There are things we know — like the fact that Memphis is mentioned in more songs than any other city in the world. And there are things we don’t know — like many, if not most, of the actual songs mentioning Memphis in their lyrics. Oh sure, there are some good lists. And everybody knows biggies like “Proud Mary” and Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” But for every well-known Memphis song you can name, there are dozens more that have fallen through the cracks.
Well, I suppose you can call me a crackhead, because that’s where I go looking for my music, and in March, Memphis’ 901 blog published a column considering two of my favorite Memphis songs “you’ve probably never heard.” That first article focused on Sonny Craver’s fantastically over-the-top love letter, “Outside of Memphis,” and George Clappes’ deeply weird song-poem, “I Found My Love in Memphis.” But there are so many more artifacts and oddities out there worthy of our attention. “Considering a Move to Memphis” by The Colorblind James Experience is one of the strangest and one of the best.
Unlike the previous records I’ve written about, “Considering a Move to Memphis” was a hit; it just wasn’t a hit in America. The song landed on U.K. charts after super-DJ and music producer John Peel put it on his “Festive Fifty” list for 1987. This must have come as quite a surprise to members of the CBJ Experience who never liked the song and quit the band shortly after it was written.
In spite of the U.K. airplay Colorblind James never made a real splash in the United States and band member Phil Marshall describes “Considering a Move to Memphis” as “the song that didn’t change a damn thing.” Oh well.
The genius of “Considering a Move to Memphis” lies in how effortlessly [Colorblind] James Charles Cuminale of Rochester, New York, transforms contemptible sonic concepts like “easy listening” and “elevator music” into weird old American folk music. It’s a quirky spoken-word piece recorded over a mind-numbingly repetitive vibraphone riff with deadpan backing vocals. It’s musical pop art, and even though it was written in 1983, it plays out like a satirical answer to Marc Cohn’s 1991 “Walking in Memphis”:
“I’ll visit the Graceland mansion and set my face in wax Then go back to my motel room to file my income tax I’m considering a move to Memphis and this much I know When I arrive in Memphis, I’ll have to spend my dough I’ll walk down to Beale Street to watch the jug band show I’ll shake hands with Gus Cannon, he’s someone I should know I’ll get myself a motel room that’s not too small to see I’ll get one with a private bath and a black and white tv Memphis isn’t all that big, at least that’s how I found it Why, it took only an hour and a half to walk completely around it Memphis isn’t all that big, it isn’t all that wide Still, it is the kind of place where a country boy can hide”
It’s reasonable to guess, based on size descriptions and humorous assumptions regarding the availability of Polish cuisine, that Cuminale had never actually visited the Bluff City. That doesn’t mean there’s not a real hometown angle to this story.
In 1996, The Grifters released their fourth full-length CD, Ain’t My Lookout — its first for the Seattle-based Sub Pop label. Track #7 is titled “Last Man Alive.” It’s a classic example of The Grifters’ gritty, glittery art-pop, and it includes a shout-out by co-frontman Dave Shouse. “As for me, of course I’m enraptured by the lilting sounds of Colorblind James,” Shouse croons, “Left for all time, waiting for the last man alive.”
The first time I heard “Last Man Alive,” I assumed Shouse was just riffing on Memphis’ musical heritage and had invented a fictional psychedelic bluesman exclusively for this song. Years would pass before I Googled the lyric, only to discover “Considering a Move to Memphis” and a treasure trove of other new-wave folk songs by the Colorblind James Experience. My favorite is probably this dreary acoustic guitar ballad, “Fledgling Circus,” about a guy who made a terrible career choice.