There are 2 punk rock legends in that photo and 2 writers, and they've both got connections to the city of Memphis. Robert Moss, on the left, a one-time member of D.C. Dischord legends Government Issue and Artificial Peace, has written a remarkable novel set largely in the city and he was lucky enough to get a pic of Tav Falco, there on the right, with the book. Both of these musician-slash-writers have drawn inspiration from the city of Memphis and the very early days of rock 'n' roll with Moss having recently turned that inspiration into a fine, fine novel.
Descending Memphis is an assured genre-hopper set in the South of the Fifties. Populated by larger-than-life characters -- including some real-life ones like Johnny Cash -- the Memphis of the book is a place dripping with near-noir menace and atmosphere. Robert Moss has done something special here as the book is as much an accomplished bit of page-turning genre fiction, as much as it's an impressive stab at something more literary in nature. Tackling issues like racism and black/white relations in the South of the not-so-distant past, Descending Memphis covers a lot of ground with a mix of economy and style that made me really enjoy the novel. Serving as both a traditional detective story and a fictionalized journey through the early days of rock 'n' roll in the birthplace of the form, Descending Memphis was a blast to read and I was truly sorry to see it end. Here's hoping that Moss will decided to write another book and bring Tommy Rhodeen back to chase clues in perhaps another city and another era.
In the mean-time, while we're waiting for that, here's my interview with author Robert Moss where he discuses both his wonderful novel as well as his memories of the harDCore scene recently chronicled in the fine 2014 film Salad Days.
Glenn, kenixfan: What was the inspiration for Descending Memphis?A big "Thank you!" to Robert Moss. Descending Memphis is available from Amazon.com and other fine booksellers, and be sure to check out the Descending Memphis website too.
Robert Moss: It began with a question that popped in my head. What if Johnny Cash never made it as a musician, but instead became a private investigator with the same personality. A rebel who fights for the little guy, but is full of flaws and has a dark side. But then I came across a series of books about a fictitious Elvis Presley who, between concerts, moonlights as a private detective. Those books are pretty crass. I didn’t want to do anything that might seem connected to that. So I dropped the idea of fictitious Johnny Cash, P.I., and I created my own protagonist, Tommy Rhodeen. In the end, I’m glad it worked out this way.
Glenn, kenixfan: Did you do a lot of research before you wrote the novel?
Robert Moss: Yeah, I started by reading. Books, online, anything I could find about what was happening in Memphis in 1956, and not just about rock ’n’ roll. I spoke with Craig Morrison, the guy who wrote Go Cat Go!, which is a great book on the history of rockabilly. He recommended some guys to talk to. They introduced me to others. One was one of the last surviving members of the "Memphis Mafia", but he didn’t want to talk to me.
[So] I kept going. But besides the music, I needed to know what the city was like in those days and I came across two Memphis historians. Gene Gill and David French. Both grew up there and were about the same age as my protagonist around the time my story takes place. They answered my questions and told me about things -- like the odd liquor laws that existed in Tennessee, even after Prohibition -- that made their way into the book. I also met Ruth White, who’s been in the music business since 1947. She’s 85 years old. She’s from Nashville and worked on Music Row. Her husband, Howard, was a well-known steel guitar player. Ruth filled me in on the honky-tonks and other stuff.
Glenn, kenixfan: At some points, Descending Memphis reads in the best possible way like a lost bit of classic genre fiction from the era. At others, it reads as a sort of commentary on issues (race, drugs, rock ’n’ roll) from that era. Did you intentionally set out to write more than a thriller? How much were you aiming to do something more than just crank out a page-turner?
Robert Moss: Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were my two biggest influences when I began writing Descending Memphis. But much of that was stripped out during re-writes. I got rid of what seems like pages and pages of similes and metaphors. There are some left, but I began to look more to Raymond Carver and other writers for inspiration. But to answer your question about writing more than a thriller or a detective story. Yeah, I wanted the book to also be a coming-of-age story, and for the protagonist to experience significant life-changing events. That’s the opposite of a Phillip Marlowe or a Sam Spade. I still wanted those page-turner elements, but I wanted the reader to identify with Tommy Rhodeen, my main character, and to feel what he’s going through.
Glenn, kenixfan: The references to real people, like Johnny Cash, feel genuine and things are plausible. Can you describe your process as a writer when working on this book, knowing that you were writing about another era and one in which people like Johnny Cash were wandering around town?
