After thoroughly enjoying the BBC TV doc about William Eggleston this evening on the old iPlayer (“Imagine – The Colourful Mr Eggleston”), I thought anyone else who saw it may get a kick outta this…
Drinking with Bill
“Sonic Reducer’s art correspondent, Mr. John Weeden, recalls how he met lauded Memphis photographer William Eggleston, who rock ‘n’ roll dawgs may know from his pictures on the covers of Big Star’s Radio City, Alex Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbert and, most inappropriately, Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up.
It was close to around ten o’clock on a Wednesday night, and I’d been at it for near onto four hours already. These kind of art sale gigs were dull as dirt. But I’d volunteered, under pressure from the owner of the garage downtown where I ran the picture gallery, in exchange for the tip jar on opening nights and a place to paint. It was Crinkley Sherbert’s show, a benefit in a bank lobby past the parkway, by the mall where the Barbaras met in the toilets to comb each other’s hair in an unconventional fashion.
They were auctioning off snowglobes for Christmas. Who got the dough, I never did know. I was behind the information desk, now converted into a bar by virtue of the empty bottles and cocktail napkins, shifting sour red wine to the frou-frous, with my intern Cammie alongside. She was making nice with dirty old men who were desperate to outlive their wives just for a chance at her. Cammie was a knockout blonde from Alabama – Montgomery, maybe – a dressed-in-black senior Chi-Omega at Rhodes College whose favored hobbies were bourbon and making nice with dirty old men who were desperate to outlive their old women. More exactly, it was the driving them wild with hopes of consummation that she liked, grinning sweetly wicked when the fur-fringed grand dames finally took notice of their sorry excuses for men and sidled up to the counter, dragging them, startled and stuttering, back to the conversation of their constituents. Little Miss Dixie, meanwhile, positively glistened with pride and waved like a prom queen as they shuffled away, slump-shouldered and very much against their will.
At least the drinks were free. I’d decided, years earlier, that bad poison could be remarkably appealing when you were broke and it was a gratis affair. Everyone else seemed to agree. Although I was fairly certain that the planters and bankers were a far sight better off than me, at that moment, they were too interested in Cammie and her low cut curves to care whether the wine was rank or not. My tongue ached of tannin and sulfite. I was dying for a cigarette. Cammie smiled with purple teeth as I passed her the corkscrew and made for the parking lot past the polished glass doors which were still stinking of Windex.
He was sitting crosslegged on the curb, staring out at the monstrosity of a church across the road, which was spotlit for dramatic effect and actually came off as pathetically over-reaching, even for the six lanes of traffic that’d be blurring by, had it been midday. His chin rested in the palm of his right hand while the fingers held a cigarette half burned up, already. Having left his matches inside, he asked for a light. I recognized him from the party, returning for another plastic cup of merlot-cab hybrid every ten minutes for at least two hours, attracting a rotating crowd of back-patting attendants who were only slightly less inebriated than himself and cracking jokes that I couldn’t overhear, but which caused the women to go red in the face.
I lit his next one and put out my hand to shake it, introducing myself as mama had taught me. “Bill,” he said, “how ya doin’?” We shot the breeze for a bit about the lame snowglobes, the idiocy of the Memphis art scene and the free bad wine. His eyes were heavy and weaved a bit, only ever so slightly bloodshot. His voice was low but still steady and only just then beginning to belie an oncoming slur. We made crude remarks about Little Miss Dixie. His teeth weren’t purple. Apart from his stooping posture, Bill was rather distinguished: salt and pepper hair, with a face wrinkled like a man that’d seen too many nights on a barstool and two days without a shave. I liked him immediately. He wore a tan linen jacket and a light cotton shirt, penny loafers and white socks, even in December, long after Labor Day. Bill said he “took pictures.” I drove a truck around Memphis delivering body parts, so I thought it was a fair enough answer.
We went on like this, swapping stories and bad-mouthing bands, until Crinkley arrived, pissed off, looking for me. Cammie had run out of wine and accused me of swiping a bottle. After shouting it out with the jackass, I bid farewell to Bill and retreated inside to sort the situation. Bill and his female companion invited me to dinner at a Chinese place in the strip mall next to the movie theater down Highland Avenue, but were gone before I could clean up. So instead I went on to see Justice Natchez waiting tables in Midtown, to have a few more beers before crashing on the couch until morning, which would see me getting up and answering the CB radio, to make some rent money in Collierville. Cammie left me with a lick of the ear and a pinch of the ass, laughing as she drove to another party in her daddy’s Saab. Such was my first encounter with the photographer William Eggleston, only finding out who he was three days later, when Crinkley balled me out for giving him too much drink.
