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Memphis: A Pilgrimage

Understand, I’m not a traveler by any means. It’s been – and this is no exaggeration – 16 years since I was last on a proper vacation; 16 years since I was on an airplane. So deciding to go to Memphis was a huge and surprising decision I made. Especially in light of how it all came about.

I wanted a Big Star t-shirt.

I was on the Ardent Music website and tried to order a shirt several times; the site was just not processing the sale. I called and spoke with Mike Jackson, one of the studio’s managers. After trying to help me (the transaction did NOT go through) and chatting for a bit, he said, “Hey, if you’re ever in Memphis, please make sure you come by the studio. You can meet Jody Stephens and John Fry and they’ll be happy to give you the tour.” I thought about this for a while and I asked my wife, Liz, “How would you feel about going to Memphis?” She didn’t need coaxing—“As long as we can go Graceland, I’d love to do it.” She’s as much of a Big Star fan as I am; when we met and married, I was still working at Atlantic Records and obsessed with Stax—she knew what Memphis means to me as a musician and a music person. So I booked it – a week in August where Liz and I could finally go on our first, real vacation together – literally, our honeymoon – after 14 years of marriage.

No sooner than I booked the trip, Liz showed me a Facebook page for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a documentary about the band and the Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film. There was no contemplation involved; I immediately contributed to the campaign and in doing so, I was rewarded. Amongst the prizes (of which, all I really wanted was a poster from the film and the t-shirts) is a phone call from Jody Stephens. Okay…this was starting to go in a very clear direction. Danielle, the film’s director, was beyond lovely and facilitated an exchange of e-mails between Jody and myself and we arranged the time for a phone call. I thought when I spoke to Jody it would be 10 – 15 minutes, but after nearly an hour, it felt like two old friends catching up—that was how comfortable he made me feel while we spoke. The conversation was enlightening and warm and when I mentioned that we were going to be in Memphis, Jody said, “Well, what dates will you be here? Let me get my date book.” When I told him, he said, “How about you come to the studio on August 14th – Tuesday, at 10:30. Would that work for you?” I said yes and suddenly what was something of a hope or a long shot was now a reality.

From the moment our vacation week began everything went like clockwork. It was a perfect day when we flew out of Newark Airport and for that, I was grateful, as my nerves were at something of a high. I managed my way through the flight by meditating as I don’t drink and I wasn’t going to ask my doctor for a prescription of tranquilizers. I’ve never needed anything before when I’d flown previously and I wasn’t going to start now. It was a quick, uneventful plane ride and when we landed in Memphis, I admit, it felt a bit surreal. All I could think was, “We’re actually here – the pilgrimage has really begun”.

Airportman

We picked up our rental car – a comfortable, economy-sized Chevrolet Aveo. That was an experience by virtue of me not having driven a regular car for over five years – I own a RAV4, so not driving an SUV took some readjustment! Nonetheless, because Liz and I had planned and mapped out everything – at times, painstakingly, since we were going somewhere we’d never been – I had the iPad at the ready with the directions to the hotel. About 20 minutes later, we were in downtown Memphis, pulling up in front of the Madison Hotel, which is considered to be a five-star and the most ultra-modern of Memphis’ hotels.

After checking in and taking a few minutes to diffuse and make the few phone calls to let some of our friends and family know that we’d arrived safely, we both realized we were hungry. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and by now it was about 5 p.m. (in reality, 6 p.m. New York time, but now we were on Central). First order of business – find the nearest Walgreens for a case of bottled water and snacks. That turned out to be easiest of all – there was one right on the corner, across the street from the hotel. Okay, done. Then it was off to the legendary Gus’ Fried Chicken on Front Street. I should say here that as we were driving, we noticed that many of the streets where places we planned on visiting were within walking distance from the hotel. This turned out to be incredibly helpful.

We walked the 10 minutes to Gus’ and were treated to the heavenly experience of fried pickles (full spears), fried green tomatoes and their incredible juicy, spicy fried chicken – which came, naturally, with a side of perfect baked beans and homemade cole slaw. Sweet tea was the only drink to fit the mood and I’m fairly certain we didn’t “eat” our meals inasmuch as we inhaled them. We were ravenously hungry and this was just sheer heaven.

