Things to Do in Memphis, Tennessee

+ enlarge

I had just completed my sophomore year in college, and made up my mind to skip the fall term. For some time I had been feeling trapped in California, and I strongly suspected the entire state was a bland fantasyland compared with the rest of the country. Having filled my head with Kerouac and photographs by Robert Frank, I was pie-eyed for America, or some rapidly disappearing version of it.

I told everyone who cared to listen I was off to get a “real” education, and hitched a ride with a Deadhead named Timmy. (Name changed to protect the innocent, etc., etc.) Timmy was driving his rattletrap VW bus across the country. For both of us it was a rite of passage, but by the time we reached the Mississippi River, it was painfully clear our passages were completely divergent and incompatible.

I was no fan of the Dead, or of any other music from circa 1965–70 (with a few exceptions). I was stuck on times before my own time, urged on by propulsive rhythm and blues, big-hearted soul, and reverberating rockabilly numbers. Through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri, Timmy and I drove ‘round the clock, alternating stints at the wheel while the other caught Zs in the wagon’s hippie nest. He who drove ruled the tape deck. Occasionally we found ourselves awake at the same time, each grumbling about the other’s taste in music. At these times I tried to be civil, popping in tapes of Tom Waits and pre-electric Bob Dylan, which Timmy and I found mutually acceptable. But as long as he was in charge, he insisted on a strict diet of rinky-dink vagabond rock. (To quote Waits: “Never drive a car when you’re dead.”)

Along the highway in Arkansas, a bright pink billboard for Graceland got my heart a-thumpin’ for Memphis, and even though Timmy was driving, I pushed the eject button right in the middle of “Truckin’” and popped in Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” Such a sad and beautiful song. Timmy cursed a blue streak all the way across the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, and seeing that we still had half a tank of gas, pronounced he was good for another 200 miles. We didn’t stop until we were halfway through Mississippi. That was my first, tragically short glimpse of Memphis. I hopped off Timmy’s bus in New Orleans and that was the last I saw of him.

Yearning for Memphis
But Memphis had got its hooks into me, and I’ve been back three or four times since. I’m still crazy about mid-20th century American music. And every now and then at my home in California, glands in my mouth will inexplicably twitch for Memphis barbecue. There are other compelling reasons to visit the city—seeing the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King died, makes my spine tingle—but for me, it’s really just about the meat and the music.

In early April, I passed through town on my way from New Orleans to Chicago. I had a spare day in Memphis—a full day—beginning with a short drive up from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and ending with the arrival of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, which would deliver me out of the South shortly before midnight. I love these sorts of challenges. (I did the same thing in Rome some years back, which turned into the inevitable Felliniesque hallucination.) It’s like packing a suitcase, or preparing a burrito. Somehow, by hook or crook, you’ll get in all that needs to be got in.

It was a Saturday morning when I reached town. Along East McLemore Avenue, people were mowing lawns and washing cars. In Memphis style, art and signs were hand-painted on the sides and windows of beauty parlors. A woman in curlers and flip-flops stepped out of one such shop and made a beeline for a liquor store. Just then, I spied the Stax Museum.

Soulsville, USA
The first time I laid eyes on Stax—aka “Soulsville, USA”—my heart sank a bit as I recognized it for a mere replica. The converted movie theater where Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, and Wilson Pickett recorded their hits of the 1960s had been demolished and rebuilt in gleaming, retro fashion. Retro has never been my thing. I’m after the old, the faded, the left-for-dead. But I quickly got over it. You get used to such compromises when you’re into long-gone cultures. Museums always leave me a little underwhelmed. In the worst instances, they’re as lifeless and depressing as morgues. Old buildings frozen forever in a particular point in time can be interesting. The best museums are curiosity shops filled with unexpected gems that no one got around to melting down or throwing away.

Stax could be much better than it is, but it defies the odds in numerous ways. Firstly, they have installed tinny speakers on the lampposts in the parking lot, which blare out a steady stream of Stax hits—a brilliant stroke. Inside, the museum offers a very contemporary multimedia blitz that does its best to make you feel like you’re walking through a Ken Burns documentary. It tells a compelling, two-part story. (To summarize: early soul music drew black kids and white kids together during segregated times; MLK’s assassination in 1968 hit like a sledgehammer, creating a widening crevasse of distrust.) It beats watching a DVD at home, thanks to a barrage of original artifacts presented behind glass. The only bonafide showstopper is Isaac Hayes’s sky-blue 1972 Cadillac El Dorado, with gold trim and shag carpeting. Mr. Hayes’s peacock garb also warrants long, admiring pauses.

