It’s extremely rare to have a debut novel hit the market and simply defy all expectations. Only a select few authors have managed to do it: Salinger? Kennedy-O’Toole? Well, add another author to that very short list. Descending Memphis by Robert R. Moss is a gritty, action-packed story from page one. The main character-Tommy Rhodeen seems destined for a very long shelf life with fans of crime fiction. But it is not just hard-boiled crime writers that spring to mind after reading this novel. Fans of Jim Thompson and even John Fante will find captivating material here. It is a story that will resonate in your head for years to come. Move over Pelecanos, there is a new player in the game. Descending Memphis has it all-deceit, hard living and rock and roll. Be sure to pick up this book and take the ride. Author Robert R. Moss discusses his past, present, and future below. They all help contribute to a fantastic read. SK
When did you first become interested in writing a novel?
A lot of people, myself included, have talked about writing a book for years. What moved me from talking about it to doing it was better access to distribution. I had no desire to spend a year or two writing a novel, and then waste another seven years sending the manuscript to publishers and collecting rejection letters. Knowing I could now self-publish, and make the book available around the world, made me get serious. Besides America, I’ve had sales in the UK and Italy so far.
What novelists influenced your writing style?
Descending Memphis falls in the detective genre. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett set the style, and I’ve read and re-read their books. But my novel also works as a coming-of-age story so I looked to Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy, especially Suttree and his other Tennessee novels. Mark Spragg made a big impression on me, as did Chris Offutt and James Dickey. James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley also influenced me as far as other detective fiction writers. Paul Bowles, too, I guess. I was reading The Stories of Paul Bowles and I had this bad dream, which I used in the book. The one with the two brothers in the desert. It wasn’t straight out of any of Bowles’s short stories. But my dream was like the situations he creates and how he describes cruelty. But the way Bowles writes, you can’t look away. I wanted something like that for lead character’s dream.
What books had an impact on your perspective more recently?
Disgrace by J.M Coetzee. I just finished it. It’s a tragedy. I hope it hasn’t changed my outlook, but it’s a powerful book. Not easy to read.
Descending Memphis feels so authentic. How did you research the period?
I read a lot about the music and the time and place. And I looked at old photos and maps. I also met several people who lived in Memphis and were similar in age as my protagonist during the time the story takes place. Two happened to be local historians. Gene Gill and David French. They answered my questions and kept me on track.
I also needed to learn about Nashville in the ‘50s. A historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame introduced me to Ruth White. Ruth’s 85 years old, and she started working in the music business in 1947. She worked on Music Row and she knew the old Nashville and she’d been in the honky-tonks there. Ruth had married a steel guitar player named Howard White, and she’d also written several biographies of Nashville musicians. Ruth and I spoke on the phone for hours and she’d mail me clippings.
Racism is also one of the themes of the book, and I needed to speak with black people who lived under Jim Crow. I got some introductions, but none seemed to want to talk. Then luck took over. There’s an older black guy at my gym. His name’s Abdul. It’s not the name his parents gave him; I don’t know what is. Anyway, we’d talk about the stuff you talk about at the gym. I thought he was from here (Portland, Oregon). Turns out he’s from near West Memphis, which is in Arkansas. He’d been through it. And he knew people like some of my characters. He read my manuscript and made suggestions and answered my questions.
As far as authenticity, I based several characters on real people and real locations on real places. It was also important to be true to the music of the period, so I wanted to use real songs. Sun Records, the Sam Phillips Music Group, Hi Low Music and Shelby Singleton Music gave me permission to reprint lyrics they own the rights to. Support like that made it possible for me to make the music part of the book ring true. I couldn’t have written this story without the help of all of these people. The research was really important.
Do you think the main character (Tommy Rhodeen) could become part of an ongoing series?
That was my original plan, and it still may be. I was thinking of writing two more. Each one taking place about ten years later. And the music would change with the times. Now, I have some other ideas. Not so much a traditional sequel, or series, but there’d be some continuity.
You played bass guitar in some notable outfits. When did you first pick up the instrument?