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel in a downpour – naturally, with no umbrellas. When we’d first landed, it was incredibly overcast and humid – which was to be expected, so here was the overdue rain. By the time we got back to our room, the rain stopped, the humidity had broken and that was it for the whole week! As we relaxed for a bit we decided to take an evening walk and begin exploring. We turned the corner onto Main Street, where the trolleys run (!) and within five minutes, had reached Beale Street, the storied thoroughfare of the blues, jazz and soul food. Further down, we found the Peabody Hotel, home of the legendary “Peabody Ducks”; we then walked a good 20 minutes until we reached the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. All of these markers were noted and we headed back to the hotel for a nightcap at Eighty3, the hotel’s restaurant/bar to celebrate this very happy occasion. We settled into the room for a night’s sleep, as Tuesday morning was to be the centerpiece of the trip for me.

Beale at Night

I don’t know if it was my body clock, excitement, being in a different time zone or what, but we were up at 6 and made our way down to Eighty3 for breakfast by opening, which is 6:30. Perfect. I needed my morning fuel of juice, coffee, fruit and oatmeal – I was alive by the time we consulted the iPad for directions – a 10-minute drive, straight up from 79 to 2000 Madison Avenue.

It felt more like a spring morning; the sky was blue, with no traces of the Southern heat. I spotted the familiar building (from the photos I’d seen over the years) and pulled into the lot, admittedly a little teen-nervous. We walked in and the first thing we saw was the neon Big Star logo from the cover of #1 Record. I spoke to Chris, who was at the desk and told him we’re there to see Jody Stephens and I gave him our names. No sooner than I did, Jody came out and greeted us with a warm smile (as did Mike) and the two of them presented us with our Kickstarter swag – including the sacred Big Star shirts! As we made conversation and Jody asked us about our plans during our time in Memphis, Liz (who is an incredibly gifted photographer) began taking photos as we walked and talked casually.

King of Memphos

(It should be noted that from the time when all this started, I found a great website from England that has Big Star shirts in various colors, which I wound up buying – I’d brought my red Radio City one with me, but I wasn’t wearing the damn thing to Ardent!)

Speaking as a musician, Ardent Studios, to me, is a dream atmosphere to record in. It is a spacious, immaculate facility – a “U-shaped” building with a beautiful garden in the center – a very serene element that adds to the classy style of the studio’s layout. State of the art equipment mixed with classic instruments, such as the (original) Mellotron, used on #1 Record, Jody’s Ludwig drums and the Vox “Super Beatle” amp – both in Room A, which was the room Big Star did the tracking for #1 Record in (the basic band tracks had been recorded in the original Ardent Studios on National). I have to admit, I felt an air of reverence as we stood and talked; you could almost imagine them being in that room, working. Hell, I could imagine myself in that room, recording. Room B, big and spacious was the location of Radio City and 3rd. A personal aside – that kind of room is what I always envisioned myself – with my band The Punch Line – recording in.

As we walked, Jody told us wonderful stories, not only about Big Star, but about some of the recording sessions that had taken place at Ardent and some of the folks who’d been there, most notably, R.E.M. The walls are festooned with album art and photos; one cover was designed by the legendary Klaus Voormann who, of course, designed Revolver and Bee Gees 1st (besides playing bass with Manfred Mann and being John, George and Ringo’s favorite McCartney stand-in). Jody also told us this great story about how he and his older brother, Jimmy, tried to sneak into the Memphis Coliseum to see The Beatles during their 1966 tour (even though they had tickets), as they’d been lucky a few weeks before to see The Rolling Stones. They wound up unlucky and not allowed in, even with their tickets, so their younger brother got in to see The Fabs instead. It was this kind of good vibe that carried our time at Ardent.

Coolest Kid

We were also introduced to legendary audio master Larry Nix, whose mastering lab is located inside Ardent; he and his son Kevin were a pleasure to meet and speak with. In his studio is the original vinyl-cutting lathe from Stax (where he originally worked) – from one sacred location to another! And as an extra-kind and sweet surprise from Jody, he gave us one of the Ardent 40th Anniversary posters. As the tour wound down after an hour and we were in the lobby, chatting and saying our farewells, Jody tore the cellophane off the vinyl copy of Radio City that he’d given us and signed it – which truly surprised Liz and I. I think we made some new friends and it was a perfect morning. (Note:  that signed copy of Radio City now hangs, framed, in my living room).

Having reached my apex for the vacation already, we drove back to the hotel to drop off the car – this is one of the benefits of being at the Madison – it’s located near everything so that the car was only needed once a day! Initially, we planned on having lunch at The Little Tea Shop, a Memphis institution that Liz had read about in her tour book and Jody had told me about in our phone conversation – it was the first restaurant owned by Chris Bell’s father. However, when we got there, it was closed, as the most recent owner had suddenly passed away. We decided to walk down Beale Street instead since it was early afternoon and we were feeling a bit peckish. After several choices lay in front of us, we had a clear decision: Blues City Café – and they served up the best fresh fried catfish I have ever had, hands down. Spicy and hearty jambalaya and cole slaw – man, that’s just good eating. Forget that I would never think to indulge like this at home – dammit, we we’re in Memphis and I wanted to enjoy. We walked around some of the shops, such as the legendary Schwab’s; a store that exists for people of my age bracket – confections such as Bonomo Turkish Taffy and wooden paddle ball games are all around. Every few doors were bars hosting Elvis sound-alike contests; music permeates the street, day and night. We walked by the minor league stadium for the Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate and the Gibson guitar factory – and no, I did NOT go on the $10 tour (that could have been trouble…!).

