Walking In Memphis

You cannot get through the Memphis airport without seeing a sign promoting the Big Muddy as “the distribution center of the United States.” Humph, I thought, we’ll see about that. A claim like that cannot stand uncontested. I am willing to test the assertion, but first I have to get through the wall of humidity just beyond the airport door. When I push through, the air greets me like a barber’s towel just back from vacation in a double boiler. I involuntarily draw a deep breath, sending my lungs their first moist air in a six months.

I am here to certify one of our operating room diffusers. It is a task right up my alley: easy enough for a chimpanzee, but one that looks intimidating enough to make others not want to do it. You have to certify these units in situ, which affords me an opportunity to travel. This particular assignment came together at the last minute. Friday, I was in the office minding my own business; Monday I was in Memphis peering into the polished stainless steel bowels of a Sterilflo System, newly installed at Methodist Hospital. They were in such a hurry to use the room that surgeons were scrubbing up while I finished the flow calculations. What does that have to do with the story? Ah, yes. It means that I had allowed two days to do a job that needed to be finished in four hours. That left me with a full day to cool my heels in Memphis. But what to do?

I had some time to ponder the subject while reading in my hotel room. Lately when I travel, I take Tom Robbins along. That Monday afternoon, I had half my brain following the perils of Plucky Purcell, Amanda, Ziller, Mon Cul the baboon, and the Corpse. The other half was searching deep in the dim submarine depths of my memory trying to recall just what was significant about Memphis. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain in Memphis. But that happened in my lifetime. Therefore, visiting the spot of the assassination would seem ghoulish, unthinkable. Yes, Graceland is in Memphis. But Graceland is not a monument to Elvis Presley. Graceland is a monument to the nouveau riche decadence of rock ‘n roll. My sweaty hands would not be pushing open the wrought iron gates of the King’s estate. Still, Elvis was tied to the dim memory, which eventually came into focus. The memory was the face of a fish rising from the depths of a mossy pond. From its mouth came silent bubbles forming these words: Sun Studio. Sun Studio, 76 Union Street, Memphis, Tennessee. For fans of American music there may be no more famous an address. Rolling over, I grabbed the phone, phone book, pencil and notepad. Excitedly, I dialed the number. An enthusiastic and well-informed voice extruded through the tiny holes in the earpiece. It explained four of the five W’s and the How. Fantastic! My excitement for my visit the next day carried me through a tasty Cajun dinner at Owen Brennan’s and two pints of Guinness at the Taproom.

I rarely get excited when my shoes stir up dust in the crossroads of history. I am from Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is steeped in history like the teabags of time in the boiler of the Clemont. We routinely walked Braddock’s Road and drove past places where George Washington had slept. In fact one of the few times I can recall true excitement was while visiting West Virginia’s Carnifax Ferry Battlefield with Gawain Emanuel. A small house stood in the middle of this minor Civil War battleground. The family who lived in it was trapped inside during the firefight. Lead must have flown around it like mosquitoes around a moose’s eyeball. I was able to insert my finger into one of the bullet holes in the wood siding and feel the ball still buried within. When I did, the horror of that first mechanized war shot through me like voltage from a three-phase outlet. I have never looked at Pickett’s charge with nonchalance again.

My shoes were not going to stir up any dust at Sun Studio. Between my shoe soles and dirt were linoleum tiles. The tiles were as worn and nondescript as those in Grandma’s pantry. But to me, they shone as brightly as the gilded sidewalks of New Jerusalem. The voltage juiced me once again. I was standing in the same room that once echoed the voices of men who are now legends of American music: Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, B. B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis. This was the very same room where Cash, Perkins and Lewis worked out the sound now known as rock ‘a billy. These ceiling tiles heard Ike Turner pound out piano chords for “Jet 88″—the very first rock ‘n roll ever taped. This is where Howlin’ Wolf and B. B. King showed America how to play the blues. Here, using an Apex single-track tape deck, Johnny Cash recorded the hard-luck “Folsom Prison Blues”, and Jerry Lee Lewis captured the raw energy of “Great Balls of Fire.” And I saw the very microphone Elvis used to make his first recording. Looking at it, I could see the shy Southern boy in his wilted cotton suit. I could hear the question put to him by Sam Phillips: Who do you sound like? I could hear him answer in a voice as thick and warm as corn bread: I don’t sound like nobody. All of that had happened in a tiny space no bigger than my bedroom. These legends and their music were drawn to Sun Studio, like mockingbirds to a persimmon tree. From here it went out to the rest of America on vinyl disks, like mockingbirds trapped in molasses. But the sounds didn’t stop, as many tourists do, at the end of the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The sounds were distributed to Dublin.

