Marshall Chapman: 'Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller'
Marshall Chapman's father, a South Carolina cotton mill owner, was expecting her to grow into a delicate debutante. Instead, his daughter became a hard-living musician whose songs have been covered by Jimmy Buffett, Joe Cocker, Tanya Tucker and many others. Chapman's new memoir and accompanying CD are called Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller.
Below is an excerpt from Marshall Chapman's book.
Jerry Lee Lewis once gave me advice on how to live my life. It was New Year's Eve, 1978. My band, Jaded Virgin, and I had just opened a show for him in Atlanta, Georgia. The Great Southeast Music Hall was hot, packed and ready that night--and so were we. With Marshall amps stacked to the ceiling, we played our usual sizzling and explosive set, working the crowd into a hot and sweaty frenzy before retiring to the small dressing room that'd been reserved for me, my band, and Jerry Lee's band. (Jerry Lee had the larger dressing room across the stage all to himself.) I later learned that Jerry Lee's people had not only requested the use of our dressing room, but of our equipment as well. When my manager had asked for something in writing--some sort of guarantee that our equipment wouldn't be destroyed--Jerry Lee's manager had replied, "Hell, when I started working for Jerry Lee, I quit guaranteeing anything!"
I also later learned that Jerry Lee had wandered from the safe confines of his dressing room that night and had stood in the wings to check us out while we were rocking away onstage. His road manager JW later told me this was something he had never seen his boss do. He'd never seen ol' Lee-J--that's what JW called him, "Lee-J"--leave his dressing room for anybody, much less the opening act.
Speaking of Lee-J, Jerry Lee probably has more nicknames for himself than anybody who's ever been in show business: "The Killer," "JLL," "Ol' Jerry Lee," "The Ol' Killer,"... the list goes on and on. Anyone who has ever been to a Jerry Lee Lewis show can tell you how Jerry Lee will insert his name into the lyric of a song at the drop of a hat. In fact, once you've seen him do it, you come to expect it. And if he didn't, you'd walk away feeling somehow cheated.
There's an expression in show business that says a great singer--a stylist--can "take a song and make it his own." And I'm telling you, Jerry Lee Lewis can take a song, make it his own, and stamp his damn name on it lest you ever forget where it came from. Don't ask me how, but he can insert his name into "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and make you forget all about Judy Garland.
In those days, I had a Polaroid camera that I'd take with me out on the road. It was the perfect accoutrement for ‘70s rock and roll--instant and disposable. I liked to take pictures of unusual things I'd see out there, so I was taking a lot of pictures. Sometimes I'd take them from onstage during our show, sailing the still-developing snapshots like little Frisbees out into the audience. That night at the Music Hall, I was hoping to get a Polaroid taken of me with Jerry Lee for my own personal rock ‘n' roll archives.
For my money, when it comes to rock and roll, Jerry Lee is in an upper echelon triumvirate consisting of the father, the prodigal son, and the holy ghost--Elvis being the father and Little Richard the holy ghost. And I always liked that John Lennon quote about "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" being the only rock ‘n' roll song ever recorded: "The rest of us are doing something else," he said.
So after our set, still drenched in sweat, I stepped across the back of the stage, camera in hand, for what I hoped would be an impromptu photo session with The Killer.
The first person I ran into was Phoebe, Jerry Lee's then-fourteen-year-old daughter by his once-thirteen-year-old cousin-wife. Now I wouldn't see Phoebe again for another twenty years. Not until 1998 in Memphis, when I played the Blues City Café, a club she was managing on Beale Street. The gig was a NARAS-sponsored songwriter thing hosted by my friend Keith Sykes. I'd driven over from Nashville that day in time for sound check and, while waiting around (sound checks are notorious for lots of waiting around), I inquired about a dressing room. The bartender told me they didn't have one but I was welcome to use the upstairs office. Trudging up the stairs with my guitar, I heard a booming female voice: "Marshall Chapman! Where have you been? I thought you'd be dead by now!" It didn't take long to figure out who the voice belonged to. There were pictures of Jerry Lee all over the walls. I looked at them, then looked back at her. She was his spitting image, only with long, strawberry blond hair. And pretty, if you can imagine that.
"Phoebe?" I said. "Is that you?"
