Memphis, Tennessee

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The drive to Memphis was mean.  I expected to look out of my side window at times and see a little demony troll hanging to my wing mirror, grinning at the disgustingness of it all.  The forecast had been checked and we knew rain was imminent but this?  It was like driving blindfold in the Wacky Races with Dick Dastardly doing his best to live up to his name (the Dastardly bit) by pulling all sorts of ruinous tricks to stop us in our tracks, like making it rain and putting big lorries on the road and making our windscreen wipers crap and putting distracting little monsters on our wing mirrors.  Its times like this, I thought, that one sees an Ark carrying an abundance of creatures (although, how does one fit 2 of every type of whale on a craft such as this?)

We were going to be in Memphis for 3 nights, to check out what was one of ‘THE’ Blues and Soul capitals of America.  I was pretty excited at being in the home of Memphis Slim, Isaac Hayes and The Reverend Alan Green!  I imagined myself in a blues bar, sipping bourbon, listening to an old-timer croaking at us and strumming on his old steel six string about how life used to be, how everything from waking up in the morning to the dinner he’d eat at night gave him the blues.  I don’t know why I was thinking of taking comfort in someone else’s past sorrows.  Maybe it was the thought that if he could talk to us, he’d tell us things were even worse today then they were in the old days, therefore adding a tad of shining light to his personal anguish.  Little did I know that a similar feeling of the blues would be felt by yours truly when I left Memphis…

The beauty of couch surfing is that you get to meet a plethora of different people.  So far we have ‘surfed’ with a Stoner, an Aunt, modern-day Hippies and a World Record Holder (unofficially), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Speaking of such things, a man told me last night that when the icebergs in Antarctica start to thaw in the summer and float northward, there are little fish right at the bottom that feed on the new algae that grows there, as the light starts to feed through the water and reach the nether regions.  And these fish are so plentiful that if you managed to weigh them, they would weigh more than all of the humanoids on the Earth!!  WTF!!   I find those sorts of ‘facts’ so hilarious, i wanted to blurt a guffaw of biblical mockery in this persons general direction.  People come up with all sorts of hilarious ones that make me think they should be locked in a massive mental zoo, where we can poke them all with fangs of tarantulas through their bars ‘… that are actually made of exactly the same metal as the genre of music heavy metal, divent ya na’? (see, pure nonsense).  Another one, that once prompted a discussion of such enormity that two ’erberts would be standing in snowfall in freezing temperatures during the mornings early hours arguing their points, is the old, timeless ‘No two snowflakes are the same’.  All I’ll say on the subject is this… check all the snowflakes, people, check all the snowflakes…

So, more bipeds of a different nature were to be met, chatted to and waved goodbye at, in that order, in Memphis.  These people had gone through our strict measures of suitability testing that happens every time we send out couch surfing requests, the one at the top of the list being ‘Does it look like they might decapitate us and use our teeth as their new false teeth?’  We’d heard from our previous new temporary couchy friend that Memphis had some pretty dodgy ‘hoods that we didn’t want to venture too close to.  And as our ‘Very English Gentleman’ sounding sat nav guided us to our destination, we thought said friend had maybe forgotten to tell us about this one.  This information about our destination we did know:

This was a co-operative house that had a 24\7\365 open door policy, meaning anyone was welcome, ANYONE, at any time of day or night.

The ‘hosts’, and I use that word in as liberal a sense as possible, were a young couple, the female of which had been in a car accident some time ago and therefore could sometimes be a bit quiet (her words).

The night we arrived, there was to be a party with live music, which had been aforementioned.

Ok, we thought, this sounds like it could be an interesting experience…

So, we rock up at the edge of a ghetto.  And my initial thought, at seeing the people unloading there ‘gear’ into the house, was that maybe I should have blindfolded myself, span around in a circle 72 times and taken a dozen swipes with a meat cleaver at my wardrobe, poured gasoline on it and got a fire breather to cough at it a few times before donning the closest thing to hand.  The first lesson I learned that night was how not to dress at a post punk party, taking place in a house with an open door policy where no one was above legal drinking age and the protagonists had 3 bob between them!

But we gathered our things, swanned in and said “hi” to the ‘kids’ standing in the kitchen, shyly not talking to anyone, whilst we tried terribly hard, unsuccessfully, to spark up a conversation with those people who were to be our ‘hosts‘.

