Creative Writing

Published on January 9th, 2016 | by Rafael Alvarez


Marc Ribot, Way Down South: Part One

marc ribotMarc Ribot, the well-traveled guitarist best known for his work with Tom Waits and the Lounge Lizards, laments that he has yet to play a gig in Mississippi.

“A terrible oversight,” he said backstage at an East Baltimore movie theater in early December 2015 before providing music for Chaplin’s silent film The Kid.

If you have not seen The Kid – a 1921 gem of love and anguish and good humor – you must. Released the same year Mamie “Crazy Blues” Smith discovered Coleman Hawkins playing saxophone in an orchestra pit, The Kid is the blues as only a tramp on the hustle knows them.

If you have not heard the music of Marc Ribot – delicate and haunting when not harsh and unnerving – you have yet to find a treasure map to the musical heart of America, a muscle of love and regret in conflict with itself.

“Both melodic and atonal,” said hot jazz guitarist Michael Joseph Harris of the band Ultrafaux. “He keeps the momentum going as he plays while maintaining tension and release in the music.”

“There are stark moments that are almost uncomfortable just before fluid moments of childlike imagination.”

Occasions stark and uncomfortable followed by flashes of unexpected joy.

Is that not Mississippi?

Some 30 years ago, about the time Ribot helped define the fecund Waits LP Rain Dogs, he took a classic Memphis to New Orleans road trip in a car that had belonged to the deceased father of an ex-girlfriend (a woman who didn’t drive.) It may have been a late 70s Pontiac, an unreliable one. 

“The trip began in [Washington] D.C. after a Lounge Lizards gig at the [old] 9:30 Club,” said Ribot, an early member of John Lurie’s legendary band for which he played guitar and trumpet. 

Hugging the eastern shore of the Great Muddy, Ribot began his Highway 61 rite-of-passage with a visit to Rufus Thomas, born in Cayce, Mississippi in 1917, dying 84 years later in Memphis.

“My band the Realtones [soul/punk, ’84-to-‘89] had backed up Rufus at an R&B revival series at Tramps in New York,” said Ribot. “I figured if we were going down to Memphis, I may as well say hello to Rufus.”

If the simple courtesy call to the man who showed us how to “walk the dog” wasn’t sacrament enough to launch a Deep South voyage, Ribot recalled that “Rufus showed me pictures of himself leading a very young Elvis out on stage.”

Adios Rufus, hello Great Magnolia State

Ribot – who performs a near baleful, electric interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night/Cold was the Ground” – drove down into the Delta with his friend, the Pontiac sputtering on the way.

On down to the Crescent City where they visited another of Ribot’s friends – a female singer – in the midst of a ferocious argument with a one-footed boyfriend.

“Oh baby,” moaned Muddy Waters, “you got me standin’ around crying…”

“A real knockdown drag out, Streetcar Named Desire fight” said Ribot. “They were going at each other while she was trying to serve us tea in the other room.”

Tea, apparently, was served without the assistance of police officers.

And then it was back into the Delta on an eastward slant across lower Mississippi for home in Gotham City, where the Newark, New Jersey born Ribot still lives, “and we happened upon an outdoor barbecue and crawfish party for a local candidate during election time.

“We joined the crowd and had a great time. That’s what I like about the South.”

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About the Author

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter, short story writer & screenwriter based in Baltimore. He has been visiting & writing about Mississippi since 1984. A former staff writer for HBO's "The Wire," his new book is a collection of short fiction called "Tales From the Holy Land."

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