The return Of Friday Night Is Rockabilly Night 166

Back in the mid 2010s there was a long running series here on a Friday evening, a series of rockabilly posts that ended up a) reaching number 165 and b) draining me of enthusiasm for rockabilly. In the end it felt like a chore and that’s a sure sign to kill off a blog series. Plus there’s only so much you can say about rockabilly- a twangy guitar or ferocious leadline, slapback bass, railroad rhythms and a man or a woman usually singing about another woman or man. Tonight is a brief reprise inspired by finding my copy of Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train and watching it last Friday night (or maybe it was Saturday, difficult to tell). Either way it was the first time I’ve seen the film for many years.

Mystery Train is three short stories that interconnect on one night in a Memphis flophouse hotel. It unfolds pretty slowly, at a pace today’s films wouldn’t, and in the end nothing much really happens. The first story, Far From Yokohama, has a young Japanese couple, Mitsuko and Jun, making a pilgrimage to the American south to see Gracelands and Sun Studios. She, MItsuko, is obsessed with Elvis, he, Jun, with Carl Perkins. The second story is about Luisa, a young widow, stuck in Memphis overnight while trying to fly her recently deceased husband back to Rome for the funeral. She ends up sharing a room with Dee Dee, who has just split up with her English boyfriend. In the room at night Luisa sees the ghost of Elvis. The third story centres around Johnny, the English boyfriend (played by Joe Strummer) who has lost his girl and his job, is drunk and out of control. Dee Dee’s brother (a young Steve Buscemi) is called to rescue Johnny and they spend the night in the hotel too before the film’s finale the following morning where there is a gunshot and the participants from all three stories move on. Each hotel room in the film has no TV, something each guest remarks on, but each room does a portrait of Elvis looking down on the guests. Mitsuko is keeping a scrapbook as she travels through the US, a record of Elvis and the people he has influenced, from Madonna to the Statue Of Liberty.

As well as Strummer (in his first acting role and thrown a line by Jarmusch who wrote the part for Strummer at a time when he was adrift and depressed) and Buscemi the film stars Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the hotel’s night clerk. Buscemi is Buscemi, Hawkins is droll and subtle. Strummer overdoes it a bit, clearly the non- actor in the film. Thirty one years on the real stars are Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase, the young Japanese couple, smoking their way through the train, the railway station, the hotel and back again. The chemistry between them and their understated cool, a pair of eighteen year olds in 50s clothing entranced by the music of the rockabilly pioneers, is central to the film.

The song Mystery Train was written and recorded by Junior Parker in 1953, a Memphis blues before it became a rockabilly song. Elvis’ version from 1955 is a crucial, definitive song in the history of 20th century music, in American culture and in Elvis’ own story. It made him a nationally known figure. Producer Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and Elvis created something that is one of building blocks of popular music, pure magic from start to finish, from the fade in and the moment when Elvis comes in with the line ‘train arrived sixteen coaches long’ to the fade out, and his girl gone on the train into the night.

Mystery Train

The Return Of Friday Night Is Rockabilly Night 32

‘Train I ride sixteen coaches long
Well that long black train carries my baby home’

From Sun Records all the way back in 1953 this is Little Junior Parker and the original version of Mystery Train, co-written by Parker and Sam Phillips. Elvis’ version came out two years later and helped invent modern music. I’m not sure Little Junior Parker’s song is rockabilly, just early rock and roll, but it’s Friday night, it’s sheeting down outside and who’s splitting hairs?