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Visiting Memphis: Travel Report

Posted on 14 June 2015 by Caryn Rose (0)

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I travelled to Memphis a few weeks ago. It was amazing, and exceeded every expectation I had. I do not know how and why it took me so long to get here; over the years I have been led to believe that there wasn’t much to do or that it wasn’t worth my time. All I can say now is that I am so incredibly sad I had not been there before.

Memphis is a town that knows what side of its tourist bread is buttered on; the airport’s logo is a music note, and the background music in the terminal is Elvis. Rental cars were cheap, and you need a car for Memphis. (Okay, it depends what you are coming to Memphis to do. If all you want to do is get drunk on Beale Street, then you should forgo the car, and the exorbitant downtown hotel garage parking prices, and stay downtown. If you are there to see the sights, you will need a car, no matter how appealing the various shuttle services might be.)

Our first stop was Payne’s BBQ, which is a 10 minute drive from the airport. There is no shortage of delicious foodstuffs on your way to downtown — or anywhere, really — from the airport, and thus no reason you shouldn’t stop and fortify yourself. Having an opinion about barbecue in Memphis is like having an opinion about coffee in Seattle; the front desk clerk at our hotel had no qualms at sniffing at our revelation that we’d been to Payne’s, stating that he was a Central BBQ man himself. You don’t have to choose sides, so try them all. Payne’s is an old gas station; the line was short, and the pulled pork served with a surprisingly delicious and mustardy cole slaw.

Thing of beauty. #bbq #memphis

Despite my dreams of staying at the Peabody, we opted for the cheap and cheerful Holiday Inn Express near the medical center, because we knew we would be spending very little time in the actual hotel room. It was centrally located, had free parking, and was reasonably priced for Memorial Day weekend. The front desk handed over all sorts of coupons for Graceland and Stax; unfortunately the Graceland coupons were not valid on, you guessed it, Memorial Day weekend, but we appreciated the gesture.

ARDENT STUDIOS

Our first destination was Ardent Studios, where a friend had kindly arranged for us to meet up with Jody Stephens for what I imagined would be a quick walk through the studio. Jody graciously spent over an hour and a half taking us around the place and into the various studios. It is a gorgeous building, with a courtyard and fountain and decks and patios and art everywhere. He regrettably had no Replacements stories (but did show us a great photograph I’d never seen from the album release party, with the band wearing plaid hats and looking suitably ragged) but did talk about the Afghan Whigs (no surprise, he loved them) and Big Star and Lynyrd Skynryd and ZZ Top and a long list of others who worked in the building. I love being in places where creative energy has been present over a period of time and am always thrilled to walk into a room where magic has happened. The lobby is more or less open to the public and you can see the wall o’gold records recorded there, as well as a small tribute to the late John Fry (including his bronze tennis shoes), and the neon Big Star logo just behind the reception desk. H/T to Glenn for managing his Memphis playlist (more on this later) so we pulled into the parking lot listening to “Alex Chilton”.

Waiting room. #nevertravelfar #memphisHallowed ground. #memphis

I posted about this on Tumblr, but while researching things for the trip, I found a great Jim Dickinson quote about the ‘Mats in Memphis:

You’ve got about eight blocks from Ardent to the former Holiday Inn on Union at McLean.
Yeah, and they could get in trouble in those eight blocks, believe me! They could score dope before they were out of the parking lot. They were amazing. You know that line in “Can’t Hardly Wait”: “Lights that flash in the evening/through a hole in the drapes”? That’s about that hotel.

Of course, that meant that I had to find it (it’s empty now):

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SUN STUDIOS

After grabbing a coffee to calm down after starting our Memphis sojourn with a bang, we headed for Sun Studios. The Sun tour is every hour on the half hour, and even Mystery Train aside, I had never heard great things about it — but if you want to get into the room you have to take the tour. Our tour was mobbed, which was to be expected on a holiday weekend; our solution to that is to make sure that we’re either the first people or the last people. Even if you don’t care about the tour or the studio, stopping at the gift shop will give you enough of the feel of things, with photos and memorabilia on the wall, and every possible type of merchandise with the Sun label logo. (And, free parking in back, which will never not be a delightful thing for a New Yorker.)