Sun Studio
While Graceland is a garish cathedral, Sun Studio is a saintly shrine. (Taking the concept a bit further, the whitewashed shotgun house in Tupelo, Mississippi, is a manger.) Among the Lunatic Majority that convenes in Memphis every August to commemorate the anniversary of Elvis’s death, there is a fringe group that will tell you he made his best recordings in Sam Phillips’ one-room studio—and that the King’s career went down the toilet as soon as he signed with RCA. I’ll admit I sympathize somewhat with this view. Elvis’s Sun Sessions have a magical quality to them, whereas the RCA period is mostly just interesting. (Note: there are guided tours of the Sun Studio over on the Viator site.)

All Sun has to offer is one room and a satchel full of stories, but I’ve been back more than once for it. On this recent visit, my eager anticipation must have showed, because the hipster chick working the gift shop register had me pegged as a loser when I asked the price of a Jackie Brenston poster. She took great pains to look bored with the job, and I’ll admit I enjoyed her performance. Firstly, I know I’m dork when it comes to this stuff; secondly, too many tourist traps make the mistake of hiring overly enthusiastic staff who try to coax you into having a good time. I prefer to be sneered at as a sucker. I know what I’m after. I’ll have my own damn good time.

The beauty of Sun is that it has been left alone all these years. In spots, the acoustic tiles are peeling off the ceiling, and the room is cluttered with musical instruments and recording equipment—none of it behind glass. It continues to moonlight as an actual recording studio, and the lack of upkeep is due to an obsessive fear of tampering with that signature Sun sound. Of course, Sun isn’t all about Elvis. Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and numerous others all made music history here. Singers have been using the same boxy, chrome microphone since the early 1950s, and the tour guides aren’t bothered when guests step up to it for a few bars of “Milk Cow Blues.”

A few blocks from Sun is a barbecue joint called Cozy Corner, to which I retreated for a plate of the finest ribs in the universe. When I finished, I was left with a paper plate covered with bones and crumpled napkins. And I felt about as bloated as Elvis, circa 1975.

A Loosely Related Anecdote
About half a decade ago, my wife, Fawn, called from her office to tell me she had been surfing the web and came across a highly interesting real estate listing. Fawn harbored fantasies of quitting her job and moving to the sticks, where we wouldn’t have to work or pay any rent. However, this time, it was no ordinary shack in the woods she’d found. It was Johnny Cash’s country cabin, near Nashville. It was listed as a “fixer,” on several wooded acres, for around $250,000. The real estate boom hadn’t yet reached Tennessee.

Fawn: “We can pay off the mortgage with your measly writer’s income, and I can grow corn and distill liquor to cover the rest of our needs.”

God love her, she was serious. In a flash, I turned suddenly responsible (usually, she’s the grown-up one), thinking of our kids and careers, and said I didn’t like the idea. I also had visions of walking in Johnny Cash’s footsteps, sitting on his couch, wearing black, dropping my voice a few octaves, telling Fawn how well I liked her when she wore her hair piled high above her head. I knew I would be trapped in some sort of weird obsession for the rest of my life if we moved into JC’s country shack, and it scared me some.

I’m not proud of myself as I recall this incident. But you live, you learn.

The point I’m getting at is, if the opportunity ever arises to live in Graceland—not to own it, just to move in—I’ll be ready. I won’t need a moving van, or even a suitcase. I’ll shoot pool in the Bedoin billiards room, discharge firearms at the TV sets, woo my wife in the jungle room, try on the myriad sequined suits and capes, and do cannon balls in the kidney-shaped pool (just a few paces from the graveyard; population three). I’ll even sneak past the cordoned off stairway for a peak at the bathroom, where Elvis met his maker more than three decades ago. For me, a place only gets five stars if I want to move in. Graceland is that good.

People always ask me if Graceland is worth visiting. Here’s what I usually tell them: if you are meant to see it, you will know.

By Tom Downs


Loading comments...