Memphis is a dirty old town. Look at Bill’s photo Untitled, Memphis, 2001, of The Lamplighter bar on Madison Avenue, a decidedly dodgy spot if ever there was one. It is still daylight from the shine of the window, something I have rarely witnessed. There’s Olympia on tap for $1.00 a glass and unfiltered Lucky Strikes for $4.00 behind the bar. Elvis fights bulls in black velvet over the jukebox, which only plays country or rhythm & blues. Old school: Jim Reeves, Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, the Ink Spots, Hank Sr. and Jr. Shirley will dispense a chili dog and tamales if you ask real sweet, then call you “darlin’.” If you’re lucky, the ‘box will skip and give you 24 songs for a dollar. If Shirley likes you, she’ll put seven credits on for free. There’ll be locals, don’t be too afraid. Most are just neighborhood drunks, truck drivers just off the road, art school dropouts, off duty waiters, punk rockers before the show, and the bobos just afterwards. It’s the Vietnam vets you have to watch out for – mind your manners or you’ll get into a mad conversation about Iraq or holdover Communists. Gulf War guys are even worse, though, as they fought for far less movie credits and a raw deal over the “syndrome” at the VA hospital down the road. Chili dogs and tamales can only soak up so much. The pay phone behind the counter is The Lamplighter’s only concession to the notion of communication with the world outside.
The ceiling tiles are yellow and buckled with water stains. The neon Bud sign in the shape of a guitar is always on and the American flag’s always flying, no matter how faded. The day they stopped selling Pabst Blue Ribbon in bottles was a sad day all around. Don’t be too sketched if the arcade game (Galaga, Pac-Man?) is hogged by that big dude wearing the foam and mesh Bassmaster’s cap, he’s a sweetheart. That Chihuahua yipping up and down the room is his, and he’s alright by Shirley; though I still can’t figure out how he keeps his glasses on without the benefit of a nose. It’s a snapshot, just another scene Bill comes across from one day to the next. It isn’t composed, so to speak, that’s not his style. He’s fond of old pistols and still aims from the hip. If it comes out, great. If not, fuck it. There’s plenty more film for tomorrow.
William Eggleston made color photography legitimate. Although his first show at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in the ‘70s was vilified by critics and academics for making a mockery of that institution and the form of photography which, up to that point, was in the vein of Steiglitz or Brassai, photographers growing into the medium ever since, who are more accustomed to Polaroid family birthday parties and the accessibility afforded by cheap 35mm Vivitars and the like, have copied and ripped off the old man any which way they could. Whether it’s because he’s actually brilliant (which sometimes he’s definitely not) or his pictures give a convenient justification for making the most mundane subject suddenly ‘art’, it doesn’t really matter. Wolfgang Tillmans wouldn’t have won the Turner Prize without Eggleston. Thomas Struth would’ve had a hard time, even with his dialectic of the viewer and the viewed, if Bill hadn’t been taking pics of Memphis house parties three decades before. Richard Billingham cited Eggleston as a primary influence in his seminal coffetable book series Ray’s a Laugh.
Eggleston’s Untitled, from 1980, shows an open sliding glass door jamb with the toe of Bill’s shoe on the left and a vintage six cartridge revolver on the right. It’s a dumb picture, static, only marginally less than monochrome in its palette of neutral grays, tans and blacks. But it’s so much more. After you get over the fascination with the lines and contours of the pistol, the cracks in the concrete, the rotting, splintered wood of the jamb and the stains on the floor of the balcony begin to take the fore of attention. Perhaps the most delicate detail is the most resounding. Shadows from the railing of the stoop fall like arrow-pointers upon the pistol again with its own, otherwise ominous echo-shade, made almost ethereal for the stillness of its own mute, object-projecting, steel machine.