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The actual tour was surprisingly informative, mostly due to the tour guide’s level of energy and enthusiasm, and the fact that we did not need to silently trainspot any errors or misstatements. There is a small museum upstairs now, including a replica of the WHBQ studio from the old Hotel Chisca (which is currently being turned into condos after being abandonded for decades). I very much appreciated that they deliberately encourage you to take as many photos in the actual studio as you like, with what they call the “Elvis microphone” placed in the exact spot that it would have been back in the day. (I preferred the shots at what we called the “Larry Mullen Jr. drum kit.”) There are musical instruments to pose with (although they ask you to please not play them) and again, waiting everyone out means that you can get a couple of minutes in the room to yourself. I didn’t care about the microphone either, but here I am next to the Million Dollar Quartet.

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The next stop was Gus’ Fried Chicken, where I drank about a gallon of sweet tea. It hadn’t been on our original list of places, because we had done the chicken thing in Nashville this past fall, but we were encouraged by a Memphian to not omit it and I’m glad we didn’t. Then it was time for a well-earned nap, before heading out for a Chris Bell tribute at the Hi-Tone Cafe. When the doorman looked at my license, he said, “You came all the way from New York for this?” “No, we just happened to pick this weekend to visit Memphis.” There were people from Ohio and Chicago and although I am usually dubious about tributes, this one had several of the same folks involved with the various Big Star tributes, as well as Jody Stephens playing drums for the first five songs. The Bell family was in attendance, and Chris’ sister gave a lovely speech thanking all of us for our continued interest in Chris’ work. I started to fade around 10:30 (after a prolonged acoustic interlude) and we had an early start planned for the next day, so we headed back to the hotel.

GRACELAND

Saturday was up at 7 to leave at 8 to be at Graceland as early as possible, and the sky was grey and cloudy as we turned onto Elvis Presley Blvd. and I put on “Johnny Bye-Bye.” It is faded and not as grand or as busy as you would imagine (or at least as I would imagine). I had hoped that getting there so early would get us through the house before the hordes descended, but early access is reserved for those spending $77 as part of the VIP tour, and we were eight groups back despite being the first people on the line to buy tickets. This gave us time to browse the multiple gift shops and fully immerse ourselves into the Elvis Industrial Complex. We paid $40 for our tour; you can pay up to $77, for the full VIP, front-of-the-line, see-the-airplanes visit. An important thing to note is that only the VIP tours allow you to go through the house more than once; I still would not have paid more than I did but if you think you might want to do that, you should keep that in mind.

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I am not an Elvis fan, but I am not a non-fan; however, I was approaching my Graceland visit as a music historian and cultural observer. That said, I was pretty excited to be here. That got choked out of me at some point in the queue when it was close to 10am and we had not yet gotten on the shuttle bus to go over to the mansion, and then once we were there, were herded into various lines wearing our headphones and carrying our iPads while we waited for other groups to clear the first rooms in the house.

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There are no more guided tours; you get an iPad (with narration by John Stamos, for reasons that escape me) and headphones and while this should in theory move things along, what you get is an army of zombies shuffling along in a line, despite the staff saying THERE IS NO LINE, PLEASE MOVE TO FILL ANY SPACE YOU SEE. I kept one side off so I could talk to the boyfriend, so the entire encounter wasn’t completely devoid of any human contact, but I didn’t learn anything from the commentary, and found it mostly annoying. The iPad doesn’t take into account that people are carrying a purse or a bag and a camera or a phone and there’s a lot of awkward juggling going on; the iPad has a rubber case and a shoulder harness, but it’s a lot of dead weight.

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The iPad ‘features” there is ‘extra multimedia content’ but you don’t get the time or space to really see it while shuffling from room to room. Along with John Stamos, there is commentary from Lisa Marie and Priscilla; the former was vaguely interesting while the latter was faux-reverential in a way that turned me off, and I don’t have a horse in this race.