Robert Moss: That was something that could have blown up in my face. Before I wrote the scene where Tommy meets Johnny Cash, I listened to recordings of Cash speaking and tried to write dialog that sounded like something he’d say. I also based characters on real people, but who were not as well known. Like Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond, and Roland Janes. That gave me more latitude. And to keep things authentic I kept going back to my notes from talking with people who grew up in Memphis and Nashville, as well as what I’d read about the period. Sometimes I’d come up with a new scene and I’d call Ruth, or one of the others. They were pretty patient with me [laughs].
Robert Moss: There were several bands before Artificial Peace, leading up to that one. Different singers, different guitar players. Brian Gay was the first. He was also the original bass player in Government Issue. Before the GIs formed, Brian and I wrote songs that sounded more like what you’d hear on 30 Seconds Over DC than on Flex Your Head. All of us lived in Bethesda and, except for Pete, we all went to the same high school. That song "Outside Looking In" kind of summed us up at the time. Georgetown wasn’t really our hangout, and we felt like we were never completely part of the scene. In retrospect, that was probably more in our heads than in real life. Anyway, I was surprised when Ian called me in 2010, saying he wanted to release the entire November ’81 session as an album. That was the same session in which we recorded our three songs that are on Flex Your Head. Apparently, our demo tape had been playing in Ian’s tour van for years. The other sessions we recorded didn’t go as well, and were badly mixed.
Glenn, kenixfan: What was it like being in Government Issue during one of that band’s most fertile eras? Any good “touring with Stabb” stories?
Robert Moss: The GIs were friends of mine, and I’d known Marc Alberstadt since kindergarten. We did the ’83 US tour driving Stabb’s dad’s Buick, towing a U-Haul full of gear. No roadies. No driver. Tom Lyle and I drove nearly the entire time. John didn’t drive. I don’t think he has a license. We’d let Marc drive only during the day, never at night. Touring with John Stabb? He’d get on peoples’ nerves, but I think we all did so it evened out. The best part was just us showing up at all these towns. People knew all the words to our songs and they’d put us up at their place. We never slept a night in a hotel, but sometimes where we stayed was pretty rough.
Glenn, kenixfan: So how did you make the transition from harDCore to a regular job?
Robert Moss: The scene changed so much by the time I left Government Issue. That was the fall of ’83. It wasn’t fun anymore. For me, that is. I’d already put a lot of myself into putting a band together and writing songs with Artificial Peace, and I was ready for a change. I didn’t want to try to make a living in music. It was time to focus on something else. For a while, it was college.
Glenn, kenixfan: If you had to explain in one paragraph, how did you go from being a punk rocker in D.C., to doing marketing, to living in China, to writing a novel?
Robert Moss: I didn’t plan it. Things kind of happened and often not what I expected. I went to film school at NYU and concentrated in cinematography. It was after I’d graduated and was working that I realized I like coming up with ideas better than lighting and camera, I wanted to do something more conceptual, and I got into advertising. I didn’t actually live in China, but I’ve been there many times and stayed a while. My wife’s from Shanghai. She grew up there. Her parents still live there, and she has a lot of cousins, aunts, uncles and one grandma there as well. We met in Los Angeles. She and our son go back every year. During the summer. I visit every other year or so. As far as writing a novel, I wouldn’t have done it 10 or 20 years ago. Not just because the traditional publishing route was a game I didn’t want to play. And that distribution for self-published books didn’t exist like it does now. I wasn’t ready to write a story worth telling back then. I hadn’t lived yet. It’s the same reason I didn’t write a screenplay right after getting out of film school.
Glenn, kenixfan: How do you write dialog?
Robert Moss: Well there’s the sort of transactional dialog that helps you get from point A to point B. Like, “Pass the salt.” But a lot of the more interesting dialog I base on things I’ve heard people say. Either to me, or by eavesdropping on folks’ conversations. Things I may’ve heard years ago and filed away in my head. Then it’s tuning the phrase to sound like it belongs to the character. Word choice, grammar, or lack of it. Regional inflection. I try not to go overboard because it can call too much attention to itself.
Glenn, kenixfan: What’s next for you as a novelist or writer? Have you ever considered writing a non-fiction book on the early days of rock ’n’ roll in Memphis?
Robert Moss: I have some ideas for a follow up to Descending Memphis, but not in the conventional sequel or series type of story. The book would still be connected, just maybe not in a way most people would expect. But it would explain certain things that happened in Descending Memphis, which I deliberately left open ended. Non-fiction? My gut says no, but that could change. Like I said, I often end up doing things I hadn’t planned.
[Photos: band photos by Jim Saah or Malcolm Riviera; top photo by Robert Moss]