In the Dust #21: New Orleans, I’ll Be There – The Wandering Travelogue of Two Blues-obsessed Inebriates – Part I – South to Memphis
I don’t know how it started. It just did. After many trips home, and many beers with our feet on the brass at MacNiven’s, my Dad must’ve grown tired of hearing me harp on about Louis Armstrong, that Dixie sound, W.C. Handy, the residents of Dockery Plantation, Charlie Patton and his party tricks. I must’ve grown tired of his waxing poetic about the almost viral charm of the Crescent City, how the streets lead to the place you’re meant to be, and how, if you’re not back in three weeks, you must trust someone to bring you back, likely against your will and what the scent of crawfish and pastis has made of your “better judgment”.
So, somehow, it congealed. We would put our money where our mouths are. We would go to New Orleans and we would go the hard way: drinking ourselves down the blues highway, Highway 61, subsisting on glove box power bars, gas station coffee, and the best damn barbecue we could find.
For me, it started on a Tuesday. I had a show the night before with my band, Woodrow Hart & The Haymaker (shameless plug). Things went late. What follows are my notes from beginning to end, scribbled in haste during rare moments of rest and transcribed verbatim, along with my attempt to recount and reconstruct, as I now type, fragment by fragment the many less-than-clear, half-remembered moments that fill the gaps in a narrative of what I will recall to friends for many years as a life-changing week.
7 AM: Wake up. 2 hrs sleep. I pack up and get coffee. “Yesterday came late. Today came early,” she says and hands me my joe. Yes. Yes, it did. I drive to Indianapolis with a jug of coffee and the Hooker box locked and loaded.
11:45 AM: Indy – Pep talk with my Dad over yet more coffee (we are both hopelessly addicted). We discuss voodoo, topography, cotton fields, the French Quarter, survival, and a general overview of our trip: Memphis, Clarksdale, Dockery Plantation, Tutwiler, Holly Ridge Cemetery, Vicksburg, New Orleans. We pack the truck.
12:07 PM: We set off for Memphis. Jazz Is Dead on the stereo.
1:25 PM: We stop at a Putnamville truckers’ hub for food, gas etc. A nice young girl has the Subway Sandwich Artist make her what she insists is a healthy sandwich. She is on a diet. It is a grilled chicken, on which the sandwich artist, at the girl’s behest, nearly empties an entire bottle of ranch. I peruse the DVDs.
4:50 PM: First crossing of the Mississippi River. It is muddy, wide, and commanding. There is a single barge floating slowly with the current. This is truly beautiful.
7:01 PM: Memphis. Passing once again over the Mississippi, gleaming in the sunlight, we enter. Trolley cars, horse-drawn carriages ala Cinderella, streetlamps, it is an old city made new.
7:23 PM: We check into our hotel and journey in search of barbecue.
7:45 PM: Good God, do we find it! Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous. We walk down a darkened alley, the air thick with rub and smoke, and enter through the front door, about half a block from any notion of a street. The place is like a southern fried beer hall, all pine and long communal tables, conducive to the kind of drunken feast two starving, road-weary travelers most desire. We order and are quickly served two pitchers, one each, of Ghost River Golden Ale when we hear a commotion. Naturally, we explore. On the other side of a red gingham divider, an Elvis impersonator writhes desperately on the floor, singing a heartfelt but stomach-turning “Heartbreak Hotel”. Over the loudspeaker the hostess calls, “the Acuff party”. We are in Memphis.
Finally, after two more pitchers and innumerable attempts to escape “Elvis” we are seated. A menu at the table reads, “Not since Adam has a rib been this famous.” We each order a full rack and do not speak until it is gone, beans, coleslaw, cornbread and all. It is unanimously declared the best barbecue of our lives. We lean back in our seats, sip the dregs of two more pitchers and decide, against the best wishes of our truck-mangled bodies, that we, with our 3-pitcher-and-full-rack distended guts, are ready for Beale Street.
It is at this point that, for a number reasons, I cease to recognize or record the time for the remainder of the evening, so for the sake of continuity, let’s just call it-
NIGHT: On our way, we stumble on the Peabody Hotel, famous for its peculiar guests: a family of ducks that lives on the roof and commutes, every morning, to a perpetually flowing pond in the hotel’s beautiful, heavily wooded and ornately carved central lobby. We don’t see the ducks. The lobby pianist plays, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It is already the third time since arriving in Memphis that we have heard this song.
We leave, walk further down the street and turn the corner onto a sea of neon. It is Beale Street. We wander past a bronze statue of W.C. Handy numerous signs claiming Beale Street, and Memphis, as “the home of the blues and birthplace of rock and roll.” This, of course, is not fact, but also neither here nor there. We grab two “Beale Street Big Ass Beers” and continue walking, peeking into club after of club of loud, passionate blues, country, and rock music. It is a Tuesday night and the entire place is alive, pulsating with the bump of bass drums and practically flooding the grates with beer, bourbon, and fruity mixed concoctions we will begin to see much more of, but wisely avoid.
We duck into W.C. Handy’s Blues Hall Juke Joint for The Bluesbreakers, whom we agreed was the most promising on the block. They did not disappoint, whipping the crowd into an almost immediate frenzy. Borrowing their name from John Mayall, the band paid tribute to tradition, reverently and selectively. “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Stand By Me”, “Green Onions”, and again, “Dock of the Bay”. At intermission, thoroughly cocked on “Big Ass Beers”, we take the opportunity to look around. The bar is old, seemingly untouched. The only advertisement is for Red Bull, a drink most at home in a place as rowdy as this, where a crowd, as my Dad describes, like “a buncha buttons that fell off a coat and got together.” Mississippi John Hurt wafts down from the stereo, attempting to establish a restful air in the time between what was, and surely will be, a ruckus. We order more “Big Ass Beers”, my Dad tries to dance with some strange, trashy lady and is shot down, and the night fades to black as we look deeply into the PBR for the bottom of our massive plastic cups.
Written by Ben Brundage
**Look out for further detail of Ben’s adventure later this week.