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My immediate impression was that the house, while ostentatious in all the ways you’d expect, was more humanely-scaled than you’d expect a mansion to be. You get to see 8 rooms in the main house, including the pool room, the TV room with its trio of screens, and the Jungle room, before being shuttled out to an office and former storage area. Here is where you can start to make some time and get ahead of the blindly shuffling masses, and let the iPad catch up to where you are, which was a common complaint I heard from other people on the tour

The next stop is the trophy room, which is a collection of memorabilia and awards, and is another place you can hopscotch ahead of people who need to see and photograph every item in every exhibit and case and vitrine. The last building is the racquetball court, and I was already rolling my eyes and going, “I literally do not need to see this, let’s just hit the meditation garden and GTFO,” but after paying $40 (and that’s only $4 up from the basic mansion-only tour) you kind of start to feel obligated to see every last goddamn thing in the place, and they don’t make it easy for you to shortcut the thing at all. The boyfriend was enamored by the old-fashioned 70s “EP” initials on the wall of the lounge area of the racquetball court, while the actual court itself is filled with post-death awards and achievements and a couple of costumes that clearly didn’t fit into the Trophy Room. The narration on the iPad mentions that the piano in the racquetball court was the last place Elvis was before he died, which is probably why it is part of the tour, but by the time John Stamos got to that part of the narration I was ready to bail.

Too much fucking perspective #graceland

A photo posted by Caryn Rose (@caryn_rose) on

Elvis and his family are buried at Graceland because of security reasons; they had been in another cemetery but almost instantly had problems with grave robbers. I have been on the side of anyone needing their communal moment with Elvis the entire tour, and this is the worst place for there to be a line, but there was a long line, and it did not move. There are steps behind the walkway around the graves, and we finally just walked the opposite way behind the line. People were complaining about it but literally all I wanted to do was take a walk and quietly sing a barbershop raga version of “Heartbreak Hotel” and make a joke under my breath about “too much fucking perspective,” before beating a hasty retreat to the shuttle.

Neon ghosts of Elvis #memphis

There was another stop at the “archive,” which we just outright declined. Our ticket level entitled us to the archive and the cars, and we only really cared about the house and the cars, and about getting over to Stax in enough time to properly enjoy it. The archive just houses additional memorabilia, and I’m sure it would have been interesting, but I was pretty much done at this point.

The cars used to be housed under the carport behind Graceland, but are now in their own exhibit (with their own gift shop), and given that it’s only a $4 upcharge, I would encourage you to spend the money — although nothing in the exhibit beat Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac at Stax, but I am getting ahead of myself.

My gift shop haul: a pink cadillac pin, a TCB pin, an Elvis Presley Boulevard bumpersticker, and a postcard of the front of the house, because there was no way for me to get a shot of it given all the queues to get inside. We left, planning to come back at the end of the day in order to get a shot of the legendary gates, which are of course open while the mansion is open.

THE STAX MUSEUM OF AMERICAN SOUL MUSIC

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Lunch was at Central BBQ. You could have barbecue for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Memphis, except then you couldn’t have sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Central has more on the menu than Payne’s did, and was so good that we briefly considered having it for dinner.

Blasting Sam and Dave, we headed for our next destination. My heart started to beat faster when we turned onto McLemore Avenue, and before we knew it, there it was, THAT marquee, with ‘SOULSVILLE, USA’ on the front. My heart was in my throat, and I was covered in goosebumps. I know it is not the original building, but you make a right turn from McLemore onto what is now signed as David Porter Way, and tell me that you don’t started to get all choked up. It is still the same locus of energy, the same parcel of land, it is matching the vision I had in my imagination.

This is holy ground, no mistaking it.

The marquee is there, the front facade is there, there is a replica of Satellite Records, Estelle Axton’s domain, there is the historical marker that for years was the only reminder of what had happened in this location. So much care went into the recreation of this space.

The introductory movie had already started, but we didn’t care, we rushed in and sat down. Not that we needed the history lesson, but just to sit there and soak it in, surrounded by other people who were also fans of this music, including a large family reunion group in matching t-shirts, was wonderful. And literally, Glenn and I never would have met had Sam Moore not performed with Bruce Springsteen 12 years ago, had we not discovered that we each loved this music in the same way, for the same reasons, that we could sing the horn lines in “Wrap It Up,” that our faces lit up at a mention of Otis Redding.

