Memphis Goons Live; A Triumph!

For the first time in 20 years, the Goons performed before an audience.

MEMPHIS, TENN. -- Whether they knew it or not, the hundred or so people

standing outside Shangri-La Records shop on Saturday witnessed a glorious

moment in Memphis music history. There, on a concrete slab doused with

late afternoon sunlight, the Memphis Goons staked their claim once and for

all.

The group once called "the quintessential garage band" because they never

performed outside their parents' homes reconvened for the first time in two

decades to prove that not only were they onto something lo those many years

ago, but that what they were onto was that same Memphis mojo that

bore the city crazed DJ Dewey Phillips, the wild-rocking Panther Burns and,

in its finest hours, Howlin' Wolf and Elvis Presley.

Othar Turner, for one, knew plain and simple what the Memphis Goons were

onto Saturday. The 90-year-old Mississippi fife player and national

treasure stood before God and the good citizens of Memphis and got

down the way that 90-year-old bones only do when the music is truly

righteous.

The occasion was, in a word, triumphant.

When the day began, the four Goons -- Xavier Tarpit, Wally Moth, Jackass

Thompson and Charlie Goon, a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known As Stringbean,

all of whom play guitar -- each carried an imaginary question mark over his

head. Despite the fact that they'd practiced for 20 hours over the two

days preceding Saturday's show, even they weren't certain that they could work

their heretofore cloistered magic before an actual audience.

The crowd itself was likely a mix of the unsure and the ignorant. Everyone

understood that the Goons' show was one of several sets to celebrate the

10th anniversary of the Shangri-La Records label. Some knew that last year

Shangri-La released Teenage BBQ, an album of songs that the Goons

recorded in their basements during the early '70s. A few in the crowd had

probably even heard the disc, a gonzo portent of Pavement and Sonic Youth

to come.

The Goons in the '70s were generating a lo-fi mix of bizarre concepts and

inspired playing. To be sure the sound was pure rock, but for the most part

like nothing that would be dreamed up until a decade or more down the line,

by which time it would be unfortunately saturated with irony, something

with which the Memphis Goons had no truck. Goons-rock is raw, mid-tempo

and demented -- sometimes out of tune, almost always off-kilter. Beyond

the sparseness, the key was texture: a familiar yet sometimes disconcerting

blend of guitars, piano and no drums.

But even among those versed in the Teenage BBQ, no one Saturday knew

what to expect when the Goons took their places in the sun. With their

opening song, a rough retelling of an unheard chestnut called "Shin Tone,"

the band effectively dropped a calling card that gave notice of the

weirdness to follow.

Then they dropped the bomb.

"It's been seven years since I've seen your face," Thompson intoned over

the slow, ominous opening notes of Teenage BBQ's "Sweet Love." By

the time he hit the aggressive, stop-short break -- "Yes I heard about your

marriage/ and I know all about your miscarriage" -- the personally reticent

guitarist was building to a barely restrained breaking point.

Several bars later, he declared "I never gave you hard time to speak of,"

and Thompson was singing not just a damaged love lament, but a declaration

for all the band, claiming in the name of the Goons the attention of all

those standing before them as back payment for those who'd despised their

ilk in the past.

The band then drove the song into a steam engine rave-up that set Othar

Turner stepping and audience jaws dropping. If Thompson, Tarpit, Moth and

Stringbean were metaphorically playing for the past, they were sonically

playing very much for the present. As the Goons were, so they are, and

likely shall ever be.

"That's the way to do it!" shouted Turner when the song finally wound down.

And by and large that's the way the Memphis Goons continued to do it.

Sure, there were some missteps (notably a blues song called "Goons Grocery

Boogie"), but these were easily outweighed by the victories. A new song

called "Walk in the Dark" matched the mettle of "Sweet Love," as Stringbean

took off on a lap steel space exploration while Tarpit, Thompson and Moth

pushed the number riff-hard through the musical night.

The Memphis Goons returned to the stage later that evening at a downtown

club called Barrister's, but by then they'd already answered definitively

the question of whether they still had the mojo. Still, more songs were

unveiled ("Magic Blue Sparks," "I Wish I Was A Millionaire," "I Come From

Whitehaven," "Big Hair, Fuzzy Slippers") and the band won itself a hearty

audience reception.

The day destined to pass through local lore as the Memphis Goons'

Triumphant Return was capped off perfectly when the band obliged a request

from Shangri-La owner Sherman Willmott for Teenage BBQ's folky "Miss

Maggie Ann." The words and rhythm shared by Thompson and Moth appeared to

travel straight through the ether from their high-school past right onto

Barrister's stage.

Of course the more likely explanation is that, despite few people having

heard of the Memphis Goons until 25 years past their heyday, the band's

members had all along held the work close to their hearts, if perhaps

unconsciously.

Which is another way of saying that the Goons are the latest inhabitants to

step out of the same rock 'n' roll shadow world that in the past has

sheltered other Memphians such as Alex Chilton.

Welcome to the light, boys.