Southern Comfort

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Benchmark Hotel Downtown Memphis

Flag of United States  , Tennessee
Monday, September 7, 2009

An Amtrak station is by no means an inspirational place to be, but I got some time to kill before our 10:40 pm train to Chicago, so while the memories are still quite vivid in my mind, and let's face it, these days they slip away quicker and quicker, let me tell you about our brilliant, confusing, hilarious, thought provoking, groovy and joyous trip to Memphis, Tennessee on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.

Memphis is very hard to describe really, on one hand I could sound really corny and clichéd and gush about the place, but I could also write about how the whole town seems to be crumbling. Dozens of empty shops, derelict buildings and vacant lots dominate the larger part of downtown. There’s just not that much here. It is a city that is staying alive by feeding off its former musical glory. I’m talking about the days when Count Basey, Duke Ellington and BB King would walk down Beale Street on a Saturday night just like normal folk looking for a good night out. Other names that you may recognise, that also owe their fame and fortune to Memphis, are Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison....you get the picture? Of course, let’s not forget the main man Elvis Presley....he who brought Black music to the White folk of the world by basically taking old black musician’s music and releasing it as his own. That’s copyright infringement. The song Hound Dog was written by a black woman long before Elvis made it famous. The song was about a no good boyfriend. Another black musician, a guy, retaliated by writing a song called Bear Cat, about a no good girlfriend. He used the same tune, he got a $35000 copyright infringement lawsuit slapped on him and he did some jail time. That was a lot of money back in 1930. I don’t recall Elvis getting into trouble much ......except that one day on the toilet. I suppose Led Zeppelin did exactly the same thing as well. Just my opinion, I don’t want to piss anybody off,.....but after visiting the Civil Rights museum, I think the black man is owed so much by this country.....but let’s not go down that road right now.....it’s a comedy cul-de-sac.

So far I’ve mentioned Beale Street and the Civil Rights Museum. I have a lot to say about both of them as well as a few other places, people and happenings so sit back and, hopefully, enjoy.

Beale Street is the main hive of activity in Memphis. For most part the street is just like any other inner city street except for two blocks. These two blocks are, as experienced in New Orleans and Austin and Nashville, full of bars. The difference is each one of these bars has a band playing proper Mississippi Delta blues....and playing it well. There are harmonica led bands, guitar led and the odd saxophone led.....but they’re all good and can all evoke a sense of what Beale Street used to be when it was giving birth to the blues and rock n roll. Needless to say we spent countless hours sitting in darkened , smoky rooms (as they should be) listening to gruff voiced black men, and the occasional white dude, tell us, through the medium of music about his girl/dog/sanity/mojo leaving him and how he now had the lost my girl/dog/sanity/mojo blues.....magical hours. One particular bluesman, a certain Dr Feelgood Potts played awesome harmonica for us all night and signed a CD for me, his CD of course. He was a very polite man. He always asked at the top of his voice "CAN I PLAY MY HARP FOR Y’ALL", to which we would obviously shout yes and only then would he blow some blues our way. His back-up band consisted of a Fat Albert look-a-like on drums who seemed to play while sleeping, a pretty good guitarist that Dr Feelgood annoyingly talked over whenever he played a solo and, last but not least, an Asian pixie on bass guitar that had just swallowed a bucket of Novocaine.....she might well have been animatronic.

 Some of the performers have total control of their crowds and the command /response action is a pleasure to behold. It became a lot like a deep South Baptist church meeting sometimes, not in a bad way though, especially when the crowd was made up mainly of black folk...which was most of the time....always joyous occasions. Lots of statements by the singer with instant questions from the audience, for example, the dude sings a line like “I went down to the cross-roads last night”, pauses and the crowd instantly shouts out stuff like “What did y’all see there brother?” or “Were you saved ?“ and so on until the music builds up to a crescendo and the singer lets us know what kind of blues he has .Good thing humans have body clocks and a sun that divides the night otherwise I would still be sitting there.

We didn’t even need to be in the bars to hear the music because some guys would simply set up their equipment in alley ways and on makeshift stages.....to be honest, these performances seemed to have more heart and were a lot more enriching, we loved them all.

