The Unfilmed, Unquiet Dead: Part 2

Last Friday documentary-maker Paul Duane talked about his unmade film on Sebastian Horsley. In part two of the series, he reflects on another missed chance.

JLD & Red Piano

James Luther Dickinson transcended his physical self on August 15, 2009. I came to Dickinson in an odd way, starting with Robert Gordon’s invaluable book It Came From Memphis, which chronicled the doings of a heap of anarchists, druggies, one-legged blues musicians, midget wrestlers & singing cowboys as they laid the foundations for the music that would become known as rock’n’roll when it erupted out of the mid-South in 1954.

Dickinson was a transplant to Memphis, but he grew up surrounded by the greatest music of the twentieth century (he used to tell how, as a small boy on an errand with his father, he once followed some primal beat and, wandering into an office, found himself face to face with the massive slab of a man they called Howlin’ Wolf in the middle of a live radio broadcast).

Later, finding himself sitting in on a Rolling Stones recording session, he was savvy enough not only to end up playing piano on one of their greatest songs, Wild Horses, but also to place himself in the final cut of the great Maysles Brothers film Gimme Shelter (his memoir confides that his theatre school training allowed him to spot which seats were properly lit and once he sat there, his possession of the only remaining joint meant that Keith would inevitably sit next to him – and presto, Jim’s in the movie, immortalised) .

Dickinson was a musician at first, then a songwriter, and finally a producer, but at all times he was something more than any and all of these. He was, in a much-misused term, a visionary. A lover of strong weed who looked at the world through incalculably powerful spectacles, he saw things nobody else saw, heard music where there wasn’t any, and put things on record that weren’t meant to be there. But more than anything else, he had the thing without which no man can really be great – he had an analysis of the situation.

Long before I met Jim, I became familiar with his analysis. It cropped up in lots of odd places. In a reverential but fundamentally uncontroversial documentary about Muddy Waters, Jim’s interview posed the unfamiliar, unsettling question, did Muddy Waters leave the plantation behind only to spend his life sharecropping for Leonard Chess of Chess Records? People in the record business don’t tend to ask these kinds of questions, but Jim did.


When I managed to promote a few quid out of the Irish Film Board towards the making of a documentary based on It Came from Memphis, myself and Robert Gordon both had the same idea – under cover of a more general, sociological profile, we’d make the film we really wanted to make. A film about Jim. Bear in mind that I hadn’t even met the man, and had – still have, really – no clue as to what a record producer actually does. (I got to ask Jim that question and his answer was the best one available: “A record producer exercises his taste.”)

Over the course of ten eventful days in Memphis and Mississippi, far more than ten years ago, I travelled with Robert Gordon to recording studios, haunted bars that had formerly been brothels, hardware stores where you could find the makings of a washtub bass, and most excitingly, to Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch studios, way, way out in the country. A complex of trailers and a large rambling studio, ramshackle in appearance, eccentric in design, the Zebra Ranch was a thrilling place. In the yard sat a rotting white grand piano, rescued from Stax Records when they went bankrupt, but not for preservation, oh no. “I call it ‘Yard Art’,’ said Jim. The piano where Otis Redding & Isaac Hayes had composed was now compost, enriching the soil, slowly returning to the earth.

And it was art, not just yard art. Aside from his political analysis, Jim also had an exceptional understanding of modernism and its impact on music. He was a great recorder of vernacular music, but saw himself not as a successor to Alan Lomax, more as a collagist and an agent provocateur.

One of his most singular works was a cover version of the greatest instrumental ever recorded, Link Wray’s Rumble. He would bring the master tape of his version to every session he worked, and before the night would end, he’d lace it up and they’d overdub another version on top of all the ones already laid down. By the time it was ready for release, the tape was worn thin and stratified with layers of guitars, drums, motorcycle, female vocals and god knows what all else. It sounds like the entire history of music collapsing in on itself, and it may be one of my favourite unlistenable records (it’s a whole lot shorter than Metal Machine Music, for one thing). You’ll find it, and other possibly life-changing musical events, here.

The tapes (we shot on tape! How quaint) still sit in the same box in which I bought them, though we cut together one ten-minute promo piece which proved sadly ineffective in selling this peculiar, star-free story of the South to broadcasters & funders:

Now, when every strange corner of music is busily being chronicled, and the band most associated with Dickinson’s magic, Big Star, have posthumously been resurrected by their own fans with a documentary which has introduced them to a new generation, this project wouldn’t seem so unlikely, but in 2001 not even the Ramones had had a film made about them (there are now several). So, It Came From Memphis – the Movie withered and died on the vine.

Jim carried on. Returning to recording after a hiatus of many years, he finally followed up his epochal 1972 Atlantic Records album Dixie Fried (one of my own candidates for the greatest album of all time, and the subject of a fittingly poetic Amazon review stating “This man should have been on the gold record aboard Voyager as an exemplar of all that is original and defiantly uncommercial in the American counterculture”). As well as several great CDs of music he also put out a spoken word album (he’d been an actor). He was mentioned on the first page (and many pages thereafter) of Keith Richards’ memoir Life, and at length in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. He saw his sons’ band the North Mississippi Allstars grow in popularity, win Grammys, become acclaimed musicians in their own right. Then, in the middle of summer, he went on ahead, leaving as his epitaph the words “I’m just dead, I’m not gone.”

No film exists that could wholly convey Jim’s spirit, but his words can be found in various interviews on YouTube and elsewhere. The missing link, the part I wanted to convey, was his alchemical touch in the studio – his mantra was ‘turn up the mistakes, they’re the most interesting part’. But the few minutes of film myself and Robert Gordon cut together contain one juxtaposition that seemed important to us – that of Jim’s late friend, the great guitarist Lee Baker, playing with his mentor Furry Lewis in 1972, followed by Jim’s son Luther playing with his own mentor Otha Turner in 1999.

The last time I saw Jim he told me that scene brought tears of joy to his eyes, because he saw in it a central truth of his life, something he’d fought hard for, the union of the races in mutual respect, brotherhood and creativity. “We’re not different. We’re just not the same.”


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