The story of Memphis, Tenn., is the story of sonic righteousness thriving unnoticed.
No one was looking as sage producer Sam Phillips recorded first Howlin'
Wolf and then Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Nor were they watching in the
'70s when power-pop homesteaders Big Star cleared the way for R.E.M. and
the Replacements to follow.
This weekend, while the eyes of the American music industry are focused
intently on Austin, Texas -- home to the nation's premier rock 'n' roll
conference, South By Southwest -- the Delta city is once again playing host
to raw genius as unhallowed sons the Memphis Goons perform together for
the first time in more than two decades.
"The sound is still weird -- very weird," said Goon founder Xavier Tarpit
by phone from his former hometown of Memphis on Friday morning. "We really play well together, but we're all very weird, so the sound together can be very
Twenty-five years ago, the Memphis Goons' off-kilter, experimental rock was
rebuffed by even the town's allegedly progressive FM radio station. When
the band arrived in Memphis on Thursday, another local station attempted to
make amends by playing the Goons' "Bring the House Down" in anticipation of
their two weekend gigs.
The Goons' contributions to Memphis music lore were born in 1968, when
Tarpit began probing the boundaries of rock with collaborator Wally Moth;
they were soon joined by Jackass Thompson.
For eight years, the three multi-instrumentalists labored in obscurity,
following a strict creative regimen of "write, record and move on" that
resulted in hundreds of hours of tape -- material that, in retrospect, is
clearly the antecedent for modern greats such as Pavement and Sonic Youth.
Twenty of the band's admittedly most accessible tracks were released last
year as Teenage BBQ on the Shangri-La label. The Goons' shows this
weekend -- a Saturday afternoon sidewalk gig and an evening performance at
Club Barristers -- will highlight a 10th anniversary celebration for
"It's going to be challenging music," said Tarpit, still groggy from an
11-hour practice the night before. "Some of the songs are very tight,
short and centered. But then we have these jams that are very weird. We
did a jam last night on an old song called 'Shin Tone' that lasted for half
an hour. It was one of the weirdest things I've ever heard."
Saturday's shows will also feature the debut of the newest Goon, The Artist
Formerly Known As Stringbean. While members plan to switch instruments
round-robin style, the general four-piece lineup will feature six-string,
12-string and lap-steel guitars, plus bass.
New songs such as Moth's "In the Delta" and "Simple Life" are likely
candidates for the rare performance. While the Goons may wade into older
work such as "Children of Danger" and "Big Bad Businessman Blues," Tarpit
said they will avoid seemingly obvious song choices such as "Bring the
"We're not necessarily audience-responsive," he said, an obvious
understatement to those versed in the legend of the Goons' lone public
performance in the '70s -- a backyard gig that prompted neighbor kids to
pelt the group with rocks.
Although the Memphis Goons have been reunited for less than a day, they are
making every effort to consecrate this weekend's events. Shortly after
arriving in town, the band made a pilgrimage to the Clarksdale, Miss., home
of the crossroads of Routes 49 and 61, where Delta bluesman Robert Johnson
purportedly relinquished his soul to the devil.
The musicians, however, were searching for an anointed home of a different
sort: a block of establishments -- Goons Grocery, Goons Liquors, Goons
Furniture -- owned by Cambodian immigrant Charles Goon.
"He's the spiritual father of the Memphis Goons," Tarpit said. "He sold us
a sign from Goons Grocery and we made him an honorary member."