Jim Dickinson's Zebra

By  John Lewis |  October 14, 2013

Jim Dickinson eases back into a black leather armchair in a small cabin in the woods adjacent to his Hernando, Mississippi home. The maverick record producer—who’s been known to book studio time by the phases of the moon, record Harley-Davidsons in stereo, mic drums and pianos in mono, and wax poetic about the sound of molecules bumping together—exudes a funky warmth. He wears blue jeans, suede boots, and a denim shin, unbuttoned to reveal a "Feel the Rage" wrestling t-shirt. A front tooth is capped gold, an earring dangles from his left lobe, and a silver skull ring adorns his right hand.

Around him, the room pulses with the totems of a bonafide Dixie rock ‘n’ roller weaned on the dusty rhythms of black fieldhands. A Confederate flagand pin-ups of female wrestlers cover the walls, an A. Schwab's shopping bag sits atop piles of overflowing manila folders, back issues of Living Bluesmagazine are stacked on the floor next to a kerosene heater, and a jambox is perched on a nearby file cabinet. Most of the CDs and cassettes stackedon a rickety wooden table were produced by Dickinson. Titles such as Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers, the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, Ry Cooder'sInto the Purple Valley, Toots Hibbert's Toots in Memphis, and the Texas Tornados' 4 Aces reflect a kaleidoscopic career that also includes an obscuresolo record of his own (1972's Dixie Fried) and piano session work for the likes of Aretha Franklin (Spirit in the Dark), the Rolling Stones ("WildHorses"), Arlo Guthrie ("City of New Orleans"), and Johnny Cash ("In Your Mind").

In an industry that milks trends, Dickinson is known for making records that endure. A compelling and difficult record such as Big Star's 3rd, for instance, may not have had much commercial impact when it was first released in 1978—A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie" sold millions that year—but it's had lasting significance, especially in alternative rock circles. Bands such as R.E.M. have long professed admiration for its rawimmediacy and stark emotional core, and when it was reissued on CD in 1992, the press swooned, and the faithful started huzzahing all over again.

"I was told years ago that I'd never make it because I was eleven years ahead of everybody else," says Dickinson . "Well, I think that's kind ofcompressed over the years, and I'm not nearly as far ahead as I used to be. But when you make records, you're making records for the future. . . .You don't want your snare drum to sound like the snare drum on the radio. You want your snare drum to sound like the snare drum that's going to be on the radio in six months. That requires some creativity.”

A thirty-five-year veteran of the Memphis studio scene, Dickinson cut his musical teeth in the 1960s under some of the great Southern producers: John Fry at Ardent, Chips Moman at American, and Sam Phillips at Sun. From such masters, he learned the slippery skills necessary for capturing peak performances in the studio and gleaned an arcane knowledge that borders on the metaphysical. Dickinson's production technique is more about mojo hands and spirit oils than mixes and remixes, more parapsychology than technology.

He lures artists towards masterpieces that, in his view, already exist in the collective unconsciousness of the participants. Dickinson cites Phillips as a source for this method and with a gleeful grin, he recalls the visionary producer urging musicians to imagine performing intimate acts with farm animals and/or their mothers as they played. What does it mean? "It means you have to go out there and DO SOMETHING."

He pauses and cuts a slice of rum cake with a switchblade. "It's all about distraction," he continues. "It comes down to left brain and right brain. Youcan't think and play at the same time. To get what I want from a player, I want him out of his body. I definitely don't want him thinking about whathe's playing. Thinking about what you're doing interrupts the flow of the beat, the groove. The groove is what Southern production is all about."

Dickinson's signature sound lives deep in the groove, in that wide furrow, or wrinkle in the earth, that happens whenever Casey Jones does the UbangiStomp. It's the product of polarity, high contrast black and white stretched over space and time, the warp and woof of sound and silence.

He refers to it as "the zebra.” "My whole philosophy of production is don't think about the zebra, which is impossible," he says. "So I tell stories. It's all parables. I assure the victims—that's what I call the artists I work with—that the stories have nothing to do with what they're doing, and of course they know that they do, especially after a couple of days."

This past summer, while recording Clawhammer, a "post-punk" Los Angeles band, Dickinson used the weather to stage his psycho-dynamic ballet.Early on, he sent the reluctant band members out to absorb the oppressive New Orleans heat as a means of slowing their tempos. "This was late Julywhen the humidity's so thick you can move your hands through the air and feel it," he says.

"You think that's not gonna affect the sound? Shit! But they had to absorb it into their bodies. By the third day, they were down in the pocket just like a bunch of coon asses that'd been doin' it all their lives."

Not all of Dickinson's "victims" take kindly to his methods. The Replacements' Paul Westerberg flat out told the producer he wouldn't be giving his allbecause Dickinson "didn't deserve it." Undaunted, Dickinson went on to coax stirring performances out of Westerberg that are unmatched to this day. In fact, Westerberg can be heard crying at the end of "The Ledge," a bracing song about suicide.

Dickinson had a similarly intense experience with guitarist Warner Hodges during the recording of Jason and the Scorchers' Fervor. "I pulled his black heart out," he says. "These days, [Hodges] won't even speak my name, but he has never, never played again like he played for me."

"I don't just try to capture the zen moment, I try to extend the zen moment . . . I guarantee you that I'm gonna get something from you that youcannot do again. And if I've done that, if I've pulled that out of somebody, I have in fact captured how you felt in your soul in that moment. That's why we're gonna record it!"

It's late in the afternoon, and a chill has settled into the room. Dickinson stands and lights the kerosene heater. Its blue flame flickers, before catching and letting off an orange glow. After returning to his seat, he gives the skull ring a twist and cuts another slice of rum cake.

Then, he strokes his chin twice and his voice takes on a conspiratorial tone, as if he's about to pass on information that could cost lives if it were to fall into the wrong hands. "I take the artist up on the mountain, right?" he says. "I take him out to the edge of the cliff, and I say, 'Come over here. If you really wanna see it, you have to come over here to the edge.' The artist says, 'I don't want to come over to the edge.' I assure them nothing'sgonna happen. I get them to come over to the edge, and then, I push them off. They either fly or they fall."

"Now, this is the difference between what I do and what others have done. I like to see the artist fly. Many producers don't care whether the artist flies or falls. There are whole record companies, whole labels, whole careers based on the falling artist. I like to see the artist soar, but you neverknow until you push him off."

“It’s like Randy Savage, the wrassler, says, ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.’”