Sunday, August 10, 2008

Elvis, Memphis, and the Ghosts of Libertyland


Wild Bill's
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
By the time we got to the Zippin’ Pippin it was midnight. My guide, Mike McCarthy, had taken me on a ghost tour of Beale Street – a thoroughfare routinely described as the birthplace of the blues - which ended at the knock-kneed statue of the young Elvis Presley. Then, the real tour began. We drove through midtown in the dark, pausing at the site of the world’s first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, and again beneath the busted neon of the derelict Lamar Theater, a cinema which gained notoriety during the Deep Throat obscenity trial and had a starring role in Jim Jarmusch’s Memphis film, Mystery Train. Then we rode on to the abandoned state fairgrounds, where the Pippin, the second oldest wooden rollercoaster in the world, was rotting behind a fence.
Why were we there? Because the Pippin has become a kind of accidental symbol of Memphis, Tennessee. It used to sit at the centre of Libertyland, and was Elvis Presley’s favourite rollercoaster. He rented it from 1am to 7am in the week before his death, and rode it endlessly through the night. But Libertyland and Elvis are gone, and what remains is real estate, and an argument about the value of ghosts.
The campaign to save the Zippin’ Pippin is both simple and complicated. The simple bit is that Save Libertyland, a group of campaigners which includes McCarthy, want to revive the magic of their childhood memories on this site. The city of Memphis would like to develop the site. A complicated legal process has arrived at a stalemate: the city owns the land, but the ownership of the coaster – which has now been added to the register of historic landmarks – is disputed. The city claims to own it, but so does Save Libertyland. And nobody has any money to do anything about it.
It is a very Memphis story, and its appeal to someone like Mike McCarthy is obvious. When he wasn’t directing exploitation movies such as Sore Losers (“They Wanted Meat So They Ate The Flower Children”) and Teenage Tupelo (which speculates about what might have happened if Elvis’s stillborn twin had lived) the Tupelo-born artist had a job on a different ghost tour, showing tourists round Sun Studio, the soundproofed room on Union Avenue which gave birth to rock’n’roll.
Memphis is defined by Elvis. But at Sun, McCarthy would explain the history to them, noting quietly that Presley didn’t write Blue Suede Shoes: that was Carl Perkins, who had a car crash and had to watch from a hospital bed while Elvis performed the song on television.
And, McCarthy argues, as much as the flamboyance of Presley, it’s the spirit of Perkins - “the loser’s quality” - which defines Memphis. “People go to Nashville to get famous or make money or lose their artistic integrity. Elvis did. But nothing compares to the art he created at Sun.”
The same goes for Johnny Cash, McCarthy says, and for countless black artists whose contribution to the culture has been overlooked. And it stretches into the visual arts, where the Memphian eccentric William Eggleston redefined colour photography without ever shaking off his status as an outsider.
McCarthy has a few theories about this, some of them coherent, some of them fantastic. His broad contention is that the golden age of American pop culture was encapsulated within Elvis’s 42 years on the planet. “Everything happened within that time frame, everything that’s worthwhile, that becomes retro in retrospect, from Bride of Frankenstein to Star Wars and punk rock.”
Needless to say, this is not a perspective you get at Graceland, the most obvious tourist attraction in Memphis, and a salutary reminder of what happens when you give a truck driver the means to satisfy his every lusty whim. But it remains to be seen whether the shagpile charm of the place will survive the reinvention planned by Robert F.X. Sillerman, who bought Elvis’s name and image from Lisa Marie Presley in 2005.
Sillerman’s plans centre on the development of a Graceland “campus”. The fact that Sillerman’s company CKX is the subject of a buy-out bid by another of his companies, 19X, – a partnership with Simon “Pop Idol” Fuller – may be a portent of what is to come. And it will not be a celebration of the loser aesthetic.
Oddly, it’s Johnny Cash, not Elvis, who has been at the centre of a more interesting renaissance in Memphis. Following the success of Walk The Line, great efforts have been made to emphasise the city’s suitability as a movie location, a plan made more plausible by the decision of local filmmaker Craig Brewer to locate his office on Main Street.
Brewer broke through with a no-budget film called The Poor and Hungry, set in the P and H, an atmospheric cafĂ© in midtown, and consolidated his reputation with the rap movie Hustle and Flow. His first studio picture, Blake Snake Moan, confused critics who weren’t sure how to respond to an almost-naked Christina Ricci being kept in chains by Samuel L Jackson: this anxiety about the imagery of slavery was, surely, the point, but the film was an honest attempt to capture the sin and guilt which infected the delta blues. When I visited Brewer’s downtown office, he was in a Hollywood edit-suite, but his assistant raised him on the phone, and he explained that he remained dedicated to making films based on a love of Memphis, inspired by childhood trips to the home of the blues, Beale Street, “before Beale Street became Disneyland.”
