Memphis Part One - Fight Like Hell
November 25, 2001
I drove into Memphis thinking Elvis. I left thinking Elvis was
a sad sideshow to a great city.
Memphis was founded by three wealthy Tennessee land speculators,
among them Andrew Jackson. Someone had studied his ancient history.
Memphis, the original Egyptian capitol, was the first great imperial
city, reaching its zenith 3000 years before Christ. Its lifeblood
was the Nile. The American Memphis sprang into existence on the
banks of the original Interstate Highway, the Mississippi River.
I parked downtown, just above Beale Street. I knew I wanted to
stay near Beale, the home of the Blues. In the 1890s, W.C.
Handy came back down from St. Louis after hearing black laborers
working along the banks of the Big Muddy chanting work songs. They
reminded him of the work songs of his youth, the songs of slaves.
Union forces occupying Memphis during the Civil War established
a black freedmens camp south of the city. After the war many
stayed on. A bustling black community burst into existence south
of downtown Memphis with Beale Street as its center. By the time
Handy came back from St. Louis and put those old work songs to music,
Beale was a thriving place, home of Americas first black millionaire.
Later, after various mutations of the Blues traveled up and down
the Mississippi, from ragtime to rhythm and blues to jazz, Sam Phillips
and Ike Turner teamed up to create Rocket 88
give the world RocknRoll. Later came Sun Studios and
Elvis. Later still, Hi-Records, Stax, and such soul greats as Rufus
Thomas, Isaac Hayes, and Al Green.
By 1976 Beale, with the rest of Memphis, was a somnambulant shell
of its old self. It wasnt dead. It wasnt living. Comatose.
The Blues had seeped deep into the foundations of the old boarded
up buildings on Beale. As sure as the slow grind of W.C. gave birth
to the original incarnation, that same slow grind would bring it
back. Beale is alive again with Blues
and barbeque. You can
never forget the barbeque.
I got out of the truck figuring to troll the hotels near Beale
for the cheapest rate. I knew it would blow my modest lodging allocation
to pieces. Id have to camp sometime in the future to recover.
Beale should be worth it. As soon as I opened the door I could hear
the thump of a kick drum and bass guitar. To hell with trolling
for hotels, there was music afoot.
W.C. Handy Park is at the butt end of Beale. Theres not a
lot of park there, mostly its concrete, with a nice statue
of W.C. as the centerpiece. A small crowd had gathered to watch
Big Jerry and his trio bang out some down home blues.
On weekends during the summer and early autumn, the city books
bands to play in the park. Usually the last show of the summer is
right around Halloween. Traces of summer are still hanging on in
Memphis. Today it is in the 70s. So, Big Jerry and the Boys
took the stage.
It was an informal gathering. They had been booked that morning.
No pay, just a chance to play, free beer from the Pavilion, and
passing the tip bucket. People wandered in and out. The hardcore
were parked on three benches in front of the stage. John, Willie,
Big Mama, Lorraine, Verla, Sweet John (not to be confused with John),
Leon, The Player, Boo-Goo, Mother
and me. Big Mama saw me standing
off to the side taking pictures of the band and watching her shimmy
and groove on her bench. After thirty minutes I was clearly not
a tourist passing through for a song or two. As she walked back
to her group after getting a drink at the Pavilion bar she asked
me where I was from. I asked if it was that obvious.
Boy, nothing about you is Memphis.
She told me if I had any soul I could dance with her. I told her
I had more soul than I knew what to do with but it was all wrapped
up in the moves of a white guy. She said she could help me. We danced.
We were the only ones. This provided much amusement to the regulars.
Big Mama said I got points for fearlessness but she didnt
think I had too much soul. Joints in your hips dont
work, California. You stiff as a frozen catfish.
A mans got to have an identity.
Big Mama brought me over to the bench. Most everyone had to repeat
his/her name a few times. They were still laughing too hard to speak
clearly. Sweet John didnt look like he would make it. Big
Mama told him to shut the hell up and move over to make room for
me. At least California got out there an moved, which
is more than your sorry ass can say. From all Ive seen hes
the best dancer here. Leon pointed out I was the only dancer
and only if you really tortured the definition of dancing. Great
bursts of laughter and colorful commentary on my dancing skills,
or lack thereof, ensued.
On the one hand, there was good music. On the other hand, laughter
at my expense.
Leon figured I didnt really have any soul at all. Couldnt
have soul and move like I did. I told him I had soul but the only
way I could get it out was by singing. The thought of such a travesty
was more entertaining than anyone could imagine. Boo-Goo did a terrifyingly
accurate imitation of Pat Boone singing Tutti-Frutti. Everyone was
laughing so hard I thought Id have to summon the paramedics.
