Friday, January 13, 2012

Impressions of Memphis, 1989

On my first trip to Memphis, back in 1989, I jotted down my initial impressions of the city. I came across them the other day in an old diary. Here's what I wrote:

'I wonder if Chuck Berry's little Marie still lives in Memphis. If she does, she'll be in her thirties now. Marie was only five years old when Chuck tried to get hold of her in Memphis, Tennessee. She'll have seen her home town robbed of its soul.

Memphis today resembles a ghost city. Most of the poor black neighbourhoods close to the city centre were reduced to rubble 20 years ago and today what remains of the old shopping area is run-down and surrounded by wasteland.Vietnam vets patrol the streets looking for hand-outs but the tourists, paying homage to the King, ignore them. Most stay in motels but for some, the splendour of the famous Peabody Hotel, in downtown Memphis, still retains an echo of an earlier, more gracious age.
Not that Memphis is dull. There's Graceland, a surprisingly modest mansion on an expressway in the suburbs, where Elvis worshippers from all over the world join conducted tours of the 'music room' with grand piano, 'TV room' with three screens in a row, 'den' with hideous huge carved chairs, 'hall of fame' with golden discs, gold lame suits and photographs, squash court with pin table and, finally, the grave itself (see photo). There's a reverential tone to the stilted, oft-repeated commentary, and Elvis's auntie still lives, unseen, in an upstairs room.

Returning by coach across the expressway to the shopping mall, visitors are faced by more tacky souvenirs than in the whole of Blackpool - Presley T-shirts, mugs, badges. You can record your own Presley disc, singing along to Hound Dog or All Shook Up, see a film about the King's life, visit his personal plane parked next door. But you won't hear about his drug-induced death or his unsavoury sexual habits. This is fantasy-land, where no unpalatable facts are allowed to interfere.

Memphis's music is much more than just Elvis of course. There's Sun Studios, where not just Presley but Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison all made their mark, and before them great blues singers like Howlin' Wolf, B B King and Junior Parker. Today the music is no more, but there are tours of the studio, and hamburgers and badges for sale in a newly-opened cafe.

Later Memphis was to continue its great musical tradition with Stax soulmen like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, and Willie Mitchell's creations for Hi records by Al Green and Otis Clay. There's nothing left of Stax now apart from a sign but for today's visitors there's a relic from an earlier musical age which continues to attract - Beale Street.

Once a centre of now vanished black neighbourhoods, Beale Street today stands like a film set in the middle of nowhere. Whatever the atmosphere may have been in the early years of the century when jazz and blues flourished there, it's gone now. Yet despite the artificiality of this row of bars and burger joints today, there remain some links with the past and odd links with its heritage.

There's Schwab's hardware store - a living museum which appears still to cater largely for its original clientele, the poor blacks of Memphis. The store is unchanged from the 1920s or earlier, selling a weird mixture of useless and inconsequential items - plastic sunglasses, hats, shirts, ironmongery, umbrellas, kitchen utensils, vases, wigs...

In the evening there are numerous bars with live music playing along the street. The night I was there I saw a mediocre white blues band playing in a place called Big Mama's. It was, well, embarrassing. The band spent most of their time tracking down a drummer for the evening. but when he turned up the band's sound was not noticeably better.

A few doors away, at the Club Royale, things were different. This was a black club, with black acts and a sharp-looking black clientele. I was made welcome by the club manager, who shook my hand with an enthusiasm which suggested that white faces were all but unknown. The band - SRO - was energetic and soulful with a singer out of the James Brown mould.

Beale Street somehow represented all that's both bad and good about Memphis. Seemingly a sham, it is nevertheless the real heart of the city. When I first walked along on a cold and windy afternoon I came across the statue of W C Handy, the father of the blues. There was a small group of people standing nearby, including a photographer from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and a black man and lady in Sunday best (see photo). Another man went to the statue and announced that they were there for the crowning of this year's Cotton Maker's Jubilee King and Queen. There to perform the ceremony was the King of 1951 - Rufus Thomas. No longer walkin' the dog or doing the funky penguin, old Rufus is still a Memphis boy at heart.

While music runs through the history of Memphis like a coal seam, there's another side to today's tourist industry - one which focusses on the city's other great attraction, the Mississippi river. Mud Island is a celebration of the river in the form of a scale model, complete with water creeks and tributaries, running its complete length from upstream of Memphis, through Natchez and down to the Gulf at New Orleans. To reach it, visitors take a slow monorail across an outlying stretch of water. On one side there's the scale model and on the other the real thing, with tankers and barges passing by at walking, or swimming, pace.

Mud Island is just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge. That's surely where's Chuck's Marie lived. Marie is thirty five years old, information please. Help me get in touch with her in Memphis, Tennessee.'



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