Is there still, could there still be, such a book as an “underground classic”? Probably not, as underground constituencies communicate online, and their respective communications are like the samizdat that Stalin-era Russian intellectuals wrote for each other: they weren’t interested in reaching other people. But maybe: I recently tried to buy a copy of Emma Alice Johnson’s novella Nails—see Razorcake’s review—and it’s out of print and its small publishing house is out of business, and it blew away everyone who read it, including me. It has underground-classic potential.
So does Baron of Love: Moral Giant, Ross Johnson’s memoir, mainly of the ’70s-’80s Memphis scene, and of his work (“work”) as the drummer for the art-punkabilly band Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. (If you don’t know them, stop reading right now, go to YouTube, and search for “Tav Falco’s Panther Burns on Marge Thrasher 1979”—it’s as joltingly fucked-up in its way as Public Image Ltd on American Bandstand (which you should also look up, if you haven’t seen it.)) Johnson’s book is a document of an under-known scene, one which included Alex Chilton, as prickly in this book as I’d gathered he was.
It’s also a Dostoevskian tour of the swamp of Johnson’s sexual history and psyche—the Dostoevsky of Notes from Underground, to be exact. In “Dateless Night,” a song he recorded in 2008 with Jeffrey Evans, Johnson asks “[What] happens when you’re hollowed out? When there’s so much sex damage ...?” I thought he was joking. Turns out, he really wasn’t. No play-by-play details, thank Sam Phillips, but it gives one (“one”) a new appreciation for one’s dry spells.
He also saw live Memphis shows, like the Stooges and the New York Dolls on the same bill, and writes about them.
Spacecase Records released the first printing of Baron of Love: Moral Giant in 2020, expecting that would be the only one, but it sold out quickly. The label’s website still has copies of the second (and professedly last) printing, as well as the e-book. –Jim Woster (Spacecase, spacecaserecords.com)