Techno Fallout and Sweet Sorrow

As the Internet tightens its chokehold on music commerce, more labels go down, more musicians scramble to get promotion, and stores that carry CDs in good volume achieve, by their rarity, a certain beauty. The federal bailout for automotive producers has been kinder to another iconic tranche of the economy.

On errant afternoons when I move down the aisles of the Louisiana Music Factory, inspecting works by people named Marsalis, Domino, Connick, Roosevelt Sykes and sundry others, the full sweep of this urban terrain pulls me to the painful moment when accounts must be balanced, some discs left aside and the bill paid. Yet on the day I left with Sun Gospel (one of those releases the Bear Family label out of Germany now dispenses) I felt, upon slipping it into the CD player in the car, as if the Lord had smiled.

Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Just A Little Walk With Jesus” – how’s that? Jerry Lee – cousin of Jimmy Swaggart and country-western baron Mickey Gilley – a native son of Ferriday, La., played piano in the Memphis Studio run by Sam Phillips that made all those boys famous. Carl Perkins chipped in with harmonizing.

I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in … Have a little talk with Jesus, Tell him about your sorrows Have a little talk a little with Jesus Makes in right!

Imagine those hell-raising rock and rockabilly boys surrounding the piano, pulling on their roots for a church song. A few cuts later Jerry Lee sings “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and it really does roll. The song came out of the pews into the streets generations ago, but I digress.

That rocking version of church song infiltrated my thought field in mid-June, on a research trip that found me without a product, as they say in the music business. No iPod. Just a questing writer pulling into three multi-service truck stops in central Ohio, one after another, on the same baking afternoon, all that green farmland flowing by on either side and my search for CDs to feed the music player in my Dodge rental car (I support America) yields not a single compact disc in any of those stores.

CDs are dead on the Interstate. Five years ago you could have bought Waylon Jennings, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson or many New Orleans artists, depending on where you were. During the early Clinton years I bought Roy Brown’s collected hits at a full-service eatery on the New Jersey Turnpike before the turnoff for Bucks County, Pa. This is not bragging; I was thrilled to find Roy Brown so memorialized.

And so in Ohio, those many years later, just three months past, this sick cultural economy hit me like a mugger. Not a single CD to be had. You wonder, what’s wrong with this country besides the greed of Wall Street and Washington’s collusion? Where I was driving, you could buy DVDs at every stop. Movies, not song collections. Hellboy was on a roll, south of Cleveland, down past the Neil Armstrong Museum, toward Fort Loramie. Hellboy’s ubiquity is a tribute to carmakers installing DVD players in back seats of vans or SUVs. Give me Roy Brown singing “Good Rocking Tonight” over Hellboy any day of the millennium.

Traveling with music has become more taxing because of these market shifts. How I wish that on the 4-hour drive through the heart of the Heartland, I’d taken Sun Gospel. I can hear the progeny of certain readers chortling, “Yeah, what about your iPod?” Some of us like cars and CDs.

There is an excerpted cut, later in the CD, of Jerry Lee Lewis railing to Sam Phillips about his guilt over the success of “Great Balls of Fire.” Jerry Lee had spent some time studying in a Bible college before chucking scripture and diving into rock and roll. He felt guilty about the runaway profits of a song smirking at eternal flames. Jerry Lee, you see, believed. I wish I’d been able to hear his peroration in Ohio those two long afternoons while radio stations served up plenty of Jesus but no joyful noise. Even NPR was boring. Here’s Jerry Lee:

It says Make Merry! … And if you’re a sinner, you must be born again as a little child … You got to walk and talk with God! You got to be so good!

At which point, a voice on the recording is heard saying “hallelujah” in an almost-satirical tone. I suspect the voice belongs to Sam Phillips. And if he had to drive those lonesome Ohio highways, as I did in June, without any recordings for sale anywhere,I reckon he’d agree with Jerry Lee: you do have to be so, so good.

And stuff your iPod or pack the CDs before you leave home.

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