fragmentation is generational but also partly a product of youth. Feeling creakier on the wrong side of 30, the band pursued a steadier groove on their Art Official Intelligence records: 2000’s Mosaic Thump and 2001’s better Bionix

Where 3 Feet was bumpy, the AOI records are smooth. Where 3 Feet was clever and cryptic, the AOI records are smarter and more plainspoken.

What the trio lost in youthful verve they made up for with a consistently rewarding musical vision on their second career peak. Rather than the Prince Paul-organized bricolage and jokiness of 3 Feet High and Rising, here is hip-hop as the ultimate adult R&B, without the confrontation or showy party vibe of most contemporary mainstream hip-hop or the spare beats of the underground. Rather, De La’s AOI records luxuriate in the sturdy, comfortable, and soulful — groove music for stay-at-homes. This music doesn’t grab you, but it deepens over time.

And it’s no accident that the more limited sources but more consistent groove makes for a fuller connection to the African-American musical tradition. After flying their freak-flag as kids, this later music embodied the Black middle-class experience they were living. Even the skits on Bionix (“Rev. Do Good”) tap into a Black American iconography that might have felt limiting as teenagers.

With AOI: Bionix, the group united verbal concept with the music’s grasp for the eternal. This was an album about growing up without giving out. Its most compelling moment comes on the concluding “Trying People,” one of the first pop-music acknowledgements of 9/11 outside of tribute-song rush jobs. The song is directed at hip-hop’s younger generation, with Dave (long since dropping his old “Trugoy” moniker) rapping, “You see, young minds are now made of armor/I’m trying to pop a hole in your Yankee cap/Absorb me/The skies over your head ain’t safe no more/And hip-hop ain’t your home.”

Once obsessed with making music in their bedrooms, the group was now focused on a different set of priorities: “Got fans around the world/But my girl’s not one of them,” Posdnous raps on the same song. “And my relationship’s a big question/’Cause my career’s a clear hindrance to her progression/Says she needs a man and her kids need a father/And I’m not at all ready to hear her say ‘don’t bother.’”

This central conceit is explored all over the record. The opening scene-setter, “Bionix,” features lyrics such as, “I don’t ball too much, ya dig/I got a ball and chain at the crib who want my ass at home.” The charming lead single, “Baby Phat,” is the middle-aged answer to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”: “Your shape’s not what I dig/It’s you … You ain’t in this alone/I got a tummy too/Just let me watch your weight/Don’t let it trouble you.” 

On “Simply,” they search for a place to have fun without young “thugs” (their language) ruining everything, and on “Watch Out,” they make romance by proposing a joint account.

The record’s decorum breaks down toward the end with the sexed-up “Pawn Star” (which should surprise no one who remembers 3 Feet High and Rising‘s “De La Orgie”) and the funny, conflicted marijuana meditation “Peer Pressure” (with Cypress Hill’s B-Real). But this detour is needed confirmation that adulthood doesn’t have to equal stodgy.

Hip-hop hasn’t yet proven to be a form with the personal longevity of blues, country, or even rock. But after saying more about both teendom and responsible adulthood than anyone in the so-called hip-hop nation, one hopes De La Soul can stay interested long enough to pull hip-hop into the uncharted territory of middle age.

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Dead on Arrival: An Oral History of the Night the Sex Pistols Invaded Memphis

[Last Friday was the 39th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Memphis concert, which I didn’t notice at the time. But seeing some stuff about it over the weekend reminded me of this piece, my first cover story for The Memphis Flyer, circa summer of 2000. It doesn’t seem to exist online anymore, so I’m republishing it here. If I had it to do over again, I would probably edit down some of the repetition, and I guess I do, but I left this mostly as it was originally published.]

The Sex Pistols, the band that launched the British punk scene, released their first single (“Anarchy In the U.K.”) in November 1976. Fourteen months later, the band was no more. Amid the wreckage of their meteoric lifespan lay only one U.S. tour, which lasted 12 days and covered a mere seven performances. One of them was in Memphis, on January 6, 1978, at the Taliesyn Ballroom,1447 Union Avenue. It was only the second concert the band had given in the United States. A Taco Bell now stands on the site.

