When I woke up I was sleeping on the street
I felt the world was dancing, and I was dirt beneath their feet
When I woke up I saw the Devil looking down
But my Lord He played guitar the day love came to town”
— B. B. King
Tuesday I slipped out of the conference during an hour when all of the sessions seemed neither relevant nor interesting and set out up Union Avenue on my way to its intersection with Marshall and Myrtle streets. Union is a main thoroughfare running to the edge of town from the door of the Peabody Hotel, in the lobby of which, after all, the Mississippi delta is famously said to begin, so I was surprised that it was so empty of businesses.
I did see a furniture store that displayed fine wood fireplace mantels in the windows of an old building that I at first thought was derelict, and one eatery called the Sky Grille or something like that, and I’m sure there must have been other concerns along the way, but my strongest impression was that Memphis was pretty bombed out, that it had never recovered from some long ago recession, long enough ago that commercial buildings and maybe even some nice old Victorian homes had disappeared leaving stately old Magnolia trees to stand sentinel over weedy lots in places where, if it were Seattle, shiny new condos would be opening up.
It was a little depressing, but as I’ve said before, I’m kind of attracted to urban decay, maybe because it so readily exposes the layers of time.
The layers of time have been kept from settling on the narrow building at 706 Union, which is where, in 1953 the teenaged Elvis Aaron Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service to make a record and answered the famous question of who he sounded like with the famous line, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
Sun Studio, as it later became known, has been preserved pretty much as it looked back then, and for $12 you can take a tour that leads you up a steep stairway into a room full of photos, old recording gear and other memorabilia related to the famous people whom Sam Phillips recorded here both before and after the night in July 1954 Elvis cut the version of “That’s All Right” that, when Dewey Phillips played it on his radio program “Red Hot and Blue” three days later, got so many people out of their chairs and on the phone that he was forced to play the record over and over again that night.
Jason was the guide for the tour I joined of about two dozen people and he made it fun with enthusiastic storytelling and possibly the most interesting combination of face and head hair I’ve ever seen. He ran us through the key artists who recorded there — Rufus Thomas Jr., Chester Burnett (a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf), Ike Turner, and the Prisonaires among others — and told us what the significance of each contribution was, waving a remote to cause snippets of the original recordings to envelope us so we could hear what he was talking about.
A famous story says that an amp fell off the roof rack of the car Ike Turner’s band was driving to the studio in Memphis, and even though they stuffed some paper inside it to mitigate damage to the woofer, it sounded distorted. However, Sam Phillips liked the effect and used it in the finished recording of “Rocket 88″, which became a smash hit and is regarded by some (not many who know anything about the history of music, though) as the first rock ‘n’ roll recording. I missed part of what Jason was saying when he pointed to an old torn speaker behind the glass, but I believe he was saying it was the very speaker used in the recording.
The tour ends back downstairs in the original studio, the very room where Elvis recorded his first songs, and where the exact spot where he supposedly stood that night is marked on the linoleum floor with an X of black tape. On the west wall hung a photo of the “Million Dollar Quartet”. The story there was that Carl Perkins was in the studio one day to record some rockabilly, with an as-yet-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano to fatten up the lean rockabilly sound, when celebrities Elvis and Johnny Cash both happened to stop by the studio. Phillips recorded their impromptu session and a photographer from the local paper was rushed over to snap the famous photo., which has already appeared at least thrice in this Memphis set of posts.
At the end of the tour, Jason stood an old microphone in the middle of the room and said it had been discovered in the back room years ago when the building was being restored. He couldn’t say for sure now, but it might have been the very microphone used by any number of celebrities who recorded there. We were welcome to take pictures pretending to sing into it, or really singing into it if we wanted.
The 40-minute-or-so tour had caused me to miss not only the conference session I wanted to skip, but the next one as well, so I had to beat it back to the Peabody, and since everyone hesitated I jumped forward and went first. I asked Jason to take my photo, and he thoughtfully counterposed my (pretend) crooning face against that of the King.
I hoofed it back downtown, but since it became clear that I was also going to miss the provided lunch, I went back by Beale Street instead of Union so I could get some chow. I wanted to try some barbecued ribs. It was suddenly nearly 80 degrees and I’d walked a mile or two and was hot. The King’s Palace advertised ribs and air conditioning, and there was a family and several other parties inside, so I went in and ordered. When I asked for the barbecue banquet server Rob asked if I wanted the “dry rub” or the wet barbecue and I asked him what he recommended.
“Dry on the ribs, wet on the pulled pork.”
“Great,” I said. “Let’s do that.”
“Alright. Let’s dance,” he said and disappeared into the back.
By the time my food came out the family and the couple had left and there was just a guy at the bar. I was the lone diner in a big dark room, darker because it was so bright out on the street now. I felt a renewed pang of loneliness, and that’s putting it mildly. I’m one needy little human, I tell ya. This was the nadir of the trip, I sitting at a table alone in a huge dark dining room, like some miserable king. To make it worse, some blues band started kicking it up outside on the sunny patio, where I hadn’t even realized it was an option to sit. I considered asking them to move me to an outside table but I was suddenly weak and helpless against the voice in my head that told me it would be unseemly to trouble the wait staff so frivolously, and I couldn’t do it.
