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.