Here’s a brief insight into the general salutations that take place when you first meet your couch surf host:

Door opens.  Smiles, handshakes, sometimes even hugs take place.  ‘I’m so and so, so am I’, etc, etc, ‘this is my place, let me show you around, this is where you’ll sleep, this is my (insert chosen creature/s here), drink?’ conversation, continuum ad continuum…

That’s how it ‘generally’ happens, it’s all very convivial and even though I always spend the first night trying unsuccessfully to sleep, (at times I have laid in the dark thinking how easy it would be for our host to do unmentionable things to us (mainly me!) whilst I’m breathing in the chloroform from the rag that has been stuffed into my mouth!) everything always works out tickety-boo  However, this time, as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and many others since have blurted out, a change was gonna come…

We asked where we could put our bags.  We put them there.  Through various mediums, none of them our hosts, we found out that tonight there was to be a party with three live bands, all playing ‘post-punk’ (nope, nor did I) and that there would be lots of people sleeping over and that our hosts were to sell homemade vegan (of course) pizza slices for a buck (to facilitate rent paying, THE sole source of rent paying).  As a few sketchy looking people had disappeared into the room that we had ‘hidden’ our bags in, my voluptuous travel braud and I went on an R&R mission for said items after deciding they may be safer in our locked vehicle than sitting in the corner of the evenings designated crack den, being eyed up by kids who’s first translation of the word job that sprang to mind was something you did in private once or twice daily, even parked in the ghetto as we were.  Next, I went for a recky to find the bathroom and when I did, I wish I hadn’t. What was interesting as I pee’d though was that I noticed I could count 69 different coloured pubes on the toilet bowl.  This, I believe, was a challenge to a World record that I previously didn’t know existed.  Intrigued, I pulled back the shower curtain.  And there I saw them.  If only, I thought, someone could transfer what I was staring at, to the toilet bowl and find the number for Norris McWhirter, we’d have a new Record Breaker!!!  I’d also never seen a white porcelain bath with that colouring.  Did we have a budding interior designer in our midst’s who had chanced upon a new ‘base’ colour with which to design the rest of the room around?  No, sadly, we did not.  Before we arrived, I was really looking forward to having a hot shower, as it would be the last time for a few days that such luxury could be enjoyed.  Suddenly, smelling like the rotten end of a tramp seemed more appealing.

After chatting to one of the bands, a nice bunch, random stuff for an hour or so, me and ‘er decided we needed sustenance and lots of alcohol to get us through ‘NIGHT ONE’ of our ordeal.  So off we headed to what has since been recognized as ‘THE’ pikiest supermarket we have and probably will ever set foot in (www.memphispigglywiggly.com/).  I seriously thought I would be mugged for my toe nails.  We looked like something out of Mary Poppins.  Everyone else didn’t.  The cashier asked us where we were from.  I said “London”.  She said, ‘In France?’…(insert Family Fortunes big wrong answer X sound here).

Wandering around a ghetto at 9 o’clock at night for something tasty to eat, dressed like Mary and Burt isn’t something I would recommend, for two reasons: a) there isn’t anything tasty to eat in the ghetto and b) you may get yourself erased from this World in a fashion not befitting someone dressed in such a fashion!  We experienced one of these, I think we may have come within a whisker of making it a full house.  When the Gods decided that we were gonna eat Domino’s that night, I thought ‘who are were to defy the deity’s?’.  And whilst we sat ‘inside’ the take-away pizza place, we couldn’t help but chuckle at what our anti-capitalist, anarchic hosts would make of us eating delicious Domino’s pizza 10 minutes up the road, whilst they tried to make this months rent by selling their egg-plant and vegan-cheese version for a buck a pop. (87% of Americans can’t pronounce Aubergine, a point highlighted by the fact the spell check doesn‘t even recognise it!).  We also couldn’t help chuckle at the fact that this particular branch of Domino’s had a security lock on the door to stop the gun-toters coming in.  When my travel partner didn’t come back from the toilet after a few minutes, I stopped chuckling…

Back at the house, the party was mental!  I don’t think I’d heard such an atrocious attempt at good live music since Christopher Shakespeare armpit-farted the tune to Coronation Street 18 years previous.  And as the evening progressed, so did the volume of kids screaming into a microphone trying to do what a million other kids for a million years before them had done, just with a little less ‘soul’!

