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Mar 2001 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

Burnt Cornbread and an Aussie for Rosco
By Chris King

Out of the blue, e-mail-style, I got a message from this guy in Melbourne, Australia, named Lloyd. He seems to be a lawyer; certainly he is a radio DJ on the side with great love and respect for American roots music in general and Rosco Gordon in particular. He wrote us looking for Rosco's phone number, and did so in such a touching way that I started chatting with him through our computers. Here's a taste of his e-mail voice:

"Yes, I read your article on Rosco & Tiger, the rotten dog. "It was quite touching, even with the humor. Sad too. Here I am having contributed little to the world, really, and living comfortably — and this great artist/visionary is living on the 17th floor of some apartment building. In a just world, he would be living on 20 acres in a huge marble monstrosity sipping Scotch while being attended to by his man-servants Michael Bolton and Richard Clayderman."

Recognizably "one of us," no? I told him he made me feel bad, striving so hard to talk to Rosco from the other side of the globe when I live across town and haven't called him in months. So I got off-line and called our man. He was feeling rotten, with two bulging discs that have him in misery. I made a plan to see him, then returned to my e-mail to deliver the news to Lloyd. His response:

"I won't ring Rosco until after Thursday in the hope that your visit will cheer him up somewhat. I feel like I impose on the musicians I speak to enough without being the stranger from the other side of the world hassling them for old memories when they have more immediate problems. It may cheer Rosco up to ask him about Butch the Chook (Rosco's pet rooster that is siting on Rosco's piano in an old Rock 'n' Roll exploitation movie "Rock, Rock" or something). We always speculated that the poor thing had to be nailed there, given that it didn't try to flee when Rosco started his raucous pounding and singing. Hah."

So I went to see Rosco at his apartment in Rego Park. The back pain had him looking smaller and older, though he was proud to show me a new set of honors that had been bestowed upon him by the city of Memphis and a roots music foundation. Then I sipped a Guiness as he played me his new record, "Memphis, Tennessee," out on Stony Plain Records. As the disc spun we sat on Rosco's couch facing the busted piano we first tracked him playing, with its highest pitched key but one forever pressed half down as if some ghost was trying to hold a piercing note long after the string quit ringing.

Rosco's new record was produced by Duke Robillard and backed by his band, and it's pretty damn good. They did it live in three days, and you can hear both the aliveness of the session and Rosco's deepening exhaustion. It is interesting to compare it to our work with him. Robillard had the enormous advantage of a live band, whereas Elijah tracked Rosco solo and then arranged overdubs. Robillard made many wise decisions, starting with insisting that Rosco play the piano tracks, and he got good sounds, but Elijah coaxed better performances out of Rosco. I wish more people could hear our version of "You Don't Care About Nothing." Robillard had the inspired idea of closing their record with Rosco solo rendition of this track, but the guy is just wiped out by then and you can hear it. Twice he ga! sps and it sounds like he's drawing a hocker. Elijah caught him in full power, and did a sweet job of filling out the tune by tracking overdubs — especially strings and a wonderfully responsive drum part by Ken Coomer, late of the pop band Wilco. But hey, Robillard finished his record, we didn't finish ours, and thanks to him Rosco is getting some exposure and should see some bread, too. Blessings and a big skunk salute to the undertaking.

While we were hanging out, Rosco tossed off some great lines. Fiddling with his multi-disc CD changer, trying to get it to eject so he could play his record, he said, "Come on, open your mouth." Enjoying the record at its best, he said, "All this is live — no chemicals."

He also reminded me, as always, how shrewd he is. After a two-minute pause the record appends, as a coda, an interview with Rosco. At one point in the interview he bemoans a gig where he was backed by three accordion players. "That was in Louisiana," he said to me on the couch, facing the busted piano. "But you'll kill yourself on the radio, saying the state." Meaning: It will be seen as a sign of disrespect and hurt sales there. "You got to think, think!" he said, jabbing at his head.

Rosco has been having some trouble thinking lately. The latest in a line of bad domestic scenes, plus the bulging discs, have him down. He didn't even have one new finished song to play me after months of being out of touch. He did sit down at his new keyboard and play me some fragments and I threw lyrics at him, trying to give him something he could use. He had a first verse:

"You're thinking of someone
You're saying things in your sleep
You don't say when you're awake"

Right away I could see a song structure. Verse two would begin:

"You're thinking of someplace
Some place far away"

And verse three:

"You're thinking of some time
When you're not mine"

He seized upon it as a structure that would help him finish the song, and even busted into a bridge pattern on the piano, telling me: "Sing something!" I gave it a shot:

"We're of two minds
Black and white
Night and day
Home and away"

He had me write it down, so I know he can use it. For Rosco that means it will lead him to something else, something more individual to him, but he was grateful in hard times to have any help at all (any puddle in a desert). He even grasped me as I was leaving, unsentimental guy that he is, and said, "I love you like a brother. Stick with me."

I had promised Lloyd, our Australian DJ, an autograph of Rosco in exchange for a mix tape of music from Melbourne, and Rosco obliged. As he signed a bio from an old press kit I thought, "Shit, might as well, if I don't I might wonder some day why I didn't." I had with me a copy of "The Palm Wine Drinkard" by Amos Tutuola (who also wrote "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," which David Byrne and Eno titled a fine record after). Rosco claims he owes his musical career to a youthful enthusiasm for wine — he was discovered when he sang in a talent show to make some wine money — and I wanted his autograph for myself more or less in anticipation of some future day when Rosco would be wandering the bush of ghosts and not living across town for me to drop in on, so I had him sign the b! ook.

As he walked me out, Rosco said, "Now, whatcha gonna write about this? Burnt cornbread?" I knew what he was saying. A profile of Rosco I had once published mentioned the time I tried to cook him a meal but burnt the cornbread, so he didn't eat it. Obviously he thought that was trivial and negative and beneath mention. I argued that it just showed his human side, and suggested the depth of our connection. He wasn't persuaded, and for his sake I left out the equivalent of some burnt cornbread in this little piece, though surely some crumbs remain because I, for one, love burnt cornbread.

Chris King (brodog@skuntry.com) grew up in Granite City, Illinois, in a storytelling kind of family. His aunts were the narrative geniuses, though one cousin, Bobby Butler (or "Robert Olen Butler" on book spines), has won a Pulitzer Prize for short fiction. Chris studied literature at Washington University, quit grad school to tour with the rock band Enormous Richard and eventually settled in New York City. He is married to Karley, a former Olympic athlete from Togo, and edits a travel magazine for money. For kicks, he maintains two Web sites, www.hoobellatoo.org (an oral history/ field recording project) and www.skuntry.com (an indie record label), and writes an e-mail newsletter called "Art Dog" based on his travels and life in the big city. He still misses St. Louis.

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