MEMPHIS - There's an electrical wire hanging down in front of bluesman Furry Lewis' small, olive green duplex. It drapes across his front porch, and Furry is so worried about it he can hardly get drunk and have fun with the people who have come to visit, "Somebody call up the 'lectric department to
fix that thing!" he yells, sitting in the bed that has become his stage and pouring a dose of Ten High bourbon into a well-worn shot glass. "l know I've always been a rascal, but I ain't never done nothin' bad enough
to be in the 'lectric chair."
Age and cataracts have dulled Furry's eyesight - though not his feisty spirit - and his public appearances have been whittled down to a cherished few, but Furry's still got the world at his bedside. Guests, from young neighborhood kids seeking guitar lessons to celebrities, stream into his three-room flat.
Lewis played his slide-driven, talking guitar blues with the father of the blues, W.C Handy, on Beale Street in the early 1900s. Today, the street is crumbling, and a small statue of Handy toting a horn overlooks the ruins. To Furry Lewis, Beale Street
was "where somebody was killed every Saturday night and born every Sunday."
At arm's reach from his bed, Furry's got all his daily necessities: battered Martin electric guitar and small amp, two half gallons of Ten High, a .38 revolver stashed inside a drawer, his walking stick, a teddy bear and a cigar box labeled "Business". "I'm 83 years old half blind and gots a wooden leg," he says. "But I sure gots a lot of friends. "
But Furry's got his problems, too. Just a few weeks ago, he explains, he played at a local club and still hasn't been paid. And then there's "that woman" who recorded a
song about him.
The song, "Furry Sings the Blues," is on Joni Mitchell's latest album, Hejira. In it, Mitchell paints Furry "down and out in Memphis, Tennessee," and his music "mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel." She had visited the aging bluesman and the pitiful situation on Beale Street had led her to write:
Furry sings the blues
Fallin' to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street.
Old Furry sings the blues.
"The way I feel" says Furry "is that your name is proper only to you, and when you use it you should get results from it. She shouldn't have used my name in no way, shape, form or faction without consultin' me 'bout it first. The woman came over here and I treated her right, just like I does everybody that comes over. She wanted to hear 'bout the old days, said it was for her own personal self, and I told it to her like it was, gave her straight oil from the can." He stares at the surrealistic photo on the Hejira cover. "But then she goes and puts it all down on a record, using my name and not giving me nothing! I can't stop nobody from talkie' 'bout Beale Street, 'cause the street belongs to everybody. But when she says 'Furry,' well that belongs to me!" (Though Joni Mitchell had no response to Furry's comments, her manager, Elliot Roberts, responded: "All she said about him was, 'Furry sings the blues' the rest is about the neighborhood. She doesn't even mention his last name. She really enjoyed meeting him, and wrote about her impressions of the meeting, He did tell her that he didn't like her, but we can't pay him royalties for that. I don't pay royalties to everybody who says they don't like me. I'd go broke.")
Still, Furry can't deny the truths of "Furry Sings the Blues," with its references to Beale Street's doom, that "history falls/ To parking lots and shopping malls."
"They only make a statue of you when you dead and gone," Furry says. "I've known a whole lots of musicianers in my life and lots of 'em are dead now. But I guess that Handy's the only one that's ant a statue of him. But then I ain't gone yet.
"Now I know I ain't a star," he says, reaching for his glass and winking with a wise old grin "But I sure might be a moon."