’98’s Best: Memphis Goons Live; A Triumph!

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

[Editor’s note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at
1998’s top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, March 23.]

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

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

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

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.

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