“There was something very depressing and rather tragic about downtown at that time. Now it’s booming and everybody’s downtown, but back then there were still bluesmen playing out on the street, with a hat.
“So from a very early age I couldn’t help but view Memphis, even in its dilapidation – as a very beautiful city. But even more important was that it had its own soundtrack. I’ll give you it exactly. I remember I was driving over Madison Avenue; if you’re driving westbound on Madison, and you’re just passing Sam Phillips’ recording service [Sun] on your right, and there’s an overpass; when you go over it, there’s a unique skyline view, and the sun was going down, when on the radio, Al Green’s song Jesus is Waiting was playing. It was a wonderful moment. I’d listened to a lot of Al Green, and I’d heard that song before, but I hadn’t been able to cruise in Memphis, when the sun was going down behind the buildings, and listen to that music. And I thought, I don’t think that this music or this city could have existed, separate from each other.”
Brewer has just started work on $5 Cover, a collaboration involving local musicians in a 15-episode series of short films which will help promote Memphis culture to the world. This is the culture beyond Elvis – the garagebands, the b-movies, the denizens of the trash aesthetic.
The feeling you get in Memphis is similar to that which pertains in Austin, Texas, of a city awash with creativity almost despite its surroundings. “I have not been criticised by my city officials,” Brewer says. “They’ve always been very encouraging. I think, the reason is that there’s a history in our city of people pushing the envelope and being criticised, and then later having to name streets after them. [They complained about ] that gyrating pompadoured bolero-wearing guy named Elvis Presley… now people from all over the world come to see his house.”
I asked Brewer to provide a routemap to the Memphis he loved, and he started with Graceland (“You can’t go through life and not see the Jungle Room”), and ended at Wild Bill’s, a vibrant club on Vollintine Avenue run, until his death last year, by Willie ‘Wild Bill’ Storey, who sat on the door with a fistful of dollars.
“There’s also a real set community there,” Brewer said. “They’re dressed up: it’s men taking their ladies out, and they’re gonna dance, damnit. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how skinny or fat you are. If the evening is right, you’ll be bumping into the drummer, right there on the floor.”
I took Brewer’s advice and hitched a ride in the 1955 pink Cadillac driven by Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari tours. Tad makes his living ferrying visitors around the Memphis of their imaginations, and Wild Bill’s is a popular destination, though it sits in a neighbourhood which might ordinarily make a white European nervous. Inside, it was wonderland; a narrow, dark room with red walls and fairy lights, and the band – the Memphis Soul Survivors – playing in the corner.
This was not pub rock. The Soul Survivors are veterans of the Memphis music scene – the keyboard player, Archie “Hubbie” Turner is the stepson of the Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell (best known for his work with Al Green). They were playing Soul Serenade, a fine tune on record, but in this context it sounded far dirtier.
I sat next to James Thompson, an ageless gentleman in a homburg. I asked where he bought his yellow checked suit. “Hollywood,” he replied. There was a pause of 30 seconds before his face cracked. (Hollywood is a district in North Memphis.)
The music in Wild Bill’s is soul in the old sense of the word, meaning the driving dance music which came out of Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio, and Stax (now reborn as a museum). But one of the most influential studios is also one of the least celebrated: Ardent, founded in 1966 by John Fry, who modelled himself on George Martin, and made his studio the Abbey Road of Memphis.
Ardent started out with Sam and Dave and Booker T and the MGs, but soon branched into rock, mixing Led Zeppelin III, recording ZZ Top’s Afterburner, and acting as a home-from-home for Memphis legends Big Star (whose drummer Jody Stephen now manages the studio.) Jack White used Ardent to mix albums by The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
It’s hard, at first, to see what ZZ Top might have in common with Sam and Dave, but this lack of homogeneity is really the essence of Memphis music. Elvis fused country and rhythm’n’blues, while his later Memphis recordings were great monuments of Southern Soul. Fry compared Memphis to a crossroads where styles overlap: “There’s so much history and tradition. It’s an intangible quality, but it works – if somebody feels like they’re in a place where something special happened, if that puts them in a more creative mood, then it really does change something. It’s not just ju-ju.”
In Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch makes this quality overt: Elvis’s phantom appears in a hotel room and sings Blue Moon. Back at the Zippin’ Pippin, Mike McCarthy had tried to define the essence of this city of ghosts.
“You’re only 19 miles from Mississippi,” McCarthy said. “The blues was created there. Rock’n’roll seeped into Memphis from that mentality – white people trying sound black, white people who were just as poor as black people, and were just as good as indentured servants.”
He embarked again on his riff about Memphis being a city of losers. This, clearly, was a blessing. “It’s a spiritual thing,” he said, adjusting his quiff. “Jesus was a loser.”