Another thing that made for some very good times was seeing some familiar faces again, namely Sheryl’s, Mike’s and Mary’s. They are such good people to hang out with for many reasons but one that I really appreciate is their Americaness (yes, you too Mike). This just means that unlike Trace and I who have spent the last 10 to 13 years in anti-social London, not speaking to strangers for fear of stabbing, they are able to fire up conversations with strangers effortlessly and as a result we’d get to meet new and interesting people as well. Like John the barman at the Green Beetle who was from Chicago originally and ended up writing out a list of what Trace and I should do when we get there. And they’d also get us to do stuff we wouldn’t intentionally do....like eat fried pickles. We also had fried peach pie but only have ourselves to blame for that. Let’s not forget that they also have the Magic Phone, The Oracle....Mike, Sharky,...you guys should get sponsored by iPhone.

Lucky for us Memphis was staging its annual Music and Heritage Festival. This wasn’t held on Beale Street as you’d imagine but a few blocks away in town. It consisted of 3 outdoor stages erected at various intersections and in an alleyway, and a couple of smaller indoor stages. The 5 of us just wondered around with big ass beers in our hands listening to music like Rockabilly, Bluegrass, Gospel, Jug Bands (yes, they use a jug), Indie Country (??????!!!!!!!!!!!), Blues, Boogie, Funk and even a Mexican Mariachi band. It was all corn dogs and fried pies and beer (light) for me. The weather was brilliant all the time so a good time was had by all.....Did I mention the music was free? It was.

They say all good things must come to an end, and they did temporarily, for me anyway, when we went to the Civil Rights museum. Not because it was crap, it was excellent and opened my eyes to a lot of injustices and barbarism that I was not aware of in America’s past. The museum itself is in the actual motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. They have preserved everything exactly the way it was on that day, it’s eerie. Even the cars parked outside are the same as that era. It’s a very powerful monument. Needless to say my white South African apartheid stricken up-bringing left me wracked with guilt and unable to finish the entire tour....so I left. Apparently the part I missed was the uplifting section where they dwelled on the progress that’s been made in race relations since that time.

My depression was, thankfully, short-lived because we went to Sun Studios. This is where Elvis cut his first single....so did Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many, many more. We have now been in a room that those guys stood in and sang for hours on end. There are markings on the studio floor where the artists had to stand for acoustic purposes and there was an X where Elvis stood. Apparently Bob Dylan came in to the studio and simply got down on his knees, kissed the X and left. Very rock and roll. I stood on the X. Trace and I also had a chance to handle the same microphone Elvis used in his recording sessions. Bono, Tom Petty and John Cougar Mellencamp have also made use of the studio in recent years. Probably the most famous contemporary recordings made at Sun would be U2’s Rattle and Hum, which contains the song When Love Comes to Town(I think that’s what it’s called anyway) which was done with BB King, another of Sun studios offspring. We learned some very interesting facts about the ups and downs of the music industry in the 50’s in Memphis on that day, and they were all told to us by a very enthusiastic and clued up young lady that, unfortunately, had Honky Tonk Angel tattooed across her chest......there’s a thin line between passion and just plain silly. Anyhoo, she did a brilliant job and we all thoroughly enjoyed the tour. Much more than the trip to Graceland, what a complete sell-out. It’s ridiculous, I have nothing more to say about that.

My arse is numb and my fingers are sore, so I’m going to finish off now by telling you about the food again. Pork, praise be to the pig and any by-product that comes from it. We’ve eaten pulled pork, pork ribs, bbq pork....and it’s all been delicious.......ok so I’ve put a bit of weight on since I’ve been on holiday, I’m in America, it’s un-avoidable, the portions are gargantuan. We went to a restaurant called the Rendezvous that sells 5 tons of pork ribs a week.....I’m not at all surprised. I also had the opportunity to taste “Biscuits and Gravy” which is a very common meal or side dish in the South. When you see it, it looks like white icing on a cupcake, when you taste it, it seems to be a scone covered in something that is threatening to be a mushroom sauce but just doesn’t have the cojones.........once again, the jury is still out.

As a final thought on Memphis I’d like to say that it has nothing aesthetically pleasing about it,....it’s more like a feeling that it gives you , a very good feeling, a groove,..an undeniable groove....that’s what so appealing about Memphis. And that you can throw the word legend around freely and it always makes sense.

Right, I think I’ve covered everything, if not, tough, my memory has started shutting down on me. Hope I’ve managed to make you laugh a little, cry a little, maybe even .......think a little. This is Mike Sargeant  reporting from Memphis Tennessee for The Blog......have a good evening and be safe.
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