It’s no small testament to that night’s legendary status that, in a city with as storied a music history as Memphis, only early Elvis shows at the Overton Park Shell and Ellis Auditorium could be considered more famous concerts. At the time, it was like invaders from Mars were coming. The local media went bonkers: The Commercial Appeal ran five stories in four days about the show; the Memphis Press-Scimitar ran four stories in three days. Local authorities were no less on edge: The Memphis Police Department sent investigators to Atlanta to scout the previous night’s performance and held a press conference on the day of the show to explain their position on the event.

But the band was more than a traveling circus. The music they made, and the movement they fostered, changed popular music and culture in irrevocable ways, even if much of its impact was in simply opening up the margins. Their sole album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, may sound less than revolutionary today (the record’s three singles, however, remain thrilling) next to still-ferocious punk touchstones like The Clash and Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, but, more than any other band of their time, the Sex Pistols inaugurated a fundamental shift in the sound, style, and content of rock-and-roll. The dissonance and revulsion (pointed at both self and society) that had been peeking out from the work of artists such as the Who, the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges came bursting out of Johnny Rotten’s filthy mouth and focused glare, from the possessed ravings that close “Holidays In the Sun” to the cold-blooded chants of “no future” on “God Save the Queen” to the vocal-chord-shredding “r-r-r-right now!” of “Anarchy In the U.K.”

I tracked down eight present and former Memphians who were in attendance at the band’s Memphis show to tell the story: In January 1978, veteran music writers Tom Graves and John Floyd were 23- and 12-year-old Sex Pistols fans, respectively, while Stacy Hall was exploring punk as a 19-year-old art-school student. Walter Dawson was the pop music columnist at The Commercial Appeal, and one of the few daily critics to respond positively to the band during the tour. Jim Dickinson was already an established musician and producer with close ties to Warner Bros., the Sex Pistols’ American record label. Roland Robinson sang and played bass for QUO Jr., the local band that opened the show. E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman was the Memphis police director, while Clyde Keenan was the legal advisor for the detective division of the Memphis Police Department.


The Coming of the Storm

Walter Dawson:  I thought it was great. I thought it was the first shot of real rock-and-roll to come along in a long time. And, on the other hand, the fact that it was a joke was nice too. And the people who didn’t get the joke included the Memphis Police Department and city leaders, who actually sent police officers to [the previous show in] Atlanta. They had all these ideas that the Sex Pistols were going to come in and jerk off on stage and all this stuff.

Winslow Chapman: We had heard that they were a pretty wild group in regard to their interaction with the crowd, and that there might be problems. We knew that they were headed to Memphis, and we had been given information that there’d been a near riot somewhere else [where they’d played]. The place they were going to be immediately prior to Memphis was Atlanta, so I sent a couple of people down there from our intelligence unit, just to see what we might expect.

Clyde Keenan: The reason I went to Atlanta was that there was concern about violence that had occurred at previous venues, so the question really was: How incendiary are these guys in terms of causing people to get violent? So I did go to Atlanta and spend two or three days with the Atlanta vice squad, attend the concert, and talk to the Sex Pistols themselves.

The Venue

Dawson: Originally they wanted to play Tupelo, but there was no place to play there, so they chose Memphis. They did not want to play big cities. Of course, they didn’t want to play the Auditorium or Coliseum. They wanted to play some small place where they could cause some trouble, I’m sure, which is why they chose Taliesyn.

Jim Dickinson: It was just a rental venue, where they did high school parties and little old lady tea parties. It was a venue they knew they could oversell.

Tom Graves: I had never been to a concert at the Taliesyn Ballroom. I don’t know who found it, but, ordinarily, I don’t think they used the place for concerts. So it was a strange venue to have it at in the first place.

Dickinson: It was like a building that would have come out of the Ole Miss campus. It had Southern columns in front of it. It looked like a library or something. It did not look like any rock-and-roll show was going to go on there.

Dawson: It was old and pretty decrepit. It wasn’t a rock-and-roll venue at all. It was a rather sedate venue for rock-and-roll. But once the people got on the floor and started dancing and the band started playing, they made it their own. And for what the Pistols were doing you didn’t need good acoustics anyway. It didn’t matter at all.

