Memphis is a city full of colorful figures whose primary contributions to music history aren't purely musical. Figures as disparate as radio announcer Dewey Phillips, performer Rufus Thomas, Sun founder Sam Phillips, producer/sideman Jim Dickinson, and punk provocateur Gus "Tav Falco" Nelson — regardless of the extent to which some of them have actually played music — are primarily idea men. They're conceptualists and archivists — protectors of old and creators of new.
Drummer/ranter Ross Johnson would frown on being put in such company, and rightly so, but the not-exactly-accessible and perhaps unlikely new compilation Make It Stop!: The Most of Ross Johnson (released this month on the local label Goner Records) makes a strong case that Johnson deserves at least a lengthy footnote in the chronicles of Memphis music. >>>
The audio material on Make It Stop! ranges from 1979 to 2006, most of it — captured on stage or in studio — taking the form of spoken-word rants "set" to music. The style, if you can call it that, developed during Johnson's tenure as a drummer for the local punk-era deconstructionist roots-rock band Tav Falco & the Panther Burns. During the frequent breaks Falco would take to retune his guitar or change a broken string, Johnson would "entertain" the crowd by keeping a beat and yowling and yelping into a microphone whatever popped in his head.
A man of letters — Johnson is the son of a newspaper editor, a longtime music writer who wrote for legendary critic Lester Bangs in the Detroit rock magazine Creem in the Seventies, and a professional librarian today — Johnson's rants are often funny, surprising, and sneaky-smart, with a wild delivery that comes across as a punk-filtered version of classic Southern oratory, with echoes of Jerry Clower or Dewey Phillips or Brother Dave Gardner.
Make It Stop! opens with "Baron of Love Pt. II," from Memphis rocker Alex Chilton's notorious 1979 album Like Flies on Sherbert . Johnson's most well-known recording, it consists of the drummer delivering a funny, slurring, swaggering, sex-fueled intro over a disintegrating blues-boogie guitar riff. It was the lead cut on Chilton's first real solo album after his celebrated work in Memphis bands the Box Tops and Big Star, and the album peaks before Chilton's voice is ever heard.
The material that follows on this 24-track, 66-minute collection will sound curious to those not predisposed to respond to it, though anyone with a passing familiarity with punk rock or culturally left-of-center stand-up comedy shouldn't have too much trouble finding an entry point.
Patterns emerge from the madness: Though Make It Stop! is mostly spoken-word over music, some tracks are decidedly non-verbal, such as the whooping, hollering "Rockabilly Monkey-Faced Girl" and a 33-second blast of slightly rhythmic gibberish given the ace title "My Slobbering Decline." These two were recorded in January 1983 with a makeshift group dubbed OFB (Our Favorite Band), which featured R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. This is the first time they've ever been released. There's also a rousing, drunken attempt at actual singing on "When the Saints Go Marchin' in Dixie."
The more strictly spoken pieces often contain bursts of stray or unexpected humor. A cover of sorts of the mid-Sixties' Memphis hit "Keep On Dancing," recorded with a band called the Young Seniors, takes a hard left at the end into a disquisition on the subject of getting one's ass whooped: "Aren't you more than a little concerned about the possibility of getting bitch-slapped in front of your family or friends? Something to think about." Meanwhile, a cover of the garage-rock standard "Farmer John" alongside frequent collaborator Jeffrey Evans finds Johnson updating the young lovers' plea with some fresher material: "I've been out of prison a couple of months and I know I'm not a good credit risk, but I love your daughter. I'm a good Christian man."
At its most memorable, the selections on Make It Stop! seem to draw closely from Johnson's own life, coming across — at the risk of being trite or facile — as moments of raw, funny performance therapy. In this vein, "Nudist Camp," recorded for the local Sugar Ditch label in 1993, is a funny/scary/disturbing, presumably embellished bit of autobiography about adolescent sexuality, with random tangents about Johnson's hatred of chihuahuas and the scarcity of free-range chicken in 1963. Says Johnson as the record fades: "I can take comfort in the fact that it will soon be all over."
On 2004's "You Talk, I Listen (Goin' to the Get High Shack)," over a series of pretty guitar riffs from Ron Franklin, Johnson delivers a sardonic series of admissions about his woman problems — "I've tried to do better, but, you know, I don't think I could reinvent myself or anything. I think I'm just gonna have to deal with what I got, which is bad blood, bad liver, bad intentions. But I was wondering if you could just tolerate that for the next five or 10 years?" — that evolves into a defense of self-medication, concluding that he's "just a man who needs some relief."
The record concludes with the 2005 recording "Signify," a painfully personal monologue that opens with the unforgettable question: "Did you ever get drunk at your daughter's birthday party?" From there, Johnson goes into great, twisty detail about the vagaries of dating during the dissolution of a marriage ("Is it okay to still be married and have two girlfriends who don't know about each other?") before turning back to the troublesome but not exactly rare topic of negotiating parenting with a substance-abuse problem.
But, if Johnson's recordings are often fascinating for those willing to work to meet them halfway, his lengthy liner notes to the compilation are perhaps better — eloquent, funny, and perceptive in a self-deprecating way. The combo of smarts and self-deprecation is a key to why Johnson's drunken rants are actually worth listening to. In a hipster culture that tends to feed on oft-times rickety mythologies, Johnson's self-puncturing wit refuses to allow his own indulgences to be romanticized.
In his liner notes essay, called "Assessing My Gift," Johnson introduces his story as a "self-indulgent narrative" about "a life characterized mainly by missteps and regret." He writes sharply (and not, as he fears, pretentiously) about the racial roots of Memphis' mid-century music boom: "A lot of people talk about how the Memphis sound was a blending of black and white musical strains. To me, it was about ignoring a contradiction and expressing a conflict that can never be resolved."
Refusing to brand himself a musician, he refers to himself as a "cranky record collector/critic who has been able to scam his way onto club stages and into recording studios by some combination of luck and desperate desire." He lacks, he says, the "conceit and bravado" to be a real musician, instead chalking up his work to "sociopathic nerve."
He confesses to feeling discomfort when listening to the material collected on Make It Stop! "I loved recording them," Johnson writes, "but I can't listen to them without cringing and feeling ashamed."
He shouldn't. Johnson's rantings are too smart, too funny, and too self-aware about the pitfalls within its own culture to warrant embarrassment. In taking pained memories and sources of regret and turning it into weird, wild art, Johnson's work is uncomfortable the way some of the best stand-up comedy is.
Johnson may think he's "the king of middle-aged garage-band losers," as he claims on "Southern Sissy," but Make It Stop! proves that he's made something of it.