Untitled, Jackson, Miss., 1969-70, manages to subtly give witness to the time and place of the region in which Eggleston does his best work. The circumstances of the photograph are left up to conjecture, whether the man with the mustache was a familiar of Bill is a story left up to the viewer to construct. It’s an excerpt, a glance, at what he saw during the day. The man isn’t exactly clean, perhaps working on his car, from which he’s collected the Hinds County license plate. His tattoos aren’t professional, but his trousers are fantastic. Look at the backseat of the car where he sits, fabric bench, loads of headroom, elliptical rear window, vinyl cap to the seat top. The eyes don’t look directly at the camera. As a good guest or model, he’s minding his manners, hands on thighs and sitting up straight. If he’s indeed Southern, as the picture would lead one to presume, his mama would be proud, despite his greasy hair. It’s capturing a simplistic beauty that Eggleston’s best at, allowing the viewer to imagine what’s led up to the present moment of depiction, as well as the conditions of the immediate instant of photography, and the possibility of what happens after Bill puts his camera down.
The overturned car in Untitled, 1972, is about a perfect a ruster as one might ever hope to see. I’m drawn particularly to the chrome label still proclaiming the vehicle’s “Power Glide” capability, despite its obsolescence. Even its wheels have rotted, or have been stolen ages before Bill’s passing nearby. Bits of window glass litter the pavement. Like much of the South, it’s been left to seed and will return to dust, as the Interstate passes-by those backroads. You see this kind of carcass more often than one might expect. In forgotten spots of Memphis, overgrown with weeds, by the railroad tracks where the Southern-Pacific doesn’t come around anymore, they crop up like toadstools. Dilapidated warehouses tumbling down with broken windows and half demolished exterior walls, bricks crumbling – whole chunks at time – into the rubble, where men once worked 12-hour days to bring life to a city which, nowadays, couldn’t give a shit if they ever walked the earth or not, still haunt the parts of town to the south of Crump and North of Chelsea. This isn’t just a picture of an abandoned car on the side of a hardly-used road, it’s an epitaph for a ghost town. Bill chronicles the death of his own era in a town that’s trying to erase everything which made him possible. He documents the slow atrophy of a landscape that wishes it could forget its controversial past, to garner the tourist dollars of the Yankees who are searching for something quaint to recall their ‘authentic’ vacation to the vanquished Southland which they buried the moment they touched ground in the “Home of the Blues”. But I’m biased, so don’t put too much stock in the grudges held by one of the unreconstructed who’s currently living amidst the heathens of New York State. Still, look at Beale Street, and tell me my town isn’t being revamped as a down home Di(x)neyland.
Eggleston’s never been known as a photographic artist with a political bent, but occasionally a picture turns up that cannot be discussed as simply an aesthetic object, no matter how formalistically the image might be analyzed. Take Untitled, “Troubled Waters,” 1980, which depicts a Rebel flag in red, white and blue neon, flying over some sort of palm tree. It’s a beautiful photograph, the blue-black night illuminated with an evanescent light, no context provided, nor people or premise. It’s an icon, silent and stupid, almost majestic in its monumentality. For that’s what it is, no matter what the art connoisseurs might say, a monument. This damned electric thing stands for the Old Dominion. It stands for both heritage and hate at the same time. Periodocity means very little once it’s in a book for all eternity. By its very presence, the sign proclaims a way of life and concomitant mentality. Simply for its existence, it’s problematic. With its documentation, it’s at once art and propaganda, by virtue of its being chosen for display. Eggleston isn’t a Kluxer. He’s got the same issues as many of those from Memphis and the Delta, namely attempting, in the same breath, to give voice to their origins while trying to overcome them and, most times, failing – wonderously. The result is some kind of poetry of experience in which one is cursed to never reconcile what one hopes one could become, with what one knows for certain you’ll always remain, despite the better advice whispered somewhere from the back of your head.
The last time I saw Bill Eggleston was at Marshall Arts down the street from Sun Studio on Union Avenue, drinking cheap, art opening red wine. We had a show of new Memphis artists and there were a few photographers in the mix, all black and white. Cammie was passing out beers to the regular crowd, waiting for the Pawtuckets to play and get the party really going. I was happy because the tip jar was full and I’d get groceries in the morning. He asked me for a light, I think, and we badmouthed the Memphis art scene across the bar and made crude jokes with Cammie. Crinkley got on to me for giving him too much drink.”
London’s Free Rock’n'Roll Reader
Issue No. 1
The boy Hutton, thoroughly pissed and asleep at William Eggleston’s favourite watering hole, The Lamplighter Lounge, April 2005. What a lightweight!