Stacy Hall: I think Taliesyn was about right. It was like a weary old lady down on her luck, and it seemed like a pretty good place for a band like the Sex Pistols to be — glamorous but shoddy at the same time. I thought it was a pretty good match. And you couldn’t hurt it. It was a pretty durable venue while it was there.

The Crowd

Dickinson: I was surprised at the turnout. I kind of expected to be there as one of few people. There’d been no real exposure here.

Graves: The whole punk thing hadn’t really happened in Memphis at this point. It was a brand spankin’ new phenomenon. The crowd was a mixture — there were a lot of curiosity seekers and lots of good ole boys who seemed to be there for malicious fun.

Dickinson: Maybe 30 percent — and that would probably be a high estimate — knew what they were going to see.

Chapman: The crowd was very young, very punk, very zoned.

Hall:  [My friends and I] played that album nonstop for an entire month before the show came. Everyone at art school was doing the same thing, and listening to Elvis Costello and the Clash — so we were all geared up for it. But I remember no one being exactly sure what to dress like, and I remember buying The Face, that fashion magazine, so we could go through it and make sure we got the look right before the show.

Graves: There was only one guy I remember who was dressed the part, and he was right down on the very front row. He had the look, the spiked hair, this cadaverous look like he was something out of Night of the Living Dead.

Hall: Number one, I think that everyone was busy looking at each other, because it was a bit of a costume party. Like, I remember having my mother pierce my lip with a safety pin before the show.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On

Chapman: I had not initially intended to go, but I had gotten a call that they’d had a confrontation, and that the confrontation was partially with the promoters and partly with the fire marshals, but what it amounted to was that they had like 10 times as many people as could get in. They already had the ballroom full and there were a whole lotta people on the sidewalk — people who had tickets. It was grossly oversold.

Dickinson: I had friends there from the company, and they had limousines parked outside. The opening band was QUO Jr., and, although I was interested in seeing QUO and they were friends of mine, I stayed outside in the Warner Bros. limousine as long as there was any potential for violence, frankly, ’cause I was interested in seeing what was going to happen. I had every pass known to man; I had them stuck all over me so that I’d be sure to get in when the time came.

Dawson: There was a big crowd of people outside trying to get in, and the fire marshals pretty much told Bob Kelley at Mid-South Concerts [who was promoting the show], “This is it, shut the doors.” It was funny.

Graves: They shut out about two to three hundred people from getting in who had tickets, and I think the tickets were only about $3 or $3.50, or something like that, which were dirt-cheap tickets.

Keenan: The only real problem we had was on the outside. We had to call in a lot of officers for crowd control because people started breaking windows.

Chapman:  It was a madhouse. It was an absolute madhouse, people screaming and throwing things and mad. It was spilling over into the street. It was pretty much out of control.

Graves: I remember at one point, before [the Sex Pistols] came on, going to the bathroom, and you could hear the chief of police outside with a bullhorn, and people were throwing things and breaking windows out. It was scary — this was going on outside and you didn’t know if it would cause a riot inside, you just didn’t know.

Chapman:  Part of my issue with the bullhorn was to calm them down and say that this was not a police issue, it was a safety issue. That it wasn’t a question of fire marshals being unreasonable, but that, and I remember telling them this over the bullhorn, there was literally no more room. You just couldn’t get in there.

Keenan: I was in the lobby when the glass started breaking. The fire marshal’s office had to be concerned about the capacity of the theater and we quickly found out that there were a lot more tickets sold than there was capacity to put those people. You couldn’t have gotten any more people in there in any way, shape, or form, so we basically closed the doors. And, unfortunately, there were still hundreds of people with tickets.

Chapman:  I know that [the locked-out ticket-holders] wound up being confrontational with my officers, and I knew that there might end up being some arrests made. It was obviously a situation that could have precipitated into something that was out of control.

Keenan: It wasn’t like they were throwing bricks or things like that at the windows. What they were doing was pressing to get in, and the club had to go ahead and lock the doors, and in the course of all these kids pressing up against the windows, they shattered the glass.

