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May 23, 2012

In the Dust #21: New Orleans, I’ll Be There – The Wandering Travelogue of Two Blues-obsessed Inebriates – Part II – Making Memphis

by @thoughtontracks

See Also: Part I

After spending most of our first day on the road, we stay put for a day, climbing out from underneath the residual haze of heavy Beale Street carousing, and take in Memphis, one piece of holy ground at a time.


10:30 AM: Wake up, goddamn it, and feel good. It’s 68°. Hot coffee is downstairs. There is no time to feel like this. Memphis is outside.

I slug down some coffee, grab a couple bananas from the hotel breakfast bar and we take to the truck, eyes deeply set behind gas station sunglasses.

11:45 AM: Sun fucking Records. Originally known as Memphis Recording Service. We walk up to the original storefront, nothing more than a receiving room, studio, and control room, now connected to a modernish annex into which enter. It’s a rockabilly café/gift shop, complete with embroidered, diner-style bar stools bearing names like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and a number of other Sun legends.

We order black coffee, of course, and peruse the overwhelming amount of photographs, documents, and general memorabilia on the walls. The woman behind the counter complains of being short-staffed and how, if some of us tourists lived ‘round here, we might be in for a job. Don’t tempt me, I think as I look over Elvis’s paystub, Howlin’ Wolf 45s, vintage consoles and boards, on which Sam Perkins, Sun founder, cut some of the greatest rock-and-roll music ever heard, nearly floating and desperately trying to rationalize trading in every morsel of my old life for a shot slinging Sun shirts and Moon Pies in Memphis.

12:30 AM: The Tour. A so-goddamn-perky tour guide collects us and takes us upstairs and guides us through an impressive collection of more memorabilia and hardware: recording consoles, record presses and mobile plate etchers, Elvis’s guitar (THE guitar, with the leather sheath stamped with his name, you know the one), a 45 of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston (widely regarded as the first rock-and-roll song ever), Elvis’s Social Security card, draft documents, other assorted gear.

It’s cool, but honestly, nobody is that interested, only because we all know what comes next: the studio. We head downstairs, past more photos of Sam Phillips and the boys, and around the corner to the receiving room, where Marion Keisker, assistant to Sam Phillips at Sun Records and the first person to ever record Elvis Presley worked. Then, into the live room.

There is a strange air in the room, stranger still with each moment one spends in it. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The sides of your stomach contract, pulling your torso into a tight ball.

Holy shit, this is where rock-and-roll happened.

The room is lined with guitars, amps, pianos, organs, drums, microphones and other gear of random provenance, some new, some gifts, some authentic and unmoved.

The floor is still marked with X’s, used for positioning around a central microphone. These X’s are where Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, among many other artists, once stood to record songs like “Cry, Cry, Cry”, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hey Porter”. Near one X sits an original vocal mic from the earliest days of Sun Studios, ours for mugging with and photo-opting and general ooh-ing and ahh-ing. We all take turns.

And just like that it’s over. It’s time to go. Our tour guide spritely and politely asks for tips, and we exit, through the gift shop, of course, leaving behind one of the most important musical landmarks in Memphis, and the world.

From there, it’s straight to Soulsville, USA.

On our way, we pass a billboard for the law firm of Johnnie Cochran. His giant face looks pensively upon the horizon, as he apparently fights denial of disability claims from beyond the grave.


2:35 PM: Stax Museum, site of Stax Records. Unlike Sun Records, Stax is not authentic. Poorly preserved, it fell into such disrepair after closing that in the Eighties it was bought at auction for $10. No, I did not forget several zeros. Ten dollars American.

Now, the marquee and front façade are artfully reconstructed to the exact specifications of the glory days. The only difference: nothing inside is the same. We walk into a very museum-like lobby, polished, with fancy, high-tech signage and a gift shop. Not very Stax, but it is what it is.

Spoiled from Sun, or just expecting more, I admittedly do not have the highest hopes.

We take the tour. It begins with a stellar, albeit, totally unfocused intro video that puts Stax in an incredibly expansive social context. From there, we proceed to the exhibits.

We wind down a long series of hallways covered in various paraphernalia and long, detailed text blocks regarding The Memphis Horns, Otis Redding, Rufus & Carla Thomas, and others. Eventually we reach the replicated control and live rooms, complete with slanted floor (as Stax was originally a movie theatre and Jerry Wexler found leveling it too expensive), in which Booker T. & The MG’s gear is featured. Then, Isaac Hayes’ batshit crazy, funkadelic Cadillac, along with several velvet paintings of him, the most prominent being a depiction of Hayes’ choking a bald woman with a length of chain. He’s a bad mother…

We wind our way through more text and paraphernalia- 45s, trap cases, etc., and exit, of course, through the gift shop.