“You know how to eat this?” Rob asked as he set a big plate down in front of me. I said I was ready to be schooled. He said “Well, there’s the right way and then there’s the civilized way.”
“I want to know the right way,” I said, whereupon he told me that if I wanted to be civilized I could flip the ribs upside down and then I’d be able to see where the knife could go to cut them apart, but that the right way was just to…here he lifted his hands to his face and growled and gnashed his teeth to signify someone (a local, presumably) tearing the meat off the ribs. I thanked him for the tip and applied myself to the messy task at hand. I have not eaten a lot of ribs in my time, but I believed then and now that those were the best ribs I’ve ever had. I told Rob so when he swung by.
“Have you tried our gumbo?”
“No, but I had gumbo up the street at Blues City last night.”
His eyebrows did a strange thing, as if I’d responded with a non sequitur, and he said “Uh…did that place have trophies out front for ‘best gumbo’ like we do?” I said I hadn’t noticed. Rob said, “hmmm, I was just checking…” with a sardonic edge and then asked if I wanted to taste some, on the house. He brought me some gumbo in a little paper taster cup. It was, I will admit, better gumbo. I finished my meal and could barely haul myself back to the hotel for the afternoon sessions.
After the last session I walked south along the river, the Mississippi River, then turned east to find the Lorraine Motel at 450 Mulberry Street, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum. This is where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968. (Most people say he was “assassinated” but I don’t see any real use for that word; it mainly sounds like a way of abstracting away the brutality of killing somebody.) The museum was closed by then, but I stood for a few moments acknowledging my senseless white guilt about what happened here.
There were a number of other tourists at the motel. Jacqueline Smith was there, too, at her table across the street. I had heard just two days earlier about this woman Jacqueline Smith, a black woman who has protested on the streetcorner across from the motel (often camping out) for twenty years. She was the last resident of the motel when it was closed in 1988 and she was evicted and, in the end, forcibly removed (but only, so I’ve heard, after barricading herself in her room). She feels strongly that King would not have approved of nine million dollars being spent on a museum for him nor the replacement of affordable housing for the poor in that neighborhood with the upscale condos and lofts that have been going up for years.
I walked over to her crude table, which had blue tarps draped around it for covering at night. I usually avoid proselytizers and torchbearers of every stripe but what I’d heard of her position seemed worth hearing and I told myself I could give her ten minutes of my time (oooh, such largesse). She was sitting and reading a thick book whose title I couldn’t see. She was thin and severe looking. She did not look up at me. I perused her signage, which included one that said “Gentrification is Abuse”. I asked her if she could tell me her story. Without taking her eyes off her book she said “There’s a website.”
After the long, nonplussed moment represented by the above asterisk, I said, “Well I can read, but I thought it might be better to hear what you have to say directly from you.”
“I’m done talking for the day,” said Jacqueline Smith, turning a page.
And that was that. I wanted to take a photo of her but it would have been crass. Or I don’t know, maybe it would have been perfect. The world is beyond me to understand. Her website is a little spacey, but it’s here. The conversation I would have liked to have with her was what did she envision as the alternative to either gentrification or leaving the city to rot, since she advocates a space between — the possibility of cleaning up a neighborhood without pricing the poor out of it, of actually maintaining a poor neighborhood — the existence of which I believe developers and city fathers would surely deny.
That evening I called the one person whom I’d made a solid contact of at the mixer the night before, a youngster named Scott. He said, yes, his boss Chris and another guy had taken their guitars down to Beale and were about to play on the sidewalk. He was there with them now. I should come on over. I skibbled over to Beale — without a jacket! — and found them on a corner next to where fairy tale carriages pulled by draft horses were waiting for customers. While waiting for the boys to “warm up” I talked to Jenny and the big black horse who stood waiting to pull the carriage she had for rent.
“What’s his name?” I asked, giving him hearty pats on his thick neck.
“Ah,” I said, getting the connection. “The ‘horse in black’.”
“Right,” she said. “Only it’s Bobby, not Johnny.”
Chris and Mike, one of the conference speakers, played some bluegrass numbers while folks passed by on their way to the clubs or stopped to inquire about the carriage rides. I suggested somebody put a hat out, and one of us did, and Scott and I greased it with a few dollar bills so passers-by might be prompted to throw. Then we walked over to a restaurant of some local fame called the Rendezvous, just up an alley east of the Peabody, and they all ordered ribs. The dry rub recipe is legendary here, and if you go you’re encouraged to order the brisket. One of the women told me in her sweet but not heavy southern accent that she’d grown up here in Memphis when the only places downtown that weren’t boarded up were Schwab’s Hardware and the Rendezvous.
I still hadn’t digested all the barbecue I’d eaten on my late lunch, so while everyone else ordered ribs and beer I presided over a pitcher of cola. The evening waxed convivial and the laughter rang out. I was wedged in tight against the wall, my new friends having accepted my presence there as though I had merely been misplaced and had now caught up with them. They were smart and funny and friendly, and I wondered why it had taken until my last night in Memphis to hook up with them.