Big Mama sold me out. While I was being emasculated back at the
bench shed gone up to Big Jerry and told him I wanted to jump
in with him. Big Jerry, maybe wanting to know what the hell was
so funny, decided this would be just fine.
The only way to survive a self-inflicted wound brought about by
ones own audacity is by doing something equally audacious
getting up and singing. Its sort of like fighting fire with
fire. In this instance, it was a case of fighting stupid with crazy.
So, I sang. I picked an obscure lyric that I heard a guy in East
St. Louis sing years ago
My baby loves me like a Chevy,
but I love her like a Dodge. It slides in to any 12-bar structure.
It worked out pretty well.
When I got back to the bench the general consensus was that I did,
in fact, have soul. Even if I danced like a tight-ass. Leon thought
it reminiscent of Rainman. I was a soul-savant.
Big Mama wanted to know what I was doing in Memphis. I told her
about my trip and what I was looking for. She thought I should interview
her. And then John thought I should interview him, that Big Mama
didnt know shit. Then Big Mama threw some ice at John and
said all men think women dont know shit. Then everyone thought
I should interview everyone and no one thought I should interview
anyone else and then more ice got thrown and then a rugby scrum
We didnt accomplish a damn thing but we were having a hell
of a good time.
Leon was grabbing me by the arm and yelling at everyone else to
stop playing. He was pulling me down to the far end of the row of
benches. Mother wants to say something.
Everyone got quiet.
At the end of the row of benches was an old woman in a wheel chair.
She wore a heavy knit hat pulled down low and layer upon layer of
sweaters. In her hands she clutched tight a single, faded plastic
flower. Hard, brittle wires of gray hair forced their way out from
under her cap
like they were trying to escape. Her face looked
like it had been carved from granite.
You want to know what America is? Her voice was a harsh
rasp. She spoke softly. I had to squat down in front of her to see
her face since she kept her head bowed forward slightly. I had to
get very close to hear her.
You goin out to Graceland, she asked.
You going to the Museum at the hotel?
I had learned the night before, while surfing the web from my crappy
motel room in Ozark, AR., that Memphis had the National Civil Rights
Museum. I had not known prior to that web excursion that the Civil
Rights Museum existed. It is located in what used to be the Hotel
Lorraine. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered there. Had I answered
Mothers question honestly, I would have said no, I had decided
the playground of a singer was more important. That I was on a tight
schedule. That I had to prioritize.
Yes, maam, I lied.
She said, You should. Might not like what you see. Might
get mad. Might get hurt. You go look anway. It aint the whole
answer. Aint gonna be no easy answer. Aint gonna be
I asked her if being an American meant ending racism. She almost
smiled at me out of those heavy lidded eyes. It means you
find something you believe in and you fight like hell for it. You
fight like hell.
She stared at me for a long time. The corner of her mouth twitched
a couple of times like she was going to speak again, or smile
something. I figured she was done and I stood up. As I started to
move away, she said something that was lost in the music and the
noise of Beale. I put my head down close to hers.
What do you believe in?
And then she smiled and waved me away.
The others had stopped paying attention to this little interaction.
They were dancing on the benches again. Dancing while sitting down.
Sipping drinks and smoking. Singing along with Big Jerry.
Big Mama told me I had to have some barbeque while I was in Memphis
it wouldnt even count as coming to Memphis if I didnt
have any. I told her every place in Memphis had a sign out front
claiming to have the finest barbecue in the world and asked her
for a recommendation. She told me to wait until it was dark and
then come back down to Beale and walk along until I smell
something smoky and sweet that makes your head turn. Thats
or a fine black woman and either way, California,
you oughta go see if you can get you some.
Leon fell off the bench he was laughing so hard. As I walked off
he and the Player were taking bets on whether or not Id survive
a fine black woman smelling smoky and sweet. Willie thought the
bet should be if shed even have me.
That night I went back down to Beale. I walked until I smelled
something smoky and sweet. I had some fine Memphis barbecue. I saw
a fine black woman with a voice to kill for and looks to die for
belting out the Blues in a dark, empty bar. I watched her. I listened.
I think Willie was probably right.
I took a long walk along Beale and kept going. I walked around
downtown, looking in shop windows and stopping off in bars to hear
some of the finest music youll ever find. After finishing
a disjointed lap around downtown I took one more pass along Beale
and watched the last of the horse-drawn carriages call it a night.
I looked at the neon glow spilling onto the empty street. Thinking.
What do I believe in?