John Floyd: I had a friend who was a bit older than me. She had a car and she took me down there. I didn’t have a ticket or anything, and it was complete mayhem. Some of the front windows were smashed through. When I got there, the Sex Pistols were already on. But I just kind of wormed my way through one of the window areas.

Roland Robinson: We barely got our stuff out. Almost every time we’d try to get our stuff out the door, the cops would make us take it back. We just wanted to get our stuff out of the club and loaded up. We didn’t even think about leaving it out there, where it was visible. It wasn’t worth it to me to see [the Sex Pistols] play and lose my equipment.

Anarchy on the Inside

Dawson: I think Johnny said something to sort of set the mood for the evening within the first few songs: He told the crowd to quit spitting on him or throwing stuff at him and he said, “I’m not here for your amusement, you’re here for mine.”

Hall: I was at the front of the stage when the Sex Pistols came on. At first I was really squished against the stage, but by the time they finished playing there were hardly any of us standing there, mostly because of Sid, who was being pretty abusive to the audience. He spat on me — it landed on my cheek.

Dawson: The people down front wanted someone in the band to spit on them, and they didn’t get disappointed.

Graves: There was no booze or anything at the concert, so what people were doing was taking their cups of Coke and taking the ice and throwing it at Johnny Rotten.

Floyd: You know, when you go to a show at the Coliseum everybody there wants to hear that band. But when the Sex Pistols played, you had a lot of people there out of sheer curiosity. You had a lot of rednecks there wanting to throw things at them, wanting to spit on them.

Graves: When they came on, there were people — I remember in particular a couple of people behind me who must have been in their 30s or 40s, you know, just good ol’ boy rednecks, and they were throwing the ice, and you know the only reason they were there was for the spectacle.

Hall: It was so hostile. A lot of people who came would have been more interested in beating up the band. It’s a Memphis thing to actually pay money to go and try to beat someone up.

Dickinson: I was riveted, utterly riveted to the stage, for maybe 45 minutes, and when I turned around, the auditorium, which had been packed to overflowing, with people on the outside trying to get in, was half-empty. And if you can drive half the audience out, especially at the beginning, you’ve really done something in my opinion, especially in Memphis, where people will basically watch anything — paint dry, or dogs fight, or whatever.

Chapman: I went in as far as I could get, to watch part of it. The show didn’t really amount to much to be honest with you. I remember the main reason [part of the crowd] left was that it wasn’t much of a show.

Dickinson: Maybe half the crowd was gone [but the ones that were left,] they were really into it; people were angry and screaming. They almost knew what to do, but not quite.

Floyd: I just remember mayhem. I was just a kid and I had never seen a crowd like that. I’d never been in a crowd that was just so angry — angry in part and baffled in part. Here’s this horribly mangy, lousy, bad band onstage, and it was just a complete “fuck you” to the musical ethos of [professionally trained musicians]. That’s probably the hostility that even as a goofy 12 year old I could sense. I remember people walking past me and just saying, “That was the biggest load of garbage I’ve ever heard. These guys are terrible.” I was only in there for about 20 minutes or so, but I remember when I left, walking across the street to my friend’s car, just hearing so many people expressing so much rage. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced at a music event. It wasn’t as simple as someone leaving a Rod Stewart concert and complaining because he’d fucked-off during “Maggie May.” This was a group of people extremely upset at what they’d just seen.

The Show

Dawson: I mean, the Sex Pistols couldn’t play. Sid Vicious was a joke, and the whole Pistols thing was a joke, just a sneer in the face of everyone who didn’t get the joke.

Dickinson: Of course, the story is Sid Vicious. I’ve done a couple of interviews for the book [12 Days on the Road] and for the film [D.O.A.], and both people told me that I had the opposite response from anybody else they talked to. But I’m sorry. I do this for a living. I understand band dynamics, and I know music when I see it. And it was all him. The rest of the band was just holding on. They may have thought that he didn’t know what he was doing; he may well have not known what he was doing, but he was not playing with them, they were playing with him. The best way I can describe it is that he was beating the bridge of his bass with his left fist and zooming up and down the strings with his right hand, basically playing all four strings at once, which, the way a bass is traditionally tuned, isn’t even a chord.