Next stop, the King’s castle.

3:28 PM- Graceland. We pull up and the first thing I see is two enormous airplanes, both with tails emblazoned “TCB”, a single lightning bolt descending beneath the “C”. We later learn that this stands for “takin’ care of business in a flash”, Elvis’s personal motto for most of the 70’s.

We park the truck in an absolutely massive parking lot across the street from the mansion, gabbing to each other about the sheer expanse of the grounds, the rigmarole and ritual of the whole thing, and the innumerable busloads of Asian tourists. For several minutes, it seems every other word is “pilgrimage”.

And this is just the parking lot. The line for the shuttle is exponential by comparison. Dense crowds of tourists, Asian and otherwise, labyrinthine souvenir and refreshment complexes, and a Disney-style line that seems to recycle and replenish every few minutes. This is a money machine.

We reach the front of the line, have our picture snapped in front of a fake Graceland, a part of the process I don’t understand as we will be in front of the genuine article in t-minus 2 minutes, and board the bus, self-guided audio tours a-rollin’.

Our bus driver welcomes us to “Graithsland”, his lisp supplying welcome human charm to the surreal experience, as he ushers us across the street, through the musical-note-and-Elvis-silhouette embellished gates and up the serpentine front drive to the house.

The house is much smaller than one would imagine, but in size only. While modest from the outside, it is bursting over with kitsch awfulness from one of America’s gaudiest decades: the 70’s. Strange pattern after strange pattern and even stranger fabrics and exercises in pseudo-futurist modernism abound, from an almost completely mirrored dining room to a jungle-themed leisure room (waterfall and all). No one is allowed to go upstairs, but the main floor is enough. From there, we venture to his father’s office, the shooting range, the racquetball court (which has been converted into a silver-and-glitterbomb shrine to the King) and on to the pool and, finally, the cemetery, where Elvis, his parents, and his stillborn twin, Jessie, are buried.

Afterwards, we tour his planes (comparably wacky), his car collection, have a beer at his café and, of course, exit through the gift shop.

It’s about now that our big day out and our big night out are adding up. We take a rest back at the hotel in preparation for an evening of thorough cheeseburgering, 40-ounce-drinking, jazz-sponging, and death-defying revelry.

9:20 PM- Wild Bill’s. We read about Wild Bill’s in the truck on our way down. It’s the place. A true local joint with good jazz, great blues, and better burgers, not to mention they only serve beer, and only 40 ounces, two plastic cups tossed over the open mouth.

It’s outside the downtown area, so we take a little drive. As we pull up, we quickly ask ourselves if this is, perhaps, too local. Completely outlandish hoopties skrrrt in and out and against the front facade some flat-out mean-looking motherfuckers smoke cloves on the lean above other equally mean-looking motherfuckers rolling dice. We sit for a while in the truck, analyzing Yelp review after Yelp review from fresh-faced 21-year-old girls who couldn’t possibly have actually dared enter, could they?

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” my Dad says, the subtext of which I deduce to be “I hope I don’t regret this” and exits the truck. I let out a sigh of relief to know that we’ve ixnayed a potentially racist cop-out, but also in reaction to what, no matter who’s who, appears to be the very real possibility of not just a tense and anxious future, but serious fucking trouble.

We walk into an empty bar, literally, save the staff and band, both already cooking, and doing it well. We order two cheeseburgers, two 40’s of Bud and chow, stuffing down and drowning all preconceived notions and latent concern with a nearly perfect burger and the king of beers.

Gale, the unceasingly sweet hostess/waitress/cashier/pretty much only person working there asks us how everything is. We tell her it’s great, because it is. She asks us what we’re doing here, as she sits down and we proceed to swap tales and belly laughs over Bud after Bud and the great blues-funk fusion of the Intermission jazz band.

Our sense of time and vision both expertly altered, and feeling not just in love with Gale and Wild Bill’s but completely invincible, at home in our city, we weave our way through town back to Beale for some good old Big Ass Beers, hearty hollering and infectious, melodious Memphis music to round out our last night in “the home of the blues”, “the birthplace of rock and roll”.

Written by Ben Brundage

You Might Also Like:

In the Dust #21: New Orleans, I’ll Be There – The Wandering Travelogue of Two Blues-obsessed Inebriates – Part I – South to Memphis

In the Dust #4: Elvis Presley The Sun Recordings

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