Marc Alberstadt, the original drummer in Government Issue, and I go way back. As far as kindergarten. Marc encouraged me. I started playing in 1979 with Brian Gay on guitar. I was out-of-town the summer of 1980, and when I got back the GIs had formed and Brain was on bass. So he was in two bands. Mike Manos also went to the same high school as us and we found out Mike’s brother had a drum set. So we drafted Mike as our drummer. The first singer was a girl in our class. Sandra something or other. But she wouldn’t practice and she couldn’t make our first show. We called ourselves The Indians. Steve Polcari was a friend of mine from skateboarding, and he also went to school with us. We got Steve to learn the lyrics. He did great! Sandra was out. Steve was in. And we changed our name to Assault & Battery.
Brian later went off to art school in Chicago. Red-C had broken up and we got Pete Murray to join on guitar. The band took on a different feel and we changed our name to Artificial Peace, which was one of the songs I’d written. After Artificial Peace ended, I worked on getting a new band together but ended up joining Government Issue in the spring of 1983. I actually played, sort of, on the first GI record. I did the long mooo in the song, “Cowboy Fashion.”
*Photo by Jim Saah
*Photo by Jordan Schwartz
What record are you most proud of playing on and why?
Artificial Peace’s Complete Session Nov ’81, which included the three tracks that first appeared on Flex Your Head. Dischord released the album in 2010. It was a surprise because Dischord usually puts out new records of existing bands. We hadn’t been together since 1982. During that recording session we felt like a real band, and our music had both hardcore energy and musicality. We weren’t just another bounchie beat band—that’s the sound most hardcore drummers made back then—beating on the snare and hi-hat. Bounchie, bounchie, bounchie, bounchie. Bat-bat-bat-bat-bat-bat.
I wasn’t happy with any of the later Artificial Peace studio recordings. I don’t think the rest of the band was either.
*Photo by Malcom Riviera
As far as Government Issue, I never got to record in the studio with them. But there are a bunch of live shows on their bandcamp site. I think the best one’s at CBGBs. July 30, 1983.
What was the wildest show you played back in the 1980’s?
Janelle’s basement (laughs). Artificial Peace played several times at the Wilson Center. Those were great shows. We also opened for the Bad Brains at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City. It was our first time playing out of town. We later went back to New York to play the A-7. The show started at midnight; I think we went on around five in the morning. We opened for Black Flag in Baltimore when Henry recreated the cover of the Damaged album by punching his fist into one of the mirror tiles that went around the stage. Punk rock.
Playing in Government Issue was a lot more fun. They were my favorite DC band of that time and they were my friends. That CBGBs show was great. There were a lot of others.
So why was your tenure in Government Issue somewhat brief?
I was going to University of Maryland at the time. I was a history major, only for the sake of declaring something. But I was taking some TV and film classes and I thought about going to another school. The letter came from Boston University while I was on tour with the GIs. I got accepted as a transfer. It was hard telling them I was moving after being in the band for a short time.
Are there any new bands that have caught fire with you?
Between work, family and writing fiction, I haven’t had much time to discover new bands. There’s a current rockabilly guy, Eddie Clendening. Great singer. Sounds authentic. He played Elvis in Million Dollar Quartet, but he’s incredible just being himself.
What artists are in regular rotation when you listen to music now
Well, a lot of rockabilly from writing Descending Memphis. Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n Roll Trio, Billy Lee Riley, Carl Perkins, Eddie Bond, Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis, of course. But besides that I tend toward Mott the Hopple, Slade, early Cheap Trick, The Move, Bowie, Deep Purple MK I and II. I’d seen Ian Hunter play when he was in Portland last. The man is 76 years old! If you closed your eyes you’d never know it.
How have initial reviews been for the novel?
Better than I expected! I’ve also heard from people who got a lot out of the coming-of-age parts of the story. They identify with Tommy Rhodeen, the protagonist. They see what he goes through and they have the same need to get a handle on life. Writing Descending Memphis is the toughest project I’ve ever done. Hearing from people who’ve found meaning in my novel, and see it as more than just a detective story, makes all that worthwhile.
What’s the next project for you?
As far as my next novel, I still want to write a book that’s in the detective genre, like Descending Memphis, and yet still deal with issues beyond ‘who done it.’ It’s a lot of work, so it’s got to convey something about life. But my next project may not even be a novel. I don’t want to limit myself.
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