Robinson: Steve [Jones, the guitarist] and Paul [Cook, the drummer] were the real musicians in that band. You could unplug Sid and just the guitar player and the drummer had the energy level to keep that band going, and Johnny Rotten had the energy level. Those three were the focal point and Sid was just the amusement.

Graves: The sound of the Sex Pistols was basically Steve Jones and Paul Cook; they were the instrumental focus of that band. They were that raw, slashing guitar and very hard, pounding drum unit — they were like the Who to me.

Dickinson: [Jones] was playing through two small Fender amps that were linked. He had the tremolo set up so he could play quarter notes and eighth notes would come out, with a constant pulse.

Graves: Johnny Rotten, I’m sure, was heavily reverbed on his vocals, and I remember he would say things to the audience, and he would start to talk and it was all echo. You couldn’t hear anything, he must have gotten it off his monitors too, and there was this glance he shot at the sound guy that was like, “Turn the damn reverb off “ Then they’d turn it down so he could talk.

Dickinson:The PA was terrible. The drums weren’t miked; I mean it was like a high school gymnasium dance.

Floyd: What I remember most was barely being able to see them and just the awful, awful sound. I could barely make out the songs,and I knew the record really well. You couldn’t hear Sid Vicious’ bass at all; I’m not even sure if he was plugged in.

Dawson: They sounded as bad as they should, but nobody gave a shit how they sounded anyway. It was just to see what they would do.

Dickinson: I’ve heard a lot of people say it was a short set, but I thought they played plenty. I doubt if they knew any more.

Graves: It was a weird experience, but I loved it. The music, I thought, was played pretty well. They kicked ass as far as I was concerned. Just this incendiary music.

Dickinson: I was musically unimpressed at everything at the event, except Sid Vicious, but a couple of weeks later, when I realized I couldn’t get the sound of the drums and the guitar out of my head, I started to get it. Hearing them play live was utterly unlike the record, which was basically bubble gum, overproduced pop crap, and what they played on stage was just raw, offensive energy.

Pretty Vacant

Dickinson: When they walked in [Sid] was fully clothed. At that point, he wore what looked like a black suit, a white shirt, and a tie. Just as they got to the front of the hall, at the stage area, the house lights went out. And when the lights came back on, Sid had ripped his clothes off, had nothing left on but his pants, the tie around his neck, and a bandage on his left arm that was dripping what appeared to be blood. And he had scratched across his chest “I need a fix.” You couldn’t really make it out, but you could see it was letters, and it turned out to be “I need a fix.”

Floyd: I remember scabs [on Sid]. You could tell he’d been slicing himself, especially on his chest. I don’t remember if he had the bandage on his arm or not. But I do remember some fresh-looking wounds.

Hall: Sid had a lot of fresh cuts on his stomach that night. I do remember fresh blood, which I thought was rather glamorous.

Robinson: Sid was totally out of his mind, man. I was sitting there [after the sound check] and he’d be grabbing and shaking me. He’d get up, walk around and pace, then sit back down and start doing it again. When he first came in and started talking, I turned to the other guys and said, “You see this guy? That’s the picture of a dead man.” He looked like somebody who had either just escaped death or was about to see it very shortly. He had that pale look, like he was a shell that walked and talked like a man.

Final Thoughts

Dawson: Because of that show, a lot of people were drawn together who might not have found each other, and it showed that there was a scene for that kind of music here. I think the Sex Pistols coming was a real shot in the arm for the punk scene [in Memphis]. Pretty soon you had a lot of bands playing around, and some of them played as bad as the Sex Pistols. It was great.

Chapman: To be honest with you, and this is my personal opinion, I thought the show itself was an anticlimax. Firstly, there was barely room to move in there, and, secondly, because both the group and the audience well, the group was definitely zoned out on something, and the audience, well, a lot of them were too.

Dickinson:  It was a life changer for me — easily one of the 10 best rock-and-roll shows I’ve ever seen.