After lunch, we walked two blocks down to the Mississippi River, where riverboat rides can be taken. Just amazing. This wonderful trek up the Mississippi for two-plus hours was so relaxing and soothing – I wound up dozing off a few times as it was so calm! A quiet night in and early to bed.

When I’d booked the trip for the week of August 13th through August 18th, I had completely forgotten that August 16th was the anniversary of Elvis’ death; this was Elvis Week in Memphis. So before we went, Liz made the very wise suggestion that I get tickets for Graceland in advance, which I did. I ordered two “VIP Entourage” tickets, which would be awaiting us.

Another beautiful Memphis morning; another good breakfast to get me going and we were in the car by 9:30, heading for Graceland. This was it. Having grown up loving Elvis and The Punch Line having recorded versions of both “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Mystery Train,” well, you knew this was going to be good. And considering how incredibly mobbed it was when we arrived, I was even more glad that we left a little earlier than we originally planned. It felt like a convention upon just entering the ticket pavilion.

Graceland

It can be somewhat difficult to describe the Graceland experience because that’s exactly what it is – an experience. It’s akin to going to Great Adventure; a full spectacle, day out, multi-layered happening. However, it is wonderfully organized; we went to the “will call” booth and it took less than a minute to be handed our laminate passes, headsets and tickets. A jitney picks you up in front of the admissions tent and brings you across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the house, where you immediately enter the front door and are standing in the living room, which is right off the entrance.

Without going into too much detail about all the rooms that the tour allows (the upstairs and THE bathroom are off limits), I will say that time stopped for me and I was catapulted back to my youth in the ‘70’s—this house is in that bubble. The brown wood paneling and olive drab of the kitchen; the white velour sofa and shag rug – it all seemed so familiar. I think most people know about the notorious “jungle room” so I won’t comment on it – except to say it looked like Pier One went wild, circa 1974. I’m not certain if many others have stated this, but the house itself seemed a lot smaller than one would imagine a “mansion” to be. However, the corridors lined with Elvis’ gold records were impressive, as was the room containing all his awards.

The grounds are expansive with horses, stables and guesthouses; The King had his own gym and shooting range as well. But the one (for me) slightly off-putting thing is when you enter the “meditation garden” which is, in reality, where the bodies of Elvis, his parents and his grandmother are laid to rest. There’s a certain amount of sacredness to it and this small and somewhat cramped area is festooned with kitsch and over-the-top memorials by fans. It takes away from the solemnity that the man had died here, but that’s just my own feeling about it.

By the time we were done walking through the house, it was time to get the jitney back across the street to visit the other sites – the car museum, all of Elvis’ costumes, two different interactive rooms, including one for the “’68 Comeback Special” and Elvis’ two airplanes. At this point, however, we realized we’d been walking for a good hour and a half and were hungry – and there are plenty of Elvis-themed restaurants at Graceland – so we plumped for the barbecue joint. Let it be said: Graceland has good BBQ – pulled pork sandwich, cole slaw and baked beans with cornbread – sheer Nirvana. And the crown jewel – banana pudding, done the right way, with Nilla wafers on the bottom. “E” would have been proud. Sated and happy, we hit the car museum (I thought Priscilla’s Mercedes was the coolest of all); the gift shop for some obligatory purchases and over to the airplanes. The “Lisa Marie” was Elvis’ jumbo jet and was an airborne extension of Graceland – brown wood paneling, blue suede upholstery with gold plated seat belts, wood everywhere in the bathroom (!) and what struck me the most was that it smelled like the ‘70’s. A strange occurrence, indeed.

When we were done, it was about 90 degrees, although clear skies, and we’d been on the tour and walking for a good three-and-a-half hours, so it was time to take our leave. As we drove back, we went down McLemore Avenue and passed by my Mecca: Stax – or to be proper, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. That was to be the first stop on Thursday morning. We made it back to the hotel by 4 o’clock and decided we’d walk to the Peabody Hotel to catch the legendary Peabody Ducks do their march. This is a staple of Memphis; every day at 11 a.m., the five ducks are led by the “duckmaster” from the elevator to the fountain in the center of the lobby; at 5 p.m., they march back. It’s both adorable and hilarious to see. And it’s not just something cute for kids; anyone who visits Memphis has to see this. After it was over, we walked over to The Kooky Canuck, which we’d seen on Man vs. Food for a snack of (naturally) fried pickles, green tomatoes and sweet tea. Another perfect day in Memphis.