Dublin is a musical backwater. No. Dublin is the dookie stuck to the heel of true music centers like New York, LA, London and Berlin. If you were to lay odds on which city would give birth to the next great rock band, LA would be the hands-on favorite. Dublin would be the long shot. And yet it was in Dublin that Larry Mullens, Jr. was born. It was in Dublin that he watched Elvis movies and dreamed of being a rock star. Fueled by images of Memphis’s most famous son, he advertised for some mates to form a band. Three persons responded: Bono, Adam Clayton, and The Edge. Together they called themselves U2. In a nation famous for sheep and potatoes, they would take the lead in the upper echelon of pop music while looking for its roots. In the process, their vigor and honesty and plain hard work would make them one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and my personal favorite. Growing up in a musical backwater had the opposite affect on them that living in history’s vest pocket had on me. They yearned to discover what had come before them. When money and opportunity made it possible, they traveled to America to discover the birthplace of rock. They came to Memphis. They recorded in Sun Studio. One song was about Billie Holiday. One was recorded with none other than B. B. King.

The man with the enthusiastic and well-informed voice went through his speech like a sugar metronome dancing on vinyl. While he talked and played recordings, I inched my way around the room looking at the equipment and memorabilia. In one corner was a mid-80’s style Ampeg mixing board. It beckoned me. Like someone accustomed to being summoned by electronic gear, I strolled over. The board was still marked with the masking tape used by recording engineers to note which knobs control which microphones. And there it was: “Bono vocals,” “BB King vocals,” “BB King guitar.” Another shot of electricity from time’s transformer jolted my chest cavity. This was the mixing board used by U2 in those eight recordings. This was the mixing board that captured their tribute to American music. Gingerly, I turned one of the knobs. The circle was complete.

When I was growing up, the men who had emerged from the Mississippi delta and Tennessee hills to record at Sun, were not heroes. We never lionized or canonized them. We simply liked their music. It was only later that I would come to realize that they were legends in the eyes of others. We viewed them as people like ourselves—no one important. And maybe they aren’t. But standing there in Sun Studio that steaming June day, I sensed how important it all was. I had connected with history.

After the tour, I went next door to Tilley’s Café. All of the business for Sun was conducted at Tilley’s. Tilley’s had air conditioning and soft drinks. In the delta, there may be no better criteria for office space. I had business to attend to, so I ordered a coke. My business was figuring out what else I needed to do in Memphis. The turtle of cognition crawled through the mud banks of my memory. I sipped slowly, allowing time to distance myself from the dust-laden voices of the past. After a few sips of the wet brown liquid, I realized where it was I had to go. I pushed myself from Tilley’s into the delta air, air as hot and moist as mashed potatoes. I swam west on Beale Street past the statue of Elvis Presley. It was tarnished and covered with pigeon droppings, despite being less than a year old. I brushed shoulders with the faithful, freshly returned from Graceland, and derelict old black men. I passed the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, a Piggly Wiggly, and a sign that read: Cavalier parking only. In the distance, horns bellowed. They sounded like saxophones coughing up bullfrogs. In the distance, the noon sun reflected off of water the color of old copper. There at the end of Beale Street was the Mississippi River.

There are two natural forces that bind all humans: gravity and moving water. The effects of gravity are easily grasped. The affects of moving water are less readily understood. Why we are drawn to moving water, no one knows. We do know this: Where there are beaches, people stroll along them. Where there are waterfalls, couples will make love within the sound of them. Where there are rivers, people will float them. Moving water has been exploited for commerce, healing, recreation and political boundaries. Moving water occupies our art, our poetry, our stories, and our religions. Hindus bathe in the Ganges. Eden was located at the confluence of two rivers. Christ walked the waves on the Sea of Galilee. It is a river that flows from the throne of the celestial city. The Mississippi is all of those things. And more. It is no accident that our greatest American novelist, Mark Twain, once worked on the Mississippi. Without experiencing its power and magic, he may have ended up as just another hack journalist. You cannot ignore a river like that. A river like that you must touch.