In the ensuing conversation, I asked how she got her name. Turns out "Phoebe" was the name of a character from one of her mother's favorite soap operas. I thought that was cool. Where I come from, you always got named after somebody else in your family, and it didn't matter if they were dead or alive. I'd grown up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with two other Marshall Chapmans--an uncle and a first cousin. Sometimes I think I went to Nashville for no other reason than to be in a city where I could have my own name. I have friends who've named their children after things like an island or a bottle of wine. Names like "Cayman," "Merlot." Names with romantic attachments to the circumstances surrounding conception. My mother once told me that I was conceived on a train going to New York City. She said it wasn't easy either since she and my dad were both real tall and crammed into a sleeping berth. I got the impression that a lot of giggling and maneuvering was involved.
But back to Atlanta and the fourteen-year-old Phoebe. I asked her if she wouldn't mind taking a picture of me with her dad.
"Sure," she said. "Want to meet him first?"
I nodded that yes, I would like that very much. So before taking the now-treasured photo of me and her dad draped over an easy chair looking for all the world like two teenagers at a first prom, introductions were made. "Hi," I said extending my hand, whereupon Jerry Lee withdrew his like a snake'd bit it. He then looked right at me, his eyes burning with a mixture of tongue-in-cheek danger and mock fear, masking what I can now only imagine as disbelief. Then he said--and I've never forgotten it--"Don't you burn out now, hon'."
A year or so later, when I found myself in one of those hospitals for tired people, I began to think about what Jerry Lee had said. I mean it's one thing when your mother says "Honey, don't you think you'd better slow down?" But when The Killer voices his concern... well now, that's a whole nother thing. It might just be time for a little self-reevaluation.
For the past thirty years, I have played in rock and roll bands, written over two hundred songs, recorded eight albums on four different labels, and performed music in so many places it exhausts me to think about them: a concert hall in Invercargill, New Zealand, a cave in Matala on the isle of Crete, a maximum security compound at the Tennessee State Prison for Women, Tomorrowland at Disney World, and the Knaughty Knight--a biker club in Morgan City, Louisiana--are just a few of the more exotic venues. Just listing these places makes me wonder how I'm still around.
In 1997, here in Nashville, my boyfriend Chris Fletcher and I bought a house in a Mayberry-for-eccentrics-type neighborhood. For a while, I was perfectly content fixing it up, overseeing little renovations here and there, and working in the yard. That winter, I even bought a twenty-pound log splitter and would go out in the backyard every morning and split wood until the sweat started steaming from my body like those horses in that Alfred Stieglitz photograph. Chris thought I was losing my mind until he started reading some book where the protagonist starts chopping wood to keep from losing her mind. After that, he quit worrying. One of the things I love about Chris is that I could go out in the yard and chop wood with nothing on but a pair of men's boxer shorts and it wouldn't phase him in the least. My bizarre behavior is not a reflection on him. He does, however, draw the line at openly breaking the law. If we're at a museum and I reach over or walk around one of those velvet ropes so I can better see the details of a painting, well, he will walk away and pretend like he doesn't know who I am. Anyway, so we bought this house, and right away I started going through the June Cleaver homemaking phase that all my women friends went through in their twenties and thirties while I was out rockin' and rollin'.
It's been over five years now since I've toured with a band, so the phone has pretty much stopped ringing. I may play again, mind you, but I'm starting to dig whatever this is. I still write the occasional song and have a wonderful new collection ready to record, but the chasm separating what I'm interested in and what the mainstream sector of the music industry is interested in has never been wider. Maybe Daniel Lanois will call tomorrow and beg to produce my next CD. If that happens, I may drop everything and fly to New Orleans. Just recently, I played a new song for a country-music record-executive friend. The song is about being a particle in space. His comment afterward was "Now is that a boy or a girl?"
Okay, so I do not want to think about writing songs for country radio anymore. I do not want to play smoke-filled clubs anymore. In short, I do not want to leave my one third of an acre yard anymore unless it's to go to the local H. G. Hill Food Store. But when the June Cleaver homemaking phase started to lose its luster, I began to write this book.
These are the stories behind twelve of my songs that belong to an exclusive club. I call them my "lifesavers." Each one possessed me at a time in my life when I needed to be possessed or I might have done something fatally rash. I may not have chosen the twelve best songs or even the twelve most commercial. Just the ones that have the best stories around them.
In closing, I'll quote an old renegade-writer-ordained-Baptist-preacher friend of mine who years ago closed a conversation of ours with: "Keep it in the yard." And now that I think about it, Will Campbell and ol' Jerry Lee have a lot in common.
From Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller by Marshall Chapman, St. Martin's Press
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