Memphis Part One - Fight Like Hell
Memphis, Tennessee
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 1890’s, 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 freedmen’s 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 America’s 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”…and give the world Rock’n’Roll. 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 wasn’t dead. It wasn’t 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. I’d 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. There’s not a lot of park there, mostly it’s 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 70’s. 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 didn’t think I had too much soul. “Joints in your hips don’t work, California. You stiff as a frozen catfish.”

A man’s 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 didn’t 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 I’ve seen he’s 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 didn’t really have any soul at all. Couldn’t 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 I’d have to summon the paramedics.

Big Mama sold me out. While I was being emasculated back at the bench she’d 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 one’s own audacity is by doing something equally audacious…like getting up and singing. It’s 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 didn’t know shit. Then Big Mama threw some ice at John and said all men think women don’t 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 broke out.

We didn’t 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.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“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 Mother’s 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, ma’am,” I lied.

She said, “You should. Might not like what you see. Might get mad. Might get hurt. You go look anway. It ain’t the whole answer. Ain’t gonna be no easy answer. Ain’t gonna be just one.”

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…or 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…that it wouldn’t even count as coming to Memphis if I didn’t 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. That’s your barbecue…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 I’d survive a fine black woman smelling smoky and sweet. Willie thought the bet should be if she’d 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 you’ll 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?

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