Thursday morning was the same as the others; a now solid routine: up early, breakfast as soon as the restaurant was open, consult our tour books, the iPad for our maps and go. For this day, it was first to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. If there was any one moment during this trip where I would define it as a “pilgrimage,” then going to Stax was it. I’d grown up with Stax singles – the pure, powerful, melodic grooves of Booker T and The MG’s, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, etc. Stax meant everything to me; it was a soundtrack of my childhood and having studied the history (especially while I was working at Atlantic Records), it was an emotional magnet.

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We arrived just before opening; we took a few photos and then it was time to go in. Jody Stephens had told me the first thing you see is a 30 minute introductory film which he said was worth the price of admission alone – he was 100% correct in that estimation. The film takes you on a brief but highlight marked history of the original Stax “golden era” (1959 – 1972); you then begin your tour. For those who don’t know, the Stax studios were actually razed in 1989 – the studio was faithfully rebuilt from spec of the original blueprints. The old Stax was initially a movie theatre in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s – hence the famous sloped floor and density of sound.

The exhibits begin with the roots of soul music – the black churches of the South and the gospel traditions. As you walk, each of the showcases has a corresponding video – Otis Redding, Booker T., etc. It was at this point I started to feel the emotions churning. One corridor is completely dedicated to every Stax album and single (and affiliated label release – Volt, Enterprise, Ardent and so on) – there, amongst the soul greats was, of course, my beloved Big Star. Even Isaac Hayes’ notorious custom blue Cadillac with the gold plating/trim is there. Then you find yourself in the replica of the main studio room. There in front of us was Al Jackson’s drums, Duck Dunn’s bass rig, Colonel Cropper’s guitar, Booker T.’s Hammond organ and the microphones where Otis, Sam and Dave and so on sang those celestial vocals; here is where I choked up. It was hard not feel overwhelmed and humbled. A truly spiritual moment for me. And the Stax Museum is all-inclusive – it isn’t only focused on Stax/Memphis artists. The other wonderful thing in the building of the Stax Museum is the creation of the Soulsville Academy next door. It gives a prep school education to local children while teaching them music. It was with this warm feeling that we finally left after about two hours and headed to the next destination…

…Sun Records on Union Avenue. The birthplace to the first recordings by Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. I will take a liberty and say that this was something of a disappointment. It was packed – in an uncomfortable, claustrophobic way that could have been dangerous for such a small place. The people running the tour were not particularly polite and I didn’t feel very inspired or awed. It’s a small, cramped building and we basically paid our $12 (each) and went through the motions, I’m sorry to say. As soon as we could make our way out of the crowd, we headed back downtown, this time to the Flying Fish for lunch. Another Southern staple – the fried oyster po’boy – with fried pickles, of course, and banana pudding – can I get an amen?

From there, we headed to the Cooper-Young district, which is considered the “artsy” or “hip” section of Memphis. It was during this part of the drive that we were able to see so much more of the city – alternating between the run-down, near-desolate neighborhoods and the sprawling suburban areas. In Cooper-Young, we hit Burke’s Books, a good old mom-and-pop bookstore with new and used books (and a signed poster of R.E.M. on their wall, for good measure); I picked up a biography of Captain Beefheart here. Across the street is The House of Mews, a wonderful organization that houses and cares for stray/adoptable cats that roam freely through the storefront. While it was closed, this group has become very near-and-dear to Liz and I. Next it was over to a few of the amazing antique furniture and curio shops; then to Java Cabana for a quick caffeine fix. This local establishment has a very boho feel, with clothing, performance space and junk-shop items available – a very informal, laid-back atmosphere. Next-door is Goner Records, which is an old-fashioned record store, with emphasis on the word “record”. A great trove of vinyl; very much a throwback to my teens, when I worked at the local Music Factory. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and walked in the late afternoon from the hotel down Main Street again all the way to its near-end, just to check out the local shops and businesses in the South Main Historic Arts district.

After such a long day, it was back to the hotel to prepare for Friday – our last blitz of tourism. First stop was the Memphis Zoo, which is a beautiful, sprawling piece of land. As it was still early when we got there; we were able to look at every exhibit and see the animals at length. Down the road is the Levitt Shell, the legendary amphitheater (a Big Star live show was recorded here in 1974) and a just step away is the Brooks Museum of Art. An incredible mix of classic and modern art, sculpture and furniture, this was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip for me.