Dawson: The whole thing about the Sex Pistols was that they drew a line in the sand and you had to decide which side you were on, which is what all good rock-and-roll does anyway. Music that can piss off that many people? Attention must be paid.

Hall: I thought it was a really incredible show. They were kind of desultory, though. If I were to look at that show now I’d say that they didn’t have much enthusiasm, but at the time we just all bought the whole attitude as part of what was appropriate. We were so full of irony at that point that they could have come on the stage and meditated and we would have thought it was profound.

Graves: There was tension and electricity at the same time. You didn’t know if the show was going to be totally great and historic, which it was, or if it was going to be a total riot disaster, which in a way it was too. It was this weird clash of everything. I’ve never been to a concert, as many as I’ve been to, that had the same feel, and I don’t expect I ever will.

Chapman: That was probably as unnoteworthy a thing as ever happened in this city.

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Introduction/A List From the Vault

Cleaning out my attic and office, I came across one of my favorite things I’ve written or worked on and which seems to have disappeared completely from the internet. I’ve been thinking of creating a new blog for a long time, always concluding  I don’t have time for that. And I don’t. But a wish to give this piece a home finally made me do it.

The blog name comes from Elvis, when he was asked, upon first showing up at Memphis Recording Service, just what kind of music he sang. I had another short-lived personal blog of the same name about a decade ago, then it became the name for the music/film/pop culture blog at The Memphis Flyer when I was a writer/editor there. The Flyer discontinued that blog shortly after I left, so I’m taking the name back unless someone tries to stop me.

Don’t expect frequent posts here or very much new writing. But it’ll be a landing spot for old writing I don’t find embarrassing and that seems in danger of disappearing from the public record and various music and movie lists I’ve done in the past either for publication, on social media or, in some cases, as email exchanges with like-minded friends. There’s also a new list project I have in mind that I’ll likely post here. This site is for personal amusement. If others out there are interested, that’s fine, but it’s mostly just for me.

This piece is a “100 Greatest Moments in Rock-and-Roll” list. Not historical moments, but moments on records themselves: Riffs, lyrics, vocal flourishes, etc. It was written in 2001 and is a collaboration with my great college friend Addison Engelking. We stole the idea from the Chicago Reader, which had done a similar list half a decade before, and they stole it from Roger Ebert, who had done a film-themed one.

We had a lot of fun brainstorming and constructing this and, despite the title, we didn’t then and wouldn’t now claim that these are the 100 greatest moments in rock and roll. If we re-did this tomorrow, even sticking to a 2001 cutoff, we might come up with 100 totally different moments. But I still stand by pretty much all of these. A few caveats we published in the original intro, and then the list:

We’re both musical generalists who believe in the big-tent view of rock and roll. We excluded pre-rock forms like blues, jazz and country to make the project simpler. We tried to be as ecumentical as possible, but this is a subjective list and our biases and obsessions show. We like ’60s soul and early rock and roll, punk and pop-friendly hip-hop. We think Chuck Berry and Motown are the great American music. We don’t care much for second-tier “classic rock” or much that tends toward the “progressive” or jammy.

100. Claudine Clark singing, “I see the lights! I see the party lights!” on “Party Lights.”

99. Drummer Moe Tucker’s “Helloooo … You’re my very special one” on the Velvet Underground’s “Afterhours.”

98. Liz Phair’s dry vocals on “Divorce Song.”

97. “Got no money/Got no car/Got no woman/And there you are” — Young MC laying it all out for the eighth-graders who bought “Bust a Move.”

96. Wilson Pickett’s overpowering vocals on the Falcons’ “I Found a Love.”

95. Chrissie Hynde yelping “I’m not the kind I used to be/I’ve got a kid/I’m 33” on the Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road.”

94. The bicycle-chain downbeats on Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”

93. Tie: “Luv L-U-V” from the New York Dolls and “Girlfren G-i-r-l-f-r-e-n” from the Modern Lovers. Bad spelling: How punk rock!

92. A prepubescent Michael Jackson exclaiming “Just look over your shoulder, honey!” on the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There.”