The museum does such a very good job at telling so many stories, the stories of the Black church tradition and gospel, the story of Memphis music, the story of Stax from beginning to end, the stories of the individual musicians, the story of how all of it fit into the history of popular music. There is Steve Cropper’s amp, Wayne Jackson’s trombone, there is my favorite photo of that era, from a Sam and Dave session: Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, Sam Moore, Dave Prater, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones. We stared at that for a while, before we both had the same thought: Now, *there’s* the Million Dollar…Nontet.

There is a replica of the old original control room, with a note that it and the studio had been recreated from plans and written histories and the collective recollections of everyone who had worked there. From there, you walk into the recreation of Studio A, which was placed on the exact original footprint of where it stood back in the day, with the rest of the museum built around it. When I stepped into the studio, I thought it was all fine, and good, until I stepped into it further and realized that they had recreated the incline of the old movie theater floor, and got goosebumps again. You stand there, and close your eyes, and try to imagine. Everything happened in this room.

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After that, there is still more to see, including a trivia game I beat Glenn at twice, and Isaac Hayes’ 24-carat gold plated Cadillac. By the time we reached the end, we were sad it was over, but so very happy we had finally gotten here. We over-spent in the gift shop, and had to restrain ourselves as it was. (I also had to restrain myself from punching the tourists complaining there were no BB King postcards available in the gift shop.)

Isaac Hayes' Cadillac #stax #memphis

We headed downtown quickly, because I had a date with some ducks. At 4:30, the Peabody was already mobbed, and I was ready to bail, but Glenn insisted that we stay. I found a reasonable perch to watch the spectacle, and in the end, was glad that we stayed. (Don’t ever try to see the ducks at 5pm on a Saturday, would be my advice. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is a handy link.)

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Then, we headed off to find somewhere to have a drink overlooking the Mississippi (yes, make your “Heartland” jokes now), and then sat and played cards and had dinner at the Bardog Tavern, waiting for the sun to go down. That’s when we got back in the car and headed back to Graceland, so I could get a shot of the closed gates and one of Glenn “trying” to go over the wall (which is a Springsteen reference), headed back to Stax to get the marquee lit up (which we’d confirmed with the staff before leaving, that it would be), and then back to Sun for the same thing. We probably should have headed for Beale Street, but it had been a long and emotional day, and we were both exhausted.

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SUNDAY

Sunday morning, we got up early. I did my hair, Glenn shaved. I put on a fancy dress, he put on a suit and tie. We had an important destination later in the morning, and we needed to be dressed properly. But first, we headed downtown for breakfast at the Bon Ton Cafe. The wafting smell of urine in the gutter that greeted me getting out of the car made me glad we did not try for Beale Street the previous evening; it’ll give us another reason to come back.

That is sausage gravy and biscuits defined at the Bon TonIMG_8539

I had expected some wait at the restaurant, and when there wasn’t one, the end of breakfast meant that we still had time to kill. Glenn suggested that we drive into Mississippi so he could add to his state line sign photo collection (although according to the rules*, we cannot count it as a state we have been in), and when we passed a sign pointing out the exit towards Highway 61, we absolutely could not resist. It was Bob’s birthday, and here we are on Highway 61, singing along (because of course we both have it on our phones), as well as “Like A Rolling Stone”. We found a suitable sign for photo purposes, got Glenn’s photos, and then headed back up to Memphis for our 11:30am engagement at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.

Full gospel Tabernacle Church. bishop Al Green. #memphisGoing to Rev. Al's church hat. #memphis

The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church is Al Green’s church, and I have wanted to go there for decades. The thing about going to see the Rev. Al at church is that there is literally no way to know if he will be there; I asked a very well connected friend, and his comment was, “The church doesn’t even know if he will be there.” But we went, hoping against hope. It’s a modern building located in the southern part of town, surrounded by suburban houses. At 11:15am when we arrived, Sunday School was in progress, and the church was full of tourists, 90% of whom were wearing t-shirts and shorts. Literally, I do not know how you can go to someone else’s house of worship and dress like a slob. I will confess that I might have bought a hat for the occasion (no, I seriously did) and I was proud that we had bothered to dress properly. I mostly felt sorry for the dude two rows ahead of us wearing a t-shirt that had a small, but noticeable, Confederate flag on the back of his shirt, because it must be hard to go through life that clueless.