We dropped the car off at the hotel and began walking down Main Street to the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art. Small but filled with magnificent pieces, it was another fascinating stop. Next-door is the Center for Southern Folklore – again, another charming and informative mixture of Southern kitsch and history. Our main goal was the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located adjacent to the Lorraine Motel. We hopped on the trolley and rode the balance of the way down.

Upon entering, like the Stax Museum, you are treated to a 30-minute presentation about Martin Luther King; a powerful and heart-wrenching reminder of what took place in Memphis in 1968 and the struggles that led up to the tragic climax. The physical layout of the museum is an ascending arc. It begins with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and details the difficulties of not only black Americans but also other ethnic groups (like the Stax Museum, it’s all-inclusive). Aside from the artifacts (magazines, advertisements, etc.) to the more powerful items, such as the half detonated Greyhound bus, which had been bombed in the ‘60’s or the jail cell replica where Martin Luther King had been imprisoned, it gives a complete historic scope to our country’s missteps over the decades.

However, as you continue to walk, you don’t realize it but when you reach the end of the “timeline”, you suddenly find yourself in the hotel room that Dr. King occupied and you are standing by the balcony where he was shot. This was one of the most overwhelming and powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in my life. The room is preserved as it was on that night in April, 1968 (in the parking lot are replicas of the two cars that were parked there when the assassination occurred) and you cannot help but feel a sense of loss and grief.

For me, it was bit rough trying to come back down, but the tour wasn’t quite over. Neither Liz nor I connected the dots, but you have to exit the Lorraine Motel section and cross the parking lot to the building on the alley side. Once there, you go up one flight to the rest of the exhibit – which is the faithfully preserved scene of where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot – it is the room of the flophouse he occupied that night. The rifle, the bullet – all the painful reminders are there. The questions still remain as to whether or not Ray was, indeed, the assassin, but this physical space is a chilling reminder.

We left the museum unquestionably moved and filled with conversation but we also realized we were hungry – it was by now nearly 5 and we (again) hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so what more fitting than our farewell dinner in Memphis be another visit to Gus’? As we were exactly two blocks from the restaurant, we made the beeline to Gus’ before the dinner rush and savored the same dinner we’d had when we arrived on Monday. Our final night was a magnificent evening atop the hotel at their roof bar with a glass of pinot grigiot, a spectacular view of the Mississippi as the sun set and an endless list of memories to catalog.

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So our trip to Memphis concluded the way it began – like clockwork. Got back to the car rental place with no headaches or delays; over to the airport and through security with no holdups (I was smart enough to print out our boarding passes in advance). A wait in the lounge and it was time to board the flight back to Newark. The car was there to pick us up; the flight landed on time and we were home by 5:45.

Memphis is an interesting place; somewhat perplexing to me. For a start, we were accosted by derelicts at every turn; it’s a dangerous city, even in the most tourist-friendly areas. You simply have to be aware of your surroundings at all times and keep moving. Also, considering this is a major city, businesses weren’t open at (what I would consider) “standard” hours – case and point, we couldn’t find any place near the hotel open early enough to have breakfast; hence our eating at Eighty3 every morning. No diners in the downtown business district? A great deal of vacancies and empty storefronts; many of the places we’d read about in our tour books were out-of-business and these are 2012 books. Memphis is not an inexpensive city, either. It wasn’t vastly different than being in New York.

However, this was, for all intents and purposes, a monumental occasion for me – and for Liz and I. It was our first vacation together; I decided to leave the confines of my comfort zone to fulfill a desire to see someplace that had a stronghold in my musical existence and I truly needed to see something completely new and different. I needed to overcome my irrational (read: crippling), sudden fear of flying after having done it previously with no difficulties. I was able to see places I’d read about and heard about for so many years. I met one of my true heroes and he was even nicer than everyone who knows him had told me. I fulfilled so many of my ambitions – to walk in the places my musical heroes had walked. And I even managed to walk and stand in a place where a universal hero walked and died. Just on the merits of that alone, this vacation was worth more than I bargained and paid for. But most importantly, it meant everything to me because I was able to share this with Liz. After fourteen years together, it gave us an opportunity to connect on an even deeper level than we had before. To be able to spend all those hours together and enjoy one another’s company, let alone the joy of seeing these new places – there are no words. I am certain that there will be more vacations and trips, but because of the “specialness” of this, Memphis will forever occupy a very special place in my heart.

So I thank Bluff City for a fine time.