91. “She said, ‘Dear boy, I’m gonna make you a man’” — The most passionate moment on the Kinks’ “Lola,” Ray Davies’ eternally coy gender-bender (or is it?).

90. Fats Domino singing “Sunday morning my head is bad/But it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” on “Blue Monday.”

89. Johnny Rotten’s mad raving at the end of “Holidays in the Sun.”

88. “People say you look like MC Hammer on crack, Humpty!”

87. “Take a piece of paper, ball that motherfucker up … and play with it.” — Coolio explains the rules of “paper ball” on “I Remember.”

86. Alex Chilton singing, “I didn’t find it on a Saturday night/I found it in the Sunday morning light” on the Box Tops’ “I Met Her in Church.”

85. The in-progress opening thunder of the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.”

84. Steve Mackay’s sax skronk on the Stooges’ “Fun House.”

83. The howl at the end of “State Trooper” from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

82. The will-o-wisp materialization of chords into song as CCR kicks into “Born on the Bayou.”

81. Poly Styrene’s spoken intro to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours”: “Some people say lit’el gurls should be seen and not heard/But I say OH BONDAGE UP YOURS.”

80. Iris Dement’s singing — every bit of it — on “No Time to Cry.”

79. “No, my first name ain’t ‘Baby’/It’s Janet/Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.”

78. The piercing guitar on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”

77. “Arrested on charges of unemployment/He was sitting in the witness stand” — Chuck Berry introduces the “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”

76. “What key? What key?” — Little Stevie Wonder grows up on the false ending of “Fingertips Pt. 2.”

75. The false start on “Milk Cow Blues,” where Elvis declares it’s time to get “real, real gone.”

74. Justine Frischmann taunts an impotent lover — “Is it just that I’m much too much for you?” — on Elastica’s pointedly titled “Stutter.”

73. The earliest bit of rock criticism, from the Showmen’s “It Will Stand”: “Don’t nickname it/You might as well claim it/It’ll be here forever and ever/Ain’t gonna fade/Never, no, never.”

72. “And you could have a change of heart” — Steely Dan’s hipsters plead an everyman sentiment on “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

71. The hiccup vocals on Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

70. The prolix, pretentious and true lyric “Every generation throws a hero up the pop chart” on Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble.”

69. The first two notes of “Brown Sugar.”

68. Otis Redding singing “Theeessse arms of miiine.”

67. The vocal blues sample on Moby’s “Honey.”

66. The rock-and-roll haiku of Big Star’s “In the Street.”

65. “No, I don’t wanna see your thong/I kinda dig them old school, cute, regular drawers” — compassionate (sexual) conservatism, courtesy of Outkast.

64. “It’sjustlikeajunglesometimesitmakesmewonderhowIkeepfromgoingunder.”

63. Al Jackson Jr.’s drumming on almost any early Al Green record.

62. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” — Not a death sentence, from Neil Young on Rust Never Sleeps.

61. Little Willie John singing “Write it down on a paper so it can be read to me” on “Need Your Love So Bad.”

60. Rakim rapping “Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up/Convert it into hip-hop form” on Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke.”

59. Jay-Z expanding Rakim’s turf grab with the Annie sample on “Hard Knock Life.”

58. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” – the first line of the first song on Patti Smith’s first album.

57. Run-DMC converting “Walk This Way” from a guitar record to a drum record.

56. The little speech at the beginning of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me.”

55. “Each record that I make/Is like a record I have made/JUST NOT AS GOOD” — Randy Newman, voice of a generation, on 1999’s Bad Love.

54. Frankie Lymon’s wondrous “uh-uh-oh-ohs” after finishing the alphabet on “The ABCs of Love.”

53. “This is not my beautiful house/This is not my beautiful wife” — David Byrne’s existential dilemma on the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

52. The evanescent lyric “We could be heroes/Just for one day” on David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

51. Elvis Costello snarling “I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly/I want to make them wish they’d never seen me” on “Radio, Radio.”

50. When all three instruments lock into place at the beginning of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade: Something big is about the happen.

49. The opening charge of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

48. The menacing instrumental intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues.”

47. The unmistakeable, familiar-as-your-own reflection notes that lead off “Stairway to Heaven.”

46. “Number 47 said to number 3/You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.”

