Walkin’ in Memphis

The song says it all.

Walkin’ in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
but do I really feel the way I feel

They say in this town that the Mississippi river starts at the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. Actually, by the time Ole’ Miss arrives in Memphis, it’s already pretty big. Stand on Riverside Drive, right at the edge of downtown, and there’s a bridge either side of you: upstream, the double-arched Hernando de Soto, and downstream the cantilevered Memorial bridge, which carries Interstate 55. One mile across to the west lies Arkansas, the river doing what any respectable river does, anywhere in the world―dividing people.

I walked down to the Beale Street Landing in the bitter cold.

In the early nineteen seventies my dad spent some time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, three months working on atomic physics. My father was a frugal guy, I never saw him drink more than one glass of wine at a meal, and when he went to the big U.S. research lab, he didn’t hire a car.

The American who had invited him was stunned that he had no wheels, so he picked him up every morning―people in the U.S. have big hearts. When my father returned he required a little time alone with my mother. In his bag I discovered a copy of Penthouse, and I still remember everything I saw. In fascist Portugal, where even a nipple was censored, the magazine was gold dust. It was typical of my dad that he serenely smuggled it through customs, despite the potential consequences of importing pornography into the country.

One of the cartoons was a Japanese guy having sex, big grin on his face, nestled between the legs of a Western woman, with the caption ‘Doctor, are you sure this is acupuncture?’ Alternative medicines have come a long way since then. But it was the ladies that made my head explode, and they’re probably in retirement homes by now.

In Oak Ridge, my father went to a local diner every night to eat, and drank iced tea. He told me the only clients at the diner were him and the blacks, and I wonder what they made of this gentle, silver-haired, Portuguese professor. My dad also told me the only people who walk in the U.S. are blacks.

That was in pre-jogging prehistory, and now you do see white joggers, but I did a lot of walking in Memphis, and as soon as I got out of comfort areas, I only saw blacks. The whole thing reminded me desperately of my father, who died twenty-one years ago.

The city has a violent edge, which explains the immense police presence. It also has the most impressive music scene in the world.

I drove to Graceland, but since I’ve never owned an Elvis record, I was mainly filling time. The house is surprisingly small, ten thousand square feet of living space when the king bought it―he added another seven thousand, but by rock star standards, it’s a cottage.

But I learnt some interesting facts: Elvis was an eighth dan Karate black belt, his father spent time in jail for forging a check, and the great man rarely drank alcohol. So I guess it was pills and sodas that got him.

If you love the blues, one look at this and you get goosebumps.

If you love the blues, one look at this and you get goosebumps. Sun Studio is a goosebump experience from soup to nuts.

So what’s good? Well, Sun Studio is. Partly because it’s a no frills museum, and partly because it’s without question the birthplace of rock ‘n roll. The first recordings of Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Elvis, B.B. King, Howling Wolf, Sam Cooke, er… need I say more? Ok, I will: Jerry Lee Lewis. Oh, and Johnny Cash.

The machinery on display is so antiquated it’s a wonder any sound recording was possible at all.

One of several recording machines in Sun Studio. It makes the sounds that came out of the corner house on Union Ave. even more amazing.

One of several recording machines in Sun Studio. It makes the sounds that came out of the corner house on Union Ave. even more amazing.

About quarter of an hour away is the cathedral of Memphis soul, by way of gospel, Stax records. If Sun drew many white artists, along with black ones, the Stax museum is a tribute to the success of black soul, R & B, and blues―white guys can’t jump. This is where you find the whole gang: Otis Redding, Albert King, Rufus Thomas (I love that whistle), Booker T and the MGs, James Brown, and Isaac Hayes. And soul sisters like Anne Peebles and Carla Thomas.

Part of the museum celebrates civil rights―don’t forget Memphis is where Martin Luther King was shot, at the Lorraine motel. Only one shot was fired, so the gunman clearly knew his stuff—no need for semi-automatics there.

True to form, there are ritzy suits, alligator shoes, and celebrations of new found wealth, such as the ‘Shaft’ Eldorado Cadillac, a vintage piece of (blue) tack, complete with gold trim and fleece floors.

Having being dragged round the likes of the Louvre and the Prado when I was little, I have to say there's nothing wrong with this picture.

Having being dragged round the likes of the Louvre and the Prado when I was little, I have to say there’s nothing wrong with this picture.

In one of his stints in Vegas, Frank Sinatra tells the audience: ‘you can drink here, just don’t eat the food.’

That’s my recommendation too, for Beale Street—but apart from that, I doubt you could do better for music anywhere else in the world. If you play guitar, it makes you want to give up on the spot. Music so good it makes you grin like an idiot: horns, guitars, bass and percussion, each better than the next. I know I sound like Marco Polo, and his exaggerated chronicles of the East―but if you like rock ‘n roll, come to Memphis.

The east entrance to Beale Street, normally festooned with police prowlers. But why the reptiles?

The east entrance to Beale Street, normally festooned with police prowlers. But why the reptiles?

Inside the clubs there’s pulled pork and barbecue, beans and coleslaw. And some of the vilest red wine this side of Ho Chi Min city. In plastic cups. But no plastic beer bottles.

If you want to eat well, go to the Majestic on South Main. It’s an old movie theater, and it plays vintage movies on the only remaining screen. And serves a Martin Codax Tempranillo, which I didn’t even know existed.

But Beale street rocks, and a sign proclaims that it’s banned to skateboarders, animals, and reptiles. I’m not sure why the reptiles are separated from other passengers of the ark, but they have their special place. I had visions of some of the famous old blues musicians parading pet alligators, held on a leash from hands sporting colossal diamond rings.

Or maybe it’s John Lee Hooker’s Crawling King Snake.

This is the first trip where I’ve been reading digitally, and whenever I pulled a book off a shelf, I hesitated, put it back, and then made a mental note to order it through Kindle. If you want to read my new book Atmos Fear, which is priced for austerity at $2.99, all you need is an Amazon account and an app on your phone. If you have an iPhone, get it here. If you have an Android phone, this is the one. And if you have a larger screen like an iPad or a Galaxy Tab, the experience is even better. But believe me, the phone is good enough. And I’m picky.

Well, this has been more of a road trip, with an unusual amount of photos. Being in the South was an eye-opener, and to be honest, the assymetry between blacks and whites is still all too obvious. I’m not criticizing the society, because nowhere more than America do black people have the opportunities to redress the balance, but I am telling you what I saw.

What then? Fifty shades of grey? Or maybe there's a reptile warning on.

Who then? Fifty shades of grey? Or maybe there’s a reptile alert on.

Nothing sums up Memphis better than a song. Like the man says, ‘I’m as blue as a boy can be’.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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