After Sunday School, the choir arrived, the band came out onstage, and the service began. All of this was thoroughly enjoyable even if the Reverend didn’t appear. But then someone began handing out programs, and the program listed several items next to which the name “Rev. A.L. Green” appeared, and the program had today’s date on it. A few minutes later, we saw him walk past a door opening at the back of the pulpit, and I looked down and tried to remove the smile on my face. And then, there he was, sitting in the chair previously reserved for BISHOP AL GREEN, wearing ecclesiastical robes and reading glasses.

The Bishop is in. (And I only took this because he told people it was okay.) #memphis

He preached. He sang. He told stories. He preached some more. He walked through the crowd, reciting the Lord’s Prayer (me: “Hey, I know this one!”) He asked people in the pews where they were from, and there were people from all over the planet, from Australia to Norway to Belgium. He encouraged people to take photographs (which is when I took one very tiny one, still feeling bad about it). We knew that there would be a collection, and I left this up to Glenn to handle since this is not something a Jewish girl from Connecticut knows anything about. At Rev. Al’s church, you have to walk to the front to drop your envelope in the collection plate. This is when the tourists from Norway and Belgium and Australia headed for the door, which was even less classy than showing up wearing shorts.

THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM

We left around 1:30, and only because we still had a lot to do before we left town the next day. After changing out of church clothes, we headed downtown to get a snack before our next destination. After we parked the car and were walking uphill, I turned to my right, and there was the sign for the Lorraine Motel, and the building itself with the wreath on the balcony, and I just had to stop for a minute, there was a lump in my throat and I had to hold back the tears. It was overwhelming in a way I did not expect.

There was a long, long line at the museum, due to the holiday weekend, and security at the doors, and an unfortunate dearth of ticket sellers. But everyone waited patiently. I can tell you that it was unbelievably well done, and I can tell you that it was devastating; if you go, I would suggest making it the back half of the day, because you will need some time afterwards to process it.

When I was doing my pre-trip reading, the thing I learned that surprised me the most from Robert Gordon’s Stax history “Respect Yourself” was the connection the Lorraine had to Stax. Back in the day, there were very few places in Memphis where black people and white people could meet and socialize, and the Lorraine was one of them. The musicians often stayed there, and worked there together. Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett wrote “In The Midnight Hour” at the Lorraine; Cropper also wrote “Knock On Wood” with Eddie Floyd there as well, during a summer storm (which is where the “It’s like thunder, lightning” line comes from). This would be the only photograph I took; there was no way I felt good or right taking photographs of anything else.

The Lorraine Motel was one of the only places where block people & white people could hang out. So Stax musicians would hang out here & work. knock on wood & midnight hour were written here. #memphis

The room that Dr. King was in when he was shot is still there, exactly as it was. It is the last thing you will see in the museum, after you walk through the exhibit about the garbage collectors’ strike in Memphis, which was why he had come to Memphis. And then you will stare out the window onto the balcony, and out at the window from which he was shot across the way, and you will not have many words after that.

We left the next morning for New Orleans, boarding The City of New Orleans just as the sun was rising over Memphis. It was an incredible three days, and we will definitely be back.

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The full photo set is on Flickr.

*THE RULES

In order to say that you have been to a state, you must have spent the night, or stopped, got out of the car, and had a meal. Changing planes does not count.

PLAYLISTS

We both made CD’s for this trip; there was some overlap, but otherwise they definitely reflected the personality of the person who made it. Glenn had two discs, one for songs about Memphis, and one for songs recorded in Memphis, while I just went for one overarching definitive list combining both. A Spotify playlist of mine is below. I will note that the exclusion of things like Marc Cohn and Paul Simon are deliberate.

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