45. The crowd’s screams after the first “triiiaahhh me” on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo.

44. All of the stray sounds during the breaks on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” especially the interjection “Play it, Steve!”

43. Courtney Love delivers the “fuck you” of an answer song that Yoko Ono didn’t have in her with “Celebrity Skin.”

42. All of the little kids singing on the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger.”

41. The organ riff on “96 Tears.”

40. The first chord on the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

39. The shout of “Okay, let’s give it to ’em/Right now!” on “Louie, Louie.”

38. The harmonica at the end of “Tangled Up in Blue”: Hope springs eternal after all that misery.

37. “All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)/And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray)” — the best moment of hippie peacenik pop is actually a moment of decay, courtesy of the Mamas and the Papas.

36. Jerry Lee Lewis clearing his throat and sounding like the world’s most musically talented rattlesnake throughout Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, Germany.

35. The remarkable transition in Clarence Carter’s “Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” — from country corn to the deepest soul.

34. “Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She claimed that it just ain’t natural” — inexplicable joy at traditional values on Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

33. Kathleen Hanna shrieking “In her kiss/I TASTE THE REVOLUTION” on Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.”

32. The brass sweep that closes out and lifts up “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

31. The aside at the outset of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”: “No, wait/You’re kidding/He didn’t just say what I think he did/Did he?”; the startling blast of rhyme that ends the same song.

30. Tie: The first electronic synth sigh of “Little Red Corvette” and the smoochy sounds on the chorus of “Kiss” — both unmistakably the work of an Artist.

29. Kurt Cobain singing “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old” to lead off In Utero.

28. “Knockin’ me out with those American thighs” — the gospel according to AC/DC.

27. “My smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up with you.”

26. From the Clash’s “Complete Control”: Mick Jones and Joe Strummer sing together, “Complete control/Even over this song!” and then Jones rips into a brief, revved-up rockabilly solo, which Strummer cuts off by shouting “You’re my gee-tar hero!”

25. The guitar and piano exchanges on “Sweet Home Alabama.”

24. D.Boon singing “Me and Mike Watt, playing guitar” on the Minutemen’s “History Lesson, Pt. II.”

23. “One child grows up to be/Somebody who just loves to learn/And the other child/Grows up to be/Somebody you’d just/Love to burn” — Sly Stone’s uncomfortable truths on “Family Affair.”

22. “The Dark End of the Street”

21. Little Richard’s microphone-shattering scream before the sax solo on “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

20. The onomatopoeic opening of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

19. The call-and-response between Ray Charles and the Raelettes on “What’d I Say.”

18. The electric piano intro to “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You),” topped only by the first line as it leaps from Aretha’s mouth.

17. The group vocals on the chorus of The Band’s “The Weight.”

16. The opening “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” on At Folsom Prison.

15. The instrumental opening of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.”

14. Sam Cooke’s and Lou Rawls’ call-and-response vocals on “Bring it on Home to Me”

13. Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s call-and-response screams on Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”

12. Hal Blaine’s drums cutting through the kiddie-music intro of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

11. From The Million Dollar Quartet, Elvis talking about seeing Jackie Wilson do “Don’t Be Cruel”: “He had already done ‘Hound Dog’ and another one or two, and he didn’t do too well, you know. He was trying too hard. But he did that ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and he was trying so hard that he got better, boy.”

10. Elvis’ casual “mmmm. …” sliding out of the first chorus of “Don’t Be Cruel.”

9. Otis Redding whistling off into immortality on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

8. The bass and guitar together, first 10 seconds of “My Girl.”

7. “Sweet little sixteen/She’s got the grown-up blues”: Chuck Berry explains rock-and-roll in a single couplet.

6. Hal Blaine’s heartbeat drum into to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

5. The eternal guitar riff on the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

4. The harmony “ahs” morphing into a scream of exhilaration on the Beatles’ version of ‘Twist & Shout.”

3. The raging climax of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You’re invisible now/You have no secrets to conceal/How does it feel?”

2. “The record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!”

1. The roots of hip-hop, clear as a bell, on the instrumental break during James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”