Beale Street, the traditional home of Memphis blues music, is a short noisy road with police cars at each end and, that night, a very white couple performing ballroom dancing to a bemused black crowd in the street. The warning sign tells tourists they may not walk dogs or reptiles there. It didn’t say anything about tangoing. I think the dancers were tourists. Most of us were. I doubt there were many locals. My faithful sidekick, Eric, and me was checking out the live vibes. We heard a pretty good Johnny Cash impersonator, some Sly and the Family Stone, and at least one Elvis tune, but not a hell of a lot of blues. ‘Tourists tend not to favour it’, a barman told us. Of course that wasn’t true of me and Eric who’d been driving along to blues road music the whole way from St Louis on old route 61. Finally we found a little place with a Haight-Ashbury flower child lead guitarist, a displaced Japanese housewife base, a comatose drummer and a feisty old lead singer wiht a harmonica and a tip bucket. They briefly made some real music and we were saddened when the set ended and the bucket came around. We didn’t stay out too late because we had a platinum tour pass for Graceland the following day. We needed to be at our freshest.
It was peeing down with rain as we drove along Elvis Presly Boulevard, passed the Heartbreak Hotel and pulled in to the only parking lot i’ve ever seen where handicap spaces outnumbered regular. If you come from Europe where the sink unit is a short poney ride from the lavatory in royal bathrooms you may decide that the Graceland Mansion…isn’t. A long snake of devotees with headphones shuffled through little ol’ rooms barely the size of my mamma’s lounge. The legendary jungle room was no more bizarre than most Chinese living rooms in Thailand. Apart from a whippet in an Elvis waistcoat and an Aussie DJ who’d gelled what was left of his hair into a sad coiffe with drawn-on sideburns, the crowd lacked colour. But perhaps that was just the rain. There were sincered tears at the graveside and a Japanese wreath dedicated to Mr. Elvis Presery, and bunches of soggy hand-made flowers. There wasn’t anything nearly tacky enough to buy in the thirty-two gift shops and only peanut butter and banana sandwiches on sale at the diner. So we left empty handed with nothing funny to say about the place. We hoped our irreverance hadn’t stepped on His blue suede shoes.
And perhaps the highlight of our Memphis trip was last night at Ernastine and Hazel’s. Eric had heard it was a rocking little blues joint nowhere near the tourist traps (but watch your back if you walk there). So we moseyed on over. It was shut. Or at least the lights were out, the TV was on and the barman had his feet up. “Aint much goin’ on here on a Mondee,’ said he. But in twenty minutes we had the TV off and were pumping quarters into a juke box voted ‘the best selection in Memphis’ by the local newspaper. We got a guided tour of the upstairs brothel (decommisioned in the sixties) and the hidden outback speakeasy. We spent the night swapping stories with the bar keep over a few ales. That…was the Memphis we’d been looking for.