At the end of Beale Street, I turned south along the Chickasaw Bluffs. Eventually I found a place where I could push through the magnolia trees, the kudzu, the poison ivy, and make it down to the river’s muddy banks. The air smelled like it had passed through the gills of a catfish. Squatting down, I placed my palm on the water’s surface, breaking the tension as lightly as a strider in a puddle. What happened was surprising. In fact, if a giant snapping turtle had emerged from the silty depths and in a baritone voice uttered the word “Lackawanna,” I would have been no more surprised. What happened was this: When I dipped my hand into the water of the Mississippi, I felt its history. I could feel the steel clad wheels of the Conestoga wagons roll to a halt at the water’s edge. I could feel a bargeman dislodge his pole from its sucking bottom. I could hear the echoes of steam whistles. I could make out the phantom images of the Chickasaw silently walking the bluffs. I could sense a farmer’s despair riding the annual floodwater like chickens floating on a coop. There was sunburn, rope burn, boiler explosions, panicking horses, sawing, hammering, rifle shots, strolling lovers, spirituals being sung, laughter, sand sliding into canvas sacks. A barge horn broke though my reverie. I looked around. Behind me, Memphis reemerged from the haze. Above me, leaves rustled in a breeze. Insects buzzed. In front of me, wavelets danced on the water of history. The images returned to their hiding places like deer disappearing into the dusk. Standing, I push my way up the embankment, through the cotton wool heat and onto the pavement. I am a pedestrian again.

There was one last thing left to do. This idea was as clear to me as branch water. I had to eat at Corky’s. There are many things hallowed by Southerners. But a lady’s lace petticoats and a powerful sermon pale compared to the reverence afforded to barbecue. Recipes for great sauces are tucked into family Bibles and passed through the generations. A perfectly built grille is deemed worthy of contribution to the Smithsonian. The lowly pork rib is elevated to a position just slightly below Adam’s own bone. In Memphis one barbecue shack reigns supreme: Corky’s. Corky’s was voted #1 by Memphians for 14 straight years. I for one was not leaving the Big Muddy without eating there.

What happened at Corky’s I blame on the man on the Internet. The man on the Internet said I should order a large rack of wet ribs, an order of onion rings and apple pie al la mode. I did. When the waitress brought my meal, I felt defeated. For the first time in my life, I was looking at a plate of food I could not finish. And you are reading the words of someone who finished a Sweet William Spectacular. Did I say “plate of food?” I meant a platter. The rack of ribs came on a platter. The order of onion rings came on a plate. The onion rings must have used all of the three largest onions ever uprooted in the Skagit Valley. And this is not to mention the bread, beans and coleslaw. I maintained my race face and pushed bravely on. But I knew the staff was in the kitchen chiding me. Did you see the order from that skinny white boy? His eyes are bigger than his stomach. Even the onion rings seemed to disapprove. Had they left Washington for nothing? The neon face of a pig beamed at me from across the room. That offered some encouragement. I decided to finish everything but the ribs. Those would be good cold, and I could gnaw on them all evening. I chewed through everything else while muttering about the man on the Internet.

The man on the Internet must have been named Bubba. He must have looked like a refrigerator with a head. He must have been hauled to Corky’s in the bed of a pickup truck. Bubba should not have been allowed to have a computer. I declined the pie, had the remaining ribs boxed up, and sat back to digest my gut-busting feast. My eyes roved around the 50’s style dining area. Overhead on a beam was the familiar FedEx logo. I focused on it. The sign informed me that a meal from Corky’s could be sent overnight to any address in the United States.

Memphis is the main hub for FedEx. The same is true for UPS. Those things and the rail yards and the river ports are undoubtedly what the Chamber of Commerce had in mind when calling the Big Muddy “the distribution center of the United States.” But they missed the boat. Memphis is the locus of American music, American food, and the waters of the delta. The important things distributed from Memphis are not those things that can be tallied on a ledger sheet. They are things that have nothing to do with commerce, and everything to do with soul.

It’s hard to believe it has been twenty years since I was last in Memphis, Tennessee. This account was first published on my website The Flypaper Chronicle in 1998. I hope you enjoyed my reposting it here.

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