Booker T. Jones gets a lifetime pass. That’s what you earn when you’ve amassed the discography the musician has during his nearly 75 years on this planet. Drop his name in casual conversation, and his achievements scroll like the tracklist of a Time-Life CD collection being hawked on TV in the mind’s eye of every music fan: “Green Onions,” “Hip-Hug Her,” “Time Is Tight,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” Willie Nelson’s Stardust, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Born Under A Bad Sign,” etc., etc., ad infinitum.
With those many deeds in his rearview mirror, Booker T. honestly needn't have bothered with writing a memoir. He’s said all he needed to through the Hammond organ he played with his namesake band Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the dozen other instruments he has mastered. But write a memoir he did. Time is Tight: My Life, Note By Note is a rambling journey through his life and career peppered liberally with famous names and moments. Otis Redding’s triumphant performance, backed by the M.G.’s, at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is here. Director Jules Dassin, who hired Jones to record the soundtrack to the film UpTight, is here. Barbra Streisand, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Barack Obama. When you’re as famous as Jones is, you can’t really call it bragging.
Jones reserves his boasting for the dullest subject of all: his prowess with the ladies. Throughout Time is Tight, he talks up the many women he bedded in his time, including a willing partner that sent a handwritten letter to his home base at Memphis’ Stax Studios kindly asking him to fuck her and a brief dalliance with one of Dassin’s daughters that the filmmaker apparently responded to with weird delight. “Jules took my face in the palms of his two hands and smiled broadly,” Jones writes. “He gave me a smack as he recalled the young man he had once been.” Yuck.
Time is Tight isn’t written for the curious. Jones assumes, perhaps rightfully, that if you picked up this book, you have plenty of his albums in your record collection or at least a working knowledge music history in Memphis and beyond. His stream-of-consciousness writing style doesn't offer much time to catch up or ask for more information. One anecdote stirs up another, the memories tumbling out as they might in casual conversation. He may start a chapter in 1965 but will quickly jump forward to 1974 and then whip back to 1955. If each chapter weren’t broken up into discrete sections, it would be dizzying.
There’s also a weird belief that readers are as interested as he is in the granular details of his most well-known song as he is. “I laid the song out on a twenty-bar pattern in the key of D. We played a full eight bars on the first D. The first change went down to the major sixth chord (B flat) for four bars rather than up to the four as in blues, then back to D for four more,” he writes about the creation of the song “Booker-Loo.” Catnip for his fellow musicians and music theory nerds; a slog for any casual reader.
Jones saves his strongest prose for the most emotional moments in his life, particularly the death of Redding in a December 1967 plane crash, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Memphis hotel that Stax Records (for whom Jones worked and recorded for years) used as an outpost. Jones still hasn’t recovered from both losses and the civil unrest of the ’60s and ’70s still burns fresh in his mind. Those sections also serve as indicators of what this memoir could have been. It feels awkward to criticize someone who has done so much for the evolution of popular music, earning him every bit of that lifetime pass, but it’s hard not to wish that he had applied some of the passion he reserved for his memories of Redding and King to the rest of Time is Tight.
Booker T. Jones reads from Time is Tight and performs live Thurs Nov 7, 8pm, Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta, $45