About an hour later, I was in the kitchen chatting to a couple of young guys when my grotesque generalizations about some of these youngsters changed dramatically.

One dude must have been 19.  We were talking about Memphis and how I thought it was gonna be this bustling city, loads of cool shit happening and that I couldn’t wait to check it out.  After talking to him for a while, I started to see a very different picture of it being painted.  He started telling me how things here are going downhill very quickly, primarily because of the economic meltdown but also due to the fact that because of  bad governance, the only area in which the city seemed to be taking much of an interest was the promotion of tourism, which is focused on a very small area of downtown.  He said it was hard for kids like him because he’d had very little education to speak of outside of an under-achieving high school and his parents didn’t care what he did and the fact that his grades weren’t sufficient to get him into further education coupled with the fact that he would never be able to afford to go to University meant that his prospects in life were really poor.  He knew that he should have tried harder at school but the guidance from home wasn’t there and so at the time, he didn’t care.  He said that he carried a knife around with him and in a year and a half’s time, he would also be getting a gun because it was the only way to protect himself.  He’d been mugged for his phone a few months back and another friend of his had been done over for a few dollars.  He then started talking about the laws regarding carrying firearms, in a nutshell being that at 18 you can have a firearm in your vehicle as long as it’s in a case in the trunk, unloaded and at 21 you can have one loaded with you in your vehicle.  How accurate that is, I don’t know but I don’t think the accuracy of it is the point, the craziness of it is more pertinent.  This coming from a 19-year-old kid!!  I felt so sorry for him and proceeded to try to point out the positives in his life and give him some direction but every avenue I went down came to a dead-end because his future to him was so bleak, it was like he was living without hope, in any way, of a better life.  This didn’t only seem to be his outlook, his friends all joined in the discussion and all had similar things to say.  So what did they do with their lives?  They got their benefit cheques from their parents, they skateboarded about and they smoked dope!  And yeah, it’s a vicious circle.  But who was I to judge these kids who didn’t have much of an education or the funds to try to further that education, lived at home with parents who, it seemed, showed little or no interest in them and lived with no hope for the future?  And on top of that, they resided in a city that was in gross decay and was, as they made it out to be, overrun with gang violence (Memphis has one of the highest crime rates in the whole of the United States, 3.6 times the national average and standing at number 6 on the FBI’s list of most crime ridden cities in U.S and A ).  Man, they even talked about getting guns so they could feel better protected.  AT 19!!!!!  When I was 19 I thought an oozy was a Greek cocktail and at 20, something you caught off the lass down the road who stroked the pigeons and had a constant trap-door of green mucus plugging up one nostril!!  I felt like taking this one kid under my wing and trying to show him that his life didn’t have to be like this, that there were other ways of thinking that could give him some kind of hope.  But after another 20 minutes and a lug on a bong, he was too stoned to talk.  And that’s when me and the good lady decided we would be better off sleeping, not on the promised couch which that night didn‘t seem to exist, but in Trixiebelle, during what was to feel like the coldest night during our entire trip.  Still, it was that or sleep in a house with broken windows, no heating, a pube-fashioned toilet with no lock on the door and a bunch of anarchic, stale-stenching, punk kids, all looking to change the World by hating on everything.  I could see their point though…

I’d like to say the next day we awoke and everything we’d previously thought about Memphis turned out to be false, but to say we awoke would have meant sleep had been taken place.  ‘This was not what we signed up to’ we said in unison.  Couch surfing is supposed to be an exchange of ‘something’ between you and your hosts, which includes a sleeping medium of some kind and quality.  Our exchange was about 3 and a half grunts out of our hosts that night and I’m not too sure if they were even from the more polite orifice.  Still, not to be perturbed, we tried to make the best of the situation and that morning we breezed into the breeziest house in the ‘hood for a shower, some breakfast and with a renewed vigour to finally get something out of our hosts.  And after approximately 2 minutes and 37 seconds, we realized that our optimism was based on nothing but hope and as a man somewhere once said ‘to build things you need a foundation and hope aint no foundation for nothin’’.  And although I strongly disagree with this fictitious man and his fictitious phrase, it seemed that day that our hope of better cultural exchanges lay not with those who we were banking on, but on our own intrepid exploryness.  So, after trying to get a few places of interest out of a now hung-over and somewhat defunct group of young anarchic punks, we headed for downtown Memphis and saw this stuff:

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In 1945, Nat D. Williams, a Memphis radio announcer and history teacher said of Beale Street…” Come what may, there will always be a Beale Street, because Beale Street is a spirit … a symbol … a way of life … Beale Street is a hope”.  For those of you not in the know, Beale Street is to Memphis what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. It has been the schooling ground for many musicians, including B.B King, Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams. It was once a microcosm of blues bars, all serving up a hefty dose of the good stuff. However in recent years, it’s been living off of that reputation to draw in the throngs of tourists that want to get a taste of how things used to be.  I didn’t expect there to be only 7 tourists who felt this way, even on a cold… sorry, bitterly cold, grey Sunday afternoon in the middle of a Memphis Winter.  To say I was disappointed was akin to Elvis sitting on the toilet one final time, cheeseburger in hand only to realise Priscilla had swapped his favourite meaty-cheese combo for one of those Quorn varieties, sending him into a pit of heart-attack inducing rage from which a legend is made.  I guess I expected Sunday in Memphis to be alive and kicking but seems like Beale Street, one of the Blues capitals of America, has given the blues the blues…

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And after walking around and looking for Stax records (since bought out by Atlantic) and Sun recording studios, two of the most legendary recordy places in the World, but finding only more sadness and before some minging looking snow clouds threatened to descend upon us, we headed back to our couch surf hosts’ place, sat outside in our motorized living container and decided this was one experience we just had to let go of.  And as the freezing cold atmosphere finally caved in, the clouds burst, snow began to fall and we pulled away from the co-operative and the least participatory, friendly and hygienic couch surf hosts we had ever had the displeasure to experience.

There are two other things that Memphis is renowned for.  I’ve never been much of an Elvis fan but I have always been a fan of BBQ ribs and we’d been told that Memphis and Texas are the two places in America that serve up the most delicious of this bony-sticky-meat staple.  So in the now heavy snow and following the advice of our ‘57 billion things to do in America’ guide book, we headed to Central BBQ for possibly the most delicious rib dinner I have ever and probably will ever eat at this place… http://www.cbqmemphis.com/

Just as we were about to head south out of Memphis, we decided that, even though the snow was now coming down with Biblical ferocity, we may as well check out Graceland, being as we weren’t likely to ever be coming back here.  As we drove down Elvis Presley Boulevard and saw Lisa Marie (the jet, not the weirdo)

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parked up, I looked at Graceland and said ‘Is that it?  It looks like a motel’.  And as I swung Trixie around, baffled at all the fuss made over this supposed fairytale-like mansion of a once revered fat guy, I realized some snow must have got in my eye and the sign I thought referred to Graceland must have referred to the Graceland motel that people stay in when they travel across the globe to look at the actual Graceland… across the road!!

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Obviously, being Sunday and the American south, it was closed, but it had some pretty colours emanating from it, from what I could see through the now Arctic Blizzard that was attacking us from all angles.

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And I guess it would have been interesting to see it on a warm, sunny day, to wander around and gawk at the extravagance and gaudiness of it all.  But then, it would also have been interesting to go to Al Green’s church and it would have been interesting to see some real Memphis Soul or a gritty Memphis Blues jam and it would have been interesting to see Stax records and Sun recording studios too.

I was really looking forward to Memphis but it seemed its reputation had preceded it and it was a reputation I felt it didn’t live up to anymore.  And maybe it was a combination of the time of year, the freezing temperatures and the day of the week, but after being there for 24 hours out of a proposed 72, I felt I’d had the soul drained out of me.  And when the city that was built on soul seems to have lost its soul, maybe it loses all that it was originally based on and maybe even the people who live there lose a little bit of their souls too.

What I know for certain is that Memphis sure did give me the blues.  But then, maybe that’s its point…

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2 thoughts on “Memphis, Tennessee

  1. The blues. You can’t have the blues unless you really truly have the blues. And I think maybe you did: Memphis, couch surfing in the cold, sounds like hell. From your writing I can picture the kids in that house very clearly, the bathroom, too; I would have slept in Trixie as well, no matter the cold. Still, these experiences amount to something , don’t they. You are fully alive.

    I like your photos of this, especially the red pick-up under its roof at night; this pic would also look really great in b&w, straightened.

  2. The picture of you says it all! Part of me wishes that we could have been there with you… But part of me doesn’t…

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