Birthplace Of The Blues
Memphis is known for many things, predominantly music — Elvis lived here, Sun Studios is here and that’s where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and B.B. King started their careers, the first ever blues song “Memphis Blues” was recorded here by W.C. Handy. What it is not known for is its intrinsic beauty and being a great place to live. There is a reason for this….
Memphis would be fairly unremarkable were it not for its musical history. It’s dirty, it’s poor; outside our motel room the sirens wail day and night and the neighborhood is nowhere you’d like to walk around after dark, and this is the same whether you’re downtown (as we are) or in the suburbs. These impressions have been emphasized by the weather too. While Memphis is too far north to be hit by the hurricanes they have seen in Louisiana, the side-effects are on show. Towns just a few miles south of us are currently on “Tornado Watch” where warnings have been given to the townspeople to prepare for twisters, and the winds and rain haven’t let up for a second since we’ve been here.
I don’t want to completely slate the city: the people are very friendly (as most folk in Tennessee are), and this place sidled along the banks of the Mississippi, letting you see across the river to picturesque Arkansas offers some lovely sights and things to do, but I’d say they are day trips which punctuate the fairly bleak reality of this run-down place.
However, what more could one expect? The blues grew up here, and as everybody knows, the blues isn’t made of prosperity: it grows in the soil of destitution and deprivation — it paints rugged hymns to and of the people: it aims to tell a story of hope, empathy and emancipation from the ruins. It’s hard and gritty, and so it’s right that the city should remain so.
I shouldn’t have been surprised then that before we had even parked our car on Beale Street (where W.C. Handy played his songs, making it the second most popular attraction in town) we had been approached by homeless guys asking for cash. As we got out of the car three more men came along in turn. All friendly, but all asking for money. We took a few walks down the street and got a beer (“Blue Moon” — brewed in Memphis) and despite the touristy facade, you could feel the blues from the streets. If you couldn’t feel it, then the singers in all of the beautifully old-school honky-tonks made you feel it. It was a great experience in a site of the utmost importance in the history of western music.
The Italian Connection
I live in Italy, so it wouldn’t be right for me to let this blog pass without a little Italian special that I’ve noticed walking around these streets. Memphis and Italians have a special love relationship. Here are a couple of “prove d’amore”:
I’m not ashamed, but last night, for one night only, we stayed in Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. It was fantastic. It has a movie channel showing nothing but Elvis’s films 24/7; it features Elvis 24/7 radio; it shows constant documentaries on the life of Elvis and even has theme suites based on rooms in the Graceland mansion. It’s also convenient, being sited just opposite the selfsame mansion. If you decide to head out to see Elvis’s house, the best thing you could do is stop here: it puts you completely in the Elvis mood, and pumps you full of those little bits of background information that help you appreciate the mansion tour so much more. Awesome.
Here are the bedrooms (we didn’t go in the themed suites as they were three times the price, but what we had were still great):
We stayed just one night here as it was pretty full due to people having come up all the way from New Orleans to get away from Hurricane Gustav. We met one man, Elmer, in the lift. He asked where we were from. We replied and asked him the same. “New Orleans,” he said, and looked at us with eyes that said everything — he didn’t need to explain anymore. As I stammered to find a reply (I had been expecting him to say “I’m from Idaho” or something, so I could have just answered, “ah, nice. We might go there on our trip”) he just said, “man, I can’t wait to get home.” We wish him the best.
The only caveat I will add is this. Before one stays at the Heartbreak Hotel, one must find it. We only had useless maps. We knew that the hotel was near Graceland. Easy, thought I. Why do people go to Memphis? Answer: to see Graceland. Therefore there will be stacks of signs leading us to it. Oh no. Nothing. No map, no signs, and Memphis is big.
After about an hour of driving around I had a flash. You remember that song by Marc Cohn, “Walking in Memphis” — just by chance we had rolled onto Union Avenue, and I remembered it being mentioned in the song, but I couldn’t remember how the line went.
We found the song on the iPod and played it; listening for clues: “I saw the ghost of Elvis; on Union Avenue; Followed him up to the gates of Graceland; and I watched him walk right through.”
Haha! A break. All we had to do was follow Union Avenue and it would lead us to Graceland and our hotel!
Don’t try it. It doesn’t work. If Marc Cohn did follow Elvis from Union Avenue to Graceland it would’ve taken a very long time indeed. Graceland is 12 miles south of the downtown area where Union Avenue is… I don’t think I’ve been so disappointed in all my life. There is a lesson to be learned in there somewhere I’m sure.
But we eventually got there. And, if you’re still not convinced about the hotel, just check out the pool….
The next day we went to the mansion.